By Shellie Williams
Warnings/Disclaimers: An unedited version of this story appeared on the SentinelAngst list. The characters and places of The Sentinel do not belong to me. No profit other than pleasure was make from this story.
Jim Ellison sat staring into his watery soup. Rain pattered on canvas overhead, creating a counter beat to the pain pulsing at his temples. Cold temperatures turned the moist air around him into frigid mist. Steam rose from his bowl and touched his face but couldn't penetrate the icicle chill of his skin.
Thirty-six hours -- thirty-six hours of fruitless searching in woods too dense to see a fellow searcher from five feet away, even for a sentinel. Thirty-six hours of searching in weather so cold and wet it made a person question if there had ever been a warm moment in his life.
A group of young adults from Cascade's Abilities Unlimited had been camping in these low hills when a thunderstorm struck without warning. The mentally and physically challenged group of young men and women handled the emergency well. It wasn't until they'd loaded up the equipment and taken a final head count on the bus that they'd realized Jared Keith was missing.
One frantic hour later, rescue workers had been organized. Armed with powerful search lights and communications equipment, they fanned out in groups of two or three through the thick forest. They did their best to see through the encroaching gloom made worse by heavy sheets of pouring rain.
Voices called through the night to one another. The disconnected sound of radios crackling accompanied sporadic thunder overhead. Rain turned into pewter flashes in the searchlights' beams as darkness fell.
In desperation, Search and Rescue called upon numerous city and county agencies for any extra men or women they could spare. Though Detective Ellison had a full caseload, Captain Banks sent Jim and his partner, Blair Sandburg, to help. He knew Jim's unique abilities gave the sentinel an advantage. He hoped that edge would bring success to the mission.
Now, sitting dejectedly and somewhat removed from the rest of the rescuers, Jim ruefully shook his head. The cold and damp were hampering his abilities more than usual. The steady rain had washed away all scents and signs of a person's passage through the dense undergrowth as effectively as a scouring pad. Falling temperatures wreaked havoc with his sinuses.
Furthermore, irritation from his unsolved cases nagged at the back of his mind. Those annoying failures coupled with his current, seemingly unsuccessful, venture left him feeling beached and floundering. Even his partner's usual optimism couldn't pry him out of the funk he'd fallen into.
He reached up to wipe his brow and his fingers came away wet. Despite the heavy all-weather parka he wore, plus layered shirts, his skin felt miserably damp. Wiggling his toes in his boots gave him an uncomfortably slimy sensation and he grimaced.
'Cold and wet is my world.' The memory of hearing Blair mumble those words as the two of them chased Dawson Quinn through the woods brought a tired smile to his lips. "I hear ya, buddy."
"Talking to yourself, Jim?" Ellison glanced up to see Blair elbow one corner of the canvas away and duck inside the temporary shelter. He held two styrofoam cups of coffee. "You know that's the first sign of senility, don't you?"
Jim shook his head. "Only if you answer yourself." An uncomfortable ache had settled like a helmet over the top of his head. He winced and touched his temple with his fingers.
"Head still hurting?"
"Yeah." He frowned and put the soup mug aside to accept the offered coffee. "Thanks."
The bitter fluid felt grainy against his tongue. He couldn't keep from curling his lips back with distaste as he forced the liquid down his throat. A faintly metallic taste accompanied the coffee's flavor, permeating his sinuses.
"Pretty bad, huh?"
Jim looked up and caught Blair's sympathetic gaze. "I've tasted worse. What's the word?"
Blair sat down heavily on a nearby box opposite Jim and thumbed wet hair behind one ear. Disappointment showed in his slumped shoulders. "The last group called in -- nada. They're still patrolling the five mile perimeter they set up hours ago."
Jim nodded approvingly despite the discouraging news. "Should be light in a few more hours. We can do more then." He stood and ended up ducking to avoid the drooping canvas above his head. Rain had gathered in the concave slope of the material. "We'd make more progress if this damn storm would let up."
Aches pulsed through him clear down to his bones. He rubbed the back of his neck, then brought his fingers up to knead his forehead.
"It's been nearly two days, man. You can't expect to use your senses non-stop without some kind of break."
Blair's quiet words broke through the dull thudding of pain at his temples but Jim shook his head stubbornly. "All of these people have been out here for two days, Sandburg. Everyone's tired."
Blair stood up and moved in front of him. "No one else has been stretching his senses to the limit for a sign of that kid."
"Which is reason enough for me to continue here." He knew his tone was gruff. Discomfort pulled him down and shortened his patience.
"It's also reason enough for you to get some rest." Blair's quiet tone held only concern and Jim frowned with guilt.
He handed the empty cup back to his partner. "Thanks."
Blair smiled as he took the cup. "For the coffee, or the advice?"
"Both." A weak grin played on Jim's lips and he was relieved to feel determination surge through him. "Let's give it twenty-four more hours, Chief, then we'll head back home."
Blair's smile faltered. "I want to find him too; I just don't see how we can do any more. The storm is holding you back, keeping you from using your senses to their full potential."
"Can you tell if there's any change? Is the temperature still dropping?"
Jim shook his head. "All I know is it's cold and wet. This headache is throwing me off; I can't seem to control the dials, so I've kept them all turned down."
"Listen to yourself, man. If you won't listen to me, at least heed what your body's trying to tell you. You need a break."
Refusing to look at his partner, Jim reached up to adjust his cap and shrugged the canvas aside to re-enter the storm. His earlier fugue had returned full force and wiped away any cheer Blair had managed to sneak in. He heard Blair follow but pulled his arm away rudely when the young man touched his elbow.
"Jim!" The quiet command grabbed him and his conscience nudged him around. Rain sluiced from the sky, drenching them where they stood. Blair had neglected to put his hood back over his head and his curls straightened with the water's added weight.
"You're pushing yourself too hard. Everyone has limits."
Jim pressed his lips together and looked down at the ground. He shoved his hands into his pockets, hiding clenched fists from view. "Not now. We have a lost kid to find."
Without looking to see if Blair followed, he turned and headed away from the base camp.
Truthfully, he was a little confused himself by his stubborn attitude. Failure rankled him, went against everything he'd been taught. But was he more worried of failing to find the boy, or failing to hold up under the circumstances? A nasty dose of pride kept him from answering the question. He trudged forward into the trees, Blair's quiet presence at his back.
For little more than an hour, Blair's footsteps let him know his partner was keeping up. Not trusting the flashes of lightning to warn him of coming thunder, Jim adjusted his hearing down to normal, and he didn't notice when Blair's steps faltered and fell behind.
Rain slashed down onto his shoulders and found its way past his upturned coat collar to the chilled skin underneath. His Jag's cap did little to dull the heavy drops pounding atop his head. He squinted against the familiar pain thudding through his skull.
For an instant, defeat crawled into his breast, and he had to force himself to take the next step. A heartbeat became an eternity while an internal struggle ensued about whether or not to keep going. He stopped and looked around. Rain shrouded everything behind a watery veil; it dripped from sagging branches and wet the ground past the point of saturation.
Despair turned to fear when he realized Blair was no longer with him. Cautiously, he turned his hearing up and searched through the pattering of rain for a sign of his partner.
A jarring flash of lightning strobed across his vision. If exhaustion hadn't dulled his timing, Jim would have been able to lower his sentinel hearing. The answering crack of thunder shot through him like a concussion wave; he fell to his knees, helplessly pressing his hands against his ears.
Pain flayed him raw and turned his vision red. His knees grew cold and wet from the soaked earth and rough, crumbling bark scratched into his cheek. These unpleasant sensations finally broke through his agony. Blackness lifted, and he found himself kneeling on the ground, his arms wrapped around a tree, face pressed against the trunk.
Jim ducked reflexively when thunder rumbled in synchronized tympani with a flash of lightning directly overhead. The bright strobes of light seemed to stab right through his head and sear his brain. His arms felt weak; he barely found the strength to push himself away from the tree and regain his feet. The sudden darkness after the bright flash was disconcerting, and he held his arms out for balance.
"Jim -- Dammit, answer me!"
Blair's voice sounded thin and high with worry. Jim knew his partner couldn't be more than a few feet away, but the ability to focus beyond the pain in his head seemed beyond his grasp. Unaccustomed to feeling so powerless and vulnerable, he struggled to regain control. He'd been in the military, dammit; he'd fought for his life and the lives of others and endured hardships far worse than a damn thunderstorm.
Blair called again. For an instant, Jim's hearing caught hold of the familiar sound and pinpointed its location. The curtain of confusion lifted abruptly, and he looked around. His vision pierced the rain with absolute clarity. Ironically, he swayed with the return of equilibrium.
Across a small clearing, a figure pushed through the sheets of rain sluicing from the sky -- Blair.
Blair's head jerked up. A smile formed through the strings of wet hair clinging to his face. The young man took a step forward, poised to run. Then lightning flashed again, an exploding arrow of fire which struck seemingly on top of him.
Jim heard a sharp crack as a tree exploded. The air filled with the pungent, acrid smell of ozone and the hair at the nape of his neck prickled with residual electricity.
Wind howled through the trees, whipping debris from the ground and tossing it into his face, hiding Blair from view. Buffeting currents alternately caught and pulled at his clothing and succeeded in flipping his hat from his head. Rain coursed down his head and was flicked off the ends of his hair by the ferocity of the storm.
Jim blinked, trying to see through the blinding rain to find his partner. Clear sentinel vision had reverted back to normal sight, and he didn't dare turn it up again. With a determined growl, he pushed away from the tree and stood swaying in the wind.
"Blair!" Fighting the wind, pushing against the icy gale, he stumbled forward. "Sandburg!" Sound reverberated back to him as if a solid wall stood inches from his face. Abruptly, the wind shifted, and he found himself floundering for balance, pushed from behind. His shins hit sharply against something hard and he grunted a curse before reaching down to feel what it was. Prickly bark scrapped under his palm. He traced along its surface and realized it was the downed tree. Deep within its shattered trunk tiny fires still sputtered and hissed in defiance of the downpour that would soon extinguish them.
Jim caught a glimpse of a maroon coat. The next flash of lightning revealed his partner's crumpled form beneath shattered branches. In that momentary brilliance, Blair's face looked still as death, the whiteness of his skin criss-crossed with black fractures cast by gnarled limbs and waving pine needles.
The white brilliance from each flash of lightning washed all the color from Blair's skin and sharpened the soft contours of his face, cleaving them into hard, geometric shapes of silver and black. When darkness descended again, the afterimage seared into Jim's brain. He bent over the tree and snaked a hand through the branches, groping for his partner. His fingers touched flesh. Following the curve of the young man's jaw, he pressed in at Blair's neck and felt for a pulse.
The steadily pounding rain and the thudding of his own heartbeat hid Blair from his senses. He closed his eyes and ignored the distraction of the outside elements, banishing them from his awareness. His fingertips regained their sensitivity and he could feel the soft, wet flesh of Blair's throat pulsing with life.
Sighing with relief, he drew back and stood up, then wrapped both arms around the huge, fallen tree and pulled.
A roar of frustration exploded from his mouth when the heavy weight refused to shift. Readjusting his position, he shoved his shoulder into the trunk and dug his toes into soft dirt. Nothing happened. The tree didn't move, didn't roll, didn't budge as much as an inch. Panting with exertion, Jim stopped pushing and slumped over, his hands on his knees. Weariness ambushed him, taunting him with additional failure. Cold seeped in with the rain and numbed his hands. He needed help, but he couldn't leave his partner.
Blair was injured, perhaps dying. Jim felt helplessly angry with himself; Blair wouldn't even be here if only Jim had listened to him, or heeded what his own common sense had told him. Instead, he'd blundered into the darkness, determined to continue the search.
He grabbed the nearest limbs and tore them away, giving him better access to his trapped partner. Blair didn't move, not even when Jim dropped into the mud beside him and began checking for injuries. The thought of a tree limb skewering his partner shocked him, and he ran shaky fingers over the still form. The cold hampered his sense of touch; his fingertips felt numb and useless. At least none of the branches had impaled Blair, that much he could tell.
Resting back on his heels, he hung his head with despair. The world felt small, reduced to one tiny clearing in the Cascade wilderness. Overhanging branches and falling rain obscured the dark sky overhead, shrinking their surroundings even more.
He leaned over, shielding the smaller body with his own. Broken tree limbs pulled and snagged at his coat, but he forced one arm through the tangle and slid it beneath Blair's back, lifting him barely clear of the freezing ground. He cupped his other hand across Blair's cheek and curled over to protect him from the brunt of the rain. Damp warmth trapped between their bodies thawed his face. Water trickled down his neck and he shivered, holding Blair tighter.
Thoughts muddled with fatigue and worry, Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping Blair warm and alive.
He came awake with a jerk. With his face pressed into the wet material of Blair's jacket, Jim wondered for a moment where he was. Water pattered against his cheek and he blinked flicks of moisture from his eyes. Cloud-dulled light dappled the surroundings. He lifted his head and realized the drops of water fell from the trees, not the dawn-lightened sky. He moved, and a twinge in his neck from the awkward position he'd held all night made him wince.
The body under him moved, shifted slightly, and a familiar but groggy voice called out.
Straightening slowly, Jim sat up from his protective position. His back protested the movement and he froze, hunched halfway over. Blair lay on his side beneath him, trapped by a tree. The previous night's events replayed themselves in confusing images through his head, but he retained enough awareness to reach down and check his partner.
"What happened?" Blair's voice was raspy and weak.
"You don't remember?" Jim held Blair's face gently between his hands. Though he sounded terrible, the young man's eyes were clear. His face was pale, but that could be attributed to the cold weather. He seemed coherent and not in any pain, and Jim felt relief spread through him.
Blair's hair was matted with mud and looked like one big tangle against the ground. Jim grimaced, imagining the struggle his young friend would have combing it out. There was something to be said for the military cut.
"We were looking for the kid --" Blair hesitated. His blank expression twisted with confusion as he apparently searched his memory.
"And you nearly got struck by lightning. How are you feeling?"
"Cold." Blair tucked his chin against his chest and looked down at himself, probably suspecting that wasn't the answer Jim was looking for. He brought both arms up and pushed feebly against the tree pinning him to the ground. "My head hurts a little. I can feel my legs, I just can't move them."
A bruise, nearly hidden under crusty mud, darkened one temple. That, coupled with the exhaustion probably explained why Blair had been out all night. Still, Jim made a mental note to watch his partner closely for any signs of concussion.
Jim supported Blair's neck and pressed close to reach around him with his other arm. He ran his hand down the young man's back. The thick coat and layered clothing hindered his touch, but the uniform feel of a nobbly spine reassured him his partner had escaped any serious back injury.
Carefully lowering Blair's upper body to the ground, Jim unbuttoned Blair's coat and began an examination of his chest and abdomen.
"Just because we spent the night together doesn't mean you can take advantage of my vulnerability."
A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "Hold still, Sandburg." None of the frustration and fear from last night plagued him now, but his hands still shook with cold and weariness. Some slight swelling at Blair's right hip hinted at bruising, but the young man seemed otherwise intact.
"Let's see what we can do about this tree." Finished with his exam, Jim let Blair take over refastening his coat. He slowly pushed himself to his feet and stepped back to take a good look at the obstruction.
A large flat rock sat about a foot away beside the tree, perfect for a fulcrum. Jim searched for and quickly found a thick sturdy limb. He scooped out a section under the tree and forced the limb into the small depression, then braced himself to throw his weight onto the impromptu lever.
"I'm gonna try and lift it. Think you can pull yourself out?"
"I'm ready when you are."
Leaning over the limb, Jim pressed down. He felt the tree move and Blair called out. "Just a little more!"
His shoulders shook with weariness but Jim ground his teeth and forced the branch lower. Blair's movements shifted the tree and Jim grunted with the effort of keeping it aloft.
Resisting the urge to let the tree drop, Jim carefully lowered it slowly back to the ground, just in case his partner's enthusiasm had pushed the words out before he was totally clear. His muscles felt watery with exhaustion. Panting heavily, Jim trudged over to where Blair lay and collapsed to his knees beside him.
"Thanks." Blair sounded just as out of breath as he felt and Jim simply nodded. He was working too hard to get air into his lungs to bother answering. When he'd regained his breath, he reached over and touched Blair's hip.
"You all right?"
"Yeah." Blair still rested on his side and he shifted slowly, supporting himself with visibly shaking arms to sit up. Jim leaned forward to help and his momentum nearly carried him all the way over. He caught himself with his hands.
"Are you all right?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Just tired and cold like you." He paused a moment to catch his breath again. When he did, he sat back on his heels. "We need to get back. Think you can walk?"
"I can try."
Together, moving like arthritic old men, they made it to their feet. Blair groaned when he put his weight on his bruised leg and listed heavily against Jim.
Jim stumbled under the added burden, but tucked Blair close and kept his balance. He wrapped his arm around his partner and looked down at the sodden curls nestled against his chest. Warmth spread out where their bodies pressed together and Jim smiled. Letting his head drop back, he looked up at the sky. Rainwater that had gathered on leaves and branches dropped down, splashing against the ground and occasionally hitting Jim's shoulder or his head, an abbreviated reminder of last night's storm. The blue arc of sky belied any involvement in the past week's dark havoc.
Bringing his gaze back to the ground, Jim moved forward, his own waning strength poor accompaniment to Blair's weakness. Misery clung to both of them like the wet clothes on their backs. Thoughts of dry tents and hot coffee motivated Jim on.
"How are your senses?"
The question startled him and Jim looked down to find Blair watching him intently. Crystal-blue eyes were opened wide with curiosity. Concern showed in the tiny delicate lines around the eyes. Jim smiled despite the aches and pains reminding him not to spend another night on the ground.
"Back on line."
Blair lowered his gaze back to their feet. "Have you heard anything?"
"What do you mean?"
Oh. Jim sucked in his breath and stopped. Blair held still next to him and waited patiently, quietly.
His senses extended as easily as casting a net out to sea. Steadily dripping water and the muted rustling of animals through wet leaves vibrated against his hearing. His eyes dilated and his vision arrowed through the trees, catching glimpses of falling leaves and squirrels scurrying for cover. No human heartbeat thumped against his ears. No panicked breathing alerted him to a lost young man.
Bringing his attention back to his immediate surroundings, Jim shook his head. "No sign, Chief."
"Maybe there'll be some word back at camp."
Disappointment rang through the quiet words and the two of them trudged wearily on.
When they reached the main camp, Tom Fullerton, the search coordinator, was bent over a foldout table, his back to them. Their stumbling arrival alerted him. He turned around and gaped.
"Where the hell have you two been?"
"We took a detour," Jim answered shortly as he led Blair to a chair and lowered him into it. Blair held one leg stiffly and groaned heavily when he sat down. "My partner's been hurt, he needs medical attention."
When nothing happened, Jim looked up to find the man still staring at them.
"Everyone's looking for you."
"What? Why?" Blair's incredulous response echoed through the small space.
"You were missing, of course."
"We weren't missing, Jared is missing."
Tom's wide-eyed stare moved from Blair to Jim. "He wandered in by himself around midnight last night. We were about to break up the search when someone noticed you two weren't around. Stacy said she'd seen the both of you head out again around 10:30. We waited, and when you didn't show up, I sent search parties out."
Embarrassed heat flushed Jim's face and he looked at Blair. The young man raised his hand and touched the bruise on his forehead.
"Uh, Jim, I think I could really use that medical attention now." Although the words sounded sincere, Jim knew it was only an excuse to hasten their escape from camp before the others returned and found out what had happened.
"Right." Wrapping his arm around his partner, Jim quickly helped the young man to his feet and glanced back over his shoulder at Fullerton. "Can you radio everyone and let them know we're back? I need to get Sandburg to the hospital."
Not waiting for an answer, they hurried as fast as their exhaustion injures and would permit. The blue-and-white Ford had never looked so welcoming. Jim fumbled for his keys and quickly unlocked the door, then helped Blair inside. He slid behind the wheel and started the engine. Hardly waiting for the motor to warm up, he shifted into drive and pulled out of the impromptu parking area and pointed the truck toward the dirt road that led out of the Park.
Neither man spoke, but Jim noticed Blair twisting to look behind them now and then. When they reached the black top that would connect them to the highway, Jim turned on the heat. The blast of hot air soon warmed up the cab and steam rose from their wet coats.
"How's the hip?"
"Sore. You think we should have stayed?"
"Nah." The corners of Jim's mouth turned down and he shook his head. "Tom will tell them what happened. Besides, he could see you were hurt."
"We'll swing by the hospital, get that leg X-rayed, get you checked out then head back home. How does hot soup and sandwiches sound?"
Blair's stomach growled in reaction and he placed a hand on his belly and grinned. "I guess that means they sound good."
Silence filled the truck for a moment until Blair spoke again. "We'll never hear the end of this, will we?"
Jim sighed gustily. "Nope."
"At least Jared's okay."
"Yeah." Adrenaline drained from his body and Jim suddenly found it difficult to keep his attention on his driving.
"I think we can forget the hospital. Let's just get home."
The older man glanced worriedly at his partner. "You need to get that hip looked at, Sandburg, just to be sure."
"Yeah, but tomorrow's just as good. It's not broken, and I'm tired and hungry and wet."
"I know how you feel." Weighing the decision in his head, Jim found he sided with Blair. "Okay, tell you what. We'll go home, get clean and dry and warm and eat something. I need to check in with Simon, too. Then you let me take a look at that hip and we'll decide from there. Deal?"
"You drive a hard bargain, man. Okay, deal."
Visions of warmth and sleep swam in his head as Jim drove past the Cascade city-limits sign. Unsolved cases waited on his desk; a long list of appointments, questioning witnesses, chasing down paper trails, all piled high in neat stacks. He mentally pushed that aside and concentrated on the pleasant feeling of being safe and having Blair by his side. The memory of despair and utter exhaustion faded, replaced by the security of Blair's friendship.
And knowing you won't be alone when you face the teasing of having Search and Rescue looking for you isn't too bad, either.
MAGNIFICENT SEVEN FANFIC