Unsung - Legion
The fifth time Jim came downstairs, sleep mask pushed up on his forehead, robe barely in place, Blair put down the file Simon asked him to look over for another department, took off his glasses, and laid them on top of it. Picking his words carefully, he said with what he hoped was just the right amount of wry sympathy, "Can't sleep?"
For a moment he thought Jim wouldn't answer him, but without pausing in his prowling from door to door to door, Jim said distractedly, "Something like that."
"I could make you some tea." At his partner's suspicious glare, Blair threw up his hands in mock surrender. "Not a concoction; just something like chamomile, supposedly a natural relaxant, which even Simon has been known to drink on occasion."
Stopping by the balcony doors, Jim rubbed at the back of his neck, expression turning sheepish. "I don't think it will help. All five senses are cranked up on high, like I'm about to go into a fire fight."
Frowning, Blair reviewed the day's events, trying to identify anything that might leave the sentinel on guard. "I take it the usual things aren't helping?"
"Even thought about having an extra beer after dinner, but then I couldn't convince myself to drink it." Jim stared out at the water, attention clearly wandering away from the conversation.
"And you're not picking up on anything specific around or near the loft to set you on edge?" Blair asked thoughtfully.
"At least nothing I can pinpoint." Jim sounded remote, almost as if totally removed from the room around him, and he held himself stiffly, arms crossed over his chest.
Worried now, Blair got up and went to stand by him, alert for a zone out, but Jim acknowledged his approach with a look flicked his way, clearly aware despite his preoccupation. Hesitantly, Blair put a hand on his crossed forearms to encourage Jim to really listen to him. "I have this artist friend - he's really, really good. Actually makes a decent living at it, something of an oddity for most creative people. Mostly because they have their head so far into their work that they tend to ignore things like marketing, agents, galleries, that sort of thing."
At Jim's impatient frown, Blair hurriedly got to the part he wanted him to hear. "Anyway, he once told me that the thing he loves most about working is that every time he picks up his paintbrush or inks, he learns something new about his craft. Mastery of any skill takes years, and even then, there are always possibilities that have never come up or there's been no time to discover."
"And this relates to me exactly how, Sandburg?" Jim growled.
"Think about it!" Blair said eagerly, the familiar enthusiasm at discovering something new about Jim's abilities unfurling from deep inside him. "You've only been using your gifts for a small portion of your adult life - not much more than four years now. You're just getting to the point that you could really claim that you've got the basics down, right?"
Jim thought about that for a second, then said grudgingly, "Yeah, so?"
"Well, maybe your abilities are, like, stretching, trying to go the next level, whatever that is for you." Hearing the note of excitement in his voice, Blair tamped himself down, not wanting Jim to use it as an excuse to get annoyed and walk away. To deflect that possibility, he said lightly, "That or you've got a really bad case spring fever."
To his hidden delight, Jim smiled his half-shy smile - the one that crinkled up around his eyes and always did strange things to Blair, tugging and pulling on his emotions in ways he didn't understand. "Teachspeak for sexual frustration?"
Jim grew serious again quickly and added, "Next level, huh? What should I do then, because I'm telling you that pounding my head into the wall until I'm out cold is beginning to look like a good option. At least, that way, I can get some sleep."
Putting away his reaction to that smile, Blair promptly said, "Quit fighting whatever it is. I know impulsive is not normally a word in your vocabulary, but this time, maybe you should make an exception." Smile fading, Jim didn't reject his suggestion, but didn't seem willing to go along either. Hoping to tilt the balance, Blair added, "If you want, I'll hang with you and step in if you start to do something that you'll regret or will get you in trouble."
With mock-skepticism Jim said, "So if I go caveman on some woman and throw her over my shoulder to carry her back to my lair, you'll what? Knock me over the head and lock me up?"
"Then enjoy the favors of said lady who would be so grateful to me for coming to her rescue," Blair shot back, grinning. "Come on, Jim. You said yourself that you're ready to knock yourself out. What difference does it make if I do it for you? All in the interest of a being a good partner, of course."
Jim snorted in amusement, then looked back out toward the harbor, expression growing distant again. "You make it sound easy," he murmured. "Just give into the senses. A night jump over hostile territory would be a breeze in comparison."
Squeezing the arm he had never released, Blair said, "I know, and it's completely contradictory to everything life has taught you up 'til now. But sometimes you have to make that jump just to know that you can if you have to. Maybe that's the only thing the senses need right now; for you to be able to let them go."
"Knowing you're watching my back makes it easier," Jim said so quietly that, for a moment, Blair wasn't sure he hadn't imagined the words. Decisively turning away from the balcony, he asked, "So how do I go about actually doing this?"
Still stunned by what he'd said, Blair scrambled to get his brain back on track. "Right, well, um...." He gestured toward the couch. "Stay with what you know. Get comfortable, close your eyes, and breathe, like you were trying to focus on a single sense."
Jim did as he instructed, though not without a certain amount of reluctance coloring his movements. Perching on the arm, like he had many times before, Blair said softly, persuasively, "Don't concentrate on anything specific. Just ride the flow of information. Don't try to understand what you get or analyze it; just let it move through you, then let it go."
From the twist of Jim's features, Blair guessed what he was asking wasn't easy, but Jim persisted without any further coaxing. After a few minutes his expression smoothed out, but not into the neutral lines that Blair usually associated with him when he was using his senses. Instead it became bland, almost empty, as if Jim weren't behind it at all.
Alarmed, Blair reached out to pat his shoulder and call him back, but before he could touch him, Jim caught him by the wrist, eyes flying open. "You sure you want me to run with this?" he asked, voice as blank as his face.
With an atavistic shudder that he couldn't suppress, Blair said, "Unless you're contemplating murder or mayhem, yes."
"Go pack," Jim ordered flatly, getting to his feet. "Not just clothes; if it's important enough to you that you'll mourn its destruction, box it up. And hurry; I want out of here as fast as possible." With no more than that, he ran up the stairs, leaving Blair staring after him. "I said hurry!" he called down the stairs.
Practice had made perfect for Blair long ago; within ten minutes he had his pack ready and a single box of irreplaceable belongings sitting next to the door. Jim's pack and a small duffle were there already, and he was in the kitchen, efficiently filling a few bags with the kinds of groceries that Blair associated with camping trips. Not pausing in his labor, Jim asked, "How much cash do you have on hand? All of it, including your emergency stash."
Mentally adding it up, Blair said, "About $123.00."
"Bring it, and hide it the way you would for a trip into bad territory - like a waterfront bar in a third world country."
Man, oh, man, oh, man, Blair thought frantically, doing as told.
Groceries taken care of, Jim ran back upstairs, and to Blair's complete amazement, perched on the edge of the loft balcony and jumped across to one of the ceiling beams, catching invisible handholds with a skill that hinted at long habit. He took a small package from a hiding spot that Blair had never dreamed could be there, and dropped lightly to the floor, rolling to expend some of the force of the fall. Bouncing up onto his feet, he asked in a preoccupied tone, "Do you mind handling the money?"
Mystified, Blair said, "I guess not if..." Before he could finish, Jim handed him a thick envelope from the package.
"I'll show you a safe place to keep it in the truck where it won't be found. Ready?"
"Good." Taking him by the arm, Jim steered him toward the door, letting go only when he bent to pick up his pack. "I'd like to get this all down in one trip."
Awkwardly balancing supplies, luggage, and Jim trying to keep at least an elbow on him, Blair made the silent trip down to the truck, growing more bewildered by the minute. As strange as circumstances had been, the next hour proved that they could get even stranger without any effort. After instructing Blair to take out all the cash he could from his account with his ATM card and doing the same himself, Jim wrapped their possessions as water proof as possible, then laid them in the bed of the truck, back near the cab.
He tucked an enormous tarp over them, then folded the plastic out so that it covered the floor of the truck bed. Next he stopped at several all-night stores, and filled the truck with gallon jugs of water, except for half a dozen cases of spring water in thirty-two ounce sports bottles, using his credit card to make his purchases. More stops were made at convenience stores where he covered the water with ice, then with a second tarp doubled over for insulation.
All during their journeying, Jim periodically took pre-paid cell phones out of the package he'd had hidden in the loft, and made calls using voice distorters, once or twice speaking in a foreign language that Blair was willing to swear was Arabic. After each call, he'd do something to the phone, then throw it out the window so that the truck would run over it. The third time the tires crunched over one, Blair asked tentatively, "You're trying to get a Stage 1 terrorist alert posted, aren't you?"
"Create enough of a believable threat that all the police and fire units will be activated," Jim answered mechanically. "They need to be on duty, all of them."
Worried, but trying to keep his tone untroubled, Blair said, "Remember I said I'd step in if you got too out of line? That is so far past the line I don't remember seeing it go by."
"I'm taking precautions to cover us. The phones are disposables bought with cash through a third party I trust; the distorts are a new kind that can't be cleaned up by forensics for voice ID." Taking out his own phone this time, Jim added, "If you want to bail, now's the time."
At a hasty negative shake on Blair's part and apparently unconcerned at the fear Blair knew was pouring off him in waves, Jim hit the speed dial. "Simon - no, I have no idea how late it is and don't care. Listen to me. You're going to get a call in from the department in a few; bring emergency supplies for a long-term crisis, and Daryl. No...no...NO! Just do it. And anybody else you care about that's in Cascade - get them up and get them out of town within an hour. I'll explain when I get to the station."
Though Blair could hear Simon's angry bellow, Jim disconnected, then gave the phone to him. "You still friendly with the night manager at that big, ritzy hotel a couple of blocks from the station - the City View?"
"Call up for coffee friendly, but not much more," Blair said, putting aside his confusion and trying to imitate Jim by going with the flow.
"Call her and see if she'll agree to let the department use the hotel conference rooms and ballroom for an emergency meeting tonight. Then call Taggart and have him activate that family support phone tree he put together for crisis control - I want every cop's family, parents, whatever, at the hotel as soon as possible. And if you can think of a way to get firemen's families there, too, that would be good."
By the time Blair had finished making his calls, placating Joel with the half-truth that the Feds had called a drill and praying that it really was some bizarre sort of sentinel drill, Jim had worked his way through all the disposables, and was sitting at a light, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. "Called all the snitches, told them big busts were coming down and all the activity at the station will back that," he muttered, obviously talking to himself. "Called Father Francis, he's getting the homeless out of the area and to Cascade General because he thinks they've been exposed to a deadly disease. All the gangs with hangouts there are on their way out of town because of a supposed major rumble, and this time of the night all the shops and restaurants should be closed. What to do about the bars? Anybody else to get out? How? Apartments? Call in gas leaks? No, that would get firemen downtown."
Suddenly focusing on Blair and apparently totally unaware of how freaked he was getting, Jim demanded, "Everybody needs to get in and up, away from the harbor and river. What else can I do to get a voluntary evacuation going?"
"All those upscale condos... this time of year most of them are empty; still too early in the spring for beaches. Maybe leak the terrorist threat thing to the press, focus it on the harbor, for the few there? The low rent places - spread the drug bust rumor a little wider? I have some ex-students and friends living down there," Blair suggested hesitantly. "They know I work with the police; they'd believe me if I told them the uniforms are doing a door to door."
"You take care of that," Jim said, handing Blair the last voice mask. "Don't worry about them tracing my cell. I'll take care of the records for it when we get to the office."
As Blair was finishing the last of those calls, Jim turned the truck onto the familiar route to the police department, moving like an automaton, with no sign of emotion at all. More upset by that than by everything else that had happened that evening, Blair said tentatively, "We could do some door knocking ourselves, tell the residents there's a psycho loose in their building."
"No time left," Jim said in an eerily empty voice. "We have to get to the department."
Catching his curls in his hands at either side of his head and tugging fiercely, Blair burst out, "Can you give me some idea of what's going on with you? I'm beginning to think that it wasn't that much of a joke when I said I'd knock you out and cuff you if I had to."
For the first time since the loft, despite refusing to let him get out of arm's reach the entire time, Jim turned and looked at him directly, eyes a blue void as vacant as the day sky. "Blair, it wouldn't take that much for you to stop me, but it would be wrong for you to do it. I think, if you focus on what your own gifts can tell you, you'd know that without being told."
Involuntarily shrinking in on himself, going so far as putting his feet on the seat and hugging his knees, Blair shook his head violently. "Gifts? Me? No way. You're the one with the talent here. I'm just the equivalent of a trainer or coach."
"As long as you keep believing that, I'm going to be able to deny the truth," Jim said, still in the same vacant, robotic way he'd been using, with no trace of humanity left in his expression. "That's almost gotten us killed twice now; sooner or later we will die because of it if we don't get our act together."
Mercifully, Blair was spared actually responding to Jim's astonishing pronouncement by a sudden swarm of traffic, all of it headed toward the station. Jim was forced to turn his full attention back to the road, and released from his eerie stare, Blair put his head down on his crossed forearms, fighting the urge to pant and all too aware of how hard his heart was beating in his chest. The worst, the very worst part, was that something in him resonated to Jim's words, much the same way his whole spirit had resonated the day he had first come to his university office, telling him beyond any concrete fact that he had had in possession at the time that Jim was truly the real deal.
Jim made the turn into the police parking garage, and Blair had no choice but to shove the morass of confusion inside him to one side and deal with the moment. The garage was a flurry of activity, none of it particularly rushed or worried yet, telling him most of the uniforms still thought they were being called to a drill. Parking the truck in the highest, farthest corner of the building, Jim tugged Blair out the driver's side, hand firmly clamped above the crook of his elbow, as if afraid to let him get out of reach even long enough to walk around from the other side.
Expecting to head toward the elevator, Blair tried to dig in his heels when Jim aimed for the stairs instead. "All those flights after the day we've had?"
Without answering him, Jim gave a sharp yank, almost pulling him off his feet. For a split second Blair was tempted to get stubborn, yelling if necessary, but Jim's blank look was slowly being replaced by one of urgency, scaring Blair into cooperating. Four flights later, gasping for breath and barely able to convince his leaden legs to take another step, he reconsidered, this time thinking of adding a good punch for good measure.
At the next landing, Jim stopped dead in his tracks, head dropping as if he were thinking hard. Blair took a deep breath, intending to ask him what he was sensing, but before he could, Jim spun around, wrapping him in his arms. The instant he did, Blair knew that he was going to push him against the wall and cover him protectively, and that this was the wrong place to do it. Adding a lurch sideways to the shove, he stumbled, taking Jim with him, and managed to skid them into the corner of the landing.
As his back made hard contact with the concrete wall, the ground underfoot shimmied, jolted up an inch or so, then down more than that inch. Around them the building moaned and creaked in harmony to a rumble that hurt the bones and woke something deep in the mind to screaming vigilance. Miraculously, Jim managed to stay on his feet, riding the shaking ground as if it were a bucking bronco at a rodeo. Blair never so much as swayed, pinned as he was by his partner's muscular mass.
As suddenly as the quake started, it stopped, though the building continued to protest a moment or two more. Its last complaint broke loose one end of the overhead fluorescent light, and the fixture swung down, crashing into the wall where Jim and Blair would have been if Blair hadn't moved them. From the solid bulwark of Jim's shoulders, he stared at the broken light, slowly swinging on its wiring, then viciously shoved the whole incident out of his mind for later consideration. Much later, like the same time next millennium.
To his own vague surprised, he said calmly, "So that's what set you off."
Arm around his shoulder, Jim urged him to climb again. "No, it's just the start."
Blair didn't have the breath to spare to demand an explanation, not if he wanted to keep up with his partner - and arrive on his own two feet instead of being carried. Within minutes they reached the floor for Major Crimes, bursting through the door in time to hear Simon shout, "Tell Dispatch to have every unit report in with what they see."
"I'm telling you, Simon," Joel Taggart said grimly, moping a small cut over an eyebrow, that was an earthquake, not a bomb blast. I've been through both!"
"Big earthquake, far away," Jim said so definitively that everyone in the bullpen turned to look at him. "After shocks on the way."
He caught Daryl Bank's eye, and gave a sharp nod to the door. "Go to Dispatch, tell them the experts said it was a quake, and ask them to discreetly inform the units that their families are on their way to safety near the station."
Shooting a glance at Joel, Jim got a confirming nod, seemingly dismissed both men from mind, and said directly to Simon, "You need to send men down to the harbor to evacuate the area."
"What...why... I can't just..."
Clearly not listening to Banks sputter, Jim swept two desks clean, and reached over to take a map of Cascade down from the wall to lay it flat on them. Reading his intent almost as he moved, Blair helped him. "Think, everybody. Big quake near a harbor... there's a chance of a tsunami, a tidal wave."
Getting it on the word harbor, Simon snapped over his shoulder to his secretary, "Rhonda, have we gotten word from the commissioner, the mayor, anybody?"
"Captains from Vice and Homicide just reported in," she said distractedly, listening to somebody on the phone. "On their way up 'cause a uniform told them you were running the drill."
"Thank God it was called," Joel said, bending over the map and marking the glass to indicate the inhabited areas of the beachfront.
Staring at Jim, eyes narrowed and calculating, Simon echoed blandly, "Interesting bit of luck."
Returning the stare as blandly, Jim said, "It happens."
Before Simon could say whatever was on his mind, the ground heaved once, sharply, before settling down again. "Aftershock," he muttered.
Half-turned in the direction of the harbor, mind plainly distant, Jim said softly, "Way far away. Alaska, at least. And definitely out to sea."
Speaking just as quietly, leaning in to touch him lightly on the upper arm, Blair asked, "Is a wave coming?"
"Yes. I can't tell how big yet, or how fast." Jim's eyes cleared and he focused on Banks again. "We've got time enough to get a lot of people clear. I'll know when to pull the units back in."
Simon sighed deeply and pinched at the bridge of his nose under his glasses. "I've trusted the sentinel thing for some out-there things, Jim, but this... this is really putting my tail on the line."
Sitting down at a desk and logging onto the computer there, Blair said reassuringly just to Simon, "There's so much miscommunication going on, it'll be easy to justify the decision."
Blair raised his voice loud enough to attract everyone's attention. "It's common emergency procedure to evacuate beaches after a quake, like heading to the lowest level of your house during a tornado alert. You feel the ground shake, you get away from the shores and river outlets, just in case." He turned the monitor so they could see the map he'd tapped into at the United States Geological Survey Earthquake database. The quake's intensity had already been posted by the researchers, along with tsunami potential.
In the dead silence that followed, while everyone absorbed the impact of what they were seeing, Blair said calmly, "We've got nearly two hours, they're guesstimating at this point, but we're due for high tide about the same time frame, too. That's not good, nor is it a help that we're due for Spring Tide with the new moon tonight - it's the highest tide of the year. Normally, you only have to worry about the wave going a couple hundred yards or so inland where there's urban development, but we need to assume the worst and set up a half-mile perimeter because of those factors."
The hush lasted a moment longer, then, like the professionals they were, the bullpen buzzed into useful activity. Daryl darted into the room carrying a headset, trailed by the other two department captains who had reported in. "Dispatch said this would let you talk to them directly, so you'd know what's going on. Units are reporting in by their unit number to one dispatcher on one channel, damage to another."
Taking the headset from his son with obvious reluctance, Simon caught the eye of the other captains, received grim-faced 'go-ahead' nods, and put it in place with a suddenly assumed air of confidence. "All right, people, priorities are evacuation, search and rescue, looters, and traffic control. Captain Porter, you take civilian agencies, starting with the Port Authority, Whitman, you take..."
Blair tuned him out, called back by intuition to his partner. Bracing himself on the edge of a table, he rode out the aftershock with him, one hand discreetly on his thigh to give him the physical contact with him that Jim seemed to need. Almost before the tremors stopped, Simon was back in gear, assigning him and Jim to troubleshooting and problem solving. It gave Jim the most flexibility to use the military training he had, and Blair let himself be dragged along in his wake, more aware of him than of the frantic activity around them.
For some reason civilian problems were shunted his way, and he wound up doing everything from helping secure the transport of medical personnel to the hospitals to delegating retired cops to all-night stores, both as security measures and to get supplies the rapidly growing crowd of women, children and elderly at the borrowed hotel would need. Despite his non-stop stream of conversation, comments, and observations, most of Blair's awareness was focused on Jim, almost as if he were an extension of himself.
Even through the demands on him, Blair gradually became aware that Jim, friend and partner, wasn't gone, so much as he had retreated deep into himself, leaving instinct and training to run his body. That made perfect sense to him. How could Jim function at his most efficient if he was constantly struggling with emotional and personal concerns, especially his habitual distrust of his own senses? It also explained why he kept touching Blair. He was literally Jim's connection to the outside world, keeping him from getting too lost in his own mind.
Acknowledging that seemed to free his psyche as well, and as precious, irretrievable seconds ticked by, Blair grew more and more detached from anything except the moment he was in and his partner's presence. Jim's location relative to him was a subtle weight pressed against his skin, like a heavy garment that shifted and flowed with his movements. His voice was a familiar song in the background that Blair listened to without needing to hear the words to understand, and they moved together in an intricate routine of efficiency that felt as natural to him as running or swimming.
When Jim stopped dead in the middle of a sentence, eyes closing in concentration, scowling fiercely, Blair towed him toward Simon and said softly, "Time to call everybody in. They need to be at least a mile inland, and if they can't go in, they need to go up. The upper floors on high-rises, at least six stories high, and with five blocks of buildings in front of them should be able to handle the impact."
Without so much as glancing at them, Simon barked the orders to dispatch, then sank down on the edge of the nearest desk, gaze on his unaware son filling a coffee pot across the room. "Are we far enough up and in, Jim?"
A spark of his normal self flared up, and Jim scrubbed at the back of his neck. "I honestly can't say. It's... it's big. I can feel the air pressure wave in front of it, feel the change in the ground underfoot, the way the water is moving in the harbor. But I don't have anything to compare it to for a guess at just how big."
"Great," Simon muttered sourly, not really meaning it. "I get to spend the next few minutes wondering if I should have made like his-honor-the-mayor when the drill was called and taken a nice vacation camping trip with my son in the mountains instead of reporting in."
At the guilty, troubled look Jim shot his way, Blair said for his ears alone, "Don't you dare blame yourself for not sending me to high ground. I'm your partner, if being your friend and roomie doesn't count for enough with you."
"Just partner? Just friend?" Jim murmured.
Not giving Blair a chance to react, Jim caught him by the arm in what was becoming a very habitual gesture, and pulled him toward Simon's office, grabbing Daryl with his free hand. "Under cover, now," he shouted to the room in general. "Away from windows and under something heavy if you can."
Following his own advice, he pushed Blair under the conference table in Simon's office, then crawled under himself. Without explanation, he curled in on himself, one hand locked in the waist of Blair's jeans, and to all appearances went to sleep. Pulling Daryl's head to his chest and covering it protectively with his arms, Simon asked, "A nap? Now?"
"He's shutting down," Blair said absently. "Think about it. How many billions of tons of water are going to slam down; how many buildings and cars and what-have-you are going to crumple, collapse, be destroyed? How many people are going to die? Be hurt? Lose someone? Do you want him to have to listen, to feel all of that?"
Getting as comfortable as the hard floor would allow, covering Jim's head with his arms and not caring what Simon thought of it, he added, "I'm going under with him. If we don't come out of it by ten minutes after the impact, shake me awake. Not him. I'll know if it's safe enough to rouse him."
Hardly hearing Daryl's worried whisper of "Daddy," Blair took a deep cleansing breath, let it out slowly, and did his best to fill his universe with the peculiar sense of Jim that had dominated the last hours. Like a lost traveler following a will-o-wisp in the swamp, he chased after the bright flicker that was his partner, never feeling the building sway violently or hearing the unimaginable thunder of an ocean's worth of cascading water.
* * *
For the next few days, the one big question the press had for survivors along the Washington and Oregon coast was, "What was it like when the big wave hit?" Most stared at the reporters blankly, though a few brave souls ventured a fragmented word or two. Oddly, the closer they were to ground zero, the more likely they were to be silent when asked.
For Simon's part, all he could really remember of those violent, insane moments was an irrational certainty that he was going to die and the smell of sea water so strong that it was nearly choking. To Simon's everlasting pride, Daryl didn't so much as yelp, though he was shaking so hard that at the end, Simon couldn't tell if the building had stopped shuddering or not. The lights flickered out, struggled to come back on, then died completely, leaving them in utter darkness for the last few seconds of the nightmare.
A long, drawn-out hiss of water rushing heralded the end, then a profound quiet descended, broken only by harsh panting that Simon realized belatedly was his own. Cutting it off ruthlessly, he forced himself to breathe normally and began feeling outside the shelter of the table. Thankfully, the station's emergency power kicked on and the lights came back at half power. Letting Daryl go with aching unwillingness, he asked, "You okay, son?"
"Shaken, but not stirred," Daryl quipped gamely. He followed Simon out from under the table, stood, and amended, "Maybe a little stirred. My stomach keeps thinking the ground's going to go crazy again."
Giving him a clap on the shoulder, both to acknowledge the spirit behind the humor and his own residual queasiness, Simon called out, "Any injuries? Serious damage?"
As if that had been the cue the others were waiting for, a soft babble of voices answered him, and took up more or less where they had left off before the wave hit. Simon nodded to himself in satisfaction, picked up a tumbled chair, and set it up next to his office door. Nudging Daryl into it, he said, "Stay there, keep an eye on the clock. If Sandburg doesn't come out in ten minutes, come and get me. And don't let anybody in there, either. Wave them off to me if they want to. Got it?"
Eyes impossibly round, Daryl looked back into the office, and, without thinking, Simon did the same, just barely able to see through the shadows and debris to where Ellison and Sandburg lay wound around each other. He blinked at an unexpected surge of emotion, not sure if it was envy, tenderness, or petulance they were getting a brief respite from the chaos around them. An urgent call from Rhonda summoned him back to duty, and he carefully shut the door behind him before answering.
Putting his headset back in place, he checked in with Misha, the dispatcher he was working with directly. "Everybody okay there?"
"A few bad moments when the lights went out and the lines went dead," Misha said dryly, chuckling. "Nothing more disconcerting to a phone operator than having no one to talk to!"
Making a mental note to make sure the dispatchers - hell, everybody with a badge - got a commendation, at the very least, Simon laughed. "Doubt that's going to be a problem for the next day or two. Start with another check in by the units, same drill as the last time. I'm assigning different quarters of the city to different captains to oversee, so you decide by location which cruisers talk to who."
Organizing a sweep to determine how extensive the damage was kept Simon occupied, and he intentionally created a strong police presence to reassure the average citizen, as well as discourage the less savory ones. In addition, he fielded questions from his own men, spoke with his peers as they divided up Cascade on the map, and attended to a thousand other details that needed seeing to right now. In the back of his mind, though, he kept watch on his office door, anxious for some sign of life.
Daryl sat in the chair beside it, as asked, elbows on knees, head hanging, more to discourage people from talking to him than because he was as downhearted as he looked. Oddly, no one questioned Ellison and Sandburg's absence; not even Joel, who had been working closely with Sandburg on the civilian issues. Nor did anyone venture too close to where Daryl sat, though several spoke to him in passing, apparently just to make sure he was okay.
Just as Daryl couldn't maintain his pose and started slanting worried peeks at the door, it swung open, and Ellison strode out, looking for all the world as if it were any other day. Even Sandburg, whose emotions were generally near the surface, didn't seem overly concerned about what was going on around them, though he was finger-combing debris out of his hair. Ellison spotted Simon, and, without breaking his stride, turned toward him.
"Where's that chopper pilot I asked for?" Ellison asked, tone brisk and all business.
"I'm fine, too, thank you very much," Simon growled under his breath, despite knowing that Jim would hear him perfectly. In a more professional tone, he shouted to the room in general, "Towers?"
Simon jabbed at thumb toward Ellison, simultaneously taking a clipboard from Rafe to scan the list of personnel injuries - short and nothing demanding immediate medical attention. "Take him up."
"Now?" the slender black man asked incredulously.
"Now," Jim answered in Simon's place. "The station's emergency lights include the landing lights on the roof. That's all you'll need." He headed for the door, the still-protesting pilot following in his wake, brushing past Simon as he went.
Two hands, one smaller, both strong, gripped Simon's upper arms briefly, squeezing gently in both encouragement and reassurance. Blair flashed him a smile as he went by, without ever pausing in persuading the pilot that not only was it safe to go up, but that he wouldn't need any of his running lights at all, night vision equipment and instrumentation were all that was really important. More heartened than such a small thing warranted, Simon gave a small nod of acknowledgment, and went back to doing what he could for his broken city.
Before much longer, Ellison whispered in Simon's ear through the headset. "Dispatch is putting me straight through to you, and you'll relay to the others as needed. That work for you, Simon?"
"Sounds good; we're as ready as we're going to get," Simon said distractedly. "No units lost or damaged; per Sandburg's suggestion, we're doing the same by the numbers check-in with family members. More complicated but it's working well enough that most are accounted for, either at home or at the hotel. Give us an overview first; let us know how it looks."
For the next six hours, until the first grays of dawn lightened the sky enough for other pilots, other eyes, to be useful, Jim's voice carried them all through a city devastated by the largest tsunami ever recorded. For more than a quarter-mile inland, the water had scraped away everything, leaving twisted metal, wooden fragments, and barely recognizable foundations of buildings. Though the power plant had survived more or less intact, electricity was out in the entire city because of downed lines and destroyed transformer stations. Rivers and streams had been forced out of their beds by the incredible wash of water, leaving roads and byways flooded in unexpected places, doing more damage as the city's drains and sewers struggled to cope with tremendous overflow.
Even as Jim painted this picture for them, he navigated emergency vehicles over a landscape made alien by loss of landmarks. He directed police units and rescue efforts where they were most needed while keeping them away from danger areas, and was generally the eyes of the department as it struggled to protect and serve. In the background, a soft counter-point to Jim's narrative, Blair spoke as well, giving Joel answers to questions that everyone had on their tongue but had no way to ask.
Blair was the one to report that all the hospitals had been spared, emergency generators running, though Little Sisters of Mercy was sitting in the middle of a small lake that used to be their parking lot. It made emergency arrivals difficult but still possible for the right vehicles, giving them a much-needed refuge in the area. More than one parent sighed in relief when he reported that Rainier's campus was un-touched, dormitories intact with security running patrols apparently doing head-counts.
After a while, the soft murmur from the two of them faded into the background as Simon dealt with crisis after crisis, forced to triage emergencies into those who could hold out a while longer from those who were in desperate straits. He grew hoarse relaying information to the other people, coordinating their efforts to cover as many problems as possible. At one point, very late in the night, the mayor came in, took one look at the situation, and earned Simon's vote for as long as he ran for office by leaving again almost immediately, telling his aides to make sure the press and other public relations problems were routed to him.
The end results were more than worth it. Looting was almost non-existent thanks to retired police officers and court bailiffs who had volunteered to assist made the rounds of any businesses that managed to stay open. Their services had the double benefit of keeping the employees safe and the prices for basic needs like fresh water where they belonged. Ambulances and rescue vehicles traveled on roads free of traffic snarls, despite the lack traffic lights, and refugees funneled into shelters with a minimum of confusion and chaos.
Shock faded into numbness over the long hours of the night, and the dawn made Simon grateful for it as he and the others saw for themselves what had happened to their city. As television camera crews and choppers hit the air, Jim's landed, and at Blair's request, Simon met them with two bottles of cold water and some aspirin. The flash of gratitude in Jim's expression as he took the much-needed medicine for his abused throat made the trip upstairs worth it, despite the agony in what Simon could see for himself in the distance. Pushing that aside, he led the way downstairs, and asked, "What next?"
"Search and rescue," Blair said promptly, though Jim just grunted an affirmative.
"We've got crews out already," Simon started to argue.
Rhetorically, almost humorously, Blair asked, "Ones with Jim's unique locating abilities?" More seriously, he went on, "These are the golden hours for rescue, Simon. Last night was pretty cold for the spring, the day's not going to be much warmer according to my own personal weatherman, and hypothermia is going to be adding to the problems of anyone in trouble."
It was true, but didn't stop Simon from asking, "When was the last time either of you slept?"
"Does it matter? We're good to go for a while longer yet."
Frowning and trying not to stare pointedly at the lines of fatigue and pain around Jim's eyes, or pinched edges of Blair's mouth, Simon said, "I don't need exhausted men in the field, making mistakes left and right, maybe fatal ones, so don't bullshit me."
With an eerie serenity, Blair said, "Don't worry; I won't let him over-extend himself to the danger point, any more than he'll let me. I'll bring us back in when we're getting too tired."
Glancing at Jim to see how he was taking Blair speaking for both of them, Simon blinked and unintentionally slowed his steps. Jim didn't seem to have noticed, or maybe was taking it for granted; his attention was clearly already far beyond the stairs they were currently descending. It was so unlike what he expected from the always self-reliant and individualistic Ellison that Simon opened his mouth to demand what was going on with them, only to snap it shut again when Blair caught his eye and gave an infinitesimal shake of his head.
Letting Jim get a few steps ahead of them, Blair murmured, "Let it go, Simon. For now. I promise we'll explain later, but trust me, this is the best way for us to do what has to be done in the next day or so."
"Do I have a choice here?"
"Not if you want to save lives."
There was nothing to say to that, and Simon tiredly changed the subject, updating them on what he thought they might want to know. "So far the casualty count is fairly low, not just for us, but for most of the immediate area. Apparently, the FBI, or whoever made the call to warn about a potential terrorist attack, decided Cascade might not be the only coastal city in danger, and most were in alert mode when the tsunami warnings were officially made. Big help since that stretch got the brunt of the wave.
"No mutters yet from official channels at just how good the timing was on that terrorist alert?" Blair asked seriously.
Simon couldn't help grinning wryly. "Not that I know of, but the few seconds I've had to check into it, it looks like the two of you covered your tracks perfectly. Uniforms are circulating some interesting rumors, though, at just how few people they had to evacuate."
"It'll take a while for the politicos to start putting things together," Blair said, more to himself than Simon. "By then the opinions and theories will be so out-there that there's almost no chance that anyone will think to connect them to the department itself, let alone us."
"Right now, having the whole sentinel business come up is the least of our worries," Simon grumped.
"No, Simon. It's always at the top of my list; it has to be." Blair's tone was so flat that arguing, let alone contradicting him, was nearly unthinkable.
Regardless, Simon said, "And what are you planning to do about the people upstairs who witnessed Jim's imitation of a early warning system last night? Or the pilot who flew the two of you around in pitch-black darkness? He's bound to have noticed that you were the only one using night goggles."
"For the most part, it's human nature for people to come up with their own answers for anything that they see and don't understand," Blair said placidly. "The ones who really noticed will most likely be the people we work with daily. If Rafe or H. or whoever hasn't guessed the truth by now and decided to keep it to themselves, they'll find explanations that suit them and forget about it."
There were a thousand things Simon wanted to say to him, starting with 'why give up your life for the sentinel thing, if Jim's going to out himself by doing his act in public' and ending with 'are the both of you out of your minds.' He stifled them all because the answer was in a casualty list that very likely was going to be in the hundreds instead of thousands, and in the very character of the two men he counted as his closest friends. Resigning himself to dodging some pointed questions from his people, Simon opened the door to the garage level, irritably asking himself why he'd followed them all the way down when he was only going to have to climb right back up again.
The blast of noise almost knocked him back into the stairwell, but he literally leaned into the sound and stepped out into the garage. To his surprise, he saw Daryl and a group of other kids his age or a little younger clustered around a group of tables set up next to Jim's truck. Daryl himself was in the bed of the Ford, handing two dripping bottles to a uniformed officer, while his partner took several sandwiches from a girl at the table.
Seeing him, Daryl waved. "Hey, Dad. Blair, Jim. Everybody coming in for gas is getting water, just like you asked me to do, and I'm telling them to keep the bottles so we can refill from the big jugs. Ice is holding out pretty well, so far, but it's cool enough down here I don't think we have to worry for a while. Megan told me I should probably remind them to consider any water they come into contact with, even from the faucets, contaminated until the Health officials give the all-clear on it."
"Good job," Blair said warmly. "It's being announced on the emergency broadcasting system, but it can't hurt to reinforce that a few times. Oh, and that means boiling water for bathing, too, just in case of scratches or other open wounds. Where'd all the food come from?"
Sounding indecently cheerful, Daryl answered, "Your friend, Lilly, at the hotel. No power, no refrigeration, so she decided to take the risk of ticking off her boss, the day manager, and donating what would spoil before it could be used. Put back enough to take care of the patrons, of course, but most of them are checking out early, anyway. Some of the spouses are going to check at area restaurants, places like that, see if they want to do the same, and send it to the shelters."
"Man, she's complained about him before," Blair said as he scooped up sandwiches, handing a load to Simon. "Real supercilious, hypercritical asshole. Owners are really decent, but it's only one hotel in their chain. Hope he doesn't give her too much grief; this is going to be a big help. Nice idea about the restaurants, too. Yours?"
Daryl flushed in pleasure, shrugged like it was no big deal, and gave Jim two bottles of water. A moment later one of the other teens called to him for help, and he was gone with playful punch at his dad as he passed. Mentally making a note to add his own praise later, and to call the mayor to get him to run interference for Lilly, Simon caught a flash of a broad grin beamed his way by Blair, almost as if he'd read Simon's mind and approved of his plans.
As quickly as that thought crossed his mind, Simon squashed it flat, and turned to Dan Wolf as he came up to Jim, spray paint cans in hand. "Really garish green," Dan said hurriedly. "Paint a cross, not an 'x' or circle or anything else. Do not move any bodies unless necessary to save the living so we've got the best chance of identifying them. Pick-up crews are being formed already, along with a temp morgue. Lucky us, there was an M.E. conference in LA, and we've got volunteer techs and docs on the way."
"Got it," Blair said as Jim took the cans. "Got a procedure in place for people to identify the missing?"
"Will by the time we have enough bodies and enough people recovering from the shock to start asking. Photo I.D., only, as much as possible." Dan snagged another officer going past, raised another paint can questioningly, and released him at the affirmative nod.
Jim used the distraction as an opportunity to leave, giving Simon a half-wave as he unwrapped a sandwich, broke off a piece, and shoved it into Blair's mouth, which was half-opened to speak. Blair laughed through the bite, but took the rest willingly enough as they made their way to Megan's jeep. Shaking his head, amused and annoyed at his best team, Simon piled the sandwiches he held on a tray, picked the whole thing up and gave it to the nearest kid. "Take this up to Major Crimes, now, please."
"Sure thing - and we're trying to make coffee. Want a thermos of it when we do?" she said, not even looking up.
"You'll get a standing ovation if you do."
That got a laugh out of her, and she left, still chuckling, Simon following in her wake more slowly. It wasn't until he'd almost finished the climb that he realized that he hadn't heard Jim speak the entire time they'd been together, or react to anybody except Sandburg. That bothered him for no reason he could put a finger on, keeping the pair of them on his mind despite the chaos swirling around him.
Daylight brought the crazies, idiots, opportunistic entrepreneurs and self-important public figures out, adding to already bad situations out on the street. Amazingly, most of the stories and gossip about their antics were fairly good-natured. Simon's favorite was the 'real tsunami seawater, collected as it crashed' one enterprising youngster was hawking to the tourists being turned away at roadblocks and blockades meant to keep the idly curious and distraught away from the damaged areas.
Because of his conversation with Blair, and because the funny ones were good for morale, Simon encouraged the talk, listening with half an ear for the ones he needed to hear. It didn't take long, nor did it take long for them to take on near-hushed tones of reverence, as if miracles were happening all around.
An old married couple who must have waited until almost too long to evacuate were found in their car, half-buried in mud and unconscious. No one knew who planted the emergency beacon that led rescuers to them.
Four elderly patients in a nursing home and the nurses that had stayed behind with them to wait in vain for the next transport had taken refuge in the home's walk-in refrigerator. The building had been partially demolished, but the fridge had withstood it - though debris blocked the door so completely that it couldn't be opened from the inside. No one should have been able to find them in their hiding place, yet a beacon had been placed for them, as well.
A deaf woman, too trapped by the rushing water of a flooded stream to do anything but hang on, was pulled from the water by a two men who literally climbed from half-submerged tree to half-submerged tree to reach her. She was wrapped in a blanket, pointed in the direction of a cruiser making its way through the area, and when she turned to thank her saviors, they were gone as if they'd never been there. She had no idea how they had seen her where she had been; two other rescue crews had gone right by.
An unknown man described as looking like an angel in the rough handed a five-year-old girl to a paramedic, telling him her name and that she had been taken from her mother during the chaos of the evacuation. When questioned later, the child simply said when the bad man started to do bad things, she'd cried for her mommy and a big man with a gun tore open the door of the truck to make him stop. The team she'd been delivered to was in the heart of the desolation; the white panel van with the girl's jacket and backpack was found hours later, tucked into the ruins of a metal outbuilding. Oddly, no one was arrested or turned into the police for child molestation.
Much of what Simon heard could be contributed to good Samaritans or busy officers not taking the time to identify themselves as they hurried from emergency to emergency. But some, especially the ones coming in from the uniforms, talked about a couple of plain-clothes men who turned up in the most unlikely places, finding seriously hurt or unconscious people buried in wreckage. EMTs were talking about a cop showing up, claiming to be an ex-army medic, triaging injuries that couldn't be detected in the field, yet he'd never been wrong once, saving more than a couple of people. With him was a younger cop that could calm any victim, no matter how hysterical; get any child to cooperate, no matter how terrified.
Why no one recognized Ellison and Sandburg, Simon had no idea but names were never attached, nor were descriptions. For the most part he chalked it up to people just being too damned busy to look at faces, but there was something else going on as well, though he couldn't begin to imagine what. After a while, he began to wonder if he was attributing too much to the pair; there were simply too many stories for them to be behind all of it.
Late afternoon, chewing on his cigar and worrying how long he was going to have to make it last, Simon straightened up from looking over the map one more time, satisfied at the progress being made in a relatively short time. "When did you say the first of the National Guard the governor is sending will get here?" he asked Rhonda.
"Midnight or so," she said tiredly. "Better late than never. How long do you think it'll take to limp back toward normal?"
"Define normal," Simon answered, dead serious.
Regardless, she laughed, gave him the cup of tepid coffee that he was grateful for despite the taste, and went back to the mountain of paper overwhelming her desk. Simon watched her go, trying to decide if he should send her home for some rest. He saw a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, and turned his head just enough to see Sandburg motioning to him. Blair was literally dragging Ellison toward Simon's office, both of them looking too exhausted to stand.
He met them there, as Jim sat heavily on the couch, so gray-faced that Simon barked, "Do we need to get a doctor up here?"
"Going to have take a break," Sandburg muttered, leaning on the wall. "There's just so much going on out there, and Jim has to keep his senses wide open to be able to do any good. It's not like the normal commotion of the city that he's so used to. God, so many people hurt, afraid, lost, grieving, angry..."
That didn't sound like a sense problem to Simon, but he ignored the comment and pushed Blair toward the couch. It didn't take any other encouragement, and Blair stretched out on it, using a handful of jacket to haul Jim down as well. It was a tight fit for two, but a squirm or two fit them together as if they were twins in a womb.
"Wake us in a couple of hours, 'bout sunset, kay?" Blair mumbled. "Lots left to do, but we'll work better in the quiet of the night."
"You need longer," Simon said automatically, knowing it was useless.
"Have t'do...." Blair's words ended on a breathy snore.
For a moment Simon stood and stared at them, the same odd mix of emotion from before spinning through him. Someone shouted for him, and he kicked himself into motion, closing all the blinds to get it as dark as possible, then shutting the door behind him. He let himself be swept back into the job, and soon lost himself in the myriad of details that had to be taken care of now.
The occupants of his office stayed in the back of his mind, though, and before too long he glanced up at the door for no good reason that he could give himself. To Simon's surprise, Taggart was sitting in the chair that Daryl had occupied the night before, in almost the exact place. Noticing Simon's stare, he gave a sheepish half-shrug and indicated the shoe that he had off, foot in lap for inspection. Simon grinned sympathetically; his own feet were beginning to feel like they were twice as large as the shoes on them.
But the next time he looked up, some twenty minutes later, it was Conner who was sitting there, sandwich in her lap and some papers in hand, reading as she ate. Fifteen minutes after that, it was Rafe, trying to keep reception from one of the few towers still standing on his cell phone, scribbling notes on a pad barely balanced on a knee. The time after that it was H, and after that, Rhonda. His people, Simon finally realized with a flash of pride as intense as he'd ever felt, were giving Jim and Blair an honor guard as they slept. Without discussion, without fanfare, they were watching over the two that had watched over them.
For the first time Simon counted how many of the men and women he worked with, he saw, he talked to on a daily basis, would be dead if not for them. Too many, though even one would have been too many as far as he was concerned. The reality of the events of the night hit him, like a prize-fighter's low blow to the kidneys, and Simon suddenly had to fight down terror-inspired nausea. Gripping the edge of the map desks so tightly his knuckles hurt, he bent his head to hide his face and fought off tears.
It wasn't the time or place to give into either his grief for those lost, or his guilty relief that those he loved weren't among them, and Simon sternly reined himself in, needing only a single deep breath before he could turn back to work. If anyone noticed his lapse, they were polite enough not to mention it, a courtesy Simon knew he was going to have to extend more than once himself as emotions began catching up to people too tired and worn to fight them off any longer. That went double for the men out on the street, and he began putting together a roster of those first on so they could be rotated off for a few hours break.
And the next time the chair was empty, he sat in it himself, expression forbidding anyone to ask him why he'd use his laptop there of all places.
* * *
Thirty-six hours after he crawled under a table to wait and see if death would be the next journey he took with his sentinel, Blair slowly reconnected to a world that he had been watching from a great distance, as through a telescope. Safe inside that merciful space, he had sent his body to do what was required, but his heart and spirit had been spared feeling anything but tremendous compassion for the destruction and death that Mother Earth had unwillingly and unhappily delivered on her children. All that had truly mattered, that had been truly real, during those hours was the man by his side, burning as brightly as a torch in the depths of a cave, clinging to Blair without touch or word as he navigated his own body through the wreckage of a city.
The distance allowed Blair to see people as he had never seen them before, understanding each one's actions and unspoken language with a clarity that verged on mind-reading. His unique perspective let him realize that he had always been able to pick up on some of it, and it was a small part of what Inchaca had recognized and validated in him when he had passed the Shaman's way on to him. It had, in a minor way, allowed Blair to live and work with his sentinel, connecting to him in the manner that it appeared all sentinels were connected to each other and those who guided them.
Despite his uninvolved, aloof state, Blair wanted very, very badly to sit down some place quiet and solitary to think on those revelations, but that was simply an impossibility. Instead, he concentrated on the tasks at hand, treating each step as if it were the only one, with no other just finished and none waiting. He couldn't keep it up, of course; not and remain human. Anymore than Jim could perpetually surf the deluge of sensory information he was using with such tremendous skill, though the two naps, food and water that Blair had forced on him helped him last much longer than either of them anticipated.
When exhaustion and over-use blurred the edges of the precision both them brought to bear on the job, Blair voluntarily drifted back toward the sharp edges of reality, prepared for the cutting edges but still helpless against the pain. Jim came with him, gently tugged along by Blair's stirring awareness of just how tired, dirty, and hungry he was.
Finally, the spray paint Blair was using to mark the location of yet another body sputtered, spit, then gave out, and the cushion dissipated completely. He swore and viciously tossed the can as far as he could, for once not concerned about littering. The very notion that one little can was going to make the slightest difference to the unimaginable mountains of rubble the wave had generated forced a dry, choking laugh from him, and he turned into the hug waiting for him. "Enough," he muttered. "Just... enough, you know?"
"Yes," Jim whispered soothingly.
Sneaking a peek at Jim's features from where he had his face hidden on Jim's chest, Blair held down an exasperated groan. He might be all back but his sentinel obviously wasn't, and after a second's thought, he decided that might be for the best. Blair knew he reeked from hour after hour of slogging through mud and wreckage, the landscape around them reeked with decay and despair, and the nicest thing he could say about any information his pathetic senses gave him was that the cool ocean breeze was refreshing on what bits of skin were bare of crusted grime.
Summoning what was left of his will power, Blair pulled away from his shelter. "Come on. Last time we checked in with Simon, he told me that the owners of the hotel were putting up any officers and their families who had lost their homes. Unfortunately, that's us, too."
Jim hesitated, looking torn between duty and the promise of rest, and Blair literally dragged him toward Megan's Jeep, which they had borrowed because of its four-wheel drive. "No argument. If I don't at least scrape off a layer of this mud soon, I'll start to fossilize."
The joke won him a partial smile, and Jim stopped resisting. "Food first?"
Getting in, Blair thought about it, then shook his head. "Tireder than I am hungry."
"Amen." Jim opened the door on his side, paused, head tilted in a way that was painfully familiar. "Wait."
Resisting the urge to scream in frustration, Blair reached across until he could loosely circle Jim's wrist with his fingers. "What do you hear?"
"A baby crying."
Hearing only the gulls and crash of waves, Blair couldn't resist asking, "Are you sure it's something we have to look into? Could be a mother with her baby, checking out what's left of her home." Truthfully, the police had done a fairly good job holding back residents wanting to do precisely that, citing that finding and identifying remaining victims and bodies made it important for civilians to stay away for a while longer yet. A few had slipped through, along with newsmen, but since the National Guard had arrived, none had made it.
Not bothering to remind Blair of that, Jim shook his head. "It's alone, and weak sounding." For a moment he scrubbed at his eyes, a bit more Jim reporting in as he tried to define what else he sensed. "Muffled, somehow."
There was nothing else to do. "Let's go." Sliding out of the Jeep on the driver's side, Blair waited while Jim concentrated, then faithfully followed as he single-mindedly tried to travel the most direct route to his target. That meant that Blair had to steer him around obstacles on occasion. That he had to was a measure of just how exhausted Jim had to be; that he let Blair manhandle him so blatantly was a better one.
Pulling to a stop in front of a huge tangle of trees, bushes, boards, and seaweed, Jim studied the mass with narrowed eyes, then pointed to a clump of roots reaching for the sky. "There."
Squinting, Blair could barely make out the vague shape of an infant's car seat against the sunset red and gray sky, about twelve feet up. "Oh, God. No way should that baby still be alive."
Testing the wood for stability, Jim asked, "Can you climb? I'm afraid this won't hold me."
"You'll listen for warnings it's going to give way?" Jim shot Blair a startled look, clearly surprised that he would even have to ask, which, Blair supposed, was a fair indication of how far gone he was that he had.
Oddly, it pulled Jim closer to him, mentally, and he gave Blair a genuine smile; the first since before they left the loft. "I'm always asking you to climb heights for me, aren't I?"
"At least you've always made it worth my while," Blair shot back, beginning his ascent.
For all that Nature had haphazardly dumped the clump of debris, it held together as well as any ladder Blair had ever climbed, and in short order he was unbuckling one wet, cold, whimpering little girl who looked to be no more than three months old. He debated bringing the seat down with him, but it would be too awkward, and the baby was going to have to have body warmth, if nothing else, as soon as possible. Gingerly unwinding her from goop-caked blankets, he tucked her inside his jacket, then stuffed the hem of the coat into his jeans to hold her securely. He cautiously made his way back down, Jim's hands on his backside guiding him for the last eight feet.
Leaving her in the improvised sling, Jim quickly examined her, smudging mud away as necessary. "I think this might have helped save her," he muttered. "Insulation against the elements and camouflage from the gulls and predators. No injuries that I can find except for some bruising. Biggest problems are hypothermia, dehydration, and..." At this point the baby writhed, mewling, and shoved her tiny fist into her mouth. "Hunger. Hang in there, little darling; food's on the way."
Blair shot his gaze up from the baby's tiny form where he was holding her through his jacket to Jim's face, insides dissolving to so much slush at the sight of the slightly goofy, endearingly sweet expression his partner was wearing. It was the same one that most men had when dealing with infants, but right now it meant to Blair that Jim was all back, wearing his own skin again and not working on sentinel drives. As much to keep Jim with him as because he had no clue what to do, Blair let his partner deal with the baby.
With surprising efficiency for a bachelor, Jim stripped away the soaked, pink-checked sleeper, the fuzzy yellow ducks on it barely discernable through the grime, saving it for aid in identification later, if necessary. The seriously soiled diaper came off just as quickly, and he used a wad of tissues from his coat pocket to clean up the worse of the mess there.
"Hate to do this to you, Blair," he said. "But skin-to-skin is best for warmth. She's so dehydrated, I don't think she'll wet on you though." Even as he spoke, Jim opened Blair's outer layers of shirts, rucked up the bottom-most tee shirt, and tucked the baby inside them.
"Whoa, she is cold," Blair murmured, automatically adjusting to the shift of position, not bothering to hide the shivers from the clammy contact. "What... oh, that feels...bizarre." Apparently delighted by the warmth and hairy hide she was cuddled against, the baby squirmed happily, rooting around for a breast to nurse from.
"Nothing for you there, Lil' Darling," Jim crooned, taking off his coat and draping it over Blair and the baby for even more warmth. Stripping off his sweater, he took off the Henley underneath it, and used it to swaddle the baby's bottom, just in case. Pulling the sweater back on, he added to Blair, "Let's see what we can do about that."
Walking carefully, as if carrying a fragile masterpiece, Blair followed Jim back to the jeep, and sat sideways on the passenger seat with the door open to get out the wind but still give Jim easy access to the baby. Quickly gathering what he needed, Jim peeled aside the protective layers, all the while cooing reassuringly to the infant in a way that Blair would have found hilarious in another time and place. As it was, he added his own murmured encouragements as Jim cleaned the little finger on his left hand with antiseptic, then dipped it into a emptied coffee cup that he'd refilled with sugared water. Lit'l Darling, as Blair had temporarily christened her, sucked vigorously at the wet finger each time he offered it to her, but it took long, tedious minutes to get enough into her to make a difference.
Eventually she nodded off, hunger pangs temporarily quelled, and Jim wrapped the shirts and jackets back around her and Blair before buckling them in. By then the twilight had grown so deep that anyone else would have had trouble seeing to get back to good roads, but Jim made it in record time. Once there, he called the station to report he was coming in and needed a paramedic unit equipped for infants to meet him. Hanging up the radio mike, he said, "With a little luck, the hospital took her footprints when she was born, and we'll have a name for her in no time."
"Any chance her parents are alive?" Blair asked, rocking slightly, more to comfort himself than the baby.
"Asking for another miracle?"
"Hey, can't hurt."
Shaking his head in amusement, Jim said, "Depends on how she wound up there in the first place, I guess. That sleeper is one of the expensive ones, so was the car seat, both made for comfort and not for show. More importantly, she's plump and strong despite what she had to have gone through. Good case there that she's well-loved, so I can't see her parents abandoning her in a panic."
Gloomily, Blair agreed. "I can't imagine how she could have gotten separated from them, either." Peering down his chest to where he could see the top of the baby's head, he crooned, "Don't you worry. If we can't find your mom and dad, we'll find new ones for you that'll love you just as much, or they'll have a big, balding, bad-ass cop to contend with."
"Wouldn't that be short, hairy, bad-ass cop?" Jim asked, grinning.
Blair punched his arm - but not hard enough to disturb the baby, and grinned back. In his opinion, Lit'l Darling deserved the extra consideration, if for no other reason than because she brought the human back out in Jim, and gave them a taste of normal in a life that would take a long, long time to get to that again. He had no intentions of letting her get lost in the crowd of injured people created by the disaster.
That thought sobered him, and he gave the baby one hundred percent of his attention, just to spare thinking about anything else for the time being. Jim seemed to understand; that or he was simply too tired to talk. The rest of the trip was made in relative silence, each in their own seat, but with Jim still somehow as close as skin simply by being there.
Megan met them at the door to the parking garage at the station, waving them to the side so that she could climb into the back. "Ambulance is waiting at the hotel for your passenger. You said it wasn't an emergency, and there's too much traffic around here at the moment. And Banks said you two are off duty as of right now. Your names are already on the list at the hotel as needing a room, so I thought I might as well drop you off."
"You just couldn't wait to make sure that we hadn't trashed your Jeep," Blair laughed.
"No worries on that score," she said cheekily. "This is a short-term lease jobbie. Insurance and repairs are their headache. She leaned up to look over Blair's shoulder, impatiently pushing aside fabric until she could see the baby's head. "Is it true this little one came to within inches of being washed out to sea?"
"More like feet, but yeah. Luckiest Lit'l Darling alive, aren't you, sweetie?" Blair said happily to the top of the baby's head.
"Bonded already, I see," Megan said dryly. "That why you didn't just drop her off at the hospital?"
Blair exchanged a startled look with Jim; the idea had literally never crossed their minds. It was Jim who answered the question, using his most impassive, forbidding tones. "She doesn't need a hospital; she needs personalized attention. She's not going to get that if she's just another hurt kid dropped off by the cops at the E.R."
"Definitely bonded." She plopped back into her seat, wearing a huge, smug grin that did not bode well for their chances of not being harassed to death by the other detectives on the whole subject of infants and parenthood.
Blair and Jim traded another look, this one filled with mutual commiseration, and Jim said evenly, "We're here."
"Parking space right there next to the ambulance. Nice of them to leave it for you."
"No need for that," Blair said to Megan hastily. "We'll just slide out and you can take over. Captain's probably waiting for you."
Unperturbed at their attempts to ditch her, Megan said, "Might as well walk over to the hotel with you, see if they have some spare rooms. Said they might, for people not wanting to make a long commute to the station right now."
Barely not growling, Jim gave into the inevitable and pulled into the parking space. Arms still around the baby, Blair got out, not surprised when Jim's hand appeared at his elbow, almost as if by magic, to steady him though the paramedics were already running up, towing a heated crib. The transference went quickly, with barely enough time for Blair to brush a kiss over the downy crown before gloved hands began to do their medical thing.
"Name?" One medic asked absently, clipboard in hand.
"Don't know," Jim answered, then jabbed a thumb in Megan's direction. "This detective will take her prints for you and run them against the hospital databases."
Hand on Blair's shoulder to guide him away, Jim said blandly, amusement showing only in the quirk of his lips, "We're off duty now, Conner."
Not exactly running, but moving at a quick clip, they were far enough away that Megan's shout of, "How the devil do you take a baby's fingerprints?" could be righteously ignored. If Jim hadn't been a sentinel, that is.
"That was cruel," Blair said without a trace of scolding. "How'd you know that she hadn't heard of doing footprints for infants?"
"Didn't, but figured either way she'd have trouble. Have to look for witnesses now."
"Counter-blackmail," Blair chuckled. "Gotta love that cov-ops training of yours, partner."
"Been known to..." Jim stopped mid-step, expression intent, and accidentally pulling Blair up short.
Almost willing to weep that his senses would drag them back on duty with a warm bed so close, Blair looked in the direction Jim was, trying to pinpoint what had grabbed his attention. He saw the outside patio of the lobby, crowded by cameramen and reporters, each contributing to the pool of brilliant light surrounding the doors. It was obvious they had learned that off-duty cops were staying at the hotel to rest, and were laying in wait for one worn-out enough or imprudent enough to say something newsworthy.
"We can slip around them, no problem," Blair said soothingly.
"Not that. See the woman hiding behind the pillar? Hunched down in that little corner made by it and the lobby door frames?
To Blair, she was just an indistinct shadow, but he asked, "Problem?"
"No - she's rubbing a baby's cap across her cheek, whimpering. It's got pink checks and yellow fuzzy ducks on it." Prodding him toward the woman in silent request to draw her away from hiding place, Jim turned on his heel, yelling for Conner.
Fortune blessed Blair as his friend Lilly stepped out on the patio, accompanied by security guards and a very well-dressed couple who identified to themselves as Mr. & Mrs. Robert Stark, the owners of the hotel, to the press. With a few diplomatic, but unyielding words, the man told the news people to leave, using the silent presence of the guards to emphasize his determination that men and women who had already done so much were given peace and privacy.
With everyone focused on Mr. Stark, Blair sidled past the crowd, snagged Lilly by the elbow and drew her to one side. Nodding at the huddled woman, mercifully overlooked by the press, he asked quietly, "What's her story?"
"Lost her baby, poor thing," Lilly whispered. "Had the car running in her driveway, baby inside, when she realized that she'd forgotten diapers, darted back into her house, the wave hit before she could get back out. Residence was far enough away from the beach that most of the crash force was gone, but she got tossed around pretty good by the water while she was still inside the house. When she could get through the flood and out the door again, the car was gone.
"She's gotten it into her shocked, grief-addled mind that the police are her best bet to find the baby; been hanging out here, asking them if they've found her daughter. Nobody's had the heart to force her to leave."
"That woman," Blair said very, very softly, more than a little awe-struck, "Has the luckiest baby on this planet. Or one with a whole host of angels looking out for her; take your pick."
"Jim and I found a baby girl wearing a sleeper that matches that cap she's cuddling," Blair said simply. "He's gone to stop the medics from taking her to the hospital, since he didn't want to try to move the woman from her refuge with all the cameras watching."
"Oh, my, god," Lilly breathed. "That the baby the Aussie cop is carrying?"
"Aussie cop?" an unfamiliar voice asked, and Blair looked over his shoulder to find the Starks had been unobtrusively listening to his conversation with Lilly.
"Detective Megan Conner is part of an Officer Exchange Program; she's been working with Major Crimes for a while now," Blair explained.
"She's been Department liaison, working with me since the wave hit," Lilly added. "You really think...." She sucked in a deep breath and held it. Megan had reached the half-hidden woman and knelt in front of her, tilting her body so that she could unfold a corner of the blanketed bundle she held. For a moment, the woman didn't move, then with a wail that cut to the quick of the heart, she reached for the baby.
Like sharks drawn by blood, the threesome were suddenly surrounded by news cameras, a babble of toothy questions aimed at Megan. "Officer, where did you find the child? Is she injured? Can you tell us how you identified her? How did you...." Instinctively half-rising to shield both mother and child, she shot a bewildered, questioning look at Blair, but he gave a single hard shake of his head and stepped deeper into the shadows, not surprised to run into the broad protection of Jim's chest.
"Now would be a good time to make a break for the lobby," Jim murmured. "While they're focused on Conner."
"I'm behind that," Blair said tiredly, wanting nothing except to hide in the forgiving arms of sleep for the next twenty years or so.
With shocking ease they reverted to instinct and intuition, Blair clinging to Jim's jacket sleeve as he maneuvered them through the deep pools of darkness caused by the brilliant camera lights. Unseen and un-remarked, they slipped into the ornately tiled lobby, becoming just two more people milling around the huge, lavishly appointed room. Even their muddy, bedraggled state was no cause for comment. Attire ranged from pajamas and sleepers on the small children racing madly around the huge pillars to uniforms so grimy it was almost impossible to identify them as uniforms to immaculate three-piece-suits of businessmen temporarily trapped in Cascade.
"Whoa," Blair muttered. "So this is what a disaster convention looks like. Wonder if we check in just like normal guests?"
"It's all taken care of, detectives," a woman's cultured, discreetly murmuring voice said.
Startled, Jim spun on his heel, hand automatically reaching for his weapon, but Blair could see that the Starks had simply followed them, well-practiced at sliding under the paparazzi's radar themselves. He aborted his sentinel's reaction by leaning into him, smiling genially at them. "Good. You have no idea how much I dreaded the thought of having to stand in line while they figured out where to put us."
Mr. Stark motioned to Lilly as she came through the door, obviously looking for them, and said as soon as she was in ear-shot, "Please make sure these gentlemen get anything they need - I believe we had 1017 reserved for Captain Banks' people?"
A strange look chased over Lilly's face, but she smoothed it away to professional grace, albeit with sparkle of bright approval peeking out of her bland, "That's correct, sir."
She turned her attention to Blair, and gestured toward the bank of elevators, walking in that direction. "The good news is that the emergency generators that Mr. Stark had air-lifted in are running the elevators, along with the furnace, so you don't have to climb. The bad news is that it's a suite, so you might have to share with someone in your department, or perhaps be moved if we need to accommodate a family."
"All I care about is that it has a bed that I can sleep in non-stop for about ten hours," Blair laughed, following her, nodding a polite farewell at the Starks.
"Hang on a sec," Jim said unexpectedly. He beckoned to a teenager with a crooked finger, and the young man hoisted his skateboard to his shoulder, before leisurely loping over. "Aren't you one of the kids helping Daryl Banks?"
"That's right, man. Scot's the name, no yuppie yokes about it, please." He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back a bit, affecting a cocky attitude. "And you're the dude who owns that seriously cool retro truck the bottled water was in. What can I do you for?"
"Two back packs, wrapped in plastic, behind the cab - could you bring them up to room 1017?" Jim dug a twenty out of his front pocket, but the teen held up both hands, palms out.
"Hey, your money's no good with me or mine. Just bringing in that water earned you a little free foot time." Without giving them a chance to argue, the kid dropped the skateboard and glided away, deftly maneuvering through people without bumping a single one.
Jim turned back to Blair and Lilly, stuffing the money in his pocket and looking uncomfortable. Ignoring it, Lilly started walking again and asked, "Anything else? The boss did say get you what you need. Trust me, he meant it. So, champaign? Half-naked belly dancers? Or rarest of all in Cascade right now, hot food?"
"Not enough power for the kitchens, huh?" Blair said, not really thinking about the conversation. He dragged a soggy curl away from his face. "Damn. I was hoping for enough safe water to rinse the mud off."
The elevator doors dinged open, and Lilly stepped inside. Once the doors were closed on them, she said in mock-conspiratorial tone, "Actually, that can be easily arranged, thanks to this friend of mine who called me up just after the quake and told me to start filling every pot, pan and container in the place with water. I even had bellboys filling tubs in empty rooms. You have no idea how much that paid off for us."
"And now it's paying off for me," Blair said gleefully, automatically bracing against the efficient surge of power taking them up on an express trip. "You can spare a couple of gallons, right? It'll take at least that much just to find my skin under all this muck."
"Or to get the worst of it out of your hair," Jim put in dryly. "Might want to consider just shaving it all off and letting it grow back out."
"Or I could just leave it as it and call it a fashion statement."
"Not and ride in my truck, Sandburg."
"Actually," Lilly broke in, grinning broadly, "I think I can do better than that." The doors dinged open again, and she led the way over an indecently thick burgundy carpet. "Why don't you strip out those clothes - I'd just put them in the garbage myself - and use what's in the tub to sponge down in the shower, Japanese style. It'll be cold, but by then I should be back with some hot water for you to soak in. Not much, but enough to get warmed up and scrubbed, anyway."
"How?" Jim asked curiously, though he slanted a look at Blair.
"That clever friend of mine again," Lilly said as she used a swipe key to get into the suite. "I had pots brought to a boil, then kept steaming by judicious use of buffet sterno and the gas grills for steaks, just like he suggested. We refill them as they empty; I reasoned that clean water would be more important than cooked food. So far the guests are agreeing with me."
"Day manager didn't give you a lot of grief over it did he?" Blair asked, remembering all too well the attitude the man had copped the last time Lilly did anything on her own initiative.
Almost magically her grin broadened. "You're talking to the new day manager, as of 10am or so this morning. Mr. & Mrs. Stark arrived just as that arrogant sexist was letting me know exactly what he thought of an employee who would violate the 'aura of distinction and status our patrons seek and so thoroughly deserve' I believe his words were, by 'allowing common riffraff to take refuge, let alone tending to them, no matter how dire the disaster.' Mr. Stark was just as thorough in telling him what he thought of an employee that put money and privilege above humanity and compassion, then invited him to take a permanent walk."
While she spoke, Lilly went into the bathroom and came out with two plush, thick robes. "Courtesy of the hotel, don't worry about what state you leave them in. Also feel free to take what you want from the minibar; it's already been written off as part of the losses. I hear the booze is being used as a trade commodity in the back storerooms."
"Maybe you should take it then," Blair said, half through a yawn. "Sorry."
"I take it, it's black marketeering," Lilly said, tongue in cheek, heading for the door. "You take it, it's providing for customer needs. You two go ahead and get started; I'll let myself back in when I get that hot water up here."
Jim frowned at the suggestion, but merely said, "Be sure you knock and identify yourself at both doors before you come through them."
Blair waved off her confused half-smile with a playful shooing gesture. "Don't mind him; he's doing the paranoid cop thing because he's tired and grumpy."
"Oh," Lilly said uncertainly, then summoned her smile back. "Won't take me long."
As soon as the door closed behind her, Jim was tearing at his shirt. "Want to tell me why my skin thought the dirt was no big deal until I got a promise of getting clean?" He made straight for the bath, detouring only long enough to pick up a small wastebasket from the bedside.
"For the same reason the minute you're in a situation where you shouldn't sneeze, you can't think of anything else," Blair said absently, peeling off his own layers, but also taking a second to look over the rooms. "Serious luxury suite - two bedrooms, and I'll bet anything that overstuffed couch doesn't pull out into another bed. Fireplace, kitchenette, and that looks like real down comforters on the beds. All these abstract pastel blue and greens make me feel like I walked into an advertising photo shoot."
"Wait 'til you see the bathroom," Jim said, his words booming with the distinctive echo of a large, tiled room.
"Shower and tub," Blair said in satisfaction, going in. "And that tub's big enough to swim in. More than enough water there to even get that massive body of yours sluiced off."
"Take turns hauling?" Jim asked, setting a wastebasket full inside the shower stall and reaching for the bathroom basket to fill it. "First you because of the hair, then me."
"Done deal, if you soak first - I don't mind second-hand bath water. Probably make your skin crawl."
"If it's still warm, I won't complain," Jim started to argue, but Blair forestalled him by slipping past and dumping the first bucket of water over himself. He yelped at the cold bite, but had endured worse during camping trips and for less reason. What swirled down the drain was more silt than anything else, though, and despite goosebumps and violent shivers, he took the second basket and poured it over his head.
"Isn't this supposed to feel refreshing and invigorating?" he gasped after the fifth or sixth one.
"Think warm thoughts," Jim advised facetiously, handing him a full basket and taking the empty one. "I think that's enough, though."
"Hope so!" He braced himself and slowly poured the water into his hair, shifting to one hand as soon as it was light enough so he could drag his fingers through the sodden locks. "Feels clean enough."
A thick, warm towel landed on his shoulders, and he couldn't help a little moan of pure pleasure. From under the folds he looked at Jim, catching a smug grin on his face. "Okay, how'd you manage this?"
"Draped it over the heat register while you were rinsing. Did you think you were the only one who knew how to improvise?" Jim offered him a second towel, and Blair wrapped it around himself, scrubbing his face dry with the end. "Don't worry about having a dry one for after your bath; there's enough towels in here to supply a third world country."
"Should make them last," he said unenthusiastically. "No way of knowing when we'll get more."
Jim didn't answer. From the disgusted expression on his face, he was trying not to give in to a good sized growl as he scrubbed away at his scalp through a mini-cascade of flowing water. To help him get the gunk off him as fast as possible, Blair took up the task of keeping the baskets full, noting in passing they had managed to empty the tub down to about a third of what it had held.
Just as he was reaching for a towel to give Jim, Lilly knocked and called out, and Blair opened the bathroom door to usher her in. Two bellhops pushed in luggage carts loaded with huge pots of steaming water, taking care not to slash it. "You can't give us that; it has to be nearly your entire supply."
"You lucked out - time to rotate the pots off the stove to scrub the sediment from boiling off the bottom," Lilly said dismissively. Not giving Blair a chance to argue, she had the bellhops dump the water, and backed out the bath, moving so fast that Blair couldn't muster a reasonable one, anyway.
"Sometimes payback isn't a bitch at all," Jim said, wearing that goofy smile of his again. "Let her say thank you."
"You just want that soak," Blair said weakly.
"You don't?" Jim unwrapped the towel from his hips and stepped into the tub, all but purring as he sat and slid down full length, water to his chin.
"Hey, leave room!" Blair scrambled into the tub, deliberately splashing Jim and creating waves that threatened to swamp over the sides. But he hunched in on himself at the drain end, wanting to give his partner the much needed-chance to relax. Even then the soothing heat was at chest level on him, and he laid his cheek on his knee, hugging his legs, finally getting warm.
"You don't have to sit all scrunched up like that," Jim said softly. "I don't mind if you lean back against me and get comfortable."
Opening his eyes, Blair studied him, hearing more in the words than their obvious meaning, but not sure what it was. Jim, long since the master of inscrutable, was trying hard not to give any other hints, but after the past two days, he was as easy for Blair to read as he was to Jim. What he saw was a shy hope and a male appreciation that was new to them both, and a little surprising, though it probably shouldn't have been.
"I take you up on that, I might get too comfortable," he said after a pause that was comfortable, for all the weight of expectancy in it. "My little head might take an interest in more than having a comfortable back rest."
"I wouldn't mind that," Jim said with devastating sincerity.
"I think I'd probably have the same problem."
For a moment Blair looked at him from under his lashes, simply drinking in the beauty of him sitting there patiently, waiting for Blair to decide, his confidence in him making the right one for both of them as clear in his expression as his love. There was only one choice he could make if he were going to be true to that and to his own heart, and without the slightest pang of fear or worry, he made it. Blair uncoiled from his huddle and glided up, stretching along the length of Jim until his head was on Jim's shoulder and he was lying with his back to the side of the tub.
With only a barely audible sigh to mark its passage, something tight and hard that Blair had always sensed was there, hurting Jim, gave way, and Jim wrapped his arms around him, fingers finding their way to the curls at the back of his head to play. It felt good, deeply soothing, and Blair closed his eyes to enjoy it better. He supposed he should be asking questions - or at least thinking about the ones that would need asking, like 'why now?' and 'do you know anything about this?' But now wasn't the time for that. Now was the time for resting, for savoring that they were alive and uninjured, for coming to grips with the horrors and losses of the past few days.
He half-floated, half-cuddled against him until the water grew tepid, then with an enormous effort, Jim stirred, sitting up and taking Blair with him. "Bed, now."
"What, no seduction?" Blair said sleepily, content to let Jim hand him out of the tub and pat him dry. "Most gentlemen spring for at least dinner and movie first."
Chuckling, Jim said, "You'd fall asleep before the first course, which wouldn't be very gentlemanly on your part. So we may as well go right to the good parts while you're still awake enough to enjoy it."
"Cool - post coital cuddling."
"Blissful post coital cuddling," Jim amended, leading him to the larger bedroom by the hand. He gently shoved Blair down onto the huge bed, crawled in after him, and pulled the blankets up around them as they automatically shifted into the same position they'd been in the tub.
"Sure of your prowess, aren't you?" Blair murmured, and let Jim's delighted laugh ease him into deep sleep.
* * *
With surprising reluctance, given how long he'd been on duty, Simon made the short trek from the station to the hotel, hoping against hope that Daryl had crashed already and wouldn't be awake to keep him awake. For all that his eyes felt like they were filled with ground glass and his legs were rubbery around the edges, he was wound so tight that the slightest distraction would be enough to keep him tossing and turning for hours. Though he'd blame it on the million cups of bad coffee and sandwiches eaten in a rush over the past forty-some hours, the truth was that he'd been using the demands of the job to keep from thinking too much.
For the longest time Simon told himself he couldn't afford to think; now he was forced to admit he didn't want to. Not yet. As huge and strange and disturbing as the contents of his mind were, he didn't know if he would ever want to deal with it all, not that he thought that he would have much choice in the long run. His conscience would nag him into it if circumstances didn't force it. Damn it, he was entitled to some rest first, wasn't he?
Realizing that he was all but growling around the stub of the cigar he'd never smoked but had chewed on incessantly for two days, Simon drew himself up short, literally coming to a stop at the front door of the hotel. Shifting his duffle bag to his other hand, he pinched at the bridge of his nose under his glasses, mentally counting to ten.
"Hey, man, it's a door, you know," a skinny boy said, scooting around him on a skateboard. "You want to get in a line, try the registration desk, over there next to that seriously over-fertilized ficus."
Simon half-turned to watch him go, hips shimmying to keep his balance on the board in the way only kids seemed to be able to master, then snorted in self-derision. Nothing was worse than being in the wrong and having a kid point it out to you. Kicking himself in the backside, he went in as intended, acting as if it were just another business day.
There wasn't a line, not really, and when he gave his name to the woman behind the desk, she lit up in a way that made him a little less tired. "Simon Banks? Major Crimes? Delighted to meet you, and I mean that personally. Between Daryl, Megan and Blair, I think I could have picked you out of a line-up. I'm Lilly Carlson, manager."
Taking her offered hand for a shake, Simon said, "The lovely lady who's been so generous with the food and rooms, not to mention her time. Thank you for everything, in case you haven't already gotten those words from my people. Surprised you've got a place for me, though - not with advanced press from those three. You probably think I belong in that line-up."
"Actually, I was looking for lightning bolts and a bullwhip," Lilly said dryly.
"Dealing with that crew, I need the bullwhip, trust me. The lightning is just special effects."
To his delight, she laughed and took a key envelope from a slot. "Well, without them to confirm your identity, I'm going to need to see your driver's license or something similar. Hotel full of cops, you can't be too careful. You'd be surprised at some of the people we've had trying to crash the place. Everything from ex-spouses trying to cash in on the temporary windfall, as one put it, to petty crooks with axes to grind."
Taking out his wallet, Simon shook his head. "Disaster brings out the worst and best in people. I've been lucky; up until now I've mostly seen the best."
"Odd thing for a cop to say," she mused, expression unexpectedly turning pensive. "But given what you've been doing and who you've been working with, I suppose you would see things that way."
Before he could wonder at her tone, her smile came back, this time a more professional one. Lilly glanced at someone coming up behind Simon, gave him the key with private stroke to his fingers as she did, and said in a practiced, cheerful voice, "There you go. You're sharing a suite with two of your officers, Sandburg and Ellison. I hope you don't mind; your son has already gone up. Please don't hesitate to come back down to the front desk if there's anything you need. Phones aren't working yet, but the elevators to your left are."
The come-on, subtle as it was, gave him a glow that kept Simon preoccupied until he reached 1017. He stepped into a room barely lit by several battery powered camp lanterns and the dull red embers in the fireplace. Eyes widening at the luxurious size and furnishings, he arrowed in on a large pot sitting on the hearth, forgetting his momentary moral qualms about a police captain accepting the best suite in the best hotel in the city, free of charge. If the accommodations had been a bribe, he'd be happy to tell the manager to shove it, but the hot water, enough for a decent wash up, gave him a reason to convince himself and anybody else who might take it wrong that the rooms were a true act of charity.
Catching a whiff of himself, as he peeled off his suit jacket, he mentally added, Or an act of self-defense. Wisely choosing to leave his shoes on, Simon looked at the three doors connecting to the living room, wondering which one led to the bath. The one closest was ajar, and he bumped it open enough to be able to see it was a bedroom, and a large lump he identified as his son was in the bed. One of Daryl's arms hung over the side, all the way to the floor, and both feet were sticking out of the end of the covers. His head, however, was hidden under two pillows, and chuckling at the familiar sight, Simon crossed to the bed to tuck the dangling arm back under the blankets, as he'd done many times over the years.
Like always, Daryl muttered nonsensically and rolled, arm and feet vanishing, the very top of his head poking out from under the pillows. Driven by an impulse that he didn't dare look at too closely, not if he wanted to keep the ache of tears just an ache, Simon cupped that fragile skull in the palm of his hand for a moment, as if in blessing. It was a habit he'd had since the first week after Daryl's birth, when he'd been worried that the tiny scrap of life that was his son was going to stop breathing in his sleep. The touch always reassured Simon, somehow, that Daryl was alive and well, and he needed that tonight as much as he ever had when his son had been small.
Muttering again, Daryl moved away, head vanishing under the bedding again. For a moment Simon was tempted to get in beside him, bath be damned, but he didn't want to sleep with his clothes on, and the minute he started undressing, he'd be longing for that hot water. Reluctantly, he left the bedroom, door still open, and hesitated at the next one. Logic dictated it was probably the bath, but he passed it anyway, going to stand uncertainly at the third door. Simon didn't understand the compulsion to go inside and make sure the two of them were safe; it was too much a part of that whole mental morass he was trying to dodge for the time being.
Justifying to himself that it was common sense to do a security check to make sure the room's occupants were who he thought they were, Simon gingerly turned the knob and peeked in. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom well enough to see two people lying in each other's arms, though not their faces, and he stole across the threshold to stand by the bed to stare down on them, not that he had any doubts who they were. Emotions he didn't know how to deal with slammed through him, and he sat heavily on a chair next to the bed, dropping his face into his hands.
"Simon?" Jim whispered, his voice barely a thread of sound in the hushed room. "You okay?"
Not moving his hands, Simon answered, trying to match his level, "That's supposed to be my line. The two of you looked pretty bad the last time I saw you."
"Bad?" Jim asked, surprised. "Bad?" he repeated wryly.
Lifting his head to glare at him, hands dropping to dangle between his knees, Simon said flatly, "Bad, as in less than human." He sat up straighter, but not much, adding, "Or more than. Either way, it wasn't you. Or Blair, for that matter."
Eyes still closed, Jim lightly ran his fingers over the crown of Blair's head where it rested on his shoulder. "Maybe both, but you're right. It wasn't me - us." He gave a snort of laughter that had no humor in it. "All this time we thought Blair was teaching me to control my gifts, and what he was really doing was keeping them from controlling me. Taking over until all that was left of was duty, guardianship, and the gifts in human form."
"How," Simon started, then had to stop, not sure what the right question was to ask, or how to frame it.
Apparently guessing - or understanding - Jim said, "He convinced me to let go, believing it was important to find out what was tormenting me. And it was, so he didn't try to stop the senses from taking over, but he didn't let go of me, either. No matter how close to the edge of oblivion I went, he went with me and hung on, using his own emotions, his own will to keep mine alive until I could find a wedge to force the sentinel back in his box."
"Insane," Jim suggested tightly.
There was a moment of silence, broken only by Jim's harsh breathing, then he admitted, "It was, and we won't do it again unless we have to. To save lives; it's the only thing worth the risk."
"Good," Simon said in no uncertain terms. "It's a useful tool, and god knows they did more good in the past few days than we'll ever be able to measure, but you deserve more than to be a tool."
"Wonder if that's why the genes are almost gone," Jim murmured tiredly. "Too many leaders willing to exploit the tool at the price of the man." Almost visibly pushing away that whole line of thought, Jim said, "Go use that water on the hearth and then get to bed, Simon. You earned it."
"You just don't want to share a suite with a body this rank," Simon grumbled half-heartedly as he stood. "Not that I can blame you." At the door he paused, and added because it had to be said at least once, "Not that you need or want my blessings, but the two of you have it. Blair's the best thing that ever happened to you, and I'm glad you both saw past rules and regs to get to where you are."
More silence then Jim said with a gruffness that always hid deeper feelings, "Thanks, Simon. That means a lot."
Simon waved it off, not willing to risk speaking through a throat too tight for words, and went to do as told. Mercifully, sleep came quickly, and his dreams were of better days and places. By his watch, he woke alone in the rooms ten hours later, halfway into a day shift and already thinking about how to get his department back onto a more or less normal schedule. His mind whirled through that and other issues that would need his attention, with the occasional sidebar of wondering if Ms. Carlson would be downstairs, as he shaved and washed up.
She wasn't, the press was, as his honor-the-mayor, in serious danger of losing Simon's vote again despite it all, was holding what looked like an impromptu conference in the lobby. Wondering how that had happened, after Mr. & Mrs. Stark's edict, Simon tried to avoid being noticed, and made it almost as far as the front door before an enterprising young lady spotted him. She shouted his name clearly, scurrying over with her cameraman hot on her heels, making it obvious that she wasn't going to let him get away without a scene on her part.
Plastering on his best political smile, Simon said politely, "Excuse me, I thought the mayor was making an announcement."
"Something like that. Marsha Reeves, KNYY, channel 3. Tell us, Captain Banks, what did you think of the Mayor's statement just now?"
"As I missed it, I'll have to say, 'no comment.' I'm sure I'll be filled in on the details later, though." Simon kept his tone bland and uninformative, hoping the reporter would consider him boring and leave.
"Among other things, he's suggesting a medal of honor for you, for your aid in organizing the evacuation while he was on route back to Cascade," she said cheerily. "Our experts are estimating that hundreds of lives were saved with the extra time you gave people by anticipating the wave's arrival. You took quite a risk authorizing the evacuation without official notice or warning."
The reporter's words had a sharp little prick of suspicious prying to them, as if she wanted the audience to believe there was something dubious about Simon's actions. Under any other circumstances he would have deflected or overlooked her tone and used his standard, polite public servant persona to answer her. Today, however, her nasty little jab was the needle in the balloon his pent-up emotions, and he ground to a stop to stare down his nose at her and the microphone.
Tone tight with reined in anger, Simon said, "I was working on reliable information, from reliable sources - such as scientists with the United States Geological Survey - in the absence of any available city authority. As far as I'm concerned, any risks I took were reasonable and fully justified."
Stretching up to his full height, completely aware that he looked vaguely menacing, Simon added sharply, "You want to talk risk, let's talk about the men and women of the police and fire department who went into the evacuation zone to aid and assist. Officers who knocked, door-to-door, knowing that they might only have a few minutes warning to get clear before the wave made landfall; rescue units answering calls with no idea of what emergency was waiting for them and how much time it would take to resolve it. Each and every one of those people deserve the medal the mayor wants to give me and deserve it far more."
Clearly taken aback, the reporter rallied, and said patronizingly, "So you see them as heroes."
"Damn straight I do," Simon said, jabbing his finger at her for emphasis. "This whole city is filled with heroes. Ambulance drivers who made repeated trips to hospitals and nursing homes to bring out those who couldn't be moved otherwise. Nurses who stayed with their charges until the ambulance returned. There were truck drivers at the wharfs who could have turned tail and run, and stayed to finish picking up their loads because it was bottled water, baby food and formula, or medical supplies. Things they knew would be desperately needed. People, without being asked or told, knocked on neighbors doors and offered rides to those who didn't have cars, coming back if necessary to get everyone."
Simon could tell the reporter wasn't getting what she had been after, but was smart enough to recognize a smoking pistol when she saw one. "So you think there should be some recognition for the common man?"
That was enough to make him draw back and find his professional face again. "Absolutely. I'd give them medals, too, if it were possible, but the fact is, most heroes are un-noticed, unsung by any except the ones they saved. Maybe that's the way it should be. Heroism shouldn't be a sound-byte; shouldn't be cause for a paparazzi feeding frenzy. Most 'heroes' don't want or need that. What they want is someone to watch their back, take care of their own while they're doing what needs done. That's my job, and if you'll excuse me, I'll go do it."
Simon spun on his heel and walked away, knowing better than to waste a good exit line when it came to him. Wishing he had a cigar to pop in his mouth, he headed for his office to do what he did best - protect and serve.
* * *
Hunching into his jacket against the cold off-shore breeze as he sat on the tailgate of the truck, Blair looked at what remained of 852 Prospect street, and mourned. Nothing was left except a crumbled, sand and wreckage-filled foundation, and at that, there was more of it than any other building that had been on the street. Jim didn't bother to survey the vestiges of the home he'd lived in for so long, but Blair supposed that for him, it was hardly necessary, given that a single glance had shown him every cracked, broken brick and board.
"I can't believe how hard it is to see this," Blair said. "So many lives lost, so many lives saved and here I am hurting because a building is gone."
"At least buildings can be rebuilt." Jim followed a seagull with his sight as it soared against the dark gray sky threatening spring rain, expression studiously in neutral. "Though ours probably won't be, since it was a condo association."
"Are you insured, at least?" Blair asked, not really interested but needing a buffer of some sort against his gloomy thoughts.
For some reason, the question made Jim smile. "Up to and including acts of God, though I doubt I'll be able to get coverage like that on our next place. Not with my insurance history. Maybe we should put it in your name?"
Tilting his head to one side and giving him a sidelong glance, Blair asked, "Our place?"
"Didn't somebody say that every ending is a beginning?" Jim put his hands in his coat pocket, elbows akimbo and not incidentally brushing over Blair's arm. "We can make this a beginning; get something good out of disaster."
"Another way to rebuild, huh?"
"Can you think of a better one?"
Leaning into Jim's side, Blair put his hand in Jim's pocket, the desolation around them suddenly taking on an air of potential. "No, I can't." Jim leaned in return, subtly making promises, and Blair answered them by smiling and resting his head on Jim's shoulder. "House or condo?"
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Author's Acknowledgements - Thanks to Mary Browne for her encouragement and help - and to Patt for being so patient with my pc problems! Thank you Angst Puppy for my lovely art work.