I shouldn't have been cruising those TV and Movie Theme sites. Do you remember The Greatest American Hero? I do. I have always loved Robert Culp. I remember him from I Spy, and he is still a favorite of mine. Well, seeing the video of the opening sequence reminded me of him. Sigh. So, this is a crossover with that show. I can't imagine what possessed me to do this. It should be an X-Files crossover, as well, but since I'm not much into that show, it isn't. But it would make a good one. I do mention that series, however.
Lila? Sorry, this one wanted to be written before I did a TS/Hunter/The District crossover. Yeah, guess who's going to be related... heh, heh, heh (I think I bring a somewhat cockeyed and different meaning to the term 'relationship'... but it's fun).
As always, the disclaimers are still the same. The characters of The Sentinel and The Greatest American Hero are not mine. I am grateful to their creators and the actors who brought them to life. I'm also grateful that the owners of these intellectual properties are kind enough not to sue me for their use, as I make no monetary gain from these things, only an occasional kind LoC from a nice person who reads it.
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When the quake hit, they were far into the mountains, heading for a remote cabin one of Blair's friends owned. Lucky for them, the slide the shaking caused blocked the road behind them, and didn't bury them. They were off for a week, so they continued to the cabin, just a few miles further on. Jim planned to dig the road clear later in the week.
Once they had unloaded the truck and settled into the cabin, Jim went out to chop some wood. The weather was nice during the day but night would bring low, near freezing temperatures, with chances of rain, or even snow. Blair set about cleaning up the cabin, dusting and washing the table, sink, stove, and bathroom. Once everything was set, it was still only early afternoon. They had felt a few mild aftershocks, but nothing too fearsome. They discussed what to do for the rest of the day, and Jim suggested a hike. There were no streams nearby to go fishing, so they quickly agreed that a hike was a good idea, besides, they might find something interesting brought about because of the earthquake.
An hour and a half later, as they were heading back to the cabin, Jim suddenly stopped, a frown of confusion on his face.
"What is it, Jim?"
"Can you smell that, Chief?"
Blair sighed. "No, Jim. You're the sentinel, remember? I can't smell anything but the forest. What do you smell?"
"Sewage." Jim looked around, trying to pinpoint the location.
"Sewage? Way up here? You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. This way." Jim followed his nose, leading the way to an old shack. Frowning, Jim peered through what had been the doorway. "Not here, but close." He turned towards his partner, only to see him abruptly disappear.
Blair had started to circle the shack. When the ground gave way beneath him, he yelled in surprised terror.
"Blair!" Jim shouted, rushing to the spot Blair had disappeared. "Sandburg? You all right?"
Blair was shaken, but had landed only a few feet down. He had fallen to his hands and knees. When he looked up, he yelped in shock and horror. "Oh, man. Jim! There's a body down here!" He was afraid to look any closer. The body was hog-tied, his hands behind his back, his feet hooked through the chain of the cuffs, and a piece of rope going from the tied feet to around the body's neck. It, he, was naked except for a pair of briefs, and it was fairly obvious that he'd voided himself. Gagging at the greenish mottling of the body, he scrambled back.
"What?" Jim called down in surprise. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, man. I've seen enough of them to recognize a dead man when I see him. He's, uh, kind of green..."
Jim frowned. "Here, give me your hand and let me take a look." Blair started to stand up when he heard a sound. Looking at the body, he realized that the sound had come from... he scrambled closer and gingerly reached out a finger to touch the body. It was chill to the touch, but not 'dead' chilled. More like someone with hypothermia. The sound turned out to be a shallow breath.
"Jim? He's alive." Blair scrambled back to the opening and stood, reaching up for Jim to pull him out.
"What?" Jim reached down and lifted Blair from the hole. "You sure?"
"Yeah, he's breathing, but only barely. Do you have a cuffs key with you?"
"Of course." Jim peered into the hole, adjusting quickly to the dimness. As soon as he saw the man, he jumped down and pulled his keys from his pocket. He turned back for a moment and said, "Give me your knife, Chief, so I can cut him loose. If I take the cuffs of first, he'll hang." Blair pulled his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket and handed it over. Jim crouched down and crawled over to the man. He looked him over, gently probing to check for injuries. The mottled bruising was fairly old, most of it. It had been long enough that some of the bruises had turned a yellowish green; other bruises were more recent. He couldn't see a single spot on the man's body that wasn't marred by bruising. Whoever had done this had been very thorough. He noticed that the man's left shoulder was dislocated and figured he'd done it to himself in getting his feet hooked beneath the handcuff's chain. His wrists were bloody and his hands were swollen, hopefully, the circulation hadn't been totally cut off, or the man would lose both hands. The rope was tight across his neck, despite the bit of slack from the feet hooked through the handcuffs. The man's head was turned towards Jim, and he noticed that there was a rock beneath his left cheek, supporting his jaw, probably the only thing that had kept him alive. The rope had chaffed the skin from the man's neck, just as it had from his ankles.
Jim made his observations in an instant, then opened Blair's knife and, holding the rope to prevent any more pressure being applied, cut the rope. He lay the knife aside for a moment as he pulled his keys from his pocket. Looking at the cuffs, he selected one of the three handcuff keys and opened them. He held the man's feet to keep them from simply flopping to the ground. He gently lowered the man's feet to the ground, forcing a gasp from the unconscious victim.
"Jim?" Blair called down, "What's going on?"
"I cut him loose. He's been beaten pretty systematically over a period of time. Some of these bruises are weeks old. He's got a dislocated shoulder, but I don't think he's got any broken bones." He ran his hands over the body again, searching for injuries. He grimaced in distaste, realizing the man had been in this hole long enough to have voided himself, then thought that it was the only source of warmth the poor guy had. He noticed there was running water in here, as well. If the man didn't mind cutting his throat, he could just barely reach the tiny trickle of water that flowed beside him. Jim cut the ropes from the man, careful to preserve the knots. When he was finished, he decided to cut the man's briefs from him. They were too soiled for him to want to carry him in them. When he was ready, he handed Blair's knife back to him, along with the cuffs and rope. He then dragged the unconscious man to the opening and lifted him out, gently laying him on the edge of the hole. Jim then jumped out and knelt beside the still unconscious man.
"Oh, man. He looks awful," Blair declared.
"Yeah, he does. I'm going to go ahead and pop his shoulder back into place." He suited action to words; standing, he took the slack arm in both hands, with one foot bracing against the man's body, he lifted and twisted slightly and was pleased with the cracking noise as the joint slipped back into place. Blair winced in sympathy, glad the man was unconscious.
"Now, what, Jim?" Blair asked.
"He's hypothermic, dehydrated, and all in all, in pretty rough shape. Let's get him to the cabin and get a better look at him... after we clean him up and get him warm, we'll see if we need a medivac."
"You sure we shouldn't just call for one, just because?"
Jim shook his head. "There's something pretty hinky about all this. I don't like it. We're only about forty miles from town, who is this guy, and why wasn't he listed as a missing person, or why wasn't there a report of a kidnapping?" Jim looked at the unconscious man and made a few observations. "Look at him, he's about sixty, good shape, his haircut, although grown out, was military at one time. Fed, maybe." Jim shook his head. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
Blair frowned, "Spidey senses tingling, Jim?"
"Something like that." Jim frowned and shook his head. "Well, he's not getting any warmer out here. Let's go, Chief." Jim sat the victim up and got his shoulder in the unconscious man's middle, then lifted him, carrying him like a sack of grain. Blair kept ahead of them, holding branches back and assisting by offering a hand for balance over the rocks. They'd hiked cross- country, making a big circle, and Jim was careful not to make any more of a trail than was already there. Glancing back, Jim knew that only another sentinel could follow them.
When they got back to the cabin, Jim set his burden down on the porch. Blair looked at him, questioning. Jim explained, "I'd like to try and at least hose him off before taking him inside. I'll take care of that while you go run a hot tub of water, okay?"
"Got it. You sure you don't need any help?"
"No. I'm just glad this place has a big propane tank and that windmill for keeping the water tank filled." Jim got the hose from beside the cabin and rinsed the worst of the filth from the man, then carried him in and settled him gently into the tub of warm water. Blair started some soup while Jim bathed their unexpected guest. Jim was careful in his handling of the injured man. Cleaning the wounds, he was pleased that the man's hands had returned to normal size. They were pink and looked to be relatively undamaged, save for the bloody bruises at the wrists. The joints might have some damage, but Jim was fairly certain that that was the least of their worries. The crusted scar on the man's throat was much more worrisome, as were the broken nose and the previously dislocated shoulder. He bathed the man once, then drained the water and replaced it with warmer water, using the bath to counteract the hypothermia. Jim felt that the man had probably been in that hole for upwards of a week, no doubt left to die. It had been only the greatest of luck that he'd been found. He hoped the man regained consciousness soon. As he washed the man's hair a second time, he called for Blair to bring him a pair of scissors. He trimmed the man's beard, then shaved him. He'd leave him with his longish hair, though, at least for now.
Finished, Jim deftly dried the now warm man and carried him into the bedroom. Blair, in anticipation, had drawn the covers back on one of the beds. Jim grinned and lay the man down. He left him uncovered for a few minutes while he gathered the supplies he needed to tend to the man's injuries. He was gentle as he dressed the wounds. As a precaution, he immobilized the injured shoulder. When he was finished, he drew the sheet and blankets up over the still unresponsive man. In one way, he was glad the poor guy was still out, but he'd hoped that being warm would have brought him around.
Blair looked up as Jim came out of the bedroom. "How's he look?"
"Like hell. Whoever it was who did that to him knew exactly what they were doing. There are no broken bones, except for the nose, and it's practcally healed. The dislocated shoulder he did to himself, but the only other option was to hang on the noose around his neck. I guess his will to live wouldn't let him take the easy way out." Jim poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was simmering on one burner.
"Do we need to call medivac?" Blair was chopping up vegetables to go into their soup.
Jim shrugged. "I'd feel better if he'd come to, but other than that, I don't believe so. I'm going to call Simon and see if he's heard anything about a missing/kidnapped man."
"Good idea, man."
The call answered none of their questions. There was a heavy snowstorm supposed to arrive that night, and with the road blocked by the landslide, their only way out would be by helicopter, if there had been any safe landing site nearby.
"What did Simon say?"
"Nothing on a missing sixty-year-old man." Jim shook his head. "This has all my alarms going off, Chief. I think I'm going to go down the road and see about clearing the slide enough for us to get out."
"What about that storm that's supposed to be coming?"
"I'd rather brave that, than his 'friends' coming looking for him."
"Oh, yeah. I'm like, all over that." Blair dumped the last of his vegetables into the pot. Wiping his hands on a towel, he turned to his friend. "Dinner will be edible in about an hour. You want to try and wake him up?"
Jim shook his head. "No. He may just be exhausted, as well as everything else. He's obviously not been eating very regularly for a while."
"How far back did you ask Simon to look?"
"Maybe he's been missing longer, like a year?"
"We can guess forever, Chief, but until he wakes up and tells us something, we're kind of stuck."
"Yeah, I suppose." Blair agreed reluctantly. "I think I'll go watch him sleep for a while."
Jim smiled. "Let me know if he starts to wake up. I'm going to go take another look around that place, make sure we didn't leave enough sign to be followed here, then I'll work on clearing the way out."
"Good idea, man."
He was dreaming again. Of that time Ralphie had made him take a nap because he was sick and hadn't been able to sleep in over a week. Even in his dreams, though, the memories came back, of the pain, of watching his best friend and partner being tortured; that was so much worse than what they'd done to him. He wasn't important. Ralphie was the important one. He was the one with the special... no, don't even think of that, he warned himself. Thinking about it was one step closer to giving up the information and he'd promised. Maybe he'd managed to save Ralph, by that last trick. If Ralph had managed to escape, then it was all worth it. He moaned, this dream was still nice, despite his mental anguish. Sure, he hurt, but he was warm for the first time in what seemed like forever. His shoulder ached, as did his throat, wrists and ankles. But the warmth, had he...?
He realized he was on his back, no longer restrained, well, his left arm was, but still... He was careful to try not to let anyone know he'd regained consciousness. He heard someone humming and moving around, then he thought he smelled... coffee? He couldn't suppress the groan. It seemed like forever since he'd last had a cup of coffee. Having made a sound, he gave up and opened his eyes. He found himself in a rustic looking cabin. He was in a bed, tucked warmly beneath heavy blankets. He was afraid to try and move, so he just let his eyes roam, taking in what minimal information he could. Satisfied that he was alone, he cautiously moved his right hand, feeling to see what restrained his left arm. He was surprised to feel fabric... and as he checked his left shoulder, he realized the dislocation had been repaired. That explained why the arm was immobilized. This was hardly a hospital, though. He felt his throat and was not particularly surprised to discover that his wounds had been tended. He couldn't figure out how anyone could have found him... maybe this was a new torture? Make him think he'd been rescued? He'd have to be careful. Don't trust anyone. Ever.
He heard a sound and his eyes swung towards it. There in the doorway, stood a short, youngish-looking man with dark curly hair. The young man saw that his eyes were open and smiled.
Blair, seeing that their guest was awake, smiled what he hoped was a reassuring grin. "Hey, welcome back to the land of the living." He saw the man's mistrust and didn't approach just yet. "Uh, I've got some soup cooking. I'll bring you some as soon as it's done, okay? Meanwhile, do you think you could drink something? My partner figured you were probably pretty dehydrated. Do you think you could swallow some juice?"
He looked at the kid, he had to be younger than Ralphie. He frowned, trying to understand. He didn't quite believe that this was real. "Coffee?" he wasn't at all surprised when it came out a hoarse whisper.
Blair grinned. "I don't think that's a very good idea just yet. How about some apple juice?" The man nodded, still frowning uncertainly. Blair turned away to get the juice. Returning, he approached and offered the glass, fitted with a straw, so their guest wouldn't have to strain himself.
He accepted the offer. The kid held the glass for him, apparently realizing that he couldn't really hold it by himself. The first tiny sip flooded his mouth with sweetness and he nearly cried, it was such a change from what he was used to. He managed to take several sips, before his emotions got the better of him and the tears flowed silently from his eyes. The young man didn't seem too upset and simply got a tissue and wiped his face.
"It's okay. I understand. Try to drink just a little more." He held the glass and smiled when the man managed to drink it all. "Good. I'll be back in a while with some broth. If you manage to keep that down, we'll try something a little more solid." He felt the man's head, pleased that they seemed to have beaten the hypothermia. Now all they needed was for him to be able keep from developing a fever...
"Who... you?" the harsh, broken voice of the stranger asked.
"Blair Sandburg. We found you while hiking, earlier today." Seeing the man's frown, he tried to explain, "I, uh stepped on a weak spot over the cave you were in. There was an earthquake earlier today. It wasn't a very big one, but there have been a few aftershocks. We were taking a look around. We found this old shack and, like I said, I fell into your cave. You're name isn't Merlin, by any chance, is it?"
The man frowned in confusion. Blair tried to explain.
"You know, the Crystal Cave? Where Merlin was trapped?" Seeing that the man was still confused, Blair shook his head. "Never mind. Oblique reference. So, what's your name?"
The man looked at him for a long moment. Then, "Bill. Max... well." He had to take a breath for each tortured syllable.
"Hey, Bill, it's nice to meet you. Do you know who took you?" He wasn't surprised when the man shook his head. "Do you know how long they held you?" Another negative. "What's the last date you remember?"
He frowned. It seemed like forever, but he could remember. "Thanksgiving, 1984." He smiled, it had been the last good thing he could remember.
Blair froze. 1984? That was more than sixteen years ago. No way. "Uh, how old are you, Bill?"
"Forty-eight." He should have retired when he could, at twenty and forty-eight, but he was having such a great time working with.... "Where's Ralph?" It hurt so much to try and talk, but he needed to know.
"Ralph? I have no idea. You were alone when we found you." Blair was wondering how to explain how much time had elapsed since this man was last aware. Heck, Blair had just started his second year of college. Oh, man. But that couldn't be true. This guy wasn't seventy, he looked sixty, and that only because of his injuries. Something wasn't making sense.
"Can you find him?"
"Huh? Oh, Ralph? I guess I could try. What's his last name and what city does he live in?"
The kid seemed confused, why? "It's not 1984 any more, is it?"
"Uh, no. It's not." Blair was impressed that the man... Bill, was so perceptive.
"So, how long have I been gone?"
"It's March," Blair began.
"Four months?" he was surprised, it seemed a lot longer. Then he saw Blair's face, it was more than that. "What year is it?" He dreaded the answer, but had to know.
"Uh, 2000." Blair saw Bill take in the information.
He shook his head. No way. There was no earthly way... oh. He shivered. Yeah, the little green guys could have... "Ralph Hinkley. Glendale, California. His number used to be area code 213, 555-8192."
"Glendale. Uh, I think that's still 213, or it might be 818... or would it be 310? I'll have to check. Let me check the area code." Blair turned to a duffle bag on a chair. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed for information. He saw the look on Bill's face and realized that the man had never seen nor heard of a cell phone. "Uh, it's a portable phone."
"Like a car phone?" Bill was looking at it in interest.
"Better. Runs on batteries." he turned his attention to the phone. "Uh, yeah, I need the area code for Glendale, California. The number, 555-8192. Yes, please. Thank you."
He smiled at the uncertain Bill. "It's ringing. Yes, hello? I'm, uh, looking for a Ralph Hinkley? He is? Yes, thank you." He smiled at Bill and offered the phone to him. "She said she would get him."
He took the phone, it was such a tiny thing. He shook his head, just a bit, in amazement, then placed the phone against his ear. There were a few moments of silence, then a voice came over it.
"Ralphie?" He couldn't believe it. It sounded just like him. He couldn't help it, but started to shiver. "Ralphie, is that really you? You got away okay? They didn't get you?" There was a long silence, then a tentative voice came through.
"Yeah, partner. It's really me!" His voice cracked with the strain of trying to speak.
"Bill! Where are you? Where have you been? Are you all right? Man, what happened?"
Bill couldn't speak any more. He couldn't stop the tears, nor the racking sobs. It was real, he was finally free. Blair gently took the phone from Bill's unresisting fingers. Raising the phone to his ear, he began to talk.
"Mr. Hinkley? Hi, my name is Detective Blair Sandburg, out of Cascade, Washington."
"Where did you find him? He's been gone for so long! Is he okay? He didn't sound okay."
"Well, considering what he's been through, he's doing pretty well." There was a long silence.
"We were taken just after Thanksgiving, 1984. Have they had him all this time?"
"I don't know. We found him earlier today. He'd been left in a cave to die. It was only a miracle that we found him." No way was he going to tell the truth about how they found the long- missing man.
"Can I come up there? I need to see him, you know?"
"Yeah. Look he mentioned you were partners? You a cop?"
"Me? Oh, no. Well, not really. I'd help him, sometimes. It was a.... well, it wasn't your normal sort of FBI partnership. I'm a high school teacher."
Blair blinked. Hmmmm. Interesting. He looked closely at Bill, who had fallen back to sleep, exhausted by just that tiny bit of effort. "Perhaps we can talk about it in a few days when you come up here?"
"Yeah. I can be on the next plane, if I have to."
"Well, give us a couple of days to get back to Cascade."
"Well, my partner and I have this week off. We decided to take up a friend of mine's offer to use his cabin. On our way in, there was an earthquake. It caused a landslide and we're going to have to dig our way out. We went for a hike and I fell into the cave your friend was in. He's pretty beat up. We, well, my partner put his arm back in its shoulder socket. We've cleaned him up and treated his injuries. He had hypothermia and is dehydrated. We're working on that. He's also not had much to eat in a while."
"Can't you call in a helicopter to take him to a hospital?"
"Not really. We've got a big storm coming in tonight and nothing's flying, plus, it'd be hard to find a safe place to land a 'copter. Look let me give you my cell phone number. I've got yours, and I'll call you as soon as we start back to town."
"All right. He's really going to be all right, though, right?"
"Yeah. I think so. He's hurting, and he's got a lot of catching up to do, but he's responding real well. My partner was a medic in the Army, so we can take care of him. All the visible injuries have been tended to as best as we can. Right now, we're concentrating on keeping him warm and getting fluids and nourishment into him."
"Can I talk to him again?"
"I'm sorry, he's fallen back to sleep. But I can have him call you when he wakes up. Would that be okay?"
"Oh, yeah, man. That would be terrific."
"Okay. I don't know how long he'll sleep, but he was unconscious when we found him, about two hours ago. He's been awake about fifteen minutes; just long enough for me to get some juice into him and call you."
"He likes apple juice," Ralph said softly. "And tomato or V8, Virgin Marys?"
"I think I can whip up one of those. Tabasco?"
"We'll take good care of him. Anyway, let me give you my number..."
When Jim returned half an hour later, Blair was stirring the soup.
"Smells good, Chief. Our patient wake up, yet?"
"Yeah. Bill Maxwell, FBI, you had that pegged right. A Fed. Anyway, his last memory is of Thanksgiving, 1984. He remembered the phone number of his partner and I called him. They talked a bit, then Bill kind of fell apart a little and then went back to sleep. Ralph Hinkley will be coming to Cascade as soon as we call him and tell him that we're on our way."
"FBI, huh? How'd his partner take the news?"
Blair looked up at his friend. "About the same way you or I would if it happened to us. From what I figured from what Bill said, they were both grabbed. He did something so his partner could escape."
Jim nodded. Suddenly, he frowned. "1984?"
"Confirmed by Ralph Hinkley, who was and is a civilian high school teacher. I don't know what brought them together, but I got a weird feeling that it might be something like what brought us together."
"You think he might be a sentinel?" Jim stiffened, stretching his internal radar and finding nothing.
Blair shook his head. "No. But there's something. He was pretty concerned about Ralph. He was also terrified that we were just a trick. When he talked to Ralph, he seemed to accept that he's been rescued."
"That's good. What else did you learn?"
"He was forty-eight in 1984."
Jim frowned. "He doesn't look over sixty, even now."
"Yeah. Weird, huh?"
Something smelled wonderful. He hated these dreams. The ones that made him think that maybe 'they' had been nothing more than a nightmare. That maybe the little green guys hadn't... then there was a sound, as well. He opened his eyes to find a stranger looking down at him. He stiffened instantly, in fear.
"Easy. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm Jim Ellison. Sandburg's partner." He took out his badge and ID wallet, showing them to him.
Bill looked hard at the ID, comparing the face with the picture. "They managed to get a good pic of you." He handed the items back, relaxing a bit.
Jim grinned. "Yeah. You should see Sandburg's." The comment got a tiny smile from the injured man. "Do you think you can sit up? Soup's ready."
Food. Bill tried to sit up, but was far too weak. He stiffened a bit as Jim knelt down and reached out to lift him. He made it seem easy. But then, he'd lost an awful lot of weight.
Jim grabbed a sleeping bag from the floor to use as a bolster, packing pillows around it to try to make Bill as comfortable as possible. "Hope you don't mind, but we're going to have to feed you. You don't need to be trying to use that left arm. It's immobilized to try to keep it from popping back out of the socket. We have no idea how long you were there."
"That's okay. Thanks." Bill looked around. "So, besides tiny new telephones, what else have I missed?"
"Computers are smaller, faster, and lots more powerful." He couldn't help grinning at the grimace Bill made at that.
"Great. Just what I need." He looked at Jim. "So, how bad is it?"
Jim didn't try to pretend not to understand. "You were hypothermic when we found you. You know how you were left, right?"
"Yeah, trussed up like a pig for a luau." There was weary bitterness in his voice.
"Yeah. I'm hoping I didn't hurt you any more by carting you here. We found you about two, two and a half miles from here. I'm afraid that the only way I could carry you was over my shoulder..."
Bill shook his head. "Don't apologize. I've got no complaints. I'd have died before much longer."
"Yeah, you would have."
"How did you manage to find me?"
"Pure luck. That's all."
Bill gave a rusty-sounding chuckle. "Hey, good luck, for once." He looked at the door as Blair appeared, carrying a bowl with a spoon in it, steam rising from the hot contents, in one hand, and another glass of apple juice in the other.
"Hey, Bill. Hope you can manage all this. Where do you want to start?"
They took it slow. Blair fed Bill, chattering along and telling him what he'd missed in the past sixteen plus years. Jim would occasionally put in with bits of information, as well. Bill shook his head. He couldn't take it in. When Bill had eaten as much as he felt it safe to, he managed to handle his own glass, although he did have to use the straw. His neck and shoulder were much too sore for him to try much moving around, and he was so weak that he needed help just to sit up. Jim had set the pillows in such a way that Bill could lean his head back without strain. With a full stomach and more juice, he was feeling he could die happy. Then Blair handed him his cell phone and Ralph was on the other end.
This second contact with his partner was just as emotional as the first. Jim and Blair left him with the phone, granting him the privacy of not having an audience as he broke down and cried. They talked for nearly an hour, until Bill was again overcome with exhaustion. Ralph asked to talk to his rescuers, so he called out. He was surprised when the tall one, Ellison, came in almost immediately, as his voice was still so weak.
"Ralph wants to talk to you." Bill held the phone out to Jim, who took it.
"Uh, hi. I was sort of wondering, how is he, really? He's talking like he's fine, but he can't be. He's been missing for such a long time. I'm pretty sure the FBI had him declared dead."
Jim looked at Bill, who was nearly asleep, again. He left the room, turning off the light on his way out, but leaving the door open. "He's been beaten. There's not a single spot on him that isn't bruised. His nose has been broken, but has almost healed. The dislocated shoulder, Blair told you about, and he's got ligature wounds around both wrists, from handcuffs, and around his ankles and throat, from ropes. It's a miracle he's alive. He was also hypothermic, dehydrated and malnourished. We've gotten him to drink about a quart of apple juice, so far, and a cup of broth, then some chicken/vegetable soup. He's smart enough to know to take it slow, so he doesn't get sick while his system adjusts to the change. He's sleeping, now."
Jim heard a sigh from the man on the phone. "But nothing too serious?"
"Not really, just a lot of bruises, mostly. They, whoever 'they' are, definitely left him for dead. He probably would have died within another day or two, most likely tonight, as there's a cold front coming through."
"You said his throat was damaged by a rope?"
"Yeah." Jim sat down on the couch. Blair was at the other end, his attention turned to his partner. "He was hogtied, his hands cuffed behind him, his feet bound together, with a rope from his feet to around his neck. He needed to keep his feet cramped back, because if he didn't, the rope would tighten around his neck. He got his feet hooked on the cuffs, and dislocated his shoulder in the process of getting them under the cuff's chain. He was probably in that hole at least a week, but I'm not sure, and neither is he."
"Thanks. He said he was fine, but you know how that is."
Jim smiled, looking at his own partner, "Yeah, I do."
Blair had gotten up and gone to the window to look out. "It's snowing like mad, Jim."
"It may be a couple of days before we can get out, It's just started to snow and this storm is supposed to be a major one."
"Yeah, I understand. Thanks for everything. For rescuing him and taking care of him and all."
"Is it all right if I ask you something?"
There was a long moment of silence, then a tentative, "I guess so."
"How did a civilian school teacher end up partnered with an FBI agent?"
"Uh... it was one of those weird, unbelieveable things."
"Not really 'ominous', but definitely weird and freaky."
Jim could sense that Ralph didn't want to talk about it, so he waited.
There was a sigh. "You won't believe me."
"You'll say it's from an episode of the X-Files."
"Alien abduction?" Jim nearly laughed. When the silence at the other end stretched too long, he frowned. Blair was staring at him, mouth slightly agape.
"You're kidding," Jim said. There was only more silence. Then Ralph started talking. He talked for another half an hour and Jim never interrupted. His expression was at first, one of disbelief, but as the story continued, he began to accept the idea. It might explain a few things. When Ralph finished telling his story, Jim thanked him and said that as it was getting late and the phone had been in use for such a long time, he needed to recharge the battery. He got the feeling that Ralph didn't think Jim believed him, but he needed to talk it over with Blair, first. He promised to call back in the morning, after Bill woke up.
"So, what was all that about?" Blair asked when Jim handed him back his phone.
"Sounded like something out of the X-Files, Chief."
"Oh, yeah? I heard you ask about alien abductions," Blair chuckled. Jim didn't smile back, though. "You're kidding."
Jim shook his head and repeated the wild tale Ralph had told them. Blair snorted in disbelief. "Jim, I think someone's either pulling your leg, or a little looney toons."
"Sandburg, he was telling the truth," Jim said softly. Blair stared.
"You're kidding." Jim shook his head and he wasn't smiling. "You sure?" Jim nodded. "Whoa. I don't think..."
"He said that if we gave him directions, he could be here in a few hours. Here. That he can prove it."
"Yeah. I'll give him directions in the morning." Jim yawned and stretched. "Meanwhile, why don't you take the other bed in with Bill, and I'll either sleep on the couch or throw a sleeping bag on the floor."
"Better idea, why don't we both sleep in the other bedroom?" Jim looked surprised, he hadn't realized that the cabin had a second bedroom. Blair got up and led the way. Sure enough, another bedroom with two more beds. Perfect. They could give their patient some privacy and still be close enough in case he needed anything in the night.
Each time he woke up, he went through the momentary disbelief. Of course, after more than sixteen years, that shouldn't have been a surprise. But it was. It was dark, like the cave had been dark, but it was also warm, unlike the cave or anywhere he could recall for the longest time. He was comfortable, well, as comfortable as could be expected considering his current state of injury. Ralphie was safe. He'd married Pam and they had a couple of kids. He wished he'd been able to be around to see them. Oh, well. Just another thing that he'd missed out on. He carefully stretched, unsure of how it would feel. He liked it so much, he did it again, just because he could. His shoulder was bothering him, but he could deal with that. What he couldn't deal with was the sudden need to relieve himself. He decided to try and get himself up. He rolled to his left side, gasping at the pain in his shoulder, but managed to get his legs over the edge of the bed and into a sitting position. He was already panting and perspiring from the effort. He was trying to get to his feet, when he was startled and nearly fell, only to be caught up in a pair of strong arms.
"Why are you trying to get up?" Jim asked softly, balancing and supporting Bill on his very unsteady legs.
"Sure. You think you can make it, or should I carry you?"
Bill blushed in embarrassment. "I'd like to try and walk, if that's okay?"
Jim understood. "Yeah. Come on. It's only about fifteen feet, or so."
By the time they got the short distance, Bill was exhausted. Jim let him go once they reached the small room and he managed to make it to the commode and relieve himself. He even managed to wash his hand in the sink, afterwards. In some ways, he was glad he was naked, but in others, he wished he had the protection of at least a pair of pants. He had to lean heavily on the wall to open the door, he was nearly ready to collapse from exhaustion. Jim was waiting, and in his hands, he held a pair of sweat pants.
"I thought you might like something to wear. They're probably going to be pretty loose, but Blair's would be too short for you." Jim crouched down to help him lift first one leg, then the other, inserting his feet into the sweat pants and then pulling them up. Bill was nearly in tears again at the kindness. It had been so long. It didn't feel like sixteen years, but aparently, it was. He was shaking with fatigue by the time Jim stood back up.
Seeing that Bill wasn't going to be able to make it back to bed under his own power, Jim simply lifted him in his arms and carried him back to his room, setting him down on the bed and helping him get comfortable again. "I need to ask, any burning when you relieved yourself?"
"No. I was pretty careful to drink as much water as I could, when I was awake, anyway. I'm not expecting to have any kidney failure. I hope."
Jim smiled. "Well, just in case, I'm going to get you some cranberry juice. It does a pretty good job of keeping the kidney's healthy." He turned and left, returning a few minutes later with a glass of juice and a straw. "Here. If you'd like, I can put some bottled water on the night stand, in case you wake up thirsty."
"Thanks. You don't have to, though." He took a sip of the tangy juice drink. So much nicer than the dirt-flavored water he'd been drinking for so long.
"It's not a problem. Jim watched as Bill drank his juice and accepted the empty glass when Bill held it out to him. "Do you need anything else?"
Bill looked up at Jim. Even in the darkness, he was able to see the concern on Jim's face. "Thanks, but I don't think so."
"Well, I'll go and bring you some water. Try to get some more sleep?"
Bill grinned and sketched a half-assed salute. "Sir, yes, sir." He grinned and snuggled beheath the covers.
By the time Jim returned with the bottle of water, Bill was sound asleep. He cracked open the seal on the bottle and set it on the nightstand. Tweaking the covers more securely around Bill's shoulders, he returned to his own interrupted sleep.
Despite his interrupted slumber, Jim awoke just before dawn. He extended his senses out to check that all was well. He could hear the snow still falling, the steady sound of flakes striking the walls and the pre-existing snow providing a pleasant insulating sound. Stretching luxuriantly, he then slid from beneath the covers. The braided rag rug provided insufficient insulation from the cold wooden floors, so he quickly dressed, pulling on a pair of heavy boot socks. He glanced over at Blair, who was just a lump under his blankets, not even a bit of hair showing. Jim smiled and headed for the kitchen to start the coffee. As he passed the other bedroom, he glanced in to check on Bill. He frowned at the sight and entered the room.
Bill had thrown the covers to the floor sometime during the night. He now lay on his stomach, his body and limbs twisted into uncomfortable looking positions. Jim gently straightened him out and pulled the covers back up and over the shivering form. He noticed that Bill's expression was one of fear, even in sleep. He rubbed Bill's shoulder and back for a few moments, until the shivering stopped, then he left.
Jim raked the fire in the wood stove and added some kindling and small wood to get it going again, then he went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Once the coffee started perking, he grabbed his boots and pulled them on and laced them up. Grabbing his jacket, he headed outside.
He stood on the porch for a while, staring out into the falling snow. The flakes were big and fluffy, swirling down from the clouds. There was almost no wind, so the snow could continue for some time. He thought of the road out. If they had four-wheel-drive, they could go ahead and chance it. Since his truck was only a standard model, he didn't even contemplate it. He'd taken a shovel out the previous evening and worked at clearing the landslide, succeeding in packing the dirt in such a way that they could get through it. Of course, if it got warm, the melting snow could turn the entire section into boggy mud. There was nothing for it but to wait and see. Satisfied with his perusal of their vicinity, Jim turned back to go into the cabin.
The coffee was nearly strong enough, so Jim removed it from the stove to let it finish perking and cool enough to drink. Hearing a small sound, he went to check on their guest. He was just waking up. Jim entered the room.
"How're you feeling?" he asked, softly.
Bill looked up, the expression of wonder on his face testifying to his disbelief that this was real, yet. "I'm..." He stopped and catelogued his aches, pains, and feelings. "I'm feeling pretty damned good, considering," he decided.
"Good. Blair will probably raise a rucus, but the coffee's ready. Would you like some?"
Bill's expression turned to one of fearful hope. "Coffee? Really? I'd love some."
Jim smiled and nodded. He understood perfectly. And he'd only been eighteen months without it. "How do you take it?"
"Any way I can get it?"
"Okay, but what's your preference? Blair likes his sweet, light, and flavored. I think he brought chocolate raspberry, this time. Me, like you, any way I can get it, but sweet and light is preferred."
"Flavored? Coffee?" Bill's expression turned dubious.
Jim laughed. "Yeah. We have flavors we add to coffee, now. I kind of like mocha, chocolate added to it. So, what'll it be?"
"Just coffee. One sugar, two cream, or milk, or whatever."
"Done." Jim started to turn to go, then hesitated and turned back. "Would you like to try getting up and maybe sitting for a while?" The look on Bill's face was his answer. Jim smiled and came over to help him get up and walk the short distance to the livingroom couch. Once Bill was settled, Jim brought a blanket and had Bill lean forward so he could drape it around his bare shoulders and wrap it like a shawl around him. Then Jim went into the kitchen to fix their coffee.
When they were sitting and enjoying the first, best cup of the day, Jim stretched out his senses to check on Bill's well-being. "I talked to your friend last night," Jim began. Bill looked up at him, questioningly. Jim deliberated how to broach the subject. "He told me about your partnership. About the suit."
Jim was shocked by Bill's reaction. He turned pale and nearly dropped his cup. He began to tremble and screwed his eyes down tight, gasping for breath. Jim moved the short distance and rescued the mug before Bill lost control completely. He set the mug aside and reached to grab the older man in a gentle grip, holding him until he was able to regain control.
"What's wrong?" Jim whispered.
"I-I..." Bill shook his head. Everything he'd been through, for nothing, if Ralph had told it so easily.
"It's true, isn't it?" Jim murmured softly. He felt Bill sag in defeat. He shifted back and looked hard at Bill. "Yeah. I guess it is." He thought for a bit, then made a decision. "I won't be telling anyone, well, except for Blair. He's my partner, and we don't keep secrets."
Bill just shook his head in disbelief. "You know what some people would do for that suit?"
Jim looked at Bill and knew. "Torture you for sixteen years? Hell, you don't even know about the wall."
Bill frowned, "Wall? What wall?"
"The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Germany has been reunited, the Soviet Block has been disbanded and there are a bunch of new countries made out of what used to be the Soviet Union."
Bill gaped, "You're kidding."
"Nope. It's true." Bill shook his head.
"I'd have liked to see that."
"It was pretty spectacular. They sold it in tiny pieces for souvenirs."
Bill chuckled, "I can definitely see that."
Jim moved away and handed his coffee back to him. "I've got a couple of things I wouldn't want certain government types to know about," Jim confessed. Bill looked at him sharply.
"You mean, like how you can see in the dark and heard me last night?" At Jim's surprised expression, Bill grinned and continued. "Let me guess how you found me, smell?"
Jim's smile was a bit rueful. "You're good. Yeah."
Bill nodded. "So, how d'you do it?"
"It's all natural."
Bill shook his head in awe. "Man, the little green guys would have loved you. You always been this way?"
"I was born with it, yes. I suppressed it for years, though, then I got stranded in Peru after a botched mission." Seeing Bill's expression, he explained. "Army, Rangers. When they rescued me after eighteen months, I got out and became a cop. I again supressed them until several years ago. I was doing a stakeout and they came back. That's how I met Sandburg. He helped me cope with them." He frowned at the still sour memories of the bad things that had happened. "He, uh, rode with me as an 'observer' for three years, then he, uh, went through the academy and became a cop. He's my permanent partner, now."
Bill's eyes narrowed. That was the short version, he knew. From the uncomfortable way Jim was acting, the long version had a lot of pain and unpleasantness. He could understand that, however.
"He left out the entire thing about how I tricked him, kept him from being run down by a garbage truck, almost died a lot of times, blew my diss over it, and he got me back into the program with another topic." Blair was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, looking disheveled and still half asleep.
"Takes too long to tell it all, Chief. Hell, it took us three and a half years to live it," Jim said defensively.
"Like we don't have time?"
"Hey, it's all right," Bill insisted. "I'm sure Ralphie didn't tell you everything last night, either."
Jim shook his head. "I'm sure he didn't. Just the highlights," he agreed.
Blair shuffled into the kitchen and came back with a mug of coffee for himself. He settled on the couch beside Bill. "So. You have a magic suit that lets you fly?"
"Not me. It doesn't work for me, just Ralph." Bill took another sip.
"Yeah, he said you were his spotter, figuring out what to do, and then he did it," Jim agreed. "He wants to come up here today. I don't think the road will be passable, though. Not until the snow stops, anyway. And even then, only with heavy-duty four-wheel-drive."
"He won't need a car." At their dubious expressions, he continued. "He said he finally got the instructions, but that the little green guys couldn't find me, either. He knows how to use the suit, but doesn't very often. He just doesn't know what needs to be done. That was my job." He looked towards the window, out at the falling snow. "I wasn't there, so he did a few rescues now and then, but for the most part, it sat in its box and gathered dust." Surprisingly, there was no bitterness in his voice, only wistfulness.
"So, he can fly like Superman?" Blair finally ventured, once the silence had dragged on long enough.
Bill's smile was a little weak. "Well, he says he's gotten pretty good at it, but the last I recall, he still had a little trouble with control." His smile showed fond reminiscence.
"So, your part in this was to guide him? Pick out stuff for him to do?"
"Yeah. Rescued some people, caught a lot of bad guys. It was pretty good, even though I thought I should have had the suit." He sighed, "But, the little green guys, I think, in the long run, had the right idea." He sighed again and shivered slightly.
"Cold?" Blair asked.
"Not really. Not like I have been. Just a little shiver, is all."
Jim could see the stress of being up was wearing on Bill. "Do you want to lie down?" he offered.
Bill looked up at them. "I'd rather not."
Jim understood. "How about you just stretch out here, on the couch?" He stood up to go and get Bill's pillow and another blanket.
"Well..." It didn't take much convincing. Just the short hour he was up had drained all his minimal energy. Within five minutes from stretching out, he was again asleep.
Blair headed for the kitchen to prepare breakfast. He decided to make pancakes, and when they started cooking, Bill woke up again. He even managed to walk, albeit with help, to the table and eat with them without having to be fed. Afterwards, though, he opted on going back to bed, he was still too weak to want to try to stay awake.
It was about nine in the morning when Blair's cell phone rang. He had to follow the sound to find it, as it had slipped down beneath the cushions of the couch. On the fouth ring, he got it.
"Hi, I hope this isn't too early?" Ralph Hinkley asked.
"Not at all. We've even had breakfast. Bill's back in bed and asleep, though."
"That's all right. Uh, look, can you give me directions to where you are? I'd like to come up and see Bill, if it's okay with you?"
"It's still snowing, I don't think the roads are passable," Blair said, frowning and shaking his head.
"I, uh, wasn't planning on driving."
"I was going to fly."
"I'm pretty sure most flights are grounded. I know that we couldn't even get a copter in here right now even if we needed one."
"I'm not planning on using a helicopter."
Blair looked at Jim, who was shaking his head in disbelief.
"Uh, you're going to 'fly'... like, well, like Superman?"
"Uh, ooookay. Let me have Jim give you directions." He held the phone out.
Jim grinned, shook his head and took the phone.
"Call me Ralph, detective."
"It's Jim. We're forty miles east-north-east from Cascade, Washington. Take..."
When Jim finished giving directions, there was silence on the other end of the line for a short time. "Okay, that's about a thousand miles, maybe closer to twelve hundred. I should be there in about five hours, I'll bring my cell phone with me in case I get lost. Are there any landmarks I can use?"
"From the air? I don't know... oh, wait, the cabin has a metal roof, it's bright blue I'll go out and brush the snow off of it so you can see it. We're in a clearing, the closest trees are about twenty feet away. We're about three hundred yards short of the ridge. If you get close and can't find us, I can maybe talk you in if you call."
There was a moment's silence and Jim could sense Ralph's dubiousness at the idea, but he finally agreed and they disconnected. Jim and Blair looked at each other. Jim shook his head. "He said he'll be here in five hours."
"Yeah, okay. How about I make some stew for dinner? It can simmer all day and be hot whenever he gets here."
"Good idea, Chief. How about grilled cheese for lunch?"
"With chicken noodle soup?" Blair replied, grinning.
"Yeah. Somehow, I think Bill might like that."
"Hey, we like it, too," Blair countered.
"True, and it's easy."
Three hours later, Bill awoke. He was feeling stronger and attempted to get himself up. He made it as far as the bathroom before he was noticed. Blair was working on fixing lunch while Jim was outside chopping wood for the fire.
"Hey, how are you doing, Bill?" Blair asked when he spotted their guest making his way to the couch.
"Better. I think." He was disappointed that he was out of breath and tired just from the bit of exertion of getting from bed to the bathroom to the sofa.
"How about some juice?" Blair offered.
"What would you like? I've got cranberry, apple, tomato..."
"Tomato, please. You got any worstechester sauce and tabasco?"
"Yeah, you want some in the juice?"
"You got it."
Bill smiled in contentment at the spicy tomato juice. He just sat and sipped, letting his eyes drift closed, feeling safe and almost contented.
"Ralph called, he thinks he can be here in a couple more hours."
"That's if he doesn't get lost," Bill grunted. "He's got the lousiest sense of direction I've ever seen."
Blair chuckled. "You haven't seen me with a map, man. I am like so bad at directions."
"Then I hope you aren't the one who told him how to get here."
"Nope. Jim did." They looked up at a sound from the roof. "Speaking of whom, that's him, he told Ralph that he would sweep the roof clear so he can spot us." Seeing Bill's puzzlement, he explained, "The roof's a bright blue aluminum. With the snow removed, it should be easy to spot from the air. I'm still not sure I believe he can actually fly like Superman, though."
"You'll see. I just hope he doesn't freeze his face off with the snow and stuff."
"Oh, yeah," Blair agreed. "You ready for some lunch? Grilled cheese and chicken soup?"
Bill's stomach growled loudly in answer.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Blair smiled.
"I just wish I could stand up for more than five minutes without needing a nap," Bill complained.
"You're doing fine. You've got more than sixteen years to counteract. I think you're doing great. So does Jim. In just over a day, you've gone from prisoner to sitting up and walking on your own. That's quite an accomplishment, if you think about it."
"Yeah, I guess." Bill yawned. "But why am I sleeping so much?"
"That's just your body recovering, is all. You're finally getting fed properly, and your body is taking that and using it to heal. Lots of fluids, good food, and rest. At this rate, you should be feeling pretty good in a couple of weeks."
Bill sighed. "That would be nice." He finished his tomato juice and rose to rinse the glass out in the sink.
"Sit at the table, lunch in five." Blair went to the door and opened it, calling out for Jim to come in for lunch. The sounds from the roof paused a moment, while Jim replied, then continued. A few minutes later, the noises from the roof stopped and there was the sound of something heavy hitting the snow outside. Jim came in shaking the snow off.
"Weather's clearing for a bit. I hope Ralph manages to get here before the storm starts up again."
Bill couldn't help the shiver of anticipation that shook his body. Jim and Blair noticed, but didn't say anything, simply exchanging concerned looks with one another.
After lunch, Bill was too excited in anticipation of Ralph's arrival that he didn't want to go back to bed, or even lie down, but he finally agreed to stretch out on the couch to await his friend's arrival. He was asleep within minutes.
Bill hadn't been asleep for more than ten minutes when Blair's cell phone rang. He caught it on the second ring and answered it. "Sandburg."
"Yeah, It's Ralph. Uh... I think I'm close, but I can't see the roof. Can you give me some more directions?"
Blair held the phone out to Jim, mouthing 'he's lost'. Jim nodded and took the phone.
"Where are you, Ralph?" He headed for the door as he spoke. Pulling his coat on, he went outside to search the skies for their visitor, still doubting the possibility.
"Uh, Well, I passed Cascade about three minutes ago. Man, it's cold up here. Uh, I can see the mountains, but there are so many of them..."
"Yeah, that is a problem. You flew east-north-east?"
"Yes. Uh, there's a good sized highway I've been following. I think I've gone about thirty miles, so I should be close. You said you have a scope to spot me with?"
"Something like that. Are you flying below the clouds?"
"Yeah. I'm actually in a clear patch, just at the moment, if that helps?"
Jim scanned the sky, spotting several patches of blue. Extending his vision, he soon spotted the tiny red speck. "Got you. Turn to your right about five degrees."
"Turn just a little to your right. You're too far west. And slow down, or you'll overshoot us."
"Okay." Ralph turned slightly and slowed down.
"Better, now, can you come lower? Say about fifty feet above the trees?"
"Yeah. I can do that."
Jim watched the red speck as it approached. In five minutes, with Jim giving occasional course corrections, Ralph came in to a perfect landing in the clearing just a few yards away. Unfortunately, he immediately collapsed to his knees. Jim rushed to see if Ralph needed any assistance.
"I'm okay, just a little tired." Ralph let Jim help him to his feet. He had a full backpack strapped beneath his black cape. Jim was still trying to come to grips with the fact that he'd seen this man actually fly. Without mechanical assistance.
"Come on in. You're probably pretty cold, too."
"Not too bad. The suit protects me, although I do tend to chapped lips." Ralph smiled, then turned serious. "How's Bill?"
"He still spends most of his time sleeping, but he's able to walk, now, at least from his bed to the bathroom to the living room and kitchen. He's sleeping again. On the couch. He's been pretty excited about your coming. Unfortunately, he's not really strong enough, and that excitement knocked him out about half an hour ago. We've been letting him sleep as much as possible, letting him heal."
"How bad is he?" Ralph asked as he followed Jim towards the cabin.
"Mostly neglect. He's probably about fifty or sixty pounds underweight and he's been restrained for so long that he's lost muscle tone, hell, it's almost atrophy."
Jim opened the door and allowed Ralph to enter first. He froze just inside, making Jim squeeze past him to be able to close the door. Ralph was staring, tears forming in his eyes as he looked at his long-missing friend. He didn't even see Blair standing there. He slowly approached the recumbant figure on the couch. He didn't notice when his tears started falling.
"Oh, God, Bill," he whispered, going to his knees beside the sleeping man. Gently, hesitantly, hardly believing that the figure was real, he reached out to lightly run a finger down the stubbled cheek of his long-missing friend.
Bill's eyes opened, the brown orbs showing momentary confusion, then they focused on the man beside him. His eyes widened in surprise. When did Ralph get so old? The realization that it had really been over sixteen years crashed down on him. He saw Ralph's tears and reached out a shaking hand to wipe them away.
"Ralphie?" He reached up to touch the graying blond curls. Ralph smiled at him.
"Oh, man, Bill. It's really you," he whispered.
"Yeah. It's really you, too," Bill replied. He tried to sit up and Ralph reached to help him, then pulled his friend into a fierce hug.
"You're alive. You're really alive! And you're back. Man, Bill. I have missed you so much."
Bill returned the hug as best he was able, still too weak to manage more than a gentle squeeze.
Jim frowned, he stared at the pair, his vision showing him an odd reddish-golden glow encompassing the two men. He glanced quickly at his own partner, who didn't seem to notice anything odd happening. He watched as the golden glow brightened between the two men, then sort of shifted from Ralph to Bill. He could see how Bill seemed to grow stronger with every second of the embrace. When they finally let go, Bill looked almost robust, compared to how he'd seemed just half an hour earlier.
Bill looked hard at his friend. "You're older."
Ralph laughed. "Yeah. You aren't, though. Actually, you look better than I expected." He didn't seem to realize how different Bill looked just between his first seeing him and now. Blair noticed, though, and Jim had watched the change occur.
"That suit," Jim began, drawing both men's attention to him.
"What about it?" Ralph asked.
"It's healing him?"
"Huh?" both Ralph and Bill chorused.
"Stand up, Bill," Jim said. Looking confused, Bill shrugged and stood. He didn't need to use the arm of the chair to get up, nor was he unsteady once on his feet. It took a moment for Bill to realize that he could stand without assistance. His face blanked, staring at Ralph.
"He's right. I'm stronger. I sort of feel pretty good, actually." He looked askance at Ralph, who shook his head in bafflement.
"You've got me. Maybe there are some powers to the suit that we never figured out, before."
"Maybe," Bill agreed, sitting back down. He couldn't keep the smile off his face. He was still trying to come to grips with how old Ralph had gotten. He was middle-aged and had put on a bit of weight, not a lot, but enough to show in the skintight red suit. "You're going soft, Ralphie," Bill teased.
"Yeah. I've missed you, too." He abruptly remembered his pack, "Oh, here, I brought you some stuff." He pulled the pack off and opened it. There was a box of milk bones on the top. Bill laughed and snatched up what had always been his favorite treat. Jim and Blair looked on in shock as he opened the box and started to munch on one of the dog treats.
"Man, I missed these," he mumbled through his chewing. Swallowing and before taking a second bite, he looked curious and tried to see what Ralph was taking out next. "What else do you have in there?"
"Well, I brought you some clothes. Uh, the FBI declared you dead. As you had no next of kin, I got everything. I've been saving it for you." He pulled out clothes. Jeans, sweaters, underwear, and even shoes. Bill was ecstatic. Even though everything would be too big on him, it was still his.
"Oh, man. Thanks, kid," Bill enthused. "Hey! Those are my favorite tennies!" He snatched the deck shoes from the pile, hugging them for a moment before leaning down and putting them on his bare feet. He wiggled his toes and smiled.
"You're welcome, Bill." Ralph pulled out a sweatsuit that Bill frowned at. "This is for me. I don't want to have to wear the suit constantly, you know?"
"Yeah. It doesn't look any better than when you first got it." Bill was grinning, still coming to grips with the fact that he was finally free and his friend was okay.
"Hey, you guys want some coffee?" Blair offered. Bill and Ralph jumped, having forgotten that there were others there.
"That'd be great," Ralph agreed. Bill just grinned. He stood up and stretched. Seeing Jim watching him, he shrugged. Realizing that his left shoulder wasn't hurting any more, he fumbled with the knot on the triangular bandage that immobilized his arm. Jim stepped over and helped him. Once he was free, he carefully rotated the shoulder joint, smiling at the absence of pain.
"All better," Bill announced, lifting his arms over his head and stretching like he hadn't been able to for far too long. It felt good, and his back popped, feeling even better. "Oh, man. That feels great." He didn't feel like a footrace, but he also wasn't exhausted and in need of another nap. He accepted the mug of coffee Blair offered him and took a satisfying sip.
Ralph was holding his clothes and looking around, having set his mug on the coffee table. "Uh, where can I change?"
Jim pointed towards the bathroom. "Bathroom's through there."
"Thanks." Ralph stood and headed that way.
"Help yourself to a shower, if you like," Blair offered.
Ralph smiled. "Thanks, I'd like that. Be back in a few."
"Towels are in the cupboard," Jim added.
When Ralph was safely behind the closed door, Bill turned on his rescuers a puzzled expression. "You didn't tell him about your... powers, did you?" There was no accusation.
"No. Like you said, there are a lot of people who'd love to get their hands on him," Blair explained. Bill nodded.
"Okay. I won't say anything, but if he figures it out, I won't lie to him, either."
Jim and Blair exchanged a look, "That's fair," Jim agreed.
When Ralph returned, he filled his partner in on what had happened from the time he escaped. The 'little green guys', as Bill called them, had found him and returned him to his home. They had given him a new instruction manual and he'd tried to do things on his own, but was never confident enough to do more than some rescues on occasion. He'd needed Bill's input on what projects were needed to work on. Without him, he'd had no direction and had become discouraged. Bill didn't say anything about what he'd been through. His body gave ample evidence of the hell he'd been trapped in. They still had no idea why they'd finally decided to let him die. Perhaps they hadn't and something happened that kept his captors from returning.
"I'd like to take a look at where you were found," Ralph requested.
Jim frowned. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea."
"Tracks in the snow. If they come back, they'll be able to track you right back here. I'm not sure I want to take them on. Whoever 'they' might be."
"I can use the suit, just fly there and back. I'll even fly in from another direction. Maybe when you searched the area, you missed something."
"Uh," Blair started, his eyes widening in surprise. "We didn't exactly search the area. We were more concerned with taking care of Bill. He was pretty hypothermic."
"Not to mention battered," Jim agreed. He thought for a few minutes, then nodded. "Tomorrow morning, I'll give you directions. You don't want to go now, it's getting late and there's only about another hour of full daylight."
"Okay," Ralph agreed. "If you want, I can take you with me? It won't be real comfortable, but I wouldn't mind the company."
Jim covered his surprise and nodded, "If you like."
The rest of the afternoon was spent quietly, with Bill and Ralph telling stories of their adventures. Blair kept slipping Bill juice. It seemed that whatever he was handed, he drank without any thought. Ralph realized what they were doing and smiled, pleased that they were so conscientious in their care of his friend.
Dinner was quiet. In spite of the suit's apparent healing powers, Bill had definitely overdone it. He was quiet through the meal, desultorily eating his food, lines of exhaustion making deep inroads on his face, aging him. As soon as he'd finished, Jim sent him to bed. Bill started to protest, but Ralph joined his urgings with Jim and chided Bill back to bed, where he quickly fell asleep.
"I didn't mean to exhaust him. It's just that..."
"You haven't seen him in sixteen years and thought he was dead." Blair finished for him.
"Yeah. Not knowing was the hardest, you know?"
Jim and Blair exchanged a look. "Yeah, we do." While Jim and Blair did the dishes, Jim suggested that Ralph go ahead and hit the sack, as well. After only a moment's hesitation, he agreed and soon was asleep in the bed next to Bill's.
"I saw it, but I'm still having trouble believing it, you know?" Blair said as they cleaned up the kitchen.
"Yeah. He was flying. Just like Superman." Jim shook his head.
Blair looked up at his friend, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Bet you're glad that you don't have that suit."
Jim rolled his eyes. "No, thank you. I have enough trouble with the senses, thanks just the same."
Blair chuckled. "But Jim, think of what you could do!" he teased.
"No way. I can barely handle what I came by naturally without taking on anything more."
"Hmm, wonder how I'd do if I had a suit like that."
"Blair, you get in enough trouble without it. I hate to imagine what kind of mischief and mayhem you'd cause if you were superman."
Blair looked miffed for just a moment, then laughed. "Yeah, you're probably right."
"I know I am."
Smiling fondly at each other, they finished cleaning up and then headed for bed, themselves.
In the morning, it was still snowing, but Ralph wanted to take a look at where Bill had been found. Jim reluctantly agreed to 'fly' with him to examine the place. He was nervous, wondering how Ralph was going to be able to carry his weight. What he hadn't expected, was that Ralph would take off and fly around and scoop him off his feet. Once airborne, Jim could definitely understand Blair's dislike of heights. Fortunately, the two to two and a half miles were covered in less than five minutes. The landing was a bit rough, both men ending up sprawled in a snowdrift, but it wasn't too bad, considering.
"Sorry, I'm a bit out of practice," Ralph said, embarrassed.
"Not a problem. Nothing's broken." Jim grinned. "Come on, the cave is over here."
They both jumped down the hole Blair had fallen into. Jim's eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, while Ralph's suit allowed him to see in the dark cave, as well. Jim had brought flashlights, anyway. Much to their surprise, they found a doorway.
"Okay, let me see if I remember how to do this," Ralph muttered. He glared at the door.
"What, you have X-ray vision or something?" Jim asked in surprise.
"Yeah. Heat vision, too. But I have to be careful and not get them confused. Okay, I think I've got it, now." He squinted and glared at the door. "Damn. There's a lab on the other side."
"Any sign of anyone there?"
"Well, then, shall we try and get through the door?"
"Yeah. Good idea." Ralph stopped Jim from battering the door down. "Wait, watch this." He squinted again and looked at the lock. A few moments later, the metal of the knob and all its workings began to glow, quickly followed by turning to a liquid and flowing down the door. Fortunately, the door was made of a heavier metal, and only heated up, but not to the point of melting. Ralph blew hard, and the door swung open.
"Nice." Jim was impressed.
"It's been a while, but it still works." Ralph insisted on going first. Jim didn't mind. He'd already done his own 'pre-reconnaisance', using his senses to search for any danger.
"Looks like it's been empty for a while." Ralph muttered, wiping some dust off one of the desks.
"Don't touch anything," Jim admonished. "You don't want them to be able to trace us."
Ralph pulled his hand back, quickly. "Right. Sorry."
"It's okay. Just watch out what you touch. We don't know if they left any booby-traps around anywhere."
"Oh, yeah. I hadn't thought of that."
The underground complex wasn't very large. It consisted of six rooms: the office area, a barracks type room, the lab, a kitchen/dining area, a lockerroom with communal showers, and a file room. The file room was, surprisingly, full.
"Man, look at this stuff. They documented everything." Ralph paled at one file he had pulled out. It held pictures of Bill, and showed with nauseatingly graphic detail, the kinds of things he'd suffered for the preceeding sixteen years.
"Oh, man..." Ralph swallowed hard and had to look away. Jim glanced at the photos and took the folder, closing it.
"There's nothing here to tell us who these people are or who authorized this. I've got an idea, though." Jim had finished looking around. It appeared that the facility had been abandoned rather abruptly. Perhaps they thought they'd only be gone a day or two, but for some reason hadn't been able to get back.
"What's that?" Ralph was still struggling with what he'd seen in the photos.
Jim looked at him rather pointedly. "Burn it. Incinerate it all. You can do that, can't you?"
Ralph was shocked. "Well, sure, I suppose, but don't you want to... I don't know, go through the rest of the files?"
"No." Jim waved the file with the photos in it, "I've seen more than enough. I'd prefer that the monsters who ran this place were here when it goes, but I'll have to be satisfied with destroying their work. Sixteen years down the drain, with nothing to show for it. Rather poetic, don't you think?"
Ralph began to grin. "What about the computers?"
"Burn them all. Can you degausse the hard drives?"
"I don't know. But I can disintegrate them."
"That will do. How about disintegrating this whole place? Leave nothing but a hole in the ground?"
Ralph nodded. "I'd be happy to give it a try." They opened up the file cabinets. Ralph used his suit-given powers to ignite them, then he turned his attention to the computers, soon, the acrid smoke drove them from the facility. Once outside, Ralph concentrated a bit more and using his heat-vision in conjunction with his ability to disintegrate, turned the entire facility into a smoking hole in the ground. It looked rather like an incendiary missile had struck the spot, except that there had been very little noise.
"That should keep them busy wondering," Ralph grinned at Jim, who smiled back. "Let me get airborne, and I'll carry you back."
"Works for me." Jim didn't really want to be flown again, but also didn't want to leave any kind of a trail for the bad guys to follow.
Fifteen minutes later, they were back at the cabin. Jim explained that they'd found the lab and that Ralph had destroyed it. Blair frowned at him, wondering why, when Bill smiled.
"Best news I've heard in years. I don't suppose any of them were still there?"
"I'm afraid not," Jim admitted. "However, all their computers, their files, everything, is molten slag. Pretty good day's work, I think."
"Yeah," Bill agreed. Then he frowned, thinking. "How am I going to explain where I've been for the past sixteen years?" He looked to the others for suggestions. Unfortunately, no one had any good ideas, just yet.
When Bill was napping later that afternoon, the others discussed how to help him return to the real world. He was old enough to be retired, but how to go about getting him reinstated/retired was going to be a problem. His fingerprints, fortunately, would suffice to identify him.
They were coming to get him and, just like the other times, he was terrified. He didn't know why, after so many years, they were coming back for him, but they were on their way and he knew that there was no way to escape them. They were going to do things to him again. Those invasive examinations that always left him feeling sick and helpless. He didn't know which was worse, the past sixteen years of systematic torture, or the idea of the little green guys.
He awoke screaming.
Nothing anyone said would reassure him. He kept babbling about the little green guys coming to get them again, warning Jim to get away while he still could, much to Ralph's confusion. Bill was terrified, but more concerned for Jim's safety than his own. Although they managed to calm him down, he remained convinced that the little green guys were coming to get them and fell into a depression.
It remained quiet for the rest of the day and evening. Some time after midnight, Jim abruptly awoke when the cabin was bathed in a glaring white light. Everything was silent, as though sound was dampened to nothing. He shook his head, trying to hear. Nothing. Frightened, now, he rose and shook Blair awake.
Blair frowned, and blinked up at his partner. "What's wrong, Jim?"
Thankfully, he could hear Blair speak to him. "I think Bill was right and his 'little green guys' are here, Chief."
Bill started screaming...
Blankness. Not dark, but... strange. He tried to extend his sensory awareness, but it was blocked. The bright light was blinding, but not painful. He knew something was touching him, but wasn't able to discern what. It wasn't painful, but very annoying. Suddenly, he caught movement and managed to focus on the being looking at him and probing his body. His shock was total, and he abruptly understood Bill's terror. The only difference was that he didn't feel threatened by the alien being. Perhaps it was a subconscious thing, but he didn't feel that the being meant him any harm, but was merely curious. He forced himself to relax and accept what they were doing to him. It wasn't painful, but he wished they'd say something. Eventually, they left him alone. When he next became aware, he was no longer alone. He could make out figures beside him. He recognized them, Blair, Bill, and Ralph. They seemed subdued, almost drugged. He, himself, felt lethargic and although he wanted to reach out to check his companions, he couldn't seem to get up enough energy to move. Still, he could see that, by comparison, he was positively hyper.
Hearing someone talking to you inside your head was a really weird sensation, Blair decided. It sounded rather like a swarm of bees, all talking at once, but he could understand what was asked, and wanted from him. Unfortunately, he was unable to avoid spilling all he knew about Jim and his senses. He felt that they, whoever 'they' were, were pleased with him. He was filled with a sense of peace and well-being, that 'they' meant them no harm. Most particularly, he was reassured by the sense that they meant no harm to his sentinel. He wondered how Jim was reacting. Eventually, he was aware that he was no longer alone, that his friends were with him. He could see them; they seemed unharmed and he smiled.
It was just as exciting as the first time it happened. This time, though, he sensed disapproval from the aliens. He tried to explain how, without Bill, he hadn't the guidance to fulfill his obligations. They seemed to understand and were positively apologetic that so much time had been wasted. Ralph's only complaint was that Bill had been through so much. It seemed so unfair that he had lost so much of his life protecting him and the knowledge of the suit and its powers. He was content that they seemed to agree, and wondered what and how they could possibly compensate Bill for the years he had lost. How he could ever catch up to all the things that had changed since he'd last been free.
It wasn't any easier now than either of the other times. The little green guys (although, some of them were tall, gray guys) still terrified him. He felt like he was hyperventilating, but at the same time, he felt drugged and lethargic. He knew they were trying to calm him. If they wanted him calm, they needed to go away and leave him alone. The fact that they had never hurt him made no difference, he was positively phobic about them. He felt that he had been the wrong choice from the beginning. Sure, he'd have loved to have been the one with the suit, but he had been good at his job before... only now, he had no job... he'd lost everything, his career, his friends, his very life. All for nothing. The incessant buzzing in his head from their method of communication only gave him a headache and did nothing to alleviate his fear. There was no way for them to reassure him that he would not be harmed. A memory surfaced, one that had been long-buried. When he'd first gone to work with the Bureau, he'd been 'volunteered' for 'special anti-insurgent' training. Compared to the past sixteen years, what they had put him through seemed mild. But the memory, and what he'd been through, had stayed with him in his subconscious, providing the foundation for his terror of being captive and interrogated. Oddly enough, however, it had also given him the strength which had allowed him to withstand even sixteen years of systematic torture, never breaking. Eventually, he was again given worthless reassurances that everything would be all right and he found himself with his companions. He felt better and stronger than he had, sort of how he felt after Ralphie had hugged him and the suit had provided healing to his battered body, only this also seemed to have provided healing to his mind. He was still terrified of the little green guys, but he also felt confident that he would again survive the encounter. Seeing the others looking unharmed did more for calming him than any mental assurances from their captors.
They knew. Knew about his senses, his innate abilities. They wondered how he worked, but had done no intensive investigation. Realizing that his abilities were natural with no artificial enhancements seemed to confuse them. He was sure that they did tests to try and discover how and why, but they were neither painful nor invasive. He could feel them in his mind, asking questions and extracting memories, but they seemed to mean him no harm and, more importantly, meant no harm to his companions.
They meant them no harm, only wanting to help humankind. Wanting them to be able to help themselves, as well. He could handle that. He wanted to make the world a better place, too. He'd been raised with that goal in mind. He'd found his means to that end in his sentinel. His job was to support and back Jim, any way he could. They seemed to accept that. He felt them probing his mind and memories, seeking information, curious about the concept and surprised to find it to be such an old thing. He could feel their curiosity and fascination with his research and observations. He accepted their probing with amused tolerance. He'd seldom had to defend his findings, only to Jim and Simon, so far, but they seemed to recognize his humor, even if they didn't understand it.
They wanted to know if he wanted to give the suit back. He didn't really care one way or another. He was more concerned with his friend and partner who had lost so much. They offered recompense and he surprised himself when he agreed.
Give him back the years he'd lost? How in hell could they do that? Take him back in time and prevent it from ever happening? No. He didn't understand, but something, Ralphie, perhaps, compelled him to accept the offer. The light intensified and his body stiffened with every muscle contracting at once. He thought it would hurt, if he were more aware, but it didn't. When he finally collapsed, every muscle limp, he was still held upright by whatever they used to control them. However, he was more aware and felt... good. Almost normal... whatever that might be.
They meant them no harm. They would be returned to where they belonged. They would not be subject to investigation, despite their fascination with them. His companions, too, would be returned. Something was being promised, but he didn't understand. Recompense? For what? To whom? It didn't matter. It was time to go. Jim thought he saw his companions, but then there was nothing but darkness, and he was unaware of what happened next.
It was late morning when Jim finally awoke. He was back in his bed in the cabin. He frowned, looking around and extending his senses to check on the others. He wasn't sure if it had been a dream or real. Whatever it was, he needed to get up and check on his companions to be sure that they were all right. He had to see and feel for himself, up close, to be reassured that all was well.
Blair was sound asleep, peacefully. He was snuggled beneath the covers with only the top of his head showing from beneath the blankets. Jim lightly touched the top of Blair's head, reassured by that contact that his partner was unharmed. Smiling, he headed out to check the others.
Ralph was sprawled on his back, lightly snoring. His expression was peaceful and calm. Turning to Bill, Jim froze in astonishment. The things he hadn't understood the aliens had said to him suddenly made sense. Recompense. Instead of a battered and bruised sixty-four-year-old man, Bill didn't look a day over forty. All sign of injury was gone. He looked healthy and vigorous. Jim couldn't help but wonder how they were going to explain this one. Bill had kicked the covers off, and his bare torso still showed the scars from his years of imprisonment, but the scars had all healed to the point of faded lines, instead of the puckered pink of more recent injury. Jim shook his head. He was glad that Bill was chronologically old enough to retire, once he managed to get his existence reinstated. He didn't know how that would work, but hopefully, it would. With Bill healed, perhaps Ralph would be going back into the superhero business. That thought brought a smile to his face, for sure, and a chuckle as he pictured Ralph, now physically the age Bill appeared, trying to keep up with the healed former Fed.
Bill opened his eyes to an amused chuckle. Jim was looking down at him, an expression of amazement on his face. Bill stretched, feeling muscles tighten and then relax. He remembered the previous night perfectly well. The little green guys had come and gotten them, but had also put them back where they belonged. He was surprised by how good he felt. He wouldn't mind a jog, this morning. If it was morning. He glanced towards the window to be sure.
"How do you feel?" Jim asked.
"Great." Bill smiled. He couldn't remember when he'd last felt this good. Jim nodded.
"You might want to take a look in a mirror."
Bill frowned in concern. "Why?"
"Seems like your friends knew how to take care of you. I seem to recall them promising you 'recompense'." At Bill's confusion, he jerked his head towards the door. "Go take a look for yourself."
Bill, still frowning, threw back the covers from his legs and got up to head for the bathroom. The sight of himself in the mirror froze him in shock. He hadn't looked this good even back when he and Ralphie had first started together. He lightly rubbed a hand over his face and down his chest, looking down to see that the scars were, indeed, faded to near invisibility, and the more recent bruises were totally gone. He shook his head in awe.
"Man. What a health plan," he said, jokingly. Jim chuckled.
"Yeah. Seems like. You look younger than Ralph, now."
Bill smiled and laughed. "Oh, man. He's gonna hate that. I'll be the one calling him old and slow, now." Jim smiled back at him.
"I guess our next task is to get back to town and see about getting you reinstated as alive." He frowned, thinking. "Of course, you could always try and get your job back, if that's what you want. I think you can probably pass the physical."
"But not the psych. I was always borderline on those, anyway. And I don't know that I'd be any good at it any more. It's been such a long time. I've missed so much. It's a different world from what I remember, I'm sure." But he felt good. He felt young, and healthy, and strong, again. It was a fair trade.
Jim nodded, understanding. Well, I don't think I'd mind if you were to be reinstated and sent here. It might be nice to have a decent Fed around."
Bill frowned, momentarily, then grinned. "They still call us Fan Belt Inspector?" he asked.
Jim nodded, returning the grin. "And Feebees."
Bill's expression wrinkled up in disgust. "Yuck. I'd rather Inspect Fan Belts," he replied.
Jim laughed. "Yeah. Come on, let's go make some coffee. Maybe you and Ralph can help me get the road cleared enough to get out of here."
"Sounds good to me."
When Ralph was asked to help clear the road, he snorted at them and went to change into the suit. They loaded their gear into Jim's truck and drove to the slide. Ralph took the shovel and, with the aid of the suit's 'powers', soon had the entire road cleared, without even breaking a sweat. He put his sweats on over the suit, and climbed into the truck. It was a bit crowded, with four of them in the cab, but fortunately, it was an automatic. The trip was rather quiet, as they thought with anticipation of the insanity that was going to ensue as Bill announced his return and desire to be reinstated into the land of the living.
Ralph insisted they be checked into a hotel, so Jim dropped them off at the local Marriot's, making sure that they had his home number in case they needed anything. Jim and Blair decided to head on into the station and make out their reports, wondering how to explain what had happened. Bill certainly no longer looked anything like he had when they'd found him just three days earlier. It was hard to believe that it had only been three days, so much had happened.
They miscounted. Apparently, the 'little green guys' had kept them for a full day, but that was minor. Simon did wonder why they were back, and which of them had needed a doctor; there was joyful chortling from Joel when he again won the pool by having bet that they would have no accidents this trip.
In the privacy of Simon's office, Jim and Blair explained what really happened, but Simon didn't want to know. He just waved them off and told them to go ahead and write up their reports. Since the victim was a member of the FBI, he would let them handle it.
Of course, the local contingent of the FBI did not wish to handle the sudden reappearance of their long-missing agent. Unfortunately, they had no choice. When they asked Bill how come he looked so much younger than his official photo, he grinned and said that when the picture had been taken, he'd not been feeling well. When Jim and Blair were questioned, they simply explained where and how they found him. When they were approached and asked how the facility had been destroyed, they feigned ignorance and suggested that whoever had held Bill had done it to hide what they had done. The local agents were not happy, but there was nothing they could do. It was determined that Bill had been taken because of some kind of information he had. Since nothing seemed to be compromised, and what little bit was left of the facility tended to prove Bill's allegations, he was reinstated, with full back pay.
"Basically, they're buying me off," Bill explained over dinner with Jim and Blair. Ralph had had to return to LA, as he had classes to teach.
"Full retirement?" Jim asked.
"And sixteen plus years back-pay. Seems I had a few raises while I was gone." Bill grinned. "I don't know how I can ever thank you for everything you did." His eyes had trouble meeting theirs. "No one would have ever known what happened to me, or cared, I suppose, well, except for Ralph. I'm not sure even Pam would care all that much. I know the guys I worked with didn't."
"Hey, maybe it was fate, or something," Jim replied. "So, what are you going to do, now?"
"Go back to LA, I guess. Find a place to live. See if Ralph wants to go back to work, you know."
"LA's an expensive place to live, Bill," Blair informed him. "You might consider moving someplace a little quieter."
Bill laughed, "Like Washington State?"
"Well, sure. I'm sure Ralph could find a teaching job here just as easily as there. And he wouldn't have to worry about kids bringing guns into the classroom, so much," Blair suggested.
Bill gaped. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"'Fraid so," Jim agreed. "There are a lot of problems with kids taking weapons into schools and killing people. It's pretty bad when they have to set up armed guards and metal detectors in the entrancways. We haven't had to do that here, yet. But I think most of the schools in inner-city areas around the country have had to do it. Although it hasn't really stopped anyone if they really want to get a gun on campus."
Bill shook his head in dismay. "Sounds like Ralph needs to wear the suit just to go to work. That's not right. I'll just have to see what's what, for myself. Catch up on everything I've missed." Seeing his companions' expressions, he grinned. "You never know. You just might see us around, one of these days."
"Take your time. Get yourself a computer and do your catching up on the internet. It will be a lot faster than trying to read enough books." At Bill''s grimace of distaste at the word 'computer', Blair grinned. "Hey, I've even gotten Jim, here, up to speed on using modern technology. If he can handle it, anyone can." He wasn't quite fast enough to dodge the swat Jim aimed at his head, but grinned back at his partner. "Hey, man, the truth hurts."
"Nah, I didn't hurt you," Jim grinned back. Turning to Bill, he became serious, again. "Honestly, if you need anything, let us know. We'll do what we can to help."
"Well, with three quarters of a million, before taxes, to live on, I think I'll be able to survive for a while," Bill smiled. He was still in a bit of shock, plus, he had his full retirement, based on the thirty plus years he'd have had on the job had he not been kidnapped. He rather suspected that someone within his own agency had had something to do with it, but without proof...
"Get yourself a good financial planner," Jim advised.
"I will. I've also got some savings that's been sitting for the last sixteen years. I have no idea how much it is, now. Ralphie would know. He's the one who took care of everything for me."
"Well, you be careful. You might want to invest in some Kevlar."
Bill frowned, "What's that?"
"New stuff. They make flak-vests out of it. Works pretty good. Stops bullets from penetrating, but you still get the whallop of being hit. It can crack ribs, but that's a lot better than getting shot. It's also light enough to wear under your regular street clothes. I've even seen trench-coats made from the stuff," Jim explained.
"I'll have to look into it. I wonder if the suit is like that? Only it protects Ralph from the force, as well."
"Hard to say, without an analysis. And, somehow, I doubt if that's going to happen any time soon, do you?"
"Not likely," Bill replied, with a grin.
The rest of dinner was spent in quiet conversation. Afterwards, Jim and Blair drove Bill to the airport for his flight down to LA, where Ralph would be meeting him late that evening. As they stood at the curb, Bill extended his hand to each of them.
"Thanks again. For everything."
"You're welcome. Good luck," Jim said. Blair just stood there and grinned.
Bill returned their smiles and grabbed his single carryon dufflebag and headed into the terminal. Jim and Blair watched as he sauntered through the crowds towards his new future, one that had hope and promise.
Blair glanced at his partner. "You think he'll be okay?"
"Yeah. He's a survivor. He'll do just fine."
"You think Ralph will start using the suit again?"
"Only time will tell, Chief. Only time will tell."
"I hope so. We need more heroes."
"Yeah. One lonely little sentinel just isn't enough. Every city needs a blessed protector. It doesn't matter if it's a cop with heightened senses, or a guy in funny red tights and a cape. The world just needs more heroes."
"I guess. But heroes need side-kicks, too, you know."
"Why do you say that?" Blair's expression showed his pleasure at his partner's train of thought.
"Comic relief," Jim deadpanned; then reached out to grab his friend and gave him one of the despised 'noogies'.
"ACK! No, man! Not the hair!" Blair wailed, trying to wriggle away.
Bill paused at the top of the escalator and turned to look back at his rescuers. He smiled and nodded. They were right. The world did need more heroes. He squared his shoulders, adjusted his grip on his bag and, with his head held high and proud, turned to meet his destiny, head on. This time, he thought, he was better prepared. This time, things would be different.
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