Below the Surface Stream

By Gil Hale —

Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.

Author’s Notes: October Themefic for the SentinelAngst List, for Danae.

Below the surface stream, shallow and light
Of what we say we feel…

“… and colours,” Blair said, talking rapidly, as if breathing was an overrated pastime. “We’ve never talked about whether colours affect your mood or how you perceive themif you look at grass do you see shades of green I couldn’t see? Yeah, I mean you’d have to, but I suppose we don’t have the names for enough shades so it would be hard to express. We need to develop a new vocabulary here, Jim. Did you know the Inuit people have fifty different words for snow and—”

“—and none of them means plain snow,” Jim said, turning the truck towards Prospect. It was, in fact, one of those annoying pieces of information that seemed to bob up in the unlikeliest contexts, but that wasn’t his reason for interrupting. He just wanted to give Blair time to inhaleBlair’s continuing monologue on how they might repair and redecorate Jim’s bedroom was speeding up so much it was heading towards hyperventilation. In the interests of avoiding having to use resuscitation techniques, especially after the meal they’d just eaten, he added, “If we’re getting into the word thing, did you know the Italians have five hundred different words for pasta? If we’re considering testing, maybe we should see if I can taste the differences between those.”

“… Naomi used to be really into colour,” Blair went on, ignoring this completely, but at least having breathed in during the pause. “And natural dyes and wall coverings. I’ll have to talk to Cassie about that. It’s a pity she couldn’t come back for coffee. I wanted to see what she thought about organic paint in different tones…”

“Maybe she’d had enough for one evening,” Jim suggested. “You’ve got to expect some reaction. Chapel knew how to get to her.”

He didn’t really think Blair would rise to this invitation to talk. Cassie had touched on their ordeal once or twice during dinner, but Blair had always managed to be deep in conversation about something else. Sure enough, Blair’s monologue continued as they pulled up near the loft, going into details Jim didn’t want to know about concerning what went into a cheap can of paint.

“We’re not going to eat the stuff,” he said. “Look, Chief, I appreciate the thinking you’re putting into this, but my level of interior design is bringing up the leftover paint from the basement okay? Save the fancy ideas for when you see Cassie again.”

Blair didn’t miss a beat, in fact he didn’t even seem to notice anything provocative about this, just shifted the topic slightly to a rapid world tour of decorating customs. Jim would have said he was the last person normally to care how much Sandburg talked; sometimes he listened, sometimes he tuned it out, but it didn’t worry him. Now, though, the sound, which was usually a welcome part of the background, was making him uneasy. This was like a caricature of Sandburg: too fast, too typical, too uninterested in any response from Jim. He frowned slightly at the inoffensive wall of the elevator. Over dinner he had noticed the slightly frenetic pace of half the conversation, but it wasn’t an unreasonable response to the evening’s violence, and he’d expected Blair to wind down gradually as Cassie had done. Blair hadn’t. If anything he was more tense and brittle now, and somehow edgy around Jim, shying away from a light touch to his arm.

Opening the loft door achieved what Jim hadn’t managed. Although they’d hastily cleared up most of the signs of what had happened, Blair’s monologue abruptly faltered and died and his heartbeat sped up as if he were racing.

“Coffee? Tea? Beer?” Jim suggested, going for routine.

Blair started as though he’d shouted, and said quickly, “No. Thanks. I’m tired.” He headed for the bathroom, leaving Jim to a silence that was no more comfortable than the conversation had been.

Jim helped himself to a beer, and got some spare bedding for the couch. He’d left the mess of his bed to clear up at leisure, just sweeping up the feathers that had fallen. Even that had tickled his senses too much, and he had no intention of sleeping up where there were more ready to fly loose.

Blair came back from the bathroom, glanced at the couch without comment and headed straight into his room.

“Sandburg,” Jim said, hoping to stop him.

“You want a hand?” Blair asked, not turning round and showing no sign of coming to offer it.

“I thought you might like to talk about what happened this evening. Must have been unpleasant…”

“Oh yes, ‘unpleasant’,” Blair said shortly. “Way to go, Jim. Really over-the-top language there. No, I don’t want to talk about it. I’d rather forget about it.”

Jim looked at his beer bottle. It was blank and uninspired, which was about how he felt. He thought of a hot shower easing some of the aches and pains Chapel had given him, and it seemed more appealing than trying to talk persuasively to Sandburg’s back, but he gave it one more try. “Well, if you do want to talk any time…”

“… then I’ll go to my rabbi,” Blair said, and closed the doors firmly.

Jim winced. The rabbi remark had not been one of his better lines, and he’d known as soon as he said it that it would probably come back to haunt him. Well, he certainly wasn’t making things better here; he settled for the shower and some hasty first aid to his scrapes and bruises.

When he stretched out on the couch, he could hear sharp, almost angry movements from within Blair’s room. He was in bed, but this was nothing like his usual writhe into comfort. The doors, though, remained firmly shut, and he wouldn’t intrude on Blair’s privacy.

For himself, he was dog tired and glad to relax, even though he could still smell alien scents in the air. He analysed them automatically: strongest were Cassie’s perfume and the traces from Chapel’s gun, but underlying them was a fading reek of fear. He should have been quicker. He should never have assumed it was Chapel in the car. But he was too tired for even guilt to keep him awake. He rolled over into a comfortable position. Briefly, his sight focussed on the bullet holes above him, and something niggled at the edge of his thought. He fell asleep before he could work it out.

… Below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel

Blair forced himself to read again the page he had already scanned without taking in a word. He was exhausted but restless, and even more annoyed with himself than he was with Jim. If he’d been in a marginally better mood, he might have regretted that parting shot.

The page of his book was just as instantly forgettable at a second reading. He closed it with a snap and tossed it onto the floor. Nobody yelled at him. Jim was either asleep or being painfully tolerant. He kicked the bedclothes aside, yanked them back and forced himself to do some simple relaxation exercises. If they worked at all, he couldn’t feel the difference.

Why did he always seem to need SuperJim to come to the rescue? Not that he was looking forward to the day when Jim failed to do his ‘just in time’ thing, but when had he got so dependent? Naomi had brought him up to be resourceful. He should have managed in Conover. Hell, he’d worked there, he knew his way about. He’d got away from Chapel by himself. He needn’t have grabbed onto Jim as if he was an even greater wuss than Jim probably already thought. Even Cassie, someone featuring ahead of him on a psychopath’s hit list for once, had kept her cool and managed to help Jim out. While he’d… Well, anyway, he was glad Cassie had coped. He’d definitely seen a difference in her at dinner that went deeper than simple relief.

He jabbed an uncomfortable lump of blanket out of the way, but with less force now. Simple weariness was achieving what the relaxation techniques had failed to do. He expected Conover’s corridors or Chapel’s leer to be waiting behind his eyelids, but he let them close anyway.

… there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

Blair was sitting in a meadow, leaning against a tree. Somewhere on the edge of awareness, he knew he was dreaming, and it was with the sudden jump of logic of a dream that he noticed his arms hurt and realised they were tied behind him around the trunk. In front of him, looking out across the grass, was an ugly, almost grotesque figure. Blair couldn’t see the man’s face, but he didn’t need to; he knew it would be less than human and full of malevolence. It wasn’t the man he was afraid of, though. He was afraid of himself.

He was going to look up. He mustn’t look up, and he wasn’t going to be able to stop himself. He stared at the grass between his feet with hot desperation. Above him, in the branches of the tree was his rescuer. His friend. He knew it, and the man glaring at the horizon didn’t. All he had to do was to keep looking down.

He felt the back of his neck prickle and his head ache with the effort of keeping still. Don’t look up. It ought to be so easy, but somehow, with a sort of sick feeling of inevitability he knew he would fail. Don’t look up. But then he was snatching the quickest of glances up into the branches of the tree. His captor turned at that very moment, and the look of gloating triumph on his face was almost as horrible as the sound of the shots he was firing into the branches.

Leaves fluttered down around Blair as he stared hopelessly up to see what the bullets were hitting. He could see nothing. Feathers floated down, white and then red, and even in his dream he was puzzled why there would be red feathers until he realised they weren’t feathers at all. The red wasn’t floating down… it came heavy, in red drops, a few at first then faster and faster like rain. Red drops of blood falling, thick and sick and horrible, and he could only keep looking up as they fell on him.

Blair jerked awake, for a moment so confused that he rubbed frantically at his face; he was absurdly relieved when his hands came away unstained and only wet with sweat. His one clear thought was to get on his feet and wake up properly. He hadn’t undressed more than a couple of layers. Fumbling, not bothering with buttons, he tugged the layers back on and pulled on his sneakers.

He’d forgotten that Jim was sleeping downstairs, but Jim had apparently been more heavily asleep than usual, and was only just surfacing as Blair hurried past him and out the loft door. He heard Jim’s voice, half awake and startled, calling “Sandburg?” but he didn’t stop, just went tripping over his laces down the stairs and out into the street.

He had no idea how long he walked, mindlessly, before the frantic pounding of his heart and the darkness lingering from his dream had lifted enough to allow him to think. Then he shivered with a sudden awareness of chill and looked at his surroundings for the first time. He must have been walking fast. He was further from the loft than he’d thought. He realised he was achingly tired and that Jim was probably getting beyond worried. He’d woken up now to the point where the nightmare no longer had any power to grip him; the reality it left behind was the ugly acknowledgement of what he’d hardly admitted to himself ’til now. He’d almost got Jim killed.

He ran his hands through his damp hair. What had he been thinking to look up like that? Even now he couldn’t believe Jim had come out of the hail of bullets unhurt. For a few minutes, he’d been absolutely certain Jim was lying there bleeding as Chapel went up the stairs…

Without particularly caring what he was doing, he began to walk again. He still felt a need to be moving, but this time he turned back towards the loft. Jim would be coming out to look for him soon, and anyway, he had an entirely irrational need now to reassure himself that Jim really was unhurt.

He paid no attention to the occasional passer-by except to realise that people seemed to be giving him plenty of spacemaybe the wild hair, slightly dishevelled clothes and untied trainers had something to do with that. He thought even less about the sparse traffic, and at first he hardly noticed when a car pulled up in front of him.

It was only when the passenger door of the car opened, blocking the sidewalk, that Blair finally stopped and looked up, and instinct, waking far too late, warned him that this looked ominously like trouble. He saw a large man get out, looking directly at him, and as he slowed and began to look round, he realised the driver was walking round towards him from the other side.

If that hadn’t been alarming in itself, the realisation that he recognised the men certainly was. It took him a momentduring which they came threateningly closeto get the context. Conover. Shit. He knew them because they were two attendants he’d briefly seen at Conover. Even in the short time he’d been in the place he’d noticed these two and their bullying manner with the patients. And like most of the staff, they hadn’t known he was not a genuine inmate.

“Well, what have we got here?” the driver said, amused at the alarm on his face. “A pretty little hippy psycho who wandered away from his kind keepers? Conover’s leaking like a sieve. Did you follow Chapel out?”

“I didn’t need to,” Blair said, trying to edge backwards. “You’re making a mistake here. If you contact Major Crimes they’ll tell you I was undercover in Conover. I’m an observer with the Cascade PD.”

They probably wouldn’t have believed him in any circumstances. The way he was looking now, it just made them laugh. One of them reached for him. “Get in the car,” he said. “You can make a phone call to Major Crimes from Conover. I don’t suppose they’ll be in much of a hurry to collect you.”

The sensible thing would probably have been to go with them, and sort it out from Conover, but Blair wasn’t feeling that logical. Right now, the thought of being back inside Conover for even half an hour was enough to push him towards the panic mode he’d just walked himself out of. Anyway, there was something about the way the two were looking at him that made him more than reluctant to get in a car with them.

It wasn’t sensible at all to try and fool them by looking resigned, moving as if to take a step towards the open door, then ducking and running. And it was really a bad ideaprobably one of those things they warned you about in action trainingto try to run in untied sneakers.

He realised all these things simultaneously as he stumbled over his loose shoe, lost his impetus, and felt a brutal hand close over his arm. He was swung back heavily against the car, yelping as his back and head slammed into the metal. That was a mistake, too. His captor seemed to enjoy the sound. As Blair wriggled the man bent his arm up towards the roof at an increasingly painful angle. He smiled. Blair heard a sickening sort of noise from his elbow and felt a pain so sharp that it made the night and the lights splinter up before his eyes, and darkness spin in at the edge of his sight. For a few moments there was no room in his mind for anything but the pain, and it was only as it cleared that he realised he was no longer being held.

Actually, he was no longer the one in trouble at all.

He slid gratefully down to the ground, trying to hold his arm in whatever position it hurt least in, and saw that Jim had come to his rescue. Again.

Still, there was a limit to how ungracious he could feel when he was tired and hurting and enjoying the sight of the large bully practically wetting his pants at the sight of Jim’s quite impressive fury. He sat and gasped and was glad to let Jim do his thing.

Jim refrained from physically tearing the two men into bite-sized pieces, presumably because was some reason for the misunderstanding in the first place. Blair knew, objectively, that this was a good thing, and commendable restraint on Jim’s part. Subjectively, he was more satisfied with the way Jim reduced them to an abject state of apology and dismissed them with menacing hints of further action from their own superiors, Cascade PD, and every other authority he could think of.

They drove away clearly wishing they’d never stopped, and Jim, who’d interposed himself protectively between them and Blair when he first arrived, dropped down to Blair’s side.

“All right, let me look,” he said gently. “What did they do to you?”

“I think they’ve broken my arm,” Blair said.

He saw the shock in Jim’s face, and the evident regret that he’d let the men go. “I should just have gone with them,” he added hastily, trying not to gasp as Jim touched his arm lightly. “I shouldn’t have given them an excuse to throw their weight around.”

“They had no excuse,” Jim growled. His fingers traced lightly over the misshaped outline under Blair’s sleeve. “Your arm’s not broken, Chief; your elbow’s dislocated.”

He sounded relieved. “This is an improvement, how?” Blair asked. It certainly seemed to hurt as much as a break.

“It’ll feel better as soon as it’s back in place,” Jim said. “I suppose we ought to take you to the emergency room. It’ll take longer, but they’ll give you a local before they relocate it.”

Blair had been resigned, however miserably, to the ER, but something about Jim’s comment gave him sudden hope. “Longer than what?”

Jim hesitated. “I could put it back in place now,” he said. “It would hurt like hell, but only for a minute.”

“And no ER?”

“Not tonight, anyway.”

“Go for it,” Blair said without needing to think. “I trust you more than a doctor anyway. Just do it, Jim, and let’s go home.”

He tried to take his mind off the coming painand the question of how bad something had to be for Jim to describe it as hurting like hellby watching Jim use his sense of touch, judging the exact movements he needed to make.

“When I was in the Middle East,” Jim said, his fingers sliding gently over the joint, “… and I can’t tell you what I was there for, by the way… I met a man whose father had been a bonesetter. Ever come across that?”

“Heard of it,” Blair said.

“Apparently the old man could set a break better than any doctor with an X-ray machine. Know how he used to practice? He’d break a pot, jug, anything like that, inside a sack and put the pieces together again while they were still inside, just using his sense of touch. I’m not sure I could do that even with sentinel senses.”

“He may have had an enhanced sense of touch,” Blair said, briefly fascinated by the image of the old man and his sack of pottery pieces. “Quite a lot of people have just one… ow… shit… oh…”

Thinking about bonesetters he hadn’t particularly paid attention to the fact that Jim’s hands had stopped ghosting up and down his arm and had switched to a firm grip. He was taken by surprise by a sudden swift movement from Jim, and with it, the promised moment of agonyso sharp that as it faded he found himself with his face buried in Jim’s shoulder and no inclination to move.

Jim steadied him there gently. “All done, Chief,” he said. “It’ll ache, but you should feel the difference already.”

Blair moved his arm cautiously and was pleasantly surprised. “Thanks,” he said. It came out muffled. Maybe he ought to move from his one on one with Jim’s shirt.

“You’re welcome,” Jim said, patting his back lightly. “Think you feel up to getting in the truck now? We’re getting some funny looks.”

“There’s no one around,” Blair said, but he let himself be lifted to his feet.

“There are cars going past,” Jim pointed out. “If you had my hearing you’d be interested at some of the speculation we’re getting. Several people think you’re an addict and I’m some kind of social worker. Quite a few suspect me of much worse motives. Oh, and a kindly soul who’s just gone past thinks I’m an Evangelist rescuing you from your wicked way of life.”

“I see none of them stopped,” Blair said, amazed at how tiring the few steps to the truck could be.

“Well, no one I heard seemed to think you were likely to be sane…”

Blair snorted, but he was too tired to think of a smart reply. The dull ache in his arm was quite bearable now, and he was almost asleep on his feet before they were back in the loft. He wasn’t sure if he managed to disguise from Jim the way he still needed to avoid looking up when they got inside.

With a few efficient moves, Jim turned his bed from an unappealing heap of untidy covers to something seductively comfortable, and dumped him on it. He adjusted an extra pillow where it would take the last discomfort out of Blair’s arm, and proved he didn’t miss much by saying, “It wasn’t your fault, you know. Just bad luck that Chapel turned around right at that moment.”

“I could have got you killed,” Blair said. “I thought I had.”

“I could have got you killed by letting you go into Conover,” Jim countered. “Or by assuming Chapel died in that crash. Let’s make this one situation we don’t compete over, Chief. All the points ought to be for not nearly getting each other killed.”

Blair found that funny in spite of himself. Living with Jim was corrupting him.

He yawned. “All the same, you’re always having to rescue me,” he said. “Conover. Chapel. Those thugs tonight. Serial killers in general…”

“Women,” Jim added for him. “I’ve rescued you from some very alarming women.”

Blair settled back in his bed and realised it wasn’t going to be at all hard to fall asleep now, but he couldn’t let this go unanswered. “I don’t want rescuing from women. Anyway, if we compared dangerous dates, I don’t think you’ve a better record.” He realised his eyes were closing before he’d given them permission, and that he’d lost the thread of how he arrived at Jim’s girlfriends. “You made me forget what I was talking about.”

“That we’d be better scoring points for rescuing each other?”

Warm, comfortable and ninety-percent asleep, Blair still had a brain cell or two to rub together. “Come off it, Jim. When do I ever rescue you?”

Jim’s hand on his arm kept him awake a moment or two longer. Jim’s words went with him into sleep and guarded him there. “You don’t get it, do you, Chief? How often do you rescue me? Every day of my life. You’re winning, hands down.”

~ End ~

Below the Surface Stream

by Matthew Arnold

Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel—below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep
The central stream of what we feel indeed.