Many, many thanks to my betas: Heather and Toni Rae. Without their aid, this piece would be seriously filled with errors. All remaining mistakes are my own.
Warnings: There be Girls Scouts in this.
This is in response to Challenge #2 at Suzie's Page.
Archive: Oh, yes, please. I'm still loosing the battle with HTML. :-) Ronnee
"Mmmph." Came the sleepy reply. The bright blue eyes slid closed and he tucked his arm under his head. "It's not morning yet, man."
"You can sleep in the truck. Let's go." He acted on his words by reaching out and grabbing the tired guide. Hauling him to his feet, he gently but firmly steered the younger man to the door. Glancing down at the key basket he noticed Blair's observer id and snagged it. With their luck he just knew they would need it over the weekend. Reflexively, he double checked the lock before leading the way to the elevator. There was no way he was going to manhandle the other man down the stairs.
Finally reaching the truck, he helped his guide climb up into his seat. Jim knew he had heard the anthropologist scratching away at his pile of exams just a few hours ago. When the alarm had gone off, the younger man was sound asleep, still sitting on the couch, all of the tests graded and piled neatly on the table. It had been obvious he had just gotten finished and fallen asleep, so the sentinel had quietly loaded the truck. With a wry smile for his friend's stupor, he started the truck, officially starting their three day weekend.
It was several hours later when Blair finally stirred. With a low groan he opened his eyes, peering about in confusion. His heart rate skyrocketed as he realized that he was in a moving vehicle. Then the frantic blue eyes met his and his guide calmed.
"Easy, Chief." The words broke the quiet of the truck's cab. "We're going camping, remember?"
"Oh." Blair's voice was deeper than normal, still rough with sleep. "Yeah, that's right. When did we leave?"
"About four hours ago. You were pretty out of it." Jim smiled at the memory of leading the sleepy man to the truck. "We're almost there. Coffee?"
Blair snatched the thermos from Jim's hand, making him chuckle. For a second, the detective wondered if he had lost a finger to the younger man's fast movements. Still chuckling, he reached over and switched off the radio. He had been listening to it on a low enough setting not to disturb the sleeper. Now he listened to the silence as Blair sipped the hot liquid. He knew that it wouldn't last long.
"That hits the spot." This time Blair sounded awake and alert. He glanced over to find the bright eyes watching him. "So, where are we, man?"
"On Interstate 15. We'll be there soon." He moved the truck into the turn lane.
"I'm sorry I slept so long..." His voice was contrite as he sat up, stretching and leaning on the passenger door. "I promised to help drive."
"You needed the sleep more than I needed help driving. This weekend is for both of us to relax. And you worked hard to be able to come." The sentinel didn't have to look at his friend, they had traveled together enough that he could mentally picture his guide's posture. The younger man would be turned slightly, letting the door support his back as he watched Jim drive. With a quick glance, he confirmed his assumption. He smiled at the amused eyes that met his and went back to driving. He listened as Blair sipped happily at his second cup of coffee. A quiet contentment filled the truck as they drove the final few miles to their destination.
"So, are you ever going to tell me what the latest pool is?" Blair's question startled him.
"You really don't want to know, Chief." Jim growled, trying not to grin. The office pool had gone crazy when word had gotten out that he and Blair were taking a three day weekend. If they had known their destination, the betting would have been even worse.
"Right. Let's see... we're camping.... That means that I'm supposed to get lost, we run into the crew from 'Deliverance', an old enemy comes crawling out of the forest or we end up throwing each other off a cliff. How'd I do?" The laughter in his voice was echoed in his eyes. As he caught Jim's amused eyes, the grin got wider. "No, I've got it! We run off the road because the driver is laughing too hard!"
"I take it that you read the list?"
"No. I just walked up to Brown and laid down a bet that we would come back from this vacation uninjured." Blair laughed at Jim's expression. "Of course, he did take my money. But he refused to tell me the odds or what the current betting was. Said it would be an unfair advantage."
"I bet that we not only come back from our vacation unharmed, but that Major Crimes gets all of our 'bumps and bruises'."
"You didn't!" The anthropologist stared, his grin getting wider. Finally he burst out laughing. "Oh, man! That is like so great! How did Simon react?"
Jim smiled at his partner. "You know exactly how he reacted when he heard my bet."
"Yeah, man. I guess do. Was that the reason for the broken stogie and Rafe's comment that I needed to get you out of the station fast?" Jim nodded. Both men smiled as they pictured the big captain's reaction to Jim's bet. Simon had glowered at them, warning Jim that if it were possible, the big man would personally see to it that he get stuck with Cassie Wells for a week. Blair had pestered quietly, but Jim had just smiled refusing to explain the threat.
An hour later they were setting up their tent in a quiet glade.
"I can't believe we're actually here!" Blair's voice disappeared into the forest hush. The young man stretched happily in a patch of sunlight. The few clouds in the sky were high and scurried out the way of the warm sun. He turned to his sentinel and a sudden thought occurred to him.
"Hey, Jim? Do me a favor... Close your eyes. Now I want you to slowly relax your hold on your senses. Breathe in and as you breathe out let the dial go. Reach out, let the forest reach you. Listen to the breeze playing in the trees. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Smell the earth below your feet. Not enough to hurt or even overwhelm, just enough to be there." The young guide's voice had deepened as he spoke, lulling and relaxing the tension in the other man. Sometimes being Jim's guide was exhilarating. At other times, like now, it was filled with moments of contented pride. Being able to help erase the etched lines of tension and alleviate some of the exhaustion in his face was like a balm to his own exhausted tension. "Better, man?"
"It's so quiet, Chief." The awed joy in Jim's voice made him smile. "God, I've needed this."
"We both do." Blair looked around. It was off- season.
Not many people went camping
this close to an active volcano, especially during this time of year. Not that St. Helen had been very active lately. Although day trippers were plentiful, when he'd made their reservations, he'd been told they would have the campground to themselves. He planned to enjoy the solitude to the fullest. If he was lucky, he might even get in some tests on the sentinel's abilities. He hid a yawn, not wanting to disturb his friend. "So, what's the plan for the rest of today?"
Jim stretched, letting his muscles unkink themselves slowly. After a long moment he reached into the tent and pulled out a thick blanket. He laid it on a patch of sunlit grass with a crooked smile. "You can finish your nap. I'm going for a long walk."
"Hey, wait up!" Blair leapt up from where he'd been leaning against a tree. Grabbing his ubiquitous backpack, he followed the other man into the forest. At the tree line, Jim paused giving him the chance to catch up. "Have you noticed any differences between the forest here and the one in Cascade? I mean, the area is different, but the animals should be similar. What about..."
"Hold it, Chief." The sentinel had to grin at the bubbling enthusiasm. Three long years into their partnership and while he was far more mature, Blair hadn't changed too much. Yeah, the kid had aged, become far more serious, settled down some. But in the long run, he was still just as eager and curious as ever. It was just controlled, only let loose on occasion. Give him the chance and Jim knew he would be spending the entire three days doing tests on his senses. "I know I promised to be at your beck and call this weekend, but give me the rest of today off? I could really use the break."
Blair looked over at his friend. His eyes quickly narrowed as he noted the emotions in the pale eyes. The frown intensified as he also found too many signs of stress. Jim was unusually pale and worn looking. The laugh lines that normally were barely visible unless he was smiling, looked like canyons to his sight, even without his glasses. Shadowy circles under his eyes intensified their redness. The reddened eyes were dull and weary. They had been so busy, so many crimes this spring, so many classes, that he had missed the signs.
"Yeah, man. Tonight and tomorrow too. No tests, no experiments. Fishing and hiking, okay with you? You, me, the fish... sounds like it's doable."
"Thanks, Chief." The simple tired smile that lit up Jim's face was worth shelving his plans. He almost missed the next words. "So, are you still coming with me?"
"Of course. What did you think I'd do? Refuse to go? Stay here and sulk because you won't play?" Blair grinned to soften his words. He barely ducked the big hand that swatted at him. Laughing, he took off down the trail, calling back, "You're getting old and slow, man!"
"Wake up, Blair." Jim's voice was hoarse and rough. So were the hard hands that rolled him out of his sleeping bag. A light slap to his cheek jerked the younger man awake. "We've got to get out of here."
"Huh?" Blair's mind was not working yet. He glanced at his watch, 11:30 PM. He tried to figure out what had happened. They had spent the past day and a half fishing and relaxing in each other's company. The only people in the area was a group of kids down at the campgrounds and thanks to Jim's hearing they had easily avoided them. He couldn't think of anything that could have upset the detective.
He peered owlishly at the rapidly moving man. Jim was dressed and had tossed him his own clothes. As soon as Blair began struggling into them, the other man began shoving things haphazardly into his duffel bag. The sight of Jim carelessly tossing clothes into the bag with no regard to cleanliness or ownership clued the younger man to the seriousness of the situation. "What's wrong?"
"Get moving, Sandburg!" The rough growl and quick tug on the sleeping bag had him tumbling out of the tent. Jim followed him, tossing the unrolled bedding into the back of the truck. For a brief moment, he stared at his sentinel in amazement, then he helped rip the camp apart.
With Jim chivvying him along and their rapid, near frantic movements, it only took minutes to repack what had taken them an hour to setup. Every time Blair tried to get to the other man to explain, he was urged to hurry. The older man's eyes were wild and unfocused. Every now and then he tilted his head, listening to something far beyond the normal hearing range.
As Jim revved the truck engine, Blair tried again. "Can you tell me what's going on, now?"
"It's coming, Chief." The fierce, guttural response silenced him. He watched as Jim raced the truck down the campground road. His mind was racing almost as fast as the truck. Something had disturbed the sentinel and whatever it was had to be bad. Never before had he seen Jim like this. The big man could be moody, sure. But this was different. The older man had been ruthlessly efficient in packing the camp. Anything that could be used in an emergency had been packed into Blair's backpack. Everything else had been crammed into Jim's duffel or one of the other bags in the back of the truck. Nothing had been left behind, but nothing had been put away in the sentinel's normal, anal, perfectionist way. He almost thought that he would have been carried to the truck, still in his sleeping bag, if Jim hadn't had so much to do.
The sudden impact of Jim's arm across his chest brought Blair out of his reverie. The truck fishtailed as it made a sharp left. This wasn't the direction of the highway! "Jim! Where are we going?"
"We have to warn the others." Jim released his hold and placed both hands back on the steering wheel. "You'd better pull your hair back and put on your ID."
"I didn't bring it." Blair's words were soft, regretful.
"I did. It's in the glove box." Jim's words were terse, as if whatever was goading him was getting closer.
"I hate to say it, but we're way out of our jurisdiction." He spoke lightly even as his hands obeyed his sentinel's instructions. He might not understand exactly what was going on, but it was obvious that Jim's senses were pushing him hard. They had both learned the hard way to listen when Jim's senses took over. Later, when life returned to a semblance of normal, he'd ask his questions. And if prying the answers out with a crowbar was the only way to get them, he would do it.
Long, dark minutes later, Jim flipped on his emergency flashers. The red and blue lights were eerie on the dark wooded road. He slammed the truck to a stop beside a wooden cabin. Before Blair could move, the older man was out of the truck and pounding on the door.
A pair of sleep rumpled and wary women answered the door just as Blair joined his partner on the porch. He looked down and straightened his ID, hoping to relieve their anxious glances. It took him a moment to catch the thread of their conversation.
"...but we don't have enough transportation! Are you sure we can't wait until morning? Our bus will be here then and ..."
"Not enough time. If you wait, no one'll make it out." Jim's voice was tight. He glanced back towards the mountains. "We'll have to pile everyone in the back of my truck. We have to leave now. Grab any towels, bedding, first aid kits and water that you see. We're going to need them."
"This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. Chief, we've got to fit twelve... no, fourteen, scouts and four more adults in the truck." The detective slipped past the two stunned women. Inside, he pushed open a door and flipped on the light. A muttered whisper was followed by quiet squeals. Blair peered inside to see Jim carefully showing his badge to a wide eyed little girl. "I'm Detective Ellison, girls. We're going on an adventure. I need you to grab your blankets and pillows and go on out to the porch. Can you do that for me?"
The girls looked around at the adults crowding the doorway. At their scout leader's nod, they began scampering and staggering out of their bunks. The smallest girl was rapidly swept into Jim's arms. Keeping his voice soft, he led the parade of pajama'd children out of the cabin.
"We've got to hurry." Blair looked at the women, speaking to them for the first time. Then he turned and followed his sentinel to the truck.
"Chief?" The voice was a whisper in his ear. Blair turned, to see Jim, still cradling the little girl. The big man looked defeated. "I need you to ride in the back with the others. They are going to have their hands full and the littlest ones need to be inside the cab."
Ice blue eyes met his and the desperation there made him freeze. His sentinel didn't think they were going to make it. He glanced down at the girls that were lining up near the truck. It was going to be a tight fit. The scout leaders passed them, hastily dressed, their arms laden with the things Jim had requested. He took a deep breath and nodded. "I can handle that. Are you going to be okay? What about your...?"
Jim ignored the implied question, settling the child on the bench seat. He reached down, helping another into the cab. Once both were in the center, he reached around them and tightened the seat belt, locking them in securely. With quick, sharp motions, he pointed to another pair, letting them scramble into the seat. His words were almost too soft for Blair's ears. "If I could justify it, I'd have you in here too."
"I know, man. Whatever it is, we'll beat it. For now, I'm needed in the back of the truck more than up here. Just don't zone man." All the laughter had left Blair's eyes. The guide was completely serious as he stared at his sentinel. "You're the only one who knows what's coming. You have to be behind the wheel. I'll be fine."
Jim stared at him for a long moment, his eyes reading the unsaid words. With an abrupt nod, he turned away to help load the last girls. Once they were all in the truck, he pulled out a length of rope and began running it from one hitch post to another, forming a web around them. "It's going to be a rough ride. Hold on tight!"
He started to head back to the front of the truck and paused. After a brief hesitation, he pulled out a sheathed knife and handed it to the head scout leader. "If anything happens, cut the rope and go. Head toward the highway. Don't walk on the ridges, if the mountain blows that's where the winds will be the worst. Stay on the eastern side of the foothills if you can. Chief, you keep them moving."
The woman took the knife, eyes wide. She glanced over at the others, understanding dawning. She looked back at the mountain, straining to see. Blair hid his smile at her bewildered expression. She had finally understood what the tall detective feared, but like Blair she couldn't see the warning signals that the sentinel noticed. He wasn't about to explain why she couldn't see or sense what was coming.
The trip was wild and far more hair raising than it had any right to be. The pressure that had woken him was still building. From the silence in the forest around him, he knew most of the wild animals had already deserted the area. All Jim really had time to concentrate on was that he had to get them to safety. He had too many people depending on him to save their lives. As they skidded around another curve, he felt the first tremors.
Ignoring the frightened gasps he could hear from the back of the truck, he pressed the accelerator into the floorboards. They had to clear the ridge or the blast would hit them full force. He didn't know how he knew, he just knew it. The shriek of the girls as they went airborne was drowned out by the deafening boom as Mount Saint Helen's roared into life. Desperately, he guided the truck over the edge of the road and into a gully. Minutes later the ash began to fall.
"Out of the truck, girls." His voice cracked as he ripped the seat belts off the children in the cab. As soon as they were freed from the seat belts, the girls clung to him. He scooped two of them up and carried them to a clear space. Behind him, he could hear voices as Blair and the women urging the shaken girls out of the truck. "Grab the gear, Chief!"
"Everybody's out, man." Awe rode Blair's voice as he peered into the night, staring in amazement at the towering cloud that was glowing in the distance.
Jim nodded distractedly. The mountain wasn't finished, he could feel the pressure that was still there. It was a dead weight against his skin, a tightening in his bones. He looked at his truck. It was almost perfectly positioned. Damn! He loved that truck, but the alternative was impossible. With a sigh, he turned to his partner. "We've got to move the truck."
"What do you mean... oh." Blair could just make out the outline of the truck. It was canted slightly sideways, leaning with the hill. The little gully formed a shallow cave under its chassis. Then it hit him why the truck had to be moved. They were going to use it as shelter from the coming winds. He paled as he thought of the debris that often rode volcanic blast winds. He looked up at the older man, knowing what this meant to him. "It'll roll there, won't it?"
At Jim's nod, he grimaced. This would not be fun. And they didn't have much time. Four of the five adults headed for the truck. The fifth spoke quietly to the frightened troop, keeping them near her as they watched the others work. Slowly, far too slowly for their nerves and the heavily falling ash, they repositioned the truck. They forced the battered Ford to straddle the gully, tilting the chassis even farther, until the transmission hit the embankment. As soon as their make shift shelter was as firm as they could get it, the sentinel urged the scouts under the truck. There was just barely enough room, as long as the truck held up to the weight of any falling debris they were safe.
"Looks like we made it," Blair's words were punctuated by a massive explosion that shook the ridge.
The burning wind pressed into his skin. He could feel it approaching. He launched himself into Sandburg, carrying the anthropologist to the ground. Above them, the pyroclastic cloud shot up and over the small valley, carried by its own force and the shape of the ridge.
"Oh, man." Blair's whisper was barely audible even though it was spoken into Jim's ear. "That is so..."
Jim stared, watching the cloud of ash, dust, sulfur, hot gas and lightning passed overhead. It rippled like a living creature as it flew past, tiny pieces of fragmented rock crystals winking at him like a thousand little eyes. The roar of the wind from its passage was like that of an angry beast. The wind was accompanied by a dry, hot scent, unlike anything he'd ever smelt before. Only the fact that he could feel the pulse of his guide's heart where he pinned the smaller man to the ground reassured the sentinel to his survival. A hand slapped his cheek lightly. He looked down, barely able to see through the murky ash filled air. He read the words on Blair's lips and shook his head. They were safe enough for now. He turned back to watching the streaming cloud as it began to shift. He needed to be ready for the mountain's next move.
For ten long hours they huddled under the truck, the adults trying to keep the children calm. Mentally the detective thanked the scout leaders for their diligence. None of the girls had been hurt, not even when the front tire had blown, settling the truck inches closer to their heads. He knew from the sound of rock hitting metal that his classic truck was a lost cause. But he had to admit that there could be few better reasons for its sacrifice.
"So, what do you feel?" Blair's question was soft in deference to the sleeping child in his lap.
"Quiet. The pressure's gone." Jim's words were automatic. He blinked. He hadn't even thought about the answer, it had just popped out. Carefully he extended his senses. It was quiet. No more roaring winds. No more falling chunks of rock. No human sounds either. They were going to have to walk out of this. "It's time to go."
In minutes the group was assembled by the road. Blair was shocked by what he saw. He had never seen the aftermath of a volcanic eruption before, but this was far worse than he'd imagined. The area looked more like a moonscape than a national forest. Everything was gray, a pale shadowy gray. The tree, once tall and proud, were gone. Their shattered remnant lay pointing away from the smoking mountain. A fine ash was still falling and probably would for most of the day. It had already leeched all color from their clothes.
Then he turned to look at the remains of the truck and gasped. Now he fully understood the other man's pale face and the sudden movements during the long night. The sentinel must have heard every groan, every impact under the roaring of the wind. Where the passenger side of the cab was lay a large broken rock. It's weight had been enough to collapse the front end of the truck and burst one of the heavy duty tires. The rest of the truck was littered with impact marks from smaller rocks. It was a total loss. There was no way it could be salvaged.
"Come on, Chief. We have a long hike ahead of us." Jim's quiet voice brought his head up. The sentinel was looking down the road, a heavy backpack strapped tightly to his back and the smallest girl cradled in his arms. After a moment, his head turned and the pale eyes met his. The resolute stance warned him, Jim was not going to talk about it. It was over and done. The guide scrambled into place, shrugging into his own backpack.
Checking to see that the scouts were all ready to go, Jim headed out, point man for the little group.
Early the next morning.
Jim didn't even want to think what the group looked like. He was in the lead dragging a travois that held the troop leader. Blair and two of the women were carrying the three youngest brownies. The fourth woman, bringing up the rear, was carrying the pack that held the remains of their rations. Between them ranged the brownie troop, picketed to each other on a long rope.
They were moving slowly, more as a precaution than from weariness. The light ash hid many things, including dangerous cracks in the roadway like the one which had broken the woman's ankle. The dry ash rose in clouds with each step they took, but Jim preferred it to the mere thought of rain. As long as it was dry, they didn't have to worry about mud or ash slides. They may end up dehydrated, since their water was very limited. But they had a better chance to get to civilization as long as it stayed dry.
He paused, trying to make sense of the sound that tickled his ears. It took him far longer than it should have. By the time he recognized it, the group was clustered around him, waiting for him to tell them what was wrong. He tugged his bandanna down, baring his grin. "Sit down, girls. The rescue party is here."
Weary little bodies plopped down into the ash and the water bottles were passed around. The quiet murmurs rose around him, satisfying something he hadn't know was needy, filling a vacancy he'd missed earlier. They were safe. The imperative that had kept him moving for more than twenty four hours began to fade. His tour of duty was almost over. His relief was on its way.
The first humvee came over the ridge before them. He waved, watching the heads turn and the binoculars raise. He let his hearing range out to them. The words he heard brought a chuckle to his lips.
"What is it, man?" Blair's weary voice made him look around. The younger man was at his elbow, calmly watching every movement of his sentinel.
"They just sent a message back to their base. Told someone to call the 'crazy captain' from Cascade and tell him he was right. His stubborn men were trying to walk out of the volcano's rubble." He chuckled again, listening to the happy squeals as the girls noticed the approaching vehicles.
"Sounds like Simon." Blair grinned back. "I bet he's having a fit about us being here."
"No bet, Sandburg." Was the quiet reply. A large grin blossomed on the detective's face. "Neither of us got hurt."
"Yeah, so?" Blair looked confused. "We were stuck in a volcanic eruption instead."
"The pool was that one of us got involved in a felony, was injured, was hunted down by an old enemy... things like that before 6pm Sunday evening. Nothing was said about volcanoes erupting. And it's after 6pm Sunday."
A look of pure amazement crossed the ash covered face. He began to grin as widely as the detective. "We did it. We won the pool."
"We did more than that, Chief. We survived and kept them alive