Chapter 55

Poor Blair. Simon had known the shock would be unpleasant, but it was still difficult to have to face the unreasoning, instinctive denial in that normally quick mind. Even worse to have to go on and crush what was left to Blair of joy and hope with what he had to be told. Simon had known he wouldn't enjoy this, but it surprised him to discover how much he hated himself for being the one to do it. In all the roiling unpleasant emotions he could name, the only good one was a tiny, guilty sense of relief he was not face to face with Blair for this conversation. "Sandburg, please, I know this isn't easy for you. It's not easy for me either. All we know right now is that the surveillance lost Jim yesterday for a while, but the clean-up operation this morning went as scheduled. It looks like Jim was in the house when we moved in."

That wasn't strictly true. They knew there had been shooting in the house before the explosion, but he was certain that fact would not be comforting to Sandburg. "We didn't expect him to be killed," he finished, and clamped his jaw so tightly on the cigar he bit most of the way through it. Of course you didn't expect that, did you? The next thought was much uglier. Or did you, and that's why you told Blair his fear was so ridiculous?

"Simon." Blair was remembering this morning in the water, trying to get Jim out of the surf, feeling like a ghost, powerless to touch the world around himself. He thought he could shout at the top of his lungs and Simon wouldn't hear him, but he kept his voice soft for Jim's sake, and spaced his words with care. "Simon, you're wrong. Jim wasn't in the house."

Of course he was, we found him. Not that the body they had was easily identifiable, so there was room for doubt, and Simon felt a short, hot flash of hate for Blair because the sudden springing hope his words brought to life would only make everything that much harder to deal with when it was destroyed. Compared to that doomed hope, he definitely preferred the solid, immobile lump of dread that had been settling in his gut all morning. That was reality. That was the way things went. Humoring Blair wouldn't make any of it any easier.

Pulling the mangled cigar from his mouth, he dropped it on the ground and stepped on the smouldering end, and tried to grind out the flare of hope at the same time. "Sandburg, I was here, OK? Nobody got out. We know Jim was here, the car he was using is here. I don't like it any better than you do, but we have to accept it."

This was insane. Jim was stirring uneasily in the shelter of Blair's arm, as though he too were trying to escape that pitiless insistence he had died. Blair raised his hand and covered Jim's head, and he managed to keep his voice low and calm. "Excuse me, sir, but I don't have to accept anything. Would you just shut up for one minute, please? Jim - was - not - in - the - house. He's with me right now." That should have been enough, but he had to go on and insist on the rest of it. "Simon, he's not dead." At that some of the calm broke, his voice cracking and rough, and a few new tears spilled from his raw eyes.

"What?!" People twenty feet away turned to look over at him, but he didn't care. "Sandburg, if this is a joke, it'll be your last. Let me talk to him. Now." Unconsciously his foot was twisting over the flattened cigar, but this time it was his despair he was destroying.

"No," Blair said immediately, both to Simon and to Jim. Jim had let him go, flattening his hand on the mattress at Blair's side as though he intended to sit up and take the phone. "Not right now."

"Put him on," Simon demanded, his hand tightening on the phone with the familiar urge to strangle Sandburg. "This is not a request."

"Frankly, sir, I don't care what you call it." Blair's voice sounded like a stranger's in his own ears. He'd never heard such cold, tight anger from himself. He pressed the receiver against his chest for a moment to muffle the sound and spread his hand over Jim's shoulder, gentle over the sheets, just wanting to call Jim's focus back to him, and away from Simon's frustration. He didn't blame Simon, but he just didn't care right now. "Jim, I'll handle this. Just lie still for me, please, or I'll have to hang up on Simon." He forced himself to make a sound that would pass for laughter. "Don't make me do it, man. I'd never get my observer pass back."

"Blair," Jim whispered, sounding as though he intended to argue about it, but his hand curved around Blair's ribs again, and his head still rested over Blair's heart.

"I know," Blair said, answering the arguments Jim was too exhausted to make on his own behalf. "But it's all right, I can handle this. There's nothing you could tell Simon right this second that I can't do just as easily, so you're just gonna have to live with it for now. Both of you." He brought the phone back up and told Simon, "Jim can't talk to you right now. He's gonna be fine, but right now --" Blair took a shuddering breath before it could all get away from him. "He's gonna be all right, but he needs to rest. He wanted me to call, so you'd know he's all right. So now you know. We'll call back when Jim can talk more, but not now, OK?"

It was not in the least OK with Simon, but he swallowed the automatic roar of command and tried to make his voice sound more reasonable than he felt. It was galling. "All right, Sandburg, what can you tell me? When will Jim be coming in for a debriefing?" Raising his arm, he waved imperatively at Taggart, the closest of his own men, and motioned him closer. Mouthing the words without any sound, he told him, "Trace this. It's Ellison." Taggart's eyes lit up and he grabbed for his own cell phone, turning quickly away from Simon to keep from being picked up on that microphone.

Finally. Blair was a little startled by the change, but he was too relieved to wonder about it. "I don't know when he'll be able to come in. You've got to give us a day or two at least." Blair looked down at the man curled around him. Jim had stopped trying to get up and take the phone. He lay quietly, trusting Blair to take care of things. Blair took a deep breath and plunged on, knowing Simon wouldn't accept a time table like that without an explanation. Not when the Feds were involved. "It's his senses. They're messed up and it's...." It's like Jim died last night. "It's pretty bad. We both need some time."

"How bad?" Simon asked immediately, and as if Blair could answer that one question, he could answer everything else, the rest of the questions followed in an urgent stream. "Why is he with you? How did he get there? What happened? Where are you?"

Taggart turned back to him, a thumb up to indicate success. As silently as the request had been made to find the call's origin, he answered, mouthing the name of the small town just south of their present location. It would have been the logical deduction, but it left a hell of a lot still in the air. Making a conscious effort, Simon loosened his deathgrip on the phone and tried to modulate his tone by adding in his best attempt at solicitous consideration, "Look, why don't I come and get you, take you both home. He can rest a day or two or whatever and then come in for the debriefings."

Home. It sounded so good. Blair looked around, envisioning them back at the loft. It would help Jim so much to be back in comfortable surroundings. Everything here was alien and makeshift, nothing familiar for Jim to focus on and feel safe with except Blair himself. "I don't know," Blair said hesitantly. Hardly conscious of what he was doing, he wrapped his arm more protectively over Jim's shoulder. "If -- if you would promise it would be just you, nobody else -- Jim can't handle all that much right now."

"What, Jim? Not able to handle it? Sandburg, I've seen him take a hell of a lot and keep on going. He's tougher than you think. He'll be fine. We'll take him to the emergency room when we get to Cascade, have him checked out, and then drop you off, no problem." There, that was perfectly reasonable, wasn't it? Of course it was. Simon smiled broadly, pleased with himself. Solving these little problems was how he got to be the captain, and it was a skill he was proud of. Sandburg was just being over-protective as usual, and couldn't really come up with a substantive objection to letting the FBI field team leader ride along back to Cascade with them. In fact, he'd have to be grateful because the explanations on the ride would mean Jim would have that extra day or two before the formal debriefing.

It was too late to slam the phone down, Blair thought bleakly, and anyway, he'd promised Jim, but it was so hard to keep talking after that innocent fantasy of home and safety had been wrenched away. Simon just didn't understand the situation -- how could he? -- and didn't have any idea how brutal his reasonable-sounding suggestion really was. But you know something? Blair thought savagely, To hell with him anyway. To hell with the whole lousy world. He'd take care of Jim himself. He'd make everything all right again all on his own. "Jesus, Simon, aren't you hearing any of this?" He heard his own voice crack with emotion, and didn't give a damn about that either. "There's not going to be any emergency room. Nobody else is going to see Jim."

He raised his hand to hold Jim's head against his chest, the warm weight dissipating the first, hottest flash of anger, even as it strengthened his determination. He would make Simon understand this. There simply wasn't any choice, especially since Blair wouldn't put it past Simon to come looking for them door to door. "Simon, they knew he was a cop. Do you understand me? They knew who he was, and they hurt him --" Jim flinched against him, at that, though Blair could feel how he tried to lie still, and Blair's paper thin controls were dashed away again. "Where the hell were you last night, Simon? How could you let this happen to Jim?"

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