By Shellie Williams
Warning: This is another h/c story, no plot within miles and miles.
A lush green vista lined the two-lane highway and rushed by in a blur of color. Jim eased the truck around a shallow curve in the road and glanced over to find a pleased grin on his partner's face. He brought his gaze back to his driving.
"What's on your mind, Chief?"
"Nothing." Blair leaned his head back and relaxed. "And you know what? Nothing feels mighty good."
The two men were dressed warmly for their weekend of camping -- tee-shirts under flannel, thick socks, coats, and comfortable boots -- and the truck was packed with a tent, sleeping bags, blankets and other camping equipment.
"I've been looking forward to this."
"You and me both," Jim grinned along with his partner. "A weekend of relaxing and fishing, free of paperwork and high-speed chases--"
He looked over in surprise with the interruption to find Blair leaning forward, one hand braced on the dash, his body twisted to face him. "You trying to jinx us, man?" An anxious frown wrinkled his previously peaceful expression.
"Jinx? Isn't that being a little paranoid?"
"I don't think so, Jim. Search back in your memory. How many times have we been in the woods?" Blair held one hand out before him. "Now, compare that with how many times we're gotten into trouble in the woods." He let go of the dash and held his hands side by side, bouncing them in the air as if weighing something. "You know, on second thought, maybe you should just turn the truck around."
Jim laughed. "Relax, Sandburg. There are no psychos or serial killers on the loose and the weather's supposed to be fine. Nothing's going to happen."
"Famous last words, man."
Refusing to comment, Jim just shook his head and drove. Worrying about getting into trouble this weekend would only ruin his mood, and he was determined to enjoy the next three days and two nights.
An hour later, he pulled beside the single gasoline pump of a small convenience store at Blair's request.
Blair opened the door and slid out. It felt good to stretch his legs. "You need anything?"
"Yeah, here," he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, then handed a twenty to Blair. "That should take care of the gas. We need some water, and grab some Gatorade for me. Orange."
Blair took the money with a grin and entered the store.
When he was finished, Jim climbed behind the wheel and started the engine, then waited while Blair stowed his bags under the tarp and joined him. As he pulled back onto the road, he glanced over to watch Blair pull a prepackaged sandwich from a plastic bag.
"Whacha got there, Chief?"
"Egg sandwich -- I'm starved."
Jim wrinkled his nose at the thought of stale bread. "Mr. Health Food nut? What happened to all those lectures you're always give me about preservatives and additives? I thought you hated that prepackaged stuff."
"I didn't think you could hear me over the crunching of chips." He smiled at Jim's look of mock surprise. "This is a desperate situation. I'm hungry."
"I know, I can hear your stomach growling from here. We'll be at the trailhead in another hour, and the lake's just a three-hour hike from there. Imagine it, Sandburg: the smell of fresh trout baking over an open fire with some of those special seasonings and herbs you brought along. Isn't that worth waiting for?"
"Oh man." With a reluctant sigh, Blair stuffed the sandwich back into the bag and unzipped the lined cloth cooler at his feet, then placed the package inside. "Yeah, you're right. I've waited this long, guess I can wait a little longer."
"You made the right decision, partner," Jim smiled. "That sandwich is probably no good, anyway."
Blair's agreeing answer and the resulting lecture on the virtues of healthy eating helped fill the time until they reached their destination an hour later.
Jim parked the truck at one of the waiting slots near an empty cabin that served as a stopping point for tourist and campers. He slid out of the truck and began unloading the backpacks and tent and tightened the rope that bound his rolled sleeping bag to the top of the 'pack.
Blair glanced around as he swung his own backpack up with a grunt and threaded his arms through the loops to secure it to his back. "You sure the weather's going to hold out?"
"Yeah. Forecast was for a good weekend, and the sky looks clear." He hefted his 'pack up and settled it on his back, then strapped the belt around his waist. "Stop worrying, Sandburg. I guarantee you this experience will be pleasant. Even if we get a little rain on this trip, I don't intend to let anything rob me of a relaxing weekend." He gestured with his chin toward a clearly marked trail. "Let's go."
"Can I have that guarantee in writing?" Blair fell in behind his partner and followed him into the woods.
The trees were vibrant with color, the different shades of green overlapping each other like a changing kaleidoscope. Birds and other animals chattered and scurried around them, their fluttering and tiny footfalls brushing gently against Jim's hearing.
He breathed in deeply, the smell of humus and clean air filling his lungs and clearing his head. As much as he enjoyed the modern conveniences of the city, his home would always be the forest, or perhaps the jungle, where the vibration of life caressed his senses instead of jarring them, like the discordant noises of the city.
Behind him, Blair began to ramble, commenting on a variety of mushrooms he spotted dotting the forest floor and rattling off Latin terms as if the language were his native tongue. Jim smiled, turning his head to nod now and then at his friend, though the attentiveness was lost on Blair. The wary nervousness he had displayed earlier had melted away to be replaced with a blanket of calm, and he pattered quietly away as if he had a lecture hall full of students in rapt attention at his feet.
Blair seemed surprised when Jim stopped their progress a little more than two hours later.
"Here we are."
"What -- already?"
"Yeah, time flies when your mouth's open."
"Ha - ha. If I was bothering you, why didn't you say something?"
Jim shrugged out of his backpack and watched Blair slip easily out of his. "You weren't bothering me. Let's get camp set up. I hear the fish calling."
"Yeah? What are they saying? Focus on the words, Jim, and concentrate."
He paused only long enough for a brief glare, then unzipped the bag that contained their tent, ignoring the wry laughing from Blair's direction.
It was late side of afternoon by the time they were finished, the sun hung low in the sky, lazily spreading warm fingers of light through the trees and reaching down to caress the leave-strewn ground. Jim and Blair worked quickly, eager to make their way to the lake and take advantage of the fading light in order to catch supper.
A short hike through thick undergrowth ended in a sudden opening and the lake spread before them in a wide and reflective expanse, rippling softly as afternoon breezes played with the surface.
Jim opened the compact case he'd carried under his arm and withdrew pieces of a fishing rod. Snapping the ends together, he pulled the reel from its case and attached it carefully into place. Glancing up, he paused only long enough to note Blair's position, then opened his tackle box and began searching for his favorite bait.
"Not fishing, Sandburg?"
"Not tonight. Thought we'd take turns -- you provide supper, I'll provide breakfast." The sound of Blair's steps carried clearly across the still calm as his boots crunched over the gray rocks graveling the shore.
"I don't remember discussing anything about taking turns." Jim tied the artificial bait to the end of his line.
"It's kind of an unspoken agreement."
"Oh really?" Satisfied the knot was secure, Jim whipped the rod back then forward and slung his line out over the lake. The bait arched through the air and made a muted plop as it struck the water. The familiar sound was like the end of a long wait, and he sighed in contentment, feeling his shoulders relax from a rigid posture he hadn't even been aware he was holding.
"Yeah, really," Blair continued as he climbed atop a small grouping of larger rocks that jutted into the lake.
Without pulling his attention from his fishing, Jim watched Blair from the corner of his eyes as the young man continued navigating the rocks further from shore. Something caught his eye and he turned to focus on a dark shape floating in the water near the rocks.
"If you were just a little smarter, you would have picked up on it," Blair threw back over his shoulder smugly.
"You got me there, Chief," Jim drawled. "But at least I'm smart enough to know something else."
"And that would be?"
"Smart enough to know the difference between a rock and a floating piece of wood."
"A floating piece of w--!" Realizing what he was about to do, Blair frantically tried to back peddle, struggling to maintain his balance, but gravity already had hold of his forward momentum. The small log bobbled under his foot and he splashed helplessly into the lake, going under for a moment before he could regain his footing and stand up. Sputtering and flailing, he floundered to the shore.
"You all right?" Jim carefully kept a straight face.
"No -- I'm all wet now."
Jim felt the grin and gave into it. "Why don't you go back to camp and get the fire started? You're scaring the fish anyway."
"Don't stop on my account, I'll be fine."
Jim's laughter carried across the stillness and followed Blair as he squished his way down the trail back to camp.
Popping wood and tiny sparks escaping the fire's pull as they floated up and disappeared into the fading sky proved to be both hypnotic and calming. Blair sat close to the warmth, sipping from a bottle of water as he stared into the flames. His thick coat provided warmth for his back as the fire heated his face, and the chill from his dunk in the lake faded from his body as swiftly as the memory faded from his mind.
He heard Jim returning and pulled his gaze from the dancing flames. The older man walked into the flickering circle of light, proudly displaying two large trout on his string.
"I believe I've fulfilled my end of the silent agreement."
Blair smiled. The creamy glow of the fire spotlighted his friend's face, carving deep rosy-edged shadows around his mouth and accented the rise of his cheeks under his eyes when he smiled.
"Now that's what I call supper!"
Jim's smile disappeared as he pressed his lips together, his nostrils flaring as he drew in a deep breath.
"What is it?" Blair stood up and watched as Jim tilted his head to the side.
"You don't smell that?"
"Don't you ever get tired of asking me that? What do you smell?"
Ignoring Blair's teasing, Jim shook his head. "I don't know . . . it's --" he walked closer to the tent then placed the fish on the pan Blair had pulled out for cooking.
"What does it smell like?"
He moved around the camp, turning his head to the side as he walked back toward the fire. "Sour."
"Sour?" Blair followed, confused. "Something dead in the woods, maybe?"
"No, more like . . . " he walked swiftly to a plastic bag tied to a low tree branch.
"That's just trash, Jim. You're probably smelling the wrappers and stuff I've thrown away."
"I don't think so." He quickly untied the bag and lowered it to the ground. Opening it wide, he drew back as his face wrinkled in disgust. "Man!"
"This must be it, huh?"
"No kidding," Jim coughed. He paused a moment and regained control of his senses, then reached gingerly into the trash to pull out a plastic wrapper. "What's this?"
Blair stepped closer and squinted to make out what he was holding. "Oh. That's what my sandwich came in."
"You ate it?"
"Yeah." Blair shrugged as Jim's head came up sharply. "I was hungry."
"Oh come on," He lifted his hands in argument. "I promise I didn't ruin my appetite."
"You don't understand."
"This is what I smell."
Jim carefully dropped the wrapper back into the bag. After tying it, he hung it on the branch. "The sandwich was bad."
For a moment Blair was too shocked to say anything. His gut clenched with dread as Jim's announcement sunk in. "You're kidding, right? I don't believe this . . . I don't believe this! Food poisoning?"
"How do you feel?"
"Shocked, but otherwise, fine."
"Let's get packed up. We need to get home before it kicks in."
Jim stepped briskly around him but Blair caught his arm. "Wait! You're telling me that we've managed to avoid psychos and natural catastrophes --" he let go and pointed at the trash bag "--just to be conquered by food poisoning?"
"Looks that way, Chief. Why don't you go wait by the fire while I pack. Shouldn't take me but a minute."
"Hang on, man, let's think about this, all right?" Blair paced back to the crackling fire, then turned back to face Jim. "We've probably got at least twenty-four hours before this hits, right?"
"You're assuming it's salmonella. What if it's not? The toxin could hit you within the next couple of hours, or even sooner."
"Well, given my track record, let's plan on the worst, okay?" Jim frowned but Blair continued anyway. "Then we have no reason to rush here. If we charge into the woods now, we'll -- I'll -- be practically blind. We've managed to avoid physical injuries so far, so why don't we keep it that way?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm saying, let's just go to sleep. We've got about eight hours until sunrise, we can pack up and walk out of here and be able to see where we're going, and I'll still have plenty of time before the food poisoning takes affect."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Jim argued.
Blair stepped closer, determined to make his point. "Believe me, man, I do not want to be stuck out here in the sticks without the modern conveniences of home once Montezuma's Revenge hits. In fact, I'd love to be within yelling distance of a doctor."
"You're actually volunteering to go to the hospital --?"
"I know," Blair interrupted. "But as much as I dread the place, it's nice to have one handy just in case, y'know?"
"Yeah, but all the more reason to take off now. I'll be able to see just fine, Sandburg. All you'll have to do is stay behind me."
"The key word there, is you! I'll be the one to walk off the cliff! It's not that I don't trust you, man, 'cause I do. It's just that Murphy's Law has become my own personal theme song, and I'd rather wait a few hours than risk life and limb."
One corner of Jim's mouth twitched. "There aren't any cliffs around here." He held up a hand when Blair opened his mouth to protest. "Okay, okay, we'll do it your way. But I want you to go lie down, let me clean up around here and pack a few things now so we won't have as much to do in the morning."
"That, I can do." Blair walked over to the tent and crawled inside, then found a flashlight and switched it on. Deciding to sleep in his clothes rather than changing into sweats, he pulled off his boots and wiggled into his sleeping bag. Warmth relaxed him, and despite the fear clenching his gut, he began to edge toward sleep.
The incredible smell of cooking trout woke him up. Rolling over onto his stomach, he pulled the tent flap open and peered out to find Jim, sitting close to the fire, hunched over his plate. His movements alerted the sentinel he was being watched, and Jim turned a guilty face towards him.
"Sorry. I couldn't let it go to waste." He swallowed and despite the uneasy tone in his voice, the obvious delight of fresh cooked fish showed on his face. "You want some?"
"Thanks, but as tempting as that sounds and smells, if I'm gonna heave my guts in a few hours, I'd just as soon not have trout in my stomach." With a dissatisfied grunt, Blair flipped the tent closed.
When he was finished, Jim packed what he felt they could easily carry into their backpacks. After making sure there was no trash or any other evidence of their passing laying around, he joined his partner in the tent and lay awake in the dark, monitoring his companion.
Sometime during the early morning hours, a shower's gentle sprinkle lulled Jim into a light sleep until a muted clap of thunder jerked him awake. He sat up quickly. The luminous numbers on his watch were the only source of light in the pitch-dark tent.
Blair groaned and asked groggily, "What time is it?"
"2:36. how do you feel?"
"Stomach hurts a little." He sounded sleepy and his voice rasped quietly through the dark.
"I know it's not much consolation, but if it starts this early, at least you know it's not salmonella."
"What a comfort."
"Yeah, well, it's the little things that count, right? Try and go back to sleep, Sandburg."
"When I wake up, will this all be over?"
"Try it and see, Dorothy."
"Hey . . . is it raining?"
Jim sighed. "Yeah. Started about an hour ago."
Blair's soft laughter sounded slow and drowsy. "Like I said . . . Murphy's Law. Think I could get it changed to Sandburg's Law? Fits better, don't you think?"
"I think if you'd stop talking you'd go to sleep faster."
"What I'd give for a little narcolepsy right now."
"Just close your eyes, Chief."
Silence filled the small dark space of the tent as rain continued to fall outside their tiny shelter. Droplets hit broad leaves, then continued down to patter on the material over Jim's head. The rhythm sounded soothing despite the irregular beat. Soft breathing to his right anchored his senses and he closed his eyes and concentrated on relaxing muscles that had grown stiff with worry.
Just as dawn broke, it started.
"Oh man," Blair moaned. He'd been moving restlessly for the past hour and Jim sat up quickly and shifted to his side.
"What is it?"
"I need out -- now."
Helping Blair find his coat and button it up in the dark was a challenge in coordination. Jim groped around to find the flashlight and clicked it on, then unzipped the front flap and helped Blair out. The rain had worsened, enshrouding the day with gray as it poured down from a sky heavy with clouds.
"You need any --"
"Uh-uh. I can handle this one on my own. Just hand me the T.P."
He handed the plastic wrapped roll of toilet paper to Blair. "Are you sure?"
"Trust me, Jim. You don't want your enhanced smell within miles of me. Stay here."
He watched as Blair stumbled away through the rain.
On his way back to the tent, hampered by the steady downpour and a pain that was gnawing deep in his gut, Blair stumbled when his foot caught on a hidden stump. He tried to catch himself but he landed awkwardly in the slippery mud. His left wrist bent under his weight and locked in a painful angle, then snapped. Bones in that arm seemed to melt under a fiery onslaught of pain and folded beneath his weight. He landed heavily on his left side, unable to keep his face from slamming into the ground. Even the mud couldn't cushion the bones from the hard ground and numbing pain exploded in his cheekbone and chin. He screamed but the hoarse sound was muffled by the thick mud pressed against his face. He lay paralyzed in agony.
Jim cursed the terrain and weather as he struggled through undergrowth to his fallen partner. He'd been waiting just inside the tent and saw Blair go down as he made his way back to camp.
"Blair!" Even his sensitive hearing was muffled by the downpour shrouding the day. The young man didn't move or acknowledge Jim's shout.
"Dammit, Sandburg, answer me!" Fear made his voice rough, hiding the concern beneath the gruff command. He made it to his partner's side and quickly rolled the young man over.
Rain splattered down onto Blair's face, creating clear spots through the mud coating his skin. His mouth was open and it took Jim a moment to hear the airy scream straining out of him. He looked like he was holding his stomach in pain.
"Blair! What's wrong?" He forced his hand under Blair's crossed arms, wanting to feel if his abdominal muscles were spasmodic. Shock froze his movements when Blair flinched violently and shut his mouth, clenching his jaw with renewed agony. The young man curled off the ground and Jim quickly wrapped one arm around him to support him as he sat up. Blair pressed his forehead between Jim's neck and shoulder and shuddered as he took several deep breaths.
"Chief?" Confused by his partner's behavior, he reached up with one hand and cupped Blair's cheek. Rain pounded his head and shoulders and chilled water ran under his collar. Jim shivered. "What's wrong?" he repeated desperately. Though care and concern were apparent in his tone, he still had to shout to be heard over the deluge.
Blair shifted and lifted his chin, pressing himself closer to Jim. Understanding what Blair wanted, he lowered his head until his ear was next to Blair's lips.
" . . . hurt . . . my . . . arm . . . "
The strained whisper filtered through the drumming of the rain. Shocked, Jim looked down at his partner. Wet-spiked lashes framed red-rimmed eyes that gazed back at him, squinting in pain. Enhanced hearing allowed him to hear painful grunts as Blair struggled to deal with the agony in his arm.
"Let's get you inside." He tucked his arm around Blair's shoulders and helped him up, supporting the shivering young man as he stumbled his way to the tent.
They collapsed to their knees inside, too spent from fighting the weather to move for a moment. Then Blair rolled his shoulders forward and beat his fist weakly against the canvas-covered ground.
"Dammit!" The curse was faint, though Jim suspected the emotion behind it was strong.
He reached out and clasped Blair's shoulder. "What is it?"
"It never changes, does it? If there's a bone to be broken or pain to be had in any way, shape or form, it happens to me! It isn't enough that I get food poisoning," he leaned forward and straightened up as if attempting to stand, but fell back to his haunches with a moan, hugging his injured arm close. "But I have to break a bone, too," he whispered, and the pain in his strained voice cut straight through Jim's heart. "Why can't you ever be the victim of circumstances?"
Jim helped as the young man settled back and sat down with a grunt.
"I'm not sure how to answer that, Sandburg."
"You know what I mean -- sometimes it just seems like I get more than my fair share, y'know?"
Jim simply nodded in agreement and reached around to gently work at Blair's wet coat, easing stubborn buttons free from holes that seemed swollen with all the rain.
He used the pieces of his fishing rod for a splint -- the strong nylon poles worked perfectly. Blair suffered in near silence. His earlier display of anger had left him drained, and he lay quietly down on his sleeping bag when Jim was finished.
"What do we do now?" he asked, his voice a low rumbling vibration almost drowned out by the heavier pounding of the rain.
Jim hunched forward on his knees, hands braced on his thighs. "We have a couple of options here." He reached up and pulled his Jags cap off, then ran his other hand over his hair. "We could leave most of our stuff here and head for the truck --"
"We can't do that! There's several hundred dollars worth of equipment here!"
"Blair," Jim crawled closer. The poor lighting couldn't disguise the tense expression on his face, and guilt swelled past the pain in Blair's chest.
"We can replace everything -- the tent, all this stuff. I can leave them behind with no regrets."
"Aww, Jim." He closed his eyes and swallowed.
"How's your arm feel?" The older man cleared his throat and Blair smiled at the subtle change of subject.
He opened his eyes and lifted his head from the ground. "Not too bad. Kind of achy." He wiggled his fingers and gasped as shards of pain stabbed through his arm in burning agony. "Except when I do that," he whispered and dropped his head back to the ground.
He felt Jim's hand press against his shoulder. "That leaves us with Plan B."
It felt as if his heart had moved to his arm, where it sat throbbing in time with the headache behind his eyes. The discomfort faded to a more tolerable level and he opened his eyes. "Plan B?"
"We stay put."
Blair grimaced and pulled his lips back in a frightening parody of his usual grin. "What about Plan C?" Off Jim's questioning look, he answered, "You go for help."
"No, that's out of the question."
"No, Blair. There's no way I'm going to leave you here. You've started feeling the affects of the food poisoning, and with that arm, you're going to need some help."
"Thanks for reminding me. The cramps aren't too bad," Blair whispered. "Maybe this won't be as bad as I --" he stopped suddenly and gulped. "Help me up. I gotta go back."
Blair's frantic movements made him clumsy. He jostled his arm against Jim and groaned as he was helped out of the tent.
The rain had finally tapered off to a steady drizzle. Blair stumbled through the gloom as Jim helped him further from the tent.
"I'm gonna--" the weak warning was all he was able to make when he lurched forward and emptied the contents of his stomach violently on the ground before them. Spasms racked his weakening body and he blindly clutched Jim's sleeve, fighting to stay upright. Agony like he'd never experienced before skewered through his belly and he couldn't keep a groan from rumbling past his throat. The sickness stopped and he slumped back against the broad chest of his friend, panting in exertion.
"Sorry, man, I can't -- " words failed him as he was overcome with weakness and Blair leaned over, counting on Jim to keep him from falling to the ground as darkness rimmed his vision. The older man held him carefully, then pulled him up.
"We need to get out of this rain."
Nodding, Blair didn't straighten from his hunched-over misery, pressing closer to Jim and trusting his friend to lead the way back to the tent.
"Oh god," Blair muttered and curled tighter on his side, making himself as small as possible. The pain was starting again, building like a fire in the furnace of his belly, billowing outward till it felt like his very skin would melt.
"Try to ride it out . . . just breathe." Jim's soft reassurances did nothing to cool the smoldering steal stabbing through his gut and he groaned again, then coughed as nausea roiled like a stormy sea deep inside his body. He sat up quickly and lunged for the tent's opening and felt Jim's hands catch him. Leaning just outside the flap, he vomited into the pan they'd set there. Even the pain in his arm faded away as his body clenched in agony and he helplessly gave into the relentless paroxysms. He felt Jim pressed close, one strong arm wrapped around his waist, and groaned at the thought of sentinel senses assaulted by the sickness spewing out of him. When he regained control and was able to swallow past the contracting muscles in his throat, he nodded his head.
He was helped back to his sleeping bag where he lay down and curled in on himself. His injured arm rested atop one of the blankets that had been rolled into a substitute pillow.
"You need to try and drink some Gatorade."
Jim's quiet voice whispered in his ear and a gentle hand slid under his head. The hard edge of a plastic cup was pressed to his bottom lip, and Blair automatically opened his mouth.
"Small sips, now."
Soothing darkness blanketed his world behind closed lids and Blair slowly sipped the liquid. The drink wasn't really cool, more room temperature, but the contrast through his hot gullet felt like ice on a sunburn and he sucked at the cup, wanting more.
He was allowed one last swallow before the Gatorade was taken away, then his head was carefully lowered back to the pillow. The thoughtful ministrations of his friend was like a balm to his hurting spirit and Blair drifted, secure in Jim's care.
Blair blinked his eyes open as he woke up. A stretch of gray material spread over his head and the damp feeling of the sleeping bag bunched around his body reminded him of his circumstances.
"Jim?" Was that his voice? Sounded more like a rusty pipe struggling to allow water through.
"Right here." A rustling sound to his right made him turn his head, and he found Jim by his side. "How do you feel?"
He paused as he took an internal inventory. His left arm ached, his fingers felt swollen and numb, and his gut was sore, as if he'd gone ten rounds with George Foreman. "Not bad, considering what we've been through."
"You're the one that's been through the ringer, Chief. I've just been playing Florence Nightingale over here."
"Could I have a drink of water, nurse?"
Smiling warmly at Blair's attempt of humor, Jim reached for the Gatorade. "Orange flavored water, coming right up."
Blair grunted, "Help me up," and shifted as best he could while Jim slid an arm under his back and helped him sit up. He reached for the cup Jim offered and drank the Gatorade slowly, then handed the container back when he was finished.
"So much for the clear forecast, huh?"
"Hey, that reminds me. I want my money back."
"That guarantee you gave me when we started this little adventure didn't include food poisoning or broken bones. If I remember correctly, the only thing advertised was a relaxing weekend and fish cooked over an open fire."
"Even I can't fight the power of Sandburg's Law."
"That's harsh, Jim."
Jim just grinned and shook his head. "You think if we took it slow you could make it back to the truck?"
"Yeah, I think I could handle a little civilization right about now."
Jim finished his tasks and hefted the loaded backpack, leaving Blair's, along with the dismantled tent, under a large bush. He walked over to his young partner and bent close, one hand on his shoulder. "I want you to tell me if you need to rest before I call for a break, hear?"
Blair nodded and hugged his injured arm close. "I will. Thanks, Jim. I'm okay right now."
Jim smiled and reached up to touch his fingers briefly to Blair's pale cheek, then turned and started down the trail, keeping his eyes on the ground before him, and his ears on the man behind him. They trudged resolutely through the wet forest.
The hike had originally taken them nearly three hours, but that was when they were both healthy and all their bones were intact. Blair's injuries handicapped them, and Jim took the trail slow, pausing often to help his partner around obstacles that he'd jumped over in their first time through.
About thirty minutes later, noticing the sweat gathering on his friend's face, Jim called a rest. Blair sat down with a groan and leaned back against a tree.
"This sucks, man." His familiar complaint lacked conviction and Jim shrugged out of his backpack and joined him on the ground. He pulled out the canteen that he'd filled with Gatorade and handed it to Blair, tapping him on the shoulder when the young man's eyes remained closed.
"Here, drink this."
Blair shook his head. "Not right now. I feel sick again."
"You need to keep drinking fluids, Chief, so you won't get dehydrated."
"I know. Just not right now, okay?"
Jim acquiesced reluctantly and replaced the cap on the container.
Blair leaned his head back again and closed his eyes, then began to laugh softly.
"I told you I was jinxed, man."
"You're not jinxed, Sandburg. This could have happened to anyone."
"It didn't happen to you." He opened his eyes and looked at the older man. "I mean, check this out. Here I am, my arm wrapped in a fishing pole splint, feeling like I'm about to barf a lung, and you're Mr. All American over there. You can't fight reality, man."
"No, I just fight bad guys." Blair let out a strained grunt that passed for a laugh since he didn't have anything better to offer. "No, listen to me," Jim continued. He turned to face the young man. "I deal with criminals, whether violent or not, everyday. And if that's not bad enough, I get the added pleasure of balancing sci-fi with real life any time these senses come into play."
"So, what are you saying? You'd rather you didn't have the heightened senses?"
"I'm saying everyone has something to deal with, Chief. With me it's my job and the senses, with someone else it may be nursing a loved one through cancer, or dealing with their own sickness or tragedy."
"And I have to deal with . . . ?"
"Being accident prone."
A startled laugh bubbled out of Blair and he pressed his broken arm closer. "You're wrong, man. I have to deal with something a lot worse."
"Like living with an anal retentive cop who's favorite expression is a frown and who comes up with more house rules than should be humanly possible."
"That's Mr. Anal Retentive to you, Junior."
"Oh, excuse me! I -- I --" His face blanched white and he swallowed convulsively. "Oh man."
"I gotcha, Chief."
Hands tucked under his arms and helped him lean forward just as he vomited. Blair wrapped his uninjured arm around his abdomen and fought against his body's response to the sickness attacking his system. His raw throat burned as acid churned up from his gut and when the muscles in his belly finally relaxed, he bent over and pressed his fist against his hurting stomach.
Jim pulled him back and settled him against a tree, then kept one hand against his shoulder to hold him there while he wrestled one-handed with the canteen.
The exertion of being sick left Blair panting and he reached out a shaky hand for the Gatorade.
"Thanks," he whispered, and managed a couple of sips before passing the container back to his partner.
"Hang in there, Chief. All we gotta do is make it to the truck and we're home free."
"What I wouldn't give for a transporter right now. Where's Scotty when you need him?"
"You with me here?"
"Yeah. Sorry, just hallucinating a little. Let's get back on the trail, Jim. I'm ready to get home."
"You and me both, partner."
Gentle hands helped him to his feet, then Jim handed him the canteen again. "One for the road."
Smiling weakly, Blair complied and swallowed more Gatorade, then he and Jim continued on their way.
The truck sat in near darkness, but Blair half expected a spotlight from heaven to shine down as they approached the vehicle. Relief washed over him in a tidal wave of emotion and it was all he could do it stay upright as Jim slipped out of his backpack and loaded it into the back of the truck. Weariness made him stumble, only Jim's hand on his arm kept him from falling. The older man assisted him into the truck and he was asleep before Jim could climb behind the wheel.
Blair slept all the way home. Jim watched him carefully, ready to pull over if the young man showed signs of sickness again. He rested quietly, head thrown back, hair frizzed from drying naturally after being saturated with rain. One hand opened loosely in his lap, the other curled gently against this stomach, held close to protect his injury. A bruise colored his left cheekbone and the side of his chin from his fall, and Jim shook his head as he mentally totaled up the injuries his partner had sustained during their 'relaxing' weekend.
"Sandburg's Law," he mumbled. Blair shifted on the seat but didn't wake up, and Jim smiled.
He drove straight to the hospital. Blair woke up and looked around blearily just as he pulled into a parking space.
"Where are we?"
"Home, or nearly, anyway. We're at Cascade General -- you need to get that arm x-rayed and splinted, and I want them to check you out, make sure you're not dehydrated." He left the truck and moved around to Blair's side, then opened the passenger door just in time to hear Blair's complaint.
"Couldn't you have let me sleep through this part?"
Jim smiled as he helped his groggy partner from the truck. "No can do, Chief. Let's get inside."
It was almost scary the way the nurses responded when they walked into the Emergency Room. A thickly stuffed file appeared and was placed into the doctor's hands before he asked. Jim answered the questions directed toward his partner and explained the situation, then Blair was taken from his hands and he moved to the familiar waiting area.
A long wait later, Blair appeared through the door, his coat slung over his good arm as he held out a square of paper to Jim.
"My pain meds, man. Think you could get this filled for me?"
Jim stood up and walked toward him, taking the offered paper. "Yeah, we can run by the pharmacy on our way out. What'd they say?"
Blair huffed. "As if you didn't know. I'm sure your radar was up and running the minute I stepped through that door."
"Indulge me," Jim countered as he led the way to the elevator. The pharmacy was on the fifth floor.
"I broke my ulna, it's a simple break." He held his cast up as far as the sling would allow.
"What about the food poisoning?"
"I'm not dehydrated. In fact, they praised me for taking such good care of myself and not letting the toxin get the best of me." Off Jim's raised eyebrows, he corrected himself. "I told them who took such good care of me, of course."
"How do you feel now?"
"Not bad. They gave me something to settle my stomach. It's been over twenty-four hours, so most of it's worked its way out of my system. The doctor told me to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and stay away from foods high in fat."
"Sounds about like your regular diet."
They reached the fifth floor and walked to the pharmacy where Blair's prescription was filled, then left the hospital.
The trip to the loft was filled with Blair's chatter, and Jim endured quietly, glad to see his partner regain his enthusiasm. Worry seemed a distant memory as they pulled up in Jim's usual parking place.
"Oh man, it's good to be home."
"Yep, sure is." Jim smiled as he left the truck and walked around to help Blair from the vehicle.
The two men made their way into the building, rode the elevator up to their floor, and finally stood at the door to the loft. As Jim unlocked the door and followed Blair in, the young man yawned wide enough to pop his jaw.
"I'm beat. Think you can stand the smell if I forego the shower and head straight to bed?"
"Yeah. I've had the dial turned down for awhile now. Shouldn't be too hard to keep it there."
"You're all heart, man."
Just as Blair reached his bedroom door, he turned and faced Jim.
"Hey, you know what?"
Jim paused on his way to the refrigerator. "What?"
"If I have to deal with being jinxed, I'm glad I've got you around to cancel out some of the more serious accidents."
"You're not jinxed, Sandburg."
"And you're welcome."
Blair grinned, making his eyes squint and he casually waved his hand, then disappeared into his room.
Jim reached for a beer, then closed the refrigerator. He toasted quietly as he lifted the drink to his lips, "And I'm glad I've got you, partner -- jinxed or not."