AVATAR

by

D.L. Witherspoon

[Previously Published in Cascade Beyond the Veil, I, October 2000]

(Posted to the Net: 11-01-01)

Blair Sandburg sank. Sank beneath the thin film coating the surface of a fountain that should have been drained months ago. Sank beyond the murky bottom littered with coins now green with algae. Sank outside the realm of the possible and into the impossible, where he came to reside in the warm, furry body of a faintly familiar animal. Wolf.

Wolf/Blair stood, his fur rising as he went on alert. He was in a forest glade. The trees were leafy and green. The sun shone golden in a crystal blue sky, and a gentle breeze kept the temperature balmy and pleasant. He knew that he should be happy, that he should be at peace. Perfection, right? But no. There was something off-kilter, out of sync here in this idyllic Eden. That was it! Somewhere in the garden had to be the serpent.

He turned and saw it. Not an animal. Not a being. But a darkness, as formless as smoke, dense and opaque. It oozed onto the western edge of the garden, its oily heaviness obscuring everything it touched or merely passed. Wolf began to back away. It was true that he was a creature who roamed the night, but this was night as he'd never known it, alien and unfriendly. No one would ever roam this darkness of his own free will.

Before Wolf could gather his senses enough to be truly frightened, he heard a call, a cry of great anguish. Certain that the dark was devouring a fellow forest dweller, he cocked his head toward the ebony mass, wondering if he could get a glimpse of the hapless creature, wondering if it were possible to rescue it. But the cry came again, and Wolf realized it came from the opposite direction. Did that mean the darkness was surrounding him? Attacking in front, as well as behind? The shriek of pain came again. Wolf loped in its direction. He was nervous about what he might be running toward, and desperate to elude that which he knew he was running from.

After a while, he made out Jaguar's form speeding toward him, a black streak against the green background. A flicker of hesitation undulated through him when he remembered Jaguar's recent actions. Jaguar had discarded him, tossed him out of the safe, comfortable den they shared. He didn't know why; Jaguar had not explained. As if Jaguar sensed his hesitation, the large cat cried out again, and Wolf knew he could not ignore the call. No matter what, he would always go when Jaguar beckoned. It was how it had to be. Besides, together he and Jaguar could figure out the darkness. They always did.

Wolf quickened his pace. Jaguar leaped toward him; at the same moment, he made his own jump and met his companion in mid-air. A tendril of the darkness flicked out to brush Wolf's back paw, but he did not feel it. In complete ignorance, Wolf merged with Jaguar-- just as the darkness merged with Wolf.

Blair Sandburg breathed.

In the joyous confusion that followed, not even the Sentinel noticed that Blair had not come back alone.

*****

"This is so fucking unfair, man!" Blair said to his trailing partner as he slammed open the door to the loft. "Brad Ventriss is a thief, a rapist, and a killer. And you and I both know he's gonna get away with everything because his father is a fucking billionaire!"

Jim sighed and checked the door for damage. Good thing he'd used the sturdiest material he could find for the latest repairs. He'd figured if another freakin' psychopath decided to break into the loft, the lunatic was going to have to work at it. "Unless Ventriss morphs into a block of wood at night, I think you're taking out your anger on an innocent bystander, Chief."

Blair grimaced. "Maybe I should have stopped by the gym and punched that bag you're so fond of."

"Or maybe you should just get a handle on your anger."

"Said the pot to the kettle. If this shit was happening at the station instead of on Rainier's campus--"

"There would still be nothing I could do if the victim was unwilling to press charges against the little scumbag. That's the only thing that would change this situation, Chief."

"Or Papa Ventriss could be poor," Blair snarled.

"You accusing the department of something, Sandburg?" Jim asked cooly.

"Fuck you and your precious department, man." The glass doors rattled as Blair stomped into his room. They vibrated even more when he shoved them closed.

"You break 'em, you pay for 'em," Jim called after his ears stopped ringing.

"Brad got me fired, remember? You're just shit out of luck, Ellison," Blair muttered as he fell back against his bed.

Jim took a deep breath to keep from firing off another comment. The two of them yelling back and forth wasn't going to help matters. Why the hell was Sandburg getting so bent out of shape over this case? Because it was on campus? Because Ventriss was hurting his students? Because the man was threatening his career? Damn it. The kid should be handling all of this better than he was. If he didn't cap the anger soon, Simon was going to sideline him.

And I really don't want to be without you so soon after getting you back. Jim trembled each time he was forced to remember what he'd done. Oh, he could bullshit the witnesses, tell them that the paramedics must have gotten their certification at a Toys R Us, that they'd given up too early and too easily, that Blair hadn't been dead. But he was having a harder time bullshitting himself. No matter how many times he went over it in his head, he couldn't change the reality of what he'd done. He hadn't merely prayed and pleaded for Blair's life. He hadn't just revived him with CPR. What he had done was a resurrection, pure and simple, and devastatingly horrifying. Normal people didn't go around resurrecting the dead. Jesus had done it. So had Frankenstein.

He knew which one of them he was closer to being.

Refusing to let his mind take him back to that day, to that moment when desperation had driven him beyond the extreme, he performed the rituals of getting ready for bed, trying to relax in the normalcy of the actions. He used the bathroom and brushed his teeth; upstairs, he got out his clothes for the next day, chuckling at the thought of working with Joel Taggert again. It had been interesting trying to find his temporary partner's limits. He must have openly displayed five or six Sentinel "tricks" while they were working together, and the man hadn't called him on them. Surely Taggert didn't really believe he'd learned all those skills from a course he'd taken. No one was that gullible. Then again, although Joel hadn't been at the fountain, he'd heard the story from those who had been. Damn.

Stripping to his boxers, Jim crawled beneath the covers and sent his senses out for an habitual final sweep of the loft. Blair was already knocked out. Twenty minutes ago he'd heard his partner's quick trip to the bathroom, his defiant flushing of the toilet, his collapse onto the futon, and finally the even breathing of sleep. Maybe he'd be less prickly in the morning. With ease the Sentinel gathered his senses back to him, setting them on standby as he drifted to sleep.

He woke.

A quick glance at the clock showed he'd only slept for a little over an hour. Why was he awake? He thought there might have been a change in the air pressure, a prelude to a storm perhaps, because he could feel the air thickening around him, pressing against his flesh, dank and cloying like an unwanted lover. He kicked off his sheet, hoping to expel the sodden warmth enveloping him. The heaviness remained.

He sat up, fully awake. What the hell was wrong? His senses went to full alert in less than a second. There. His hand closed around the gun beneath his pillow. Something was wrong in the loft, and the something was in Sandburg's room. Silent as his spirit guide, he slinked down the stairs, hugging the walls so that he blended into the night. He paused as he neared the window of Blair's room that opened onto the rest of the loft. Blair had thought that was so cool when he'd first moved in. Nah. He still thought it was cool.

Jim turned up his hearing a notch. There were definitely noises coming from his partner's room. Blair was moaning softly. A nightmare? A fantasy? Jim felt his ears flood with heat at the thought of Blair's reaction if he woke him because he was having a good time in his dreams. The sound came again; it was definitely not a sound of pleasure.

The Sentinel detected multiple heartbeats. Holding his gun securely, he crouched past the window, standing when he was next to the French doors. Knowing the wooden frames wouldn't make a sound when he opened them--a good bi-weekly dousing with WD40 made sure of that--he turned the knob and eased the doors apart just a little. More than enough for his enhanced sight to see through even in the dark.

He froze in the doorway, and didn't care when the doors drifted wider apart revealing him to the room's occupants. It didn't matter. He'd been right. It was a nightmare. But it wasn't Blair's. In a fleeting moment of rational thought, Jim wondered which was worse: his body lying in the bed upstairs trapped in the perverse dream, or the fact that his mind had actually come up with something so horrendous. Damn. Either he'd spent too much of his childhood watching poorly made films or he was one very sick bastard.

What he saw couldn't be real. Blair lay on the narrow futon mattress, naked as far as Jim could tell, his body glistening with sweat that reeked of fear. Surrounding him, as if he was a sacrificial offering, were giant white, worm-like creatures. Man-sized, they stood on their tail ends while their heads bent over Blair. No, they weren't just bending over him, they were--Oh, God--they were feeding on him, maggots at a feast.

Jim stumbled backward, bumped into a wall and slid down it when his legs decided they couldn't bear his weight any longer. He could still see inside the room, still hear Blair's soft cries, and the tiny larval hearts beating. Halfway crawling, he made it to the sofa and sat with his back deliberately to the other room. He carefully placed his weapon on the coffee table, drew his long legs up, and rested his head against his knees. It had finally happened. He'd gone around the bend, over the edge. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise, but it was. He'd thought that as long as he had Blair, he'd be able to hold on. You dropped the ball, Chief.

Pain spiked through him. Maybe this was even worse than he'd thought. Maybe this wasn't just a nightmare. Maybe this was a nightmare within a nightmare. Jim shuddered. Maybe it was time for him to accept the truth: He hadn't pulled off a miracle at the fountain; Alex had killed Blair--and now he was insane. The whole Sierra Verde chase, the last few weeks in the loft with Sandburg, they were just part of the dreamworld he'd chosen to live in. In reality, he was probably in a psych ward somewhere, doped to the gills and drooling on himself.

I'm sorry, Chief. I know you expected better of me, before and after your death. But you really shouldn't have left me. You know how I get when I'm alone, when I'm...abandoned. Yeah, yeah, I abandoned you first, packed you up and kicked you out, but you know that wasn't me, Chief. I wouldn't do that in my right mind. I was just waiting for you to figure that out and bring me back to my senses, so to speak. You weren't supposed to be gone permanently. Not like the others. Not like all the others.

His knees soaked, his nose dripping, Jim started to lift his head and reach for a tissue, and decided the effort just wasn't worth it. Fuck it, the nurses could clean him up in the morning. And he'd be truly grateful if they upped his dosages 'cause obviously the meds were beginning to wear off. With a deliberate sniff, he wrapped his arms around his knees and drifted off to sleep.

"Jim? Hey, man, wake up. Jim?"

Jim woke up to find two Blairs leaning over him. He wiped at his eyes until there was only one. The room was filled with sunshine. "Morning, Chief." His voice was hoarse and scratchy.

"'Morning, Chief'? That's all you can say? What's going on?" Blair asked, plopping down on the sofa next to him.

"What do you mean?" Jim shook his head to clear the lingering cobwebs. Now he remembered why crying himself to sleep was a bad idea.

"I mean I woke up and found you sleeping on the sofa in only your boxers, with your gun beside you on the table. Did something happen last night? You on guard or something?"

"Just a nightmare, Chief."

"Yours or mine?" Blair asked with a frown.

"Mine. Definitely mine." Jim's eyes narrowed as he looked his friend over. "How are you feeling?"

"Actually, for a good night's sleep, I'm feeling a little drained," Blair said with a wry smile. "Sure your nightmare didn't spill over onto me?"

Jim paled, then shook his head. "At this point, Sandburg, I'm not sure of anything." He glanced at the clock on the VCR. "Damn. I'm gonna be late if I don't get moving." He winced as his knees protested the act of unbending. Maybe he should WD40 them on a bi-weekly basis, too.

"You don't want to talk about this?"

"No."

Blair nodded. "I think I understand why you don't want to talk to me. A lot of yesterday is fuzzy, but I sorta remember acting like a jerk last night. Said some stuff I think I'd like to take back."

"Not a problem, Chief. It's not that I don't want to talk to you about it; I just don't want to talk about it at all."

"That's cool. Just know that I'm here if you do."

Jim reached out and clasped his shoulder. "You are here, aren't you?"

Blair's eyes widened. "Yeah, man, I'm here." Jim nodded and started to rise. "You sure you're okay?"

Jim smiled and nodded. "But feel free to ask me again after Simon gets through chewing me out for being late."

*****

Although Jim eyed his bed warily every night and avoided even a brief glance into Blair's room, the rest of the week passed by without incident. Brad Ventriss and his girlfriend went to jail and stayed because they had already tried to flee the country once. Blair got his teaching fellowship reinstated and was absent from the station much of the time due to upcoming mid-term exams. There was a series of break-ins at the local jewelry stores, but Joel was a competent partner, not to mention that the crooks were lazy, and they were easily apprehended. Jim came home Thursday evening in a mellow mood. Blair didn't.

"I'm gonna kill the sonuvabitch!" Blair stormed through the door, slinging his backpack violently into the corner. A lamp teetered before settling into place.

"Whoa, Chief." Jim was in the kitchen, preparing a simple stir-fry for dinner. "What's got you so fired up?"

"Do you know how much I paid for those fucking tires? If it wasn't for you I'd be eating mac and cheese for the next two fucking months to pay for them. If I'd wanted cheap shit, I sure as hell wouldn't have paid for it!"

"What happened?"

"A flat. In less than a week, man!"

"Could you have driven over something?"

"What? It's my fault now? I did something wrong?"

"That's not what I'm saying, Chief."

"That's exactly what you're saying, man. That's what it all boils down to with you, isn't it? Sandburg's fault. It's always Sandburg's fault. Well, fuck you, Jim Ellison!"

Jim watched the French doors slam with growing unease. Something about the situation seemed eerily familiar. Jim leaned against the kitchen island, recalling with perfect clarity what had happened the last time Blair had flown into a rage. No. He couldn't go through that again. It was bad enough that Blair was having these uncharacteristic bouts of anger, but if they were triggering nightmares about carnivorous maggots-- Wait a minute. Maggots were carnivorous anyway, so it wasn't the carnivorous part that was worrying him. Yeah, it was. Because maggots only ate dead flesh, and Blair was….

Maybe he could do some damage control. He walked over and knocked on Blair's door. "Hey, buddy, dinner will be ready in a minute, okay?"

"I'm not hungry," came the sulky reply.

"Sure you are, Chief. It's stir-fry, just the way you like it. Cooked in water, not oil."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. And don't worry about the tire. I'm off tomorrow. I'll take it in and if there's a problem, I'll flash my badge and make sure it's taken care of. Don't worry. I won't let anyone take advantage of my partner."

The door opened and Blair walked out, smiling. "Dinner smells good, Jim. So how'd it go with the robbery case?"

If Jim thought Blair's quick turnaround was strange, he didn't mention it as he filled his roommate in on the day's events. When Blair moved to do the dishes, he shook his head, and said he could handle it. When Blair wanted to protest, he handed him the TV Guide and told him to find a comedy. They laughed through the movie and Jim felt confident as he headed to bed.

Two hours later, he was awake.

Dread, instead of stealth, made his movements cautious as he headed down the steps. He'd left his weapon upstairs this time, knowing guns really didn't belong in the hands of the insane. That knowledge added to his unease. Insane people weren't supposed to know they were insane, were they? But he had to be insane. Because if he wasn't....

He opened the doors to Blair's room to the same exact vision. The pudgy white larvae were squeezed in so closely around his bed that when one wriggled it caused a chain reaction and they all squirmed and jiggled as a collective. It should have been funny. It wasn't. He braved a step forward, and his stomach roiled. Their heads were burrowed into Blair's body, red rimming the white as they gorged themselves on his flesh and downed his hot, flowing blood. Jim could smell it. He could almost taste it.

"No," he whispered hoarsely. "Don't do this." With sickening popping sounds, the heads withdrew from their gory banquet, crimson knobs bobbing in his direction. "Go away," Jim said, his voice gaining strength as the disgusting creatures wiggled back from their grisly meal.

"Stop! Leave him alone! Go!" he ordered.

They obeyed, blood coursing down their fat, white forms as they stood completely erect, swaying away from the bed. He took a step toward the futon. In one accord, the vermiform creatures turned--and leaped at him.

Jim screamed.

"Jim, wake up! C'mon, man, I need to know where you're hurt. If you don't wake up in the next thirty seconds, I'm calling the paramedics!"

Jim opened his eyes, the panic beneath the words reaching him even when the words themselves didn't. "S-Sandburg? What is it?"

Blair heaved a giant sigh. "I don't know. You tell me, Jim."

Jim scrambled to sit up. He was in Blair's room. "What--what am I doing here?"

"I can't answer that, man. I woke up and found you on my floor, curled up in a fetal position." He wiped a hand across his face. "You wanna tell me what's going on? Was this another nightmare, like last week's?"

Jim stared unblinkingly at the floor, where he'd fallen under the assault. Their touch had been acidic, burning through his skin to reach the soft, moist organs beneath. His mind flashed back to an incident during his Ranger training: A candidate had lost his bearings in the desert, and although he hadn't been conscious of using his Sentinel abilities, from a distance he'd seen the vulture and the long, thin piece of human intestine dangling from its beak. The image had haunted him throughout the rest of his training.

Quickly, Jim felt his abdomen, looking down to see the flesh unblemished. A dream. Another fucking nightmare. He buried his face in his hands.

"Jim?"

He took a deep breath, but said nothing. How could he tell Blair that he was going crazy and that it was Blair himself who was triggering it? Either Blair would use his power of attorney to have him committed (which could possibly be redundant), or he'd be pissed off, which would bring back the Maggot People. Or he'd think he wasn't doing his job as Guide and leave for the Sentinel's sake. And Jim definitely didn't want that.

"Jim? You gonna talk to me?"

"I'm supposed to take your car to the garage, right? Just take my truck to school, and I'll exchange vehicles when I'm done."

"Take the-- You're gonna let me drive the truck? Without you in it?"

Jim ignored him, climbing to his feet. "Probably needs gas. Grab the twenty from the table downstairs. I'm going to bed."

"Jim?"

"Yeah, Sandburg?"

"Whatever's wrong, ignoring it won't make it better."

"I know."

"It's probably just going to get worse."

"Probably."

Blair sighed. "Go on up to bed. I'll try to be quiet while I get ready."

Jim nodded and turned to walk away. "Chief," he called as he passed through the doorway. "Have a good day. I really mean that."

*****

Blair had several good days, and as a result, Jim had several good nights. On Monday, Blair accompanied him to the station, and if the Sentinel noticed that there seemed to be more bickering between officers than usual, or that suspects were more prone to violence, he didn't dwell on it. After all, Blair was keeping his cool and that was his main concern. When he returned from Records, he found Blair in a heated discussion with Brown. Jim didn't have to fake the paleness, or force the cold sweat that emerged from his pores. He leaned heavily against a nearby desk and called to his Guide. Blair's anger dampened immediately. He took his Sentinel home, scolded him gently for allowing the headache to get so out of control, but cared for him in the gruffly indulgent manner Jim was used to.

But the damage had already been done. With sickening familiarity, Jim found himself awake at a quarter to two. He thought about staying in his bed, but couldn't tolerate the thought of leaving his partner alone with the grub worms from Hell. Not even bothering with stealth, he walked into the small room beneath his and offered himself up. Some would call him a martyr, but he knew the gesture for what it was. Growing up in the Ellison household had taught him the wisdom of accepting punishment in a timely manner.

The pain was even more intense than before.

"This has to stop, Jim," Blair said as he knelt beside Jim's sprawled form the next morning.

"I keep telling the nurses to up the medication, but it doesn't seem to be working. You know me and meds, Chief," Jim said wearily, not even bothering to open his eyes.

"Medication? You've been to a doctor about this, Jim? You should have told me, you asshole! Goddamn it, Jim, you know you just can't take any medicine some pill-happy quack prescribes. Serves you right if--"

Jim winced while Blair ranted. At this rate, he might as well not get up. Maybe the maggots would just bypass Sandburg altogether and head straight for him. He was tired of being like Meals On Wheels anyway, hauling his ass down the stairs every time to feed them.

"Jim? You better not be zoning on me, you shit."

"I'm here, Chief."

"What meds are you taking?"

"I dunno. What's the standard asylum cocktail these days?"

"Asylum? You're not in an asylum, Jim."

Jim nodded. "It's where they sent me after you died."

"Open your eyes." Jim obeyed. "I'm not dead, man." He pinched Jim's forearm savagely.

Jim rubbed at the spot. "Fine. Maybe you're not dead. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm insane."

"Get up," Blair ordered sharply. "I'm not going to have this discussion on the floor. Coffee's a good idea, too. I'm probably gonna need it to choke down the load of bullshit you're gonna feed me."

"It's not bullshit; it's insanity."

"You're not insane."

"Maggots are eating you."

"Shit. Sit on the sofa while I get the coffee started." Minutes later, Blair sat on the loveseat. "Are maggots eating me now, Jim?"

"No. Just at night after you've gotten angry."

"Okay. I get angry and then you dream about me covered in maggots? Is that why you think I'm dead?"

"Maggots eat dead things."

"Am I dead when you see the maggots?"

Jim shook his head. "You're moaning. I can hear your heart beating. I can hear their hearts, too."

"Are they all over me, or just aggregated in one spot? What I'm getting at is that maybe there's some special part of me you want dead--"

"I don't want any part of you dead!"

Blair got up and headed for the kitchen. "Stay with me, Jim. I'm just trying to sort all of this out. I get angry--"

"Not just angry. You fly into a rage."

Blair slammed two mugs on the coffee table, ignoring the hot liquid that sloshed out. "I have never been in a rage in my life, man. Not even when you were climbing that bitch Alex!"

Jim flinched and folded his body into a corner of the sofa, wondering if he'd have the courage to face the maggots bravely later, or if he'd cringe in the doorway. Or try to hide in the shadows.

"How does it happen? You go to sleep and wake up to find me in front of you--"

"No. I wake up in bed. I hear them in your room. I head down the stairs."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"If you know it's a dream, why do you bother coming downstairs? Wouldn't it be easier to just stay in your bed?"

"I can't."

"You can't what?"

"I can't lie in my bed listening to them gnaw on you."

"Actually, they're not exactly gnawing, Jim. Unless they have some teeth you forgot to mention."

Sky blue eyes flashed impatiently. "Thanks for letting me share, Chief. Now it's time to get our butts to work." Jim started up off the sofa.

Blair reached out an arm to stop him. "I didn't mean to sound flip, but this is an awful lot to take in one sitting, man. Tell me the rest. You go down to my room and I'm what? Lying in bed and these things are swarming over me?"

"Uh. They aren't really swarming. They're big."

"How big?"

"Human-sized. My height or better."

"So, what you're telling me is that we're talking about Simon-sized maggots? What kind of goddamn mindfuck are you trying to pull on me, you jerk?"

Jim tried to pick up the mug, but his hand trembled too much. Instead, he crossed his arms and wondered if he was in restraints or just a padded cell where he could beat himself up to his heart's content. "I'm not playing a game, Chief. I could do without the stiffness of sleeping on the floor."

"Okay. I don't think you're insane, at least not in the clinical sense. I think you're reacting to some kind of trauma, and once that is dealt with, the nightmares will go away. But first we have to pinpoint the trauma."

"That's simple: you died."

A sigh. "I'm not dead, Jim."

An unconvinced shrug. "But you were. The paramedics packed up their equipment and walked away. Then I touched you and--"

"And the wolf and the jaguar merged. I was there. I'm the one who wanted to talk about it at the hospital, remember?" Blair said dryly.

"I didn't want to look the gift horse in the mouth."

"You thought talking about it would jinx it?"

"I thought it might return my sanity, and I would have to give up the wonderful dream of you being alive."

Blair shook his head in frustration. "Am I going to have to pinch you again?"

Jim unconsciously edged away. "You have to look at it from my point of view, Chief. Either you're dead and I'm insane, or...or I resurrected you."

"Resur-- You aren't having delusions of godhood, are you?"

A scoffing laugh. "God, no--no pun intended. There have been a select few non-gods who have raised the dead. Just go down to the video store and find the section for 'B' movies."

"Jim--"

"If I brought you back, Blair, then I'm an even bigger freak that my dad thought."

"Shit, man. No wonder you're experiencing scenes from 'The Night Of The Living Dead.' You're being way too hard on yourself. What you did was spiritual, not freakish. Do you know how many people crave the gift you have?"

"Then let them have it, Chief. Find some kind of way of taking it away from me, and I will be your personal slave until I die."

"I--I can't, Jim. It's a part of who you are. Just like being a cop or being the Sentinel. I can't manipulate the spiritual plane."

"Why not? You're a shaman, right? Do your mumbo-jumbo and get me off this fucking path!"

"As a shaman, it's my job to put you on the right path, Jim, and I think you're already there. Just stop fighting it."

"Easy for you to say."

Blair's lips thinned bitterly. "Yes, it is. Because if you weren't on that path, I'd be dead right now. So forgive me for being fucking grateful for your path." He stood suddenly, and stalked off to the bathroom.

Jim slumped back against the couch and wondered if it was all right for insane people to suck their thumbs.

*****

Jim stood formally before the captain's desk. "I need some time off."

"No."

"No?"

"No."

"But, Simon, I'm having trouble with--"

"Something Sentinel-related, no doubt. It's always something, isn't, Jim? You know how many reports I've had to fucking lie on just to cover your weird ass? Let me tell you something: your maintenance is about to outweigh your value. What is it this time? Another criminal you want to drop your pants for? A government agency wanting to bag your ass? No, wait. Let me guess. You need the time to kick your roommate out again, 'cause some bitch is playing with your head, right? Not only do you get the kid killed, but you got even goddamned weirder, getting vibes from objects and shit. 'Well, gee, Captain, from touching the corpse, I can tell that Barnes killed him approximately six hours ago by breaking his neck as they fucked."

"Kissed. They kissed, not fucked."

"I guess when it comes to Alex Barnes, you'd certainly know the difference, wouldn't you? Maybe you should have let her open that canister in that temple. I certainly wouldn't be having this headache right now."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Blair yelled, coming through the door. "Don't you talk to Jim like that!"

"Oh, shut the hell up, you little fuck. If you don't want to hear the truth, stop eavesdropping."

"I wasn't eavesdropping. You're just fucking loud, you overgrown--"

"You better watch your mouth!"

"Or what?"

"Stop it!" Jim screamed. It was bad enough watching Blair get eaten by the big larvae. Watching his friends tear into each other was worse.

"I'll get to you later, mister," Blair said, waggling his finger in Jim's face. "What the hell is this shit about you being a psychometrist? When did you learn that trick and why did you keep it from me? How many fucking times do I have to tell you--"

"Look who's yelling now," Simon said with a harsh laugh.

When Blair turned to curse at the captain, Jim walked out the door. Everyone in the bullpen was arguing. Detectives, witnesses, suspects-all were shouting and screaming at each other. He sent his hearing through the building: there was fighting on every floor.

Boy, they had really screwed up the medication this time.

Jim sank to his knees and dropped his head, hoping the episode would be over soon.

The taint spreads.

The calm voice in the midst of the angry cacophony quickly grabbed his attention.

"What?"

It has flowed from the source to those with whom he's been in contact. See?

The television in the break room popped on. A reporter was talking about outbreaks of violence on the campus of Rainier University. "Sandburg is the source?"

Surely you realize his rage has been unnatural?

"Yes, but I thought maybe it was because he was still mad at me for letting him be killed."

It was the killing which brought this darkness into your realm.

"Who are you? How do you know this? And where the hell are you?" Jim asked, his head swiveling as he tried to find the speaker.

Do you wish to see Us?

"Yeah. That would be helpful."

Everything around him suddenly froze. Jim shivered. He really hated it when things like that happened. A light flickered in the center of the room, and grew from a small flame into a barely contained conflagration. "That you?" he asked hollowly.

This is Us. As for how the darkness is recognized, open Your eyes and see it, too.

Since Jim's eyes were already open, he figured the speaking fire (no, he wasn't about to make a comparison to a certain burning bush) meant that he was to really open his eyes, so he focused. Dark lines appeared on the floor, running into everyone in the room. Every line tracked back to Blair.

Jim knelt before Blair and pulled up his pants leg. Just below the sock line, was a tinge of black. When he moved the sock out of the way, he saw what appeared to be a weird ornamental tattoo on Blair's ankle. "Some kind of tribal magic?"

Evil. Collected from the souls of the dead.

"And I can see it because I'm a Sentinel?"

What is a Sentinel?

Jim took a deep breath. No wonder I wouldn't go in the water with Blair. I was already in over my head. "Why can I see you?"

You are the Avatar. You will join with Us, and We will destroy this threat.

What had Blair said about delusions of godhood? "I never realized I thought so much of myself. Scary how self-delusional I've been."

Explain this to Us?

"Never mind. Let's join so We can get this over with."

It will be painful.

"The joining?" Not only self-delusional, but masochistic as well. Way to go, Ellison.

The flame is Us. You are flesh.

Yep. Sounded painful to him. "Is there any other way to save my friends?" My Guide?

No. The taint will soon spread throughout the city and onward.

"Will I die?"

Perhaps. But it will be a death You will survive.

"So what are you waiting for? You have my permission to do whatever is necessary."

The Avatar must walk into the flame. Only then will the sacrifice be clearly Yours.

Jim climbed to his feet. The Sentinel made him jump off a cliff. Now the Avatar, whoever or whatever the hell he was, wanted him to walk through fire. He hoped there was morphine in that cocktail dripping into his veins. If not, walking into those flames was going to hurt like a bitch. Never the easy way, right, Ellison? Never around the mountain, but over it. Never across the river, but through it. Never the Interstate, but some fucking, plant overrun, jungle path with cryptic mumbo-jumbo written in leaves rather than road signs. Accept it, boy. You're in a rut.

He knew the fire was hot long before he was close enough to touch it. He'd held out a faint hope that it wasn't real fire, but some kind of optical illusion or a special effect. He started to stick a finger inside the inferno, to see if he'd burn. Then he realized that if he did burn, he'd never get up enough nerve to complete the sacrifice. So, with a fatalistic shrug, he took a huge step forward--

And found himself engulfed in flame, in pain, in sensations so profound that he screamed, a long anguished wail that started in his physical being, moved past his soul, and ended up somewhere in the realm of mental hell. Through it all he remained conscious, fully aware of his searing flesh, the hiss of his blood as it was bared to the elements and boiled away, the stench as his guts were cooked from the inside out, the salty taste of his tongue swelling until it pushed his teeth apart and unseated his jaw. Finally, there was the sight of a blackened skeleton, all that remained of him as the fire settled into his bones. Jim Ellison existed no more. He was completely burned away, and even the skeleton eventually turned to ash and scattered to the four corners of whatever universe he'd been borne to.

For a long moment, he wept for the man who'd been subsumed by the fire, the boy who'd been lost long before then. In the instance of his tears, a gust of wind stirred the handful of ashes, revealing a tiny, hidden spark. The spark glowed weakly, seeming to sputter out before it brightened enough to be seen again. A gentle breeze came and fanned it into a small but respectable flame. As it grew in height and breadth, it began to take on a faintly man-shaped form. Darkness inside the light showed the creation of a skeletal system, followed by blood and flesh, and finally skin. As the skin thickened, the fire was hidden from view, but even as the new Jim Ellison breathed his first breath, he felt the fire within stir and breathe with him.

"That was special," he said dryly, wanting to test the theory that he was alive once more.

It is no longer just Us and You. We now exist.

"Tell me how to save my friends."

Summon the Darkness to You, and We will destroy it.

"How?"

It feeds on anger. You have an abundance of it.

"Is that a problem?" Jim knew that Blair's rages were nothing compared to what he was capable of if he removed the dams he had around the rivers of hurt that coursed the heights and depths of his soul.

The rage makes You attractive to the Darkness. We can find many uses for it.

"I've worked Vice. Don't think I don't know what you're saying. You want me to 'strut my stuff' and see what bites, right?"

Your words are foreign to Us, but We seem to understand. Strut it, Avatar.

Jim rolled his eyes, and lowered the barriers around his rage. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't had it, when it hadn't been a part of who he was. He focused on his mother, who had abandoned him; his father, who had urged him to be "normal;" his brother, who had betrayed him; and all the other betrayals over the years. Suddenly, he was seeing things from two perspectives. One part of him was only capable of seeing a red haze, stemming from his anger. The other part was seeing himself from a distance. The black lines which had connected his friends began to undulate and switch course. The red haze version of him felt the first brush of the black tendrils as they entered through his feet and wound around his ankles and legs. The distant view showed him being covered in the corded black goo, as if he'd stepped into a tar pit and was sinking. It went past his hips, his stomach, his chest and neck. The red haze dimmed and disappeared as his head was covered. Now only one perspective remained. That part of him watched as the black stuff hardened to a solid coating around the living body. Cracks appeared in various places, and from the cracks licks of flame, which set the coating afire. The shell burned away.

Jim blinked as he suddenly saw from his normal perspective again. Acting as an avatar was definitely a rush--which sounded like something Blair might say. Blair! He quickly scanned his partner from head to toe. There were no lines running into his body. "He's safe?"

Yes.

"No more of these rage spikes, and he's off the maggot menu?"

Yes.

"And me and you--I mean, Us and You--I mean, We go back to being You and Us?"

We will discuss that later.

"What the hell does that--"

"Jim? You with me? Just hold on, okay?"

Blair stared down at him, his eyes dark with concern.

"Chief?"

He felt himself being rocked. "Just hold on, Jim. The ambulance is on its way."

Ambulance? "Somebody hurt?" His heart skipped a beat. "You?"

"I'm fine, Jim. You will be, too. Okay?"

Jim nodded. He was still confused, but his questions only seemed to agitate Blair more. "Okay, Chief. Whatever you say."

"That's right, man," Blair whispered, and Jim felt a hand brush across his forehead. "Whatever I say."

*****

Jim woke to the all-too-familiar sound of a heart monitor. He opened his eyes and saw exactly what he expected to see: a standard hospital room and Blair sleeping in the chair next to his bed. It was nice that there were constants in whatever realities he chose to visit. But he still couldn't figure out why he was in the hospital. A quick check revealed no gunshot wounds, no concussion-sized ache in his head, not even a hangnail. Guess it was time for answers.

"Sandburg?"

Blair woke immediately. A relieved smile graced the lightly bearded face. "Hey, man. You're awake."

"Yeah. Was there some doubt about that?"

"With Round-The-World there was a chance you wouldn't wake at all."

"Round-The-World?"

"A new designer drug. It takes you on quite a trip, hence the name. The L.A. cops have been running into it for the past few months. We didn't know it had hit Cascade."

"I--I was on a case?" Funny. He didn't remember a case. What did he remember? Fat, white worms and fire. Damn. Where was amnesia when you needed it?

"No, you were exposed in the bullpen. Can't believe that son of a bitch had been in and out of the station for the past two weeks with the stuff on him. What an idiot."

Jim fumbled with the buttons until the head of the bed rose. "What idiot?" Okay. He didn't have amnesia, but apparently he was missing part of the story.

"Martin Hubert. New in Maintenance. He also had another job--supplying samples of Round-The-World to the local distributors. According to him, his connection suggested he take the job at the station as a good cover. Unfortunately, his connection didn't tell him he shouldn't bring the product to work with him just because 'it was convenient'. After we found the drugs, it was easy to piece together what must have happened."

"Huh?"

"Jim, it was the R-T-W that caused your nightmares and hallucinations. Hubert had the stuff in his shoes, man. Every time he walked by your desk, or you walked where he'd walked, your senses picked it up. It just kept building up in your system."

"Is that why everyone was angry?"

Blair smiled sympathetically. "No one was angry, Jim. Your perception was altered. As I said, the drug built up in you and you nearly overdosed. When you collapsed and kept clawing at my foot, you pointed us in the right direction. Simon had everyone take off their shoes, then they were searched and the R-T-W was discovered. Your collapse was a good thing; another day of exposure might have killed you. But it's all out of your system now. Not even a trace of it showed up in your last blood work. You're okay, and--and you can stop sleeping on my floor now." He grinned.

"Sorry about the meltdown at the station," Jim mumbled, still trying to understand what Blair was telling him. Everything--the maggots, the rages, the fire--it was all because he was stoned? It had seemed so real.

Blair paled. "Funny you should use that word, man. You kept screaming that you were being burned alive. That's a sound that's going to give me nightmares for a few weeks. And let me tell you, it's no fun having your best friend think you're dead and only exist in a dreamworld brought on by psychiatric drugs. Hmm. Maybe your consciousness was trying to key you to the fact that it was a drug...."

Jim closed his eyes, and swore he could still feel the flames smouldering in his bones. He looked closely at his hand, his sight slipping through the skin, the flesh, the bone, to the burning marrow.

This is his normal state?

"He only goes on like this when he's nervous. Or tired. Or excited."

You know him well.

"Yes. This isn't an hallucination, is it?"

What do You think?

"Shouldn't that be, 'What do We think'?"

Ah, You do remember Us. That is good, Avatar.

"The darkness is gone?"

Defeated--for the day.

Jim shivered, not liking the tone. "What does that mean?"

It has been shown the way. It will come again.

"Not through Sandburg?"

He is now a portal, an avatar in his own right. They will want to join with him.

Damn. This was all his fault. Blair had died because of him, and now he was this convenient vessel for every dark thing wanting to play in the light. "What can be done to stop this?"

We must guard him carefully.

"We? I thought I'd just step out of the fire and--" He stopped, realizing that there was no easy way out of being the Avatar. The flames, just like the senses, were now a part of him. Fuck. What had he gotten himself into? A way of getting Blair out of the hell he'd led his Guide into, that's what. Just another form of sackcloth and ashes. Was there never anything new in the life of Jim Ellison? "You suckered me, didn't you?"

Suckered you?

"Used me, knowing that once I allowed the flame inside I was stuck being your Avatar."

We fit. You are strong of heart, of character, of mind. You are the perfect Avatar for Us. Do You not feel the rightness that We are? You were already fighting the Darkness, and the fight is important to Us too. Why shouldn't separate fights be conjoined when it is clear that We are stronger than You and Us alone?

Jim sighed. He might as well stop bitching. It wasn't like he walked into this with his eyes closed. And it wasn't like he wouldn't have done the same even if he'd known it was permanent. "We can save him, right?"

We can Watch. We can Ward. But the evil will keep coming, keep seeking. We will have to stay diligent. And there may be times when we have to sacrifice.

"Not him. I will never sacrifice him. Understood?"

We cannot feel pain. Only You.

Jim shrugged. It was fitting.

"Jim? Shit, man. Don't do that again."

Jim flicked his eyes to Blair, surprised to see the faint trail of tears on his face. "What happened?"

"You had a flashback. One minute you were listening to me and the next you were conversing in some unknown language. The doctor said it was gibberish, but it was the same thing you were speaking in the bullpen, man. And your temperature shot off the scale. We--we lost your heartbeat for a minute. But it's okay, now. You're tired. Sleep, man. I'll be here when you wake up."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Jim smiled. Blair would be there, dead or alive, and the Avatar would be there to make sure Dead Blair, or even Alive Blair, didn't become an avatar himself because if Blair ever became evil, everyone would expect Jim to stop him...and Jim knew in his heart that he couldn't do that. He couldn't, wouldn't, kill Blair again. But that was a decision he wasn't going to have to make.

After all, they'd finally gotten his meds just right.

THE END

Comments? D.L. Witherspoon