by Kristine Williams
"Jim, what time is it?"
"Almost time to get out of here." Jim rubbed his forehead wearily. "I'm sorry about your exhibit, Chief. You'll be going back empty-handed."
"Oh, no, man, not really." Blair stood, pushing long hair from his face. "I just needed to see it, and study it. Which I did, for about nine hours. It was fantastic."
Jim shook his head, marveling at the elasticity of Blair's psyche. As much as he wanted to take some credit for his partner's bounce-back talent, he knew much of it was already in place when they met.
"What about your notes and pictures?"
Blair waved a hand, dismissing such details. "The notes I can just write again, Jim. And I can get pictures for the University from the government." He shrugged, then headed for the small bathroom at the end of the room.
Jim watched him go. A sound upstairs caught his attention. He'd been keenly aware of everything going on up there, in Parker's personal quarters. Now he listened to what he realized was a phone conversation. With Sentinel hearing on the tightest focus, Jim was able to hear both sides of the conversation.
"Yes, their plane leaves in two hours."
"Will you have any trouble getting past airport security?"
The second voice was oddly familiar, but Jim couldn't place him.
"No, we've got that taken care of. I assure you, Ellison and his partner will be home safe in the US by morning."
"They'd better. You're on thin ice with this stunt, Parker."
"We got results! Robert's little industry is stopped."
"Results are not the issue here. Your conduct and the manner in which you achieved those results is."
Jim's blood ran cold, as it had so many times these past few days. Some things began to make sense, while others still remained a mystery.
"Yes, sir, I realize that. We had little time to plan, but it did work out."
"You had no plan! Just get those two civilians back here. We'll deal with you later."
"Jim, what's wrong?" Blair stepped over to the chair, still drying his hands on a towel.
"Nothing." Jim swallowed as he brought his attention back to the room, back to his partner. He looked at Blair, noting the large purple bruises on the right side of his face, the exhaustion still plain in his blue eyes. The way he still held an arm close to his injured side. He remembered what those bruises under his shirt looked like back at the river. He remembered what they had done to him, what they had threatened to do, back in the cells where Jim was helpless to stop them. What Robert was going to do.
There was a knock on the door that brought Jim out of the chair. "Hold on to this for me, Chief." Jim pulled the gun from his pants and handed it to Blair.
"It's okay." He walked to the door and opened it, letting Parker in. "Well?"
"We're all set. There's a van coming in ten minutes to take us to the airport. We have a charter plane waiting to take Mr. Emerson and Mr. Lancaster to London. That's you two. When you get onboard, you'll be flown nonstop to New York, then on to Cascade."
Parker smiled to Jim and Blair, walking into the room as he explained the details. Jim nodded, stepping up to the man casually.
"So, did you kill that guard on the roof, or did one of your men?"
Parker turned, surprised. "What guard, Jim?"
With one glance at Blair, Jim let his right fist fly until it connected with Parker's jaw. The impact sent the man to the floor.
"You knew! All this time, you knew. That's why you let us come, isn't it?" Jim felt his rage surfacing and held it in check just enough to maintain control. Parker was on the floor, holding a bloody jaw.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Jim! I told you, we had no idea Robert had turned. We never would have..."
"You knowingly brought us in hoping he'd take the bait!" Jim was aware of Blair standing quietly beside him. "You couldn't catch Robert in the act, so you used the fact that Sandburg and I were coming to set a trap!"
Parker glanced from Blair back to Jim. "All right, yes. Yes, we used you."
The confession did nothing to cool Jim's anger.
"Yes, it was a bad plan. We realized you were coming with a friend, and we did some quick checking. It was decided Mr. Sandburg here would fit the profile perfectly, and Robert wouldn't be able to pass up the opportunity to use you and take him."
"It was decided?"
Parker cautiously got to his feet, backing away from Jim, who advanced until they were against the wall. "Yes. It was a calculated risk. You do remember those, don't you, Jim?"
Ignoring the pain in his left arm, Jim lashed out, wrapping his right hand around Parker's throat. "Oh yeah, I remember those. They teach you calculated risk right after the course on acceptable losses." Jim let more of the rage show through until Parker physically shrank in his grasp. "But Blair Sandburg is not a calculated risk, or a contingent to be factored. And he sure as hell isn't an acceptable loss!"
"I know! I'm sorry, all right? We had it planned, but we didn't have time." Robert's eyes could no longer meet Jim's. "We were right behind you, but in the confusion after that assassination attempt, we lost you both. We hadn't even thought Robert would try such a stunt. He'd always stayed with the slave trade before. We knew that...we knew that he wouldn't be able to pass up someone like Blair. He fits the type Robert's buyers look for. Not too young, not too old. We had to do something to stop him, Jim."
"You didn't have to do this!" The beating Jim so desperately wanted to bestow on Parker was interrupted by the van that pulled into the garage above them.
"That's the ride, Jim. You'll be in Cascade by morning if you leave now." Parker's announcement was more pleading than anything.
As badly as he wanted to teach Parker a lesson he'd never forget, he also knew he couldn't risk them not getting out of India and back home safely. Jim became aware again of how quiet Blair was behind him. He didn't have to turn and look to know his friend still held the gun. The sound of the hammer clicking back reached his ears easily.
Blair held the gun in his right hand, not directly aiming it at anyone, but gazing at it as if contemplating its use.
"Our ride's here, Chief." Jim spoke quietly, releasing his hold on the man's neck, effectively dismissing Parker completely now.
"Yeah." Blair glanced up again, then looked back down at the gun in his hand. His thumb clicked the hammer back, then released it again. He looked up at Parker, then back to Jim.
"Are you ready to go home?" He waited.
Slowly, Blair nodded, his lips pursed in thoughtful contemplation. "Yeah. Let's go home." He handed the gun back to Jim, then walked to the door.
With one last glance at Parker, Jim shoved the gun
into his pants and followed Blair out to the van.
They had no trouble at the airport, passing several police and customs checkpoints with fake passports, their own hidden in their clothes for use when they arrived home. The plane was waiting for them just as Parker had said, a charter flight headed for New York after a fake London departure. The plane was only half full, and first class all the way, with spacious seating and plenty of leg room.
To protect his injured left arm, Jim took the window seat, giving Blair his right shoulder for use as a pillow during the last five hours of their flight. He'd seen to it Blair had taken some of the doctor's pain medication prior to takeoff, giving him a more comfortable flight and Jim a kink in his shoulder.
Simon met them at the airport in Cascade, having been informed by "one of your covert buddies" about the incident that had them returning two days late from a simple trip to India. Muttering all the way about inconveniencing the city every time they took off for what was supposed to be one of their simple little trips, then coming back injured, Simon drove them both straight to the hospital where Jim's arm was cleaned and re-bandaged and Blair was given a complete examination.
During Jim's exam, he gave the Captain a brief explanation of his and Blair's ordeal, while simultaneously keeping one ear trained on the room across the hall, making sure Blair was being more honest with his doctor than Jim was with Simon. By the time they were dropped off at home, with a promise to report in to work after a day's rest, they were both exhausted. Blair had no idea what day, or night, it was and Jim simply didn't care. They were home!
After making sure Blair had actually made it into his bed before falling asleep, Jim went upstairs and shrugged out of his clothes. A task made slightly more difficult with the sling the doctor had insisted he use for the next week. When he finally did get into bed, he let out a great sigh and closed his eyes, seeking out the sounds below him. Blair was sleeping soundly, and dreamlessly so far. After listening to that familiar and welcome sound for a while, Jim set about confirming his surroundings, the smell, sound, and feel of home.
Satisfied he could sleep now without the fear of waking in a cell in India, listening to someone tormenting his partner, Jim pressed his head into the pillow, got comfortable, and allowed himself to believe it was over.
He woke late, the sun already halfway up the balcony windows. The shower was running downstairs, so Jim took his time getting out of bed. His left arm was stiff, but less painful than he'd expected. Now that they were home, Blair's internal dial lesson seemed to be working. After making the bed as best he could, Jim walked downstairs and set up the coffee pot, waiting for his housemate to finish his shower. After checking the phone messages, using the toilet and brushing his teeth, he realized something had to be done.
"Sandburg, you okay in there?" Jim stood next to the curtain, trying to tune out the overpowering smell of mango and green tea shower soap permeating the small bathroom.
"What? Oh, yeah, Jim. Sorry, I'll be right out."
The water shut off immediately, followed by a gush of wetness hitting the tub floor as Blair rang out his long hair, then a face peered around the curtain. Jim reached for a towel and handed it over.
"Everything okay, Chief?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Blair reached for the towel and stepped out of the shower, wrapping it around himself. "I guess I just didn't realize how long I was in there."
Jim watched him for a moment, weighing his response as he took note of the purple bruises covering his friend's right side and stomach. "You want some breakfast?"
Blair ran a second towel over his hair and nodded. "I'll be out in a minute and fix some eggs or something."
"Relax, I think I can manage breakfast." Before Blair could argue, Jim returned to the kitchen and gazed into the refrigerator. His partner made the trip from bathroom to bedroom in a rush, trying to avoid the fall chill. "We need to go shopping." He pulled the milk out and checked the date. Three days to go. "How about cereal?"
"Fine with me." Blair came out of his room with sweatpants on and a long sleeved shirt halfway over his head. "How's your arm?"
"I'll live." Jim found bowls and a box of Cheerios and carried them out to the table, leaving the milk for Blair to carry.
Breakfast was quiet. Jim read the most current paper he could find while Blair worked at recopying his notes from memory. After two bowls of Cheerios and a second cup of coffee, he sat back and watched his partner as he became completely absorbed in his task. Nearly an hour had passed since they sat down, and still Blair kept writing. Jim had cleaned the dishes, then used the shower and dressed, and Blair had moved from his seat once, to retrieve a second notebook from his room.
Jim flexed his injured arm a few times, trying to work out the stiffness, then sat back down at the table. "Listen, Blair, I'm sorry about your notes and pictures and stuff. Is this going to be hard to explain to the University?"
"Huh? Oh, no, this kind of thing happens sometimes." Blair paused, looking up sharply. "I mean, not exactly this sort of thing, but losing your notes and photos to the local government isn't anything new." His eyes darted around for a second, then came back to rest on his papers. "Besides, what it looks like isn't as important as what it all stands for. That's the fascinating part. I'm just sorry you found out what these old friends of yours are really like. That's gotta hurt."
He shook his head and stood, walking back to the kitchen. "Robert never was much of a friend. Neither was Parker." Jim found a pen and notepad and began to make a shopping list. "Co-workers, not much more really. That's what made them so unpredictable."
"So, you're saying a close friend, you could predict?"
Jim shrugged. "Especially when that close friend is as unpredictable as you are, Chief. I can always count on you to surprise me." He glanced back and laughed at the look on Blair's face as he contemplated that bit of information. "I'll tell you one thing, the next time we go on one of your expeditions together, I'm not going to look anyone up."
Blair spun around in his chair, eyebrows raised. "You mean that? About the next time, I mean?"
"Oh, man, that's great! I was hoping you might say that. There's this new site in the Congo, and I was thinking maybe next spring we could..."
"Hang on, Chief." Jim held up one hand and wondered how he'd just gotten into this. "The Congo?"
"Yeah. You see.."
"Wait, wait, wait. Next spring?"
That gives me six months to figure out how I got talked into this so quickly. "Let's just concentrate on conquering grocery shopping today, okay, Chief? We can talk about the Congo this spring."
Blair was happy with that answer and began to close up his notebooks. Jim finished his grocery list and they drove to the store, intent on making the most of their unplanned sick day with relatively minor injuries.
On the way, Jim asked his friend something about the Buddha's coffin and Blair happily recalled every detail he could, complete with stories and descriptions. Jim smiled, listening just enough to comment and react, while the rest of his attention drank in the fact that Blair was indeed okay. Robert, his scar-faced guard, even Parker, couldn't take away what they had. But then, they'd never really known Jim, or what he was capable of. No one did, if he was honest with himself. Not that he'd ever kept anyone out, or hidden any part of himself from anyone wanting to know. But as often as Jim had opened up to others, he'd never known anyone to just dive right in like Blair did. There had never been a friend, or anyone, who honestly wanted to know everything there was to know, and then some. No matter what anyone did, or tried to do, they couldn't change that. Jim wouldn't let them.
The Congo in the spring. I don't even want to know what could possibly happen there.
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