The gentle rocking of the boat lent itself to Blair's dreams, sending him over the open sea on a three-masted schooner. The fact that the ship was named The Sentinel, and Jim was there with
Blair sighed, then pushed aside a clump of kelp that floated up to him. During their swim, he'd run into several large sections of kelp, seaweed, and about four jellyfish, but all were of the white, non-stinging variety. The water seemed to be getting colder as the day progressed, but the sun was still beating down with full force. Blair realized his tolerance was waning. If they were in the water through the night, hypothermia would almost definitely set in.
"Hey, Jim, last summer, that guy who fell off the ferry in the San Juans, he lasted 36 hours before he was rescued, didn't he?"
"It was around 36 or 38 hours, something like that. Sandburg, we'll make it. He was alone and freezing. We've got each other, and it must be about 80 degrees out." Jim glanced at the sky, nodding. "We could last through the night if we had to, but we'll be out of here before morning."
"Yeah? Can I quote you on that, Jim?" Blair smiled, grateful for Jim's confident attitude. The man was a rock, right when Blair needed one to lean on.
Jim laughed. "Sure. Hey, how are you at the back float?"
Blair glanced at the water, judging the small waves. "Not bad, when it's calm."
"Okay, take half so we balance out." Jim turned around, then carefully placed his head on the cushion while Blair steadied it.
Once he was settled, Blair followed suit, placing his head on the cushion and letting his body float on the opposite side. It was almost pleasant, floating there with his head supported. His jeans were light enough not to drag his legs down too much, and keeping his body closer to the surface warmed him. After some shifting and balancing, they both found a restful way to float there, and Blair felt his body truly start to rest.
The sun was beginning its downward trek, but there was still warmth to be had. They'd get another several hours of daylight, and the temperature shouldn't drop too quickly. The ferry could be heard in the distance, but was still too far off to see. Blair wasn't really sure if Jim was taking them straight for land, or toward the ferry route where they might be seen. He just knew his partner was his best chance for surviving this.
Blair sighed and closed tired eyes. This wasn't a shimmering pool in the jungle inviting him to let it take his concerns away and leave him floating happily. This water was his concern. But it seemed to be indifferent to him now. After a few minutes of listening to Jim's quiet breathing, Blair felt himself dozing off.
He woke with a slight start and his head nearly fell off the cushion. Glancing around, he saw the sun nearing the horizon. "Jim?"
"Yeah." The cushion moved slightly with his answer. "The tide's slacking now, Chief. You ready for another go?"
Blair nodded as best he could, then slowly rolled to his left to get his head off its perch. Something orange was floating toward him again, and he reached out to shove the kelp out of his way. The instant his hand touched the tendril, pain shot through his hand and fingers. It felt as though his hand had just been placed into a bucket of battery acid. He cried out, nearly going under in his haste to retract his burning hand, and realized he was surrounded by floating orange stingers clinging to his jeans and snaking all around the water next to him.
"Jim!" Blair couldn't resist the need to push away from the jellyfish, but he knew touching it would just add more pain to the hand that was already burning unbearably. But the tendrils were everywhere, and his hand was completely useless in keeping him afloat. He kicked once to keep from sinking under the surface, but that caused more tendrils to grab his jeans and stick with jellied tenacity.
Jim was there instantly, grabbing the back of Blair's shirt and pulling him away from their visitor with massive kicks of his legs. He kept moving, until they were well out of the range of the yards-long stingers trailing the bulbous body that pulsed away from the offenders. Blair watched as the clinging strands pulled away, holding his breath against the pain in his hand and the fear that any second he'd feel more burn through his legs.
"Easy, easy, it's gone." Jim stopped, then pulled the cushion close to them again and forced Blair's uninjured right arm onto it for support. "Let me see."
"God, it hurts!" He had to force himself to let Jim take his hand and pry the fingers open. The red welt already swelling over the palm of his left hand felt as though it was covered in acid, and he wanted to shove it under the water in an effort to rinse the burning away. He scanned the water for more of the orange stingers, trying desperately not to pull his hand from Jim's grasp. Holding still seemed to make the pain worse, but Jim wouldn't let go. Blair was sure shaking it and swearing would help the burning lessen.
"Hang on." Jim looked his whole hand and arm over, then checked the rest of Blair's body for any sign of a broken tendril stuck on his clothes. "I know, Chief, it hurts. It'll ease off in a few minutes."
Blair nodded, his teeth tightly clenched against the curses he knew wouldn't get him anywhere. But God it hurt! Jim lowered the injury into the water and there was some minor relief when the coolness swept over the burn. But that was temporary.
"Just hang in there, buddy." Jim looked Blair in the eyes, his own face creased with concern.
"Oh, man, that hurts." Blair finally found his voice as the pain lessened slightly. "You were right, Jim. It feels like battery acid."
"Yeah." Jim reached for the cushion with one hand, but kept the other on Blair's left arm, holding the injured hand under the surface. "You were lucky, Chief. Getting tangled in the stingers is what happened to my diving partner back in the army. You'll be okay, though. This is nothing, just hurts for a bit."
"Yeah, it just hurts." It hurt like hell, but compared to their situation, it was a minor injury. When his heart stopped racing and the pain was under control, Jim let go of his wrist. He moved it around slightly, and grimaced at the shooting pain the motion caused. There was no way he was going to be able to swim with this. But if he couldn't keep up, Jim would stay with him and not reach shore. Telling Jim to go on without him wouldn't work, he knew better than that now.
"Just keep it still, Chief, don't aggravate it." Jim glanced over Blair's shoulder.
"Jim, I---Jim?" Blair instantly recognized the look of intense concentration on his friend's face. Knowing it was futile, Blair turned to look in the same direction anyway. He wasn't at all surprised when he saw nothing.
"There's a sailboat out there. They're coming this way, but slowly." He looked at Blair. "Listen, it's tacking, but seems to be heading toward us. Probably going to anchor tonight somewhere close if we can just hold out."
Blair couldn't see the boat, but if Jim said it was there, and coming closer, then it was. "What if they change course?"
"I'll keep an eye on them, make sure they don't." Jim put both forearms on the cushion. "We're both exhausted, Chief. When that sun sets, which it's almost ready to do, we'll need to worry about keeping warm. I can't swim, maintain our position, and look for jellyfish in the dark at the same time." He shrugged and his mouth upturned into a mischievous, sideways grin. "Well, I can, but it takes all the fun out of this little adventure."
Blair sighed and tried to return the smile. He moved his right arm more onto the cushion, keeping his left hand under the water. The coolness seemed to help keep the pain manageable. "I suppose if you left me here and swam ahead, I'd get picked up by a couple of inbred survivalists fishing with guns."
Jim laughed, shaking his head. "Probably." He reached out for Blair's injured hand again. "Let me have a look."
Reluctantly, Blair brought the hand out of the water, wincing as the air hit the burning welt.
"Good. Doesn't look like you're allergic, Chief." Jim released the hand and Blair returned it gingerly to the water after looking at the wound himself. "Now, aren't you glad you had your jeans on?"
He sighed, adjusting himself tiredly on the cushion. "I'm not going to ask you where you got stung."
"Good. 'Cause I'm not going to tell you, Chief."
Blair laughed a little, then shivered when he noticed the setting sun. "Are they closer, Jim?"
"Yeah, they're closer. Just hang in there, we'll be fine now."
Jim scanned the horizon again, but this time Blair didn't even try to see the
boat. He was too exhausted now to care. His hand burned, his lungs were fighting
congestion, and his legs felt like lead. Once again, he found himself desperately
in need of sleep, and physically unable to achieve it.
Jim listened as the couple on the sailboat set anchor, then set about securing their rigging for the night. He let Sentinel vision fade back to normal sight and tried to judge the swimming distance. It was rapidly growing dark, and the tide was now against them, heading back into shore. But their safest bet was the boat. Shore was still several hour's hard swim away, and they were both exhausted and getting dangerously cold. Blair's hand wasn't as badly injured as it could have been, but still the red welt covering his palm was going to make swimming painful. And there was no way Jim was swimming ahead without him.
"Okay, Chief. You ready to head out? They've anchored, and I think we can make it."
Blair had been resting his head on the cushion, and now looked up and nodded tiredly. "Yeah, I'm ready." He let go of the cushion and treaded water for a moment, wincing with each motion of his hand.
All Jim wanted to do was reach out, grab his friend, and make it all better. Make the water disappear, make the boat come to them. Anything to stop this exhaustion and pain. And fear. "All right, slow and steady, partner. We're almost out of this." He watched Blair take his first stroke, then he set off himself, keeping his friend beside him this time, instead of behind. They were both exhausted, but Blair had the added injury of the sting, and he couldn't be relied upon to complain. Jim made sure to breathe through his strokes facing Blair each time, to keep an eye on his progress. He kept his hearing tuned in to their goal to keep them on track, listening as the couple on the sailboat prepared dinner, discussed the beautiful night sky, and talked about the next day.
They swam steadily toward the voices. All the while Jim kept an eye on Blair and an ear focused ahead. He was trying to gauge the distance it would take to be heard, while compensating for his Sentinel hearing. Just because the couple on the boat sounded to Jim to be a few feet away, didn't make it so. He had just decided to stop and try to determine the distance they had left when Blair's swimming pattern faltered.
"Sandburg." Jim caught him just before he went under. "Hang on, Chief, we're almost there."
Blair got his balance and nodded, treading water as best as he could. His left hand was balled into a fist and he was shivering constantly. Jim, too, felt the cold. His legs ached with each movement, and his arms were getting too heavy to hold up.
"How much farther?"
"Not far." Jim looked at their goal, grateful to see they'd made some progress against the current. "Just a bit more." He looked back at Blair and realized he wasn't going to make it any farther. His breathing was labored and tired, his eyes dull with pain and exhaustion. The cold was creeping in, bringing him to the limit. Jim reached out and pulled Blair close, wrapping an arm around his chest. "Relax, Chief, I'm not asking you out." He kicked out and reached forward with his other arm, side-stroking with Blair resting on his arm. With a sigh, and a hand on the arm holding him, Blair kicked and tried his best to help them both along.
Jim was on automatic survival mode; somehow his body found the energy to oblige. Together, they closed the gap, reaching a point where they could shout and be heard. Jim called out to the boat, his voice too tired and quiet at first, but gaining volume after the first shout. Immediately they were rewarded with a search light striking the water, and two anxious voices concerned that they'd actually heard someone in the water way out here.
"Harold, there! Over there!" A woman's voice urged the spotlight to move left, until it struck both men. "Good lord, there's two men out there."
"Maureen, get the life ring, hurry!"
Jim stopped trying to get closer and adjusted his grip on Blair. "Hang on, Chief, we made it."
Blair nodded and turned, moving out of Jim's grasp to tread water right next to him. A life ring flew through the air toward them, then landed with a slap in front of Jim. He hooked the ring with one arm, then pulled Blair by the shirt until he was close enough to grab it as well. Once they both had a good grip, he nodded toward their rescuers and shouted for them to pull. When they reached the side of the large yacht, a ladder was dropped into the water, extending several feet under the surface. Jim helped Blair get his footing, and between his hand on Blair's rear and the helping hands on his arms, they got him up and onto the deck.
Jim's turn was next, and with no one in the water to give him a boost upward, he was forced to use the last of what little strength he had to fight the suction-hold the salt water had on his lower body. The man who had pulled Blair up now had both hands on Jim's arms, and helped him the rest of the way over the railing and onto the deck of the sailboat.
"My God, what happened to you two?"
Jim practically fell to the deck, then found his way shakily to his feet with help and looked up at his host, a man in his early forties with brown, very short hair and very kind eyes. A quick glance at Blair showed him being helped into the cabin by a very concerned, woman with mostly grey hair and arms strong enough to practically carry his weakened friend.
"Our boat was rammed by another yacht early this morning." Jim gratefully allowed himself to be assisted to the cabin, following Blair and the woman.
"This morning? You've been in the water since then?" They reached the open cabin door and stepped inside. "Maureen, more blankets. And get something these men can put on. I should have plenty of sweats in the clean drawer."
"Thank you." Jim sank down onto the couch next to Blair. He glanced around the cabin quickly, noting its size.
"Oh, forgive me. My name is Harold, Harold Warder." Harold turned and pulled open a cabinet door, withdrawing two blankets. He handed them both to Jim who unfolded one immediately and wrapped it over Blair's shoulders. "That's my wife, Maureen. Are either of you hurt? Was there anyone else on your boat? Anyone else in the water we should look for?"
Jim shook his head, wrapping the second blanket over his own shoulders. "No, just us. My name is Jim Ellison. I'm a Detective with the Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. If I could just use your radio to call the Coast Guard?"
"Oh, certainly, Detective, right this way."
"Do you have a first aid kit? My partner here had a run in with a stinging jellyfish a few hours ago."
"Yes, I've got one right here." Maureen returned from below decks, carrying clothes, a first aid kit, and two more blankets. "You can radio the Coast Guard after you've taken off those soaking clothes." She handed Jim another blanket and a pair of sweat pants and a large fisherman's sweater, then she did the same for Blair and sat down beside him with the first aid kit. "Come on, gentlemen. Don't worry about me, I've raised four sons. That water must have been freezing, and you're both exhausted."
"Go ahead, I'll radio the CG for you. You'll get no peace until you've done what she asks." Harold shook his head and rolled his eyes, but Jim could see the sparkle of deep affection there. "What was the name of your boat?"
"The MarySue, out of Shilsoe." Jim returned to the couch his partner was on. "Thank you."
Blair seemed to be too tired to care about an audience, but Jim couldn't help notice how he'd managed to keep the blanket over him as he worked his wet jeans off. By the time Jim followed suit, his friend had already donned the sweat pants and sweatshirt Maureen handed him. The sweatshirt was two sizes too big, and made Blair appear very small. But it looked about as warm as the sweater Jim was pulling over his head.
"Here, let me see this." Maureen examined Blair's hand, then rummaged through the first aid kit for ointment.
Jim reached out and turned the injured palm toward him. "Looks like it's calming down a bit, Chief. How does it feel?"
"Better. Either that, or I'm too tired to care." Blair winced as Maureen applied some ointment to the welt, then gently rubbed it around to cover the entire burned area. Jim gave him a gentle squeeze on the shoulder while he watched her tend to Blair's hand.
"I don't suppose the boat that rammed you stayed around to see what they'd done?" Maureen set the ointment tube down and found some gauze to make a loose wrapping.
"No, they didn't."
"They were drinking most of the night, anchored not far from us." Jim clenched his jaw, wishing for the hundredth time that day he'd gotten more than just three ID numbers off the bow that plowed through the MarySue.
"They'll send a cutter over in the morning, to give you two a ride back home." Harold rejoined them. "This kind of thing is happening more and more. With hardly enough policing of the waterways, and more people thinking boats are just great places to party." He shook his head. "You must be frozen, and hungry. Let me warm up some soup."
"Don't go to any trouble on our account." Jim could see how hard it was for Blair to keep his eyes open, and it wasn't much easier for him. "I think he just needs some sleep, and we'll be fine."
"Nonsense." Maureen finished her bandaging and began to re-pack the first aid kit.
"Thank you." Blair leaned back, pushing the left sleeve of the sweatshirt back up to his elbow, only to have it promptly slide right back down. "This is a lot of boat for two people."
"64 feet of custom built extravagance." Harold pulled a pot from one of the many cupboards and was joined in the galley by his wife. "We were both high school science teachers. Worked ourselves silly, like most of us do, then one day we came to our senses."
Maureen pulled two glasses down from another cupboard and filled them with water. "Came to our senses about a lot of things." She returned to the couch and handed them the fresh water.
Jim hadn't realized how dehydrated he was. Being surrounded by water, and completely unable to drink it. "Came to your senses?"
"Well, you know how public schools are these days. And teachers just don't make what they're worth." Harold sighed and stirred the contents of his pot. "But, you know how it is when you're passionate about your career." He looked at his wife and smiled. "We were both bright eyed and ready to teach the world when we started. That's when we met, right out of college and excited about everything. But, you soon realize the only way to live with all the disappointments is to calm down and think of it as just a job."
Jim glanced at Blair who was listening intently, trying to keep his eyes open. He'd seen his friend a few times giving lectures at the University, and no one could miss that sparkle in Blair's eye when he was teaching his favorite subject. He was very passionate about his field, and fell into teacher-mode as quickly and easily as if he'd been born into it. Of course, with Naomi's lifestyle, Blair practically was born into a life of studying other people. But as passionate and alive as teaching made him seem, Jim had also seen that same look, that same enthusiastic attitude, when they were on a case together. Blair seemed to enjoy learning from Jim, as much as he did teaching him about his Sentinel senses. And he had proven himself an endless source of amusement for Jim. Amusement, curiosity, and every now and again, fascination.
"So, one day we woke up and decided it was time to live our dream." Maureen returned to the galley and pulled two bowls down from another cupboard.
"So we retired, bought the boat, and we've been sailing around ever since." Harold poured soup into each bowl.
"That's great." Blair smiled and adjusted the sleeves on his borrowed sweatshirt again. "It's so rare you actually get to live your dreams like this. Most people spend their lifetimes just dreaming, and have to be happy with that."
Jim accepted the bowl Harold handed him with a nod of thanks and a quick glance at Blair. That sparkle was in his eyes again.
"Yes, that's too true." Maureen handed Blair some soup then sat down opposite them both while her husband cleaned the galley. "We were luckier than most, though. We had a nice big Lotto win to get us started on this dream. That's why we call her the Grand Adventure. And it has been one, to be sure. Sailing up and down the coast, as far as Alaska and down to Mexico. Harold still wants to head over to the Hawaiian islands, but that much open water makes me too nervous. I prefer hugging the coastline."
"You must meet a lot of people doing this."
Jim sat back, eating his soup slowly so he didn't upset an exhausted stomach, and listened while Maureen and Harold entertained them with tales of discovery along the waterways of the West Coast. Blair was fascinating to watch at times like this, if you knew what you were watching. He had an uncanny talent for drawing people out, and getting them to reveal things with just a few well-placed words or the expression on his face as he nodded his understanding. Jim found himself able to open up to Blair easily and freely. But he had also learned years ago how to spot the tricks and tactics used by people trying to get you to reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings without you realizing it. That didn't work with Jim. He didn't tell Blair what he wanted to know because of some tactic he used. It was because of who Blair was, what they shared, and the fact that he truly wanted to know. Jim wasn't one to share intimate or personal information with anyone who wasn't sincere in their wish to hear it.
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