"Oh, Blair," came the exhausted voice over the line, tinged with tears, "Eli's had a heart attack…."
"WHAT?" Sandburg exclaimed in shocked dismay, drawing Ellison's attention from the next desk. "Oh, God, Sarah…is he…is he alright?"
Sarah Stoddard, Eli's wife, took a steadying breath as she answered, "Yes…I hope so, anyway. He's just been working too hard, pushing himself too much…"
Blair heaved a sigh of relief, searching for his own calm as he asked quietly, "What happened?"
"He was working in his study last night, preparing for the next field trip, you know…well, he cried out for me and when I got there, he was holding onto his left arm, and, Blair, he was in so much pain…I was so frightened," she reported, her voice quavering. "Anyway, I called an ambulance, and the doctor said he'd been lucky. He's going to need bypass surgery, and then time to convalesce…about time he started taking care of himself, in my opinion."
Despite himself, Blair couldn't help a small smile at the slightly acerbic tone. Sarah had been trying to get Eli to slow down and smell the roses for years now. But, Eli Stoddard was too busy doing what he loved to do, too busy pursuing knowledge and understanding. Too busy sharing all his wisdom with others who drank it in, as Blair had, eagerly and gratefully…as he still did for that matter, whenever they got together.
Recollecting himself, he murmured, "I'm so sorry, Sarah…it must have been terrible. But…well, they have great success with the surgery these days. He should be just fine. I sure hope so, anyway. Is he at Cascade General or University Hospital?"
"University Hospital," she reported. "In the Coronary Care Unit. He wants to see you, Blair."
"Of course…can he have visitors?" Sandburg agreed readily.
"Yes, during the regular visiting hours in the afternoon and evening," she confirmed, sounding so very weary.
"Can I do anything for you? Do you need anything?" he asked then. If Eli had been like a father to him during all his years at Rainier, Sarah had been a kind of surrogate mother, though very different from his own free-spirited parent. Sarah held the fort while Eli roamed the world. She had her own strength and presence, active in the community on any number of volunteer boards…and a lot of love to give a scared and skinny, too smart for his own good, kid who was trying so desperately to fit in and not let anyone know how alone he'd felt.
"Oh, I'm fine, sweetie…just tired," Sarah replied. "It's the shock, you know…and I was, truly, so afraid. But I know Eli will be fine, if he's halfway sensible at all. I'm going to get some rest, and then go back to the hospital to see him this afternoon."
"I might see you there, then," Blair replied. "But, Sarah, I'm serious…if you need anything at all, any time, you just call me."
"I know, and I will, Blair," she replied, a smile in her voice. "I'll see you later."
When Blair hung up the phone, he sat staring at it for a long moment, sorting out his own feelings and letting the fear that had clutched his heart settle. Taking a breath, he closed his eyes and shook his head. For the life of him, he couldn't imagine a world without Eli Stoddard in it…never wanted to even imagine such a place or time.
"What's going on, Chief?" Ellison asked, rising to stand next to his desk.
Looking up, his face still a little pale from the shock of her message, Blair replied quietly, "Eli had a heart attack last night. He's okay," he hastened to add, though part of him realized that Jim had probably heard the whole conversation. The words were meant to reassure himself more than to allay any concerns Jim might have. "He's over at University Hospital. That was his wife, Sarah…he wants to see me."
"No surprise there," Jim replied, studying his friend. Ellison knew how important Eli Stoddard was in Sandburg's life…and how important Blair was to Eli. "He's going to be all right, Chief," Jim added, his voice low and reassuring. "Right?"
Smiling a little, appreciating the concern and the support, Blair nodded. "Yeah, man," he replied. "I know." His gaze moving to the clock on the wall, he continued, "I'm going to head over there this afternoon to see him."
"Want company?" Ellison offered.
"No, thanks anyway, Jim," Sandburg replied with another soft smile. He paused a moment more, his restless gaze taking in the files stacked on his desk and on his partner's. "In the meantime, I guess I should get back to work," he murmured.
Nodding silently, Ellison reached out to give his partner's shoulder a gentle squeeze, then went back to his own work station. For the next couple of hours, though, he couldn't help but notice that as much as Sandburg tried to concentrate on the paperwork, the police consultant's thoughts were only too obviously somewhere else.
Ever since Sarah had called the station that morning, Blair hadn't been able to concentrate on anything but his concern for Dr. Eli Stoddard. He found himself remembering the early days, when he'd first arrived at Rainier, and Eli had taken him under his wing. Sandburg had been in awe, unable to believe a man of Eli's stature could be the least bit interested in him, or his crazy ideas. But, Eli had listened, drawn him out, encouraged and supported him…taught him so very much. And had loved him. The hardest part of the whole Sentinel dissertation fiasco had been the rift it had caused between him and Eli. Blair couldn't bring himself to call his friend and mentor, ashamed to have let Eli down…and Eli hadn't called him, either. Not as it turned out because the older man had felt betrayed or that he thought Blair had lied to him, but because he would have fought Sandburg's decision to throw a brilliant career away…and the wise man had sensed that that was one battle Blair just didn't need at the time. When the miracle occurred, whatever its cause, and Blair had gotten the chance to achieve his doctorate, the best part about it for Sandburg was that he and Eli had healed the rift, had returned to their old, easy relationship. The older man's continued support and belief in him, Eli's constant love and understanding, had healed something broken inside of Sandburg, had restored a measure of peace to his soul.
As Blair entered the busy hospital on the edge of the campus, his mouth was dry and he felt a little breathless. God, he wanted so much for Eli to be all right, to survive this 'warning' and live for many, many years to come. After first stopping at 'Reception' for directions, he continued on to the fifth floor, to the CCU, and then asked again at the desk there for his friend's room number. Moments later, he entered the room quietly, with no little trepidation, not sure what to expect.
The head of the bed was raised to ease the older man's breathing, and Eli had the plastic purveyor of oxygen looped over his ears and under his nostrils. He was pale and looked tired…reduced somehow, his vitality dimmed. But, he saw Sandburg come in and his face lit with a welcoming smile as he waved gently toward a chair, calling softly, his voice a little breathy, "Blair! Come in, lad…come in!"
"Hey, Eli…" Sandburg replied, moving forward to take his friend's hand. "This is not the way to get attention, man…how're you doing?"
"Oh, I'll be fine," Eli replied, with a touch of the old impatience at being tied down. "They are going to do the surgery tomorrow, and after that, I should be almost as good as new…probably better. But… apparently, I have to take it easy for a while. You know the drill. Diet, exercise, lots of rest…"
His voice dropped away, disgusted at the inconvenience of it all.
Smiling, Blair shook his head at the tone. "You just do whatever the doctors tell you, you hear? This is a little too scary, Eli. I'm not up for losing you, not for a very long, long time. So…you be good!"
Smiling, the gentle teasing soothing his frustration, the love in Blair's eyes easing his sore heart, Eli nodded. "I'll be good, lad, I promise. Besides, there'd be no living with Sarah if I didn't behave," he assured his young friend.
"All right then," Blair nodded decisively. "So long as you know who's in charge."
"Sarah!" they said simultaneously, then chuckled. Releasing Eli's hand, Sandburg turned to hitch the chair a little closer. Sitting down, he turned his clear gaze back on his old friend. "So…how long do you actually have to behave yourself?" he asked impishly, knowing it wouldn't be easy for Eli to slow down.
"A few months…certainly, I'm not to take classes or go on any field trips this coming semester," Eli replied, rolling his eyes a little. He was too busy for this…there was too much to do. But, then, philosophically, he told himself that was probably the point. For too long, too many years, he'd been dashing about, all over the world, not paying any attention whatsoever to his own health or well-being.
"You'll manage," Blair assured him, with an encouraging smile. "It won't be so bad. You're always saying there's more to read than you have time for…and this'll give you a chance to put some quality time into your new book."
"True," Stoddard nodded, but a slight frown creased his visage as he paused, then studied Blair for a moment.
"What?" Sandburg asked, leaning forward to lay a hand on the older man's arm, alert to the nuances of expression and the uncertainty in Eli's eyes. "What's bothering you, Eli?"
Shrugging a little, then sighing, his fingers picking unconsciously at the sheet that covered him, Eli replied quietly, "Blair, I need to ask a big favour of you…and I know it won't be easy for you to grant it."
Cocking his head a little to the side, his brows raised in silent enquiry, Blair waited, wondering what Eli needed from him, willing to give anything in his power. "What favour?" he prompted.
Blowing out a breath, Eli got to it. "Well, you know I was scheduled to lead a field trip out to Moorea, to study a site that's just been discovered in the mountains there…not a big trip, just ten students for three, maybe four weeks…"
When Eli paused, not looking at him, Blair stilled, sensing where this was going. "I remember," he prompted, already wondering what he could say. Much as he hated to refuse Eli anything, he really wasn't in a position to pull up stakes by the weekend, which was when the trip was scheduled to begin.
Nodding, Eli took another wheezing breath as he turned his gaze to Blair's eyes. "I'd like you to substitute for me."
Blowing out the breath he'd been unconsciously holding, Blair sank back against the chair, as he shook his head. Grasping for a handy straw, he asked, "What would the University think of that? I'm not exactly high on their list of approved resources…I'm not even on the faculty, Eli."
"Oh, I can deal with that," Stoddard replied, then continued, "The real question is whether you could take the time away…"
Nodding a little, looking away, Blair swallowed. "That's the question, all right," he agreed, his voice soft. He'd only held his new position as a police consultant for a couple of months, after resigning his position as detective after accepting that he couldn't kill anyone to save his own life…not a healthy state of mind for a detective in the Major Crimes' Unit…for any police officer, for that matter. Things were finally settling down with Jim, their partnership at all levels working well…he couldn't make such a decision without consulting Jim, and he wasn't at all sure how his friend would react.
Eli watched him struggle with the request. He'd known he was asking a lot, but he trusted Blair implicitly do lead the trip with professional competence, even brilliance. He was also honest enough with himself to know that he was almost grateful for the heart attack, for the chance it gave him to offer Blair a return to the world he'd prepared almost half his life for, and for which he was so eminently suited…however brief that return might be, it was a possible beginning, something that might lead, someday, to more.
Finally, Blair looked back up at his old friend. "You know I have to talk to Jim…"
"I know, son," Eli assured him. "Look, I'll tell the Chairman of the Anthropology Department, Dan Moriarity, that I've asked you to do this. If you find you can agree, give him a call tomorrow. If you can't, well, he'll just have to call the whole thing off. If you do decide to do this for me, Sarah has all my notes in the folder on the expedition on my desk at home."
Sandburg wished they weren't working against such a tight time frame. He'd've liked to give Eli his decision before his operation, but his friend was going into surgery in the morning. God, how he wished he could just say 'yes', to alleviate his mentor's anxiety about the tour and its possible cancellation.
But, he couldn't. This decision didn't only concern him. "Okay," he agreed. "I promise, I'll call Dan tomorrow, one way or the other."
"Thank you, Blair," Eli replied, smiling softly. "I appreciate the fact that you'll even consider it."
"Oh, geez, Eli," Sandburg protested at the gratitude in the older man's voice. "You know I'd love to do this for you, that I wish I could just say 'yes'…you never ask me for anything, man."
Smiling more broadly to reassure his young, intense and very sincere friend, Eli soothed Blair's sense of guilt at having to even hesitate, and maybe having to refuse, as he murmured, "Blair…I understand. I really do. You have other responsibilities. I know you'll do what you can…and I know that you have to balance the demands made on your heart."
"Thanks, Eli," Sandburg replied, looking down and away. "I sometimes think you're the only one who does understand."
Sarah came in then, distracting them. Blair rose to hug her tightly and give her a gentle kiss on the brow, before standing back to make room by the bed. They visited a while, and then Blair moved to the bed to give Eli a hug before taking his leave. "I'll be sending good vibes your way in the morning, Eli…" he said.
"Don't you worry about me, lad," Eli assured him, patting his back. "I'm going to be just fine."
Jim had taken off work as early as he could that afternoon, to get home and see how the visit with Eli Stoddard had gone. Though he didn't know the man at all well, Ellison did know how important the older man was in Sandburg's life. In a way he'd never expressed to anyone, he was grateful to the old professor for the support, and the love, he had given to Sandburg through all the years the kid had been at Rainier. In some respects, he thought of Eli Stoddard as someone who'd taken care of Blair, looked out for him and valued him, before Ellison had had a chance to meet the young man and discover how amazing he was… and had learned to value Sandburg beyond any other being in his life. Brilliant, certainly unconventional, immensely strong and achingly vulnerable, all at the same time. Ellison figured he had a debt owing to Eli Stoddard, a debt of the heart and one he wasn't likely ever to have the chance to repay. But, the most important thing was to know the older man was going to be fine, that his health and well-being would be no cause for worry or grief for Sandburg.
Pulling up outside the apartment building, Ellison noted that Blair's car was in its parking slot. Heading into the building, he automatically attuned his hearing for Sandburg's heartbeat, to get an early indication of how things had gone. The familiar pulse was steady and strong, though a bit slow. Scenting the trace of vanilla and lavender as he climbed the stairs, he deduced that Sandburg was probably meditating, not expecting him this early, so the candles were still burning. Quietly opening the door to the loft, he smiled a little to himself when he found his deductions proven to be correct. Blair was sitting on the couch, in the lotus position, a half ring of melting candles flickering on the coffee table in front of him.
Jim busied himself with the preparation of a stirfry, quietly cutting vegetables on the kitchen counter, patiently waiting for his friend to return to a conscious awareness of his environment. Monitoring Blair's heart rate and breathing, he could tell when, about a half hour later, Sandburg began to bring himself back. Still, he waited, giving Blair the space to speak when he was ready.
It was a moment more before Sandburg became aware of the small sounds behind him and turned, smiling when he saw Jim in the kitchen. "Hey, man," he called softly, "you're home early." Turning, he blew out the candles and moved to open the balcony door to air out the lingering scents.
"I was anxious to hear how Eli is doing…and to see how you are, Chief," Jim replied. Even just a few short months before, he'd not have been so open about his care and concern, but he and Sandburg had traveled a long way in that span of time. Ellison was learning to be more open, having finally learned to trust his friend and Guide without question.
Moving into the kitchen to help with dinner, Blair shrugged a little and Jim could see he was preoccupied, concerned about something. "He is going to be alright, isn't he, Chief?" Ellison asked, pausing in the act of chopping up a head of cauliflower as he focused his attention fully on Sandburg.
His hands stuffed in his jeans pockets, Blair nodded as he replied, "Yeah, I think so. His surgery is in the morning, and he seems resigned to doing what he has to do for the next few months of recuperation. He's working on a book, and this will give him the chance to concentrate on it…so he won't think all that time taking care of himself is somehow wasted." Sandburg shook his head with a fond expression of exasperation on his face, but then that look faded, to one more pensive and uncertain.
"Then, what's bothering you, Chief?" Ellison probed.
Swallowing, Blair's eyes came up to meet his with a wide, sincere, open gaze. "Eli has asked me to lead a field trip scheduled to start this weekend…it's a small expedition, more a preliminary site inspection than anything major, but it could still last up to a month."
Jim stilled, his eyes falling away as he swallowed. Looking back up, he asked, "What did you tell him?"
Sighing, Blair shifted to lean against the counter. "I told him that I needed to talk to you about it before I could make any kind of decision. Eli…well, you know Eli understands about us, about Sentinels and Guides."
Nodding, Jim went back to separating the little white clumps. "What do you want to do, Sandburg?" he asked, his voice neutral. But all the time that he worked, concentrating on keeping his hands steady, he heard the echoes in his mind… "Do you trust me with my life? Trust me to make my own decisions, my own choices…and respect those choices even though you might have chosen differently for me?" Blair's voice, demanding to be heard, months ago now, in the jungle…months ago, when he'd last been terrified that he'd driven Blair away, knowing in doing so that he might well have lost the best friend he'd ever hope to have. And, then, the harder question… "Do you trust me enough to let me go off alone, knowing I will always come back to you so long as I live?" Ellison had vowed that, yes, he trusted Blair that much, finally, trusted that much. Pushing the memories away, Jim concentrated on listening to what his best friend wanted to do.
Crossing his arms, Blair said quietly, "I'd…I'd like to go. It's the first time Eli has ever asked anything of me, man…and I owe him so much. But, I'm not even sure I could get the leave of absence from work. And, well, ever since we've begun, we've not been apart for such a long time. I don't like to leave you. So," he sighed, "I'm basically stuck between wanting to be two people…do you know anyone who could clone me before the weekend?"
Ellison snorted softly at that, resisting the urge to tease. As if the being that Blair Sandburg was could ever be replicated. But, that wasn't the issue here. The issue was making it clear that he would support Sandburg's decision, whatever it was, regardless of whether it was what he would want or not. He'd vowed he could do this…and he would. Once again setting the knife down to turn and face his friend, Jim said, "I think the leave can be handled. Some of it might be without pay, since you don't have enough vacation time accumulated yet…but Simon would support it, if that's what you wanted. And, as for me…I can't say I relish the idea of you being away, or of having to manage on my own for a month, but it's just a month, not a year. I've been doing pretty well with what you've taught me over the years…and I had to manage on my own at work while you were at the Academy…so I think we could risk the separation."
Blair stood with his head down a moment, listening to the tones as much as the words themselves, thinking about what he was hearing. Jim wasn't dancing for joy at the idea, but he was willing to support it if that's what he wanted. And that was a big deal, in some ways, a very big deal. Blair could hear no hint of hurt or incipient feelings of rejection or abandonment…but he did hear concern about him and what he wanted. It was also significant that Jim hadn't asked where he'd be going, if he went, trusting him to make his own decisions on his path…trusting him to come back again.
Smiling softly, his eyes warm with gratitude and love when he looked back up at his Sentinel, Blair nodded. "Thanks, Jim…I really appreciate your support on this."
Ellison smiled gently in return as he reached out to grip his Guide's shoulder. "I promised you, Sandburg, that I would let you choose our path, and that I would support you. I meant it. So…where will you be going?" he asked then, knowing the decision was already made and striving to retain his air of calm and acceptance, hoping it wasn't somewhere in one of the many unstable and dangerous places on this earth.
Blair's smile brightened into a teasing grin. "Moorea," he said, his brows rising impishly.
"Moorea? In the South Pacific?" Jim repeated, a look of astonishment on his face. "Moorea, as in French Polynesia, about eighteen miles off-shore of Tahiti…the original Bali Hai, Moorea?"
"Yep, that's the place," Blair couldn't help but chuckle softly.
"All expenses paid?" Jim continued. When Blair nodded, Ellison shook his head in mock disbelief, "And they'll likely pay you something for leading this little expedition into deepest, darkest, paradise?"
"I assume so," Blair agreed, his eyes dancing.
Jim snorted and shook his head. "Some guys have all the luck," he muttered. "And you were seriously even considering not going?" he exclaimed then. "You need your head examined! By all means, go, have fun…just don't brag about all the beautiful island women and the soft tropical nights when you get back home…okay?"
"Deal," Sandburg agreed laughing, feeling as if a load had been lifted from his shoulders. "Wanna come carry my bags for me?" he teased.
"Just what kind of 'expedition' is this, Chief?" Jim asked, as if the thought was more than a little tempting.
"A recent earthquake and landslide in the mountains has revealed an ancient temple, at least two or three thousand years old, and there are rumours that some artifacts look like they may have come from north-western Europe, the Scandinavian area…you know, Viking in nature…if so, this would be an amazing discovery and rewrite history as we know it," Blair replied in one breath, his eyes glowing with excitement. "I mean, right now, we think the first Europeans in the area sailed with Captain Cook…it would be mind-blowing to think the early Vikings traveled that far, man. Anyway, the trip is to conduct a preliminary assessment in advance of a major study."
Ellison smiled indulgently at the enthusiasm he could see lighting Sandburg's face…but the idea of mucking about an old temple in mosquito infested mountains didn't appeal to him much…now, if the kid had been planning to study the modern expression of the ancient Polynesian culture, necessitating getting to know some of those lovely women on the shores of one of the turquoise lagoons…well, that would have been a different proposition. Shaking his head, he went back to the vegetables as he replied, "Thanks, anyway, sounds interesting, but I think I'll pass. You go and have a good time. Why don't you call Simon to confirm he'd have no problems with the leave…and then you can let Eli know you'll sacrifice yourself on his altar of academia. I'm sure he'll be able to relax better if he's not worried about this."
"Thanks, Jim," Blair replied softly, meaning it. There were times, not so long ago, when his roommate wouldn't have been so supportive or understanding of his desire, even of his need, to do this. Turning, he pulled the phone off the wall and punched in Simon's number. Though his superior wasn't thrilled by the idea of him being gone for a month, he agreed…and reacted much as Jim had when he heard the location of the site to be studied. Snickering even as he thanked his boss for his support, Blair called University Hospital and asked for Eli's room.
"Hi, Eli?" he said, when the phone was answered.
"Blair?" his mentor replied, sounding a bit surprised. He hadn't expected an answer so soon. Hopefully, he was going to get the one he wanted.
"Yeah, it's me," Sandburg confirmed. Looking up at his Sentinel, smiling warmly, happiness glowing in his eyes, he continued, "About what we talked about earlier? The field trip?"
"Yes?" Eli replied, unable to quell the note of hope that had risen in his voice.
"I've talked to Jim, and my boss, Simon Banks, and well, yeah…I can do this for you, Eli," Blair reported, delight in his voice.
"Oh, that's wonderful news, son," Eli sighed, relieved, grateful and very pleased. "I've been worried about the trip, and hated the idea of having to cancel it. You'll do brilliantly, I know you will, and I can rest easy knowing you'll be in charge. Thank you, Blair…I really do appreciate this, more than you know."
Laughing, Blair shook his head. "No, thank you, for giving me this chance. It's exciting, Eli, it really is. And…as Jim has pointed out to me, Moorea isn't exactly too hard to take by itself, let alone with the prospect of what this new site may have to offer. I'll talk to Sarah tomorrow, and get your notes and file."
"She's right here," Eli replied warmly, and Blair could hear the smile on his face. "I'll tell her that you'll be calling and to get the papers ready for you."
"Good, thanks," Blair nodded, unconsciously. "Now, you get a good sleep tonight…and be good while I'm away. Do what the doctors and Sarah tell you to do. I'll be expecting a full report on your progress when I get back with my report for you. Okay?"
"Absolutely, son…absolutely!" Eli replied, the old note of enthusiasm back in his voice. This was very important to him, not only with respect to ensuring the planned field trip would proceed, but because it brought Blair back into the field of anthropology, if only for a short while. If the site proved authentic, as the first scientist to publish a report, Blair's name would forever be associated with it…and who knew where that might lead someday?
Eli Stoddard had had many goals in life, and still did. One of them was to leave the legacy of a brilliant scholar to follow the paths of knowledge and understanding he had helped to forge, to take up where he would eventually leave off, when his own steps finally faltered for good. He'd taught all he knew to Blair, had shared whatever wisdom was in his heart and soul, and he knew Blair had greatness within him…Eli would do all he could to allow that greatness to emerge as it should. As he hung up the telephone and turned to his wife with a triumphant smile, he felt no trace of guilt for his small manipulation…there were, of course, others he could have asked, and who would have jumped at such an opportunity. After all, he'd once warned Blair that he'd fight his protégé's decision to give up anthropology, because the field needed him.
Sarah smiled back, shaking her head a little, but not with any disagreement, only in reflection at how her husband always seemed to get his way, to achieve what he most wanted, even turning something like this, a heart attack, to advantage. But, she, too, was very pleased at the idea of Blair engaged again in anthropological pursuits, glad to think he might someday follow in her husband's footsteps as the son of their hearts.
Blair turned and waved back at Jim a final time before heading into the boarding area. It had been a mad scramble to prepare at the last minute, to get his gear organized and read up on the project, not to mention clearing everything with the Chairman, Dan Moriarity, who had the lovely chore of informing the Chancellor, and meeting with each of the ten grad students who would be going on the expedition. But, he'd gotten it all done, it was Saturday night, and he was off, first to Los Angeles and from there on Air New Zealand to Papeete, and then the short inter-island hop to Moorea. In twelve hours, he'd be in paradise…in more ways than one. His face was bright with the excitement of the adventure, eyes dancing, and his smile as he looked back at his friend was incandescent with unadulterated joy.
Jim smiled back as he waved, then stood with arms crossed as he watched Sandburg disappear with his bevy of grad students through security. Sighing, he acknowledged to himself that he'd miss Blair for the next month, miss him a lot, but he was glad he'd supported this decision. One look at Sandburg's face would have stilled any doubts he might have had that this was a good thing…and the kid deserved a month in the lush tropical wonderland of the South Pacific. Playing around with moldy old artifacts might not be Ellison's idea of a good time, and he couldn't really get excited about the historical and cultural implications of the work Blair was going to be doing, but he was glad his best friend and Guide would be happy doing it.
Shaking his head, vaguely amused that Sandburg found such esoteric things interesting, he turned and ambled from the airport back to his truck in the parking lot. Yeah, he'd miss the kid. But, it was only a month and then Einstein would be back where he belonged.
By the time the flight landed at the small airport in Moorea, Blair and his students were wired with excitement, unable to sleep during the flight as they imagined the glories of being the first study team to visit what promised to be an extraordinary site. They might very well be on the verge of truly ground-breaking, even earth-shaking, discoveries that would shed entirely new light on the ancient Viking culture as well as provide endless hours of speculation and study about how their intrusion into the Pacific had impacted on the cultures there. For decades, scholars had reflected on some of the similarities of construction and design between the ocean going vessels of two essentially primitive peoples, wondering if it was simply the dynamics of sailing the seas over great distances that had led two disparate social groups to similar results, or if, perhaps, something as yet unknown and truly awe-inspiring had been at play. If the Vikings had indeed sailed so far, one had to admire their intrepid quest for new lands and knowledge, their courage and tenacity and the grandeur of their vision of the world as a place that could be explored dauntlessly in tiny craft over almost unimaginable distances.
They met their local contact by the baggage return carrousel, and then piled into two vans to be taken up into the mountains, to the end of the road. From there, they would hike the rest of the way into the site.
As they drove along the island's ring road, caught between the incredible beauty of the lagoons created by coral reefs, and the majesty of the ancient volcanic mountains rising inland, they all drank in the exotic scents of plumeria and white ginger, delicate and beautiful flowers that grew wild. On they went, past the luxurious palms that stood as lush sentinels around the grounds of fabulous resorts, and then through small villages with their prettily painted churches. They skirted around the lower reaches of three of the island's extinct volcanoes, heading to the one known as Bali Hai, itself. Thickly garbed with the green of the tropical rainforest, rising majestically into the clear morning sky, it was breathtaking in its beauty. The whole place was magical and none of them could quite believe they were there.
Once they left the air-conditioned vans and loaded up with their packs, the hot, humid air seemed to cling to them, but none of them minded. It was all too amazing, too exciting…too much of everything good and they were young, strong, eager for what lay ahead.
The drivers of the vans in which they had been transported from the airport, leaned against the front of one of the vehicles and watched them head up the narrow, heavily forested path, smiling until the last of the Americans was out of sight. But, once alone, their expressions flattened and hardened. One spit on the ground as he muttered, "Rich Americans."
"Hmm," murmured the other. Both were relative newcomers to French Polynesia, having ostensibly emigrated from their homeland in the Middle East. Brothers, united by blood, history, culture and mission, they were part of a network of men and women scattered throughout the world. "They are People of the Book," he observed, but his tone was wry, verging on being disparaging.
"They are infidels!" the other snapped, disgusted. "Rich, spoiled, capitalists, filthy and immoral. The women were flaunting themselves with those clothes, their bodies and faces uncovered and indecent. The men are weak and undisciplined."
Nodding in agreement, not quite so evidently emotional, colder and more calculating, Ahmed, the older of the two, thought for a moment in silence, his jaw tight, his brow furrowed. They'd been in Moorea for months, considering possible targets for the next demonstration of righteousness, for the next attack against the hated Americans and all of their allies. It was time to strike another blow to the pride and the sense of security Americans, in their arrogance, wore like a cloak. Initially, their cell had been considering bombing one of the rich resorts…but, perhaps, these Americans would present a different kind of opportunity. One that would strike out at their temples of knowledge, the places where they learned to question the ancient truths as if they were open to doubt or debate. In addition, he thought more cynically, the young were always desirable targets, their deaths somehow a special horror.
Nodding again, Ahmed turned to get into his van. "Come, Mohammed, we need to talk with the others. There are plans to make."
When Jim woke the next morning, he felt uneasy and then realized it was because he couldn't hear Sandburg's heartbeat. Shaking his head, he yawned, stretched, and then rose to face the new day. Puttering around in the kitchen, he made himself a pot of coffee, listening to the silence, chagrined to find himself lonely already. The kid hadn't been gone twenty-four hours yet. Pouring a cup, he wandered over to gaze out of the balcony doors at his city toward the sea beyond and sighed. The idea that Sandburg was so many thousands of miles away was…disconcerting.
Turning, he looked around his home and felt the lack of energy, the absence of vitality, with which Sandburg filled it. Rubbing the back of his neck, he tried to remember when he'd preferred it this way. Quiet, isolated…alone. That had been a long time ago, years; and now, he could scarcely understand the man he'd been, the man who had guarded his privacy at any price, who avoided friendship, seeing it as an entanglement and complication he didn't need in his life. Who had avoided love, because it might one day cause pain. Cold and remote, unapproachable. Oh, he could still be those things, could still project an aura that said, 'Back off', or 'Beware', but it wasn't all he was anymore, not by a long shot.
Sandburg had changed him in profound and fundamental ways, and he knew it to the depths of his soul. Like the way the light and warmth of the sun drove away the darkness and chill of the night. Like the way hope illuminated despair. Love healing loneliness and confusion, making the lost, found. Ellison wished, sometimes, that he could be more articulate about the way he felt about things, about life and those who meant the most to him. But, too often, the words got tangled in his throat, mangled somehow, and came out wrong, if they came out at all. So he tried to show how he felt, with actions, sometimes with touch. For a long, long time, he'd never tried, never cared enough to try, to express those so intimate and personal emotions. Afraid of being hurt, afraid of rejection or betrayal. And, then, when he'd wanted to try, he'd discovered he really didn't know how, didn't know what to say, or how to bridge the gulf he'd created between himself and others in his world.
Sandburg had bridged the gulf for him. Had leapt across, climbed the walls and battered down the gates of the citadel of his heart. Had stormed his soul and captured it. Bringing the comfort of strategies to tame and harness his senses, bringing real, physical relief in the place of pain and the terror of being out of control. But, those had only been the opening salvos in Sandburg's arsenal. He brought humour to combat surliness and ease tension and anger. He'd brought wisdom and patience to attack fear and unthinking reactions of resistance and rejection. For all of his pacifist ways, he brought staunch courage and resilience to face down and endure truly horrific experiences. His integrity was unassailable, his dignity quiet but resolute. He'd brought brilliance and insight, awareness and understanding…and hope. With unwavering determination and resolution, he'd stood by his friend and Sentinel, even when it had cost him all that he was…his life, both physically and intellectually. Bit by bit, hour by hour, day by day, months into years, he'd persisted, never letting go, never giving up. Because Sandburg believed the senses were a gift and, more, he believed in the greatness that resided in Jim Ellison's soul…a greatness Jim could never quite see for himself and still had trouble believing in. But, Sandburg saw it, every day, and in seeing it, gave strength and purpose like a gift, simple and stark, unvarnished, but irresistible.
Beyond all of that, Sandburg had brought Ellison unconditional love. No matter what, despite the miserable bastard he'd sometimes been, Sandburg had never given up on him and could not be driven away. For a long time, Jim had doubted, resisted, unable to accept what he'd never known before, unable for too long to even recognize it for what it was. The grace one spirit gives another to be itself, to be loved simply for itself, with a deep and abiding intensity that was unswerving and unquenchable. The final acceptance of such incredible, boundless and immense love had been shattering for a man who had prided himself on standing alone. Shattering…then, it had filled him so that he actually ached with it, and then it had given him a peace he could have never dreamed possible.
Swallowing the lump in his throat at the sheer absence of all that, of all that Sandburg was and meant to him, Ellison took a deep breath, and then another. It was so difficult, so very difficult, to concede control, to recognize Sandburg's vulnerability, the way he left himself so open to everyone and everything in life, with absolutely no sense of self-preservation…and to allow him the right to make all his own choices, to take risks with his heart and life. God, the first time Ellison had held back, had let him fly on that damned undercover assignment, he'd almost lost Sandburg…it had been too damned close. But, Sandburg had promised him always to come back, so long as he held life within him, he would always come back to his Sentinel…to his friend. It was his belief in Sandburg, in his word, and in his abiding love, that had made his support of this separation possible.
That, and the fact, when it came right down to it, that Sandburg was going to a small, remote and very safe place, far away from the ugliness and danger that reigned supreme in so many places in the world. If Jim hadn't believed, ultimately, that his best friend and Guide would be safe, he would have taken leave himself to go with Sandburg, to follow where his Guide led. Even so, this separation was hard. Very hard.
"Get a grip, Ellison," he muttered to himself, taking another sip from the mug in his hand. "Sandburg's probably having the time of his life…it's Moorea, for God's sake. What could possibly happen to him in Moorea?"
Smiling at his propensity to worry and with no little chagrin at how much he was missing his roommate, Ellison straightened his shoulders and moved with more purpose across the room, rinsing his mug and the coffee pot, and then heading upstairs to change. It was a good time to hit the gym and he felt like he needed a workout.
Moorea, he thought again with an indulgent smile as he headed out the door into the drizzle of the gray Sunday. Sandburg will be in his glory…fun in the sun, mucking about with potshards and flirting with the gorgeous locals. The month will be great, no doubt about it. He'll be having so much fun he won't have a moment to spare to even notice the time passing…and he'll be home again before I know it.
It took two hours to climb up the side of the mountain, along a path that sloped steeply in many places, requiring the travelers to grab onto the trees along the way to haul themselves upward. Though they'd been awake for more than twenty-four hours, they were young and strong, the exhilaration of their adventure fueling a seemingly limitless supply of energy. From time to time, they'd come upon an open spot that would give them a clear vista down to the island below, the glimmering lagoons, and the endless Pacific beyond. The lagoons were dappled with shades of turquoise to indigo, indicating the shallows and depths respectively, edged with gleaming white sand beaches rimmed with arcing palms. The ocean stretched out before them, immense and beautiful, until it merged with the sky. They were on the opposite side of the island from Tahiti and so could not see the nearby island with its own mountainous center. Exotic sweet and pungent scents mingled together and hung about them in the humid air, still except when they reached those open spaces and the breezes from the sea could refresh them, drying the sweat from their skin. Flowers and blossoms bloomed amongst the lush greenery, white, and pink, yellow and crimson, with splashes of blue and orange. Birds called from the branches above them, with foreign voices and melodies. At one point, they edged around a spectacular waterfall that dropped from hundreds of feet above in a straight current of water to the coastal lowlands, the mist cool as it lingered in the air.
Sandburg drank it all in, thrilled to his soles to actually be leading an expedition, even if it was just a one-time thing. He couldn't wait to get to the site itself, to see with his own eyes what was waiting for them there. The few pictures Eli had had in the file were intriguing, but pictures could be faked. But, soon, he'd be holding in his own two hands objects that others before him had held with an ancient reverence and respect for the mystery and majesty of the unknown and unknowable. The cultures of the South Pacific had never gotten the attention they deserved. Too often the gruesome stories of head-hunters, or the sensuous attractions of the different, subtle but very meaningful versions of what the uninformed thought of the 'hula', overshadowed the depth and richness of a people who had set out to cross incredible distances on what could be an unforgiving ocean, with little else but the stars, their quest for exploration and their faith to guide them. People used to the small distances of Europe, or even of the United States, could not truly comprehend the hugeness of the Pacific, and few even realized it covered fully half of the earth. To defy its power, to master it, with little more than an over-sized canoe was an astonishing and humbling concept.
As they neared the site, Blair found himself thinking of the two most important men in his life, men who had, in their own ways, made it possible for him to be here. No fool, Sandburg knew he was only treading this ground because of Eli. The possible significance of the site had resulted in the world's best authority on the cultures of the South Pacific being invited to conduct the initial exploration and assessment of the artifacts…and that, without any doubt, was Dr. Eli Stoddard. A man who had only recently achieved his doctorate, and was still under a heavy cloud of censure by the university that had granted it, without tenure anywhere, not even a professor on the faculty anywhere, could never have hoped to have such an opportunity in the normal course of events. Eli had given him this…trusted him with an unbelievable opportunity.
And Jim. Had there been any trace of reluctance on Jim's part to his acceptance of this project, Blair knew he would have turned it down. Oh, he'd like to think he'd have pushed the boundaries, making the point that it was the Guide who determined the path, but he knew there was no way he would have done so. No way on this earth that he would have risked pushing Jim too far, too fast. The last time Jim had had to let him go, against all of his instincts, indeed had even supported the undercover assignment because Jim knew that was what his best friend and Guide had to do, Blair had very nearly been killed. But Jim had held onto the vow he'd made in the jungle months ago despite the anxiety Blair realized it had to have cost his best friend. For that, he was tremendously grateful. He was just glad he'd been able to tell Jim the destination was Moorea…a safe, secure location where the biggest threat would be getting burned by the tropical sun. He'd sensed as soon as he'd confessed the location of the site that Jim had relaxed and let his protective instincts subside…and that was the moment that Blair had known that he could leave with an easy heart.
As they neared the end of the steep trail, Blair's thoughts refocused on the 'here and now', all of his attention directed toward his first reactions to the site. Rounding a rocky defile of landslide refuse, the path now treacherous and very narrow, he concentrated on not looking down, swallowing against the sudden dryness in his throat. Keeping his eyes on the path, and on the way ahead around the curve, he finally glimpsed their final destination and he couldn't restrain a surge of jubilation.
The vegetation and centuries of rubble that had grown up and around the ancient temple had been stripped away by the landslide caused by the earthquake scant weeks before. Now, before them, built into the stone of the cliff wall, was a temple of chiseled rock, fully two hundred feet high and what at first glance looked to be one hundred feet wide. Sculpted steps rose to the oval, porticoed, entrance and there was evidence still of the elaborate stonework, reminiscent of the tattooing still applied today amongst some of the Polynesian peoples, precious stone inlays and frescoes adorning the façade. Though rocky rubble cluttered the plateau at the foot of the temple, it did not take away from its stunning magnificence.
Blair blew out a sigh, consciously reining in his excitement as he examined the façade and architectural design, comparing and contrasting it in his mind with other examples scattered across the islands of the South Pacific. The symbolism of the external designs represented those concepts the ancients had held as sacred: life and growth, energy and courage, strength and honour, nature and the stars, the bounty of the land and the sea. 'So far, so good,' he thought with a critically analytical eye. If this edifice was a fraud, it was an extensive and expensive one.
He could sense, and hear, the rising excitement of the grad students coming along behind him on the trail. As soon as they had all gathered on the relatively flat, narrow plateau before the temple, he began to ask them to report their observations, and the deductions they drew from the evidence of their eyes and the knowledge of their studies to date. He ensured that notes and photographs were taken of these early assessments for the report they would be preparing on this expedition.
As they each reported their initial observations, he studied them, smiling softly. They were his team and he was really looking forward to working with each and every one of them. They were a mixed lot in more ways than one. David a tall blond who hailed from Minnesota. Equally tall, Natasha was almost regal in her bearing, her glossy brown hair cut short, and she spoke with a slight Russian accent. Without question, the smallest members of the group were Mina, from Jordan and of Muslim heritage, with big, soulful brown eyes and the most incredible mane of black hair, and Tumi, tiny and delicate, an exchange student from Japan, her cap of short, straight black hair making her look like a pixie. Mike was a compact man with medium-long, straight brown hair, with the athletic build of a swimmer. Linda had red hair and freckles…and seemed to be perpetually smiling. Marco was second generation Italian, with a dark Mediterranean complexion and black, curly hair. Shaun and Leo were their 'mountain men', tall and well muscled, former members of the Varsity football team. Jake was from the hills of Tennessee, with a soft drawl and long honey coloured hair that he kept tied back when he was working.
"Okay," he cautioned as they prepared to enter the edifice for the first time, "Look but don't touch anything. Who has the infrared camera…Shaun, good. That's the only one to be used until we assess the environment inside and the risk of flash photography to the artifacts. Leave your packs outside and your hands free. We have no idea, really, of how stable the interior will be, and there may be some need for climbing. After our first look, we'll set up camp, over there," he pointed to the north where he could hear a stream, confirming the reported access to fresh water.
Once everyone had ditched their packs, he grinned at them. "Remember, we're not tourists here to gape. We're scientists, here to evaluate the possibilities of this site for further study. Look with a critical eye. We're specifically looking for evidence of any inconsistencies, anything which would indicate this site is a hoax, as much as we are here to catalogue the possible wealth of subjects for future analysis and study. You all know there are rumours that certain artifacts reminiscent of Viking traditions and belongings have been found here. David, you and Natasha, as well as you, Mina and Tumi, are our experts on the Viking society. Matt, Leo, Jake and Linda are our South Pacific experts. Shaun, the photography is your area of responsibility and Marco, you have the pen for sketches. We all are responsible for keeping notes of our observations…and don't forget to use your minirecorders to capture your impressions as they arise for later transcription…and don't lose the tapes! Okay…everybody ready?"
There was an enthusiastic chorus in the affirmative that made Blair and their guide, Pierre, laugh. "Alright, then," Blair indicated with a wave as he turned toward the entrance, "let's go."
They climbed the eroding steps with care, clicking on flashlights as they entered the darkness within. Pausing just inside the entrance, Blair quickly evaluated the safety and the security of the interior before progressing further. The beam of his light caught magnificent and huge sculptures of symbolic figures, the gods and their animal counterparts. Cracking pillars still supported a lofty, arced ceiling of stone high above, and what appeared to be three separate levels connected by stone steps…the one they were on, the sacrificial altar above and the gathering place for the people below. Another series of steps led down past the lower level, but disappeared into a pool of water that reflected the light of his artificial torch. There were all manner of objects scattered around the stone floors, with some still hanging precariously on the walls, various pottery and what looked like metallic vessels and plaques…and the interior walls were even more richly adorned with art than those outside. It was a treasure house of as yet inconceivable knowledge and beauty.
Cautiously, he made his way forward, testing the floor and steps for stability, but it all appeared to have been hewn from the rock itself, solid and eternal. "Okay, we'll split up and explore independently for the next thirty minutes and regroup here to compare first impressions. Take note of any particular artifacts you want to bring outside to study in the light later, but, again, don't touch or remove anything until it is catalogued and Shaun and Marco have both had a chance to register the on-site location," he directed, waving them forward.
They scattered eagerly, the various cultural experts splitting up so that someone from each group would be part of the exploration of the three levels. Blair and Shaun moved out together, heading first to the level above, so that they could work their way down in a coherent way, Shaun capturing all the angles on film. Marco stayed by the doorway, dropping to sit cross-legged as he opened his sketchbook and pulled a pen from his pocket, remaining in the light of the entrance to illuminate the first sketches of the interior.
The echoes of their hushed whispers and the occasional unrestrained cry of surprise and wonder, bounced around the stone interior, indicating the acoustics were superb. One member of each team of cultural experts held a minor in archeology to enable assessment of the structure itself, as well as of the artifacts. Though scientific tests would eventually be required to authenticate age, the expertise they each held could be relied upon to determine the likelihood of the authenticity of what they were seeing, and to guesstimate relative age.
It was an excited group that gathered together again half an hour later. So far as they could tell at first glance, they had something truly amazing here. A wealth of artifacts that had not been disturbed in thousands of years, many in almost pristine condition…and enough to lend credence to the speculation that Vikings had, indeed, ventured this far from their homelands.
Nodding as he took in their preliminary observations, Blair concurred with their initial assessments. They could all scarcely contain their excitement and enthusiasm, himself included. When the last comment had been offered, he grinned at them as he commended them on their observations. But, judging that they all had a need to distance themselves, to obtain some objectivity and perspective, he handed out the next taskings. "Good, very good…better than that actually," he concluded his commendation before continuing, "brilliant and no less than I expected. But, before we do anything further in here, we need to set up the camp." There was a round of groans and protests, but he remained firm. "Uh, uh, no further work in here until we have our base of operations secured. Darkness comes early this close to the equator and we don't want to be caught off-guard. Besides, it's time for lunch." Waving his hands gently, he herded them back out into the light and they set about pitching the tents, obtaining water from the stream and testing it for purity and breaking out their rations.
He wasn't surprised when the energy levels fell as they settled into the camp and completed their mid-day meal. They'd all gone without sleep for too long and the dissipation of energy generated by unsustainable excitement can be sharp. "Let's all get some rest for the next couple of hours," he suggested. "When we're refreshed, we can decide on how we will approach the detailed assessment of the site. Discussion and planning for the rest of the day and this evening, and we'll go back inside tomorrow."
Wearily, they agreed as each sought out their sleeping spaces in the mesh tents, the solid flaps raised to allow air circulation, and plopped down to sleep. Blair thanked their local guide for having shown them to the site and watched as the man disappeared back down the trail. Before he turned in, Blair utilized the satellite radio to check in with the Dan Moriarity's office, to give the first sense of what they had found, and was unable to contain his excitement, though he hoped he sounded suitably 'professorial'. Next, he called Jim to briefly report in and assure his roommate that all was going extraordinarily well, but he stopped himself when even he could recognize he was beginning to babble from the adrenaline high. Given that there was only three hours difference in their respective time zones, Blair confirmed that he'd call briefly each evening around nine Cascade time to check on his friend and report on his own status.
The next morning, they rigged up the generator that had been provided at the site and ran lines and lights into the interior of the temple to better illuminate their examination and assessment of the marvels of the past. For two days, they worked with good discipline and professional expertise, studying, cataloguing and recording their findings. Spirits were high as confidence in the authenticity of what they were assessing rose and their enthusiasm for the extraordinary good fortune of being the first academics on site knew no bounds.
Much to his delight, Blair found himself thoroughly enjoying the experience of leading the diverse team that Eli had assembled. On first glance, they seemed so different, having diverse educational backgrounds and interests, and coming from different cultures and parts of the world. Some might have thought such an eclectic group of people would have difficulty finding common ground, but Eli had chosen well. Each and every member of the team brought a rigorous discipline, and a passionate desire to search out new truths, or new perspectives to better understand what was already known. They had an engaging enthusiasm, an eagerness for the tasks set out, and to share their respective expertise, to learn from one another. And, their energy was awesome. Added to that, each of the students brought personal qualities they held in common, such as a sense of humour, and some that were different, but complimentary, such as some enjoying the cooking and camp maintenance activities while others poured themselves into the meticulous work of recording their findings in an overall inventory. Finally, they all had a strong work ethic, and though the unseen beaches and lagoons below might be appealing, none complained that there was no time for such indulgences.
All in all, it was a really great group, and Blair marveled again at the insights that Eli had into people, what made them tick, and how they'd mesh together as a whole. The man was brilliant in more than his academic specialty…he was an astute observer and judge of people as well. Grinning wryly, Blair figured he probably shouldn't be surprised, because what was anthropology after all, but the study of human social behaviours and cultures.
On the third day, toward the end of the afternoon, all hell broke loose.
Blair, Shaun and Marco were ambling out of the temple, their attention fully engaged in their discussion about how to best capture the physical evidence and perspective between the photos and the sketches. They briefly discussed how to work the photographs and illustrations into the final report, as part of the body or as referenced appendices. It made a difference in terms of the details each expert captured and they'd need to align their work directly with the observations being made by the others.
As they came out into the sunlight, Blair's gaze wandered the area as he listened to the comments of the other two young men…and he froze, lifting a hand to both silence the others and to still their forward movement. Mina and Linda had gone outside a few minutes earlier to examine the markings of a clay plaque in natural light and they now sat frozen, expressions of abject terror on their faces as they stared with shocked horror at the men with the guns who surrounded the campsite.
"Stay here, and if you get a chance, slip back inside," Blair murmured, then moved forward, his hands in the air as he descended the half dozen steps to the narrow plateau, drawing their attention onto himself and away from the other young men. "What's going on?" he demanded, though not aggressively. After all, the other guys had the guns.
"Tell everyone to come outside," one of the marauders commanded, turning the muzzle of his automatic rifle on Blair, a flare of hatred in his eyes. This was Sandburg…the Jew.
Swallowing, Sandburg prevaricated quickly. "What you see is what you get…"
His remark was cut off as a line of bullets mowed into the ground at his feet, making the girls scream and him jump back about a foot. "There are eleven of you," the man growled again.
His eyes narrowing as his gaze first studied the man quickly then shifted to take in the others, Blair thought the guy looked familiar and so did another one. "I know there are eleven of us," he retorted. "But I sent the others down the mountain to the village below just after lunch, three to purchase more supplies, one to fax in a preliminary report, one to see a doctor because she wasn't feeling well and the last one to go with her." It wasn't true…the others were all still inside the temple, and Blair devoutly hoped they'd stay there, out of sight. "They aren't due back until tomorrow," he added for good measure.
While he'd been talking, he'd been gradually edging his way closer to the girls who were at a work table about five feet from the bottom of the steps. "You kids all right?" he asked, trying to maintain a sense of calm, trying to remember he was in charge here and didn't dare let his own fear show.
Linda was white as a sheet and Mina had silent tears slipping down her cheeks, but both nodded stiffly, wordlessly.
"Good," Blair said. "Try to stay calm." Turning back to the man who was evidently in charge, he asked again, "Who are you and what do you want?"
"We are Warriors of the Prophet, and we are here to take you hostage," Ahmed replied, his voice cold, his eyes empty.
Blair's heart clenched as he recognized the name of the international group of loosely aligned fundamentalist Muslim terrorists. This was definitely not good. Swallowing, he nodded then blew out a breath. "Okay…then I presume, as hostages, you need us alive and in good condition."
"We don't need all of you," Ahmed replied with cruel truth, the look of contempt in his eyes clearly indicating that he recognized Sandburg, and knew him to be a Jew. "Remember that and do not resist us."
"Hard for us to resist when you guys have the guns," Blair replied, swallowing at the ugly look in the man's eyes, wondering why he sensed such a personal animosity. It wasn't that the terrorist knew who he was…or that he was Jewish, was it? How could he know? "What happens next?" he asked, setting his own, more personal, questions aside.
One of the men, enraged and offended by the skimpy attire of the girls, who were dressed in halter tops and shorts in deference to the heat and humidity, stepped forward to grab Mina by the arm and drag her to her feet. "First, the sluts clothe themselves properly," he snarled, hauling off to smack her across the face.
It was a mistake.
He'd gotten too close to someone trained as a police officer.
With an astonishing economy of motion, Blair moved with lightning speed to disable and disarm the brute, yelling to the girls to run into the temple even as he turned to spray bullets around the clearing, causing the unprepared and surprised terrorists to lunge for cover. Though he'd only intended to make them back off, when some started shooting back, at the girls especially as they raced up the steps, Blair raised his weapon to return their fire. Continuing the defensive action, pushing back the horror and disgust he felt when he knew he'd hit more than earth or trees, he quickly backed up the short flight of steps and leapt into the safety of the stone temple behind the others. As he reached the safe haven, the bullets were raining around him and he yelled as one bullet grazed his side and another penetrated his right thigh.
"Get back and down," he screamed as he whipped around, falling to the ground and leveling his own gun back at the moving targets outside. Not having any idea of how much ammunition was in the weapon, he made each shot count, both blessing and cursing his hard-earned marksmanship expertise. Three more of the terrorists hit the ground, two screaming, one already dead, before the others retreated out of his line of fire. Along with the three he'd hit on the way in, that made six down and what at a rapid count he estimated as ten or a dozen remaining, to be held off as long as he could.
Silence settled over the plateau for a long moment, then Ahmed called out, "Either surrender now or we will kill all of you."
"No way," Blair called back, his voice hoarse from fear and pain. "You can't use dead hostages. How about we stay in here and you stay out there and you make whatever calls or arrangements you need to set up negotiations with whomever you're trying to intimidate into doing what you want. If you try to over-run us, I swear, I will kill you. As you've seen, I hit what I aim at."
Ahmed cursed sharply as he waved his men to him. This was not supposed to have happened. Who would have known that a pathetic long-haired freak of American sloth and indulgence knew anything about self-defence, let alone be what was obviously a marksmen with a weapon. So far, six of his men were down with no evident casualties on the other side. He snorted in disgust at the poor showing his men had made, their lack of discipline when surprised…the fact that they'd been surprised at all…and their inability to take command of a handful of defenceless students.
Inside the temple, Blair could hear the murmur of voices in what sounded like a Middle Eastern language, but he couldn't hear it well enough to make it out. He was no expert in those languages, but he had some rudimentary knowledge, enough to gain some general understanding of what they were after if he could only hear them. David and Jake were pressed against the wall near to his position. "Can either of you make out what they're saying?" he murmured.
"No," David whispered back.
"Uh, uh," Jake muttered.
They both looked absolutely terrified.
Consciously steadying his breathing, Blair whispered back, "Jake, ask Mina to come and listen…she'll understand the language better than I do, and then get the rest organized…find jars, bowls or urns to fill with water from the pool below, as much as you can. We don't know how long we'll be in here. Sooner or later, they'll kill the lights and leave us in the dark. Find out who has torches with them and if any are carrying any food…pool what you find for common sharing." As Jake moved off to do as he was directed, Blair flicked a glance at David. "I've been hit, my side and my leg. I don't think the gash along my ribs is serious, but we need to stop the bleeding from my leg," he said, trying to sound a whole lot calmer than he felt. "Tear your shirt into strips and wrap a couple tightly around my right thigh, as a kind of tourniquet. Once Jake has some water, let's see if we can clean the wound up a bit and bandage it."
"How bad are you hurt?" David asked, appalled as his eyes drifted to take in the blood pulsing from the wound in Blair's leg.
"Not bad so long as we can contain my blood loss," Blair informed him, swallowing against the pain and the dizziness of the shock that was setting in. "I have to stay as alert as possible to keep them at bay. I'll need water as soon as you can get me some."
"Okay," David murmured, already ripping his cotton shirt into strips. With a grunt, Blair shifted a little in order to allow David to help him without being exposed to the terrorists outside. Nauseated by the blood pouring from the wound, David hurriedly wrapped the strips around Blair's thigh above the bullet hole and tied them together.
"Tighter," Blair grated through the pain, blinking away the sweat and tears that burned in his eyes.
Gulping, David did as he was bid, tightening the improvised tourniquet until the flow of blood slowed and finally stopped.
Breathing out a long, slow breath, Blair nodded and murmured hoarsely, "Thanks. We'll need to loosen it every ten minutes until it finally clots." Otherwise, the lack of blood flow to the rest of his leg would kill the flesh…and he'd lose the leg. Trembling, he wondered if such a future eventuality was really any kind of concern. They'd be lucky to get out of this mess alive. "Go see how Jake and the others are doing. Make sure they know to stay out of the line of fire through the entrance," he directed quietly.
Mina had joined him by then, but the terrorists were talking too softly for her to make out their words. She sat stiffly, with her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them. She kept giving Blair sideways looks, and seemed about to speak a couple of times, but then hesitated.
"What is it, Mina?" Blair asked, recognizing her desire to talk, to help her past the hesitation.
She rolled her eyes and blinked hard, trying to control the mixture of emotions that filled her chest. Shaking her head, she murmured, "I'm Muslim."
"I know," Blair replied, a look of confusion on his face for a moment, and then he began to understand. "You're afraid of them, of them judging you…"
"You saw that man grab me and hit me," she whispered, her lips trembling. "If they find out I'm Muslim, it will be even worse…because…because they would expect me to adhere to their interpretations of what is right…and what is not."
"Hey, easy, Mina," Blair reassured her softly. "I'm going to do all I can to make sure they don't get close to any of us again."
She looked away for a moment as she nodded, trying to hold onto a belief that they might all survive this. Then, biting her lip, she looked back at him, a look of gratitude in her eyes. "I appreciate the fact that you trust me to listen to them and tell you what they are saying. Some people might not be so trusting…"
"Ah, Mina," Blair sighed as he shook his head sadly. "What, you think because you share the same faith and heritage that I might not trust you as much as I trust any of the other kids? People of the Muslim faith and culture are not all terrorists, I know that. God, only a very small minority are terrorists and fanatics. Just like any other faith has fanatics…look at all the White Supremacists in America…all Americans aren't like them. You're part of this team, Mina…of course I trust you."
"I know," she said then, and smiled softly. But, she still shivered with fear and Blair figured that being so close to the men outside, listening to the murmur of their voices, wasn't helping her any.
He waited a few minutes, but when it was clear that the men outside were going to continue to be cautious about being overheard, he said, "I don't think they're going to talk loud enough for us to hear them anyway. Why don't you go back and help the others gather water and pool our food supplies. If they get any louder, I'll call you back."
Grateful to be able to put space between herself and the terrifying men outside, she nodded quickly and scooted away to the farther reaches of the temple.
Left alone, sprawled on the ground, the rifle cradled in his arms, Blair pushed his hair back from his face and grimaced at the sharp stab of pain the movement caused him. His heart was pounding a mile a minute and he had to fight to slow and steady his breathing, to push back the nausea that threatened. There was no time to panic, no time to indulge his own emotions of terrible fear and a soul-aching despair at having taken lives in so few seconds, scarcely with thought, just with a desperate desire to keep his charges safe. Biting his lip, he found himself silently cursing the fates who had woven this tapestry of terror…and he found himself wishing with all his heart that Jim was here, to take charge, to do what had to be done to keep the others safe. Because Blair just didn't know if he had what it took to get them all out of here in one piece.
And that thought terrified him more than had any other experience of his life.
Grimly, he kept watch on the area of ground he could see from his position just inside the entry. Swallowing the bile in the back of his throat, he told himself over and over that he could do this, he could kill again…if that's what was needed to keep the kids safe.
A small voice in the back of his mind asked with bitter reflection why he'd ever felt he could safely leave his Sentinel behind.
Over the past two days, Ahmed had had the necessary research done and knew exactly who the members of the academic team were and where they had come from. Moving to the satellite radio, he called the University, barking at the secretary who answered to put the Chairman of Anthropology on the line before he killed the whole team. Startled, horrified, the young woman had raced into Dan Moriarity's office and cried to him to take the call, explaining what she'd just been told. In turn, before lifting the line, he directed her to call the Police Commissioner. Dan had no idea if this call was 'for real', but if it was, he didn't have the first clue as to what to do…but he suspected, hoped, the Commissioner would know what action was required, who to contact about a situation going down thousands of miles away in a foreign country.
Ahmed was ready with his demands. Though his original, simpler idea had been to simply kill them all, the discussions over the past two days with his confederates had led to a different, more profitable idea. They were a small group, poor, and they needed funds for weapons and other needs. So, they'd decided to bargain for the lives of the Americans. He wanted a million dollars for the lives of each of his hostages and he wanted the Americans to release their own 'hostages'…those individuals who had been jailed for terrorist threats and activities in the United States. He told the Chairman that they had two days to comply with the delivery of funds at the site in Moorea, and the release of the political prisoners…or he'd kill all of the hostages.
Cutting off the connection before Moriarity could reply, Ahmed then called CNN. He wanted publicity, wanted the world to know what was happening on this remote mountain…wanted the infidels to know they weren't safe anywhere on this earth.
Simon's hand trembled as he set the phone receiver back down. He felt sick and had to take a couple of deep calming breaths before he could move. Dear God, he thought numbly, what are the odds…
But, he didn't consciously know if he was wondering about the odds of such a terrible thing happening in the first place or the odds of getting any of those innocents out alive. The Commissioner was going to immediately call the Governor and the State Department, to inform them of the 'situation' involving American citizens…there was little more that he could do. Moorea was a long way outside of his jurisdiction.
But, Commissioner Evans had called Simon first, in courtesy, knowing one of Simon's team was out there, was at grave risk.
Closing his eyes to whisper a quick prayer, Simon blew out another steadying breath and then moved to the door of his office. "Jim," he called quietly. "Would you step in here for a moment. There's something I need to tell you."
Puzzled by the tone of Simon's voice and the expression on his superior, and friend's, face, Ellison felt a sudden shaft of alarm, but couldn't imagine what would make Simon look so…devastated. Rising, he entered Banks' office, sitting down as Simon closed the door softly and then turned to face him.
Taking a seat beside Jim, Simon laid a steadying hand on Ellison's shoulder. "The Commissioner just called me," he began, looking away, wishing there were some easy way to say this, but there wasn't. "The Chairman of the Anthropology Faculty at Rainier just received a call…"
Jim paled as he demanded, "What's happened to Sandburg?"
"The Chairman, Dr. Daniel Moriarity, received a call," Simon started again, "from someone identifying themselves as a member of the Warriors of the Prophet. They've taken control of the site in Moorea and are holding Blair and his team hostage. They want eleven million dollars and the release of about twenty known terrorists from prison or they claim they will kill every member of the team. Jim…I can't say how sorry…"
Ellison's face had gone utterly blank, the look in his eyes dazed as he tried to make sense of what Simon had just said. Terrorists? In Moorea? Threatening to kill…
Trembling, the detective said, his voice thick with sudden fear, "How do we know they're all still alive?"
"We don't, not yet," Simon replied. "The Commissioner is handing this to the State Department. They'll know how to respond…no doubt the military…"
"Jesus," Jim whispered tightly, trying to control the emotions that raged within him. Fear, horror…rage. Blinking, he looked away, holding up a hand to still Simon's words. He needed to think, needed to decide what to do. "I have to get out there…" he said, his voice flat.
Shaking his head, Simon tried to remonstrate with him, tried to be sensible. "No…there's nothing you can do. We have no jurisdiction, you know that. Jim…there's nothing you can do…"
"Damn it, Simon!" Ellison exploded, surging to his feet to pace like a caged tiger. "I can't just sit here…I can't not know…not do something…" he choked out. Swallowing, he turned again to face his superior. "The ransom…who's going to pay the ransom? How is it to be paid?"
Again, Simon shook his head. "Jim, you know the drill…there's no bargaining with terrorists."
"The hell with that!" Ellison shouted. Oh, in theory, he agreed. Paying a ransom only encouraged similar events. But…the memories of hostages on an elevator and an explosion filled his mind and his chest with remembered sick horror. When it came down to it, when someone you loved was involved, you paid…it was the only hope you had of their survival. "I want to know what's going on, Simon…I want to know what's going down." Turning, he headed toward the door.
Standing, blocking Ellison, Simon grabbed his friend by the upper arms. "Ellison, settle down!" he ordered. "You won't do Sandburg any good by tearing off like raging bull! Where do think you're going, anyway? What in hell do you think you can do about this?"
It took all he had not to throw Simon out of his way. Shaking with the effort at control, Jim grated, "I'm going to the university to talk to this Chairman Moriarity and find out what Rainier is going do about raising the ransom. While I do that, I'd like you to contact State and find out who's on this 'event', and get all the information you possibly can. After that, I promise, I will talk to you before I do anything else. But," he continued, his voice a guttural growl, "I swear that I'm going out there myself…whether or not anyone agrees or approves. I'm going after him, Simon. If he's alive, I'm going to bring him back."
Or die trying, Banks thought miserably, but he nodded and moved out of Ellison's way. If not for Daryl, he'd be going with him.
Jim had just wrenched the door open when Joel filled the space, sick anxiety on his face. "Jim...Simon… there's a news bulletin running on CNN and the local radio and television channels. Blair and his team…is it true?" he asked, his voice thick with fear.
Looking away, his jaw tight, Jim nodded, "So far as we know." Then, returning his gaze to Joel, he asked, "What are they saying on the news?"
"That the Warriors of the Prophet are demanding a ransom of eleven million be delivered to them at the site within two days, and that a list of terrorists be released from prison, or they will kill the whole academic team," Joel reported, looking from Jim to Simon and back again. Blair and those poor kids were so far away…and might even now be dead. He hadn't felt so helpless since that terrible night when his son had died.
"Delivered to them…" Jim repeated thoughtfully. Nodding with grim resolution, he knew he had just been handed his invitation to the party.
His thoughts were interrupted when he was called to his phone. Impatient to be gone, not really even paying attention to the call, Ellison was surprised to hear his father's voice as the older man jumped right in, his voice tense with anxiety, but firm with determination.
"Jimmy, my God, I've just seen the news report," William Ellison stated. "I had no idea Blair had taken on this assignment for the University. This must be hitting you pretty hard, son."
"Yeah, you could say that," Jim replied, taking a breath. He really didn't have time for his father right now.
But, before he could terminate the call, William continued, "I just wanted you to know…if there's any trouble about raising the ransom, any trouble at all, you call me, you hear? I'll do what's necessary to put it together for you."
Jim wheeled away from the view of the others in the bullpen, turning to the wall as his hand covered his mouth in shocked surprise. For a moment he couldn't speak, too moved by his father's offer to find the words. William Ellison was a very wealthy man, but eleven million dollars in cash was a stretch, even for him. The fact that he'd moved immediately to make the offer was overwhelming. Taking a breath, wiping his eyes, Jim stammered, "Thanks, Dad…you don't know how much that means to me. I'm heading over to the University now. If there's a problem, I'll call you. I…I don't know what to say…"
"There's nothing you need to say, Jimmy," William replied quietly, hearing the emotion in his son's voice. "I just wanted you to know that I'm here, if you need me. But…I won't keep you now. I know there're a lot of things you need to be doing to arrange to get Blair and his team back."
"Thanks, Dad," Jim sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he terminated the call.
Darkness had fallen about an hour before and Blair had them kill the lights inside the temple, wondering why the terrorists hadn't cut off their power supply. And then he remembered that the generator also powered the satellite phone. He was shivering with the beginnings of a fever and understood that infection was setting into his leg. The constant throb of agony from his wounds was exhausting and he was light-headed from the loss of blood. He'd done his best to restore the fluids he'd lost by drinking the cool water that had been pulled from the pool in the bottom of the temple, but his weakness worried him greatly. Not for his own sake, but because he knew he was all that stood between the kids and the terrorists outside.
He found himself wondering if Jim knew what was happening. Certainly, at a minimum, his friend would be only too aware that Blair had failed to make the regular evening call to check in, and would be worried. But, the fact that the satellite phone had not buzzed let him know that there had been no incoming calls, either, which argued that Jim did know…otherwise, he'd have called to find out what was going on. His Sentinel wasn't known for his patience and wouldn't have waited more than half an hour before checking on why Sandburg's regular call had been delayed.
God, Blair thought, miserable at the thought of what Jim must be enduring right now, so far away, so helpless to intervene. I'm sorry… he offered in silent apology, wondering if he'd ever see his best friend again.
"You okay?" Shaun asked quietly, moving up beside him. They'd cleaned and bandaged his wound sometime before, and, thankfully, the blood flow had finally stopped so that Blair was no longer worried about bleeding to death.
"Honestly?" Blair whispered back, trying for a reassuring grin and not quite making it. "Not really," he admitted, knowing he couldn't stand vigil all night, that he needed to get some rest. "Do any of you know how to shoot a rifle?" he asked, hating to share this burden, knowing that anyone who held the weapon might well be forced to kill.
"No," Shaun admitted, explaining, "we were talking earlier while sorting the supplies about how lucky we all are that you're with us. The training you got as a cop is about the only thing we've got going for us. You were amazing out there, man…I couldn't believe how fast you moved…how you got the girls to safety and held them off…"
"Yeah," Blair whispered, his throat dry, a stark look in his eyes as he turned his face away to again stare into the night, watching for any kind of movement. He was glad he was capable of protecting the others, at least for now…but sick that he'd been forced to kill to do it. "Look…I've got to get some rest," he said, striving for calm. "I need you and one of the other guys up here with me to watch and listen…you see anything…you hear anything…you wake me immediately and take off to the back of the temple. Okay?"
Shaun nodded as he went to get Leo to join him at the entrance. The two of them might be serious academics now, but they'd both been linebackers as undergrads. If Blair thought they'd leave him to fend off an attack by the terrorists by himself, Shaun thought grimly, he was in for a surprise.
In moments, the younger men were back, Leo edging forward on his stomach to lie in the darkness beside Blair so that he could look out into the night, Shaun sitting against the wall directly beside the entrance, his head cocked to listen.
"Okay, man, we're with you," Leo murmured, resting a hand for a moment on Blair's shoulder. "You go ahead and try to get some sleep while you can."
"Thanks," Sandburg murmured back. For the first time in hours, he let himself relax and felt unconsciousness tug at him. For a moment, he resisted, afraid that if he relaxed, they might not be able to wake him if the terrorists started closing in. But, he couldn't hold out much longer…he needed sleep badly. Swallowing, he directed, "Make sure you all take turns, spelling each other every half hour or so…and, if they start talking again, call Mina to see if she can understand what they are saying…"
His voice drifted off as he succumbed to exhaustion, his head dropping onto one arm, his grip on the rifle loosening.
Jim didn't leave the University that evening until he'd won the agreement of Chancellor Edwards to pay the ransom and to allow him to deliver it. The confrontation between them hadn't been a happy one. At one point, when she dared murmur that this was somehow all that fool Sandburg's fault, she found herself looking into the predatory eyes of a very angry man, who was literally being held back physically from shaking her by the black Police Captain. Simon harshly told her that no one could be responsible for the actions of terrorists and that his man, Sandburg, was as much a victim as the others…and, if anything, she should be damned glad they had someone as capable as he was looking out for the kids.
She wasn't happy about it, not any of it, the ransom especially would be a huge burden for the University. When she dithered about it, Jim cut in impatiently, his anger barely in check, "Look, if it's too much to expect the University to do all it can to bring its own team back safely, then just say so. My father, William Ellison, is willing to put the ransom together personally, if need be, out of his own concern about the welfare of the victims."
Simon gaped at him, the Commissioner turned steely eyes upon her while the other authorities waited silently for her response. Swallowing, Chancellor Edwards realized she looked a fool. How could the University allow a private citizen to act because she had failed to make the appropriate decision? She wasn't about to face the media and parental condemnation if the institution failed to do all in its power to win the freedom of its students.
"That won't be necessary, though I appreciate your father's willingness to help," she replied stiffly. "I'll make the arrangements for the ransom to be paid." She had wondered when William Ellison had challenged the University's decision to expel Sandburg, if he was a relative of the infamous James Ellison, described as a Sentinel in the disastrous paper that had garnered so much media attention and created so much embarrassment. Well, now she knew. It seemed this family would go to any lengths to support Blair Sandburg…and she wondered why. When her look of challenge changed to speculation as she stared at Jim, he held her gaze, silently daring her to draw her own conclusions.
Shrugging, she turned away. There were other, more urgent, demands upon her attention. "Alright," she said briskly, "now that that's settled, how will the ransom be delivered?"
"I'll take it," Jim stated in a voice that brooked no argument.
Before the government officials or the military could object, she nodded. "Fine," she agreed.
While she didn't much care for Detective Ellison, and that was putting it mildly, she didn't have any better ideas about who should make the delivery. There would be few who would be willing to walk into a situation they probably had little if any chance of walking out of…after all, when all was said and done, there were no guarantees that the terrorists wouldn't just take the money and kill everyone anyway.
Conversations flowed between the representatives of State and the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces and the University. Not to mention the Cascade Police who wouldn't back out of their 'interested party' status, having been drawn into the 'incident' by the University in the first place, and having one of their own already on site. The federal officials weren't happy about the involvement of the local police, but given Ellison was the only one the University would consider as the middleman, and Sandburg was literally in the middle of the mess, there was no choice but to deal.
It was finally determined that the money could be gathered together by close of business the following day and a military aircraft would transport Ellison to Moorea. Given his Covert Ops background, and his military record of achievement, the brass felt they were at least sending in someone who had some marginal chance of pulling this off. Negotiations had been rapidly undertaken with the French government, winning their approval of a fast American military deployment into Moorea to secure the population from further incidents and to attempt to contain the terrorists once the hostages were released. An elite group of the Special Forces would be meeting Ellison when he arrived in Moorea to work out the details of their support of the hostage exchange.
As for the release of the terrorists in American prisons, the Attorney General was being less cooperative. The idea was out of the question. However, a hasty strategy was being developed to mislead the terrorists in Moorea by providing false information to the media about release plans. No one had any qualms about lying to the terrorists and all only hoped that they could pull the scam off…and no one but the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General and his staff knew it was a scam…oh, and the wardens of the penitentiaries involved, and the staff in each institution who knew prisoners whose names were on the published list, not to mention the prisoners themselves, who would be held incommunicado until it was all over. Too many people, too much chance for a leak…but it was the best they could do.
Finally, it had been determined that Ellison would sit in on the call the Chairman of Anthropology would make the next morning to the terrorists to confirm arrangements were in progress. They'd identify who would be delivering the ransom money and when to expect him…and would demand evidence that the hostages were still alive before proceeding further.
Simon and the Commissioner had gone to the University to back Ellison up in the negotiations with the Chancellor and the representatives of the national authorities. Once it seemed they'd accomplished all they could that night, and the time of the call was confirmed with Moriarity, the police officers left, Simon following Jim home.
Both men were silent as they entered the apartment building and took the elevator to the third floor. Once inside the loft, Jim moved to the refrigerator and pulled out two beers, waving Simon toward the living room. Handing Simon his bottle, Ellison sank down on the chair opposite from the couch where Simon was sitting.
"How are you holding up, Jim?" Simon asked softly, worry lining his face.
Shrugging, Jim took a long swallow. Lowering the bottle, he shook his head. "I just keep telling myself he's alive and I'll get him out of there in one piece," he finally muttered, looking away into the night beyond the balcony doors.
"Do you want me to go with you?" Banks asked. He'd thought about it long and hard, thought about how Blair and Jim had come after them in Peru, when he and Daryl had been taken by a ruthless gang who'd been forcing native labourers to manufacture narcotics for illegal distribution and sale worldwide. Much as he felt the weight of responsibility to his son, he also knew he couldn't do less…couldn't fail to support Blair, to try to rescue him, now that he was the one at such terrible risk.
Ellison thought about it for a long moment. His initial inclination was to refuse. Simon was a family man. But, then, he thought about how best to maximize the chances for Sandburg and the others. Jim had learned enough over the years to know his senses could go wonky on him when he was under considerable emotional strain. He might well need Simon's back up. Slowly, he nodded as he turned back to his old friend. "Yes, I would appreciate that, Simon…I really would," he replied quietly, swallowing hard, so afraid that no matter what they did, they might not be able to get Blair out of there.
Nodding solemnly, Banks replied, "Okay, then." He paused a moment, looking around the loft then back at Ellison. "You want me to stay tonight?"
"No," Jim replied, shaking his head as he lifted the bottle for another swallow. "Thanks…I'll be okay on my own."
"I know you're scared, Jim…I know how much the kid means to you" Simon rumbled, his voice low as he looked away, blinking against the burn in his own eyes. "We're all scared…we all want him, all of them, back, safe."
"I know," Jim sighed, rubbing his eyes, wishing he could still the trembling of his hands. "I know…."
Later, after Simon had left, Ellison stood a moment at the closed door, his palms and forehead pressed against the wood panel, and then he sighed and turned to gaze around the apartment. Everywhere he looked, he could see traces of Sandburg's presence. The masks on the wall. The candles on the coffee table and the bookshelf. The afghan that had a permanent place on the back of the sofa because Blair so often felt the chill of the evenings. He could smell Blair's presence all around him…the herbal teas in the cupboard, the fragrances of candles and incense from his room and he closed his eyes, drinking it in. Swallowing, sniffing, he rubbed his face and turned out the lights, then moved to sprawl on the sofa, his legs stretched out in front of him, his head resting on the back, his thoughts and emotions in turmoil.
He'd thought Moorea so safe…he'd been wrong. Nowhere was safe.
He should have gone with Sandburg.
He'd never thought anything like this could happen. He should have known better, gone anyway.
Once again, he'd failed to protect his Guide and his best friend. Failed to be where he was needed.
Ellison shuddered with his guilt and his sense of helpless despair. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his thighs and his face in his hands. "I'll get you back, Chief," he vowed. "I swear to God…I'll get you back…or they'll bury me right beside you."
The plateau outside was gray with the first early light of dawn when Blair woke up with a start and a muttered moan.
"You okay, Blair?" Tumi, the tiny woman of Japanese descent asked with evident deep concern as she touched his shoulder gently.
Swallowing against the nausea that roiled in his gut, squinting against the headache that raged in his skull, Blair lifted his head and nodded a little as he shifted his gaze from her back to the plateau beyond the entrance way. He was surprised that it was dawn…grateful they'd gotten through the night with no further incidents. Shifting his gaze again, he noted that Natasha was at the listening post. "How're you guys doing?" he asked softly.
"Scared," Natasha replied bluntly, but she gave him a wan smile.
"Terrified," Tumi confirmed, but she gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Do you want some water, or something to eat…we've got a few granola bars, three bananas, two apples and an O'Henry bar between us."
Blair grinned at them, pleased by their resilience and courage. He'd been blessed with a first-class team. "Water would be good," he murmured back, "thanks."
Tumi eased back and away, returning moments later with a small clay pot of cool water.
As Blair passed the empty vessel back to her, he noted that Matt had eased forward.
"Blair," the student began, "we've been thinking and talking about possibilities…."
"Oh yeah?" Sandburg encouraged as he continued to study the ground in front of him, watching for any sign of movement. "I'm all for possibilities, man."
"Well…we know the odds are probably not good," the grad student continued, his face pale but resolute.
God, they're brave, Blair thought, so desperately sorry that these kids were at such lethal risk.
"Anyway…Linda and I have been talking, and well…most of our references on these temples in the texts and journals indicate that there were usually two entrances…one for the religious leaders and another for the population as a whole. We thought we'd spend today trying to find any sign of a second entrance to this temple…maybe, maybe some of us at least could sneak out the back way…"
Matt's voice drifted off and he looked away. All of them knew enough that someone would have to stay back, for a while at least, to cover their escape, even if they could find an alternative exit…and they all knew that person was Blair.
But Blair turned to him with a blinding smile and eyes shining with hope for the first time since disaster had struck. "That's great! Now that you mention it, I remember Eli telling me something about that once. Brief the others on what to look for and get busy, man!"
But, as Matt turned to move away, Blair realized that he couldn't afford to have all of them looking for the way out. His fever was worse and his vision a little bleary. "Uh…wait," he added, sorry he had to admit that he needed help. He didn't want to scare them anymore than they were already scared, but he couldn't pretend he could handle the lookout duties completely on his own. Failure could well mean all of their lives. "Have someone come back here to keep the watch with me," he asked. "I…I'm a little dizzy and someone needs to ensure I stay alert," he explained further, his tone apologetic.
Matt gave him a long steady look, then nodded as he replied soberly, "Whatever you need, Blair…you're keeping us alive, man, and we know it. You just let us know how we can help, and we'll back you up."
"Thanks, Matt," Blair sighed, sparing the student a quick look of gratitude. "I appreciate it."
The day dragged on, and the kids grew discouraged. They couldn't find any trace of a way out. At one point, Blair had had to ask for help to move to the corner that had been designated as the latrine, Shaun and Leo supporting him while Marco and David kept watch. The kids all knew he was getting sicker, the fever radiated off his skin in waves, his face flushed and his eyes a little glazed, but he didn't complain, only reminded them to watch to ensure he was alert. From time to time, engaged in a common conspiracy of support, they left him alone when he drowsed off, just waving another student up to the entrance to help keep watch for a while, to let him rest.
They were frightened, more than half convinced they were all going to die out here in paradise. But, because of Blair more than anything else, they held it together. His unswerving devotion to standing between them and the killers outside, despite his already serious injuries, his calm and his continued grins of encouragement, gave them a model to emulate. He hadn't given up, so neither would they.
It was sometime after noon when the satellite phone buzzed and Sandburg jerked into a higher state of alertness, straining to hear. Given that the conversation was again in English, as had the telephone demands been the day before, and given that Ahmed was making no effort to keep his voice low, wanting to let his own men know that progress was being made, Blair was relieved to realize he could hear it all.
"Excellent!" Ahmed crowed when the Chairman advised him the demands were being met. He listened as information about Ellison's arrival was relayed to him, nodding and giving his men a wolfish smile, repeating, "Tomorrow by noon. Ellison…yes, I understand." But, he frowned suddenly at the demand that some proof be given that the members of the academic team were still alive. Swallowing a curse, he lowered the phone and shouted toward the Temple, "Your people want to know you're alive and well. If you wish to have any hope of surviving this, you'd better come out and tell them you are still healthy."
Jim had been listening on the other end and found this exchange interesting. The terrorists didn't seem to have perfect control of the members of the team. Frowning, he wondered what that meant.
Blair, having heard Jim's name knew his friend would be listening on the other end of the call. "No way," he shouted as loud as he could. "Hold the phone as close as you can to the temple entrance and I'll yell out that we're fine, so far. I promise I won't shoot you even if I have the chance when you come closer."
Ellison smiled grimly to himself. Somehow, Sandburg was holding them off, had even managed to get his hands on a weapon…the team was inside the temple ruin and the terrorists were outside. This was good news, very good news. There was hope.
Ahmed cautiously approached the entrance of the temple, staying well out of Sandburg's line of fire. "I'm as close as I choose to come," he reported, deeply wanting to swing into the entranceway to blast that foul American Jew into oblivion, but knowing that with the open phone line, the sound of gunfire would only terminate the negotiations.
"Okay," Blair shouted back, fighting to keep his voice as steady and clear as he could. "We're okay, for now. We have water and some food. Everyone's okay so far."
Ahmed pulled back immediately, shouting into the phone, "You have your confirmation…now proceed with the necessary action. Oh, and ensure that a helicopter is left at the foot of the trail up here, in the parking area, for us to use to make our escape."
Blair and Jim, unbeknownst to one another, both shook their heads. These guys were idiots if they thought they had any hope of escaping once the team was clear…and how far did they think they'd get in a helicopter, anyway? They were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for God's sake! But, then, there were any number of small islands and atolls in relatively close proximity to Moorea, so maybe they had worked out a plan for their own escape. But, both men also assumed that they'd hold onto at least one or more hostages until they believed they were clear…and those hostages were likely to then be killed. Not a happy thought.
Jim, listening intently, frowned with concern. Blair was lying…at least one person was injured. He could tell from the strain in his partner's voice that Sandburg was suffering. Lowering his head, he tried to work it out, tried to imagine what was going on so many thousands of miles away. Sandburg had relayed information without the terrorists knowing it…without anyone knowing but Blair himself that Ellison would be able to pick up his original words. So…he had a gun, the students were safe, and they were in the temple. If anyone else had been injured, Sandburg would have urged a rescue sooner rather than later, so that likely meant he was the only casualty so far. The fact that it was apparent that Sandburg was still in charge, still speaking for the academic team meant he was still able to function, despite whatever injury he'd suffered. Biting his lip, Ellison nodded to Moriarity that he'd heard enough and the call could be terminated with the assurance that a chopper would be made available. That might or might not be true…right now, it didn't matter whether it was or wasn't. The point was to continue to pacify the terrorists, to let them think they held all the cards.
Back in the temple, Blair was both immensely relieved and outright horrified to think Jim was coming with the ransom money. There was no way he wanted his partner anywhere near this mess. But, with a chagrined, soft smile, he knew as well that there would have been no way to keep Jim from coming. From the moment Ellison had learned what was happening on this mountain, it had only been a matter of time before he showed up. Shaking his head, chuckling a little to himself, Sandburg imagined his own personal cavalry riding to the rescue. But, then, his eyes softened with sadness and regret that they were so very far apart…and this might be as close as they'd ever be again. The terrorists were as likely to kill them all and take the money as they were to let any of them leave alive. "Thank you, Jim, for everything," he said softly, clearly, before the connection was broken… knowing only his Sentinel would ever hear his words. "Love ya, man…"
On the other end of the line, Ellison heard the soft, distant murmur of gratitude and grace, and turned his head away as he closed his eyes. Dear God, Chief… he thought, sick with guilt and fear. His gut twisted with the realization of what that last message had meant. Sandburg didn't expect to get out of this alive and was saying 'good-bye' in case he never got another chance. The Sentinel had to take a long, steadying breath, to ease the tension in his chest, and the anguish in his heart. But, then his jaw stiffened. It wasn't over, not yet…there was still a chance. So long as Sandburg was alive, there was always a chance. Don't thank me, Chief…just…just hold on… he thought, knowing in his heart that Sandburg would never just give up, holding onto that knowledge like a lifeline.
Blair swallowed as he heard the connection break, fear mixed with relief that Jim would be coming soon, and then he felt a surge of guilt that almost swamped him…for being the reason that Jim was walking into such danger. But, much as he wished he could be somewhere else, that he'd never had to be part of this, he couldn't wish Eli here instead of himself.
After the call to the terrorists, Jim had another task to perform before he returned to the police station, something that would be important to Blair, but that he couldn't do for himself.
As he walked tentatively toward the room, he wasn't sure how to approach this. Did Eli even know what had happened, or had the news been kept from him? Ellison sure didn't want to create stress on a man who had just had heart surgery. But, he'd decided that, in case it all went bad, this wasn't something that could be put off. He could only assess Eli's condition and, if he was too weak, Jim was prepared to see Sarah, to talk with her.
But, when he walked in, he found Eli and Sarah together. She'd wanted to keep the news from her husband, but it had proven to be impossible…a babbling lab tech, not realizing the import of the news to the heart patient, had blurted out the latest information on the hostage situation while drawing blood. At first, Eli hadn't paid close attention, but as the technician droned on, he gradually realized exactly who had been taken hostage…and he very nearly had another heart attack.
As soon as they saw him their eyes brightened with the hope that he'd have some good news, Sarah stood and held out a hand, while Eli asked, his voice a little weak but clear, "Detective Ellison, thank God…what can you tell us about what's going on?"
Jim took Sarah's hand, and then moved to lay his other hand on Eli's shoulder, relieved that he didn't have to be the one to break the news. "We've made arrangements for the ransom, and I'll be delivering it personally tomorrow. So far, everyone's all right. I'll do everything in my power, you know that, to make sure they stay that way, to bring them all out, safe and sound." Ellison saw no reason to worry Eli with his knowledge that Blair had been hurt. Until they knew the details, worrying wouldn't help.
Eli sighed as he looked away, his face etched with anxiety. "I'm so sorry," he murmured. "It's my fault they are all out there…"
"No, Dr. Stoddard," Jim countered immediately. "None of this is your fault or responsibility. No one could anticipate something like this. I wanted to…" his voice caught and he had to clear his throat before continuing, "I wanted to tell you how happy you made Blair when you offered him this opportunity. When they left last Saturday, he was walking on air. Please, don't ever regret that."
Eli's eyes misted, and Jim heard Sarah sniff behind him. His lips trembling, Eli whispered, "I love that boy…like he was my own son…"
"I know that, and so does Blair," Jim replied quietly. "He loves the both of you, too, very much. And, I, well, I've long wanted to thank you, for all you've done for him over the years. He was thrilled when you asked him to go with you to Borneo…and he would have gone, except for…well…"
"I know, Detective," Eli replied, then looked up at Jim with a kind smile. "You mean the world to him, you know that, don't you?"
Jim had to press his lips together, and swallow hard as he blinked away the emotion that had dampened his eyes. Sniffing, he murmured, "Yeah, I know." Taking a breath, he continued, "I know that I might not always have seemed to appreciate him, or what he does for me, what he's given up for me…but I do. Blair is the most important person in my life…I'd do anything to keep him safe."
"Well, the two of you were meant to find one another," Eli replied thoughtfully. "The mysteries of life are sometimes beyond our understanding…we don't always choose the paths that we find ourselves upon, but it's clear to me that your paths were destined to cross."
Sarah touched Jim's arm then as she said, "It's a relief to know that you'll be going to Moorea. If anyone can get Blair, and the others, back safely, it's you."
"I'll do my best, ma'am," Jim assured her, his voice husky with sincerity.
"Thank you, Jim," Eli said then, reaching up to pat Jim's hand, consciously using his first name. "It was kind of you to come to see us before you left…to give us hope that this will end well."
It was mid-afternoon when Matt took his next turn standing lookout with Blair. The grad student was frustrated and discouraged. This wasn't a simple shrine, it was a major temple and there should be another exit somewhere. Everything he'd ever studied about the Polynesian culture of the South Pacific argued that there must be another way in and out.
But they'd found nothing.
Biting his lip, frowning with worry as he studied Blair, Matt shook his head. He'd taken several courses from Sandburg over the last few years, every one that he could, actually. Blair was a great teacher…he brought the fun and joy back into learning, his own enthusiasm a beacon of energy that led students onward, drawing them with him, as if on a great adventure. Though Sandburg didn't know it, Matt had been one of the students who'd lobbied the Chancellor after Sandburg had been expelled over the alleged Sentinel dissertation, and the grad student had been quietly satisfied when Blair had finally been awarded the doctorate he deserved.
And, now, the great teacher was standing between them and almost certain death, holding off maybe a dozen terrorists…god, he'd even killed some to protect them. If Matt ever had a hero, and he wasn't prone to idolizing anyone, it would be Blair Sandburg. The guy was the most unique, most brilliant and amazing person Matt had ever known.
Matt hated to see Sandburg shivering with a fever despite the heat that made the presence of infection in his leg only too plain. The sour, sickening odour hanging in the heavy, humid air revealed only too clearly that the wound was going bad. Dried blood stained Blair's shirt, his leg, the flimsy bandage around the wound and the ground beneath him. They all knew Sandburg was having a harder and harder time staying alert, drifting in and out of a kind of daze. But, their team leader just wouldn't give up…he asked them for water, and a couple of times he'd splashed some over himself to dampen the fire of the fever, but the idea of any kind of food clearly nauseated him. He looked haggard and exhausted. And yet, he always found a soft smile for anyone who was nearby. He'd urged them to continue studying the artifacts in the temple, even joking that their four weeks seemed to have diminished to only a few days…and they'd known he was just trying to keep them busy, trying to keep their minds off what was going on. But, as the hope of finding a back way out diminished, they went back to taking pictures, dictating observations into their minirecorders. Blair was right, they had to keep busy or the waiting would drive them crazy. As the hours wore on, he continued to check to see how they were doing, reminding them that help was on the way, that they weren't really alone, that others cared and were coming for them.
But, these were bright kids, and they knew the odds as well as their team leader did.
"Blair," Matt murmured, looking down at Sandburg, "do you really think we'll get out of here?"
Shifting his gaze from the ground outside to his student's eyes, hearing the need for truth in Matt's voice, Blair sighed and shrugged. "Honestly?" he asked. When Matt nodded slowly, Blair's eyes dropped for a moment then came back up with a steady gaze. "I don't know," he answered. "But, it's not hopeless…you can't think that. However they did it back home, the ransom has been raised and it's on its way. These guys," he tilted his head toward the terrorists outside, "they aren't part of a huge, organized, rich terrorist movement. They need the money from this transaction to finance their operation, or they'd have rushed us and killed us long before now. If I were a betting man, I'd give us half decent odds. My partner, and best friend, is on his way. If anyone can get us out of this, it's Jim Ellison. Believe that."
Matt swallowed and let his breath go in a long sigh. Sandburg would never, ever, directly lie to him, not to a straight, serious question. Unexpected tears burned the student's eyes with the relief and the hope Blair gave him that all was not yet lost. It was too soon to give up. Nodding, he reached out to grip Sandburg's shoulder for a moment, and he felt the fever through the thin fabric. "Thanks, man," he murmured, then asked, sincere concern clear in his eyes, "How are you doing?"
His gaze shifting away, moving back into his role as watchman, Blair replied with a steady voice, "Don't worry, Matt… everything will work out the way it should."
Matt squeezed Blair's shoulder, then waved to Tumi to come relieve him. "I'm going to keep looking for the back door," he explained as he moved away.
Blair spared him a quick grin and nodded. "You do that, Matt…we can always make 'half-decent' odds, better."
Matt stood in the center of the temple, his gaze quartering the walls, the ceiling above them, wondering if there'd once been another level…but, no, that wasn't right. The altar was always on the highest platform in these temples. Turning, he looked down the steps toward the pool of water…and then he realized with a sudden flash of insight, 'Of course! The water's probably covering the lower exit!'
Moving down the steps, he securely hooked his waterproof flashlight on his belt and kicked off his sandals.
"What are you doing?" Linda asked, coming down the steps behind him.
He looked up at her over his shoulder. "We both know there has to be another way out. If we haven't found it, it's because we're not looking in the right place. So…I'm going to check out the area under the water."
"Are you crazy?" Linda demanded, keeping her voice low, not wanting to alarm the others. "Do you know how many earthquakes have likely occurred in the past couple of thousand years? If there was another entrance once, that water pretty much suggests it doesn't exit any more."
"Maybe," Matt allowed, "but we all know we're lucky if we have even 50/50 odds of getting out of this alive. We have to consider, and try, every option."
"Matt," she implored, shaking her head, her throat dry. "We don't know what's down there…you could get stuck, trapped…."
"Or I could find another way out," he countered, then smiled up at her, turning to open his arms. They hadn't told any of the others, but they'd gotten 'engaged' just before the field trip had begun and planned to be married at Christmas. He knew she was scared, and he hated to leave her here…but if there was a chance of getting her out of this, not to mention the others, he had to try.
She hugged him tightly, understanding, trying to contain her fear. Taking a breath, blinking hard, she stepped back from his strong embrace and did her best to smile bravely. "Don't keep me in suspense, okay? If you find something, hurry back and let us know."
He touched her cheek tenderly, stroking the freckles with unconscious fondness, as he nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can…hey, maybe in a minute or two. Who knows how many dives I'll have to make before I find something worth exploring?"
And, then, he turned and followed the steps lower, into the still water, ignoring the chill of it. Taking a deep breath, he disappeared from view.
It took three dives before he found something. The last time he'd come back up, he'd grinned at her and had given her a thumbs-up sign before quickly taking another breath and diving below the dark surface.
But, she had no idea of what he'd found.
Because, that had been half an hour ago…and he hadn't come back up again.
Naomi called Simon's office not long after Jim had returned from meeting with Eli and Sarah Stoddard.
"Naomi, where are you?" Simon asked, waving Jim in from the bullpen.
"I'm in Namibia," she replied, the line crackling, making it difficult for him to hear her. "What's happening? A park ranger brought the news to the village. What's Blair doing in Moorea?"
"Just a minute, and I'll put Jim on," Simon replied, handing the phone to Ellison as he murmured, "It's Naomi…she's in Namibia."
Taking a deep breath, Jim took the phone from his boss and proceeded to relay the information as calmly as he could. Part of him wondered if the woman would ever be in an accessible place when Blair needed her, and part of him was glad she was far, far away. Patiently, he calmed her down, and promised they'd keep her informed when she gave him a number they could use. With a sigh, he ended the call and handed the phone back to Simon.
"She isn't coming directly back?" Simon asked, dumbfounded and knowing he probably shouldn't be.
"No, she's a long way from any kind of airport…by the time she could get back here, well, it'll be over, one way or the other," Jim replied, his eyes on the floor and his hands on his hips as he fought to maintain his calm.
"How in hell did Sandburg ever acquire a sense of responsibility with her as his mother?" Simon sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.
Ellison shrugged, weary and too worried about Blair to care much about that right at the moment. "I figure he didn't have much choice…" he replied as he turned to head back to his own desk.
It was Mina who caught the soft ringing of a cell phone somewhere outside the temple entrance, and when she heard the terrorist leader's voice rise in fury, she shook Blair, who'd again drifted into an uneasy, semi-conscious state.
"Huh, what?" he mumbled, feeling truly dreadful as he tried to focus on the world around him.
"Shh," Mina cautioned, keeping a hand resting on his shoulder, frightened by the heat rising from him in waves. "Someone has called, and the head guy, Ahmed the others call him, sounds royally pissed," she whispered as she strained to make out the words.
Frowning, Blair fought to concentrate, to hear what was going on…but they were speaking in their own language again. There was much rapid, angry shouting, and he could only catch some of the words…and the cursing. "What is he saying?" he asked, frustrated by his lack of understanding.
Mina had paled and started to tremble. Her voice shaking, she replied, "They must have a lookout posted at or near the airport…and they saw US military forces arrive sometime recently."
"Damn it," he murmured hoarsely, his voice weak and raspy. "Probably part of the plan to rescue us…"
She cocked her head, still listening, and he frowned as he struggled to understand the unfamiliar language. Suddenly, she reached out to grab his arm, but before she could bring herself to reveal what she'd heard, Ahmed turned to the satellite phone, calling CNN, to expound furiously in English. "The American dogs are betraying our negotiations," he shouted, enraged. "They have landed a force in Moorea, hoping to take us by surprise. They've failed!" he shrieked. "Tell them, tell them if I see even one soldier, I will bomb the infidel's temple and kill all the hostages! The military pigs are to leave Moorea NOW! I give them one hour!" Furious, he slammed the transmitter down into its cradle.
"Jesus," Blair whispered, his heart sinking as he looked up at Mina and then around over his shoulder back at the others. That was when he became aware that Linda was sobbing in the arms of Natasha and the others were standing around looking like they'd lost their best friend. "What's going on over there?" he muttered, casting a look of inquiry at Mina.
"Bomb? They're going to bomb us?" she whispered, tears in her eyes as she trembled with terror.
"No," he soothed her, "not necessarily. Only if the military doesn't pull back…they'll leave, you'll see. They came to help us, not get us killed." When she took a deep breath, determined to control herself, and nodded, he asked again, "Now…what's wrong with Linda?"
Mina wrung her hands as she looked away. Sighing, she said softly, "It's Matt…he went into the pool to see if there was an exit hidden by the water…and he never came back up."
Blair just stared at her for a long moment, his eyes wide with disbelief, and then numb sorrow. "Ah, no," he sighed, swallowing hard against the emotion that welled within him. Closing his eyes and hanging his head with grief and guilt as he remembered urging Matt to continue looking for another way out, he felt overwhelmed by his sense of responsibility…and his failure to protect someone who was in his care.
The pain in his leg turned into a flame of agony as he forced himself to roll over, reaching to Mina support in standing as he waved to Shaun and Marco to come and stand watch. Slowly, fighting the dizziness and weakness that assailed him, he made his way across the stone-paved floor to the cluster of students. "Linda," he murmured, holding his arms wide. When she turned into his embrace, clinging to him, her hot tears wet against his neck, he held her tightly as he murmured, "God, I'm so sorry…"
"It's been two hours, Blair," she sobbed, her voice breaking with anguish. "He's gone…Matt's gone…."
"Maybe…maybe he's found a way out, and it's just taking him a while to get back," he offered softly, wishing he believed that himself. But, he didn't. His own eyes were wet with the raw sorrow he felt. He'd known Matt for years and knew they had just lost someone very, very special. He wanted to offer comfort, but could think of no words, and he felt hollow inside, empty of any kind of wisdom, perspective or strength. He could only hold her, and share her heart-breaking grief.
Pressing his eyes closed, devastated by his inability to protect their lives, to ensure their safety, he wished to God he knew how to tell them that they might all be dead before another hour had passed. For all his confident assertions to Mina to keep her from panicking, he was in no way certain himself that the military would leave. It was equally likely that they'd stay to retaliate with a vengeance to prove to other terrorists around the world that they could not kill Americans with impunity. Dear God, he prayed silently, helplessly, don't let this happen…they're so young, have so much to give, to learn, to live for…please …don't let this happen….
Ellison was in Banks' office, waiting for the university to call and advise them the ransom was ready for transport when Joel burst in, tense with very evident fear as he called to them, "You'd better come and hear this…"
"What?" Simon demanded, but Joel had already spun away, heading to the small conference room next door.
"Oh, God…no!" Ellison swore in horror, his face blanching as he lunged to his feet to race after Joel. His sensitive hearing had picked up the announcer's voice on the television in the next room. Alarmed, not understanding what was going on, Simon loped after him.
"To repeat, the Warriors of the Prophet who are holding eleven American hostages, members of a field study group from Rainier University in Cascade, Washington, have threatened to bomb the ancient temple in which the team has been contained unless the United States Government removes the military forces sent to aid in a rescue attempt. The military was given one hour to vacate the island of Moorea where the hostage situation is taking place." Glancing at her watch, the news announcer continued, "That was thirty minutes ago…"
All the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit stood in silent, appalled horror as they stared at the screen, all but Ellison who had closed his eyes and stumbled back a few steps to lean against the wall, his hands coming up to cover his face. Simon pulled himself out of his temporary state of stunned shock and lunged for the telephone on the end of the conference table. Punching in the Commissioner's number, he waited impatiently, then, when he heard Evans' voice, he blurted, "Sir…you have to ensure the military is pulling out of Moorea IMMEDIATELY! The terrorists will bomb the temple in thirty minutes, killing all the hostages, unless the Special Forces Unit has withdrawn before the deadline." Simon listened for a moment, and then nodded as he murmured, "Thank you, sir." Setting the phone back down, he swallowed and wiped a hand over his face, feeling sick and shaken. Looking up at Ellison, he couldn't begin to imagine what Jim must be feeling.
His arms crossed tightly across his chest, his head down and the muscles in his jaw throbbing, Jim was fighting the turbulent emotions that raged within. Terror, fury, rage, helplessness…he wanted to break something, scream…something. But he could do nothing but stand here and wait. He could do nothing to help Sandburg. Dammit…he could do NOTHING!
The minutes ticked by…too slow, too fast, time the enemy now. They all found it hard to breathe, their chests tight, as they waited for more information…waited to learn if Sandburg was still alive or buried under a mountain of rubble thousands of miles away.
When Blair had gone to comfort Linda, Shaun and Marco had moved up to keep watch at the entrance, Shaun with his photographer's eye for direction and distance laying down to take the rifle in his hands. He'd never shot a gun in his life but, grimly, he thought that there was probably a first time for everything. A few minutes later, after Blair and Mina had confided the latest threat to those farther back in the temple, Blair made his way back to the entrance with Leo's help, and David chose to come with them. Blair had debated whether to tell them all or not, but he figured that they deserved to know the truth, to come to grips with what was happening in their own way. They'd been shocked, stunned into wordlessness as they listened to his assurances that the military would likely pull back.
As he limped across the uneven stone floor, leaning heavily on Leo's shoulder, he could hear the girls whispering amongst themselves, drawing strength and comfort from one another. He reflected that he'd seen this process in countless cultures…the women gathering together to share hurt and support one another, the men becoming more silent, more focused on the dangers at hand, needing action, needing a way to bring the situation back under control. Personally, Blair had always figured the women had the right idea…accept, endure, prevail was a more realistic approach to stress and threat than wishing to control the uncontrollable.
He had to stifle a groan as Leo and David helped him ease back down to the ground, while Shaun rolled away to cede his place back to Blair. Sandburg quietly told Shaun and Marco about the threat of being bombed, watching as their eyes widened and their jaws went tight. The only control any of them had over the situation was upon their own reactions, and even that was a struggle, he knew, seeing trembling hands and gazes that skittered helplessly seeking an escape that didn't exist.
"It's alright to be afraid," he murmured. "It doesn't make you less of a man."
Their eyes came back to him, wanting, in their youth and inexperience with such horror, to believe him. Not sure they could. Sighing as he looked up at each of them in turn, he continued, "Fear is…fear is a natural response and a healthy one. When you're in a situation where it's impossible to retreat, it can give you the strength to face what's coming."
"How?" Marco asked, his voice tight. "How do you deal with the fear if there's nothing you can do but wait. When you're helpless?"
For a moment, Blair's memories skipped across those moments when he'd been terrified out of his mind. When Lash had held him bound in chains, when Alex had taken him out to the fountain to kill him…when he'd thought Jim had been thrown off the train…all those times when Jim had gone ahead, out of sight, into danger and he'd been helpless to do anything but wait and, well, right now was another great example of being terrified…
"You pray," he said quietly, "for a miracle. And, you remember how you got into the situation in the first place. If it's a place you've chosen to be, you decide whether you made the decision for the right reasons…and that you wouldn't change what your life has been. If you have time, you feel grateful for all the good things you've known…family, love, the chance to enjoy the company of friends, to learn…"
Looking back up at them, he continued quietly, "My best friend, Jim, goes into danger almost every day of his life, and I asked him once how he could do it. He shrugged and said that it was because someone had to…that it was the right thing to do. When I asked if he didn't get scared, he smiled and looked away. 'Everyone gets scared, Chief,' he said. 'Courage is living with the fear and doing what you have to anyway.'" Pausing for a moment, looking at each of them, Blair said, "You've all shown incredible courage…you've kept your hopes up, kept looking for another way out. You've helped me keep watch. You haven't fallen apart, when you'd've had every right to scream and cry like babies. I'm proud of all of you…and I'm still hoping for a miracle. Jim is on his way…if anyone can get us out of this, it's him."
Sandburg didn't know that it was his example, more than his words, that helped them all through the next harrowing minutes, waiting to see if the temple would be bombed or if there would be a reprieve. Hurt, fevered, sick with sorrow over Matt…he still kept going, still supported them, guided them, stood watch between them and the terrorists…and still had hope. Gradually, the young men around him relaxed their rigid muscles, slowed their breathing. Blair was right…panicking wouldn't change anything and would only make matters worse. Quietly, they settled against the wall on either side of the entrance, the warriors of the small band of students, placing themselves between the threat outside and the women farther back in the shadows.
But Blair wouldn't let them stay so close to the front of the temple. "Look, you guys need to move back," he directed. "Even if they do bomb the entrance, it's not likely that that they could do enough damage to bring this place down. You'll be safer back there, and there's lots of air in here, and plenty of water, enough to last until someone can dig us out, if need be."
"What about you?" Shaun asked. "You should move back, too."
Blair paused a moment, considering whether he'd be able to hold off anyone who came at them with a bomb and concluded that the terrorists were likely smart enough to continue to stay out of his line of fire. Deciding that Shaun was right, he nodded, and tried to stifle the groan at the sharp stab of pain from his leg when they helped him stand and move back. He chose a position that kept the entrance still within in range of his weapon, well in front of where he directed them for refuge on the lower level. Trying to swallow and finding his throat too dry with fear, he waited, as did they, counting the minutes.
The hour was almost up when they heard a cell phone buzz and then Ahmed's voice, rising with excitement and triumph…he'd just forced the US military machine to back down and he'd never felt such a surge of personal power. Much cheering greeted his words as his men rejoiced in their bold success.
Blair sagged with relief, letting some of his own tension ease from his shoulders and back. Looking back the others, he said with a smile, "It's okay…they won't be throwing any bombs at us."
Just before the half hour expired, someone dashed into camera range, handing a piece of paper to the news announcer. She scanned it quickly, then looked up into the camera. "We have just learned the military force has pulled out of Moorea and the immediate crisis has been defused. Turning now to the latest bombing in Jerusalem…"
H. clicked the remote, turning off the television. The tension in the room had relaxed, but only marginally. The situation was too volatile and no one deluded himself that there were any assurances of a happy ending. Terrorists were too unpredictable, too convinced that bloody violence was the only way to make their point. And, though none of them had spoken of it, they all wondered if Sandburg was at even greater risk because of his heritage. The damned media had reported the names of all the team members, the idiots potentially making their colleague and one of the students, who had a Middle Eastern sounding name, special targets for the terrorists. It was a long way from over yet.
Simon moved to Ellison's side, laying a firm, supportive hand on his friend's shoulder. "He's all right, Jim," he murmured quietly. "Sandburg is still alive."
Jim nodded tightly, his eyes still closed. Slowly, he straightened, his muscles stiff with the surge of useless adrenaline that had pulsed through his body. Wordlessly, he brushed past Simon, briefly touching him on his shoulder in silent gratitude for the support, as he made his way back to Banks' office. Simon gazed at his anxious team a moment more, then he, too, turned away. They needed to change the plan…they could no longer be seen to land at the Moorea Airport tomorrow in a military jet.
It was finally decided that Ellison and Banks would take the military flight as far as Papeete, and then utilize a charter service to complete the trip to Moorea, arriving as private citizens. To ensure there was no misunderstanding by the terrorists, who were only as yet expecting Ellison, Jim called the satellite line and firmly advised the Warriors' spokesperson that he was bringing a bodyguard with him, to help ensure the security of the very large amount of cash he'd be carrying.
On the other end of the line, Ahmed wasn't happy with the news, but Jim persevered, arguing that neither of them wanted some third party to intervene and steal the cash before the transaction could be made. The police detective pointed out that everyone in the world knew that he'd be carrying eleven million dollars, courtesy of the international broadcasts by CNN. Consequently, they had to be prepared for others to try to get into the game. Listening, he could hear as Ahmed spat in disgust, belatedly realizing that he, himself, had caused this additional complication by being so forthcoming with CNN about all the details of what was being demanded and of the responses he'd been given by the American authorities. Finally, Ahmed agreed to the extra precaution of a second man. Jim then confirmed that they should be on-site, at the ancient temple, no later than noon the next day, and more likely by mid-morning. He sighed as he broke the connection. It was increasingly clear that these particular terrorists were playing a loose game, without any real clue of what they were doing. If anything, that only made them even more dangerous and unpredictable.
Meanwhile, because of the harrowing incident, the Attorney General had been doing some rethinking of his own. While he was still not prepared to consider the release of the criminals in the various prisons around the country to appease the terrorists, he was prepared to carry the charade a little further, to convince those bastards that their demands were being fully met. He knew there would be hell to pay later with the media, for having duped them into acting as unwilling and unconscious partners in a lie, but that was heat he was prepared to take. So arrangements were set in motion to make it appear that the twenty convicted terrorists were being released from prison, and escorted to flights that would take them out of American jurisdiction. It was a complex charade, and hundreds of people would be working through the night to pull it off.
Finally, as they were being transported to the base, Jim and Simon were briefed by a military colonel on the terrain that surrounded the ancient temple. The officer shared satellite maps with them that they could take and study during their journey. He also advised the two police officers that the Special Ops force had only been pulled back as far as Tahiti. They remained poised to go into action as soon as the hostages were either out of danger, or the situation deteriorated further and it was clear the terrorists planned to kill them all before making their escape with the cash. The Ops force would swim in from offshore on the far side of the mountain under cover of darkness and work their way around to be in position to support Ellison and Banks by the time the men reached the temple.
However, the Colonel cautioned that the military unit could not get into firing range on the temple grounds themselves. Jim nodded in grim agreement as he studied the maps. The landslide left too much open space in the immediate area, and the thick forestation beyond the slide zone, as well as the geological characteristics of the mountain itself, made it impossible to put one or more snipers in position to be of any assistance during the actual exchange…they could not risk any military being seen by the terrorists. Instead, the two police officers would radio in on a secure channel to advise on their status just before entering the terrorist camp. If they did not confirm a successful extraction of the field study team within fifteen minutes, the Special Ops force would move in. Jim argued this, indicating that they needed more flexibility than such a rigid time frame would give them.
"Face it, if it goes bad, they'll be close enough to hear the shooting," he argued.
"Yes," the Colonel countered, "but remember, they will be out of visual contact. What if there is shooting but the situation is still salvageable? If they move in too quickly, you could all be trapped in the crossfire."
Jim looked at Simon and they thought about it silently for a long moment. Neither scenario left much comfort or room for error. "It's your call, Jim," Simon finally said quietly, deferring to Jim's military experience.
Ellison tried to play it out in his mind as he studied the aerial maps again, estimating the time to deliver the money, have it confirmed, and get eleven people, at least one of them injured, across a short space of ground before they'd be behind cover. They'd be seriously outgunned if the terrorists decided to kill everyone anyway and the military support would be the only thing that might save them. Finally, he nodded. "Okay…we should be able to clear the area in fifteen minutes. If it looks like it's going to take longer once I get there, I reserve the right to call in a delay."
"Agreed," the officer replied. As they pulled up next to the jet on the airfield, the Colonel advised them that they would be provided with radios, codes, weapons and all the other equipment they would need, upon arrival in Papeete. Finally, he wished them luck and saluted them as they turned to board their transport.
Less than ten minutes later, the jet was lifting into the dark skies, heading south and west on the long journey to the South Pacific. As Jim stared out into the darkness, he felt a slight measure of relief that he was finally on his way and in twelve more hours he'd be at the temple…he'd finally be able to get Sandburg out of there.
Or die trying.
Shaun, having once held the rifle in his hands, knew that he could do it again and insisted that Blair take a break. They were all worried about him, able to see pain in the lines on his haggard face and shadowing his eyes, much as he never complained and tried to hide it. His fever hadn't gotten worse, but nor was it any better, and the stench from his leg sickened them all. If he didn't get the proper treatment soon, he might lose it…if the blood poisoning didn't kill him first.
Much as he hated to ask another to take on the responsibility of the weapon, Blair knew he had to rest or he'd collapse and wouldn't do them any good later, when he needed to be alert during the hostage exchange. The terrorists had hung well back, out of his line of fire, so he hoped that they, too, were waiting for the final act. While Blair clung to the hope that the exchange would go without incident, his mind told him that it wasn't likely. There were a dozen terrorists, and the hostages had only one rifle. Blair had heard the exchange earlier that Simon was coming as well, and his eyes had pricked at that information, overwhelmed that Banks would take such a risk for him. He hoped they'd both be coming armed, that they'd have a chance if the terrorists double-crossed them and tried to kill them all.
So, reluctantly, with Leo and David's help, he rolled away from the rifle and moved away from the entrance to lie down against the wall and try to rest. It wasn't all that hard…it had been taking all his strength and determination to fight off the drowsiness that assailed him. In minutes, he was asleep, waking restlessly from time to time to check on the others, to make sure they were holding up against the strain.
It was a long night, filled with grief for Matt, hope that the rest of them might yet survive, guilt at such a hope when they knew Matt was gone. But, dawn finally came, as it always did. In a few more hours, if they were lucky, this nightmare would be over.
Exhausted, he'd found his way through the darkness, easing as close as he could to the site of the temple around the forested rim of the landslide area and the path around the last hump of rock. When he spotted the movement of a sentry at the end of the path, he ghosted back into the shadows. Biting his lip, he took shelter within the thick tropical growth further down and around a bend in the path and waited. It must have been four or five hours after dawn when he heard someone coming up the path…more than one person, so he held back, watching, waiting.
Finally, the two Americans came into view, and he recognized the one carrying a large duffel bag, a rifle slung over his shoulder, armed as was the tall, black man following him.
"Jim," he called out softly as he eased out of the undergrowth to join them on the path, raising a hand to caution them to be quiet.
Startled, both men had automatically reached for their weapons but relaxed when they saw him move into the light, surprised expressions on their faces.
"Matt?" Jim asked, disconcerted to see one of Blair's old students, a member of the study team, on the path in front of them.
"Yeah. Man, am I glad to see you," Matt nodded as he pushed his fingers through his lank hair. "They have a sentry posted up at the head of the path, just before it bends around some jutting rock before leading into the camp."
"What are you doing out here? How did you get away?" Jim demanded, his eyes scanning the thick forest around them, alert for other sentries.
"I found a back way out of the temple…a tunnel," Matt explained, babbling a little in his distress, though he spoke hardly louder than a whisper. "It's not that far, really, but it took me hours to clear a way through the rubble and rockfalls…and then the batteries in my flashlight died just as I finally found the right tunnel to get outside and I couldn't find my way back for the others in the dark…not through the water, anyway…"
His voice dropped off, feeling rotten about the fact that he was out and clear, while the others were still in such danger. Jim dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, understanding the expression of failure on the young man's face. "You did well to keep looking for another way out…it's not your fault if you couldn't find your way back. It'll be all right."
Simon had moved up beside them and now held out his hand as he introduced himself. "I'm Simon Banks," he said. "Can you tell us anything about what to expect up there?"
"Matt Rollins," the young man acknowledged, returning the introduction as he shook Simon's hand, then turned to point up the trail. "Just about five hundred yards from here, the trail winds around a rocky outcrop where their guard is posted. As soon as you come around it, you'll be in sight of the temple grounds and they will be able to see you. There're about a dozen terrorists still alive…Blair took out about half a dozen, I guess, when he covered the girls to get them to safety. Anyway, the rest of the team are still in the temple. The last I knew, everyone but Blair was fine."
Ellison's gut clenched at the words. "What's wrong with Sandburg?" he asked, his voice taut with anxiety.
"He was shot in the first confrontation…a graze along his ribs and a bullet in his leg. He lost a fair amount of blood, and it's pretty clear his leg's infected, but, man, he's been amazing. He's stood guard, kept us calm…we're all still alive because of him," Matt reported.
"Okay, son," Simon answered, his eyes on the trail ahead. "It'll be over soon. Jim, should we consider trying to get them out the back way?"
Ellison was about to agree when he heard the soft footsteps on the path above them. Pushing Matt toward the cover of the vegetation, he hissed, "Someone's coming, likely checking to see if we're on our way. Matt, hide…and stay put until we get back here."
Matt darted into cover, just before there came a shout from above. "You have the ransom money?" the terrorist called, his rifle ready for action if not aimed directly at them. Simon stood with his own weapon trained on the terrorist.
"Yes," Jim called back. "Move off the path, back into the camp, and I'll bring it in."
Nodding, the terrorist backed away until he'd disappeared from sight, running to advise his leader that the Americans had arrived.
Knowing that Ellison was sick with worry about Sandburg, and that any hope of a different, perhaps safer option, was now lost, Simon moved forward to lay a hand on his detective's back. "Come on, Jim…we're nearly there," he said softly.
Nodding, Ellison followed him up along the trail. They both paused when they reached the stony outcrop.
"Simon…I want you to wait here and give me cover as I move forward. If this goes bad, there's no reason for both of us to be caught in the open," Jim said quietly.
Banks looked at him for a moment, then eased forward, his back tight against the stone to peer around it and get the lay of the land. Matt had been right. From here, he had a good view of the whole camp and the entrance to the temple, but he couldn't see anyone in the darkness within. Nodding, he pulled back. "Okay," he agreed. "I can cover you and the kids from here as you make your way back."
His mouth dry, Ellison gave his own weapon to Simon, straightened his shoulders and moved out around the bulge of rock. His eyes swept the area, and he could see Sandburg lying in the shadows of the entrance, his rifle ready. He felt a surge of relief to know that though Blair was wounded, he was apparently still functioning. Behind him, he could hear Simon on the radio, bringing the Special Ops team up to speed.
The fifteen-minute countdown had begun.
When he heard the sound of Jim's voice hailing the camp, Blair thought he might weep with relief. Gritting his jaw, he pushed himself to his feet with Shaun's help. Moving a little outside, where he could better cover Jim's approach, he leaned against the stone lintel, blinking to clear his vision.
Ahmed and the others stood, forming a rough line, to watch the American approach, noting the other one who remained back on the path, an automatic rifle held loosely in his hands…not threatening, but wary and ready. With a wary glance of his own toward Blair in the temple entrance, Ahmed strode forward to meet the tall American, his eyes straying with eager greed toward the large duffel bag in the man's hand.
Jim shot Blair a glance and frowned at the haggard state of his friend. He could hear Blair's racing heart and see the signs of fever and exhaustion. He could smell the poison of the festering wound in his best friend's leg, and his gut twisted at the stench. Swallowing, he turned his hard gaze back to the terrorist who was coming toward him.
They met just in front of the steps up to the temple.
"Show me the money," Ahmed directed, his voice rough, his hands trembling a little.
Nodding, Jim dropped to one knee and unzipped the bag, opening it wide so that the terrorist could easily see that it was jam packed with thousand dollar bills. "You want to count it?" Jim asked, his voice dry, sarcastic.
Snapping his fingers, Ahmed ordered impatiently, "Give me the bag."
Jim glanced up at Blair, then closed the bag and handed it to Ahmed as he stood. "All right," he said, "you've got the ransom…now I want my people."
Backing away, Ahmed looked up at Blair. "Send out the students," he called.
Nodding slowly, his eyes darting from Ahmed to the other terrorists, Blair called softly, "Okay, guys, this is it. When you get outside, move quickly past Jim and head to Simon…keep going until you're around the shelter of the rocks."
One by one, the students moved past Blair, who leaned against the lintel, his eyes still on the terrorists.
Ahmed cursed silently when he saw how many students emerged…it had been a lie…they'd all been there when the attack had been launched two days before. His hard gaze, filled now with angry hate for the deception, caught Blair's eyes. Understanding the look on the terrorist's face, Blair shrugged, his eyes moving again to watch the men who stood tensely, their weapons ready in their hands.
The last of the students had headed down the steps when one of the terrorists yelled as he raised his rifle, calling upon Allah as he took aim on Jim.
Blair's weapon exploded and the terrorist flew backwards with a high-pitched gurgled scream. The others raised their weapons, but Simon fired a line of bullets into the ground at their feet, warning them to hold their ground. Ahmed had whirled around at the shout and had seen his brother fly back, shot by the damned American Jew who had already killed six of his men. They all stood on the brink of a slaughter, so close, so many could yet die. The terrorist leader held up his hand and shouted a sharp order to his men to hold their fire. After a long look at his brother's body, Ahmed turned to glare up at Sandburg.
For a moment, there was only silence, everyone frozen, wondering what would happen next. Sandburg broke the stalemate, calling out to the students, his voice quiet but the direction firm, "Keep going, guys…get out of here…NOW!"
Terrified, they turned and continued away, moving quickly past Simon who kept his rifle at his shoulder, sighted on the terrorists.
Jim called softly, "Come on, Chief…it's time we all got out of here."
"No," Ahmed called out, his voice harsh. "He stays."
There was nothing Ahmed wanted to do so much as to order them all slaughtered. But, though the Americans might never believe it, he was, in his own way, an honourable man. He'd made a deal, and it had been consummated. The money was in his hands…and his brethren in American prisons had been set free, or so he'd been told by his cohort in the city below who'd seen it happen on CNN and had called two hours before with the victorious news. He would honour the deal…but this one, this one who'd killed his brother…no, this Jew he could not let go.
"What?" Ellison demanded, fury sparking in his eyes. "We paid the ransom…he comes with me."
"No," Ahmed said again, his eyes moving to Jim. "He killed six of my men…he has just now killed my brother. He stays…or we will kill all of you."
Blair swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment, then lifted his head to look at Jim. He felt an odd coldness, remote somehow, shocked by his lack of remorse for having just killed a man though it had been necessary or the man would have killed Jim. Despite his awareness that his action had sealed his own death sentence, he said, his voice low as he tried to keep it together, "Get the kids out of here."
"Chief…" Jim choked, fury and fear, helplessness and horror, in his eyes.
"For me, Jim…take care of them for me," Blair cut in. "Please…"
Sandburg could see his Sentinel was in agony and ready to sacrifice himself to fight for his Guide. But, there was nothing Jim could do for him now, nothing but get himself and maybe a lot of other people killed. Blair didn't want that, couldn't bear the thought of it. "Civilians come first, man," he murmured, only loud enough for Jim to hear, playing the duty card ruthlessly.
"Sandburg?" Jim growled, rigid with tension, unable to turn away…unable to abandon Blair, to leave him behind.
"I'm sorry, man," Blair sighed softly. "Really, really sorry…but there isn't anything either of us can do about this. You have to go, Jim…please…you have to go and make sure the others get away safely."
Ellison stood there, shaking his head, like a man in a daze, unwilling to accept the inevitable. "I…can't…"
Tears in his eyes, Blair looked past Jim to Simon, silently entreating his friend to help, to get Jim out of here before it was too late for all of them. Banks caught the desperate glance and barked, "Ellison, time's up…we've got to leave NOW!"
The tone of command, harsh with Simon's own horror and grief, broke through, shattering the paralysis of denial and horror that had gripped the Sentinel's heart. Ellison tore his gaze from Sandburg's to let it once again sweep the group of terrorists arrayed against them. So many different duties, clashing with a single desire, to stand with his Guide whatever the risks.
"Go on, Jim," Blair murmured, his voice steady, compelling. "Go…and don't ever look back."
His jaw rigid, moving as if his every muscle was stiff and sore, Ellison's tormented gaze returned to Blair's compassionate eyes as he took one step back and then another. How could he do this? How could his Guide order him to go?
But Jim had no real choice, he knew that. Blair and Simon were right. He had a job to do…he had to get those kids to safety. He felt Simon's hand on his shoulder as he backed to the curve in the path.
"Come on, Jim…there's nothing more we can do here," Banks muttered, fighting to control his own deep despair at leaving Sandburg behind.
With a last look at Sandburg, seeing the tears glistening in his best friend's eyes, he heard Blair's whispered words, "It's not your fault, Jim…remember that…."
Swallowing hard, feeling fury build in his chest, Ellison turned away, following Simon back around the outcrop of stone. Almost roughly, he shoved the kids down the path in front of them until they got back to where Matt was waiting. Linda almost passed out with the joyful shock of seeing the man she loved step out of the shadows, his arms open, waiting for her to rush into them. The others couldn't believe their eyes at the sight of him. Couldn't figure out how it was possible that he was alive…and standing there in front of them.
But, James Ellison had no time for warm reunions. "Call in the troops, Simon," he growled, "and get these kids off this damned mountain."
"What are you going to do?" Banks asked, unsurprised that Ellison was not prepared to just walk away.
"I'm going to get Sandburg out of there," Ellison grunted, pushing through the students toward Matt.
"How the hell do you expect…" Simon protested.
"I'm going to get Matt to show me the back door," Jim interjected. Moving forward, he grabbed Matt by the arm, pulling him away from Linda. "Okay, Junior, we've still got work to do," he said, then turned to the others. "I need all the flashlights you've got."
Blair watched Jim disappear, oblivious of the silence around him. The kids were safe. Jim and Simon were safe…it was more than he'd dared hope for the past couple of days, however brave a front he'd kept up for the others. He turned to gaze into the hate-filled eyes of the terrorist leader. For a moment, in his fear, his grip flexed tightly on the rifle in his hands, which he held still trained on the terrorists to ensure none dared follow after his friends.
Ahmed flicked a hand, and suddenly all the rifles were pointing at him. "Drop your weapon or we'll shoot you where you stand," he commanded, coldly.
Blair hesitated a moment, preferring the idea of a quick death to a slow one, but he knew the shots would be heard by his friends on the trail below, and it would be a memory they'd never be able to bury. He was going to die…there was nothing now that could prevent that. What difference did it make 'how'?
Lowering his head, he couldn't bring himself to let his friends, Jim, hear him die. His throat was as dry as sand, but he loosened his fingers, and let the weapon fall to his feet.
It was a kind of relief to know he didn't have to kill anyone else.
Wordlessly, Ahmed dropped the duffel bag to the ground, and then strode up the stone steps. For a moment, he stood before Blair, then viciously backhanded him, knocking the wounded man to the ground. Turning, Ahmed ground out a guttural order and two of his men came to join him, grabbing Sandburg roughly and hauling him behind Ahmed who had strode on ahead into the temple. The capitalist pig had chosen to make his stand here, inside a pagan temple…well, fine, then he could die here as well.
The terrorist leader's eyes raked the interior, until he spotted a ceremonial wooden club, intricately carved with vines, birds, and animals. Stooping to pick it up, he then turned, and while his men held the American, he unleashed his fury and grief over the loss of his brother.
Blair grunted with the agony that burst through him as the club pounded on his chest, and then as it ploughed into his abdomen. Sagging in the grip of the men who held him, retching and gasping for breath, moaning with the grate of bone in his chest, he coughed sharply against the fluid that filled his throat and choked on the blood he could taste in his mouth.
Merciless, Ahmed stalked around behind him, lashing out at his injured leg, making Sandburg scream in pain. He then slammed the club against the American's back, once and then again, until Blair was only held upright by the grip of the other two men. At a nod from their leader, they let him fall, sprawling to the ground, barely conscious.
Glaring down at him, wild with rage, Ahmed kicked him in the ribs, then ordered his men to hold his arms out to the side…and then he stomped his heavy boots down on the hands that had held a weapon against him…that had pulled the trigger, killing his brother. If he'd had a saber, he would have cut the offending limbs off and burned them, taking pleasure in watching this miserable infidel bleed to death. Blair cried out at the agony of bones being shattered, the pain arcing in sharp shafts up his arms and into his burning chest, piercing the darkness that assailed him. Ahmed swung the club again, against his head this time, to silence him. Blair's head snapped to the side and then he went still.
Not yet satisfied with his revenge for he could hear from the rasping breath that his enemy still lived, the terrorist gazed with loathing around the heathen temple until he recognized the altar on the higher level. Gesturing to the others to bring Blair, he strode up the flight of steps, muttering prayers as he climbed. A heathen temple, an altar…what better place to end the life of the infidel?
They dumped the slack body across the altar, and then roughly hauled him around so that the American was lying sprawled and unconscious upon it. Ahmed pulled a vicious blade from his belt and stood over his victim. Gripping the hilt in both hands, he lifted the knife over his head, intending to plunge it into the American Jew's black heart.
But the sudden spray of gunfire and the screams of his men distracted him. His concentration broken, the light dim in this part of the temple, he was unaware as he plunged the knife down that he'd missed his target, knowing only that he'd driven his weapon deep into the American's body. Yanking the blade free, turning away as he shouted at his men, they raced down the steps and to the entrance, firing as they emerged into the light.
American soldiers had taken them by surprise, shooting from the path, and also from the rocky ruins of the landslide above the temple grounds. Furious, blind with rage at this betrayal, Ahmed ordered his men to fight back with all they had. Bullets whistled around the open area, men screamed as they were hit, racketing explosions of automatic weapons filled the air around them. The terrorists pulled grenades from their packs and heaved them at the soldiers. Explosions erupted, scattering debris and rocky shrapnel that rained on the camp.
One grenade fell short, landing on the porticoed roof over the entrance…and blew the face of the temple into a ruin of shattered rock, burying the entrance behind tons of rubble.
Matt, horrified to realize the terrorists hadn't let Blair go, wheeled to race along the path, Ellison behind him, and then through the thick growth to the hidden entrance no more than three hundred feet further away. They'd just entered the low, dark tunnel when the sound of weapons' fire echoed from above.
"The military has moved in," Jim grunted when Matt froze in shock at the sound. "How much longer until we get to the temple?" he demanded then, not wanting to think about what was going on above them, unwilling to accept that Blair was likely already dead.
"Only about fifteen minutes," Matt replied. "It was so filled with rocks and rubble, it took me most of the night to clear the passage, but it's really not that long. But…well, you'll see when we come to the end, there's a couple of places where we'll have to swim through areas that're now under water."
Jim cut Matt a quick look at that, realizing the courage the young man had demonstrated to have even found this back entrance, and to have stayed with it despite all the obstacles until he'd found the way out. And then they were moving as quickly as they could along the hewn-rock, dark corridor, light from their flashlights dancing ahead to pierce the gloom. They felt the slight tremors in the earth, echoes of the explosions above. Silt drifted down from the ceiling, but the grenades didn't pack enough power to put the ancient passageway at risk.
The tunnel climbed steeply, and they scrambled up the ancient steps carved from stone, until they came to a jog downwards, that ended in the glitter of water. "This is a short bit," Matt murmured, moving forward to lead the way. I think it led to storage areas under the temple before heading back up again."
He slipped into the water, took a deep breath and disappeared from sight, Ellison right behind him. Once again as he followed the young man, keeping him in the light of his torch, Jim found himself impressed that the kid had not been defeated by the challenges this tunnel had presented. He'd been alone, in the darkness deep beneath the earth, with no guarantee that the tunnel would actually go all the way to the outside…but he hadn't given up.
It was another jog up rough steps and then along a dank corridor until Jim could smell more water ahead.
As he paused at the edge of the pool, Matt pointed out and down. "This one is trickier," he reported. "We have to make our way through a winding tunnel and out to the pool on the other side, and then swim up until we hit the surface. It's quite a distance…I wasn't sure I was going to make it when I followed it through the first time," he warned.
Nodding, Ellison followed him under the surface after first having filled his lungs with air. It was a spooky, eerie experience to swim along the narrow tunnel, and his lungs ached by the time they finally broke the surface into the complete darkness of the other side.
"Sandburg!" Jim yelled, scrambling up the steps behind Matt, who was already playing his light around the interior. When the entrance had been sealed by the explosive rock fall, the temple had been plunged into absolute blackness. There was no answer, and Jim was terrified that Blair was somewhere out there, out in the middle of the raging battle. He stilled and listened with all of his concentration, blocking out the sound of automatic weapons and explosions, seeking that one, precious, irreplaceable sound…and found it.
There were so many nooks and crannies, so many places to search, that Matt was almost overwhelmed by the task…he knew Blair had to be hurt, because he hadn't answered when Ellison had called out.
Truthfully, Matt was terrified that Blair was already dead.
But, to his surprise, the man behind him seemed to know exactly where to go, moving unerringly up the steps to the middle level and then on up, again, to the ceremonial altar. Matt gasped when the light of Jim's flashlight picked out the still form of his former teacher.
Jim had been guided by the slow thump of his partner's heartbeat, achingly relieved to have found Sandburg was still alive, frightened by the irregular beat and the smell of blood. By the time Matt had made it up the steps, Ellison was leaning over his friend, checking out his injuries.
Blair moaned and trembled under his touch, trying to fight his way back to consciousness.
"Easy, Chief," Jim murmured, as he laid a hand upon Blair's forehead. "You with me?"
"Jim?" Blair whispered, breathily, faintly.
"I'm here, Chief…I'm going to get you out of here," Jim replied, as he continued checking out his best friend, cursing unconsciously with bitter fury as he found each injury and wound. Sandburg was in bad shape. The head wound looked nasty, worse, Jim was pretty sure there was a compressed fracture. Blood was streaming from the wound in his upper chest and several ribs were badly cracked if not broken. Blair's skin was hot and dry to his touch, no doubt as a result of the festering bullet wound in his leg. They had to get him out of here quickly. "Hang on, buddy…I'm just going to check the entrance and see how much work it'll take to clear it."
Motioning silently to Matt to wait with Blair, Jim raced back down the steps. Moving more cautiously across the stone-flagged floor, he played his light over the temple structure, assessing its stability, and then he examined the destruction of the entrance. Listening, he could still hear the shooting and the faint tremble of grenades exploding. There was no telling how long the battle would rage…and then it would take time, too much precious time, to clear out the ton of rubble that separated them from safety. They'd have to airlift in the heavy equipment needed for such a task, and then they'd have to proceed slowly for fear of making the rest of the now unstable structure collapse.
Shaking his head, knowing Sandburg didn't have that kind of time, Ellison headed back up to the altar as he thought about the difficulties and dangers of transporting his friend back through the water and the narrow, shallow tunnels.
"Sandburg," he murmured quietly as he laid a hand on his friend's shoulder, "Did they hurt your back?"
"Hit me pretty hard," Blair whispered, biting his lip as he fought the pain that pulsed through his body.
Grimly, Ellison shook his head as he gently checked out his partner's neck. "Can you feel your arms and legs?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah, man," Blair replied, almost chuckling hysterically with the irony of the question. He could most definitely feel the pain that surged through him. "I can feel them," he gasped.
Ellison winced at the soft, restrained sound of pain. Much as he hated to move his partner without a better sense of his injuries, Jim knew there was really no option. Blair's breathing was raspy, blood was bubbling on his lips and his heart was pounding like an express train. He was losing blood too fast and it was only too clear Blair was going into shock. There was nothing they could do for him here. Jim knew the best they could do for him was to get him to help as quickly as possible… and pray every step of the way that they could get him to that help before it was too late. Pushing his own horror at what had been done to Sandburg aside, Ellison concentrated on the actions that were required immediately.
"Blair," he said quietly, "you need to stay with me, buddy…we're going out the back way, but you'll have to hold your breath while we're under the water. Can you do that?"
"Water?" Blair repeated, confused.
"Yeah, Matt found another way out," Jim explained, wishing he had something to stop the bleeding oozing from Blair's upper, left chest.
"Matt?" Blair exclaimed, then coughed. Catching his breath, his eyes darting in the darkness, he demanded, with a flare of desperate, poignant hope, "Alive?"
"Yeah, Blair…I'm okay," the grad student assured him.
"Thank…God," Sandburg whispered, weakly. "Thought I'd…lost you."
Matt moved around to Blair's side, and took one of his hands, intending to reassure him. But, Sandburg cried out at the pain and Matt felt his stomach go queasy at the feel of the swollen and badly damaged hand. "Oh, my God, his hands…" he muttered. "Oh, Jesus, Blair, I'm sorry…" he gasped, hurriedly releasing his grip, sick at having caused Sandburg more pain.
Jim started at the cry of anguish and Matt's shocked murmur. He had only checked Sandburg's head, neck and torso, and the obvious wound in his leg. Now, as he looked at his partner's hands, his lips thinned and he had to swallow hard against the bile that rose in his throat, wondering just how bad the damage was and if Blair would ever have the full use of his hands again.
Blair had gotten himself back under control, whispering to Matt, "S'okay…"
"Time for reunions later, Chief," Jim cut in, his voice gentle though his sense of urgency was overwhelming. "We need to get you out of here. I'm going to have to move you, Blair…it's going to hurt…"
"M'okay," Sandburg mumbled, determined to make this as easy as possible for Jim. He'd felt the tremble of his Sentinel's fingers…heard the fear and anger in Jim's voice as he'd checked out the wounds. He bit his lip to keep from crying out as Ellison lifted him as gently as he could, and turned to follow Matt down the two flights of stairs to the water. Though Blair tried to contain the agony of being moved, a low, anguished whimper escaped his throat and he shuddered from pain in his Sentinel's arms.
That tiny whimper was worse than if he'd screamed out, revealing as it did how desperately he was hurting, beyond anything any man could bear in silence. Ellison winced as his heart clenched in aching empathy, his own breath tight in his chest as he thought about the journey ahead of them. How was he going to get Blair through the water? The kid could hardly breathe, let alone hold his breath as long as would be necessary.
"Sandburg," he called quietly, realizing Blair was only semi-conscious. They'd reached the edge of the water.
Blearily, wincing in agony, his breath coming in short, shallow pants, Blair tried to focus on Jim's face, but it was so dark, he couldn't see anything. "Yeah," he murmured, to signal he was alert…or at least not completely unconscious.
"Chief, we have to swim underwater for about three minutes," Jim explained softly. "I need you to hold your breath…"
"Oh, God, Jim," Blair sighed, closing his eyes. "Hurt…can't swim…"
"I know, I'll do the work for both of us," Ellison assured him. "But, I need you to hold your breath…"
Blair tried to take a deep breath and only ended up coughing harshly, blood tingeing his lips as he panted for air. Jim held him closely, scowling with fear.
Finally, Sandburg caught his breath again. His voice only a wisp, he reported, "Can't…take a deep breath, Jim, but…I just won't…breathe…okay?"
Fear was a tight, cold ball in the Sentinel's gut. Three minutes or more was too long for the kid not to breathe, not when he was hardly bringing in any air at all as it was. This wasn't going to work…but he could still hear the battle raging beyond the crumbled walls of stone. Nor could they wait until it was over. The repeated explosions of grenades on or near the temple were having their impact on the ancient edifice and Jim could hear the cracking in the ceiling and along several of the pillars. The ceiling could come down on them at any moment.
Matt looked from the water to the other two men, swallowing in anxiety. Blair was hurt really badly. The light of the torch in his hand revealed that besides the wounds in Sandburg's leg and shoulder, blood was caked along the side of his head and his crushed hands were bruised and swelling. His breathing sounded terrible, all raspy and choky, uneven and shallow. There was no way Blair would be able to hold his breath that long. Frowning, Matt bit his lip, and then offered uncertainly, "Do you think we could help him breathe under water?"
"What?" Jim demanded, the young man's voice drawing him out of his dark study of Sandburg's too pale, bruised face.
"Breathe for him…you know, about a third of the way, I could give him the air I have left in my lungs, and then halfway from there to the passageway, you could do the same," Matt suggested. "I used to do a lot of diving, and I know I can make it that long without taking another breath…can you?"
Thinking about it, picturing how it could be done, Jim nodded. It just might work…and as he heard a grinding of stone above him, he knew they had no choice but to try. Walking down the steps into the water, he ignored the cold, but flinched when Blair gasped against it as the water chilled his fevered skin.
"Sorry, Chief," Ellison murmured, as he kept walking lower, allowing Sandburg to float so that he could grip his friend around the neck and pull him through the water. Blair shuddered, his teeth chattering against the frigid water that seemed to cut to his bones. "Listen to me, Blair," Jim said, speaking clearly as he leaned close to his partner's ear, "I need you to hold your breath for a minute…just a minute, okay? And then, while we're still under water, Matt is going to breathe into your mouth while I hold your nose closed. And, then you hold your breath again, as long as you can until I give you more air. Do you understand?"
Blair's eyes had flown open as Jim spoke, fear and pain mingled together as he blew out small puffs of air. "I…I'll try…" he panted.
"You'll be fine," Jim reassured him, though he was desperately afraid. "I'm going to swim on the surface as close to the entrance to the tunnel as I can, to make it as short a time as I can for you." Ellison eased into the water, Matt beside him as they swam toward the wall. Once there, Jim told Matt to go first, directed Blair to take a breath and hold it, and then with a gulp of his own, they were under the water. Matt and Jim kicked as fast as possible into and along the dark tunnel illuminated only by the light in Matt's hand.
Blair tried counting in his head, but kept losing his place whenever a jolt of pain sent fiery agony through his body. He didn't think he was going to make it, his lungs desperate for air, aching, then feeling as if they would burst…he remembered what it had felt like to drown, and he was fighting the instinct to panic, to fight for air. Just when he thought he couldn't last any longer, he felt Jim pinch his nose and lips pressed down over his mouth. Desperate, he opened his lips and felt a rush of warm air blown into his body, slowly so as not to cause a fit of coughing. Someone touched his chin and he knew to close his mouth, again holding his breath, fighting the tickle in the back of his throat, the one that urged him to cough.
It was so dark. If only he could see something…if only he didn't feel so beaten and helpless, so tired and so full of pain. It all blurred in his consciousness, an unending torment of impending death, a desperate gamble for survival. He felt Jim's secure grip on him, and tried to relax with it, telling himself that Jim had him, that everything would be fine…but his lungs screamed for air and he knew he couldn't…and again his nostrils were pinched and lips covered his giving him warm, sweet air, blessed air.
It took all Matt and Jim had to continue the rest of the distance without air in their own lungs, and both were beginning to see spots spangling the dimly lit water before them, until finally, they were able to break the surface, gasping for breath. When Blair also dragged in as much air as he could, heaving with the need of it, he gagged and choked on the blood that had gathered in his throat, having to spit it out.
"Easy, Chief," Jim panted, holding onto him, letting him know he was safe even as he was making his way up and out of the water, Blair secure in his arms. They moved as quickly as they could along the dark corridor, half bent over in places where there was little clearance. When they went through the next, smaller pool, Jim again shared breath with his friend, keeping Blair going. As they climbed out, he said quietly, "We're done with the water hazards, Chief. In a few more minutes, we'll be out of here."
Relieved, Blair nodded weakly, incapable of speech. Now that he no longer had to force himself to remain conscious, he let the darkness descend around him like a cloak, muffling the pain until he couldn't feel it anymore.
Simon would have continued on with the other students, but they refused to go any further until they knew Sandburg had been brought out alive. Not that he pushed them hard…no one waiting in the thick undergrowth of the ancient rainforest wanted to know the outcome more badly than did Simon. The Captain of the Major Crimes Unit couldn't remember a half hour that had passed more slowly in his life. They could hear the battle raging above them, the sound of the explosions, and the echo of screams.
While they waited, Simon called in for helicopter emergency airlift, determined to hold onto his desperate hope that they'd get Sandburg out alive. But, he knew from what the kids had told him about Blair's leg wound that the anthropologist could never make it down the mountain under his own steam. He needed to be taken to the closest hospital as soon as possible…and that meant Papeete, across more than twenty miles of land and ocean.
The sounds of the battle diminished and finally stopped, allowing them to hear the thump of the approaching chopper. Once it was overhead, Simon told them to hold their position and lower a stretcher. Just as it was coming down in a narrow clear space about fifty yards away, Matt emerged from the tunnel, Jim right behind him.
Simon would have relieved Jim of his burden, but there was no way that Ellison was prepared to let Sandburg go. The kid was like a limp doll in his arms, barely breathing, blood bubbling on his lips. They were all filthy and soaking wet. Simon led Ellison toward the chopper and helped him secure Sandburg in the stretcher, belting the restraints tightly then giving the 'thumbs up' signal to lift the precious burden into the air. In less than two minutes, the emergency workers had pulled Blair on-board and the chopper tilted away, rushing between the mountains to Tahiti.
Jim stood, numb and unaware of the shudders rippling through his body, staring after the chopper until it was out of sight. He would have gone with Sandburg if the winch would have held their combined weight, but it wouldn't…and he wouldn't delay them further by lowering it again for him.
"Come on, Jim," Simon encouraged, taking his arm in a firm grip. "The sooner we're off this damned mountain, the faster you'll get to Papeete. I've arranged to have a plane stand by to take us all over to Tahiti."
Swallowing, incapable of speech, Ellison allowed Simon to pull him away. By the time they arrived at the parking lot below, there were police vehicles and what looked like hundreds of cameras and news people waiting for them.
Scowling at the media people who were shouting questions, Simon paused just long enough to call out, "We got the whole team out…no further comment!" The local police held the media reps back while the kids, Jim, and finally, Simon climbed into two police vans. Then, with sirens blaring, they were driven swiftly to the small airfield.
The kids were in shock. Exhausted by their ordeal, still very afraid for Blair, they huddled in the vans, arms around one another. Linda kept touching Matt, his face, his arms and chest, pushing his damp hair out of his brown eyes as she looked up at him, unable to believe she'd gotten him back. He gently brushed the tears from her face, then lifted his gaze, wordlessly, to emerald eyes glowing with the wonder of having him safe. He pulled her close, then, cherishing the warmth and life of her in his arms. "It's okay, love," he murmured, his voice thick with emotion, "it's okay. We're going home."
Jim stared out the window, willing the vehicle to go faster, his mind awash with memories of sharp sounds and images…blood, a hammering heartbeat, rasping shallow breaths…a too pale face and a limp, chilled body in his arms.
Simon watched his detective with deep concern, afraid Jim might be on the edge of a zone-out. "Talk to me, Jim," he urged softly, knowing that talking would keep his friend anchored in reality.
Blinking, swallowing hard, Ellison replied, his voice droning, low and harsh with fear, "It's bad, Simon. He's been shot and stabbed, was still bleeding when we brought him out…he lost too much blood, but there was no way to bind the wound. He'd been beaten, and his ribs…his head…I don't know how bad the injuries are, but some ribs were shattered. And…and his hands…looked crushed. Blair was…was conscious for a while, and in a lot of pain. We…we had to swim underwater, twice…almost lost him…he couldn't hold his breath long enough, so Matt and I…we shared air with him."
"Jesus," Simon whispered, unable to imagine what those dark moments must have been like. Jim's muscles were rigid under the hand he held gripped on Ellison's shoulder, and he could tell the detective was barely holding on to his control. "He's alive, Jim," Simon murmured, then, his voice reassuring. "You got him out."
Wordlessly, Ellison nodded, but all he could think about was how he'd sent Sandburg here without a second thought for his safety, teasing him even, about going to paradise. How he'd walked away, leaving Blair to their brutal beating. Finding his best friend in the dark temple, sprawled, broken and bleeding on that damned altar, a sacrifice to hate.
Though Simon continued to murmur reassurances, all he could hear were his own thoughts, condemning him for having failed to protect his Guide.
They were all taken from the airport in Papeete to the large, modern hospital that had only been opened six months before. By the time they arrived, Sandburg had already been taken to surgery. The kids were all checked out, as were Simon and Jim, much to their impatient disgust, and all were found to be fine except for the residual effects of shock and exhaustion.
Jim and Simon insisted on talking with the emergency doctor who had first treated Blair, to get as much information as they could.
Dr. Moreau, a Tahitian of Polynesian ancestry, was as supportive and encouraging as he could be, given the circumstances, as he briefed them on the details of Sandburg's condition. Running a hand over his head, he wondered where to start and decided to begin at the top and work his way down. "Your friend suffered a compressed skull fracture, and there may be internal bleeding; if so, they will deal with that in the OR. He had three crushed ribs and a perforated lung, but the bleeder was slow and we got him here before his lung collapsed. There's a gunshot burn along his right side and a stab wound in the left upper chest, which also penetrated the upper lobe of his lung, but missed the major blood vessels in the area…he was very lucky. His hands were both badly damaged, with numerous broken bones, but they can all be set and should mend. There was no evidence of nerve damage. There is severe bruising to his back, and the x-rays indicate compressed fractures of three lumbar discs. His leg is badly infected from a gunshot wound that looks a couple of days old, and he was suffering from a fever of 36 degrees Centigrade, but we've cleaned the wound and begun a wide-spectrum, powerful series of antibiotics. He was in shock when he arrived, his blood pressure low. But, we began a blood transfusion immediately, intubated him to assist his breathing and got him into surgery as quickly as we could."
Veteran cops, having heard too many lists of physical injuries, Jim and Simon silently took in the information, assessing it against their experience. "The skull fracture," Simon murmured, "how bad…"
"There's no way of predicting right now whether or not there will be any permanent effects," Moreau replied. "It will depend on how much pressure has been exerted on the brain, and how soon the edema dissipates."
"His spine…?" Jim asked then, his voice cracking. "Is there damage to his spinal cord?"
"Bruising, certainly," Moreau replied, keeping his voice even. "Again, it's too soon to know if there will be permanent injury. As he was unconscious, we could not determine if there was any loss of sensation. It's too bad he couldn't have been immobilized immediately, but I understand that wasn't possible."
Jim took those last words like a physical blow as he remembered how he'd had to manhandle Blair out of the temple. God…had he just hurt the kid more by moving him? He'd examined Blair's back as best he could in the circumstances, but was there something more he could have done? Wearily, he had to accept intellectually that he'd done the best he could, that he'd had no choice but to haul Sandburg out of there…but if Blair ended up paralyzed, he knew, deep inside, he'd always wonder if it was his fault.
"How long before we can see him?" Jim asked then, his voice tight with his effort to stay focused, to not fall away into a pit of despair.
Shaking his head as he glanced up at the clock on the wall, Moreau replied carefully, "Given the number and nature of injuries, even with two teams working on him at the same time…at least five or six hours, I would think. You do not need to wait here…you should both retire to the hotel, bathe and rest. Your friend doesn't need you to both collapse from worry and exhaustion."
"I don't want to…" Jim began, intent upon staying, but Simon took a firm grip on his arm.
"The doctor's right, Jim," Simon insisted. "You're still wet and filthy from the jungle and those ancient tunnels…c'mon, let's get you cleaned up or you'll scare Sandburg out of his wits when he does wake up."
Too long without sleep…how many days had it been? Emotionally devastated, the Sentinel had no reserves left. Numb, almost disoriented, he let Simon lead him from the hospital. All the way to the hotel, Simon kept a firm grip on a shoulder or an arm, kept talking and insisting on some response, if only a grunt of acknowledgment, to keep Jim from zoning on whatever thoughts or images were haunting him. Once he'd gotten them checked in, deciding it was best to share a room rather than to leave Ellison on his own, Simon insisted Jim take a hot shower. He wouldn't let Jim stay under the spray long, again afraid of his only dimly aware state of mind. He then forced Jim to lie down, pulling a blanket up over his shoulders, and sitting by him on the bed, one hand again anchored on the Sentinel's shoulder until he was certain Ellison had finally succumbed to exhaustion and drifted into sleep.
Five hours later, they were on their way back to the hospital. Jim was better for the rest, but it only added one more burden of guilt. He couldn't believe he'd let Simon take him from the hospital…couldn't believe he'd again abandoned his Guide without knowing that Sandburg had come out of surgery alive and as well as could be expected.
Couldn't believe he'd actually allowed himself to sleep without knowing beyond doubt that his Guide was going to be all right.
Sarah moved swiftly down the corridor and into her husband's room with the welcome news.
Eli looked up as she entered, his face pale and haggard. Ever since Jim Ellison had been in to bring them up to date, he and Sarah had badgered the Dan Moriarity for information and had kept tabs on the news. Since Eli was permitted neither a television or a radio in his room, he had to wait, impatient and deeply afraid, for Sarah to bring him the latest word on events thousands of miles away.
But, he relaxed this time when he saw the bright smile on her face, her eyes wet with tears of relief.
"They got them all out, Eli," she murmured, moving to hug him tightly. "They got them all out alive."
The detectives gathered around the television in the conference room greeted the news with jubilant shouts, pounding one another on their backs, uncaring of the tears of relief that slipped down their cheeks.
Oh, God, Joel prayed silently, his lips trembling with gratitude and relief, thank you.
Jim and Simon sat silently in the too bright corner of the Intensive Care Unit, both focused only on Sandburg and the sound of the machines around them. The heart monitor beeped and droned with erratic monotony, while the respirator pumped and swished air through the tube connected to the one that disappeared into Sandburg's mouth. Two chest tubes drained away bloody discharge, while a foley catheter drained into another bag hanging beneath the bed. Blood ran into one arm while a saline solution, occasionally traded for glucose, dripped into the other.
There was a thick bandage on the side of Sandburg's head, held in place by strips of linen wound around his forehead. More bandages covered his upper chest and leg, while casts immobilized both hands. A neck collar and harness attached to the top of the bed, matching the one around his hips that was anchored to the bottom of the bed, kept his body aligned and immobilized as well, allowing his spine to heal. The bed itself was a movable, orthopedic frame, which could be tipped to lie Sandburg on his face, resting against the restraints that held him securely against the mattress to allow pressure to be taken off his back at regular intervals without putting undo pressure on his chest. His face was a deathly white, the long lashes resting like smudges of dark soot against his bruised cheeks.
It had been two days, and except for very brief periods when they couldn't really tell how aware he was, Sandburg had been unconscious.
But he was alive…and, according to the doctors, he was getting better.
On the third day, Sandburg seemed more alert, which was good in some ways, but it was also clear that he was more conscious of the pain that ripped through his body. When he was conscious, he frequently blinked against tears of frustration at not being able to speak. His face was gaunt and weary from the effort of resisting the fiery spears of pain from, it seemed, almost everywhere in his body. But, his eyes didn't seem to connect, darting around the room, his gaze never resting in one place for long. Nevertheless, they could tell he was more alert, nodding or shaking his head, in response to questions. Jim could tell he was anxious, his heart rate spiking whenever he was fully conscious. Murmuring quietly, stroking his bandaged forehead or his cheek, gripping his forearm above the cast, Ellison tried his best to calm and reassure his friend. Blair would settle under his touch, but that heart rate belied his surface calm. Something was scaring the kid, scaring him badly.
Looking around at the machines and tubes, at the traction and casts, Ellison shook his head wearily, wondering which one, if not all, of these things was causing his partner the greatest distress.
Finally, they decided to try to let him breathe without assistance, and though the removal of the tube was an ordeal, he was vastly relieved to have his voice back, however raspy and faint it might be.
"Jim?" he whispered when Ellison and Simon were allowed back into the ICU, and Jim took his hand.
"Right here, Chief," Jim said quietly, frowning when Blair still didn't make eye contact with him.
"I can't move…all strapped in," Blair murmured, frowning, not understanding why he was so restrained.
"I know," Ellison replied while Simon listened, his face creased with empathy. "Your spine was damaged and the traction is helping keep the bones aligned while they heal."
Blair swallowed and closed his eyes, frowning as he tried to move his legs, trembling when he found he couldn't. "Jim!" he called out, his eyes flashing open, dark with fear. "I…my legs…"
"Settle down, Blair," Jim urged. "Just breathe…they think your spinal cord was just bruised…you can feel your legs, right?"
Nodding, wincing against the pain from the leg wound, Blair whispered, "Yeah…I can…"
"All right, good, so everything is probably going to be just fine," Jim reassured him, one hand moving to stroke his head.
Trembling, Blair nodded again, his eyes darting around the room. It didn't make sense. Every time he woke up, it seemed to be the middle of the night. They wouldn't have taken the tube out in the dark. Jim and Simon wouldn't be sitting here in the dark, would they?
He was afraid to ask, afraid to find out.
Hearing the heart trip over faster and faster, Jim gripped Blair's arm as he asked, "What is it, Chief… what's scaring you so much?"
Blair swallowed again, his eyes drifting to stare up at the ceiling. Blinking, he shifted his gaze in the direction of Jim's voice. His voice was soft, sounding lost and broken, as he finally admitted, "I…Jim, I can't see anything…."
Jim had thrown a frightened look at Simon, who whirled to stride to the nurses' station. The nurse at the desk immediately had the doctor paged and a few minutes later, after a quick eye examination, Blair was hustled out, back down to x-ray, his whole bed being wheeled from the ICU. Unwilling to be separated, Jim had strode alongside, keeping a grip on Blair's arm, keeping him grounded, helping him to hold the panic at bay. Simon followed them out as far as the visitor's lounge, and then sank into one of the chairs, his head in his hands as he fought off the urge to weep.
Two hours later, after a couple of consultations with other neurologists, Dr. Simoneau picked up the chart from the station and moved to join them in the corner slot where Blair's bed was again stationed.
"Dr. Sandburg," the physician began, his voice lilting a little with his French accent, "I'm the neurosurgeon who operated on you the other day."
"Yes?" Blair replied, his voice wispy and unsteady as his eyes shifted toward the voice. "What's happening? Why can't I see?"
Scratching his forehead absently, Dr. Simoneau shrugged unconsciously as he replied, "That's not immediately clear. There is still some slight swelling that may be causing sufficient pressure to be causing this effect. But…your eyes are reacting to light, so it's clear that whatever the problem is, your eyes, themselves, are fine."
"Does that mean this is just temporary?" Jim demanded, wanting answers.
Shaking his head, frowning in thought, Simoneau shifted his gaze to the tense man beside his patient. The staff all knew by this time that the three men were close friends as well as colleagues, but this man, James Ellison, was particularly focused on Dr. Sandburg's well-being, refusing to leave his friend's side for any length of time. "I'm sorry…I don't have enough information yet to be certain," he replied.
Simon could see that Jim was on the edge of an explosion and moved to intervene. "All right, then, when will you know…as you can understand, we're very worried…"
"Mais, oui, yes, of course," Simoneau nodded remembering to continue in English, biting his lip as he again turned to study Blair. "Another few days, perhaps…I wish I could be more specific…"
"So do I," rumbled the Sentinel.
Blair was silent, trying to take it in, trying to hold onto the idea that this wasn't a permanent thing, just a…a temporary setback or something.
But, he was scared…hell, he was petrified.
Two days later, when the doctor still didn't have any more definite opinions, Jim lost patience. It wasn't that he thought they weren't doing their best, but this was a small island hospital. They didn't have the equipment or experience that was available back in the U.S. Simon agreed, and with the concurrence of the medical staff, arrangements were made with the military to fly Blair back to Cascade.
They sedated Blair for the trip, so he was unconscious most of the way, dazed and confused when he was awake. Once he arrived in Cascade General, another barrage of tests were undertaken. CAT scans and MRIs, on his head and spine, neurological examinations, blood tests and more tests.
The results weren't any clearer.
He could feel his lower body and legs, but he couldn't seem to move them.
And his world was still dark.
The doctors prescribed physiotherapy to keep his muscles from atrophying, and rest. They were hopeful that he might recover, given time.
Blair felt as if he was trapped in a nightmare. He couldn't move, couldn't use his hands, which were still encased in plaster. He couldn't see…and he had no idea how long this was going to go on, or if it was going to be forever.
His only solace came from knowing that the students had all gotten home safe, even Matt, who'd he'd believed dead.
But, though the students, and Eli and Sarah, and Dan Moriarity, William and Stephen Ellison, and all the guys at MCU, wanted to see him, he couldn't bear the thought of anyone seeing him like this…so helpless. God, what was he going to do if he never got any better? He forbade Jim to even think of telling his mother what was going on. God, he could not face her grief or worry for him. She knew that they'd gotten him, that he was alive. That was good enough, at least for now.
At first, he tried to pretend he was all right, that everything was going to be fine, that there was nothing to worry about, not really…it would just take more time. But, as the days dragged on, he sank deeper and deeper into depression, unable even to be angry…all the terrorists were dead, killed by the Special Ops soldiers…those that he hadn't already killed himself. But, he shied away from those thoughts, unable to deal with them; unable to bear the guilt however much he told himself he'd had no choice. And, even if he would allow himself to be angry, and shouted at the injustice and unfairness of it all, it wouldn't help anything, would it? So, life wasn't fair. Surprise, surprise. But it would hurt other people, create a scene, be embarrassing…and it was all too horrible enough, as it was.
So he lapsed into bitter silence, locked in the dark, silent prison of his body.
As the days went by, he came to believe that it would get no better, that he would get no better.
And he began to wish he'd died in that temple…better to be dead than trapped in a useless body, a burden to everyone around him.
Jim couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand seeing Sandburg like that. Couldn't stand thinking about the idea that he might not get better.
Couldn't stand the silence.
Much as Jim tried, Blair just wouldn't talk to him…or to anyone else. Not anymore than he had to, to maintain a bare civility.
This wasn't working. Much as everyone in the hospital was trying, giving the best, most supportive care they could, it wasn't working. None of the tests showed anything. Nothing could be found to explain why he couldn't walk, or see…and Sandburg was fast getting lost somewhere inside the darkness of his mind.
Finally, after nearly three weeks, Ellison spoke to the doctors himself and then to the physiotherapists. After that, he made a few calls and got things set up. Once everything was ready the next day, he returned to the hospital to tell Blair.
"Hey, Chief," he called softly as he moved toward the bed.
Blair's eyes skittered toward the sound of his voice, then away. After a moment, he nodded as he acknowledged his partner's presence. "Jim," he said, brief and to the point.
Ellison frowned, then reached out to touch Sandburg's arm, frustrated when Blair once again seemed to withdraw further, not quite pulling away exactly, but not welcoming his touch, either. "You're well enough to come home, Chief, and they need the bed," he said quietly.
Startled, Blair turned his head to face him as he exclaimed, "What? Go home? Like this? Get real, man. I can't move…can't see…can't even feed myself."
"Maybe so, Junior, but your injuries have healed well enough for me to spring you loose, so…so I'm taking you home," Jim replied, trying to keep his voice steady and calm, trying, in fact, to sound happy about it… because he would be, if only Blair could be happy about it, too.
Blair blew out a sigh and shook his head, turning his face away as he muttered, "Jim…I know you mean well. But…you've got a job, man…responsibilities. You don't need this…"
Swallowing, Jim felt his eyes burn at the hopeless, empty tone in Blair's voice. Responsibilities? What responsibilities even came close to taking care of his best friend? "Sandburg," he said quietly, steadily, "I want you at home. I…I miss having you there and the doctors say there's no reason I can't take care of you as well as the staff here can." Turning as he heard the nurse arrive with the wheelchair, he nodded, then returned his attention to Blair. There was no point in dressing Sandburg…it would only be awkward and make him more uncomfortable than he already was. "We're going now, Chief…everything's arranged."
For the first time, Blair felt a surge of pure rage. He went white with it, trembling as he fought for control. He was being shifted around like a sack of potatoes, with no say about what was done with him, to him. The very thought of what Jim was proposing sickened him with the implications of all that it meant. He hated being in the hospital, but he hated more the idea of Jim tending to all his needs. For a furious, wretched moment, he hated everything…life, his useless body…everything.
Finally, forcing himself to breathe evenly, he grated, "Don't I get a vote?"
"No, Junior, you don't," Jim said as he leaned forward to gather Blair into his arms and gently deposit him in the chair. "I know you hate this, buddy," he said quietly as he squatted down to almost whisper in Blair's ear. "But…we'll figure it out, we'll deal with it…give us a chance."
"Right," Sandburg blew out bitterly, turning his head away.
Jim sighed, then straightened. He wrapped one of the soft, warm blankets he'd brought with him around Blair's shoulders and folded the other over his knees. Then he motioned to the nurse that they were ready to go.
As the elevators swished closed, Jim barely caught Sandburg's muted whisper of despair. "This is such a huge mistake…"
In response, he gripped Blair's shoulder firmly and squeezed reassuringly.
But, inside, he was quaking. He had to do this, knew he had to care for his friend, his Guide. Being on the fringes when Blair needed care so badly was killing him. However, he had some sense of how hard this was on the kid, and he was terrified that Blair was right…that this was a mistake.
Blair said nothing more, not in the truck, nor in the loft when Jim asked if him if he wanted to sit up on the couch, or lie down in his room. Just shrugged, like it mattered not to him where he was put down.
Sighing, Jim took Blair to the couch, deciding his friend had been lying around long enough in a bed. After ensuring Sandburg was as comfortable as he could make him, he moved to the bookcase and flipped on some music, then into the kitchen to boil water for tea. While the water was heating, he pulled a couple of candles from the cupboard, one scented with vanilla, the other with cinnamon and, carrying them to the coffee table, he fitted them into holders and lit them. Moving back into the kitchen, he poured the boiling water over Sandburg's favourite mint tea.
All the while, Blair sat on the couch, staring stonily ahead, a lump the size of the Rock of Gibraltar in his throat, his chest so tight he could hardly breathe. Jim was trying so hard to make him feel comfortable, to make him feel at home…but it was useless. He was useless.
Jim sat down beside Sandburg, and wafted the mug under his nose as he asked, "Feel like some tea, Chief?"
Blair was fighting so hard for control that he was trembling. He shook his head and turned his face away.
Jim sighed as he sipped a little of the tea himself then set the mug on a coaster on the table. Stretching out his legs, crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back on the sofa, his neck supported by the thick cushioned ridge along the back, wondering how long the silent treatment was going to last. Closing his eyes, he listened to Blair's thumping heart and the sound of his rapid breathing…and he waited.
He waited a long time.
Turned out, Sandburg really could remain silent for longer than anyone would have dreamed possible.
The long minutes ticked into an hour, and then another.
But his heartbeat had slowed to a more natural rhythm and he was breathing easier, so Ellison relaxed marginally.
"Why?" Blair finally asked, his voice hoarse and low.
"Why what, Chief?" Jim answered without shifting his position.
"Why are you doing this?" Sandburg muttered.
"I'm not doing anything right now, Chief," Ellison replied, keeping his voice level.
Blair blew out a frustrated sigh as he lapsed back into silence. But, after a while, his heart rate picked up again, and when he sniffed, Jim opened his eyes to look at his friend…saddened beyond words to see the tear on Sandburg's cheek.
Straightening, he reached out to gently wipe it away, not sure whether to be pleased or not when Blair didn't flinch from his touch. "What is it, Blair…what's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Sandburg exclaimed, his voice rising on the word, too close to hysteria for comfort. "What could possibly be wrong?" he demanded, lifting his plaster-encased hands. "I can't see. I can't walk. I am just about bursting with the need to piss and I can't even do that for myself!" he shouted, his voice cracking. "God…this is SO humiliating!"
Jim laid a hand lightly on his friend's shoulder as he stood up. "Just hold on a minute, Chief," he murmured. "I'll be right back." Moving to the bathroom, he swept up the metal receptacle, warming it with hot water, then drying it as he returned to the living room. Squatting down beside Blair, he again laid a hand on his friend's shoulder as he said quietly, "I have what you need right here and I'm going to help you. You know that I was a medic, Chief…this is nothing new for me. There's no need for you to be embarrassed."
Blair rolled his eyes and raised his arms again in a helpless gesture, too much in need to refuse the help; too sick with embarrassment to do more than nod his head with despair. He felt Jim lift the blanket away, and then push the bottom of his gown aside. Trembling, trying hard not to flinch as he felt Jim touch him, and slip the urinal into place, he turned his face away, helpless to stop the tears that flowed down his face. "Oh, man," he moaned.
Once he was finished, Ellison matter-of-factly cleaned him up and moved away to the bathroom.
As he struggled with his feelings of despair over his abject helplessness, and his aversion to such a degree of dependency, Blair could hear the toilet flush and the running water as Jim washed his hands. Could hear Jim come back to squat in front of him…could feel Jim's hand gently turn his head back so that Ellison could see his face, could feel fingers wiping away the wet tracks on his face and then bringing a tissue to his nose. Like a child, he blew, disgusted with his helplessness, embarrassed beyond words, angry and aching with despair.
"That was disgusting, man," he muttered, his face crimson with humiliation.
"That was just a human act," Jim replied, his voice steady. "Urinating is a natural function, Chief."
Swallowing, Blair shook his head, again turning his face away, his voice bitter and sarcastic as he asked, "You going to wipe my ass for me, too?"
"Uh huh," Ellison replied calmly, knowing they had to get through this, that Blair had to learn to accept his help.
"Jesus, Jim," Sandburg groaned, fighting his emotions, wanting to scream. "I hate this," he ground out.
"I know," Jim replied quietly. "You're one of the most independent men I know…this has to be hell on earth for you."
"Why…why are you doing this?" Sandburg cried out.
Jim hung his head, trying to sort out his own emotions and needs. Finally, he replied, his voice gentle, "Because you weren't getting any better in that damned hospital…you were drifting farther and farther away and I couldn't stand it anymore, Chief. I know this is…devastating for you. All of it. The helplessness, the blindness…not knowing if it's temporary or…or forever. But, I couldn't just watch you fade out on me. I…I wanted you here, where I can take care of you."
"Oh, Jim," Blair breathed out, hearing the need in his Sentinel's voice…the need to protect, the need to safe-guard.
But, what about his own needs? For privacy and dignity? How could he bear to be such a burden?
If this was it…if this was the way it would always be…how could he bear to live?
Jim was the soul of kindness and tact, ministering to his partner with a gentleness, a tenderness, that few who knew him would have believed. Each morning, he bathed Sandburg, settling him carefully in the tub, believing this was better for his friend, healthier than the pitiful bed baths they'd been giving him in the hospital. He washed Blair's hair and dried it, carefully pulling a comb through the knots.
"Maybe you should cut it off," Sandburg muttered the first day. "It'd be easier for you to take care of it."
"I'm used to the curls, Chief," Ellison replied. "They suit you."
Patiently, he fed Blair, having taken care to prepare meals Sandburg would like, that would tempt his recalcitrant appetite. "You have to eat," he said, eminently reasonable.
So, Sandburg ate.
For hours, Ellison exercised Blair's legs, keeping the muscles from atrophying, and massaged Blair's back and shoulders to ease his tension.
Jim burned candles, and played music that he knew his friend liked. Listening to music was less stressful to a man who couldn't see than trying to figure out what was going on in the visual medium of television.
And Sandburg endured, trying hard to accept the help, trying to contain his embarrassment and humiliation, but it built each day until he thought he might explode.
Finally, after three days of bottling up his emotions, Blair knew he couldn't keep accepting all this from Jim. It was disgusting and depressing. Jim had a life, a job…and it wasn't playing nursemaid to one Blair Sandburg. It finally came to a head while he sat on the couch and Jim sat across from him, reading the newspaper out loud for his benefit. "Enough, Jim," he cut across his friend's voice. "Enough."
"Had enough bad news for the day?" Jim replied agreeably, as he folded up the paper. "Okay…want to go for a ride, maybe do some shopping?"
Blair rolled his eyes. This guy just wouldn't quit. First he drags him out of the hospital and now he wants to take him out in public? "I want you to take me back to the hospital," he stated, his voice flat.
Maybe he couldn't see Jim's jaw tighten, but he could hear teeth grinding and he could hear Jim swallow before he asked, his voice unnaturally calm. "Why?"
It had been taking all that he had to see Sandburg so lifeless, so distant and brittle, for so long. Jim could be cold and distant, but he wasn't an insensitive man. He knew how hideous it was for Sandburg, a man who'd taken care of himself since he was sixteen years old, if not in many fundamental ways for the whole of his life, to be so abjectly dependent upon another person. But, Jim was equally certain that there was something else also going on here…something that was literally destroying Blair's soul, eating away at him. As someone who had endured, and sometimes still had to deal with the residual effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, Ellison knew Sandburg needed to talk about what had happened to him.
However, Blair had steadfastly refused to engage in any discussion about Moorea…hell, he would hardly talk about anything at all these days. Jim hadn't wanted to push it, afraid that Sandburg wasn't ready, that he might hurt Blair by forcing him to face the memories. But, being kind, being gentle and thoughtful, patient and simply accepting wasn't working. If anything, they were further apart now than they'd ever been.
And Jim couldn't stand it anymore.
"Because you've got better things to do than sit around here all day taking care of me," Blair said, his own voice tight.
"No, I don't, actually," Jim replied, swallowing, his voice tight with control as he debated whether to push this further or not.
"C'mon, man, you've got a job…a job that needs to be done," Blair insisted.
"I've got lots of leave, Chief…and a healthy bank balance to live on when the leave runs out," Jim answered, still striving for a calm, reasonable tone. "I'm not going to leave you with strangers."
Frustrated, Sandburg began to pound his cast against the arm of the couch, not hard enough to hurt himself, knowing Jim would only stop him, but enough to let his irritation show. "Jim," he said, trying to be reasonable, "you didn't make a vow of 'sickness and health' here…you don't owe me this."
"'This' isn't about owing anybody anything, Sandburg," Jim said with a sigh.
"No…then what is it about?" Blair asked, shaking his head.
"Friendship, maybe," Ellison replied quietly. "Or maybe it's just that…I can't not know you're okay."
"I'm not 'okay', Jim," Sandburg replied, his voice low. "I'm a long way from 'okay'."
"Yeah? Well, you're not dead, yet, either, Junior…maybe it's time you stopped acting like you wished you were," Jim almost snapped back, wondering if he was going too far…but Blair was right, he was 'a long way from okay' and it hurt so much to see him like this.
Blair's head flashed toward him at that, then twisted away as he bit his lip. "Would you want to live like this?" he muttered, weary of it all.
"Self-pity isn't your style, Chief…" Jim shot back, his tone straight and uncompromising. Swallowing, he made his decision. This was the time and place to confront the pain…the alternative, dancing around the real issues, was just too damned painful for both of them, and Blair was never going to get better until he faced his demons. "Why can't you see, Blair? Why can't you walk?" he asked then, softly, taking a breath to steel himself for the conversation that was long overdue.
"What?" Blair demanded, shaken by the question. "You think I know the answers?"
"I've spoken to the doctors, Sandburg, so have you. There's no physical reason for either problem," Jim said. "None that they can find, anyway. So…maybe it's not physical, Chief."
Sandburg's mouth dropped open and he shook his head. "You think I want to be like this?" he demanded, unwilling to accept that Jim actually believed that. Suddenly, he felt rage as he stammered, "You son of a…"
Jim rose from his chair to stride back and forth across the floor, hoping he was doing the right thing. But, Sandburg was physically all right…oh, he still had the casts, but they'd be coming off in another week or so. The other wounds were healing well. Yes, he'd had a bad blow to the head…but not anywhere that should have affected his sight. And, yes, his back had been injured, but he could feel, and his reflexes were sound, so the nerves seemed all right. There was something else going on, and it was beyond time to find out what.
And, though he was no psychiatrist, Ellison thought he had a few ideas about what the problems might be. "What did you see out there, Chief, that you can't bear to see again? What did you do, that you won't let yourself walk in case you ever walk into something like that again? Tell me! What?" he demanded, his voice hard, almost taunting.
Sandburg was rigid with fury, choked by rage. Trembling, he shouted back, "Leave me alone, dammit! I can't…dammit, I can't even walk away from you! I don't want to…."
"To what, Chief? Face the truth? Because it hurts too much?" Jim pushed, relentless.
"What is it with you? Do you get off torturing helpless cripples?" Blair lashed out, beside himself with anger, unable to deal with this.
"You're not helpless and you're not a 'cripple', Sandburg," Jim snapped back. "Even if you never walk or see again, you have a brilliant mind, you can talk and soon you'll have the use of your hands back. Don't give me that 'helpless' crap."
"Oh, man, you're too much," Blair hissed, his eyes flashing, his arms waving with the need to express his emotion. "You have all the answers…okay, fine, you tell me, why can't I see? Why can't I walk?"
"Maybe because the last time you could see, you killed seven men," Jim told him, his voice quiet, even compassionate, but brutally direct. "Maybe, because the last time you could walk, you led ten kids into a place where they were almost all killed and you were afraid you couldn't save them."
Blair went absolutely still, his face pale and his eyes grew wide with horror. He began to tremble, then shudder with emotion…emotion he'd denied and held locked too deep, refusing to confront, unable to bear the pain of it. Tears glistened in his eyes, and he grimaced with grief, his voice cracking huskily as he confronted the shattering truth. "Damn you, Jim…" he whispered, wrapping his arms around himself, doubling over in anguish.
Unable to bear it, Ellison moved quickly to kneel before him, to take him into his arms and offer what comfort he could, but Blair twisted away, striking out at him, as he ground out, "No! Don't touch me! God, how can you even bear to look at me!"
"What?" Jim demanded. "What the hell are you talking about? What do you think I see when I look at you?"
Shaking his head, panting for breath, Blair gritted his teeth, his eyes pressed closed. "What do you see?" he whispered in abject despair. "How about a guy you have to wash and feed, who can't do anything for himself, because he's too much a coward to face what he's done? God, I can't even look at myself…"
His voice broke and tears leaked from beneath his lashes, despite his every effort to hold them back. "I killed them, without even thinking!" he moaned, his voice a mere whisper of anguish. "I laid there, day after day, ready to kill again, and again. But I knew the whole time…I knew…I…I couldn't save them. Jim…Matt could have died because I sent him off to find another way out," he choked out, filled with the horror and pain of having killed seven men, the grief and despair of being trapped and helpless. All the fear that he'd held inside, all the guilt that had been eating at him, day after day, for weeks now…that he hadn't let out.
That somewhere deep inside he believed he deserved to suffer.
There were tears in the Sentinel's eyes as he reached for his friend, his Guide, and drew the resisting man toward him into an embrace that Sandburg couldn't evade or escape. "Ah, Blair," Jim murmured, his lips against Sandburg's curls. "It wasn't your fault…you did everything right, Chief…you saved those kids, you held them together…and you almost died to save their lives…for saving my life when that guy was going to kill me…."
At first, Blair tried to fight him, struggling in his grip. When he accepted he couldn't break loose, overwhelmed and overcome, he stilled, holding himself rigid in Jim's embrace, refusing to let go, refusing the comfort and the absolution. Jim listened to his pounding heart and ragged breathing, feeling his own heart break with the pain of it all. "What do I see, when I look at you?" he whispered, his voice low, intense. "I see the bravest man I've ever known, the most compassionate heart…the most beautiful soul. I see someone who scares me with his innocence and vulnerability and his unbelievable courage in facing the world unarmed with either cynicism or indifference. I see a man who takes the burdens of everyone around him on his own shoulders, and carries them lightly…a man who feels guilt for taking the lives of those who would kill him or the people he seeks to protect, who grieves for their worthless souls. I see my best friend, the man who brought me back to life, my partner who stands with me regardless of the danger or cost…and I see my Guide, who lights my world. That's what I see, Blair, when I look at you."
Ellison felt Blair shudder in his arms, still resisting, still trying so hard to hold it all in, to hold it together somehow, but it was too much. A sob broke past the lock he had on his throat, and then another, until the dam broke and it all poured out, all the poison that had been rotting his soul. "It was…was supposed…to be safe…" he rasped. "Paradise…the chance of a lifetime…to help Eli…to see something…something wondrous…and then…then…I was killing people…and we couldn't get away…Oh, God…I was so scared and…I didn't know how…how to save them…and when they said they were going to bomb the place, and I thought Matt was already dead…they were so brave, Jim…and I…I couldn't help them…and they tried to kill you, too…"
His voice broke again, and he couldn't get the words out anymore, just the terror and the horror of it all, shuddering with remembered helplessness and grief, as he wept in his Sentinel's arms.
"Let it out, Chief," Jim murmured, stroking his hair, his back. "Let it all out."
Ellison held him, lending a sure, uncompromising strength, holding him with infinite compassion, until the tidal wave of emotion swept by, leaving Blair limp and shivering in his arms. Cocking his head, Jim strained to hear the low voice, so soft that even he had to struggle to catch the words.
"I hate you seeing me like this…hate you having to…to do everything for me…like I'm a helpless infant…" Blair whispered, humiliated by his weakness of emotion and body.
"Easy, Sandburg," Jim replied almost as softly as he leaned back to look into Blair's face, his hands massaging his friend's shoulders. "You'd do the same for me, if I needed you…"
Swallowing, his head bowed, turning away when Jim brushed the wild mane of hair back, he shook his head, unwilling to accept the comparison. "Yeah, of course," he murmured. "But, that's different…"
Frowning, Jim cocked his head as he studied his best friend. "Different? Why…?" he asked, confused.
Sniffing, swiping at his nose with his sleeve, Blair shrugged, as he mumbled, "Just is…"
Jim looked away, trying to figure out why Sandburg would think it was so different. "You'll have to help me out here, Chief…I don't get the difference," he said finally, looking back at the man who was still cringing away from him with shame.
Swallowing, blinking back the tears that still pricked in his eyes, Blair shook his head, trying to find the words. His face flushed with embarrassment as he thought of everything Jim had to do for him. "Jim… you…God, I can't even go to the bathroom without your help, man. You can't tell me this is something you want to do. You're a cop, not a nurse…you…I hate making you do that for me. I can't believe that you do it at all, knowing that you think this is all my own fault. God, you must despise me. You'd never…never break down like this, man…you're too strong. It's got to be disgusting…"
"You think taking care of you is disgusting?" Ellison clarified, shaking his head.
"I can't believe you really want to do this, man," Sandburg replied, his voice tight, distant. "I mean…why would you? I don't understand, Jim…why are you bothering…"
"Hold it right there, Junior," Jim snapped. "First, this is not 'your fault'. You were terrorized by men who threatened your life and the lives of others, who forced you to defend the people you were responsible for and who then damned near murdered you for having had the courage to face them down. Second, where do you get off with this 'disgusting' bit…or the idea that caring for you, about you, is some kind of 'bother'? How could I possibly despise you for anything? Why do you believe that I'm not capable of doing for you, as wholeheartedly as you would, what you would do for me in a heartbeat?"
When Blair just shook his head helplessly, unable to answer, not knowing the answer, Jim suddenly understood, suddenly saw it all so clearly, and he could have wept for it. "That's it," he murmured, his hands gently squeezing Sandburg's shoulders. "That's it…you don't get it, you really don't."
"What?" Sandburg asked, frowning, not understanding.
"I can't blame you, I guess…God knows, you'd have reason enough to doubt…" Ellison mused, turning his head away as he stared into space, thinking about his sudden insight, murmuring his thoughts aloud. "All your life, you've taken care of other people, made excuses for them, even when they've hurt you. Your mother, Eli, kids at school, the people who accept the crap that you're some kind of fraud, me…you could probably find a way to explain away the motivations of those damned terrorists. Because you don't judge other people and you love unconditionally…you don't know how else to be. But…damn it…you don't really believe anyone else could love you the same way, that I could love you the same way, do you? I guess that shouldn't be a surprise… it's not like I've given you a whole lot of reasons to trust me that much…"
"Jim…that's not true," Blair protested. "You've saved my life too many times for me to count. You've given me a home…"
"Yeah, and I've thrown you out of it," Ellison said bitterly, shaking his head in self-disgust. "Sure…I'm your 'Blessed Protector', right? The big, brave Sentinel who can face down the bad guys…that's how you see me, isn't it? You can count on me if there's a monster out there, maybe, most of the time…but you can't really count on me to be here, for you…just for you."
Sandburg heard the hurt…and the shame in Ellison's voice. But, even more, he heard the truth about himself and it shocked him. He'd not realized that he'd made such an unconscious judgment, had withheld that final, ultimate, trust. Hadn't noticed that he was so quick to assume that others couldn't love him, as he loved, unconditionally, that he resisted and didn't recognize it when it was offered to him. "I'm sorry," he stammered. "I…I never expected…"
"I know," Jim cut in, his voice tight in his throat as he turned his intense gaze back upon his friend's face. "You never expect it, not from anyone. But, that's just it, isn't it, Chief? Isn't that what you're always telling me? That nobody can 'expect' unconditional love…that it's a gift, pure and simple? You give it as easily as you breathe to the people you care about…to me…you give all that you are. I didn't know the first thing about love until you taught me, showed me, what it was…what it felt like. I didn't know how to trust someone, not completely, until you showed me I could trust you, over and over and over again, until I finally got it straight. I know I'm a slow learner, Chief…but I finally got it. Sandburg, I…I'm your friend, your partner, and your Sentinel. You are the most important person in the world to me, Blair Sandburg. You. The person you are. And, I'm grateful, everyday, to have the miracle that you are in my life."
Blair's lips parted, but he couldn't think of what to say…his throat was tight and he knew his eyes must be glistening with tears. Jim…Jim rarely spoke about how he felt. He showed it, with touch, by being there when he was needed, in so many thousand different ways…but he hardly ever actually talked about the things that mattered most to him. To sit in the darkness and only hear Jim's voice almost pleading with him to understand and believe the truth of it, to hear those words…it was overwhelming and meant more than Blair could find the words to say.
Jim paused, not yet finished, but his voice was cracking a little, and he needed to breathe, to sort out his thoughts…to get this right. More slowly now, with the tone of taking a solemn vow, he continued, "I know I've screwed up big time in the past, but I swear to you, you can count on me, Chief…no matter what. Nothing, ever again, will ever change that. If this blindness, this paralysis, goes on for the rest of your life, I am here for you. To safeguard and care for you. Because I want to, Chief. Because my life is better when you're a part of it. Because you make me a better man. And, just because…" despite himself, Jim heard his voice crack. Damn, why was it so hard to say? Swallowing, his voice low with the intensity of his emotion, he finished, "Because I love you. Got it?"
Blair trembled as he swallowed, his eyes searching the space where he knew Jim to be, his earnest gaze wide and filled with wonder. Nodding, unable to speak, he leaned forward, his arms wide for the first time since Jim had found him on that damned altar. As Jim pulled him forward into a tight hug, Blair's arms went around him, holding on for dear life. "I got it, man," he whispered finally, huskily. "Thank you, Jim…God, thank you."
"Whatever you need, Chief," Jim murmured in return. "I am here for you…always."
Later, as Jim carried Blair to his room, Sandburg murmured, "I don't know why I still can't see…or walk… I mean…if you're right about why…"
"One day at a time, Chief," Jim reassured him. "You've gone through hell…but you'll make it all the way back, one way or another. Whether I'm right or wrong, you're going to be okay."
If I am, Blair thought as Jim tucked him into bed, it'll be because of you, my brother…because you wouldn't let me stay lost…
When Jim woke the next morning, he'd expected, in his straightforward way, that everything would be fine now with Sandburg. Well, he thought with a sigh, as fine as it can be until he's better. Rolling to his feet, and pulling on his robe, he shuffled downstairs to begin their morning routine.
Once he'd got the coffee started, he moved into the bathroom to fill the tub, taking care to make sure the water temperature was just right. That done, he knocked once on the French doors and then pushed them open…and swallowed, hard. Blair looked just as stiff and uncomfortable as he had looked every morning since Jim had brought him home from the hospital.
Sandburg had been awake and listening to the sounds of morning, taking deep breaths and forcing himself to relax. He kept going over Jim's words from the evening before, reassuring himself that Jim really didn't mind, and somehow didn't even seem to blame him for being a helpless dependent. But, knowing in his head that Jim didn't mind this, and accepting the unconditional love that was offered to him, were two different things.
Especially now, when Sandburg was convinced his incapacity really was, completely, his own fault.
He'd awakened with the desperate hope that it would all be over, a nightmare now a part of memory…but the darkness assailed him and his inability to move his legs brought frustrated tears to his eyes. He was still blind, dammit. Still helpless.
And it terrified him. He didn't know what to do to make it better…but he knew it was up to him to figure it out if Jim was right and he really was doing this to himself.
All of which meant that instead of greeting Jim with the warm smile he'd planned, he was lying there, close to hyperventilating, with that 'deer in the headlights' look of helpless fear on his face.
Taking a breath, Jim moved into the room, determinedly cheerful. "Rise and shine, Chief…your bath awaits."
His jaw tight, Blair nodded and lifted his arms to enable Jim to pull off his gown. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to get any words past his throat…the damned thing seemed to have closed up on him, barely letting air, let alone speech, past his lips.
Jim went down on one knee, a hand resting on Sandburg's shoulder and then ghosting over his hair as he asked quietly, "What's wrong, Chief?"
Lowering his arms, Blair heaved in a breath and blinked to clear the stinging in his eyes. He would NOT cry. This was ridiculous. Jim was being great…kind, supportive, reassuring. Why couldn't he just accept it? More to the point, why couldn't he see or move? Why did he need this help in the first place?
"Sandburg, take it easy…just breathe," Ellison said, his voice low, soothing as he continued to stroke Blair's forehead.
Biting his lip, Blair shook his head. "I…I can't understand…why I still…can't see…or move my legs," he finally stammered out, his voice cracking.
Sighing, Ellison shook his head. He wished he had the answers. He really did. "We'll figure it out, Blair," he replied, sounding as confident as he could. "But, first, let's get this show on the road. You'll feel better after a bath and something to eat."
Swallowing, Sandburg turned his head away, but forced himself to nod. The fact of the matter was, however much he might believe that Jim didn't mind doing all this for him, Blair hated every moment, every action that had to be done for him. Hated himself for putting Jim through this.
Later, while he was exercising Sandburg's legs, Ellison mused, "Maybe we're going about this wrong."
"How do you mean?" Blair asked, willing to consider anything that might help break the logjam inside his head.
"Well," Jim continued, "when I get caught in a loop, and can't see my way clear, you come up with different questions, to force me to take a different perspective. Only, I'm not so good at coming up with the questions. So…let's pretend that our positions are reversed. If I was the one who couldn't see, or couldn't walk, because something that was too much to endure had happened to me…what would you do? How would you get me to take a different perspective?"
Frowning, Blair thought about that. "You wouldn't ever block stuff this way," he muttered, resisting.
"Maybe, maybe not…but, let's try it, see where it takes us," Jim encouraged. "If it was me, what do you think would be causing it?"
"Well, if it was you," Blair replied thoughtfully, "I'd say it was a reaction to having lost control and being afraid of failing…and anger, a lot of anger, being repressed, anger toward yourself and blame…so this would be a way of retreating…of never having to face something like that again. Kind of a conscious zone."
"Okay," Jim allowed, determined not to rise to the 'control', 'fear' and 'anger' buttons. "I know you don't react the way I do…but, isn't it possible that, maybe, it's the same sort of thing. Loss of control, fear of failure, anger and blame…making you retreat? I mean, this is the first time that you chose to go off without me in a long time…"
He felt Blair stiffen under his hands and saw his friend's face lose the pitiful amount of colour it had had.
"You think you were wrong to go without me, Chief?" Jim asked quietly.
His throat tight, remembering those harrowing days and nights, Blair nodded mutely. He felt like such a wimp…afraid of his own shadow, afraid to stray two feet without his Sentinel beside him, to protect him and anyone else he'd had tag along into desperate danger. When had this happened to him? When had he become afraid to take care of himself?
Jim moved to sit on the bed beside Blair's recumbent form, reaching across his friend's body to grip his arm firmly. "Listen to me, Sandburg…you were doing Eli a favour, putting his mind at rest before he went into major surgery. It was a simple, straight forward trip to a South Seas island…you had no way of knowing what was going to happen there. You're too smart to walk into danger without any second thought. If you'd ever imagined it could go so wrong, you wouldn't have gone…you wouldn't have allowed those kids to go. You can't read the future, Blair…you can't blame yourself for not being psychic or something."
"Why not?" Blair countered. "You do, all the time."
Ellison looked away at that charge and had to admit that it was true. "Yeah, but I've got a suspicious nature, and I'm paid to anticipate things going wrong," he offered in his own defence.
There was something in his voice…a tightness…a bitterness…that hooked Sandburg's attention, drawing his thoughts away from his preoccupation with his own misery. "Jim?" he asked, his voice hesitant, wishing he had the use of his hands to touch his friend's arm. "Do you blame yourself for not going with me?"
There was a long silence, as Ellison grappled with trying to deny it, but knowing he'd never be able to keep the truth from his voice. He did blame himself, and had nightmares every damned night about what might have happened…about what had happened.
"Ah, Jim," Sandburg sighed, closing his eyes. "No wonder you figure you owe me this care…"
"NO!" Ellison snapped back, tightening his grip on Sandburg's arm. "We've been through this, Chief," he continued. "Okay…so I do think I should have gone with you. But, I know it wouldn't have made any difference, not really. You handled everything that needed to be handled out there, Sandburg. Just as well as I would have handled it. The situation was impossible…and everybody was lucky to get back alive."
Blair swallowed and nodded, but he wasn't buying it. He'd seen too many examples of Sentinel and Ellison guilt in the past. God, this was impossible…how could he bear to endure Jim's help if it was all a just a guilt fest? Unwilling martyrdom led to hatred eventually…after it wandered through contempt and disgust on the way…
"Listen to me, Chief," Jim urged, his voice tight, even desperate. "I thought you believed me last night. I want to do this for you…not out of guilt, but because I care about you, damn it!"
When Blair still didn't answer, despite himself, Jim felt his temper rise. "God damn it," he snarled. "I am so sick of your noble little stand that nobody can love anybody without expectation or some dark selfish purpose, except you. Only the great Blair Sandburg can love freely, unconditionally…nobody else is selfless enough, or decent enough…or just plain good enough. Is that it? I don't measure up? Well, the hell with you, Sandburg…I don't care what you think. I know why I want, even need, to take care of you. And it's not because I feel guilty…nor is it because I feel some sick need to control you, or to have some weird dominion over your helpless body. I will not sit back and lock you away in some institution. I will not lose you, you hear me? I will not let you get away with self-pity and self-hate and destroy every good thing that you are."
Blair couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips, or the chuckle that seemed to arise of its own accord from his throat. The relief he felt was immense. This was his Jim Ellison, his Sentinel…the one who spoke his mind straight out, no mincing words, raging at him and shouting to make sure he was listening.
Jim's fury died stillborn at the sound he hadn't heard in weeks…at the trace of the smile on Sandburg's lips. He didn't understand what he'd done to get this particular reaction, but he was glad of it.
But, Blair was caught on an emotional rollercoaster, and he couldn't seem to get off. The chuckle died in his throat and his lips twisted against the sob that arose in its place.
Now really confused, and not a little scared, Jim gathered Blair into his arms, as he murmured, "Oh, damn, Chief…I didn't want to make you cry!"
Another chuckle warred with the sob, leaving Sandburg gasping as he tried to explain. "I…I don't know how…" he stammered.
"What, Chief? What don't you know?" Jim asked, his face creased with concern.
"How to accept the…what you're offering," Sandburg choked out, unable to form the word, 'love'.
"Oh, Jesus, Blair," Jim groaned, understanding then, and understanding it so very clearly. "You think it's easy to accept unconditional love? Without guilt? Without feeling like there's no way you deserve it? God…I know what that feels like…it's what I've felt for years now, struggled with, against…not knowing how to accept what you offered me."
Sandburg trembled in his arms, suddenly so weary. "How did you learn?" he asked softly.
"I don't know if I did learn, kid…I just finally realized I had no choice but to accept it and be grateful for it with all my heart, because you just never quit, Chief…you just wouldn't ever give up on me," Jim replied earnestly. "So, get used to it, my friend…you're in for a lifelong dose of your own medicine."
Resting now in his Sentinel's arms, Blair thought about that, and let the reality of it fill his being. "I love you, Jim," he murmured softly. "And, I'm so damned sorry…"
Quirking a smile, Jim shook his head then rested his chin on Sandburg's curls. "Sorry you love me?" he teased, deliberately misunderstanding.
"No, man," Blair whined, then jabbed him with a playful elbow. "You know what I mean…sorry about all this…"
"I know," Ellison relented, tightening his grip marginally. "I'm sorry, too. I really hate to see you suffer like this, Chief. But…I love you, too…and I have to believe that we'll find our way through this."
Nodding, Blair murmured, "Yeah…I have to believe that, too." Pausing a moment, he cocked his head a little, one brow raised as if worried about something. "You're not going to kiss me, or anything, are you? I mean…you're holding me so tight, and we're in my bedroom, and I'm helpless…"
Jim answered him by dumping him unceremoniously on the bed. "In your dreams, Sandburg," he growled.
"Not any dream I've had, man!" Blair giggled, imagining the blush on Ellison's cheeks.
Jim laughed and ruffled his hair.
They were making progress…finally.
It wasn't an easy week. Blair continued to blame himself for not being able to make any evident progress, but Jim persevered. So far, they'd explored Sandburg's sense of futility and despair at having had to kill more men, something he loathed to the depths of his soul, however much he tried to rationalize that he hadn't had any choice. Something inside just couldn't seem to accept it. Maybe because it had happened so fast…or maybe, and more likely, because he'd remained as alert as he could at his post through endless hours, tormented by his willingness to kill again, if he had to.
Jim told him what all the kids had said. How they'd reported that it had been Blair's steadfast courage and dauntless endurance, his refusal to give in to fear, his continued assurances that hope remained, that had inspired them and held them together. How they attributed their survival to him, without any question or doubt. He was a hero to them…and maybe he should just give himself a break and accept that he was a hero, period.
But, Blair couldn't seem to accept that. "No," he protested several days later. "No, Jim…that's not what it was about, what was happening. I couldn't have done it, man, if I hadn't known you were coming. I knew you'd get us out of there…that's the only reason I was able to keep from falling apart."
Ellison blew out a breath at that. It never ceased to amaze him, this complete and unshakeable faith that Sandburg had in him. Shaking his head, he replied quietly, "I didn't do anything, Chief, except bring the money. You, and maybe with a little help from Simon, held the bad guys at bay during the transfer."
And that's when Blair started to shake again, as if stricken by some kind of palsy. "What is it?" Jim demanded, shifting to sit beside Sandburg on the couch.
"He…he almost killed you, Jim," Blair stammered, remembering the moment with merciless clarity. "You were only there because of me…it would have been my fault…he could have killed you so easily…."
Wrapping a strong arm around Sandburg's shoulders, Jim replied with steadfast calm, "I'm not dead, Chief. I'm right here. You stopped him…you saved my life. It's okay, Blair…let it go."
"Oh, man," Sandburg moaned, his eyes pressed closed against the tears. "I couldn't have ever lived with myself if I'd gotten you killed…I'd do anything, give up anything, before I'd ever let that happen…"
Jim heard the words, the desperate fear that drove them, and he wondered. "Maybe you've given up too much, Chief, to keep that from ever happening…" he mused softly.
Blair stilled in his arms, the trembling abating as he struggled with what Jim was suggesting. "Oh, God," he sighed. "Do you think that's it? I can't get you into trouble if I can't move or see, or get myself into trouble and need your rescue?" he asked, his voice small, scared.
"Maybe," Jim replied. "But…that only leaves me to get into trouble on my own. And you know how good I am at it. Without you around to back me up, I'm bound to zone at the worst possible time, sooner or later. You're my partner, Chief…and my Guide. I need you, whether it's in a wheelchair, whether you can see or not…I need you beside me."
Which left Blair struggling with an unsolvable emotional dilemma. To back Jim up, he had to be able to walk and see again. But, if he did, he'd eventually lead his Sentinel into danger again.
He'd found his way off the rollercoaster only to end up on the merry-go-round…and he couldn't seem to find the place to get off.
It had been two weeks since Jim had brought Blair home. Though it had been slow, tough going, they'd made progress in Ellison's view. Sandburg was no longer remote and lost inside of himself. There had been tears and resistance. Even anger, once, as Blair had shouted and screamed out his frustration, furious with himself for not being able to find the key to unlock the paralysis, the blindness. Ellison had felt a surge of hope when, for the first time, while Sandburg got lost in his anger, Jim felt his legs pushing back, resisting, moving on their own.
They were breaking down the walls.
That night, after he'd settled Blair in his room, Jim stood at the balcony window and looked out over his city. He felt…unsettled. And he knew why. He was a Sentinel who wasn't fulfilling his role, but he didn't feel he could, not without his Guide by his side. Shaking his head, he frowned at that, wondering what was just at the edge of his thoughts.
But, he couldn't get it.
In his distraction, he noticed a shadow moving down on the street below, just a flash in the light and then darkness within darkness. Frowning, he focused his attention, seeing a man turn away from him. Dark haired, slight of build…no distinguishing characteristics.
But, warning bells went off.
There was something familiar about that man who was slipping away around the corner…something that made the hackles rise on the back of Ellison's neck.
That night, Sandburg dreamed he was in the jungle. Confused, not knowing why he was there, he listened to the howl of a wolf in the distance, a lost, lonely sound. Irresistible.
He found himself moving through the thick growth, frustrated that there was no path, but steadily moving onward, hearing the howls grow louder, until he finally broke out of the jungle and found himself on the edge of a cliff. The wolf was poised on the other side of the abyss, whining as it paced back and forth, yipping at him, scratching at the dirt by the edge of the chasm.
"What's going on?" Blair called out. "Why am I here?"
The wolf stopped its restless pacing, turning to face him and then, as he watched in fascination, it transformed, rising up onto its haunches and stretching until its shape mutated into his own. He found himself face to face with his own image, separated by an abyss that seemed to fall into eternity.
"Why are you here?" the image asked.
Shaking his head, Blair complained, "I just asked you that question…I need answers."
"You have the answers you need," his image replied, crossing its arms.
Blowing out a breath of frustration, Blair demanded, "Why can't I see? Why can't I walk?"
"Why do you need to see?" his image shot back. "Why do you need to walk?"
"Jim needs me," Sandburg answered without hesitation. "He's a Sentinel…he needs a Guide."
"Are you his Guide?" his image asked, cocking his head a little to the side as if studying him.
"Well…yeah," Blair stammered. "Aren't I?" He felt uncertain, as if nothing was making sense anymore.
"Are you?" the image asked, waiting.
When Blair hesitated, no longer sure of the answer…not knowing even if he still wanted to be a Guide, if he could face all that that meant, the image across the chasm wavered, shimmering in the odd light. "You must choose," the image said as it collapsed back into the form of the wolf. "Only you can choose," the words echoed around him, louder and louder, until he had to press his hands to his ears to shut them out, collapsing to his knees beneath their booming, relentless pressure.
Gasping with pain, lost in the nightmare vision, Blair again heard the call of the wolf, a long, piercing howl and, in the distance, he heard the answering snarl of a jaguar in pain.
"JIM!" he cried, thrashing in the darkness as he forced himself back into consciousness, terrified that something had happened to his Sentinel. "Jim! Where are you? JIM!"
"Easy, Chief," Jim replied, reaching for him, pulling him into a secure embrace. "I've got you…it was just a dream, Sandburg, only a dream." Awakened from his own troubled sleep by Sandburg's terrified cries, Ellison had plunged down the stairs and found Blair locked in the grip of a nightmare. Now, awake, he was still trembling from the effects of the dream.
"Was it?" Blair mumbled as he tried to rub his aching head with his plaster-enclosed fingers, sighing with frustration and disquiet. Certain he could still hear the echoes of the wolf's anguished howl overlaying the distant snarl of the jaguar, he wasn't so sure.
Ellison was aware that even after Sandburg calmed down and sent him back to his bed that the kid was still lying awake in the room below, struggling with thoughts he wasn't ready to share. The Sentinel could hear Blair's breathing, and his heart beat, frowning when both began to speed up until Sandburg forcibly calmed himself down again, over and over, throughout the night.
Rolling onto his side, his senses reaching out to allow him to monitor his best friend, Jim bit his lip and wished with all his heart he could do more than just be there, do more than offer simple physical care to alleviate Sandburg's pain. His heart ached, as it had every day and every night since he'd seen Blair in the mouth of that damned temple, trying so hard to be brave, hurting so bad. It just about killed the Sentinel to have his Guide so wounded, to see him suffering, day after endless day. To look into eyes that saw the world so differently, with such clarity, and know they now only perceived darkness. To feel Sandburg's frustration and despair at his inability to care for himself, his hands shattered, his legs unresponsive, to bear witness to the incapacity of a man who had only ever brimmed with effervescent and boundless energy, who bounced in place, unable to be still, whose touch brought stability and surety of purpose. It was all as devastating for Ellison to witness as it was for Sandburg to endure.
How long would it be like this? 'God,' Jim prayed, no longer amazed at the ease with which he prayed to a being he'd not even believed in for most of his life, 'not forever…please, don't do this to him forever…'
His answer, if answer it was, came in the form of a memory. Jim hadn't noticed it consciously when he'd entered Sandburg's room in response to his friend's unconscious cries. Hadn't noticed, or remembered until now, that while Sandburg had been thrashing in the throes of the nightmare, his legs had been moving…
Smiling to himself at the memory, convinced that they were on the edge of a breakthrough, the Sentinel allowed himself to slip back to sleep.
In the room below, Sandburg was trying to maintain a degree of calm, knowing Jim was probably monitoring him, and not wanting to cause yet more concern. But, he needed to grapple with that dream, with the message it had so clearly set out for him. When he'd first awakened in the hospital, to find himself blind and his legs unresponsive to his commands, he'd thought he'd been physically damaged by the beating he could only vaguely remember. Though he'd tried to tell himself that it was only temporary, that he'd get better, the lack of any improvement as the days had passed had left him depressed and very afraid, not sure how to face life with such drastically changed terms of reference. He'd been in the process of accepting that his situation was hopeless, that he'd never get any better, when Jim had virtually kidnapped him from the hospital.
And then, though he'd been furious at first to confront the fact that he was doing this to himself, that it was all an elaborate and twisted psychological defence mechanism, furious and then horrified, it had still given him hope. And he'd begun to think that there was some kind of switch inside his head, that he could just turn on again, like Jim fiddled with his 'dials', and it would all come back to him. He wanted to be able to see, didn't he? He wanted to walk again, not be helpless, a burden…right?
He'd been despairing, at first, then disgusted and finally deeply angry, to find it wasn't that easy. If the switch was there, he sure wasn't having much success at finding it.
Why? Why was he doing this to himself? To Jim? He'd asked himself that question over and over for the last two weeks. If he'd had any lingering doubts in his mind about what he meant to Jim, about his place in his friend's life…if, in some sick and twisted, unconscious, way, he'd made this a test to see if Jim really cared about him, or needed him, he'd gotten his answer and more. Blair trembled as he remembered Ellison's words, his declaration of unconditional love…his anger when Blair couldn't seem to accept it…and his understanding, then, of how hard the acceptance was. The immensity of that love, the limitlessness of it, overwhelmed Blair and left him feeling humble and even frightened, to think he could really mean that much to another person.
But…the assurance of love hadn't been enough to unlock the chains in his mind.
Jim's idea of looking at the situation from a more objective perspective had helped, or Blair had thought it was helping. It had forced him to confront the buried emotions of terror and self-loathing, for having been forced to kill, for being willing to kill again if it was required, without hesitation. Intellectually, he could accept the wretched choices he'd had to make…and would make again to protect innocents who were his responsibility. But, it was harder to accept it emotionally. Until he'd agreed to become a cop, until he'd learned to use weapons, he'd never, ever, thought of himself as a man who could take another's life. His soul ached with the responsibility he'd taken onto himself, leaving him feeling sick and so weary of it all. But, with Jim's patient, enduring, support, Blair had accepted what he'd done, accepted he'd really had no choice and was a victim of the aggression of the terrorists, forced by them into actions he'd never have chosen for himself.
But, he couldn't accept Jim's contention that he was some kind of hero. He'd survived, and that was about it. Blair had been sincere when he'd told his friend that all that had kept him from losing it completely was the knowledge that Jim was coming, and would take this burden from his shoulders, would rescue them all, somehow.
The trembling started again in the darkness and silence of the night, as Blair recalled how close it had been, how very nearly Jim had been killed for coming to help him. He felt the bile of sick horror rise in his throat and had to choke it back. With a chilling clarity, he remembered swinging his weapon into position and firing with a cold fury, killing the man who threatened his unarmed and vulnerable Sentinel. And then he clearly remembered his cold, empty acceptance of that death…a death for which he could feel no regret. For the first and only time, he'd killed without a shred of regret or remorse.
And that made him wonder just what kind of man he'd become.
When the terrorist leader had judged him guilty, and had determined he should die for his crimes, he remembered now that he'd accepted it as a just punishment. No one should ever kill without feeling, without regret.
Up until that moment, being a Guide had only ever seemed like a good thing to him. He'd accepted, finally, that there was something inside of himself, something that linked him with Jim for good or ill, tied them together forever in a binding of the soul, that he couldn't deny…didn't want to deny. Though he didn't begin to really understand it all, he'd felt a…rightness about being able to help Jim. It had made him feel worthy and useful, that his existence truly mattered, made a difference, that he could do good with his life. He'd even accepted that being the Guide meant that he was responsible for taking the lead, illuminating the path, though the responsibility for that frequently unnerved him.
It hadn't been any kind of stretch to know to the depths of his soul that he'd protect Jim with his own life, without hesitation or regret.
But, he hadn't known that being a Guide would also mean that he would kill with cold deliberation and without any remorse to protect his Sentinel. He'd become a stranger to himself and he realized now that that had been the experience had rocked him to his core, reframing everything he'd ever believed about himself. He'd felt as if he'd become some kind of monster, no better than Lash or Quinn…soulless. Dangerous. It had seemed right that he should die.
But, he'd survived. Jim had saved him yet again from a seemingly hopeless situation…was still trying to save him.
Jim…his best friend and partner. His Sentinel.
Oh, God, Blair thought in despair. What have I become?
Staring up into the darkness, Blair understood, finally, that he'd condemned himself for a crime he was terrified to know he'd commit again, if he could see, if he could walk…if he remained Jim's Guide. Without any doubt, he knew he'd kill as readily as he had up on that mountain, with as little hesitation or regret, if Jim was threatened again…if he was able, if he allowed himself to be able.
Could he do it? Could he choose sight and motion because, deep down, he felt a drive to be with his Sentinel, to stand with him and watch his back, to protect him at all costs…even the cost to his own soul?
Or could he condemn not only himself, but Jim as well, to the prison of his darkness and paralysis. So long as Jim was with him, caring for him, he was unlikely to be in any kind of danger. How long could they hide out in the loft, shutting away life and friends and their responsibilities to the people in their city before it became unbearable?
Could he be a Guide who couldn't see or walk? Could he still help, as he had, with insight and voice and touch? Would he be safe then from having to kill coldly, like a machine? Or would he only pose a greater threat to his Sentinel, increase the risks Jim faced every day that he went out to confront evil?
Maybe…maybe if they were really careful, maybe such a situation would never arise again. He'd been at Jim's side for years without having to kill. Maybe it would be all right…maybe.
But, could he risk it? Could he risk seeing again, walking?
Could he risk remaining blind and immobile?
If being a Guide was a choice as much as it was some kind of weird genetic programming and compulsion, could he choose to be that? Knowing now all that it meant? But, how could he fail Jim, and leave him to grapple with his senses without the support of a fully functioning Guide?
Tears filled Blair's eyes and leaked down the sides of his face as he stared into the darkness, asking questions for which he had no answers.
When he came down the stairs the next morning, Jim tried to hold onto the feeling that something good was going to happen today. Right after breakfast, they were heading back to the hospital, to get those ugly casts taken off Blair's hands. He would finally be able to manage his own most intimate activities on his own. It would be a relief for both of them, but most especially Sandburg, who had never been able to accept with any degree of comfort Jim's assistance in managing the elimination of his body's wastes, or even in being fed.
"Big day!" he called, rapping on the French doors as he moved past to the bathroom to run the water into the tub. "You get your hands back today, Chief!"
In his room, Blair nodded at the words and tried to smile. It was a big day, one he'd been waiting for with an ever-increasing sense of urgency. After today, he wouldn't be so completely helpless. They'd been working on his upper body strength, so that he'd even be able to get himself in and out of a wheelchair once he had hands to grip with.
Pushing the dark thoughts of the past night away, he called back, "Get a move on, Jim! The quicker we're outta here and to the hospital, the better!"
As much as they both felt inexpressible relief and even joy to see the last of those casts…more to know that the damage to Sandburg's hands had completely healed…Jim didn't need the enhanced senses of a Sentinel to see the lines of strain on Blair's face or the shadows haunting his eyes.
As he drove away from the hospital, Jim said quietly, "Talk to me, Chief…what's going on?"
Turning his head a little away, still hiding, Blair asked, "What do you mean, Jim?"
"Come on, Einstein, you think I don't know something's been eating at you since you woke up yelling last night?" Ellison replied, trying to be patient, feeling exasperated. "Spill it, Junior."
Sighing, Blair nodded. "You're right…we have to talk. I think I've figured out the problem," he said quietly. Much as he wanted to work this out for himself, it concerned Jim as well, and his friend had every right to know the choices he was grappling with.
"Really?" Jim exclaimed, with a rush of jubilation. If Sandburg had it figured out, it was only a matter of time before they got these demons beat. But, his smile faded as he again took in Blair's aspect of despondency. Something definitely wasn't right here.
Looking around, noticing that it was actually a very nice day, with a bright sun in a cloudless sky, warm with just a hint of autumn in the air, Jim suddenly could not face just going back to the loft. They'd both been cooped up in there for too long.
"Okay, Chief," he said, as he turned off the main road to head toward the park down by the water. "What do you say we get ourselves a couple of hotdogs, some beer and fresh air while we talk?"
Blair's head came up and he registered that there was no sound of the incessant rain. "The sun's shining?" he asked.
"Sure is, Sandburg…it's a beautiful day," Jim assured him.
Smiling softly, Blair nodded. It felt like it had been a very long time since he'd been anywhere but inside a hospital or the loft. "Good idea," he sighed, relaxing a little. 'Neutral ground,' he thought, 'best place for what we have to talk about." Though, how he could even begin to suggest to Jim that he wasn't sure he could choose to be his Guide any longer was beyond him. The smile faded as he swallowed, chilled by what his decision could mean for the state of his soul…knowing that whichever way he chose, he'd feel trapped into something he wasn't sure he could live with.
Jim steered his truck into the park and pulled up in the nearly vacant parking lot. Coming around to the passenger side, he said as he lifted Sandburg out, "We'll get you a wheelchair later this afternoon, Chief…if you promise not to be rolling off somewhere when I'm not looking."
"Hey, man…you said this wasn't about 'control' over my body!" Blair teased him as he lightly smacked Jim on the shoulder. "I just knew you'd get too used to knowing where I am at all times."
Jim smiled, hearing the jest in Blair's voice and seeing the grin, as he replied, "All right…I guess I can live with you having a little more independence, Chief."
As Jim carried Blair across the grass toward a bench near the water, Jim asked, "Want to give me a hint as to what we're going to be talking about, Sandburg?"
Suddenly sober, Blair stiffened in his grasp. Swallowing, his head lowered so that his face was hidden by his hair, Sandburg replied quietly, "I need to talk about the dream I had last night, Jim."
"Yeah?" Ellison encouraged as he carefully deposited Blair on the bench. Standing back, he looked down at his best friend. "What was the dream about?"
Lifting his head, his face drawn, Sandburg said quietly, "Why don't you go get us those 'dogs and beer, Jim. We'll talk about it when you get back."
Frowning, a little uncertain, Ellison hesitated, then shrugged. "Okay, Chief…I'll just be a minute," he agreed, turning away to jog over to the refreshment stand. He instinctively knew the dream had been of utmost importance…when he got back, he'd tell Sandburg that he'd seen him moving his legs last night. They were on the edge, Ellison could feel it…they were going to beat this thing.
Tilting his face toward the warmth from the sun, Blair sighed. He was no closer to having answers than he'd been during the night. He had a headache, and his chest was tight, too full of the emotions that were tearing him apart.
Distracted by his thoughts, he didn't hear the approach of the stranger who'd come to stand near him.
Ishmael could not believe the time of retribution was finally at hand. He had been devastated after the American military had wiped out the believers on the mountain, and filled with a great fury for the betrayal of the Americans and the slaughter of his people. And, then, he'd been overcome with a wave of grief for the loss of his younger brothers as he'd watched that tall man, who he'd known was Ellison, and the taller black man, board their flight with the young people, to go to Tahiti. Within hours, the news had been full of the story of how the young anthropologist had held off the terrorists, killing those who threatened the lives of his students and of how he'd almost been murdered by those same terrorists before the military had moved to the rescue.
Ishmael had spit at the words, loathing for that young American infidel, that Jew who should have also died, filling his heart, twisting his soul. The military had not acted to rescue, but to kill in vengeance, in retribution for the threat against American citizens. Abdul had bargained in good faith, and had died for it. They had all died for their cause. All but Ishmael, who was a shopkeeper, not a soldier, a man to watch and listen, not to fight. So, he'd not been where he should have been, with his brothers, when they'd died for their cause. Knowing they were even now in paradise did not assuage his grief, or the magnitude of his loss. He still lived, to face his guilt as a survivor…and to exact his own retribution for the betrayal of his brethren.
He could not fight the whole of the American military. But, he could punish the one who'd killed Mohammed.
So, he'd haunted the hospital in Tahiti, listening for word of the anthropologist's condition…hoping the man would die and make an end to it.
But, he'd lived. The damned Jewish infidel, who cherished pagan temples and respected their unholy rituals, lived. It wasn't enough that he apparently could no longer see…no longer walk. The fact that he still drew breath was an abomination.
So, Ishmael had sold all he had to make the trip to the United States, to follow the despicable American to the city called Cascade and, once again, he'd haunted the corridors of the hospital. But, he couldn't get close. There was always someone with the man, always someone watching…usually that Ellison, who hovered like an ewe over a newborn lamb.
He'd thought, once Ellison had taken the Jew home, that a time would come when Ellison would leave him alone, if only for a few minutes, an hour. It would have been time enough to break into the apartment where they lived, to enact a kind of justice.
But, though he'd waited, day after day, lurking in the shadows, Ellison had never left the loft. Never left the Jew unattended. He'd seen the tall black man come and go, bringing groceries and supplies, allowing Ellison to remain with Sandburg at all times.
Until now. Though, even now, Ishmael could see the tall American police detective had not wandered far. Still, it was far enough to be out of earshot, so Ishmael could say what needed to be said. Far enough away to not be able to interfere, when Ishmael executed his brother's killer. Looking around the deserted park, noting that Ellison's back was turned to them as he made his way to get their filthy food and drink, Ishmael smiled grimly as he gripped the revolver in his coat pocket, knowing his time of retribution had finally come and there was no one to stop him from avenging his brothers.
"Do not call out for your friend, or I swear I will kill him, too," he said softly, just loud enough for the blind man on the bench to hear him.
Startled, Blair turned his head sharply toward the voice…a voice he recognized. God, had the soul of that terrorist leader come to haunt him? "What?" he exclaimed, his eyes wide with shock.
"You murdered my brother outside that temple…I heard it on the news. They said you were a hero," Ishmael replied coldly, wanting the man to understand why he was about to die. "The Americans killed them all…liars, cheats, all of you. None of you deserve to live."
"Your brother…?" Blair stammered, his mind trying to put the pieces together, not the same voice then, but one very similar. As realization dawned in his eyes, he murmured, "You were the one who was watching the airfield…who called when the Special Forces landed in Moorea…"
"Yes, I called with the warning," Ishmael confirmed. "Fools that we were…we thought we'd won when they flew away. If I knew their names, I would kill all of them as well."
"Hey, it was your brother who broke the bargain, man…he was going to shoot…" Blair protested, but then his voice died. 'What's the point of arguing?' he wondered as he held out his hands, helpless to defend himself, unwilling to try. Deep down, he still felt that, maybe, he should be condemned for having killed that man without regret. "Don't hurt my friend," was all he could ask, plead for. It was Jim's life that mattered…always and only Jim's life that could not be risked.
Pulling his weapon from his pocket, Ishmael cocked it, and Blair flinched unwillingly at the sound, steeling himself for what was to come. Closing his eyes, he whispered, "Jim…I'm sorry…."
Ishmael, so certain Ellison was oblivious to all that was happening, had focused his attention solely on Blair, and so did not realize the Sentinel had frozen at his first words, turning to charge back across the long expanse of grass that separated him from his best friend, from his Guide. Swearing to himself, Jim finally recognized the man he'd glimpsed in too many hospital corridors, in Tahiti as well as Cascade…and on the street last night. He was already pulling out the gun he carried almost without thought in his belt, in the small of his back. Already bringing it into line on the slight, swarthy man who had pulled the gun on Blair as he shouted, "Police! Drop it!"
Startled, Ishmael's gaze rose from his focus on Sandburg to the tall police detective who was racing toward him, bringing his weapon into line. He only had to shift his own weapon a fraction of an inch…and he fired.
Blair's head had turned toward Jim's shout, his mouth open to yell at Jim to stay back, when the shot thundered so close, almost deafening him…but not so loud it drowned out the cry as the bullet ripped into his friend's body…not so loud that he couldn't hear the sharp howl of the wolf and the snarl of a jaguar in pain…not so loud that he couldn't hear a voice screaming, 'CHOOSE!'.
"JIM!" he screamed, desperately needing to know how badly Jim had been hurt…making his choice.
"NOOOO!" Blair screamed again as light fractured the darkness, piercing his mind with brutal clarity, shattered images grinding into focus as he saw Jim stumble forward and crumple onto the ground, lying still…too still. Rage filled his soul, stark, cold, implacable rage, as he whirled and launched himself at Ishmael with a guttural, incoherent shout of anguish and denial.
He ploughed into the assassin, driving them both to the ground. Ishmael was at first shocked with surprise that Sandburg could move, could attack him…startled to see death in the eyes of the man who lunged into him. Recovering, he struggled desperately to bring his weapon around, to shoot into the body of the man who was beating him with unbridled fury, but he was no match for a Guide who had just seen his Sentinel shot down.
Blair beat the man into submission, then into unconsciousness…pulling back only because his wild, desperate hope that Jim still lived drove him back to his feet. Without thought, he pulled the weapon from Ishmael's limp hand and turned to race to Jim's side, dropping to his knees to pull his Sentinel over into his arms.
Sandburg wasn't even consciously aware that he could see or move…he was only aware of Jim Ellison, lying unconscious in his arms, blood welling to soak the front of his shirt, his breathing ragged and uneven.
"JIM!" he cried, horrified and desperately afraid. While one arm gripped his friend close, the other hand patted Jim's pockets, finding the cell and he punched in the speed code for the dispatcher. "Officer down!" he shouted, tears on his cheeks. "Brenner's Park, by the water…near the food stalls."
Dropping the cell, he pressed his hand down on Jim's chest in a vain effort to stop the pulse of blood that poured from the wound. "Jesus, Jim," he begged. "Don't you quit on me! Hold on, dammit! Hold on!"
So intent was he on Ellison, as if by the force of his own will he could hold Jim's soul close, not let him slip away, Blair didn't hear the sirens and wasn't aware that help had arrived until hands pulled him away. He struggled at first, only slowly realizing that the police and the EMTs had arrived. As the ambulance attendants worked over Jim, slapping a pressure dressing on the wound, starting up an IV, monitoring his vital signs and slipping an oxygen mask over his face, Blair stammered out an explanation to the police.
"That man, back there…shot Jim…Jim Ellison, Major Crimes Unit…call Captain Simon Banks," he told them, his voice cracking as he unconsciously brushed tears from his face, smearing his cheek with Jim's blood.
The police weren't sure what to make of the situation. They'd found the weapon on the ground beside Blair, and the other man was unconscious, his face already bruising from the battering he'd taken. One cuffed the unconscious man, in case the hippie's story was true, then pulled out his radio to call Banks. "Who are you?" he asked, as the connection was put through by dispatch.
"Sandburg," Blair muttered, his eyes on Jim's too pale face, not seeing the startled expressions on the faces of the two cops. "Blair Sandburg."
When the attendants loaded Jim onto the gurney and turned to wheel him hurriedly back to their waiting vehicle, Blair moved to follow, only to be restrained by the cop standing beside him. "Let me go!" he shouted, trying to pull away. "He's my partner…I need to go with him!"
The cop looked to his own partner who was even then talking with Banks. When the man on the radio nodded, he let Sandburg go, just in time for the kid to race after the gurney and climb into the back of the ambulance before the doors were slammed shut.
The two cops, who like everyone else in Cascade had heard Blair Sandburg had supposedly been blinded and paralyzed during the hostage situation in Moorea, stared after him, mouths agape. Whatever had gone down here, that man sure as hell wasn't either blind or unable to walk.
Simon raced into the Emergency Unit of Cascade General, his eyes darting around the waiting area until he spotted Sandburg pacing along the corridor outside one of the treatment rooms.
"Sandburg!" he called out, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Blair looked up at his shout and turned to face him, tense and pale, dried blood smeared on his clothes, hands and face.
"My God," Simon gasped, gripping him by the shoulders, his eyes on the bloodstains, "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Blair ground out, pulling away. "It's Jim…the bastard shot Jim."
Simon had to swallow and remember to breathe, not sure what to deal with first. The miracle that was standing in front of him, or his deep anxiety about Ellison. Deciding the miracle could be explained later, he demanded, "How bad?"
Sandburg shook his head, his gaze turning to the closed door beside them. "Chest wound, right centre… and he was losing a lot of blood, Simon. He's been unconscious since…"
"What the hell happened?" Banks asked, trying to make sense of what was going on.
Blair closed his eyes and blew out a long sigh. "One of the terrorists…a brother to two of the men on the mountain, to one I shot…he'd been down in the town, relaying information, so he got away. Anyway, he was after ME, Simon. He wanted to kill ME…but Jim…Jim tried to stop him…and he shot…shot Jim."
"Sandburg, this isn't your fault," Simon told him, once again laying a hand on the younger man's shoulder.
But Blair pulled away as he muttered bitterly, "Yeah, right." Maybe if he'd hadn't been so useless, blind and helpless, maybe he could have done something to have prevented Jim from being hurt. Hell, if he hadn't been such a useless wreck, they wouldn't have been in that damned park in the first place.
Simon glanced at the closed door, wishing he knew what was going on inside the treatment room, but all they could do was wait. Sighing, he turned his attention back to the very agitated man who was again pacing restlessly, muttering, "They wouldn't let me stay inside with him…they don't know about…I told them he has allergies…I told them to check with me before giving him lots of meds…damn it, damn it, this shouldn't have happened…."
"Blair," Simon spoke quietly, trying to calm Sandburg as he moved into his path. He again took hold of Sandburg's shoulder, stopping him in his tracks, forcing him to look up and pay attention. "You can see… walk…how…?"
Startled, Blair stilled under his hand, and his face bleached of expression as he stared up at Simon and then looked down at his legs. Shaking his head, his hands lifting unconsciously in sudden comprehension, for the first time since that gun had exploded he registered his own reality. "I…I guess I chose," he muttered, not making any sense to Simon.
"Chose what?" Banks demanded, frowning, his eyes narrowing as he tried to understand.
Swallowing, Blair looked back up into his eyes. "Chose to be Jim's Guide," he replied quietly, his eyes shifting then, back to the closed door. "Stupid, I've been so stupid…as if there was ever any other choice," he whispered to himself. Please, God, he prayed. Don't take him from me…
Ellison was in surgery for three hours, in recovery for another hour after that. While they waited, Simon gradually pried the story out of Sandburg, his own face bleak with sorrow as he listened to the struggle the kid had faced within himself. Over the years, Simon had come to understand this unusual, unconventional, young man and had come to respect him. He knew, as well as Jim or Joel did, the pain Blair felt when he was forced to kill, and he could hear the horror in the unsteady voice when Sandburg confessed that he'd apparently learned to kill without remorse or guilt. Leaning back against the uncomfortable, vinyl chair in the waiting area outside the Operating Unit, Simon swallowed as he thought about all that Blair had just told him…all that had happened.
Turning his gaze to Sandburg, studying the pale, too tense young man, realizing that Blair was accepting a reality he interpreted as meaning he'd sell his own soul to protect Ellison, Banks sighed and shook his head. He'd never been the least bit comfortable with all the hoo-doo surrounding these two men. The senses were enough to grapple with, though he'd gotten used to Ellison's unusual gift long years ago. It was the mystical stuff…the visions and spirit guides, the talk of souls and the profound choices that these two men would each make for the other, that shook him and left him searching for something to make sense of it all.
Heaving out a sigh as he leaned forward, wishing he were a much wiser man than he was, he struggled to find the words that would allow Sandburg some measure of peace with the choice he had made. The choice to come back into the world, with all his own skills and abilities on-line and fully functioning, to stand by his Sentinel and do whatever he had to do to protect that Sentinel, whatever the cost to his own soul. He had to help the kid sort through this, or both Blair and Jim would be left reeling from the price Blair was consciously choosing to pay. Because, even if Simon believed it was all too dramatic, that such a price could never be exacted, the two of them would believe it. In his heart, Banks knew this was one sacrifice Ellison could never accept.
Frowning, he lifted off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. It didn't make sense to him. Whatever this Sentinel and Guide business was all about…whatever it meant that Sandburg was also some kind of Shaman, it just didn't make sense that it would cost Sandburg his soul. A Sentinel existed to protect the tribe, and the Guide existed to support and protect the Sentinel…and a Shaman was a gifted wise man who was born to guide and care for a whole people. Simon didn't pretend to understand any of it, and certainly didn't know the first thing about Shamans, but he had always gotten the impression that a Shaman was a holy man…a man with his soul intact, not lying in shredded tatters.
Resettling his glasses on his face, Simon focused on Blair as he leaned forward, elbows resting on his thighs, his hands clasped between his legs. "Sandburg," he began, quietly, "I'm sorry…but I think you're still screwing something up here…it doesn't make any sense to me that to be Jim's Guide, and to maybe have to kill to protect him, should somehow cost you your soul."
Blair flicked a lost look up at Simon, then dropped his head as he shrugged and sprawled back in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, his hands clenched on his thighs. "Tell me about it," he muttered as he shook his head.
"Okay," Simon sighed, frowning as he tried to piece his scattered thoughts together. "Tell me why you think it's so different, the way you feel, when it's Jim you're protecting and not someone else, some other innocent bystander."
Tilting his head up to stare at the ceiling, Sandburg swallowed as he replied, "It's the way I feel about it, Simon. I…I felt such rage when they threatened Jim…when all he was doing was trying to protect me. God, I don't even think…I just go into attack and destroy mode, like some kind of berserker…and when it's over, I don't feel the least bit sorry for what I've done…"
Shaking his head, Simon protested, "That's not entirely true, is it? If I understand what you've told me, you withdrew into darkness, denied yourself the right to walk or see, because of it…that doesn't sound like a man without regrets to me. That sounds like a man desperately sorry for what he's done…and terribly afraid of what he's capable of doing."
Blair lifted his hands and let them fall, his wordless gesture saying he didn't have a clue what it all meant.
But that wasn't good enough for Simon. He knew he couldn't leave it there. Biting his lip, he began again. "Why do you think it's so different…Jim's been hurt before, risking his life to save other people, even to protect you…you've never reacted like this before…"
"I didn't have a gun in my hands before," Blair murmured, his voice tight as he looked away. "I didn't know how to kill…but I felt the rage and the sick fear that I might lose him…I can't lose him, Simon…I just can't…."
Looking into space, Simon softly offered the most obvious observation. "Because he's your best friend …because you love him…?"
Blair shifted in the chair, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees as he stared at the floor. "Yeah, I guess…" he admitted, but frowned and shook his head. The love he felt for Jim Ellison might be a part of it, but it wasn't all there was to it…there was something more, something he couldn't understand.
"So…you're human, Sandburg," Banks replied. "Any of us might kill to protect the people we love."
Looking up, his brow furled with concentration, Blair shook his head. "No…it's more than that. It's like …like I've rendered some kind of judgment that I have no right to make. Who am I to stand and decide without question who should live or die? That's what it feels like, Simon…that cold and implacable…that remote."
Simon leaned back against the chair again, frowning as he thought about it, his fingers unconsciously tapping the chair's arm. A judgment. Biting his lip, he tilted his head as he thought about that. A judge.
"Sandburg…doesn't a Shaman sometimes have to fulfill the role of a judge for his tribe?" Banks asked, not sure.
"Yeah," Blair blew out as he too leaned back to stare up at the ceiling. He wished the doctor would come out and tell him how Jim was doing…wished he could see his friend, touch him, know he was going to be fine.
Nodding at that bit of information, Simon thought that, maybe, just maybe, it was beginning to make some sense…a kind of scary sense, one that they'd all have to think about and deal with. Leaning forward again, he lifted his gaze to Sandburg. "Blair, listen me and see if this makes any sense to you," he began, drawing the younger man's eyes back to his own. "What if, when those situations happen, when Jim is attacked, especially when he's attacked protecting you, you are operating on two levels. Maybe even three. First, the human level, you want, even need, to protect your friend. At that level, killing for any reason is anathema for you…but you force yourself to defend your friend. Only, you don't actually have to force yourself, because, on the next level, as Jim's Guide, you're compelled to defend him, to protect him. As a Guide, you do what you have to do, though you might regret what it required in an emotional, spiritual sense. Just as when you were a cop, you had vowed to protect the lives of innocents, having to sometimes kill, however much you hated having to do that. So, you did kill, but felt regret after."
Blair was nodding, his expression thoughtful and intense as he followed Simon's reasoning. "But…I don't feel regret…that's the point. I've killed with as little emotion as Lash or Quinn…"
"Bullshit," Simon snapped. "If that was the case, you wouldn't have locked yourself down into darkness and immobility. It cost you, Sandburg…cost you big time. Because, I think, you didn't understand… didn't accept that what you had done was warranted in a weird kind of way, that you had the right to make the judgment. On the third level, kid, I think you were acting as the Shaman…rendering judgment against someone who threatened to kill the tribe's Sentinel and their Guide, who had to be killed to be stopped. You didn't kill that guy in the park after he'd shot Jim…you could have. But, it wasn't necessary. Killing that terrorist on the mountain was…it was the only way to stop him from shooting Jim. The Shaman made the judgment to protect the tribe as much as the Sentinel himself, and because that's his right and responsibility, the Shaman feels no shame or guilt or remorse for his act. There was no choice…the other man's action had made his death inevitable."
Blair's lips parted as he gaped at Simon, shock clear in his eyes before he looked away, unconsciously shaking his head as he tried to process Simon's analysis of what had transpired.
Simon shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck as he thought about what he'd just said. Hell, he was a cop…no one, in his view, had the right to act as a self-styled judge and jury, to render a sentence of death. Gritting his teeth, his shoulders tense, he shook his head, having to be honest with himself…in the same situation, he'd have done the same thing. God knew, he'd have shot the bastard himself if Sandburg hadn't beaten him to it…and he wouldn't have felt any shame or regret, not so much anyway that he'd have denied himself sight or the ability to walk afterward. Swallowing, he felt himself relax. He had no need to worry that Sandburg in some weird Shaman persona would rush out to render sentence over other people. It was just that the kid's mind worked differently, and, yeah, maybe his soul was more sensitive…he felt things, his responsibility, the choices he made, with more acuity…and suffered them more.
When he heard Sandburg sniff unconsciously, he looked up to see tears on the kid's face and realized Blair was trembling like a leaf in a hurricane. Reaching out, he gripped the younger man's arm, to anchor him, to pull him back from whatever abyss he was staring into with those eyes so wide with horror.
"Jesus, Simon," Blair gasped, "what kind of monster am I? How can I make that kind of judgment?"
Unaware that he'd left his chair, or that he'd gone down on one knee to grab Sandburg by the shoulders, Simon pulled the kid around to face him, shaking him a little, unconsciously, as he growled, "Listen to me! You are NOT a monster!"
When Blair's shocked eyes came up to gaze into his, desperate for absolution, Simon continued more softly but no less firmly, "You are not a monster, Sandburg. I don't know exactly what you are…but I do know that you have been born to be something different than the rest of us. Someone wiser…or stronger…I don't know. I do know it costs you, hurts you almost beyond bearing …and I know that you would never take any life if there was ever another choice. If a Shaman legitimately holds the role of judge…and if you are a Shaman, as it seems you are, whether any of us understand what all that means or not…then tough decisions come with the job. Hell, kid, it's bigger than you are, somehow…it supercedes your human inclinations to forgive any soul, mourn any loss of life. To tell you the honest to God truth, I'd have killed that bastard without a second thought…the very fact that it haunts you, that you think it somehow condemns your soul, only proves that your soul is intact. Don't you see? Monster?" Simon's voice broke and he shook his head, searching for the words to express what he felt, to banish that look of horror from Sandburg's eyes. "Uh, uh…no way. A man who carries a heavier burden than I'd wish on my worst enemy…a man who struggles even with a choice that is righteous… that's what you are, kid. A saint, maybe…but, surely, never any kind of monster."
Blair swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, dragging in air as he listened to Simon, scarcely able to believe the words coming from his Captain's mouth or the intensity of the other man's gaze. Simon was telling him what it meant to be a Shaman? Simon?! But, it was the last line that brought him back into some kind of balance, shaky as it might be. "'Saint'?" he repeated, quirking one brow in gentle mockery. "I'm Jewish, Simon…who ever heard of a Jewish saint?"
Simon's lips curled into a reluctant smile, and then he chuckled. Shaking his head, he leaned back, letting his hands fall from Sandburg's shoulders. "Are you kidding?" he replied, trying to tease back, but his voice was thick with emotion. "I thought you were the anthropologist. Read the Bible, kid…one Jew was a saviour…and many more were the original saints. Your soul is in good company, Sandburg."
Blinking hard at the tears that threatened at the unexpected and profound sincerity in Simon's voice, Blair dragged in a deep breath and trembled again as he looked away, shaking his head. "Thanks, Simon," he finally managed to whisper hoarsely. "More than you know…thank you, my friend. But…no…I'm nowhere near in that league…I'm not even on the same planet."
Simon just shook his head, unable to speak past the thickness in his own throat, shocked himself by his words.
But, damned if he didn't believe they were true.
Even as he drifted toward consciousness, groaning at the agony of the fire that was blazing in his chest, Ellison felt the firm grip on his arm and heard that steady, compelling voice urging him to turn down the pain dial, that he could do it if he'd just focus…see it and turn it down. And he could see it…could turn it down, allowing him to breathe more easily, if still shallowly and tentatively, wary of stoking the fire within.
"That's it," Blair soothed as he reached up to stroke Jim's forehead gently. "I know it hurts, man, but you're okay. You hear me, Jim? You're going to be just fine."
His head tilting toward the voice, warmed by the touch, Ellison struggled harder to awaken fully. He needed to know Sandburg was okay…the last he remembered, there was a threat…someone was threatening to kill his Guide. The thought galvanized him further, helped him to push through the fog that surrounded him. "Chief?" he croaked, his voice dry and raspy, faint and weak to his own ears. Blinking against the dim light, he forced his eyes open, his gaze searching until he found and held what he sought. Sandburg…there beside him…safe…whole. In his relief, he smiled.
"I'm right here, Jim," Blair replied, smiling back, though his face was still pale and haggard from worry. Reaching for the cup of ice chips by the bed, he picked up a couple and stood as he turned to ease them between Jim's dry lips. "Here…the ice'll help your throat."
Jim looked confused for a moment as he watched Blair, trying to figure out what…and then it hit him and he reached up to weakly grip Sandburg's arm. "You can see, Blair! You can stand…!" he gasped, the light of relief and infinite gratitude to God glowing on his face. His lips trembled and tears filled his eyes as he drank it in…Sandburg was really all right! Oh, God, he was really, finally, all right!
Blair's smile in response was also a little quavery as he nodded, then leaned forward to gently hug his Sentinel. "Yeah, Jim… I'm fine," he sighed, closing his eyes as he felt Jim's arm come up and around him, holding him as tightly as he could.
Standing in the doorway, Simon had to wipe his own eyes as he turned away to head down the hall, to tell the others. The rest of his Major Crimes Unit team had arrived not long before, having finally been called by Simon and told what had gone down. Taking a deep breath to steady his own emotions, Simon was very glad that he could tell them that Jim had awakened, that Blair was well again, and everything, at long last, was finally getting back to normal.
Or, at least, he thought wryly with a faint smile, what passes for 'normal' in the 'Sandburg Zone'.
Sandburg had a lot of time to think as he stood watch over Ellison during the next couple of days while the injured detective slept more than he was awake. The wound had been serious and would take time to heal…but it would heal and Jim would be fine. The relief of that knowledge kept Blair anchored and focused on what really mattered the most to him, grounded him as he pondered what had happened to him after the temple…and Simon's interpretation of his actions and emotions.
As Simon had said, he was an anthropologist, and if there were any legends he knew, any societies he'd studied in depth, they were the cultures of The People of the Book, his own Jewish culture and those closest to his own heritage…the Christians and those of Islamic faith. In some very fundamental ways, he felt as if he'd just spent his own forty days wandering in the wilderness, lost, alone, frightened of what he held within his being. Though his own humility made him shake his head and smile in grim refusal of the comparison, he couldn't deny that he'd felt lost and that the choices he'd thought he'd been facing had tormented his soul.
But, he hadn't stayed lost and alone, had he? Jim had found him and had been in the process of dragging him out of that wilderness with the force of his unconditional love. Blair trembled with the feelings that filled him at the memory of Jim's words…and his actions, demonstrating that love over and over as the days had gone by, even when Blair hadn't been able to understand or accept it. God, he still found it hard to accept, as he gazed down at his best friend. With all that they'd been through, it was a gift he'd never have truly expected…and still felt unworthy of receiving. Jim had been right. No one was ever 'worthy' of unconditional love, except in so far that everyone was worthy of love. It was the most profound gift, the one that fully allowed you to be what and who you are, to be accepted and celebrated, just for being. His eyes misted as he gripped his best friend's wrist. "Thank you," he murmured, sniffing and brushing at his eyes. "I've never really felt anything like this before…"
Swallowing, he shook his head. Even Naomi, who loved him to distraction, didn't fully accept the man he was, his independence, the choices he'd sometimes made. It was overwhelming to know that Jim, with all his need for control, all his resistance to letting anyone so close that their loss could devastate him, could be the one who gave this gift to him. It moved Sandburg beyond words into the realm of pure emotion, and he just felt so grateful, and so humbled…and so desperate to always be worthy of that love.
So…the first thing, he thought then, that he'd learned was that he couldn't be who and what he needed to be, on his own. He needed Jim's support, his faith and steadfast love…and he'd needed to learn how to accept that love.
And, the second thing he'd learned, was that he had to accept himself, what he was, what it meant. He wasn't just plain Blair Sandburg, ordinary guy. Nor was he only Jim's Guide, as amazing and wonderful as that was. He was a Shaman. With a Shaman's responsibilities. As much as it frightened him, he knew he had to learn to live with that if he was to fulfill the role he'd somehow, for some reason, been born to play in this life. His head bowed; he knew he'd never be able to do it alone. Not without the strength and love of his Sentinel…and the understanding and acceptance of friends like Simon Banks.
Finally, with a sigh, sitting back against the chair and raising his head, he consciously accepted his fate, as overwhelming as he still found it all to be. As his eyes came back to Jim's face, he saw that his friend was awake, studying him with a look of concern in his eyes. Smiling to chase away that anxiety, Blair murmured, "Hey…how're you doing?"
His own state of being not his immediate concern, Jim asked quietly, "Are you all right?"
Blair had seemed so…distant as he'd sat there, lost in thoughts that had evidently upset him. Hell, the kid had tears in his eyes.
Sandburg's smile widened as he stood to rest his hand on Jim's brow, soothing away whatever worries haunted those clear, blue eyes. "I'm fine," he assured his best friend. "So long as I've got you…I'll always be all right, no matter what."
Jim didn't know what Blair was talking about, he knew that. But…at some point, Sandburg would explain what had happened, how it was that he could now see, and walk…and smile again with an almost blinding incandescence. For now, the reasons didn't matter. Ellison knew all he needed to know…his friend, partner and Guide was fully restored to him…and he smiled with the relief that filled him. He might not have been able to save Sandburg from pain, but from the look in the kid's eyes, it was clear that, somehow, Blair believed he'd helped restore his spirit. Swallowing, the Sentinel felt immense gratitude to know that he'd been worthy of the love and trust Sandburg had in him, that he hadn't let the kid down…had been there when he'd been most needed, to give the love he felt for Blair…to give the care he'd needed.
"Well, you're stuck with me, Chief," he murmured, shifting his arm to take the hand that had been wrapped around his wrist in his own grip. "I guess, maybe, from what you just said, that's a good thing."
"Oh, yeah, Jim," Blair replied, joy bubbling out of his heart into soft laughter as he leaned over the bed to hug his Sentinel, "The best, man…you are my strength and my foundation. I love you, Jim."
Tears pricking in his eyes, Jim hugged him right back as he whispered hoarsely, "I love you, too, Chief…God help me keep you safe, I love you, too."
Now that he'd gotten his own act together, and Jim was well on the road to recovery, Blair reflected there was a final responsibility that still remained to him from the disastrous trip to the South Seas. One that had been put off for too long. He called his team together one afternoon when he knew Jim would be out with the DA, reviewing a case that couldn't be postponed until he'd returned to full duty. Blair wanted to ensure his team members had all gotten support in dealing with the trauma they'd been through, and was pleased to find that they were doing remarkably well. Their concerns about him, more, their relief at his recovery, was cathartic for them. He was deeply touched by the way they greeted him as they arrived en masse at the loft, each one hugging him tightly, and thanking him for having kept them safe.
Embarrassed and not a little overwhelmed, Blair shooed them to seats in the living room, pulling around chairs from the kitchen table to accommodate everyone.
"So, do you want to see what we've done so far with the stuff we got out?" Shaun asked, unable to keep their surprise for Blair any longer, as he lifted his backpack over his knees and started rummaging in it.
"What stuff?" Blair asked, a little confused. With all that had happened, it hadn't occurred to him that anything of academic credibility could have been salvaged from the site. He'd heard from Jim that their camp had been blown to smithereens in the battle. Oddly enough, though, the ransom had been recovered. The duffel bag containing the money had been sheltered by the rock that had collapsed, burying the entrance, and had been recovered relatively easily from under the edge of the debris. They'd both sarcastically commented about how relieved the Chancellor would no doubt be to learn that the University's money had been saved. As an anthropologist, Blair took a more personal consolation from the realization that few artifacts had been destroyed in the camp since he'd rigorously restricted what could be taken out of the temple.
"Well," Mike supplied with a grin, "we each had our minirecorders and the tapes in the pouches on our belts…"
"Yeah, and I had the film I'd taken in my pockets," Shaun added.
"I have a good visual memory," Marco contributed, "so I was able to 'recall' most of the sketches I'd made."
"You're kidding?" Blair gasped, delighted surprise blooming on his face. "You guys are the best! Man, I didn't think we got anything out of there!"
"We've transcribed our notes and started to try to put them into some kind of order," Natasha advised him as Shaun handed him a folder of notes and pictures.
Leafing through the stack of documented, pictoral and photographic evidence eagerly, Blair shook his head. "We've got enough here for a basic, preliminary assessment of what we observed," he reflected in amazement at their accomplishment. Looking up at them, he murmured, "I can't believe it…I thought it was all lost. To tell you the truth, I didn't even think about getting anything out…"
"No," Tumi interjected, wryly, "you were too busy thinking about getting us out."
"Does Eli know?" Blair asked then, knowing his mentor would be ecstatic to know the team would be delivering results, notwithstanding the nightmare they'd endured.
"No," Matt replied. "We thought that you, as our leader, should be the one to tell him."
"Wow," Blair sighed as he leaned back in his chair and gazed at each of them in turn, admiration and gratitude in his eyes. "I've got to hand it to Eli…he sure knows how to pick one hell of a great team," he said quietly, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"Maybe so," David agreed with a grin, as he reached into his own backpack and pulled out two bottles of chilled champagne, as others rummaged for the bottles they had brought. "But, from our perspective, he sure knows how to pick one hell of great team leader. None of us can even begin to imagine surviving that experience intact without you having held it all together, and protecting us from them…and we've got the results we do because you got us organized right from the beginning, to make sure we kept track of our findings and observations. None of us will ever be able to thank you enough, Blair…"
"We want to be just like you when we grow up, Dr. Sandburg," Linda teased him, to ease the emotion she could see in his eyes.
Speechless, Blair ducked his head as he pulled himself together, then pushed himself up to his feet to get glasses for the champagne as he said with a grin, "Well, then, a toast to all of us is in order. Let's open up the bubbly and celebrate!"
When Jim got home that night, he found a very happy, and tipsy, bunch of people. "Hey! What's going on here?" he called out as he opened the door.
"Oh, man," Blair shouted as he jumped up to weave through the group toward his best friend. "You won't believe this, Jim," he said with a wide smile, his eyes shining brilliantly, "but the kids brought out evidence of what we found! We can submit a report…and an article! We're gonna be famous, man!"
Jim laughed as he put a supporting arm around his friend's shoulder and gazed around at the students who were busy toasting him with loud enthusiasm, for having come to their rescue. "That's great news, Chief!" he said, though he knew from the looks of jubilation and triumph on their faces that he'd hadn't really understood, until now, how significant the work of the study team had been for all of them. "Really, really great news!"
Once the grad students had left, Blair sat on the sofa, his legs stretched out in front of him and a big grin on his face. They'd gotten a start on how they'd organize the material before they'd all gotten too smashed to focus on it intelligently. But, they were to meet again in a couple of days to further the work.
He was one very happy man.
Standing by the fireplace, Jim looked down at his best friend, and he smiled with warm satisfaction to see Blair so blissfully happy. After all that had happened, this was more than even he had hoped for. "I'm glad for you, Chief," he said quietly.
Blair looked up at him and nodded. "I know, thanks," he replied softly, suddenly seeming a lot more sober than he had a few minutes before. In truth, he hadn't had all that much to drink…the emotional high had been intoxicating enough. "I want to go and tell Eli. It's not too late yet, and he'll be sooo happy to hear this."
"Only if I drive, Chief," Jim replied with a grin.
"Works for me," Blair replied and accepted Jim's hand as the Sentinel reached down to pull his Guide to his feet.
When Sarah answered the door, delighted surprise burst over her face when she saw them. "Blair! Jim! Oh, come in! Eli will be so glad to see you!" she cried as she wrapped Blair in a tight hug. "We're so glad you're all right," she murmured as she kissed his cheek.
Hearing the excitement, Eli appeared at the entry to the living room. "Well, look who's here!" he called out, moving forward to give Blair a hug of his own. They'd both been so worried when they'd heard how badly he'd been hurt…but Blair hadn't wanted to see anyone for so long, and then Jim had been hurt and was still in the final stages of recovery. So, this was the first time Eli had seen Blair since he'd asked the young man to take on the field trip. Eli had been very worried about him, but he looked just fine now, and the old professor couldn't have been more pleased and relieved.
Once they were settled in the living room, Jim sat back to listen as Blair launched right into the good news.
Eli's eyes widened with incredulity as he realized what had been salvaged, and he shook his head in amazement. "Remarkable, Blair…absolutely remarkable," he said when his protégé finished his recounting of what the students had brought out with them, and took a moment to peruse the folder of documents Blair had brought along as evidence. "It was a miracle to get you and the others out…and, truthfully, that's all I wanted, son. But…but this…this is an achievement that will have incredible repercussions in our world."
"Yeah, I know," Sandburg sighed happily. "Eli, you picked an amazing team of kids. They were all so great…you'd've been so proud of them."
"I'm proud of all of you," Eli replied with a smile. "Every last one of you."
Two months later, the article on their initial exploration and assessment of the site in Moorea was published in 'The Anthropological Journal' and was heralded by reviewers internationally as landmark work. The fact that the main entrance to the temple was again blocked by tons of rubble, and a second team had found the last water hazard currently impassable did nothing to dim to their approbation. The study team had found and documented evidence that the Vikings had made it all the way to the other side of the world…if it took others years to substantiate their findings, so be it. The photographs alone carried their own credibility.
The team held a party to celebrate the impact of their findings, even after only three days of actual study, had had on the academic world internationally. The fact that the reviewers also noted their bravery and fortitude in bringing out such evidence in the face of incredible danger made them all feel like heroes, cut from the same fabric as Indiana Jones. Jim and Blair hosted in the loft, welcoming Eli and Sarah, all the members of the study team, their colleagues from Major Crimes, the Chairman of Anthropology, Dan Moriarity, and William and Stephan Ellison.
But, even more than the joy they felt for their success, they were all there to celebrate life, to rejoice in the fact that they were all present and accounted for, strong and healthy, able to give love…and receive it. Everyone there had learned life could be fragile, threatened unexpectedly, and no one took it for granted anymore, if they ever had.
The fact that they could also toast a pair of newlyweds only made the celebration more poignant.
When the neighbours complained about the noise that echoed into the night from the third floor loft, they were invited in, given a drink and welcomed to the celebration of life. Grumbling at first, they all soon found they could not resist the joy that pulsed in that small apartment, radiating from the faces there, echoing in the laughter, illuminating the night and warming their hearts and souls.
Note: Any references to anthropological or archeological findings concerning ancient South Sea Island temples or links between the Polynesian and Viking cultures are purely the figments of my imagination. If any of it has any basis in fact, no one would be more surprised than I would be!
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