This is a birthday story for my cybersis, Shellie. She's into Blairpain and h/c, plot not a requirement. 'Nuf said, although I guiltily must add that I've missed her birthday by a tad...*much*. Happy (belated) birthday, Cybersis! Rated PG.

High Rise
-- by Mackie

I

Blair felt faint. Even understanding the reaction was just a vasovagal response to fear, it didn't lessen the nausea rolling in his gut or the debilitating weakness flooding through his limbs. He didn't even have the strength to wipe the sheen of perspiration chilling his suddenly pale skin.

The treatment, of course, was to lie down until his body recovered. Instead, he leaned back against the fender of his car and tilted his head up...and up...and up until his eyes touched the topmost floor of the high-rise. Forty-three floors. Forty-three floors of steel gridwork...without walls, ceilings, or permanent floors to block the dizzying drop back to earth. Forty-three floors guaranteed to terrify.

To Blair, it was a man-made Everest more daunting than the natural wonder crowning the Himalayas. And it was right here in front of him, mocking his fear.

He dropped his gaze back to ground level and saw Simon hurrying toward him across the uneven dirt of the construction site. The captain's hardhat was an incongruous addition to his neat, three-piece suit, and his face was taut with worry.

"Sandburg, you made good time."

"Simon, just tell me he's not up there." He gestured vaguely toward the high-rise, but he resolutely did not look at it again.

Simon understood Blair's trepidation. "Sorry. Top floor."

Unable to stop himself this time, Blair glanced up the steel web to the top floor of what would become half of the new Shoreline Business Towers. The second high-rise, several hundred yards away across the barren lot, was just emerging from its foundations.

Why couldn't the emergency have been there? He reached to snag his jacket off the front passenger seat of the Volvo. Although it was warm and pleasant here at ground level, the afternoon was waning. It would be much colder on the top floor. "It's been forty-five minutes. Has anything changed?"

Simon glanced at his watch. "No, ever since Jim got hit with the mace, he hasn't moved."

Blair shrugged into his jacket and headed for the elevator cage that would carry them up. "OK, let's go."

The lift operator, a construction worker in dusty dungarees, his face caked with dried sweat and dirt, handed him a hardhat. "Insurance rules," he explained succinctly, slapping an inconsequential metal bar across the opening of the wire cage and engaging a lever that immediately shot them skyward.

Blair managed to get the hat on his head before the first lurch of the car made him stumble backwards into the mesh. It didn't seem sturdy enough to hold him, much less all three of them, and the coiling tension in his gut increased with each foot the elevator rose. There was nowhere to look -- down through the gaps in the metal flooring was out of the question, but the view to either side was equally unnerving as the city of Cascade dropped beneath them. Even looking at the high-rise itself, its steel girders whipping by much too quickly, only sliced the view of the distant mountains into horizontal segments, each new canvas revealing more of the bay, the shoreline, and finally the lesser office towers of the business district. They were above it all when the lift finally stopped.

He wanted to be sick.

He jumped with alarm when the metal bar clanked back, permitting them to exit. The expression on the construction worker's face was filled with disdain, but Blair ignored him. In spite of his obvious nervousness, he'd made it this far without crumbling, and that in itself was a major victory. Silently urging his legs to move, he followed Simon out onto the forty-third floor of Shoreline Towers.

He'd been prepared for the cold, but he hadn't anticipated the strength of the onshore wind. It whistled through the open girders, sang around steel cables, and made the temporary plywood flooring drum almost rhythmically. Furthermore, it threatened to topple him off balance, and with little more than forty-three floors of open air between him and the ground, he had to resist the almost overwhelming urge to lie down and let the terror consume him.

"This way," Simon said, heading toward a small cluster of people near the center of the structure.

On legs that felt brittle, Blair forced himself to follow.

Two construction workers, one of them a supervisor to judge by his clean, casual sports clothes, stood at the edge of the group. Two uniformed officers held the suspect, another construction worker, handcuffed securely between them. They seemed faintly bemused by the strange turn of events.

Taggart, looking thoroughly shaken, sighed with relief when the two men joined him. "Sandburg, I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life."

Simon dismissed the patrol officers. "Take the suspect back to the precinct and put him in holding."

Blair hardly noticed. His eyes were riveted on the figure of Jim Ellison, standing entirely too far away at the very edge of the drop off. "What happened, Joel?"

"We came up here to question Tarantino," the large detective explained bitterly. "We didn't even know he was our perp until he maced us. I went down, and Jim had the suspect in cuffs by the time I was back on my feet. Then, his expression just went kind of blank, hard like, and he said, 'Will you look at that?' Next thing I know, he's walking off." Joel ran a hand through his wiry, graying hair. "Man, I didn't realize he was in trouble until he went over to the edge and just stared out at nothing. I couldn't get his attention at all. The mace must have caused an allergic reaction or something. Anyway, I called for Simon and backup."

Simon picked up the story, gesturing toward the still, oblivious figure silhouetted against the vista. "I arrived ten minutes ago. I got within about five yards before he noticed. When he looked at me, his expression was murderous."

Blair frowned. "Has he said anything?"

"Yeah. He said -- and this is a direct quote -- 'Get the fuck away from me or I'll blow your brains out'."

"And then what?"

Simon shrugged helplessly. "He went back to admiring the view."

"Do you think he recognized you?" Blair asked and then, off Simon's incredulous look, added, "OK, probably not. And the language isn't typical of him, either."

"What are you going to do?"

What else could he do? "I'm going over there and try to talk to him."

The construction worker held up a harness. "You'll need this," he said, walking close and helping Blair secure the wide leather belt around his waist. "Clip your safety line to the cables."

Blair sighed with relief. "Oh. I didn't realize what the cables were for."

The supervisor scowled. "You can get within about ten feet of him," he explained. "After that, there's no more safety cable. He's standing on a plank that edges the last steel girder. There's nothing after that but air."

Weakness threatened to claim Blair's resolve again, and he closed his eyes for a moment until the feeling passed.

Simon gripped his arm hard enough to make him wince. "Sandburg, I want you to listen to me carefully. Under no circumstances are you to go any farther than the end of the cable. We don't know how badly the mace has affected Jim's mental stability. He might see you as a threat. Are we clear on this?"

Blair nodded. "No problem, Simon. The safety line and I are going to have a close, personal bond, guaranteed."

"Good." The captain held up his cellphone. "Do you have yours?" When Blair nodded, he dialed. "We'll leave the line open. I want to hear what's going on."

It seemed kind of funny knowing who was calling when Blair's phone rang a moment later. He pulled it out and opened the connection before shoving it back into his pocket. "Can you hear me over the phone when it's in my pocket?" he asked.

Simon had his phone tight against one ear, his other hand blocking the sound of the wind. He nodded. "Barely, but I can hear you."

"OK." Blair took a deep breath. There was nothing left to do but move.

Cautiously, he walked away from the group toward the steel cable that stretched around the perimeter of the building. Unfortunately, this meant he had to approach the very edge of the steel framework, which brought his fear of heights crashing back with numbing force. The numbness enabled him to cross the intervening yards without freezing up in terror, but he didn't breathe until he'd clipped his safety line securely to the cable. As it was, he held the steel strand in a death grip. He could feel the line vibrating under his hands from the force of the wind.

Something else everyone had failed to mention was the inadequacy of the flooring. Plywood sheets gave way to board planks, which had gaps that permitted an unrestricted view of the hard ground so very far below. Blair didn't want to look down, but he had no choice, not if he wanted to watch where he put his feet. The nausea churned with renewed vigor in his belly, and he swallowed convulsively a few times.

"Sandburg?"

He jumped in surprise and looked over his shoulder. Simon had approached to within a few yards of the edge. "Jesus, Simon, you scared me half to death."

"Sorry. I'll stick with you part of the way, but I won't get too close in case he freaks again."

Blair nodded. "Thanks. OK, I'm going to start moving. Just don't expect me to do it quickly."

Simon smiled sympathetically. "Take your time."

Except they might not have time, Blair thought as he inched his way along the cable, his grip never loosening despite the reassuring presence of the safety line. As he progressed toward the corner of the building, the vista opened up before him and the wind buffeted his body with even greater force. He began to shiver, mostly from fear, but also from a strong chill that penetrated the layers of his jacket. He wished he'd brought gloves; his hands were going numb.

He looked again at Jim, who stood near the corner intersection of the steel framework, his back toward him, his gaze lost somewhere in the vast distance. If Jim were feeling the cold, he certainly showed no indication of it. A few feet to his left was the massive corner girder. Bolted to the planks on either side of him were short, vertical supports with a system of cables, pulleys, and a winch. Any sane man would have been holding onto at least one of the supports for balance against the effects of vertigo and the wind, but Jim appeared unconcerned by either.

"I'd better stop here," Simon said, his voice barely audible above the steady moan of the wind.

Blair nodded tightly and kept moving. He could feel the wood beneath his feet bucking from the wind, and he couldn't dispel the vision of walking on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Unfortunately, the "railing" he walked was forty-three floors above the surface, and if he fell, there was no life jacket that could save him.

Inch by torturous inch, he made his way along the cable until he reached the point where it veered sharply right to follow the next line of the building. This put him about ten feet from where Jim stood at the edge. If he went any closer, he would have to unhook his safety line and crawl under the cable. He fervently hoped he wouldn't have to do either.

Jim turned toward him. His face looked burned from the effects of the mace, and his eyes were terribly bloodshot but unblurred by tears. "Hey, Chief," he greeted with a gentle smile filled with sadness.

Blair sighed with relief, pleased that his partner recognized him. "Hi, Jim. What are you doing?"

"Watching."

"Uh-huh, watching what?"

Jim's expression tightened a bit, as if the answer should have been evident. "The city. My city."

"Well, you can certainly see plenty of it from up here," he agreed readily. "You're the Sentinel of the Great City, and you're doing what you're supposed to do, right?"

Jim smiled again, apparently pleased his Guide understood. "Right."

He dreaded his next question. "Uh, Jim, what are you going to do if you actually see something?"

"Something?"

"A crime, or something else bad that you need to fix."

Now Jim's smile turned radiant. "Then I'll just swoop down and fix it." There was no doubt in his tone that he could do exactly that.

"Oh." Blair felt himself paling further. "You know, Jim, I'm supposed to watch your back, right? And I kinda have a problem with the concept of 'swooping'." He forced himself to let go of the cable and gestured widely. "I mean, you know how I am with heights. I'd really feel better if there was no swooping involved."

"It's the fastest way."

"Elevator's fast," he contradicted quickly, remembering that stomach-lurching ride. "I can vouch for that. We could take the truck. Catch those bad guys in no time."

Jim's attention wavered and he frowned. "Demons."

Blair jumped. "What?"

"Demons." He waved an arm toward the Cascade skyline. "Soaring over the city." He looked back at Blair, his eyes filled with anguish and resolve. "We have to stop them."

Blair forced himself to look down at the dark shadows cast by the small clouds scudding rapidly overhead. In the brilliance of the afternoon sun, the contrast between light and shadow was disconcertingly sharp, and the shadows undulating over the brilliant whiteness of the city really might be perceived as a formation of giant, prehistoric birds. Or demons.

"Demons." He chuffed a sigh. When Jim went back to studying the cityscape, he said, "Jim, will you look at me for a minute, please?"

Puzzled, his partner did as asked. "What?"

"Do you remember why you came up here?"

Jim pondered the question uncertainly for several seconds and then gestured vaguely toward the city.

"No, man, you came up here to arrest Tarantino. He maced you. Can't you feel it?"

Automatically, Jim touched the reddened skin around his eyes and winced at its tenderness. Memories seemed to be vying for attention, reality and fantasy warring for supremacy. As if on cue, his eyes began to tear, and he closed them tightly against the sudden sting.

And swayed.

Without a moment's hesitation, Blair unhooked the safety line from his belt and ducked under the safety cable. Reacting instinctively, there was no time to be afraid as he crossed the few feet to Jim's side. He grabbed his partner's arm to steady him. "Come on, Jim. Just one step back, OK?"

Blinking rapidly several times to clear his vision, Jim nodded. His body, cold and stiff after so many minutes of standing virtually motionless in the cold wind, wasn't quite ready to obey. He staggered against Blair, and his greater weight caught the smaller man unawares.

In the next instant, Blair was falling.


II

Time really could stand still.

Jim Ellison had never believed that hackneyed cliche; he'd experienced the strange slowing of time during moments of extreme crisis, but never had it stopped altogether.

Until now.

It was as if the universe paused to let him catch up after he'd fallen behind. He remembered his current case: a construction worker's death staged to look like an accident. He remembered coming to Shoreline Towers to question the victim's best friend, and the odd, almost psychic conviction that he was instead staring at the man's killer.

Things got a little fuzzy after the mace. It should have put him down, at least for a few minutes. Instead, it had invigorated him, heightening his sensory acuity and sharpening his control, sending his brain into high gear in a weird harmonic perfection of thought and action.

Which was bullshit, of course. He'd suffered an allergic reaction to the mace that had tilted his world into some sort of Sentinel twilight zone. It was a miracle he hadn't tried to fly like he'd believed he could.

Except it wasn't a miracle. It was a friend, partner, and Guide named Blair Sandburg who had brought him back from the brink of self-destruction. If returning awareness hadn't brought with it a wave of dizziness and disorientation, it might have worked out differently.

He'd staggered, and Blair had tried to catch him.

The wind and Jim's greater weight had toppled the smaller man, sending him over the edge. Blair's expression didn't have time to register the fear he must have felt. Instead, he looked at Jim with bemusement, as if to ask, 'How the hell did this happen?'

Time unlocked.

He grabbed for his partner, but his hands, numbed by the cold and ignored these past few minutes, didn't have the strength to maintain a grip. The arm he tried to grasp so desperately slipped through his fingers, and he barely registered the warmth of Blair's hand before the touch was gone.

Blair disappeared over the edge.

Jim fell with him as far as his knees, his body badly overbalancing as he made one last, futile effort to prevent the inevitable. In his mind, he already saw the tumbling, helplessly flailing body of his partner plummeting to his death. From this height, his body would rupture like an overripe melon.

A hard thump followed immediately by a screech of overstressed metal brought his eyes into nearer focus.

Blair struck a scaffold rigged some ten feet below. He landed awkwardly on one corner, and the vertical support on that side gave way, dropping the end of the platform before the emergency brake kicked in and stopped it. The line on the other end of the platform jarred from its pulley and jammed, so the scaffold swung dangerously off kilter.

Two horizontal strands of thin cable fencing the sides of the scaffold were all that prevented Blair from sliding off.

The young man was face down, unmoving, his right leg dangling over the edge, his left hooked awkwardly through the bottom-most cable and around the corner stanchion. His torso was wedged between the cables on the inside of the platform where it canted inward toward the building.

Jim stared in horror, his mind instantly registering the precarious situation -- the angle of the scaffold, the jammed pulley, the wind, the groan of straining cable, the smell of blood.

Blood?

He saw it then, seeping through Blair's jacket from beneath the prone figure. And he sensed the jackhammer pounding of his friend's heart and heard the rapid, shallow breaths whistling through his mouth....

"Jim? My God, Jim?"

He turned his head and saw Simon a few yards away. The captain's deep-mahogany face was ashen with shock.

"Simon!" he shouted back. "We need paramedics and a rescue unit."

Simon looked uncomprehending. "Jim -- "

"He's trapped on a scaffold about ten feet down," Jim interrupted harshly, knowing his friend must have thought he'd lost his mind.

Simon didn't waste any more time and stabbed at the keypad on his cellphone.

Jim focused his attention on the injured man. "Blair? Blair, can you hear me?" There was no response. "Chief, come on, I know you're conscious. Give me a sign you can hear me, OK?"

Still nothing. If Blair heard him, he was too frozen in terror to respond. There was only one thing he could do. He glanced back at the captain. "I'm going down to him."


III

Blair couldn't understand how things had gone so dreadfully wrong in so short a time.

One instant, he was standing next to his Sentinel, and the next he was toppling over the edge. His only thought was the certainty that the first step was going to kill him. He felt momentarily suspended in mid-air, with nothing but forty-three stories between him and oblivion.

And then he was falling, something he didn't want to think about at all.

Something jammed into the right side of his abdomen, paralyzing his lungs as the pain radiated outward in every direction. A powerful bolt of white-hot agony seared diagonally from the point of impact upward across his belly and chest, exploding out the top of his left shoulder and then mercifully numbing his arm.

It took him a minute to realize he was no longer falling. Gradually, his senses reasserted themselves, and he became aware of numerous pains vying for his attention. He was lying face down, and he could feel his heart hammering against a wood floor that only partially supported him. His gut ached, a deep, throbbing pain that threatened to make him vomit, the absolute last thing he wanted to inflict on his agonized abdominal muscles. A sharper, hotter pain in his chest made breathing difficult, and the arc of this pain reached its greatest intensity at his left shoulder, where it shifted course and traveled down the nerve-endings of his arm before it was lost in a cold, frightening numbness.

The floor beneath him twisted nauseatingly, and he opened his eyes. Big mistake, he realized abruptly, as he looked straight down to the hard ground hundreds of feet below. He was tilted head downward, his view spinning dizzily as whatever held him swayed and rocked in the wind. A thin cable dug into his chest and thrummed against his left ear, but it was all that kept him from plummeting downward.

Terror held him in a cold, merciless grip, and he couldn't move, couldn't think beyond the certainty that death was toying with him now, ready to finish him at the first hint of defiance. So he surrendered to it, eyes locked on the cold, gray earth far below.


IV

The construction supervisor didn't waste any time. He attached a safety line to the cable and came as close to Jim as he could while still remaining secured. "What do you need?"

"We should be able to reach him from the next floor down."

The supervisor shook his head. "There's no floor down there, and none for another four below that. It's all open steel."

"Then we'll have to go down from up here," Jim decided immediately. "Get me a line and drop me over."

"The scaffold won't hold both of you. We were going to dismantle it today because it's unsafe."

"I'll use the girders. There's a horizontal one just a couple of feet below him."

The man still looked doubtful. "Then there'll be two of you to rescue instead of only one."

Jim's anger erupted. "Dammit, I'm not going to leave him down there! With or without your help, I'm climbing over the side."

The supervisor shook his head in resignation and began to remove his safety harness and line. "Here. You can use this to secure yourself to the girder until we can rig a hoist to haul you up again." He unhooked the line Blair had left behind. "Use this one for your friend. He's already wearing a harness."

Jim stood up and walked back from the edge so he could accept the wide leather belt and secure it above his hips. "I don't know if pulling us up will be a good idea. It depends on how badly he's injured."

"Only other option is to wait for the fire department and get rescue gear down to you. It could take hours to rig safely."

Jim nodded, coiling both safety lines and securing them to his belt. "That's why I want to be down there with him," he explained simply, finishing his preparations.

The other construction worker came over with a rope and first aid kit. He handed the latter to Jim, who accepted it with a nod of thanks and tucked it inside his zipped-up jacket.

Simon and Taggart, moving with less confidence than the seasoned construction men, joined them at the end of the safety cable.

"Ambulance and fire department are on the way," the captain said succinctly. "Any idea how badly he's hurt?"

Jim shook his head. "I saw some blood." A lot of blood. He fastened the rope into a crude harness under his armpits and around his upper thighs while Taggart supervised anchoring the other end to a thick steel beam several feet away.

"Jim, I don't know if this is such a good idea," Simon continued. "The construction boss is right -- we'll have two to rescue instead of one."

Jim locked gazes with his friend. "Simon, he's not moving, but he's conscious. That much I know."

Simon sighed deeply, understanding the implication. If Blair was conscious, he was probably frozen in terror. Worse, he could panic and upend the scaffold altogether. "OK, the four of us will lower you down. Once you've got Sandburg secured, you can assess the chances of our pulling him up or waiting for the fire department."

It was an optimistic statement and they both knew it. How well could Jim "secure" them on a couple of perpendicular girders and "assess" injuries? If Blair were in shock, a strong likelihood, the cold wind would work against them. Not to mention his partner's fear of heights....

"Let's go," he said before he could let doubt lessen his determination. "And we'll probably need some more ropes."

Walking to the edge of the top floor, he peered over and moved into position so he could use a vertical beam for support on his climb down. He didn't want to put any weight on the scaffold or bump it; its tenuous stability might be upset at the slightest additional disturbance.

He turned his back to the dizzying view, got down on his hands and knees, and inched backwards to ease his body over the precipice. The four men holding the rope played it out slowly, lowering him gradually. Gripping the edges of the vertical I-beam, he was able to prevent the wind from blowing him back and forth as he descended. The horizontal girder seemed so very far below, but in reality, it was only about ten feet down.

His feet touched the horizontal beam, and he paused a moment to get his balance. With the top floor now over his head, and the next plywood-covered floor almost a hundred feet below, he felt as if he'd stepped into a giant wind tunnel. Channeled between these two horizontal surfaces, the strong afternoon sea breeze was hard and cold.

Letting go of the vertical support, he grabbed the rope and swayed, fighting to find his balance on the beam. Strange, but at ground level, he would have had only minimal difficulty walking along the broad steel girder, even with the wind pummeling him. Hundreds of feet above the ground, he felt as if the beam were as narrow as a tightrope walker's cable.

He fought back a momentary sense of vertigo and used the rope to help keep his balance as he navigated the few feet to the swaying scaffold. It rocked back and forth in the wind, gyrating as its support cables collided with the beam above it. Grabbing one of the lines, he fought to steady the platform so he could reach his partner.

Blair was lying level with Jim's chest. Jim could see his eyes, wide with mind-numbing terror, staring into the abyss.

"Sandburg, look at me," Jim ordered, not daring to touch his partner lest he react violently and dislodge the platform.

Nothing.

"Chief," he coaxed more gently. "Look at me."

Desperate blue eyes shifted upward and locked with his.

Jim pointed toward his own eyes. "I want you to look right here, nowhere else. Just look at my face. I'm going to get you out of here, but you have to do what I say. All right?"

It felt as if an eternity passed, but Blair finally nodded.

"OK. First, I have to get you off that scaffold and onto this girder. Do you think you can move?"

Blair shook his head, his expression becoming frantic.

"Easy," Jim soothed, reaching out to clasp his friend's arm. "It's going to be OK, I promise." He didn't know if it was Blair's fear or injuries preventing movement. The horrible image of lifting his friend off the scaffold only to see his entrails spill from a mortal belly wound made him close his eyes momentarily in denial.

Grimly, he forced the vision aside and concentrated on keeping his expression confident. However, if Blair were too badly injured to move from the scaffold, another solution to their dilemma would have to be found.

He heard a noise above and glanced up to see Simon's concerned face peering over the edge of the roof.

"Jim, rescue unit's on its way up. How's he doing?"

"We're working on that, Simon," he called back, raising his voice enough to carry over the wind.

"His cellphone might still be in his jacket pocket," Simon continued. "Once you get secured, you can call me, and we'll coordinate with the paramedic unit about a way to bring you up. We had an open line, but I disconnected it when I called the Fire Department."

"OK." Jim looked back at his partner. "Hear that, Chief? Help's almost here."

The scaffolding bobbled and creaked under an especially strong wind gust, and Blair convulsively reached out.

Jim caught his hand and gripped it tightly. "It's going to be OK. But if you can move, I'd like to get you off this platform. It could take a while for the Fire Department to find a safe way to move us."

Blair's whisper was filled with shame. "Scared."

Jim deliberately let his tone take on a gruff edge. "I made you a promise, didn't I? But I need to know how badly you're injured."

"Stomach hurts." Blair was still resolutely looking at Jim's face and nowhere else. He reconsidered his answer. "The whole front of my body hurts."

"OK, let me check you out. I'll have to move you. Don't worry if the scaffold rocks a bit."

Blair gulped and squeezed his eyes shut. "OK."

Jim looked up again. Simon was still there. "Simon, take up the slack in the rope and hold on. If something happens, there's suddenly going to be a lot of weight on this line."

"We'll be ready." Simon pulled back to give the necessary instructions.

When the rope pulled taut, offering him a bit more stability, Jim was able to maintain his balance by leaning his weight against it. He reached both hands under the scaffold's bottom strand of cable and gripped his partner under the arms. As he lifted and turned the injured young man, he felt Blair's muscles spasm in pain. A soft moan of agony was almost lost on the wind.

With Blair turned more onto his right side, Jim bent to check the severity of the injury. His fingers found the front of the safety harness, the thick leather scored deeply by the stanchion. If Blair hadn't been wearing the safety equipment, he would have been eviscerated.

Once again, he saw the nightmare vision of a mortal wound gaping in his partner's belly.

"Jim, what's wrong?"

He hadn't realized Blair had opened his eyes again and was looking at him intently. "Sorry." He smiled reassuringly. "I'm just grateful you're not more badly injured." He felt the edge of the harness, and found where the corner stanchion of the scaffold had ripped through fabric and flesh. Beneath his gentle touch, he traced the long gash stretching from the Blair's right side to his left collarbone. "The cut isn't too deep, but I want to get the bleeding stopped, and the fall broke a couple of ribs. The stanchion did a number on your sternum and collarbone, too, but I don't think it damaged anything internally." He deliberately kept his assessment on the positive side. He knew the stanchion had done a lot more than cut flesh and muscle; the sharp corner had also scored and fractured bone, most seriously at the less-protected, jutting clavicle. Two inches to the right, and the sharp rod would have pierced Blair's carotid artery.

Blair bore the examination stoically, then looked relieved at Jim's pronouncement. "Felt like I got stabbed in the gut," he confessed.

"The safety harness absorbed most of the initial force, but you'll probably have a king-sized bruise on your abdomen by tomorrow morning."

"I'm really cold, Jim. Can I get off of this thing now?"

Jim smiled. "Sure. You're going to have to crawl under the cable. I have no idea what all the movement's going to do to the scaffold. Just remember, no matter what happens, I'm not going to let you fall. OK?"

Blair nodded and gripped Jim's jacket tightly, grateful for the strong arms circling his torso. With Jim's help, he shifted his weight sideways, toward the girder. The scaffold dipped more sharply, and Blair couldn't help but look down in alarm. The steeper tilt offered an even more unobstructed view straight down.

With a little whine of terror, he kept moving, his fear momentarily overcoming the pain caused by his exertion. Trusting Jim's arms to hold him, he gave a final shove and slipped under the cable. His feet touched the horizontal beam, but he couldn't find the strength to support himself.

As he cleared the scaffold, a gust of wind caught it. Lighter now, the platform swayed more freely, plowing into them before Blair could properly find his balance. Jim twisted to protect the smaller man from the blow, but he lost his footing. For one horrifying moment, they were swinging through the air, a single strand of rope their only lifeline.

Holding desperately to each other, they swung under the high-rise, then the short arc of the rope carried them back toward the scaffold. Jim saw the danger and pushed off the horizontal girder again to avoid colliding with the wildly gyrating platform. In a sort of awkward, sideways spring, he made two more lunges before he cleared the danger. This put him close to the vertical I-beam, and he managed to stretch out and grab it briefly. He had to let go almost instantly to maintain his grip on Blair, but it had been enough to prevent them from swaying off the girder again.

They clung tightly to one another, each aware of the other's furiously pounding heart.

Against the top of his partner's curls, Jim murmured, "I said something about 'soaring' earlier, didn't I?"

After a moment, he felt Blair nod against his chest.

"No more soaring. From now on, we stay on the ground."

Blair's voice was muffled. "That works."

Simon called down to them from above. "Are you all right?" The inanity of the question was overridden by the near-frantic urgency in his tone.

Jim looked up and nodded. "For the moment. Blair's safety harness is damaged. I don't think I can use it to secure him. Send down another rope."

"How badly is he hurt?" This calm question came from a fireman who had crawled up beside Simon to examine the situation.

"Some broken ribs, a fractured sternum and clavicle." The second rope snaked down while Jim gave his report, and he continued to speak while he fumbled to secure it without losing his grip on the injured man. Blair's growing weakness didn't help matters. "You're going to need more than this rope to haul him up."

"OK. We're rigging a hoist. When we're ready, we'll send down a rescue chair." The fireman disappeared from view.

Simon looked frustrated by his inability to do anything useful. "Remember the cellphone. Call if you need anything."

It sounded so normal, as if Jim and Blair weren't huddled on an eight-inch width of steel hundreds of feet above solid ground. It made Jim smile as he nodded at his captain with more confidence than he felt. When Simon pulled back out of sight, he felt more alone than ever.

Blair began to shiver from cold and shock. His voice was hoarse with pain. "Jim, I don't think I can do this for much longer."

Jim took stock of their situation. They were badly exposed on the beam, where the wind could still tear at them. The vertical beam was just a few feet behind him. He could feel the wetness of Blair's blood soaking through his shirt and jacket, but he thought the bleeding had almost stopped. At least, he hoped it had. It would be a few minutes before he could confirm it. "OK, we're going to move a bit. Just pretend we're doing a two-step. I'll lead."

Jim felt Blair smile against his chest. "Never imagined you doing otherwise."

"Probably has something to do with my need to be in control."

"OK, just don't do anything fancy."

Jim smiled at his partner's ragged attempt at humor. "No dips or spins, I promise. I think we've had enough of those already." He glanced back again at the vertical support that was his goal. It looked much farther away than it had a minute ago. "OK, my left foot, your right. Here we go."

Inch by torturous inch they worked their way along the girder to the vertical I-beam. The ropes hindered them a bit, but Jim was reluctant to ask for more slack for fear the reassuring support they offered would be lost. So he alternately moved his feet and tugged at the rope, which made their progress slow but safe.

The comforting solidity of the beam bumped against his back. Its width cut the wind somewhat, but hardly enough to be effective. Still, it was nice to have something to hold onto that didn't sway. "Ready to sit down?"

"You're kidding."

"Nope." The most frustrating part of any endeavor in this sort of situation was the need to do a half-dozen other things before the final objective could be attained. Jim glanced up, but there was no one peering over the edge at them, so he fumbled in Blair's jacket pockets until he found the cellphone. His numb fingers nearly made him drop it, but he managed to hold on. Surprised for a moment to find the line open, he remembered Simon's comment about the dead connection, closed it, and then dialed Simon's number.

The captain must have been waiting for his call. "Jim, how are you two doing down there?"

"Blair's in shock. I need to find a way to sit him down. Can you give us a little slack on the rope while I work it out?"

Once again, Simon crawled to the rim of the top floor. "OK, I'll keep an eye on you while they play out the lines a bit."

"Thanks." Pocketing the phone, Jim pressed his back against the I-beam to help keep his balance. "OK, Chief, I need you to turn around."

For a moment, he thought Blair hadn't heard him, but then he felt the young man shift in his arms. "Do I have to open my eyes?"

"No."

"'K then -- " Assured of the strong, steadying grip of his friend, Blair inched around.

"Good. Now, lean back into me. Brace yourself with your feet if you can -- don't use your stomach muscles. I'm gonna lower us down."

Blair was hovering near unconsciousness, his body succumbing to shock and exhaustion. "Is there a -- a point -- to this exercise?"

"Yeah. I want to put a bandage on that cut across your chest, but I can't do it with you facing me...not if I want to hold onto you at the same time."

"And I definitely want you to hold onto me," Blair agreed muzzily.

"Me, too, Chief -- me, too."

Steadily weakening, he struggled to follow Jim's instructions. Leaning his weight against Jim was the easy part -- the solidness of his partner's chest was warm against his back -- but his feet didn't want to cooperate. He felt himself start to collapse and automatically tensed.

And screamed as the fire in his gut erupted.


V

Jim held the dead weight of his partner and slid down the vertical girder until he was sitting on the horizontal I-beam. He tilted the limp body against him, and Blair's head lolled back against his shoulder, his hard, rapid breath warm against Jim's neck.

Quickly, Jim felt the long, bloody swath of his friend's injury, but the bleeding had stopped. Pulling the cuff of his jacket over his palm, he gently wiped the cold sweat from the white, still face. Hypothermia in these conditions was a real possibility.

With difficulty, he worked the first aid kit free of his jacket and fumbled to open it while encumbered with the limp body in his arms. Several 4x4 pads made a hasty covering over the deepest part of the wound and were held in place with tape. Blair's collarbone had been fractured, along with his breastbone, and Jim used bandages to secure the injured arm tight against Blair's body in an effort to avoid further injury.

Peripherally, he was aware of firemen on the floor several stories below. They were concluding, as he had, that rescue had to come from above.

Shifting as carefully as he could, he eased his arms out of his jacket sleeves. The cold wind immediately sliced through the thin cotton fabric of his shirt, but he ignored the discomfort.

Fearing his friend was slipping further into shock, he draped the jacket around Blair's shoulders, anchoring it with his own arms and hunching forward to cocoon him in warmth. Against his chest, Blair shivered helplessly, his breath coming in soft little sobs as the chills aggravated the pain of his injuries.

Once again, Jim picked up the ribbed cuff of one jacket sleeve and wiped a thin sheen of perspiration from Blair's face, the ministrations more soothing than useful. Beneath his chin, he could feel soft curls and smell the unique herbal scent of Blair's shampoo. Holding the trembling body securely but tenderly, he murmured, "Every time we think we've got a handle on this sentinel stuff, something jumps up and bites us in the ass, doesn't it? God, Chief, I'm so sorry I did this to you."

A mumbled protest went almost unheard.

"No, Chief, face it -- if I'd let you do all the tests you keep going on about, we might not be in this mess. If I'd ever thought for one second that my stubbornness would hurt anyone but me, I'd've paid more attention to what you were trying to accomplish."

Through the fabric of his jacket, he felt Blair's hand tighten on his arm. As a simple gesture of understanding and trust, it spoke volumes.

"Yeah, we're in this together, no matter what," he agreed, gently stroking the wild spray of curls tickling his cheeks. He was shivering now, too, the absence of his jacket allowing the cold wind to leech his body heat. He didn't know why, but he felt extremely tired. He wished he could close his eyes, just for a minute, but he was afraid that if he fell asleep, they'd fall off the narrow beam. He didn't trust the ropes enough to risk it.

"Jim?" Blair's voice sounded frighteningly weak.

"I'm here, Chief." He nuzzled deeper into the wild mop of hair to keep it from tickling his face.

"Hurts to sit like this."

"Like what? With me holding you?"

"No -- my legs. Dangling. Pulls too much." He had to pause between each hard-won phrase to catch his breath.

"OK, let's lift them one at time...slowly. You'll be warmer with your knees up anyway."

He fisted the denim fabric covering Blair's right thigh and helped him lift his leg up until he could rest his foot on the girder. "Better?"

Blair was gasping from the effort, but he nodded.

"OK, now the other leg."

When he was settled again, Blair tucked his arms between his injured belly and bent legs, hunching as much as he dared to ward off the cold. Jim's arms were wrapped around him like a second set of sleeves, and their icy hands clutched in the warmth.

"Can I open my eyes yet?"

"I wouldn't recommend it."

"'K."

Turning his head a bit, Jim looked down toward the ground, where night was falling. He watched shadows creep inexorably up the glass and marble faces of the downtown high-rises, while distant mountain peaks turned pink in the waning light.

An unfamiliar face peered down at them from the edge of the floor above. "The wind's died down. We're gonna cut the scaffold free and let it drop."

"OK," Jim agreed mildly, feeling oddly detached from all the activity he knew was going on above them.

A minute later, the dangling scaffold fell silently, its support ropes trailing like streamers as it plunged to the ground.

"Jim?"

"Hmmm?"

"I'm wearing your jacket."

"Yes, Sherlock, you are."

"You should be wearing it."

"You're in shock -- you need to keep warm."

These were the last words they exchanged for awhile, each drawing comfort from the nearness of the other, content to share what warmth or strength they still possessed.

Several hours passed in a slow blur of creeping cold and increasing exhaustion. When Jim opened his eyes again, he was faintly surprised to see the girders lit bright as day. Everything beyond the harsh illumination was impenetrable blackness. When had the lights been rigged, and why hadn't he noticed?

Automatically, he checked on Blair's condition; he seemed no worse, although the shallow hitches in his breath attested to the prolonged pain he was stoically enduring.

A gentle buzz of sound announced the arrival of two firemen in full repelling gear. They landed on the I-beam with assurance, and the one closest to them crouched in front of Blair.

Jim smiled. "Nice outfits."

The fireman looked at him oddly, and even Jim had to admit his flippant remark had sounded a little odd even to himself.

The man checked Blair's injuries and the first-aid efforts, then nodded confidently. "You did a good job."

"Can you give him something?" Jim asked, trying to wrap his thoughts around what that something might be. Oh, yeah. "Something for the pain?" Why had it become so hard to think, for heaven's sake? And why was he so damned tired?

"OK, Jim, we've got the rescue rig here. You can let go of your friend now."

Yeah? When had that funny metal-and-nylon chair been lowered? Reluctantly, he released Blair to the firemen, who eased him into the rig and secured him safely. Blair groaned as he was moved, but he remained unconscious, a good thing considering the view he would get if he opened his eyes during the ascent.

"Your turn."

Jim opened his eyes, unaware that he'd dozed off again. Damn, things were happening fast. He couldn't seem to keep up with them. "Wass 'ron?" he murmured, feeling a little stab of fear.

"You're OK," the fireman assured him. "Just a touch of hypothermia. It makes you tired and confuses your thinking. We'll have you out of here in a minute, and then we'll get you warmed up."

"Blair?"

"He's already topside. Come on, Jim, try to get up, but let me do most of the work."

Good thing, too, because his legs didn't want to cooperate at all....


VI

He reluctantly cracked open his eyes and peered blurrily at the figure in the chair. It took him a moment to bring his visitor into focus. "Hi, Simon."

God, his eyes ached. An ER nurse had flushed his eyes for thirty minutes, and now they felt as if they'd been sandpapered. It had been the urge to squint more than anything else that had finally made him doze off.

"How're you feeling, Jim?"

He sat up. "Fine, thanks, Captain." He looked around the cubicle, spotted his clothes, and stood up to begin dressing. He felt stiff and sore after sitting motionless on the freezing girder for so long, but the aches were tolerable. "How's Sandburg?"

"They've got him on some pretty intense pain meds, so they're gonna keep him a couple of days." He bent to retrieve the bloody jacket Jim had accidentally dropped. "You can't wear this."

Jim looked at the garment with distaste. "I don't need it. I'm warm enough now." Another hour trapped on the high-rise might have resulted in a different story, but his case of hypothermia hadn't advanced enough to become critical. A hot cup of coffee and a warm blanket had pretty much been the only treatment he'd required, although the ER doctor had insisted he remain a few hours so his vital signs could be monitored.

He quickly assessed the odds of getting Blair's blood out of the fabric, gave it up as a lost cause, and dumped the jacket into a waste bin. "Can he have visitors?"

"Yeah, but don't expect him to make much sense."

"You mean he's making less sense than usual?" He sat down to tie his shoes, then kept his head down, his elbows resting on his knees. His attempt at humor had fallen flat to his own ears. "Damn, Simon, I nearly got him killed." Again. Don't forget to add that little bit to your moaning.

Simon was blunt. "His choice."

"Was it? Do you think he really would have chosen to climb to the top of a high-rise if he'd seen any other option?"

"All right. Then he saw it as his responsibility."

Jim stood up. "Then it's time I changed the way he looks at things." He started for the door, then turned back. "Uh, I guess I'm gonna need a ride home in a bit. Will you stick around?"

"Yeah. I'm parked out front. Take your time."

"Thanks." He left the cubicle and entered the nighttime bustle of the ER. The urge to squint to alleviate a growing headache was almost overwhelming, so he looked like a man in great pain when he finally tracked down a nurse who could help him locate his partner.

The orthopedics ward was blessedly quiet, and he found Blair's room without difficulty. Opening the door and stepping inside, he stopped in shocked surprise. "Good God!"

Blair peered at him muzzily, his brow furrowed in pain. "Hey, Jim, how're doin'?"

Jim cautiously approached the bed. "I'm fine. How are you doing?" He didn't need heightened senses to know his friend was in pain; it was etched into every line of the drawn, pale face.

Blair's left arm had been strapped tightly to his body to keep his collarbone immobile so it could heal. More bandages covered his chest and disappeared under the blankets, presumably covering his ribs and injured belly.

"The meds are wearing off, I guess. They'll 'prolly give me some more soon."

Jim moved the visitor's chair over and sat down close enough to grasp Blair's free hand, although he was mindful of the IV needle piercing the skin. "Do you want me to ring for the nurse now?"

"No, maybe in a bit."

Jim tried to find a bit of cheerfulness in the situation. "I expected to see you in one of those rigid body casts you see on old TV shows when someone breaks a collarbone."

Blair smiled slightly. "Yeah. At least I'm spared that indignity." He winced suddenly and struggled to rise as a muscle spasm tore through him. "Ah, shit," he groaned, "this hurts worse than when it happened -- "

Immediately, Jim stood and helped him sit up, easing around onto the bed to support him. "Easy, Chief. Let me ring for the nurse." He didn't wait for Blair's permission, but reached for the call button and pressed it. He felt helpless because he couldn't alleviate the pain, and guilty because he felt responsible for it.

Blair leaned gratefully into the gentle embrace. "Sorry."

"No, Chief, I'm the one who's sorry." Unwillingly, he thought of how close it had been -- if Blair hadn't been wearing the leather safety belt, the stanchion would have ripped him apart; if the cut had gone a half inch deeper, the metal rod would have gone under his ribs and pierced his heart. Either way, death would have been as close to instantaneous as made no difference.

The nurse came in and took some vital signs, then smiled sympathetically. "I'll see if we can administer some more meds."

Despite his pain, Blair didn't forget his manners. "Thank you."

They remained quiet for a few minutes, neither realizing they were mimicking their position on the high-rise. The nurse came back and injected the contents of a syringe into the IV drip. "This will ease the pain," she assured calmly, then glanced at Jim. "He'll go out pretty fast."

Jim nodded. "Thanks."

A few minutes later, he felt Blair start to relax in his arms. "Better?"

"Um-hmm." Blair's voice sounded thick, but he was still coherent. "They glued me together with some sort of Super Glue stuff, did y'know that? Said it will leave less of a scar."

Jim stroked the wild tangle of wind-blown curls away from Blair's cheek. "Chief, about what happened -- "

Blair waved his unbound arm, the only part of his upper body with any mobility, and stopped Jim in mid-sentence. "I want to take a vacation."

Jim fumbled to wrap his thoughts around this new direction in conversation. "OK, where do you want to go?"

"A dude ranch."

Now Jim was really baffled. "A dude ranch? With your busted collarbone, you won't be able to do any horseback riding or anything."

"I don't want to ride horses. I want to learn how to rope a calf."

Jim was starting to suspect this was going somewhere deep into the Sandburg Zone, and he wasn't altogether comfortable there. "Rope a calf," he echoed cluelessly.

Curls tickled his chin as his partner nodded sleepily against his chest. "Yeah. I mean, I never figured lasso skills would be a job requirement, but I'm starting to see a real need here, y'know?"

Jim nodded seriously. "Sure. The next time I zone out on the edge of a high-rise, you can just toss a loop and haul me back."

Blair chuckled softly, enjoying the image in his medication-fogged mind. "Exactly. But don't forget the hog-tying part. You know, the part that comes after the cowboy gets the calf down -- he ties it up with a leather cord."

"A piggin' string," Jim admitted quietly, returning the grin.

"A what?"

"A piggin' string."

Blair sounded delighted. "Yeah! A pig-in-string. Lasso you, throw you down and hog-tie you, have someone haul you back to solid ground...."

"You're delirious."

"Very 'prolly." Blair giggled, confirming his giddiness. He began to ramble dreamily, his tongue finding it more and more difficult to wrap itself successfully around the words he wanted to say. "I intend to be a very demanding patient once I get home. Ice cream sundaes with three kinds of ice cream, marshmallow topping and whipped cream. I can't use both hands to cut meat, so you'll have to cook things I can eat with a fork y'know? Lots of veggies -- gotta have plenty of fiber to keep me regular. You'll have to do all the cooking and cleaning, and help me in and out of the tub -- I can't get these bandages wet. I'll have lots of papers to grade and tests to prepare, so you can do all the typing -- can I go to sleep now?"

Jim eased himself off the bed and carefully laid his partner back against the mattress. "Absolutely."

Only Blair was already asleep, the lines of pain absent from his face as he drifted into dreams of cowboy sentinels and lariat-twirling guides.

THE END

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