Jim navigating their course with no hint of his former fear of open water, gave Blair an incredible sense of peace. He sighed, only half aware he was dreaming, and rolled over. This feeling of contentment and relaxation had been so absent in the heat of the city. Blair had his work, and his friend, but the heat and noise of Cascade this past week had served to dull everything around him. Sure, he'd been daydreaming when he told Jim that running away to sail the seas would be a grand adventure. But the thought of being able to get away from everything and everyone who interrupted his time studying Jim did have its appeal. If he could remove the distractions caused by the job, the people, even Simon, then he could get Jim's full and complete attention and they could study his Sentinel senses 24 hours a day.
But, as nice as that sounded, Blair did realize the only way he could truly observe and learn from Jim, was to have him interacting in his usual environment. And Simon had let them take the boat out for the weekend. Part of Blair wondered if maybe the Captain hadn't planned this from the start. He knew Daryl hated fishing, and he knew Jim had been tired lately. Why Simon hadn't joined them, Blair didn't know. But, he was grateful.
Sounds started to penetrate his thoughts. Sounds of the waves outside slapping against the hull of the MarySue, seagulls declaring the rising of the sun with their mournful cries, and the start-up cough of twin diesel engines. Blair sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The sun was barely touching the horizon, and the sky outside his view port was still showing him a dark sky. Footsteps could be heard in the galley, so he got out of bed and found his pants. Once dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Blair found Jim standing on deck, coffee in hand, looking out over the water.
"You're up early, Jim." Blair glanced out of the cabin at his friend, then walked barefoot through the galley to the coffee.
"Hey, Chief. Coffee's hot." Jim stepped to the door and looked in at Blair. "I love this time of morning. Everything's so still and quiet."
Blair nodded, yawning. He heard the engines powering up again. "I guess our neighbors are getting an early start." He poured a cup of coffee, then joined his friend on the deck, looking at the yacht as it let both engines warm up.
"I'm surprised. They had quite a party last night. I hope whoever's skippering that thing isn't too hung over."
Blair nodded, then turned away and looked at the sunrise. "Man, look at that." The sky was changing from dark blue, to purple, then lighter blue gave way to soft yellow and deep orange. With what seemed like incredible speed, the sliver of orange rose higher and higher, until the sun was nearly clear of the water.
"It's going to be another hot one."
"Yeah." Blair sipped his coffee, nodding. "I almost hate to go back."
The sound of the yacht's engines grew louder, and both men glanced over their shoulders, seeing the massive boat pull forward, towards them, gaining speed as they headed for the inland channel.
"It's not too late to just head out to sea and never come back."
Jim laughed, shaking his head. "You'd go nuts, Chief. You study people. If you and I were alone on a boat for months at a time, you'd be bored to death." He looked again at the yacht still bearing down on them.
"No, I don't think so, Jim. Just think of all the tests I could put you through, all the data I could collect on your Sentinel senses if we didn't have all those outside distractions." Blair glanced at the yacht. They should be turning soon. "I mean sure, maybe after a few months I'd be a little bored and in need of some social interaction. But you have to admit, some days it's not such a bad dream."
"Sandburg, hit the horn. These people aren't veering off."
Blair didn't hesitate. The yacht was coming on too fast, its bow still high-planing enough to make them nearly invisible if the pilot wasn't able to see through the glare of the sun. He reached the air horn and let it blast through the still morning air. Nothing. Jim shouted, waving his arms, but the yacht didn't so much as slow down.
"Oh God," Blair whispered. He flipped on the radio and found the Coastguard channel. "Mayday, Mayday, this is the MarySue. We have an emergency!"
Somewhere over the din of the engines bearing down, Blair heard Jim's warning shout. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the bow of the yacht contact the stern of the MarySue just as Jim jumped out of the way, toward the cabin. The sound of fiberglass screaming over wood filled Blair's ears, and the MarySue listed violently. Blair fell sideways, the microphone knocked from his hand. Fighting for balance, he frantically searched for Jim. The yacht dealt a deadly blow, and continued on its way further into the Straits.
With horror, Blair saw the stern of the MarySue tear apart as the transom pulled completely away. Where the engines--and Jim--had been, was no more. Water surged toward him, and the bow lurched suddenly upward.
"Jim!" Blair tried to scan the deck as it fell below the waves, desperate to catch sight of Jim and regain his footing. He never managed either.
The stern sank quickly, sending the bow straight into the air and Blair slamming into the galley. His head struck something hard, stunning him for a moment. When he shook himself alert, all he could see was a wall of water. The MarySue sank like an anchor. Water surged into the cabin and Blair was instantly under the surface. He swam, trying to maintain his position and get his bearings inside the hold, until something pressed against him and he felt himself sinking deeper. Blair forced his eyes to open in the stinging salt water. He was still inside the cabin. The MarySue was going down, and taking him with it.
Quickly, he grabbed hold of the table and pulled himself downward, desperate to reach the cabin doors and get out. With lungs burning, and the water pressure increasing, Blair reached the door. The air inside his lungs was acting as a buoy, making it harder to pull himself deeper to get through the hatch. With a strength borne of desperation, he shoved himself out, then kicked toward the surface he could no longer see. The air he needed to help bring him up was also desperate to leave him. Blair's lungs burned with the effort not to exhale, but he was losing the battle. If he let the air out, he'd have to work harder to reach the surface, and his legs were already begging to stop the struggle. He was blacking out, and he knew it. Next would come a sudden rush of water into spasming lungs, and for the last few seconds of his life, Blair would know that he was dead.
He felt the sudden seizure in his throat, felt the air begin its escape. Something grabbed his right shoulder roughly and pulled. With a gasp, Blair inhaled just as he broke the surface, breathing in great lungfuls of air instead of the sea water he'd expected.
"Easy! Easy, Blair, hang on!"
Hands clutched his chest, Jim's hands. Blair struggled to ease the desperation in his lungs and throat. Something was pressed into his outstretched hand and he grabbed it, feeling the support of a flotation device adding to the arms holding him through the gasps. After another round of coughs, Blair's vision cleared and his lungs no longer feared the air would go away again.
"You okay? Blair?" Jim moved around to face him, still holding on with both hands.
"Yeah." Blair nodded, then coughed again, clutching what he could now see was a seat cover floating beside him. "I'm okay."
"I tried to get in the cabin, but I was tossed overboard." Jim ran a hand over his face, pushing water away from his eyes, then reached out to touch Blair's forehead.
"Ow!" Blair pulled back for an instant, then held still while Jim examined the spot above his eye where he'd struck the table. Satisfied with whatever he saw there, Jim moved his hand away.
"When I saw it was going down so fast, I grabbed the bow railing and tried to come down with you, to open the hatch. But it was locked."
Blair could only cough and nod, still trying to catch his breath.
Jim glanced around, then looked him in the eyes. "Just stay here, hang onto the cushion. I'll be right back. Okay?"
He nodded again, then reached up to push soaking wet hair away from his face. Jim swam off to the left and he watched, seeing bits and pieces of the MarySue bobbing to the surface all around them. Aside from a few small sections of wood and an oil slick, there was no sign of the boat, or anything resembling the relaxing night they had just enjoyed. Blair coughed again, and pulled the floating seat cushion closer, resting both arms over it. Jim returned and produced the end of a nylon rope he'd recovered.
"This is the only thing that came up." He took the end and tied it onto one of the handles of the seat cushion, then looped the other end through his belt. "I don't want to lose this thing. We'll need it to rest on."
Blair brought one arm down into the water and began to tread. "They didn't stop, did they?" He'd seen no hint of the yacht that slammed into them since coming back up.
"No. Probably didn't even know they hit something." Jim finished attaching the cushion to his belt and glanced around. "If they did, they were too drunk to care."
"What do we do now, Jim?" Blair knew how far away they really were from the land they could see on either side. "Stay here and hope for help?"
"We start swimming, Chief." Jim put a hand on the cushion so he could stop treading for a moment. "It's a long way, but we've got no other choice. We'll keep this with us to rest on, and keep your jeans on. I know they're heavy, but you'll need the protection. This hot weather brings a lot of jellyfish up, both stinging and harmless. There's no one else out here to see us. So unless the Coast Guard figured it out from what little you got out, we've got no one coming after us."
Blair nodded, glad he had worn his lighter, threadbare jeans. "It could take us all day and half the night just to get closer to shore where the ferry might spot us."
"Yeah." Jim glanced out over the small waves. "Okay, Chief, here's the plan: We swim slow and steady toward the point. Don't overdo it, we stop and rest when we need to, but if you get too exhausted before you stop, the rest won't do you any good. So no heroics, you got that?"
"You too, right, Jim?"
He smiled, nodding. "Right, Chief. Me too. We've got currents and the tide to fight, so this isn't going to be easy. You ready?"
"Yeah." Blair let go of the cushion, treading water for just a second to get his bearings, then set off in the direction Jim was swimming. Their only flotation device followed along behind without a problem.
Within the first few strokes, Blair established a pace that allowed him to stay just a few feet behind Jim and to his left. They swam steadily, with a rhythm designed for endurance. Blair made sure he stayed with his partner, whom he knew was keeping them on track and not veering off toward the open sea or further down the middle of the Strait. He kept going, numbing his mind to the chances of their survival. The distance to shore was impossible. The current would keep them one step behind their goal with every stroke. And if they stayed in the water too long, they'd freeze. There was a chance a passing pleasure boat would spot them, or they'd come within sight of the ferry they could hear in the distance. But being seen in the shimmering waters, when you're but a speck of flotsam to a passing ship, was never a sure bet.
Blair continued on, forcing his mind to accept the emptiness of his strokes as its only thought. Inside his head, a jungle beat played, matching the slapping of his arms and the kicking of his legs. He let the drums continue, using their beat as a reason to raise the next arm or kick once more. Twice, a seagull's cry blended so perfectly with the rhythm, Blair considered mixing the sounds together when he got back home. Maybe turn the drums into a nice mix of native and natural harmonies. When he got home. That's right, Sandburg, when you get home. That's what Jim would be thinking. Never give up, never stop trying. Jim wouldn't stop until they were safe, and he'd never leave Blair behind. So, if he held to his unfailing belief in his partner, Blair knew he'd be home soon.
He glanced up again, never skipping a beat, to check his position, and found Jim reaching out to stop him.
"Hey, Chief. Hold up." He pulled their floating cushion closer and Blair reached out for it. "Let's take a break."
"Yeah." He took hold of the handle that dangled a few feet below the surface so he wouldn't have to raise tired arms. "How far do you think we've gone?"
Jim put an arm on the cushion and wiped water from his face. "We made some progress." He glanced toward the distant shore and nodded. "The tide's been going out, I can feel the current. But it should slack soon, then give us a boost by heading inland. How you doing?"
Blair sighed, then was seized by a fit of coughing. Jim reached out, instantly taking hold of his arm until the attack subsided. "I'm okay." He brought an arm up to rest on the cushion so his legs could take a break from their constant motion.
"You're okay?" Jim didn't release his hold until Blair nodded.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Jim. Just swallowed more water than I thought coming out of that wreck, I guess."
"I think we both did a good job drinking the level down a few feet."
Blair put his chin on the edge, closed both eyes and tried to convince his tired body that he was pool-side at a resort somewhere, just taking it easy after a nice swim. But if that were true, he'd be in shorts, not jeans and a shirt. He'd be hearing voices, and maybe laughter and music. And he was sure there wouldn't be such a strong taste of salt on his lips.
Blair opened his eyes and looked at Jim. He was treading water gently while holding onto the cushion with one hand. His eyes scanned the horizon every few minutes, but his breathing seemed calm and normal. There was no hint of fear or remembered phobia that Blair could see. Of course, they weren't in open water, and land could be seen. But being in the water, this far out with only your stamina and some luck keeping you alive...
"How are you doing, man? This is a lot of open water. From down here it seems even more so."
Jim nodded, still scanning the horizon. "I'm fine, Chief." He stopped his visual search and looked at Blair. "I'm just not thinking about it. Seems to be okay."
"Good. That's good, Jim. I just wish I could do that with heights, man." Blair laughed a little, shaking his head.
"You can, Sandburg. And you have." Jim switched arms on the cushion. "How many times have you gotten right past your fear without even thinking about it, huh?"
"Yeah, but that's different, Jim. Those times I had no choice. It was do it or die, you know?"
Jim shrugged, sending little ripples of water away from him. "That's how it works, Chief. Fear is a luxury. You'll only feel it when you have time to think about your situation. But when there's no time to think, you find yourself just doing whatever it is that would have stopped you before. Like on that rig. I had time to think about the water, the openness, all the way out there. Then onboard, the storm just added to it, and I couldn't get past the feelings." He paused and Blair nodded, changing arms on the cushion. "Then, when it came time to swim out to that ship, I was consumed by what I'd had all that time to stew over. If it hadn't been for you, Chief, I might not have been able to jump off that platform."
"Sure you would, Jim. You had to. You might have been afraid, but you'd have jumped anyway."
Jim shook his head. "I didn't have to, Sandburg. There were no lives at stake on that ship, they'd left all the hostages on the rig. I could have waited till we got the Coast Guard and had the ship found. But if I had, if I'd never gotten past that fear and found out about the bomb, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"So you just didn't think about it?"
"No, I took your advice and zoned out on that ship. That's the only thing that got me off the rig in the first place, Chief. I had a problem and you had a solution. It made sense, and you've never steered me wrong before. I just put trust ahead of fear. That's what you have to do, put something stronger in the way and give the fear no time."
Blair nodded slowly, absorbing what he was saying. The faith and trust Jim had in someone proven to be making it up as he went along never ceased to amaze Blair.
"You've done that yourself, Chief, you just didn't see it for what it was. Jumping off that cliff into the river wasn't high on your list of things to do, but you did it."
"Sure, Jim, it was that or get blown away. I think saving your own life is a great motivator."
Jim shook his head. "No, don't sell yourself short, Sandburg. On that oil rig you were thinking of me first, then when you knew there was a bomb onboard, you thought of all the other crewmen when you could have jumped off and swum to safety. Which is what I wanted you to do."
That stunned Blair for a second. So much so, he didn't register what Jim had said at first. When it fell into place, it still wasn't clear. "Jim, you wouldn't have let the crewmen die. If it was you on the rig and me on the ship, you would have stayed till you found it, or died trying.
Jim turned back to Blair from his scanning of the watery horizon. "No, Chief. I wanted you alive. That doesn't mean I wanted anyone dead. My first concern was your safety." He paused, sighing a little, glancing somewhere over Blair's shoulder. "I know you think of me as some kind of self-sacrificing hero or something..."
"Or something?" Blair smiled, trying to lighten the mood. This conversation was getting pretty deep. He'd known for a while now that Jim would put him first--or at least he'd thought he'd known that--but neither of them had really come right out and talked about it. Well, Blair had never come right out and talked about it. That facet of Jim's friendship was still a little hard to grasp. What it said about Jim was nothing compared to what it said about his opinion of Blair.
"Listen, Chief, you come first, that's no secret. And if I'd gotten you to jump off and save yourself, and the crew died, I'd have carried that guilt for the rest of my life. But I'd have you around to tell me it wasn't my fault. If I'd lost you, and them, that would have been too much."
Blair nodded. "Thanks, Jim." That little statement hadn't been the least bit difficult for Jim to admit. He hadn't paused, changed his tone or even looked away from Blair at any moment. That, more than the words he used, told Blair all he needed to know.
"That's what makes us work, Sandburg. Between the two of us, at any given time we've got it all covered." Jim let go of the cushion then and looked toward shore. "Tide's slacking off. You ready to go again?"
"Yeah." He let go as well and treaded water for a moment, waiting for Jim to lead the way. When he did, Blair set off in the same position, keeping his partner in view and not worrying about the shoreline he could barely see. If he could keep up, they just might stand a chance. One thing was for sure, Blair was not going to let this man down.
He found a rhythm again, sending one arm up and over, followed by another. The jungle beat that helped set the pace returned, and Blair let his mind concentrate on the music and the motion, and nothing more. With each stroke, he told himself he'd be feeling the rocky shore any second now. Once he wondered what Jim used to keep his mind occupied. Most likely, he was zoning out on their goal, concentrating on nothing more than survival. But if that were true, he wouldn't be able to snap out of it and rest every hour, forcing Blair to rest as well. It was Jim keeping track of how long they swam, how often they rested, and what direction they were going. By their fourth rest break, Blair was in such an automatic mode, Jim had to physically hold him still long enough to convince him they were stopping. Exhausted, Blair rested both arms on the cushion, alternating between tired gasps of air and coughing fits.
"Are you okay, Chief?" Jim held onto their support with one hand and put the other on Blair's arm.
"I'm okay." The coughing subsided and he nodded. "Are we making any progress, Jim?"
"Yeah, we are." Jim let go of Blair's arm and rested his hand on the cushion. "I know it's hard, partner, but we'll make it." He dunked under the surface for a second, then forced the water from his eyes and ran a hand over his short hair. "The tide's going out pretty heavy now, so we might as well rest up instead of wasting our time."
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