Far too soon, Jim woke up. He ached from his unnatural position on the floor, and he groaned with the effort to straighten up. Realizing where he was, he immediately checked Blair's temperature and found it had lowered a bit. Vague impressions filled his thoughts, but he had no clear memory of exactly what had happened after he'd felt Blair's temperature spike. He'd dreamed about a dying jungle and volcanic vents, and somehow, Caine had been involved.
Whatever had happened, his venture into the otherworldly realms of the Shaolin had brought his roommate's fever under control. He just didn't want to think too much about it. There were some mysteries he had no desire to explore.
He was still tired, but the overwhelming exhaustion that had threatened earlier seemed to be held at bay for the moment.
Caine walked over to the sofa. "You must eat. Lo Si has prepared something."
Jim nodded and climbed stiffly to his feet. He started toward the kitchen, but the old priest waved him toward the table. He went obediently, too tired to argue with the man who had commandeered his kitchen.
A bowl and spoon were unceremoniously plopped down in front of him. "Eat."
Jim peered suspiciously at the hot liquid and assorted vegetables in the bowl. "What is it?"
"I do not know. It came from a can in your cupboard."
Jim tried a spoonful. Chicken soup. He'd been expecting something mysteriously Oriental and had missed the obvious. "Tastes good, but you added something to it."
"Seasonings only. Nothing that will affect you adversely."
Jim frowned up at the old man. "Are you upset with me?"
The Ancient's expression was haughty with disdain. "No. It is the sight of something as repugnant as food from a can that rouses my ire."
Jim felt bemused by the idea that canned food was somehow criminal, and he restrained an urge to explain that he usually preferred fresh meals made from scratch. Resolutely, he went back to his bowl of soup; he had no reason to explain his culinary choices to this man or anyone else!
Anyway, the soup was good, and he finished it to the last noodle in the dish. He started to get up to carry the empty bowl to the sink, only to have it whisked from beneath his nose and replaced with another cup of tea. "Drink."
"Thank you." He wondered if the old guy was always so bossy.
A few minutes later, Peter blew into the loft, Mary Margaret and Simon behind him.
The captain stared around at the odd assembly of characters and shook his head. "Let's see if I have this right--we have two detectives from down south, a Shaolin priest, a Chinese apothecary, a sick anthropologist, and two clueless Cascade cops. That about cover it?"
Jim smiled. "That about covers it."
"Then one of you grab me a cup of coffee. We have some pictures to show you." He walked quietly to the sofa and peered down at the young man asleep on the cushions. "How is he?" he whispered, looking back at Jim, who had gone into the kitchen to get the coffee.
Jim shrugged. "Getting better, I think, but it's hard to tell."
"Shouldn't he be in the hospital--or at least in bed?"
"He prefers sleeping on the couch. He doesn't want to be shut away somewhere." He brought four mugs to the table, rightly assuming neither Caine nor the Ancient would be interested in coffee.
The police officers sat down at the table, while the two Shaolin stood slightly to one side, where they could still keep a watchful eye on their patient.
Simon shed his coat and made a small production out of opening a large envelope he had been carrying. He spread several dozen color prints across the table. "The tail on Stubing netted us an interesting assortment of players."
Jim studied the photographs but only recognized two of the faces Simon had already placed to one side. "These are two of the men who attacked us."
"Yeah, Caine ID'd them. We've got APB's out on them now."
"Did you pull Stubing in?"
"Not yet. We're going to give him enough rope to hang himself."
Jim tapped another photograph showing Stubing talking to a young Oriental who was dressed in a very expensive suit. "Who's this?"
"His name is Zimmie Hong," Peter said. "He was a minor minion for a crime boss named Tan."
Jim heard the elder Caine's heart rate quicken slightly at the mention of Tan, but when he glanced up, the priest's expression was as studiously neutral as ever. "Tan?"
"He had something of a criminal empire down in Caine's neck of the woods," Simon explained. "Tan got himself killed, and much of his organization dissolved."
Jim looked at Peter. "Is this Hong capable of setting up his own operation here in Cascade?"
The response was a negative shake of the head. "No, but he could be working for one of Tan's old lieutenants. Some of them have the smarts to put something together."
"Any ideas on who it could be?"
Again, the answer was negative. Peter cast a hopeful glance toward Simon. "But I'll keep an eye on Hong. I'm betting he'll lead us to his boss."
Simon's return look was acidic. "Actually, Detective Caine, my department can probably handle a tail on Hong without your assistance."
"Then at least let me help look for Kam Lee."
"Don't you have a job to go back to?"
Peter just grinned. "Until my father's finished here, consider me one of your own."
Simon grunted. "I have enough men trying to give me a heart attack already, thank you."
"He knows the players, Captain," Jim pointed out. "He might save you some time trying to ID the new faces in Chinatown."
Simon saw the logic and gave in with a sigh. He wanted the man behind the plot to poison Blair almost as much as Jim, and he was willing to bend the rules to find him. "OK." He gathered up his photos and stood up. "The next couple of days should be exciting."
He put on his coat and gave a casual farewell salute to the little band of allies. "I've got to get back to the precinct. This will probably be an all-nighter for us."
"Thanks for keeping me posted," Jim said, walking his captain to the door.
"Knew you'd want to be kept up to date." Simon paused for a moment to stare at the sleeping figure on the sofa. "I know you want to be in on the action, but you're doing the right thing by staying here. The kid needs you, even though you probably think you're not doing much."
Jim nodded. "I know, Simon. I feel so helpless just hanging around, but Blair seems to know when I'm here."
When he'd seen the Captain out and closed the door, he found Peter and Mary Margaret unabashedly rummaging through his refrigerator and pulling out various items.
"Thanks." Peter grinned without a glimmer of contrition. "We thought we'd do a stir fry."
The Ancient shooed them out of the kitchen. "I would not stoop to seeing what the two of you could do with a stir fry. Do something else, and I will play chef for this evening."
Jim glanced through the French doors and saw the day had waned into dusk. There was one other trivial matter he hadn't tended to. "Uh, I'm afraid the loft isn't exactly suited to multiple overnight guests."
Caine glanced at him, drawn back from wherever talk of Tan and Chinese gangs had taken him. "You concern is appreciated but unnecessary. We have brought sleeping mats for the floor, and since young Blair prefers the couch, perhaps Mary Margaret could have his room for this one night?"
"Of course." Jim glanced toward the woman. "I appreciate all your help, but you really don't have to stay."
She shrugged. "I'd like to stay, but only if it's no trouble."
"It's no trouble," Jim assured her, "it just seems kind of a weird thing to do with your time off."
She glanced at Peter with a grin. "I've done stranger, believe me. I'll go down to the car and get my stuff."
"I'll go with you." Peter quickly had found himself bored with the sight of the Ancient preparing vegetables.
Jim sat down at the table again and scrubbed his face with his hands. He hoped he'd be able to get some rest tonight, but it seemed as illusive as all the other nights that had plagued him with nightmares.
After a few minutes, the furious chopping sounds in the kitchen stopped.
"Tell me, Detective Ellison, what does this smell like?"
Unexpectedly, the Ancient thrust a pinch of herbs beneath his nose. Jim sneezed, scattering the bits of dried leaves all over the table and floor. Guiltily, he looked at the Ancient, who simply shook his head in exasperation.
"Allergies," he said lamely.
The Ancient sniffed in disapproval. "A man such as you has no use for allergies."
"It's not as if I chose--" he began to protest, but the old man simply ignored him and returned to the kitchen. Jim fretted at the table. It's not as if I chose to have allergies, he thought.
A minute later, the old apothecary was back, this time with a tiny brown bottle with an eyedropper top. "Lean your head back."
Jim's eyes widened. "Uh-uh, no way!" This crazy old fool wanted to put something up his nose--who knew what the strange, homemade concoction would do to his senses!
The Ancient tut-tutted with irritation. "You are like a baby. Lean your head back."
Perversely, Jim did feel like a recalcitrant child, so he reluctantly did as he was told. He was certain something disastrous would happen, but a nagging little voice inside his head told him he had no choice.
He hated nose drops, and these felt as if they would burn through his sinus passages! Gagging, he straightened abruptly. "Damn, that hurt!"
Unfazed, the Ancient again held a pinch of the dried leaves beneath his nose. "What does this smell like?"
Jim sniffed cautiously, and was amazed to find his sense of smell sharper than it had ever been. He could smell the dry residue of soap and water that had washed the ceramic spoon holding the herbs. The faint, musty odor from the oil of the Ancient's fingerprints on the spoon handle was overlaid by the clean, dry scent of the old man himself. As for the herbs--"Damn, those are strong!"
But he didn't sneeze.
"And it smells like--?" the old man urged.
"That little hard thing they put in mincemeat." Jim searched his memory. "Uh--currents?"
The Ancient beamed. "As I thought. This is very rare, found only in northern China."
"It's part of the poison?" Jim asked in alarm, wondering what might have happened if he'd accidentally inhaled instead of sneezing.
"Do not worry," the old man assured him, "it would not have killed you...merely rendered you impotent." Then he walked away.
Jim glared at the retreating back and caught Peter's amused look. "He's kidding, right?"
Peter grinned and shrugged as he deposited the armload of stuff he'd carted up from the car. "I don't know. He's the best bullshit artist I know. Even I don't know when he's fooling." He glanced around the loft as if seeing it for the first time. "This is cool. I've never been to a slumber party before."
Skelany crowded in behind him, her arms less laden. "Sorry, partner, but the girls sleep in one room and the boys in another."
"Then I guess I didn't miss much." He stashed the sleeping mats and small duffels out of the way, then went into the kitchen to bother Lo Si about dinner.
Mary Margaret looked at Jim. "Which way?"
Jim pointed her toward Blair's room as he wondered at the insanity that had prompted him to open his home to four complete strangers. And yet, there was an almost festive air permeating the large loft space, a warmth that went beyond the actual heat and light that made the room habitable, and he was grateful for it.
He went over to the kitchen counter and looked at the myriad assortment of bottles, ceramic bowls, and small paper sacks that covered most of its surface. On the counter by the sink, the Ancient had placed the cutting board. A wide variety of perfectly chopped vegetables awaited their turn in the presently empty stir-fry pan sitting on a cold burner. The old man was humming as he worked. Feeling surprisingly content, Jim returned to the dining room table and sat down.
Mary Margaret emerged from Blair's room a few moments later. She grabbed a cup of coffee and joined Jim at the table. "I'll bet this all seems pretty weird to you," she commented.
Jim nodded. "It's like some cock-eyed dream I'm having whether I'm asleep or awake."
She patted his hand comfortingly. "Caine's very good, and so is Lo Si. If there's a way to cure your friend, they'll find it."
"I know. It seems to be the one thing I'm sure of."
Dinner was an extraordinary stir-fry, served up by the Ancient. However, the old man and Caine did not join them at the table. Instead, they ate only small bowls of rice and a few vegetables, their chopsticks silent utensils amid the scrape of forks against plates.
Throughout the meal, Jim continued to watch both apothecaries, who took frequent breaks to check on Blair's condition or help him sip some tea.
He's dehydrated, he thought suddenly, wondering if something more aggressive, like an IV, might be required.
But almost on top of this thought, Blair struggled to sit up. "Uh, Jim?" he called sleepily, peering at the unfamiliar faces his fever refused to impart to memory.
Jim hurried to him. "What is it, Chief?"
Whispering in embarrassment, the young patient confessed, "I really need to pee."
With a grin, Jim wrapped the blanket more snugly around him and helped him gently to his feet. "You OK?"
Clinging to his roommate, Blair managed a slight nod. "Just really dizzy."
Jim tightened his grip. "I've got you. Just put one foot in front of the other."
With Jim navigating, they made it to the bathroom, but Jim didn't trust his partner's depleted strength to let him manage on his own.
Blair was embarrassed, but he knew he couldn't do it alone. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it." Although Jim kept a gentle hold on his arm for support, he tried to find something of interest in the small bathroom to occupy his attention in order to give Blair a modicum of privacy.
"Damn, this really sucks." Even flushing the toilet seemed to take a major effort. As he washed his hands in the sink, Blair looked at his wan reflection in the mirror. "My hair could to with a wash."
"Do you feel up to it?"
Blair thought about it for a long moment, then wistfully shook his head. "Don't think so."
Jim thought back over the last few days. "You washed your hair a couple of days ago. It's good for a while yet."
"I don't remember. Did I take a shower, too?"
"Yeah, but you could do with another -- you've done a lot of sweating. At the least, I'd like to get you changed into some dry clothes."
"You know, that sounds pretty good, but I'm so wobbly I don't think I can do it."
He sounded so wistful that Jim regretted bringing it up. "OK. How about a sponge bath?"
Blair looked at him in the mirror. "A sponge bath?"
"Yeah." Jim lowered the lid on the toilet and turned Blair around so he could sit down. "Will you be OK for a minute?"
At Blair's nod, he dashed out of the bathroom and grabbed clean sweats from Blair's room and fresh linens from the cupboard. The latter he tossed toward the sofa, only to have them neatly intercepted by Peter.
"We'll handle things out here."
"Thanks." He went back into the bathroom and started the water running in the sink. On a sudden impulse, he rummaged in the very back of the cabinet and found an old house-warming gift Carolyn hadn't taken with her when she'd left. It was a gift basket of bath crystals, fragrant soap, and a natural sea sponge, all neatly wrapped in colorful cellophane and tied with a bright bow.
He peeled off the paper and almost gagged as a strong odor of lilac rose from the soap. Removing only the sea sponge, he wrapped everything back in the cellophane and tossed it in the trash. When the water was warm enough, he filled the sink.
Blair was struggling with his sweatshirt, so Jim helped him strip and dumped everything in the laundry hamper. Putting a towel under Blair and others on the floor, he felt ready to tackle the job he had set for himself.
A bar-soap-and-washcloth man himself, he'd finally joined the 90's "revolution" when Ironhead Heyward had assured him (via a witty TV ad aimed specifically at men) that using a poufty-looking "lather builder" and liquid soap was acceptable manly behavior.
The sea sponge was a different matter altogether, one of those frou-frou affectations that had seemed a silly indulgence. Now, however, as he dipped the hard, rough sponge into the water and felt it turn to velvet it in hands, he wondered if he hadn't been a bit hasty in his thinking.
He squeezed out most of the water and stroked the sponge along Blair's arm. Then he added a dollop of unscented liquid soap and began to wash him carefully.
Blair watched, seemingly transfixed by the sight of the sponge stroking his arms and chest, each section done with measured care--dampening, soaping, rinsing, and drying. Jim knew the intense concentration was part of Blair's waning mental faculties caused by the poison and the fever gnawing at him, and it saddened him.
"Feels good." He eyed the sponge closely. "Is that a sea sponge?"
"No lectures, OK, professor? It was a stupid gift from one of Carolyn's friends that's been sitting in the back of the cupboard for years." Besides, Jim didn't know if sea sponges were endangered, or even if they were considered plant or animal in the ocean realm. At the moment, he didn't particularly care.
Blair smiled and closed his eyes to enjoy the silky caress of the sponge. The water was warm but felt cool against his fevered skin, and he welcomed the sensation. "You don't have to do this you know."
"I want to."
"You're doing enough already just by being here."
Jim finished his ministrations and helped Blair into the clean sweats. The bathroom was not the most suitable place for a serious heart-to-heart, but he sat down on the edge of the tub. His partner had seen right through him. "Do you remember when you got the tea?"
"The tea." Blair had to think about it. "You were talking about the tea--something about it being poisoned?"
"Yeah, that whole 'thank you' gift was a ruse to encourage you to accept it. That was about a month ago. I've watched you brew it up and drink it--hell, I've even brewed a couple of pots for you myself."
"You couldn't know what was going on."
Jim sighed in frustration. "I know, but I feel like I should have. There's some component of the thing that I could feel growing in your body--it caused a faint tingling in my fingertips. Even the bags made my fingers tingle, but I had no idea what was wrong, not even when I was sure I'd burned my fingers when I checked your temperature."
"You felt the heat when you touched my forehead."
"Yeah. It was the poison, but I just didn't understand."
Blair lifted an eyebrow. "When you think about it, that's kind of cool."
"Except I didn't know what it meant. Caine knew you'd been poisoned the second he saw you. And somehow he knew I could find it--I don't even want to think about how he knew that." He sat back and scrubbed his face in irritation. "It scares me."
This was the most challenging conversation they'd had in several days. Blair seemed to be tiring quickly, but he also looked determined to continue the discussion. "What scares you?"
"Everything I don't know about these senses. I know I couldn't make it--not as a sentinel--without you." Jim shrugged in acknowledgement of how self-centered his admission sounded, but for weeks he'd been facing the potential loss of his best friend and partner...until today, he'd hadn't considered what the loss of his Guide would mean to him as well.
Blair shook his head. "Simon understands--"
"Simon and I are rooted in the same reality. There's something you can do--something that comes naturally to you...another dimension, a spiritual plane, an altered reality, I don't know--but it's someplace you seem to be able to tap into. Caine's comfortable there, too."
Blair smiled at the thought. "That would be nice. I think Caine could teach me a lot."
"Yeah, he's something else, all right. It's kind of weird the way he just accepts my abilities and doesn't ask a single question. Peter too."
Jim realized Blair had slept through most of the day and probably hadn't grasped everything that was going on around him. "Caine's son. He's blown through a time or two."
Blair nodded and smiled. "I think I felt the draft. I thought I was dreaming. I dreamed about an elderly Chinese man, too."
"That would be the Ancient. He's preparing the antidotes you've been drinking all day."
"Weird." Blair sagged with weariness. "Have I lost track of time, or have I gone downhill really fast?"
Jim gripped his arm reassuringly. "The poison's been working on you for a long time, making you weaker every day. Today you started fighting back. It took a lot out of you, but it's the only way you're going to get better."
Blair nodded with as much resolve as he could muster. "OK, but I think maybe I need to lie down again."
The return trip to the sofa was made just as slowly, but he wasn't quite so dizzy. He sank gratefully back into the cushions. "Man, I feel as if I've slept for days."
"Almost," Jim replied, "and you're gonna sleep a lot more."
Even that small exertion left Blair exhausted. He lay back with a groan, and didn't even complain when Jim fussed with tucking the blanket in around him.
Caine delivered another cup of the ubiquitous tea. "He needs to drink this. And then you must both rest."
Jim sniffed the cup--so much liquid had poured into his Guide today, and each cup had smelled distinctively different. "Is all this stuff working?" He helped Blair hold the cup and guided it to his lips.
Caine nodded reassuringly. "He is having more moments of lucidity. He stood and walked. A few hours ago, he would have been unable to do either."
Jim's smile was broad. Yeah! It was as he'd suspected--Blair was getting better...slowly, sometimes relapsing a bit, but definitely getting better. His own spirits lifted with this realization.
When he'd finished the tea, Blair promptly went to sleep.
While Jim had been tending the patient, Peter and Mary Margaret had cleared off the table and washed the dishes. Lo Si spread a woven grass mat and sat down for some quiet meditation, a challenge considering the swirl of activity going on around him.
Peter walked out of the kitchen. "It's still pretty early for us." He'd apparently been discussing the evening with Mary Margaret. "We thought we'd head out and do a little exploring."
Apparently, Caine felt some concern about where their exploration would take them. "Be careful."
"Absolutely." Impatiently, he ushered Mary Margaret out the door. "We'll try to be quiet when we get back." His expression became serious as he looked back at his father. "There won't be any trouble tonight, will there?"
Caine shook his head. "No. Our opponents are not yet ready to act."
"That's OK then."
The loft became quiet after the two detectives had left. Sitting on the floor beside the sofa, Jim struggled to keep his eyes open. The benefits of his earlier nap had already worn off.
"You must rest," Caine told him again. "I will watch Blair."
It was futile to object. "Thanks."
He went up to bed, but he knew his sleep would be as restless as every night since Blair had become ill. Once again, he wondered at his total acceptance of Caine and his odd associate, the Ancient, in his home and in his life -- and caring for his Guide. He knew his instincts about people were far from infallible, but there was something about the mild-mannered and slightly rumpled priests that made Jim trust them without qualm or question.
He tossed and turned for a long time, and had just settled into an uneasy sleep when he heard Blair stir. The young man mumbled in distress, obviously still experiencing disorientation caused by the poisons coursing through his blood and clouding his mind. As Jim's eyes came open, he heard softly spoken words from Caine relax the sick young man almost immediately.
"Do not be afraid," the voice soothed, the words soft and distant, but clear in the stillness of the night. "You are safe."
"Caine? It wasn't a dream. You came."
Blair's voice was weak, and he seemed to have lost a bit of the lucidity he'd possessed earlier in the day. "I'm sorry, my sense of time is a little muddled. How did Jim find you?"
Jim rolled onto his stomach and peered through the bars of the loft's railing to the living room below.
The loft was dark, illuminated only by the dim reflection of the streetlights outside. Lo Si was asleep on his mat, a thin blanket his only bed covering. Peter was stretched out nearby in a sleeping bag atop an air mattress. Extending his hearing a little, Jim heard an unfamiliar heartbeat in Blair's room, so Mary Margaret had obviously settled in for the night as well. Funny, he hadn't heard the detectives return or been aware of the air mattress being inflated, and yet the soft murmur of his Guide had brought him instantly awake.
Only the top of Blair's head was visible as he lay bundled on the sofa. Caine sat on the edge of the coffee table. His body was leaning forward so he could speak quietly without disturbing the others.
He answered Blair's question enigmatically. "There was a need."
"Thank you for coming."
"You are welcome. Now, you need to rest."
Blair conveniently ignored the suggestion. "What's wrong with me?" Upstairs, Jim smiled in the darkness; the kid might be sick, but he was still stubborn.
"You were poisoned," Caine said with serene patience, as if explaining Blair's condition for the first time.
"Poisoned?" Blair didn't sound alarmed, merely curious. "Was it an accident?"
"Why would someone want to do that?"
Caine sighed at the persistence of his patient's questions. "To distract and confuse."
"Oh." There was simple conviction in that single syllable. "To get at Jim."
"No, to get at both of you." Caine's answer sounded faintly bemused, as if he couldn't understand Blair's inability to grasp the simple truth.
Blair's voice sounded calmly resigned. "I'm not special. Jim is. I just make it up as I go along."
"Does this method work for you?"
"Most of the time."
"Then you are truly gifted." The priest raised his arms as if he were going to cross them, but instead he closed his hands into fists and pressed them softly together. "Separate, you are individuals with singular and remarkable gifts." He unclenched his fists and laced the fingers together. "As one, you create a greater whole than the individual parts. And yet, you both resist--your friend because he is uncomfortable knowing your destinies are entwined, you because you are unable to accept your importance in this destiny."
He separated his hands and reached to smooth back a lock of Blair's hair; it was a gesture so gentle, Jim felt a sting of tears in his eyes, jealous he was not the one offering words of comfort, angry because he felt incapable of it. "Any path you walk separately will never be as perfect as the one you walk together."
"You ask too many questions," Caine interrupted with gentle exasperation. "Sleep now."
Surprisingly, this time Blair obeyed.
Jim turned onto his back and stared numbly at the ceiling. He pondered the words he'd overheard and wondered if he could accept the concept of "destiny" as easily as the priest. Could he surrender and face his destiny--their destiny--with Blair at his side, or would he push Blair away, walk his life's path alone as he'd always done before. God help him, he didn't know if he had the courage.
Ellison, you're pathetic, whispered the little voice inside his mind.
Not pathetic. The voice of the Shaolin rang in his thoughts as clearly as if Caine were beside him and speaking aloud. Merely afraid.
He heard the soft, measured tread ascending the stairs and turned toward the source. Had Caine realized he was awake, or did he have more urgent business? He started to sit up, but Caine laid a hand against his chest and gently pushed him back.
"You need rest as well. You will know when there is danger. Until then, sleep."
Sure, easier said than--
Caine's hand touched Jim's forehead, and he was out as quickly as a light being turned off.
He dreamed of a clear, sun-dappled river, its eddies forming deep pools where the big trout lurked in the shadows cast by rock and brush. The warm mountain air was filled with the hum and buzz of a million insects going busily about their lives, while birds chattered and chirpped from the shelter of nearby pines. He cast into a likely pool and worked the lure gently over the surface, creating the merest of disturbances. Within moments, he felt tension on the line....
When he awoke, the pleasant memories of the dream continued to linger at the edges of his consciousness. He hadn't felt so rested in months, perhaps in years. Every bit of tension was gone; there wasn't a single twinge in any of his muscles, and his mind felt almost light with the absence of worry.
He wondered if Caine could teach Blair that particular bit of Shaolin magic. To sleep that well was a luxury he longed to indulge on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, the feeling lasted only a few moments as his senses scanned the loft. Three of his guests were gone--Peter, Mary Margaret, and Lo Si. Caine's heartbeat remained strong and steady, but the one most important was far too weak and rapid.
Abandoning thoughts of a shower, Jim threw on sweatpants over his shorts and hurried downstairs.
"What happened?" he asked, crouching beside the sofa and reaching to check Blair's temperature.
He wasn't feverish, a small blessing, but the pain shifting across his expression sent alarm bells clamoring through Jim's mind.
Caine spoke calmly, but there was an undercurrent of tension that had not been there yesterday. "He had a reaction to one of the herbs Lo Si gave him this morning."
"An allergic reaction?"
"I believe so."
Blair moaned and rocked slightly on the cushions. "Jim?"
Jim tried to sound reassuring, but he couldn't keep the anxiety out of his voice. "I'm here. How are you feeling?"
"Stomach hurts," Blair confessed weakly, curling in on himself. "Really hurts."
Jim's anger flared, and he spun on Caine. "Damnit, why did I listen to you? I should have taken him to the hospital yesterday."
"This is not the result of the poison." Caine remained unfazed in the face of Jim's fury. "There remains only one major obstacle blocking his full recovery, and we did not know Blair would be allergic to the antidote."
"Where's the old man?" Jim demanded hotly. "I'll need a sample of the stuff to take to the hospital."
"He has gone to find another remedy."
"This secondary herb can also fight the poison?"
"It is not as effective and is very rare, but yes, it is our only other option."
Jim was already heading for the telephone, his angry muttering clearly audible. "Very rare. How the hell does he hope to find it?"
"He will find Kam Lee."
This made Jim turn around in surprise. "Kam Lee--the apothecary who prepared the poison in the first place?"
"Yes. He is the only likely source of the medicines Lo Si requires."
Jim's temper exploded. "We're looking for the man to arrest him for attempted murder, and the Ancient is going to him for herbs?"
Caine inclined his head slightly in agreement.
Jim's entire body trembled with tension; he felt as if he would explode in violence at any moment. He understood the anger was directed toward himself, but the knowledge did nothing to lessen the need for its release. For too long, he'd felt helpless to protect his partner from the forces ravaging his body. With Caine's arrival, he had willingly abdicated all control in an effort to alleviate the guilt boring a hole through his spirit.
But Caine had failed him. It was irrational, Jim knew, but it didn't change the fact that Caine had given him hope, let him dare to believe Blair could be cured, only to have those hopes crushed again.
Blair was dying.
How could he ever have believed otherwise?
And how could he have slept so peacefully and deeply while his partner had lain on the sofa in pain? If that was the price of a good night's rest, he wanted none of it.
His hands were shaking so badly, he could barely grasp the telephone handset.
Blair's voice sounded faint and plaintive.
He immediately hurried back to the sofa. "I'm here, partner." He tried to sound reassuring but knew he'd failed miserably.
Blair's expression was dazed with pain and confusion as he read the despair his partner's face. "I'm dying, aren't I?"
"No." Jim nearly choked on the word. He tried to find a way to quell his fear. "No. You're getting better."
But Blair thought he saw a different truth in Jim's eyes. "I thought we could beat this thing." He smiled crookedly, his calm acceptance heart wrenching. "I really did."
"We are beating it," Jim insisted. "You just had a problem with a part of the cure, so they're going to try something else." He had lost his belief in the possibility of a cure, but he wanted Blair to believe.
"I want to write a will."
The words were completely unexpected, and Jim was quick to deny the necessity. "There's no need to write a will, Blair. You're going to be fine."
Blair shook his head, wincing at the dizziness this caused. "No, you're lying to me, trying to make it all right. I want to write a will." He sounded stubborn and determined.
Jim could only sigh in exasperation; he didn't think he had the strength for this right now.
Caine spoke for the first time in several minutes. "I will help you write your will."
Jim glared at him, ready to make a harsh retort, but Blair calmed immediately.
Caine merely shrugged at Jim's sudden confusion. "Sometimes, is it not better simply to 'go with the flow'?"
Seeing how quiet Blair had become, Jim could only nod in agreement. "I'm sorry," he said to the priest. "I was angry with myself, and I took it out on you. You've only tried to help."
Caine accepted the apology graciously. "No apology is necessary. You are concerned for your friend. He will recover." The priest could see Jim was stubbornly refusing to believe his assurances, so he calmly shifted his attention back to Blair. "Now, perhaps you wish to discuss the terms of your will?"
Blair smiled and nodded, settling back into his pillows and preparing to put his affairs, such as they were, in some sort of order. His stomach was apparently still cramping badly because he drew up his legs in an effort to lessen the pain, but Caine's quiet confidence seemed to ease his discomfort a bit.
Jim stood up, anguish tearing at him. He knew he couldn't deal with the finality of his partner's request. "I think I'll take a walk. I need to clear my head."
Caine nodded his understanding. "We will be all right until you return."
Jim's footsteps felt leaden as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Automatically, he listened as Blair mumbled the conditions of his will, which Caine recorded carefully in a small notebook. Dressing on autopilot, Jim pulled on a sweatshirt, socks, and shoes. Then he went back downstairs, where he deliberately detoured around the back of the sofa so he wouldn't have to see the futility reflected in his partner's face.
He crossed to the door and reached for his jacket. However, the last few minutes had erased the benefits a good night's sleep had given him, and he felt just too enervated to go out. Discarding the notion of a walk, he detoured to the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot someone had made earlier, grabbed a magazine from his growing stack of neglected mail, and sat down at the dining room table.
As he sipped his coffee, he scanned the first few pages of the magazine, his thoughts far away from the numerous ads for the latest and greatest in automobile technology.
"Tell me your symptoms again," the Shaolin requested during a brief lull in Blair's disjointed ramblings.
Jim hung on every syllable, needing to hear Blair's voice, no matter what the words.
"We've already done that, haven't we?"
Caine smiled encouragingly. "Yes, and the fact that you remember is a very good sign, but I wish to review your condition, to make certain we have not missed anything significant."
"It started a few weeks ago." Blair's voice was so weak, it came out as the merest whisper. "At first, it felt like a mild flu--you know, headaches, stiffness, some nausea. I had trouble concentrating. Sometimes, my thoughts wouldn't make any sense."
"That was the first stage of the poison. Did you vomit?"
"No, and that seemed weird, because I felt so queasy all the time, you know? Eating finally became a real chore."
Belatedly, Jim realized his partner sounded much more aware and coherent. Despite his weakness and the setback from his allergic reaction to one of Lo Si's innumerable teas, he was really sounding better. Perhaps Caine had been right; did he dare believe it?
"And more recently, there have been other symptoms?"
"Yeah. All along, I've been getting steadily weaker, but lately, I've had a tiny headache, almost nothing at all, right between my eyes. My head feels like it's stuffed with cotton. I'm tired all the time, but I can't seem to get enough sleep."
"What about your cough?"
"That showed up two days ago. My lungs are starting to hurt."
"And the tremors in your hands?"
Tremors? Jim's head almost snapped up, but he forced himself to keep staring at the glossy picture on the magazine page.
"They're brand new," Blair admitted bitterly. "And it really sucks, man. There are some letters I wanted to--" His voice cracked a little, and he paused to rein in his emotions. "There are some letters I need to write. You know, just in case?"
Caine's serenity was like a balm. "I know. If the time comes, I will help you write them."
Blair's voice dropped even lower, although he must have believed his roommate had gone for a walk. "I'd ask Jim, but this is so tough on him. I don't want to burden him with anything else. It's not fair to him."
A large tear suddenly blistered the magazine picture. Jim was startled; he hadn't even realized his vision had blurred as his eyes had filled.
Blair's next words were heart-wrenchingly hopeful. "Am I really getting better, Caine?"
"I believe so." The priest remained quietly confident. "Already, your fever is gone and your thoughts have cleared." He sighed. "However, these symptoms you describe suggest many different possibilities. The Ancient and I have deciphered the components of the poison as best we can. The treatments have counteracted them one by one. There is only one left to defeat, but you reacted badly to the cure Lo Si prepared. Your pain now is from the tea--it is uncomfortable, but not fatal. We will use another way to eliminate the last of the poison."
Jim's words cut through the calm. "But will you find a cure?"
Caine looked startled for a moment, surprised Jim had heard his softly spoken words. Blair flinched, closing his eyes briefly, suddenly aware Jim had stayed in the loft and would have overheard everything.
Finally, Caine nodded. "There is no better apothecary than Master Lo Si."
Jim had surprised himself with the strength of his emotion, and he fought it down now. He rose from the table and moved around the sofa to stand in front of his partner. With quiet tenderness he didn't know he possessed, he said, "The sun's shining on the balcony now. Would you like to get a little fresh air?"
Blair nodded and struggled to stand.
Jim helped him. "Take it easy, Chief. Let me do some of the work."
Mary Margaret disconnected her cell call with a frown.
Peter, leaning against the fender of the Stealth and tilting his head to catch a bit of sun, didn't miss her look. "What did Captain Simms have to say?"
"They found Tyrone Lee's body this morning. He'd been shot in the head; looked like an execution. Apparently, whoever's behind this caper is tying up loose ends."
"Damn." He'd hoped Tyrone, who had bought the herbs from Lo Si and possibly delivered them to Kam Lee, would be able to tell them how to find the elusive apothecary.
"Captain Banks' men have already scoured Chinatown," Mary Margaret said. "What makes you think we can find him?"
Peter nodded to where Lo Si was in earnest conversation with a vegetable seller. "Because Lo Si's name is revered throughout most of the Northwest's Chinese population. If anyone can track down Kam Lee, it'll be the Ancient."
"I hope you're right." She straightened from her slouch against the car and stretched. "I'm getting tired of climbing in and out of that miserable excuse for a back seat."
Peter grinned. "You can't expect an old man to do it, can you?"
Mary Margaret's smile was predatory. "You could always let me drive."
"Not while I'm still breathing," Peter responded without so much as pause.
Lo Si hurried over to them, and from the expression on his face, they'd struck paydirt at last. "I have found him."
As they got settled in the Stealth again, Lo Si gave directions. "It is an apartment building called Sunrise Tower, at the very north end of Chinatown." He handed Peter a slip of paper. "Here is the address."
Peter had to consult a map, but once he'd worked out the route, he never took a wrong turn.
Sunrise Tower was not technically in Chinatown. Once part of an upscale neighborhood, shifting ethnic boundaries and economic vagaries had plunged the area into disrepair. The circle had come around again, however, and the area was undergoing renovation. Soon, it would once again be a fashionable address, and the current residents would find themselves with either hefty property taxes or a need to move to different digs. Whoever could afford to stay would own some very valuable real estate.
Peter admired the stately building. "Kam Lee lives here?"
"He owns the building." Lo Si scowled with distaste.
They climbed out of the car, Mary Margaret making a bit more of a production than necessary out of dislodging herself from the back seat, then headed toward the front entrance.
Lo Si diverted near the door and went down some steps toward a basement entry. Curious, the others followed, and when they went inside, they left the modern world behind and entered a bright apothecary shop, its numerous shelves filled with sparkling glass containers of mysterious herbs, oils, potions and probably more than one organ from a host of endangered species.
A young Chinese man bowed deeply to Lo Si. "How may I be of service?"
"I have come to see Kam Lee." The Ancient bowed in return. "I am Lo Si, at one time his teacher, now here to seek his wisdom with a most difficult puzzle."
The young man bowed again and walked backward through a beaded curtain leading to another room. He was gone only a moment before Kam Lee entered.
At fifty-three, Kam Lee was the picture of a successful American businessman. His suit was perfectly tailored, his hair and fingernails carefully tended. There was an arrogance in his manner that contrasted sharply with the self-effacement of the Ancient, and yet both men bowed to one another in the traditional manner.
"Master Lo Si." The words were respectful, but his tone bordered on derisive. "How may this humble student serve you?"
Peter crossed his arms to resist the temptation to grab the well-coifed man and shake him until his teeth rattled. He worried the inside of his cheek with his teeth to keep from blurting out that the suspected poisoner was under arrest.
Lo Si appeared unfazed by Kam's insolence. "I have a conundrum. One of my patients is very ill. This morning, he reacted badly to part of the treatment."
"If the body is not strong enough to accept the cure, it can be almost as deadly as the condition it seeks to alleviate."
"Yes," Lo Si agreed, not offended by the other apothecary's lecture. "I seek an alternative. I knew if anyone would have what I need, it would be you."
Kam Lee bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the compliment. "Yes." He waved negligently toward the well-stocked shelves. "Please, whatever you desire."
Lo Si moved behind the counter and quickly found the correct herb. Uncorking the jar, he removed a tiny, gnarled thread no more than an inch long, which he wrapped carefully in butcher's paper he found near the cash register.
"Thank you," the Ancient said graciously. "What is the price, please?"
Kam Lee's smile was more a superior sneer. "You may have it with my compliments. Seeing you again after all these years is payment enough, old friend."
Peter's impatience finally got the better of him. "OK, all this making-nice is making me sick." Both apothecaries looked at him with surprised disfavor, but he refused to back down. "Sorry, Lo Si, but you got what you came for. Now, it's my turn."
Kam Lee's angry expression smoothed. "And how may I help you?"
He decided to approach his problem from the flank instead of his more usual direct manner. "Are you any relation to Tyrone Lee?"
Kam Lee frowned. "I have a nephew by that name."
"Not any more. The cops found him this morning with the back of his head blown somewhere down the block. He bought the herbs, you added the poison. The person who hired you had your nephew killed. Can you guess who that makes next on his hit list?" Peter was deliberately blunt, hoping to shock the smug apothecary into an unguarded admission.
Kam Lee paled with the news of his nephew's murder. "Tyrone is dead?"
Peter nodded, still refusing to pull his punches. "You may think you're gonna be Chinatown's next bigshot, but whoever you've teamed up with isn't planning to share the limelight."
"No." Kam Lee shook his head vigorously. "He gave me his word."
"The word of a killer isn't worth much," Peter shot back. "About all you can do so save your sorry hide is to give up your new business partner."
Still gathering his wits about him, the apothecary just shook his head.
"All right, we're taking you down to Central Precinct." Peter reached for his handcuffs. "I'm sure Captain Banks will have some questions for you."
Still distracted by the enormity of what he sensed was a betrayal, Kam Lee was surprisingly docile. He didn't say a word as he was led out of the shop and up to street level.
"You'd better call for backup," Peter told Mary Margaret in a rare moment of diplomacy. It had suddenly occurred to him that Simon Banks might be less than thrilled to have one of his suspects paraded into the bullpen by a couple of visiting detectives who weren't even officially working the case.
The roar of an accelerating engine was the only warning they got.
Peter looked up just in time to see one of those nondescript sedans favored by thugs and police surveillance teams come roaring up the street. The barrel of an automatic weapon snouted from the passenger-side window.
"Gun!" He shoved Lo Si to the sidewalk. "Everybody down!"
The rapid-fire chatter of the weapon drowned out the last of his words. Chunks of concrete from the sidewalk and mortar from the wall behind them pelted them as they desperately sought to make themselves into smaller targets.
It was over in seconds, and the sedan had vanished around a corner.
Peter hadn't even managed to get off a shot. Desperately, he took stock of the situation. Kam Lee was down in a limp bundle, the front of his elegant suit saturated with blood that pulsed from his dying body. Lo Si was already tending the mortal wound despite the obvious futility of his efforts. And Mary Margaret was trying to push herself up from the sidewalk, although it was clear she was in pain and shock.
Peter scrambled to her side and pushed her back down gently. "Don't try to get up, Mary Margaret." He reached for her fallen cellphone and quickly dialing 911. As soon as he'd reported the shooting and requested an ambulance, he turned his attention back to his fallen partner.
Mary Margaret groaned softly in pain. "Damn, Peter, I got shot in the ass, didn't I?"
"Looks that way, yeah," Peter agreed, still pressing his hand against her back to keep her prone.
"Oh, brother, I'm never going to live this down."
Solemnly, Peter said, "I will personally pummel into the ground anyone who tries to make light of your injury."
"Except yourself, of course."
"Partners should be allowed a little latitude, don't you think?"
"Not in this case." She moaned again as the pain sliced down her leg. "Peter, it really hurts."
"I know." He looked around frantically. "I hear the ambulance. They're almost here."
The short walk to the balcony took an inordinately long time. Blair's balance was poor, and he shuffled with the footsteps of the old and infirm. A cramp snagged at his belly, and he gasped, hunching over further in an effort to lessen the pain.
The familiar ache in Jim's chest renewed itself with added intensity. Beneath his helping hands, Blair felt bony and frail, muscles trembling even from this slight effort. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
Blair didn't look up at this partner, but the single headshake was response enough. "Keep going," he ordered, his voice feeble but firm with resolve.
They slowly continued the few feet to the French doors. As Jim opened one of them, a warm sea breeze eddied into the loft, and Blair raised his head. He even managed a deep breath as he savored it, although he held onto the doorframe for support. "See? Isn't that nice?"
They stepped onto the patio, and Jim hastily pulled forward one of the inexpensive plastic chairs he'd bought during the summer. Still keeping the blanket wrapped around his partner's fragile body, he eased Blair into the seat, then pulled up a chair for himself.
He sagged into it gratefully, feeling as if he'd just run a marathon. "The sun feels good, but I want you to tell me if you get too worn out."
"OK." Almost surreptitiously, Blair folded one leg close to his body and hugged his knee, a visible reminder that the bad stomach cramp was still with him.
"I'm sorry I put you through this," Jim said abruptly, more guilt welling inside him.
Blair looked a bit startled. "Why?"
"Maybe the hospital would have been better."
Despite the wan tiredness of his face, the raised eyebrows spoke volumes. "They called to tell you they found a cure?"
"OK, then, you did the right thing." Blair was frustrated that he had to breathe faster just to find the energy to speak. "Jim, I'm feeling better. I'm thinking again--do you have any idea how horrible it was to feel myself losing--well, myself? I'm starting to remember things...stupid, trivial, unimportant things that feel like the return of long-lost friends." The little speech had worn him out, and he subsided with a frustrated sigh.
Jim's depression didn't lessen. "But Caine said there's still some poison inside you, something he can't cure right now."
Blair nodded a little sadly. "I know. I guess I must feel like a guy who got within an arm's reach of the summit of Everest, and then just couldn't go that final yard. It seems so damn unfair to have come this far and fail."
Now it was Jim's turn to sound surprised. "You're not giving up!"
Blair's look was direct. "Haven't you?"
"No!" Jim's denial was almost vicious in its vehemence. And then he remembered the scene in the loft just a few minutes before, and realized the horrible damage his wavering courage had caused. "Blair, I was feeling guilty because Caine did something that put me right to sleep, and I slept the whole time you were suffering downstairs. I was angry at him, but more angry at myself, and--yes--I thought I'd made a bad decision by allowing him to help you. But it was a temporary doubt. Listening to you, hearing the clarity in your voice, convinces me you're gonna be all right."
"Except for this last poison."
Jim's smile actually hurt--his face had held a frown entirely too long. "If Lo Si doesn't have the medicine when he comes back, I'll tear Chinatown apart until I find it. You know me--bull in the Chinese closet. If it exists anywhere in the city, or the state, or the whole damn country, I'll find it."
Blair's doubts eased under his friend's confidence, and he slumped deeper into the chair, allowing the sunlight to caress his face. The cramps seemed to ease a bit as his muscles relaxed. He looked pleased to see the determination back in Jim's eyes. "All right, then. So what else is bugging you, if it wasn't that?"
"I know there's something."
Jim thought about it, honestly bewildered for a moment, then finally nodded. "OK, yeah, there is."
"Care to tell me what it is?"
"What you said inside--to Caine--about the letters."
Blair actually flushed, the sudden color adding a tinge of life to his pale cheeks. "Oh. I'm sorry you heard that."
"I don't want you ever to presume to make a decision based on what you think is best for me without asking me first," Jim blurted, startled to feel his anger rising all over again. "Every single moment is too precious to waste second-guessing each other."
Blair grimaced with regret. "I just wanted to spare you that sort of pain."
"I know. Maybe I won't be able to handle it. Maybe I'll turn into a bawling jackass--if I do, it's my problem, not yours." Jim bit off any further words and ducked his head in embarrassment as he felt tears sting his eyes.
"Bawling jackass time?" A tiny twinkle emerged over the previously lackluster flatness of Blair's eyes.
Jim smiled self-consciously and blushed. "I don't get it. You're the one who's sick--but I'm the one falling apart."
"Maybe because you've always tried to be emotionally tough by holding everything in. Emotions need exercise just like every other part of your body. What doesn't become resilient and flexible just ends up breaking."
Jim's frown was obviously faked. "Next, you'll want me to get in touch with my feminine side."
Blair managed a soft chuckle. "I'll think up a test."
Jim's answering groan didn't have to be faked at all.
Suddenly, his attention was distracted by something down in the street.
"What is it?" Blair asked.
"Lo Si's back. Rafe brought him." He heard the Ancient thank the detective for the ride and then Rafe drive off. "Something must have happened."
"You should go check."
Jim shook his head, restraining his curiosity with effort. "They'll tell me what I need to know." He didn't want to leave Blair alone, not for a moment, but he chafed under his self-imposed inaction. He listened as Lo Si's measured tread came up the stairs, listened as he entered the loft and went into the kitchen, where Caine joined him. He eavesdropped as the two men discussed the mixture for the next batch of tea, but nothing told him why Rafe had driven the old apothecary to the loft. Where were Peter and Mary Margaret?
Lo Si came onto the balcony and held out a cup. "And now, for something completely different. I have blended two herbs--one will ease your present discomfort, the other will conclude your treatment."
Blair accepted the cup with trembling hands, but he shook his head when Jim leaned forward to help. He took a sip and grimaced. "This is terrible."
"Yes," Lo Si agreed with a cheerful smile. "You must drink it all."
Jim hardly dared to hope. "This is the final cure that will destroy the last of the poison?"
"Yes." The old man lifted his shoulders with pride. "Please allow me a moment of unbridled triumph--for which I will atone later with much abasement. Arrogance is so uncomely, and yet I find myself bursting with a sense of accomplishment." Affectionately, he reached out and ruffled Blair's wild curls, which were badly in need of a shampoo. "You, my young friend, have been my greatest challenge."
Blair was smiling happily as he drained the last of the tea and handed the cup back. "You wouldn't sound so positive if you weren't absolutely sure."
Caine joined the group on the balcony. "Like all men of medicine, Lo Si prefers to err on the side of caution. When he is this confident, the prognosis is all but guaranteed."
"No allergic reactions?" When it came to stubborn pessimism, Jim was a master.
The Shaolin remained patient. "This remedy has no known side effects."
"No components of the poison you missed?"
Smiling tolerantly, Caine simply shook his head.
Jim felt tension draining away, leaving behind an unexpected energy. He sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward, then looked at the two apothecaries again. "So what happened this morning?"
Lo Si's expression became somber. "Kam Lee is dead--killed by the man behind the insidious plot to keep you away from your work. There was shooting." He cast an apologetic look at Caine before continuing. "Mary Margaret was slightly wounded. I believe the injury causes her more embarrassment than pain," he assured the priest as Caine's expression tightened with worry.
Jim wondered if there was something going on between Caine and the attractive detective. It seemed an odd pairing; but then, he was getting used to odd pairings. He glanced fondly at his partner. Three years ago, who would have believed a straight-arrow cop and an off-the-wall anthropologist could have become best friends?
But it was time to be a cop again. "So they've eliminated another loose end. What about Stubing?"
"He cannot be found," Lo Si said with a sigh. "Your Captain Banks had him under surveillance, but the man somehow eluded his watchers."
"And Tyrone Lee?"
Again, a slight negative shake of the head. "He was found murdered this morning."
Jim's frustration mounted. "Damn, I'm going to find the person responsible, no matter how long it takes."
Lo Si started to say something, but Jim heard the others returning and climbed to his feet. "Let's see if Simon has found out anything." He was getting used to the fact that no one on the visiting team ever questioned how he seemed to know things so far in advance.
Caine turned and hastened toward the front door, his concern for Mary Margaret evident despite his attempt at aplomb. Lo Si followed him.
Jim looked down at his roommate. "You had enough sun?" His concern was still evident, but the tender solicitousness was vanquished until it was needed again.
More than anything, Jim's return to his blunt, impatient nature assured Blair that his health crisis was on the wane. He tried to lever himself out of the chair. "Yeah, I want to hear what they have to say."
"You're getting better, but you're not completely well yet." Jim scooped him into his arms with the ease of lifting a child.
Blair squeaked in surprise, but chuckled as Jim crossed to the sofa in three strides and deposited him gently onto the cushions. "I guess this means the honeymoon's over," he quipped, the humor overriding the weakness of his voice.
Jim shot him a look. "I think you need more tea." Then his expression softened. With an almost embarrassed smile, he reached over and squeezed Blair's shoulder gently. "How are you feeling?"
"A little tired." The confession came reluctantly, but there was also confidence behind it. "Kinda weak, but the pain's almost gone. I'm gonna be OK."
Bending over, Jim unexpectedly took Blair's face in his palms and gazed into his partner's eyes for a long moment. His heart was exultant; his friend was going to be all right...he was going to live.
They both were.
Blair looked a little concerned. "Jim?"
"You're gonna be OK." The affirmation washed away the last of his fear and doubt. But he didn't remove his hands right away, and his look spoke volumes beyond his simple words. "Don't try to overdo it."
Blair reached up and squeezed the hands cradling his face. "I won't," he said, glad to see the lightness back in Jim's expression. "Go do cop stuff. I'll just lie here and pretend I'm a rock."
Jim hadn't even reached the door before he sensed Blair fall asleep. As much as his mind and spirit had recovered, his roommate's body still needed plenty of time for recuperation. But Blair was on the mend; right now, that was all Jim cared about.
He joined the others at the open front door just as Peter, Simon and a scowling Skelany entered. She limped in, favoring one leg.
"If anyone is tempted to make a smart remark, just remember I'm in a bitchy mood and I have a loaded weapon."
Peter rolled his eyes. Obviously, he'd been teasing his partner, and her patience was wearing thin.
Jim wisely opted for discretion, although he had no idea what had prompted her bad mood. "I'm just grateful it wasn't more serious."
Caine took her elbow and led her into the kitchen. "Let me prepare something soothing."
"Thanks, I could use it." She looked at the group of men clustering in the small area. "Then, if you don't mind, I think I'll lie down for awhile. These pain killers have me out on my feet."
Jim agreed readily. "Of course. If you need something, just yell."
While Caine fixed Mary Margaret's tea, Simon took the opportunity to check on Blair. "He looks a lot better," he whispered with relief.
Jim nodded. "He's gonna be fine."
Simon returned to the group as Mary Margaret took her cup of tea and hobbled off in the direction of Blair's bedroom. "I suppose everyone knows that both Lee's, uncle and nephew, are dead." Off nods of confirmation, he continued. "The Ancient knows the name of the man behind the plot to poison Blair and place Detective Stubing on the FBI's task force."
All eyes turned automatically toward Lo Si. The old man savored the attention for a dramatic moment, then took pity on his expectant audience and looked apologetically at Jim. "Clues were not so bleak as I have led you to believe. As Kam Lee died in my arms, he named his killer. Percival Lo."
Jim turned an incredulous look on Simon. "Sir?"
The Captain shrugged. "Percival Lo."
"Do we have anything on him?"
Peter supplied the answer. "He was born in Hong Kong to a British consul and a Chinese businesswoman. They wanted to bring him up British. Unfortunately, they were killed when Percy was still a child, and he was sent to live with an uncle in Shanghai. The uncle was heavily into the Chinese syndicate. He adopted the kid and gave him an entirely different sort of education in organized crime. He came to the U.S. about six years ago."
"Lo worked for this other Chinese crime boss you told me about, the one who was killed--Tan?"
"That's right. Of all Tan's lieutenants, only Percy has the guts to set up an organization this close to his old stomping grounds."
"Then I suppose the next question needs to be: can we catch him, now that he knows his operation's blown?"
Caine spoke for the first time. "Pursuing him will not be necessary."
Jim grasped the meaning immediately. "You think he'll come here? Because we destroyed his plans for a little criminal empire almost before it got started?" He scowled, then amended his statement. "Or rather, you did." Face it, Ellison, until Caine showed up at your door, you never suspected Blair was anything but dying; you were getting ready to bury your partner without even putting up a fight.
Caine shrugged modestly. "We all did our share. But yes, Lo will make one final assault on us before he moves on to attempt his plans elsewhere. Revenge is in his nature, and it is the--chink?--in his armor."
"And we'll be ready for him." Simon reached for his cellphone.
Jim protested quickly. "He won't show up if he knows we've positively ID'd him. We need to continue as if we're still in the dark about the man behind the plot."
Simon pondered the suggestion. "I can hold off the APB for Lo until tomorrow morning. After that, there's too strong a risk we'll lose him altogether. I'll get some backup here."
"Keep them out of sight."
"You'll be sitting ducks."
Jim glanced at his companions. "Ducks that pack one helluva punch."
Simon weighed the arguments. Two seasoned cops aided by a priest and an old man didn't seem like enough to thwart a determined assault by a vengeful Chinese mobster.
"We will prevail."
Caine's assurance and a confident nod from the Ancient swayed his decision. "All right, but shouldn't we at least get Blair out of here?"
Jim was all for it, but Caine objected. "Then they will know we are expecting them. We will protect Blair and--" For one moment, his composure faltered, and Jim knew the priest had been about to utter Skelany's name. He figured it was a good thing she had retreated to the bedroom, or they all would have gotten an earful about what she thought of the idea of needing 'protection.'
Peter realized it, too, and grinned broadly at his father. "Your verbal slip's safe with us, Pop."
Caine scowled. "I said nothing you need to keep secret."
Peter was unrepentant. "Subtext, Pop. It's all in the subtext."
Even the Ancient was smiling at Caine's discomfiture as he prepared another pot of one of the myriad teas whose scents permeated every corner of the loft. They created a pleasant, clean aroma that Jim would always associate with the old man.
Simon put on his coat. "OK, I'll go coordinate the operation. I'll have someone slip you a two-way radio so we can keep tabs on what goes down here." He gave one last look around the loft. "I advise you to lock up any breakables."
Jim smiled as he walked the Captain to the door. "Don't worry--I'll make sure all the valuables are safe."
Simon glanced toward the sofa. "I know you will."
They came in silence and under cover of darkness but, to Jim, they might as well have used cymbals and flare guns. He came fully awake in a heartbeat and rolled out of bed with the stealth of his animal spirit, the black jaguar. He'd slept fully clothed and wasted no time padding down the stairs.
Common sense told him there would be too many bodies crammed into the confines of the loft to risk using a weapon, be he had his small backup spare strapped to his ankle just in case.
Intimately familiar with every creak in the stairs, he made no sound as he crept quickly down to the living area. He went to the sofa and woke Blair with a gentle shake and cautionary fingers across his lips.
A moment later, the Ancient was beside them, urging Blair up and moving him toward the doors to his bedroom.
Caine had sensed either Jim or the approach of their adversaries, and he quickly woke Peter, who gained his feet with lithe assurance.
In the faint light from the street lamps, Jim indicated their attackers would be coming over the balcony rail, then he stepped into the shadows at the base of the stairs while his allies took cover in the kitchen and behind the sofa.
With whisper-softness, the balcony door opened, and the first black-clad enemy slipped inside, followed quickly by others until there were ten. They spread out in front of the windows and took a first, cautious step deeper into the room.
When Jim was certain the last man had entered, he stepped up behind the nearest and eliminated him with a well-placed blow to the base of the neck. The man crumpled with barely a sigh of sound, but his body thumped as it hit the floor.
As the others turned to respond to the threat from behind, Caine and Peter lunged from concealment, confusing the attackers further.
Normally, odds of ten to three would have seemed overwhelming, but the two Caines possessed a special caliber of fighting skill.
The elder Caine fought with deceptively languid control, his moves a graceful ballet, his tactics as elusive as a gust of wind. Not a blow touched him as he finished off one opponent after another.
In contrast, Peter displayed his usual explosive energy, a whirlwind in counterpoint to his father's calm precision.
Even those few who made it past the front line of defense encountered strong resistance. The Ancient, who was guarding Blair, fought with the agility of a much younger man, the skills gained through the years more than an equal match for the recklessness of overconfident youth.
Despite his weakness, Blair refused to keep out of the fray. It went against his nature to allow someone else, especially an elderly priest, to defend him. So he tackled his nearest opponent, surprising the man, who obviously hadn't expected much resistance from someone who should have been at death's door.
His fighting skills were far from adept, however, and illness had robbed him of his usual pluckiness. Once he'd lost the element of surprise, the outcome of the struggle was a foregone conclusion. He staggered back from a hard blow and went down, stunned. Although expecting the next blow to finish him, he wasn't surprised to have his opponent plucked away by Jim Ellison in full protective rage.
Blair's attacker didn't stand a chance.
When it was over, Jim crouched quickly beside him. "You OK?"
Blair nodded, feeling disgruntled that he hadn't been able to contribute more to the conflict. "I'm fine."
Jim stood up and moved swiftly around the room, unmasking the fallen attackers, searching for the face of the ringleader.
Even if he hadn't seen a photograph, he would have recognized Percival Lo by the arrogantly defiant glare.
With a snarl, he hauled the crime boss to his feet and thrust him against the wall with enough force to rattle the framed art.
"You tried to poison my partner, you sonofabitch," he snarled. "Just to distract us while you set up your organization."
The words came from behind him, spoken by a man to whom mercy and forgiveness were paramount.
Jim didn't have to turn around to know what Caine wanted him to do. But there was something unrepentant in the angry eyes drilling into his that wouldn't let him leave it alone. Deliberately allowing his expression to become neutral, he dropped his hands and stepped back. "All right."
He turned away, knowing Lo would take the opportunity to attempt an escape. He wasn't disappointed. Ready for the sucker punch thrown by the thug, he avoided it easily, dropping to his hands and kicking out one foot in a smooth, well-plotted move that connected solidly with Lo's left knee.
The man went down with a scream, his knee either broken or badly dislocated, his hands clutching desperately at it in a futile attempt to lessen the agony.
Jim straightened and looked at Caine. The priest's expression was calm, but there was disappointment in his mild eyes.
Jim didn't feel the least contrite. He crossed to the kitchen and grabbed the two-way radio, tossing it to Peter. "Call it in." With hardly a look at the mass of bodies strewn about the floor, he returned to Blair and helped him up. "Let's get you settled again."
Blair fingered the bump swelling on his jaw, his look triumphant. "That's it, then?"
Jim smiled and guided him around the obstacle course of fallen enemies toward the sofa. "That's it."
The next morning, Jim woke to the smell of fresh coffee wafting up from the kitchen. He hadn't gotten much sleep following the rush of activity the night before. Uniformed officers had secured Percival Lo and his chop-socky band of thugs, and then Jim had done a bit of cleanup. For all the fighting, there had been very little damage--some furniture overturned, a broken coffee mug that had been left on the table.
The sheer relief to have the worst of it behind him lightened his mood considerably, and he threw on clean sweats before heading down to see about breakfast.
Blair was stirring to life on the sofa, and Jim paused to give him a quick check. "How are you feeling?"
The response was sleepy but cheerful. "Good." He untangled himself from the covers and sat up.
"Feel like breakfast?"
"Toast, maybe some eggs." He stood up and stretched. "Shower first, though."
Jim watched his partner head for the bathroom. He was dragging a bit, but that was fairly typical of Blair first thing in the morning.
Satisfied, he headed for the kitchen. Caine and Lo Si were at the table eating what looked like oatmeal but smelled like a myriad of grains. They exchanged murmured greetings as he continued into the kitchen.
Hoping for something a little more substantial than what the two Shaolin were eating, he was pleased to find Peter industriously cracking eggs into a bowl. The younger Caine looked apologetic. "I thought I'd whip up some French toast and bacon. I noticed you have some real maple syrup in your fridge, and I felt impulsive."
"Sounds good. I'm starved." He grabbed a large frying pan and spread a pound of bacon across the bottom. "I guess I should have asked--does Skelany eat bacon or does she go for the healthy stuff?"
Peter grinned. "She thinks grease is one of the five major food groups, right in there with eat in, take out, microwavable, and canned."
"Don't forget donuts." He was feeling particularly cheerful as he tended the spitting bacon and Peter flipped French toast in a skillet on a neighboring burner.
Wrapped only in a towel, his hair a wet mop, Blair wandered out of the bathroom and disappeared into his room.
Jim and Peter paused in their chef duties and exchanged looks.
Peter's eyes sparkled with mischief. "Do you think he realizes Mary Margaret is sleeping in his bed?"
Jim shrugged. "Too late now."
They went back to cooking.
A few minutes later, Jim began to set the table and pour out juice and coffee. Blair wandered out dressed in clean sweats, and paused uncertainly as four pairs of eyes turned toward him.
"Nothing," Jim assured him quickly, pointing him toward a chair. "Sit. Breakfast is almost ready."
Caine and Lo Si cleared off the evidence of their meager meal to make room for the heartier contingent of eaters.
Jim held the coffee carafe toward Blair. "Coffee?"
Before the young man could open his mouth, the two Shaolin answered in unison. "Tea."
Blair grinned. "Actually, tea sounds pretty good."
Lo Si put on a pot of water. "I have a blend that will help balance the impurities of this meal Peter is foisting upon you." He glared at the object of his displeasure, but the younger Caine remained cheerfully imperturbable.
Mary Margaret, clad in Blair's bathrobe and looking like the cat who got into the cream, ventured out of the bedroom and headed toward the table.
Blair's expression was priceless as he realized someone had been asleep in his bed while he'd dressed. "Uh--"
Jim grinned. "Blair Sandburg, Detective Mary Margaret Skelany."
Blair stood awkwardly to shake her hand, a blush creeping up his neck. "I sorta remember--sorry."
She smiled serenely. "You were out of it most of the time, but I've--seen--quite a bit of you lately."
The blush crept further, and Jim lost a half-hearted battle with a laugh.
Blair turned a glare on him.
Peter brought platters of French toast and bacon to the table. "Skelany, how's your--" He bit his lip as she fired a look at him. "--wound?"
"Fine, thank you," she answered, sitting gingerly in the chair Caine held for her.
They ate breakfast with fervor and an almost boisterous camaraderie. Blair was pleased to meet Peter officially; until that moment, he'd had only vague impressions of an energetic presence flitting in and out of the loft.
When they'd finished, Mary Margaret headed for the bathroom to shower and dress, while Peter, in what was apparently an unusual burst of domesticity if the look from his father was any indication, began to clear off the table.
Caine finished gathering his sparse belongings and helped Lo Si pack the numerous bits and pieces of his mysterious medicines. Although Jim looked forward to the return of peace and order to the loft, he was a bit surprised to realize he'd miss the two Shaolin. Perhaps some of it was a subconscious fear that without them, Blair would suffer a relapse and Jim would be unable to help him. But part of it was due to a longing to absorb some of the serenity reflected in their lives.
Mary Margaret added her bag to the pile growing beside the door. She walked into the kitchen, accepted a cup of coffee from Jim, and stood beside him as he watched Caine and Lo Si in the living area with Blair.
"Bet you'll be glad to have us out of your hair."
Jim smiled and shrugged. "Not really, except that it means the crisis is past."
She smiled her agreement as she watched Blair receive numerous instructions for his continued treatment. Little bags of cooking herbs and special teas were lined up on the coffee table, and Blair labeled each one carefully as its purpose was outlined to him. "He looks like he's really in his element."
Jim had to agree. Although lacking his usual effervescence, Blair was obviously entranced with what the two men were teaching him. "He's like a sponge when it comes to picking up knowledge, and this whole natural healing, mystical stuff is right up his alley."
"What about you?"
He thought of the scattered remnants of the memories he had of standing beside Caine in a dying rain forest to combat Blair's fever, and the other "visions" he'd experienced during the past few years. "I'm a little more--resistant."
Mary Margaret laughed. "Me too." She shook her head thoughtfully. "And yet some of the things I've seen Caine do--" She let her words trail off into a sigh of amazement.
Peter blew in like a minor hurricane. "OK, car's packed. Pop, you about ready?"
Mary Margaret and Caine exchanged glances. "He's riding with me, Pete."
Peter didn't miss a beat. "Great. How about it, Lo Si?"
The old man's eyes twinkled mischievously. "Will you permit me to drive?"
"Only in your dreams."
The Ancient surrendered gracefully and stood up. He patted Blair's shoulder. "We will speak to you again soon, young Blair."
Blair was almost bubbling. "Jim, they're going to instruct me in some basic Shaolin techniques."
Jim's practical mind automatically addressed more mundane issues. "Will that old clunker of yours make it down to their place and back?"
Blair remained undaunted. "I'll work it out."
"Tell you what. If Caine can teach you whatever it was he did to give me the best night's sleep I've ever had, we'll both take classes."
"Really?" Blair looked at Caine. "Can you teach me that?"
Caine smiled encouragingly, but it seemed clear the particular skill that interested Jim was one that involved decades of dedicated study. "We shall see."
Jim joined Peter and Lo Si at the front door. He faltered for words to express how he felt. "'Thank you' seems pretty inadequate."
Lo Si smiled. "I found the challenge stimulating, and I am grateful we were equal to it." He reached up and tapped Jim on the chest. "You have a good heart, Jim Ellison. However, your temper needs work."
Jim gave a self-deprecating shrug. "You're not the first to tell me that," he admitted, then shook hands with Peter. "Anytime you need help from a cop from the sticks, just let me know and I'll be there."
"I'll do that." Peter picked up Lo Si's bag. "Thanks for the hospitality. I enjoyed the visit. You have a nice city."
"Yeah, but you'll always have grunge."
Peter laughed. "And a professional football team." He ushered the Ancient ahead of him out the door, and Jim heard them start a quiet argument over the driving arrangements before they'd even reached the elevator.
Caine said his good-byes to Blair and walked over. "I shall hold you to your promise to come for instruction."
Jim nodded. "If it's important to Blair, we'll be there."
"The two of you share a remarkable bond, one which you have not yet fully grasped." The priest clasped Jim's shoulder firmly. "Your life has taken many paths as you search for the true purpose of your existence. Now that you have found it, you do not recognize it. Embrace it. Accept it for the gift it is, for the gifts you can offer in return."
Jim felt his throat tighten as he recalled the conversation he's overheard the night Caine had spoken with Blair. "A destiny we share?"
"Yes. You will never walk your path alone."
Jim's eyes shuttered. "I very nearly did."
Caine shook his head. "Even death will not separate you," he said with the simple conviction of his faith. "The two of you are bound by more than mortal brotherhood."
It was disquieting, but reassuring at the same time. "I'll try." He wasn't certain what he was promising, but he figured Blair--or perhaps Caine--would help him figure it out.
"You will succeed. The panther is the symbol of all that is good in the warrior, and the wolf symbolizes wisdom and teaching. The two exist in perfect harmony."
Jim had an uncomfortable, niggling memory about the panther--but where had the wolf business come from? "Thank you. If you ever need anything, and you think I can help, please don't hesitate. I owe you more than I can ever repay."
Caine bowed slightly. "It was my honor to serve." He opened the door for Mary Margaret. "And now, we must be on our way home."
With their good-byes, Jim closed the door and turned to survey the loft. His guests had been surprisingly tidy, and there was very little evidence remaining from last night's brawl.
Blair carefully gathered up his numerous herbal remedies and the copious notes he'd taken on their use and deposited everything in the cupboard with his other strange concoctions. He scratched his beard-stubbled chin absently. "Jim, have you seen my glasses and laptop? I have a ton of e-mail and notes to catch up on." Without waiting for a reply, he wandered toward his room to begin a search for the long-neglected items.
Jim smiled and stepped away from the door. There was laundry to be done and beds to be made so Blair could move back into his room.
His thoughts heralded a return to mundane domesticity, and he welcomed the chores like old friends. Life was getting back to normal, or at least as normal as it could in Cascade, the most dangerous city in America.