Fair warning--the smarmpires got me. Never invite a smarmpire into your house; it renders you powerless.
Spoilers: Set soon after S2, but AU since it preempts the last season.
Warnings: Bad language and purple prose. Character death (but I bet most people won't mind.)
Feedback: Positive or negative, private or public. DCStreets@aol.com
When they had first realized that Sandburg had been kidnapped, Ellison knew who and suspected why, but to save his soul--literally--he couldn't figure out where. His senses were sparking with the sunspot interference of another sentinel, and he couldn't rely on them even without enhancement. He had worked with his colleagues, and dedicated police-work got them nothing.
And then the jacket had arrived, with a bullet hole through the zipper in front, and Ellison's every sense expanded like a flower, like ripples in a pond blooming outward into infinity. It took him less than two hours to locate his partner, following the scent of blood, the sound of moans, the taste of tears, and his backup had trailed him, stunned and unbelieving.
Now he faced Alex Barnes, the sentinel who had killed his partner once, and his senses were spiraling out of control, contracting and expanding like a fist grasping at air. Conner and Banks were still blocks away, and he had to hold it together. He had to release the taste of blood and the scent of tears, stop listening for the missing moans.
"You do know that if you kill him"--again, his memory prodded--"you've bought yourself a lifetime of pain, right? A short lifetime." Ellison forced himself to reason with the woman, pushing away the near-tangible desire to defy the gun trained on him. His own gun taunted him from the floor where he had placed it as ordered--because as much as his instincts were pulling him towards the other sentinel's death, they clung more firmly to his guide's life.
Behind Barnes, Ellison could see a limp body tied to a chair. He didn't let himself look twice, but the image scorched him like a desert sun: Sandburg's body sagging against the restraints, his hair fallen down to cover his face. Cover his face, he died--no. Ellison shook his head sharply, staring at his enemy and waiting for any opening.
The gun did not waver in the slightest, a dark eye staring at Ellison unblinking. In the pause after his question, the only audible sound was the woman's rapid breathing. There was no movement from the body behind her, just a slowly widening pool of blood.
Ellison thought he'd have to remember to tell Sandburg about the tunnel. It was closing in on him, narrowing his focus to Barnes and the gun. Like a hawk's eyesight, pin-point accurate, Ellison's senses trained themselves on the woman who had taken his partner. A tide of red washed the outer edges of his vision, and he could feel every gift, every skill sharpening for the attack.
Waiting for the moment that would give him the best chance of saving his friend's life, Ellison resolutely pushed the edges of the tunnel out, away from his line of vision. He backed up a half step, pulling himself into position.
Barnes laughed harshly, a rough grating sound. "Where do you think you're going, Ellison? Nowhere to go from here." She twitched at the sound of her own voice, and Ellison had the sudden vivid knowledge that he faced his own fate, cheated only by the grace of his guide. He could imagine the smells of the warehouse scraping at his sinuses, feel the shock of light with her. But he wasted no sympathy; this woman had tried to destroy what they both needed. She could not have that chance again.
Barnes had time for one last laugh, starting a crow of triumph as she raised her gun. Ellison stepped forward with a spinning high kick that knocked her arm down and away; a bullet ricocheted off the far wall. Before the report could begin to echo, Ellison completed the motion, sweeping the gun out of Barnes' hand with his right foot before aiming a vicious left-footed kick to her head.
He'd overcompensated for the first kick, however, and the other sentinel dodged the blow, lunging across the distance and grappling with him. One hand clutched at Ellison's legs as her other reached up to grab his throat.
Banks ran through the building towards the sound of the struggle, with Conner right behind him. Their steps faltered as they saw the figure tied to the chair, but then Conner shoved Banks toward the struggle in the middle of the room. Holding her gun at the ready, she dropped to one knee beside the chair, facing the conflict but focusing her attentions on Sandburg's battered form. She groaned softly under her breath as she found the source of the wetness soaking her knee. Pulling off her jacket, rapidly switching her gun from one hand to the other, she made a pad to press against the bleeding hole in Sandburg's stomach. Even as she mentally ran through the procedures for blood loss and shock, she noted a sudden silence.
Gun drawn, Banks positioned himself for a clean shot at Barnes, but before he could call out a warning, he was caught by the violent climax in front of him.
Barnes had one hand clenched around Ellison's throat, her other hand clawing at Ellison's face. With one hand, Ellison protected his eyes; his other arm was held rigidly away from him, fingers entwined at the back of Barnes' hair. In the split second that Banks stood frozen, Ellison reared up and with his full weight dropped down towards the concrete floor beneath them. Barnes' head hit the floor with a dull, dying thud, and Ellison's arm continued its plunge, twisting her neck down and to the side with a sharply audible snap.
With one indifferent motion, he pried her dead fingers from his throat, then looked up for the first time.
Crouched over the broken body, the sentinel faced Banks for a fraction of eternity. Blind, wide eyes stared unseeingly, and Banks found himself remembering long-lost images of Vikings, Berserkers, and the panther at the kill. Then, drawing on imagination and experience, Banks shifted his gun to cover the one remaining combatant.
"Jim, you here?" It wasn't as crazy as it sounded, and Banks prayed silently that his friend would come back from wherever he had disappeared to.
The split second of danger passed almost instantaneously. With a harsh intake of breath, Ellison leaped over the body and ran towards Sandburg. "Simon, get an ambulance here. Now!"
"They've been called. Jim, don't-"
Ellison cursed frantically as he sprinted across the large empty space, and Banks pulled out his phone to check on the ambulance again.
Slipping in the blood around Sandburg, Ellison slid onto his knees across from Conner. "Is he--?"
"Holding on, Jim. He's still breathing, and the ambulance should be...here they are! No, don't touch that. We can't move him." Ellison had begun to tug at the ropes holding Sandburg, and as gently but as quickly as she could, Conner knocked his hands away. "There may be spinal damage, Jim! Just let them do their job." As a medic took over her position pressing the jacket into Sandburg's wound, Conner stood and tried to pull Ellison out of the way.
He struggled with her, baring his teeth in a snarl that made Conner take a quick step back.
"Jim, shhh, it's okay. Come on; we're not helping here. Come over here, it's okay..." the senseless murmur continued as she half steered, half forced Ellison to back away from the now-crowded area around Sandburg.
"Sit down, sit down, it's okay, sit down." In response to a paramedic's question, Conner answered quickly, "No, it's just shock. Concentrate on Sandburg." She took the bandage that the paramedic was holding out to her, nodding as she turned back to check the truth of her statement.
Before she could examine Ellison for injuries, an increase in the panicked intensity of the paramedics made him struggle with her, and Conner shoved him firmly back against the wall. "No! No, shhh, sit down. Jim, I swear if you go over there, you'll just be in the way. Help him by staying out of the way, okay?"
Banks left Barnes' corpse and came to join them, putting a steadying hand on Ellison's shoulder and helping Conner hold him against the wall. He finally re-holstered his gun when he saw that she had pushed Ellison down to sit against the wall, all the while mumbling a steady stream of comforting inanities.
Conner used one hand to hold Ellison down while with the other she twisted his chin to the side to expose his throat. Mottled red skin promised to become an impressive bruise. Below his ear, probably where Barnes' thumb had pressed, the skin was torn. A slow trickle of blood ran down his throat and soaked itself into his t-shirt. Once confident that Ellison would stay seated, Conner opened the bandage. Ellison made no protest as she applied it, but gave no indication that he knew she had done so, either.
"Is he going to be okay?" Banks' hushed question drew a quick combination of nod and shrug from Conner; Ellison gave no response.
"I don't think he's really here with us--we need Sandy right about now." She grimaced at the irony.
Ellison stared at the point where the red river flowed into the tunnel. It was a steady little stream, making obscene progress towards the sunken drain in the middle of the cement floor.
It terrified him. One small, reasoning portion of his brain suggested that, realistically, it couldn't matter. They weren't going to re-use it; once it was out, it didn't matter if it pooled up or slipped down the drain. But the vast, seething majority of his mind was transfixed by the horror of that heedless flow.
From a long distance, far from the shores of the bloody river, he could hear voices. The roaring in his ears was fading slightly, and he heard a babble of comment and question. But the racing of his heart seemed to syncopate with the steady drip of blood down the drain, and it drowned out the distant whisperings.
"Jim!" The voice was barely audible, but very insistent. "Jim! We need you here."
Ellison had never ignored a call for help. From the depths of the tunnel, he forced the walls out to listen again.
"Jim, come on!" The voice was irritated, but with a hint of panic, and years of training forced Ellison's response.
Banks watched Ellison's pupils dilate from the tiny pin-pricks they had been and felt more than saw his return.
"Welcome back, detective. Damn, Jim, don't do that to me again, okay?"
As the walls of the tunnel rushed out, Ellison again saw the other occupants of the room. "Help him!" he pushed them toward the crowd. "Help them!"
Banks resisted, then caught Ellison's wrists in a firm grip when he shoved at him again. "Jim, if you don't cooperate, I'll call a paramedic over here and he'll give you a sedative. Wouldn't you rather be available if needed? Besides, do you really want to distract the paramedics right now? They're doing more good over there."
Conner had doubts about the viability of reasoning with Ellison just now, but watched, impressed, as the two men ceased to struggle. Ellison slid down the wall again to sit with his arms on his knees, head in hands. Realizing that Banks had it under control, Conner moved over to the ambulance, staying well out of the way of the paramedics, and returned with a bottle of brightly colored sports-drink. She squatted by Ellison.
"Drink some of this. It's nasty, but it'll help."
Ellison wasn't crying she noted with some surprise when he lifted his head. But the wild-eyed, desperate misery in his face made her feel somehow ashamed to be a witness to it. Banks shifted at the sight, then stepped in to once again rest his hand on Ellison's shoulder.
They both heard the hard plastic clatter against Ellison's teeth before he put the bottle down at his side. He glared in confused outrage at the betraying tremors of his hands before clenching his fists firmly between his knees.
"Shhh, it's okay. It's only adrenaline." Conner placed a hand gently on his upper arm, relieved when he gave her a faint nod.
"We're taking him to Cascade General." The paramedic called over his shoulder while maneuvering the stretcher.
"Wait!" Banks simultaneously pushed Ellison down and moved over to the speaker. "Is he going to be okay?"
"Lost a lot of blood, but I think the bullet missed his spine. We'll do our best."
They left Brown and two uniforms to deal with follow up, blatantly breaking numerous rules because there was no way their triad could not follow in the bloody wake of Sandburg's ambulance. Banks didn't want to think about the future, the investigation that IA would doubtless initiate. Thank god there were two solid witnesses; personally, he was angrier at Ellison for surrendering his gun than defending himself with lethal force. Thoughts of procedure buffered the sharp edges of the evening, and Banks regretfully let go of the insulating distance.
Carefully speeding behind the ambulance, Banks spared five percent of his attention to monitor his best detective, who sat frozen and focused on events happening ahead of them. Ellison was perfectly still, his eyes glazed, and Banks knew that every available sense was trained on the ambulance that screamed and wailed ahead of them. He wondered briefly what the sentinel could hear...smell? taste? He didn't want to guess; as much as they owed those enhanced senses, Banks couldn't bring himself to be grateful for something that had kept a civilian working with them--working where he shouldn't have been for long enough that Banks grew to care...and Sandburg died... He forced the memories away with a muffled curse, welcoming the next turn as a God-given distraction.
Half focused on the wrenching squeal of tires, Banks almost missed Ellison's sudden gasp. Peripheral vision gave him a glimpse of hell; he knew almost as soon as Ellison that something was wrong.
The sentinel was stiffening, eyes wide with horror, and before Banks could get out more than a strangled, "Jim, what--?" he saw his detective reaching for the handle of the door.
"Jesus! Conner, don't let him--" Sixty-five miles per hour, Jesus Christ don't let him--
Conner, bless her, had thrown her arms around the seat and Ellison; she was holding on, white-knuckled hands gripping her own wrists. Ellison struggled briefly, fumbling desperately at the door for a long moment before falling back against the seat. He stared blankly at the ceiling, drawing long painful breaths of air.
"Jim, what's wrong?" Conner did not release her grip, and her hissed question was directly beside Ellison's ear as a result of her fierce embrace. Ellison managed a gagging cough, then a moan that sent needled electricity up Bank's spine.
"Report, Detective!" Banks snapped.
The low, tooth-grating moan stopped, and Ellison drew another desperate gasp. "It's gone. I can't hear him."
"Oh god." Conner's voice broke. "Not again. Sandy..."
"What do you mean 'it's gone'? His heartbeat?" They were cursed. Banks couldn't believe he was asking this twice in one month.
Ellison's words came as a shocking contrast to their tone: Banks couldn't understand the depth of their bleak desolation. "Hearing. My senses--I can't find him." Ellison's hand went quickly to his throat as he struggled for breath. "I've lost him."
The quiet voice seemed deafening to ears straining to hear the slightest change in a weak heartbeat--a sound now available only through the electronic instruments that filled the room. Ellison jerked toward the door, inadvertently tightening his grasp on the cool wrist beneath his hand. He quickly released his grip with a gentle, apologetic squeeze, taking one last measure of comfort from the slow, steady pulse. Once-sensitive eyes strained to identify the solid form silhouetted in the doorway to the darkened room.
"Ruth?" His voice, not yet recovered from his earlier screams, sounded odd and strained in his own ears.
"Yes. Can I come in?" She seemed tentative but not scared--as if she hadn't heard about his violence only hours earlier. Without responding, Ellison turned his focus back to the body lying still and cool on the bed. But not quiet. Thank God, not quiet.
Taking the detective's silence as assent, the young nurse entered the room then stood, irresolute, a few feet from the two men. She was a little surprised the detective had remembered her. He had seemed blind to all around him the first time they met. In her quick visits during the weeks that followed, he had been too wrapped up in his friend to do more than briefly thank her. That was almost two months ago, in a situation with more chaos but less hope than the one the men were now trapped in.
She looked over at the young man whom she had treated in the emergency room. What kind of hell did they live in, that a night full of blood and panic would now look good? At least then there had been a chance. She forced herself to take in the thin, pale figure on the bed. But inevitably her eyes left the motionless body and came to rest on the room's true sufferer.
Although the truth had been starkly evident from the first day, they had waited these many weeks before yielding to reality, even the doctors deluded by Ellison's steadfast certainty. But eight long weeks had a way of sapping hope, and they had tried to bring Ellison to a realization of his partner's state-the memory of the detective's icy, volcanic anger still made Ruth wince. That morning's attempt had been correctly deemed a failure, but another had to be made.
Hoping she lacked guilt by association to the morning's fiasco, they had asked her to gently broach the subject of discontinuing life-support. But faced with the depthless agony of the man beside the bed, her words withered unspoken. The silence was interrupted only by the sounds of machines.
Just when she had decided that she would have to retreat, the detective spoke. "Please leave."
"Detective Ellison, I--"
"If you think I'll react differently because you've helped us...been kind...you're wrong. I don't want to yell at you, and I certainly don't want to hurt you, but I will not listen to that again."
"Please--" she began, then took a quick step back at the detective's sharp movement. Cold blue eyes glared at her, weirdly reflecting the light from the hallway.
"Don't say it. I'm warning you."
"No. No, I won't." The man facing her seemed to vibrate with anger, but at her whispered response a small amount of tension drained out of him.
"It's not merciful. It's not his wishes. I don't want to hear that any more. It would be killing him, and I'll destroy this place and everyone in it before I allow that to happen."
A movement in the corridor outside caught her eye, and she turned only long enough to decisively shake her head at the guards standing just around the corner. Dr. Washington hadn't wanted her to come in here in the first place; precipitating a conflict would just convince him he'd been right.
Of course, it looked like she wasn't doing any good. Maybe Washington had been right. Damn, she hated that.
"Sorry to send you back a failure." Ellison didn't sound remotely sorry. "You going to get into trouble for that?"
"Well, I won't be winning Miss Popularity for a while. The nurses really wanted this to make a difference."
"That why they sent you? Miss Most-likely-to-make-a-difference?'"
A wry grimace crossed the young woman's face. "Actually, I think they figured I'm expendable."
The detective chuckled slightly. At the sound of that mirthless laugh, Ruth was for the first time afraid--of and for the man sitting by his partner's bedside.
"Just leave us alone. That's all I'm asking." The detective leaned in close to his friend and recommenced the murmured conversation that her entrance had interrupted.
Ruth got the very clear impression that she had not only been dismissed, she had been completely forgotten. After a few moments of indecision, she left, turning her back almost gratefully on the misery in the small room.
"Detective Ellison?" Even before he heard the words, Ellison knew that the tall, dark figure in the hallway was not his friend and boss. The white coat and nervous tic confirmed it, and a low growl built in his throat.
The doctor ducked his head quickly but stood his ground. "I want you to reconsider our discussion. There was too much blood loss--the level of brain activity--"
"Don't say it." Ellison snarled, and the doctor took a step back, but not far enough.
"Your captain told me...you and Mr. Sandburg have a very special partnership." The doctor paused for a second, and then obviously quoted, "Even if he's not a cop."
Ellison didn't respond, just held onto the cool hand, tracing the veins that carried a sluggish blood flow he should be able to hear. His tormenter was speaking again.
"...told me even he doesn't understand the depth of your friendship. So I know this is painful-"
"You don't know anything. Simon doesn't know." Ellison kept his voice low, ruthlessly subduing its painful roughness. "The only person who knows what I'm going through is lying right here." He reached out and pushed Sandburg's hair back, a useless gesture but one he found calming. When Sandburg opened his eyes, he wouldn't want to be looking through that mane. He'd...
Ellison groaned quietly, a harsh sound that caught like glass at the back of his throat. Strangely, this seemed to work where all his protests hadn't; the doctor sighed. "Then maybe, detective, you should try thinking about what he would want." The man hesitated at the doorway. "I'm sorry."
Listening as the doctor dismissed the assembled security guards, Ellison wished vaguely for his senses back. He wished he could hear the men and women moving away from this room. Wished he could catalogue the heartbeats and the steps, know exactly when they came back to try to remove him from his place at Sandburg's side.
Groaning again, he leaned down to rest his head beside the limp hand he still held.
Jim awakened to the rainforest. A spicy clarity in the air, different from the warm depth of Peru, told him where he was even before he recognized the area. He and Blair had camped here, months ago before everything started to go wrong. It was a place of peace.
Shifting through the wind-tossed leaves, shafts of sunlight seemed to mark the trail like spotlights, and the wind was a whisper of promise, bringing the scent of pine and salt and rich, murky loam. Effortlessly, Jim extended his senses, following the wispy trail of a seed puff with his eyes until it disappeared behind a hill. Just by smell he knew he was the only human being for miles around, and the absence of the stink and press of the city came like a balm. Where the sun dappled his skin, he could trace the outline of leaves by the cooler and warmer touch of light and shade. He pulled off his shirt to invite more of that gentle caress, tossing off the trappings of his other life. The forest welcomed him, opening its heart to his steps, tempting him with the taste of morning rain and warm earth. Above him the trees roared like a distant hurricane, and he sent his hearing spiraling out under the canopy of clouds, finding the rustle of feathers, the clicking of tiny insects, the low whine of a wolf...
Shit. Jim snapped his head towards the sound, measuring the distance and direction to that pained, pathetic whimper. He heard no sound of struggle, just the desperate, failing cry of a lone animal for the pack, and before he could think of weapons or reasons he was running.
Dodging through the low underbrush, Jim felt his body rising to his use, like a tool honed by a master. His legs powered him forward; his lungs provided air as his heart smoothly took up the challenge. And through it all his senses guided him, steering him through the trees like a familiar pilot through rocky shoals. He focused his hearing on the soul-tugging sounds of distress until they led him to a small clearing on the bald of a hill.
The wolf was trapped. Cruelly bound and wounded, the animal lay pinned to the ground in the sun. Jim could see blood from the open, furless gouges where the wolf had pulled against the ropes that held it. The wolf raised its head the scant room available to it within its bonds, staring at the man with the bottomless pain of incomprehension.
Jim was sickened by his own humanity. For what other animal would do this, but man? Stepping cautiously, quietly, he moved towards the trapped wolf, murmuring soft words in a helpless attempt at comfort.
"It's okay there, boy. It's going to be okay, just let me..." he leaned over the wolf, pulling his hand back quickly at its weak snap.
"No, no, don't. It's okay. It's okay." It was a litany of mindless solace he had learned from Blair, words that had brought him out of darkness, words he had heard murmured to the mothers of victims, to children at the scenes of crimes.
This time when he lowered his hand to the wolf's head it allowed the contact, resting its muzzle in his hand and licking feebly at his fingers. The rasping tongue was dry, and Jim winced to see the extent of the wet, blood-dewed grass that surrounded the animal. He ran his hands carefully over the wolf's brow and ears, part of him stunned that this wild animal would allow the familiarity. But when the beast's eerily blue eyes met his, Jim knew that this wolf would accept anything from him.
Succor first. Jim reached slowly into to the belt of his fatigues, finding the heavy hunting knife with a sigh of relief. Unsheathing the long blade, he brought it gently to rest along the rope holding the wolf's head pinned low. "It's okay. I'm just going to cut this; you'll be free soon." He thought the wolf's eyes held almost-human gratitude, and the dry tongue again stroked his wrist as he pulled the knife against the cord...
...and woke to the feel of the ridged plastic tube of the ventilator, the tape on Sandburg's face lifting a little as Ellison's hand pulled--
"No!" Staggering away from the bed, Ellison stood staring at the motionless figure under the trappings of modern medicine. Breath coming in long gasps, he trembled for an agonized moment before stepping farther back to slump against the wall. He slid down the slick surface, resting his forearms on his raised knees, moaning in endless torment.
"Oh god no. No." He let the tears come this time, scorching a path through his soul, emptying him of everything except despair.
Banks gingerly placed a hand on the bowed shoulder. "Jim?" Ellison didn't answer, but the tightening of the muscles under his hand spoke for the man. "Jim, you have to..." What? Let him go? Banks shook his head, remembering another time, another seemingly-futile fight against death. He heard again the anguished cry, 'You don't go!' and he wished to God he believed in miracles happening twice.
But that faith had died, slowly and by inches over eight long weeks, and now Banks knew what he had to do.
He just didn't know how.
"Jim, I'm so sorry."
Deadened blue eyes rose to meet his, and Banks swallowed quickly at the dull acceptance in them. It was infinitely worse than defiance.
"I know, Simon. Just...just give me today, okay? Let me..." Ellison's shoulder shook once with a fierce, suppressed sob, and Banks tightened his grip. "Let me have one more day."
Banks couldn't answer, just held on as his old friend leaned his head back against the cinderblock wall.
"You know...you know how he feels--felt about you, right?" Ellison's voice sounded like someone had run his vocal cords through gravel, and Banks winced at the sound.
"He was--" Banks felt his breath catch, but continued speaking low, "He was a good man."
"A good friend, Simon. He thought of you as a friend."
Dropping his head, Banks forced himself to breathe, in and out, calmly--like Sandburg would have suggested. He half smiled at the thought. "He...he was my friend."
"And you know that we could never have done this--anything--with the sentinel thing without you, right? You know that you were essential to us?"
Banks felt an ominous chill at those words in past tense. He had never wanted to be part of their myth, but he had never imagined how it must end, how the pain would corrode his heart. "Jim, are you...?" Okay, he wanted to ask, but knew it was foolishness. Ellison would never be okay.
"I'll let him go, Simon. I'll set him free--" Ellison broke off, looking out the window at the warm afternoon sun. "Into the sunset. I think he'd like a John Wayne sort of exit." Unbelievably, Ellison managed a pained almost-smile.
"Not an image I would have come up with." But Banks smiled a little too, wishing that Sandburg were there to lecture them on the evils of Hollywood or the heroes of Native American tribes or whatever the hell he would have sprung on them.
"Thanks, Simon." The words were low and quiet. "Thank you for being there for him. For us."
Shrugging off the sudden sense of disquiet that Ellison's thanks had brought, Banks stood abruptly and moved to the side of the bed. He placed his right hand carefully on the light green gown that covered Sandburg's upper arm, feeling the warmth move grudgingly through the thin cloth. Searching for something to say, he found himself dismissing every possibility as trite. In the end he merely whispered a rough farewell, hearing his voice break and feeling no shame for the tears that huddled behind his glasses.
This time Jim entered the clearing with a sense of purpose, ignoring the temptations of his senses, the soft warm air and the sweet spicy stillness. Moving quickly to the bound wolf, he again knelt and reached out his hand.
The wolf whined softly, unable to lift its head for weariness, and regret stabbed at Jim. The animal was much weaker than when he had left it, the panting breaths barely straining against taut bonds. The wet seep of blood had grown, marking the pale silver with garish scarlet. Jim leaned down to slide his hands into the wolf's fur, feeling the weakening pulse and the chill of shock.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, reaching again for his knife. "I won't leave you this time."
The wolf's eyes fixed on Jim's as the knife slowly severed each rope in turn. Jim's hands moved with a confidence his mind fought to share. He could cut these ties, seeing how they bound the spirit, as he could never have managed to disengage the physical ties that held Blair to life. The tension and fraying moving through the strands felt like shuddering sighs, and Jim closed his eyes for the last piece of rope. The wolf lifted its head higher this time, nudging his shoulder and whining.
"How 'bout I get you some water?" Jim could hear the quiet rush of a stream through the woods below them, and he stood to go fill his canteen. A weak tug at his pant leg stopped him.
Jim knelt back down and caressed the wolf's head, releasing its teeth from the rough cloth of his fatigues. "Okay, how about I take you with me?"
Each step down the hill toward the spring-fed stream seemed to bring its own revival; by the time they were halfway there, Jim had heeded the wolf's fretful struggles and set it down. They walked side by side, the wolf leaning into Jim's thigh, Jim's fingers curving to scratch and stroke its throat. Water brought more strength, and the wolf shook the drops from its muzzle, startling Jim into laughter. He realized with a shocked chill that it was the first time he had laughed in almost two months.
Then the wolf rolled on its back at his feet, and Jim knelt to tentatively stroke the white throat, awed by that surrender. His hands looked crude and rough in the soft fur, but the wolf vocalized quiet encouragement. After an endless moment, the wolf rose again to its feet, leaning in to drape its head over Jim's shoulder, pressing its chest into his upraised knee. It left no streaks of blood, and Jim could see that the wounds had already healed. With one last lick of Jim's hand, the wolf turned and slowly walked alongside the stream.
Jim stood bereft, watching the wolf move away from him, and his spine stiffened as, one by one, his senses warped outwards in a Doppler-like effect. He could feel the heightened powers stretching, pulled by the wolf's departure, unmooring themselves from his body like string raveling from an old cloth. He grasped futilely at the smell of earth, the taste of pine, the feel of cool shadow...all drawing away from him in a remorseless tide. The forest was halved and halved again, diminished by his loss. And then, as if it were another sense, he felt the joy of the day and his earlier laughter departing from him, following the spirit wolf.
He gasped once and began to run, sprinting across the distance that separated him from the wolf. Just as he came within a stride of the animal, it turned, staring him down with the beginnings of a snarl.
"I'm coming with you." Jim didn't think about the words before he said them, but once he heard them he recognized the truth. The wolf bared its teeth.
"No," he struggled for words in the face of the wolf's sudden enmity. "Remember? The water's fine."
His step forward was met with a growl and a snap of teeth; Jim stepped back hurriedly. With the hair on its neck and back standing up, the wolf looked larger, fiercer, and Jim could hardly believe that moments ago this animal had bared its throat to him. "Please." The whisper was met with a louder snarl, and Jim stumbled back in shock as the wolf snapped at him again. Taking a slow step back, the wolf lowered its growl to a constant, distant-thunder sound, and Jim took a cautious step forward.
He was on his back before he recognized the leap, and the wolf's teeth were poised over his throat. Jim lay frozen, feeling the warmth of the animal spread above him, the firm pressure of the forefeet on his chest, the feral growl echoing the tremor in his bones. As the sharp teeth came down upon his throat, Jim closed his eyes.
The pressure on his chest left him. Struggling up, Jim saw the wolf already too far distant, running away from him, escaping.
"No!" A denial more than demand, Jim's shout echoed through the forest as he began to run, twisting between the trees, jumping over logs and boulders, following the ghostly gray shape in the distance. The wolf was faster, the separation between them growing despite Jim's frantic efforts. He could barely breathe past the fear gripping his heart, and his eyes watered with more than wind. The wolf glanced back and lengthened its stride, its long whipcord body flying low to the ground like an evening swift.
Suddenly they were out of the trees, and Jim stumbled painfully at the sight of the cliffs ahead of them. The wolf didn't pause, leaping elongated as a lightning strike across the wide gorge, reaching the other side and then turning to stare mournfully back.
Jim stood balanced at the edge of the cliff. There was no way he could make the leap, and the wolf's anger had fled with its jump; it gazed across at him with deep blue regret. Dropping his head, panting with exertion stilled, Jim stared down the long drop to the raging torrent below. The wolf howled, and Jim shivered at the knife-edge sound. One last look, and Jim staggered away from the cliffs.
At the treeline he turned back to find the wolf still watching him. Smiling slightly, Jim took a deep breath--the wolf tensed-- and ran.
Toward the cliff, using every last bit of his strength, Jim forced his body forward and then up, through the air, hurtling across the distance separating them.
Not enough. Jim cursed silently as the far cliff came up to meet him, the impact knocking the breath from his body. His attempt had failed, and he scrabbled at the edge of the drop, fingers digging into loose stones as his body began an inexorable slide toward death. He pressed against the rock, feeling the friction take strips of skin, but not enough to stop his fall. His hands were at the edge now, fingers splayed in desperation, his legs kicking wildly over the vast expanse of nothingness. His left hand swung free, and his right hand slipped the final inches.
A sharp pain stabbed through his wrist, and his momentum slowed. The wolf had grabbed him, teeth buried in his arm, legs braced against the strain of a man's weight. Jim moaned once, agonized not by the bite but by the wolf's slipping stance; they were both moving down now despite the animal's braced strength.
Sitting back almost on its haunches, the wolf strained against gravity, and Jim began to twist his arm free. "Let go! Chief, let go! Don't let me..." and then they fell, the wolf still clinging to him, the rocks below rushing up to meet them, and the pain in his wrist flared as the wolf held on, met his eyes...
Blue eyes, frantic with denial, met Jim's across the low hospital bed. The room was a harsh cacophony of sound as machines screamed their warnings, and Blair convulsed, dragging in his first unassisted breath since Alex's parting strike.
"Ruth!" Jim shouted, "Ruth, help him!" But he didn't remove himself from his guide's desperate grip. A nurse came in, an older woman, calm overlaying her shock as she held the patient down, murmured comfort, took notes on a miracle.
Neither man paid any attention. Wincing gladly under the pressure that ground his wrist bones together, Jim leaned forward in desperate promise. "It's okay, Chief. We're going to be okay." The grip didn't loosen, but Blair blinked rapidly and Jim raised his free hand to touch the sudden wash of tears, feeling their transient warmth in his fingerprints, tasting the salt in the air. "You caught me."
If it weren't for Blair, Jim wouldn't have been sure if the return of his senses was a blessing or a curse. After a physical therapy session like the one they'd struggled through today, it was both. Jim's ultra-sensitive hearing amplified the remnants of a faint slur muffling Blair's words--a reminder of the time when only that same extraordinary hearing had been able to decipher words strangled by post-trauma damage. What had been a blessing then made Jim wince now.
He leaned forward and helped Blair find a more comfortable position against the pillows on the raised bed, not allowing himself to think about the long weeks before therapy, when he had positioned Blair like a soft, limp toy. This exhaustion was of shorter duration: Blair would be bitching to leave again by morning.
"Tell me 'bou' the forest," Blair mumbled, already on the smooth slope to dreams but wanting his favorite bedtime story anyway.
"It was beautiful. Renewing." Jim skipped the plot, which Blair had processed and put aside, as if unwilling to consider Jim's second miracle--and Jim had gladly ceded him that choice. Instead, Jim spoke of his senses, the part of the memory that always tinged Blair's cheeks with color and brightened his eyes. "My senses--everything worked perfectly. I could practically hear molecules rubbing together, watch the chlorophyll cycle; and it was like the possibility of a zone didn't even exist." He closed his eyes, feeling Blair's gaze on him as warm as the phantom sun had been. "Sometimes I wish I could go back."
His eyes flew open as Blair flinched almost imperceptibly under his hand. "Not because of this!" Leaning forward, Jim forced his way through Blair's tormented doubts. "You know this is...I can never say thanks enough. You came back to me and brought me with you..." he smiled at the sudden glimmer of a grin that ghosted over Blair's tired face. "I just wish you could see it."
"Could." Blair's voice was a harsh whisper, but Jim heard the longing. He rested his hand gently on the brace they were only days from losing, unwilling to tell Blair why they couldn't visit the forest yet. Not until Jim was sure that reality was enough to draw Blair back from perfection.
"Not yet. When we're home."
"Yeah." Blair's eyes added, I want to see.
Jim answered, I want to show you.
"Do you get any work done for the ER, Ruth?" Blair was back in top form, teasing a blushing orderly with one last flirtatious smile in between waving to the nurses lining the hallway and heckling the woman pushing his chair. She didn't seem to mind.
"I had to win the toss sometime, didn't I?" The answer meant nothing to Blair, but Jim shot her a wry glance.
"Reward, huh?" he asked quietly.
The ER nurse shook her head. "My real reward would be to never see you two again."
"Hey, a guy could take that personally," Blair grumbled as he laboriously pulled himself into the passenger seat of the car Jim had rented for the occasion--a car with low seats, so that Blair could manage this part of his grand exit with more dignity.
Ruth waited until she had both men's attention. "Do. Take it personally. Don't come back here." Leaning in, she kissed Blair's cheek, only to be pulled back for a soft meeting of lips. She shook her head at Blair's chuckle. "Now go away."
Blair slept through most of his first day back home, but Jim didn't mind. The loft was finally starting to smell right again, the dismal, stale scent of disuse surrendering to coffee and food and Blair. The lower level was now redolent with sleeping Blair, a warm, velvety scent that reminded Jim inexplicably of dumplings. Or beer. Something yeasty and earthy and elemental, as essential for Jim as oxygen.
When Blair's sleep-sanded eyes opened, Jim was ready with more coffee, fulfilling a promise he'd made during one of Blair's rare hospital tantrums. "All the good coffee you can drink, Chief," he said again, just to watch the laughter leap in Blair's face like a flame reflected.
Accepting the mug with a satisfied sigh, Blair let his evident pleasure answer for him. Seated on the floor next to Blair's bed, Jim resumed cataloging the sounds of supposed silence--the calm susurration of breath, the warm throb of the heart, the soft snap of muscle and nerve. When he pulled back from the quiet cacophony of his friend and guide, it was to find himself held by the loving regard of his shaman.
"Time to test the waters, Chief?" Jim asked, speaking softly out of respect for Blair's courage and his own fear.
Blair swallowed quickly, then nodded.
Reaching out to join their hands, Jim promised, "We're together. You'll like it." At Blair's quizzical smile, Jim grinned wryly. "Yeah, I keep telling you: the water's fine."
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