Looking for Unicorns

 

Right now I feel wholly, desperately and completely inadequate. I mean, I’ll live. I’ve felt wholly, desperately and completely inadequate before. But for once, Naomi’s boy may be seriously over his curly head here.

First off, who knew hospitals kept these ICU-cum-hotel rooms for the patient who is both seriously ill and seriously wealthy? The IV drip holder goes so nicely with the brocade wallpaper. Not that there’s any arguing with William Ellison when he decides something, but this is creeping me out. Knowing I was sitting on the third floor, every day becoming a larger and larger charge on Cascade Memorial’s future bad debt list was bad enough. Knowing I’m now sitting in the corner penthouse of the VIP wing probably because William Ellison promised them a new PET scanner or something is really messing with my populist roots.

William could swear it was for Jim’s sake, not mine, but Jim doesn’t care where I am. He seemed just as content in that hideous orange plastic bucket seat as he does in this hideous over-carved armchair. Lion’s paws. Actually that’s what I said when I first woke up and saw him there. "Look, Jim, your chair has lion’s paws." For two days I was sure it was the morphine.

Anyway, now I’m healed enough to get off the IV pain meds so the floating time is down to a minimum. Which is good, except that being sober leaves you even more time to think, Jim still not being much of a conversationalist.

Simon continues to swear he heard him speak, ask him for help. If he did, he hasn’t decided to give me an encore. Instead he’s extraordinarily gentle, quiet and reserved, even for Jim, like maybe he’s thinking about talking or about almost losing the guy that taught him how to ask for waffles or even about why the damn chair has paws.

He’s touched everything in sight, stroked the colored cotton sheets, run inquisitive fingers down the IV tubing, spent large blocks of each morning reconnecting with the trappings of the room. Spent larger blocks of time reconnecting with me after each night’s separation. It took both Steven and me to convince him to leave at all. He wouldn’t do it for William. And even the normally magic properties of the promise of Sally wouldn’t sway him when I was still spending three-fourths of the day asleep. He sat guard over me, a position he’d relinquish only reluctantly to his brother and Simon.

Jim still thinks the captain spends the night over here. It’s the only way we can get him to get his own rest. So Simon comes and makes like he’s doing the sleepover thing, then goes home and sets his alarm early enough that he can beat Jim back in the morning. Pity they don’t give commendations for that kind of above-and-beyond the call of duty. I mean you should see Simon before he’s gotten a cup of his esoteric roast in. It’s not pretty, man.

"Sandburg, how much longer am I going to be doing this?"

As I said, early-morning-captain is not a cheery sight. He’s clutching the complementary Styrofoam cup of dark liquid like a lifeline.

"I swear Simon, they’re letting me out tomorrow and since the only place I have to go is with Jim, he can keep his eye on me to his heart’s content. You won’t have to do the pretend-babysitting stuff anymore. Just get me through this one more night and I promise I’ll clean out your garage, I’ll debug your computer, anything."

I’m begging, not because I have that much against Jim staying the night. I figure, hey, whatever floats his boat. But William is dead set against Jim being unsupervised. I mean I don’t think he’s likely to wander anywhere, not when his sole reason for existing since the warehouse went boom seems to be to keep me in his sights. I’m causing enough consternation between father and sons. I’d like to get through this one final night without causing any more.

It was just me and Naomi, growing up. I didn’t have all these family-dynamic issues to worry about. Who knew I’d gain a Sentinel – whose family, by necessity, bordered on the pathologically overprotective? Not that Naomi ignored me as such. It’s just Naomi had Naomi to cultivate, and a kind of familial every-person-for-themselves attitude. So now, instead of being grateful, I’m dreading being whisked away to recuperate at the Ellison manor like some kind of consumptive in a Victorian romance novel. In other words, I’m definitely thinking too much.

Try shifting on the bed, that’ll definitely take my mind off of it. I let myself moan a little as the still stapled-together bits of me protest, causing Simon to abandon his coffee and straighten the covers for me, all the while eyeing me worriedly. I’m starting to miss his gruff bark. Okay, that’s probably still the drugs saying that. I mean to say that I’d prefer to be trying not to shake in my shoes rather than be carefully tucked in is a little masochistic, but I’ve had just about enough of being the patient.

The door swings open and Jim hones in on me, quite obviously opening his senses wide. Pretty much twists my gut. If someone dropped a tray, or the PA slammed on for a code blue, it’d take me a long time to get him out of the zone. Maybe so long that the medical powers-that-be come bearing hypos. Be better for all of us when tomorrow comes. And frankly I’m pretty sure the doc who got stuck with me will be glad to have the entire future of the hospital’s possible Ellison donations out of his hands.

"Hey Jim."

He’s gotten better about making eye contact, at least with Simon and me. He’ll come over and sit in a minute, but first he has to do his patrol of the borders. It drives his father crazy but there’s not much I can do but shrug and tell him it’s a Sentinel thing, something I’ve been saying way too often. His territory may be a twelve by fourteen hospital room, but it’s still his territory, even if only temporarily.

"Take it easy, Sandburg." The captain watches Jim’s careful reconnaissance of the bathroom. "I’ll see you tonight."

"Thanks, captain."

Actually Simon looks as uncomfortable as I do at all this politeness that’s been subbing for conversation lately.

"Whadda you think you’re smiling at?"

"Nothing, captain.’ I raise my hands. "Nothing."

"Better not be," he mutters. Simon waves a hand at Jim as he strolls out the door.

God, one more morning and none of us have to do this any more.

~oOo~

Have I mentioned PT is a bit of a problem? For one thing it hurts like hell, which you’d expect. Well, if you were anybody but Jim. That being the bigger problem. It would be easier if they’d just dope him, rather than me, before it starts.

We tried having Steven take him for lunch, but quickly found out that Jim can hear me just fine four floors down in the cafeteria. We tried taking him out of the building, but Jim’s too smart for that. Trick him once, shame on you. Tricking him twice simply wasn’t going to happen. He knew I was in pain when he got back and the next day he did one of his human handcuff things on my wrist and that was that.

I had visions that the Ellisons were going to be buying many, many pieces of medical equipment to avoid the lawsuit when one six-foot-tall son tossed my five-foot-tall physical therapist out the window.

"Hey, Jim, give Melanie a break today, okay?"

He’s tensed up, probably hearing the therapist coming down the hall.

"Mornin’ boys." Melanie peeks around the door. "Jim going to let me come in?"

Melanie is plump, cheerful-without-being-sacchariney and exudes the whole earth-mother thing like the good practicing pagan that she is. She could have called security that first day when Jim came rushing in the room like an avenging angel but she didn’t.

I gesture her in with one hand and hold out the other to Jim. I’ve tried distraction and when that failed, I’ve been relying on stoicism on my part. Must be getting better, because this is the first day I’ve felt capable of using the torture session to teach Jim something. "C’mere Jim, we’re gonna have to do this one more time. Melanie’s not here to hurt me. She’s here to help."

I’m having trouble getting Jim to make eye-contact. He’s too busy keeping a watchful eye on my potential tormentor. I reach out and turn his face until I can capture the serious gaze.

"Jim, you with me?"

It takes a bit, but Houston, we have eye contact.

"I’m going to go do some stuff with Melanie. I’m going to be fine, okay? You just sit and watch. It’s to make me better, Jim. No big deal."

Convincing a Sentinel is not an easy thing, but I think I’ve got it down this time. I’m calm. The morphine is low enough to dampen the pain and leave the brain cells still basically functioning. My heart rate seems normal to me. I’m smiling. We’re going to get through this.

Melanie smiles back and helps me up, putting that waist leash thing on me. The first couple of times around the room are good. I’m not even shuffling. The little portable staircase is another matter. Stepping up pulls at all kinds of things that don’t want to be pulled but this is the time to find your inner-NFL player. Pain? What pain?

"Hurts?" questions Melanie, reacting to the look on my face by tightening her grip on my arm.

"No hurt!"

I gasp, both because Jim has fucking said something and because his efforts to push Melanie away from me sends me into the railing of the mini stairs. Melanie reaches around, oblivious to the red circle I’m marking around today in my mental calendar. My own personal Saint’s day.

Jim growls. Unfortunately much more effective at getting the worried PT’s attention than his demand.

"Jim?" I’m breathless and convulsively clutching at my screaming incision. Jim looks wild, his movements clumsy with fright.

Both of them are trying to grab at me. I’m still reeling both physically and mentally and the next thing I know I’m in a kind of pile on the floor being fought over by my two solicitous helpers. A fight easily won by Jim who grasps me in his arms and scoots away with me.

"Whoa!" I’m trying to get a purchase on the faux hardwood but I’m too well wrapped up to manage it. "Jim! Stop it!"

I’m not sure which one of us is breathing harder – Jim cause he’s terrified--or me.

"Stop!"

Melanie has the good instincts to stay where she is, despite the fact her patient is yelling, breathless and being towed across the floor on his butt.

Jim finally listens, his backwards crawl coming to a halt. A strong arm is wrapped around my chest, holding me to his, and he’s nuzzling against my hair, calming himself by rocking and murmuring something I can’t make out. If it’s actually words at all.

"Jim?" I try to twist around in his grasp and eventually he lets me. "Hey, want to try that again, big guy?"

I coax patiently. If Melanie thinks this isn’t the time for an impromptu speech lesson, she doesn’t say it.

"Can you say my name?"

So Jim is looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. I’ve just scared him to death and now I’m plying him with insane requests. But we seem to have our best moments under immense stress … sometimes you just gotta go with what you’re given.

The grip around my ribs releases and Jim, still wide-eyed and panting, makes my name sign. Which is wonderful. Which is great. A while ago I was thrilled with any form of conversation.

"No, man. *Say* it. Like you said ‘no hurt’." I bring a couple fingers tentatively to Jim’s lips. "Here."

I’m having a frigging eureka moment here and if Archimedes could have one in a bathtub, I figure Jim and I are entitled to a couple minutes on Cascade Memorial’s floor.

Jim opens his mouth but then seems frozen. I cup his jaw in my palm. I can almost see the great black divide that Jim must feel separates us. "Blair," I coach. "Please, Jim. You can do this. For me. Say ‘Blair’."

I’m aware of Melanie moving to kneel beside me but I ignore her. I’m not about to lose this moment without a fight.

"Blair," I whisper. It never seemed appropriate that my name in Gaelic meant "a field of battle". Never, until now.

Melanie is gently tugging me away. Jim’s chin moves in my hand as my fingers slip from his jawline. "B … Blair."

His fingers gently trace my trembling smile. "Hey," I manage, suddenly exhausted and gasping, "you did it."

Melanie is there to help lever me to my feet and I’m escorted back to the hospital-bed-in-disguise. Jim hovers, his hand going to my pulse point as soon as Melanie gives him room. The grip is warm and soothing and I start to drift off, excitement and morphine taking their toll. I’m halfway awake and halfway in that jungle dream. The blue vines have crept along the hospital room’s walls. The lion-footed chair becomes more dark and cat-like until it finally prowls away to lie beside a stream flowing out into the hall. There’s the vague beat of a bombo and the primitive fluting of a tarka. Something beneath the bed rustles and the cat makes a soft, inviting huffing sound. Nails click on the hard flooring and if I’m not going to worry there’s a rainforest in my hospital room, then I’m not going to worry there’s a wolf in my rainforest either. Besides, he and the chair-cum-panther look very happy together.

~oOo~

Waking up once to find Simon snoring beside my bed was … odd. Waking up twice that way is downright scary. I roll over half-believing I’m going to find Jim sitting on the other side.

"Simon?" When he doesn’t respond I reach out and give the captain’s nearest arm a little shake.

Sleepy dark eyes blink at me. "You okay, Sandburg?"

"Yeah," I return his look of concern suspiciously. "I think, unless you have something to tell me."

Simon yawns, laying his head back against the curve of the lion-pawed chair, which is once again, reassuringly, inanimate.

"Came in here to find you sacked out. Nurse said something about your therapy session being a little rough. And Jim had to practically be dragged away. When you slept through that, I figured maybe I better stay."

"He said something."

"Hmm?" The captain frowns as pre-caffeinated neurons try sluggishly to fire quickly enough to allow for conversation.

"Jim," I clarify. "He can talk."

"I told you that."

"Yeah, but I didn’t hear it. I mean I believed you. Okay, well, I pretty much believed you."

Simon rose to his usual towering height and shrugged into his crumpled jacket. "So, you’re okay."

I checked my arms. One short, bright blue cast but no needles. "Seem to be."

"Then I’m going home."

"Uh, captain."

Simon swings back toward the bed, stifling another yawn.

"Thanks."

"You’re still going home today, right?"

"I better be."

The captain nods, a solid hand swinging up in a halfhearted attempt at waving goodbye. "Thank God."

~oOo~

Going home.

There’s a concept that has little meaning when the home you should be going to is now in a 300-foot pile at Ernie’s Scrap and Metal.

Steven, always prepared, is the only one who realizes I have nothing to go home in and comes in, Jim in tow, with a pair of sweatpants, a thermal Henley and a flannel coat to go on top of it. Jim’s contributed a pair of worn Nike’s only a couple sizes too big for me and in short order I’m good to go.

About an hour later, the hospital decides they’ll actually let me, and clutching a stack of multi-colored instructions and illegible prescriptions, I collapse into the back of Steven’s honkin’ big sedan. Jim resists Steven’s attempts to load him into the front seat, choosing instead to slide across the pristine leather until he’s nearly in my lap.

"Hey, Steven," I’m feeling a little lightheaded.. "Jim tell you what happened yesterday?"

Steven is the only one I would ever ask something like that. Can’t imagine what the senior Ellison would say if I asked if Jim "told" him something. But Steven speaks Jim, most of the time better than I do.

"Well, I got ‘hurt’ and ‘Blair’ about six times while I tried to get him to come home last night." Steven sounds just like I did a couple of weeks ago, when Jim signing was a kind of minor miracle. "Hey, and a couple of times he signed ‘stay’ which we thought he never got, remember?"

I remember. "Stay" wasn’t a very useful concept to Jim. He didn’t connect that he might want somebody *not* to come with him. And concepts that expressed what we wanted him to do - and that not being what *he* wanted to do - rated way down on the bottom of the list interesting things to learn.

Not that I was expecting Jim to pipe up "hey, bro, I remembered I can talk," on his way home least night, but I was really hoping I’d hear he’d said something. Or tried to say something.

The car pulls out into the early afternoon traffic, the sudden acceleration causing a wince. Jim looks concerned and he lays a hand on my arm. Nice, but I was really wishing he’d turn around and cuss out his younger brother’s driving skills.

Okay, no way we’re there yet. I know.

Steven angles the car up into the western hills, the streets becoming manicured, the house size growing exponentially. I watch them roll by. Whichever deities look after homeless graduate students sure must be doing their job right. Having a sudden desire to jump from a moving vehicle and run like hell back to the warehouse district is probably not the kind of gratitude they had in mind either. Shit. I shut my eyes against the doubling of property values that seems to be happening at every intersection.

I hate this. I haven’t felt this way – hell, since that first time I taught 101. If I wanted major life changes I would have applied to dentistry school or the naval academy. I would have married Christina Yokely and rented a house with a white picket fence and a poodle.

"Damnit," I mutter.

In response, Jim starts a slow, rhythmic rubbing along my arm.

It doesn’t solve my many, many problems – first and foremost being how to rewrite, hell, everything that was on the plastic sculpture that was once my laptop. It doesn’t tell me how I’m going to get a month’s down payment of rent money together to even get a lease. Won’t help me figure out how I’m going to replace my – admittedly very cheap -wardrobe , with a credit card that was already maxed out before the walls came tumbling down.

But it feels really good anyway.

Great, my emotional safety net is a thirty-six-year-old man who has said a total of four words in the past twenty-two years. All right, thirty-one if you count signing. And at least thirty-seven if you count the clear looks of rage, pleasure, pain, fear, confusion and empathy Jim communicates with body language.

Although maybe that’s not so bad, after all - I mean the whole arm-rubbing thing is relaxing as hell. Throw some rocking in with that and a little of Jim’s humming and I could just manage to sleep through the adjustment period.

The car glides to a stop, the engine shutting off with a chilling finality. I’m thinking three to four days tops to get everything in at least half-assed order, then I’m out of here.

~oOo~

I have printed out the suggested prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua, Restorer of Speech to the Mute. Sounds like a pretty cool guy, actually, although I’ve never thought much one way or the other about the Catholic pantheon, except maybe how they fit into the syncretic South American and African religions – the Yoruba and Candomble. Come to think of it, I think Eleggua takes offerings every Monday and on the third day of the month. I could try him too.

Okay, so I’m desperate.

Have I mentioned the laptop? The top-of-the-line, CD/DVD, astronomical-gigabyte wonder that plugs right in to the Ellison’s T1 line? Do you know what a T1 line costs? I do. I looked it up. On the internet, which the T1 line gets you to very quickly. I fucking *live* off what William Ellison pays for internet service.

If I sell the laptop Steven has so eagerly donated to me, I could pay the rent for four months. I’m seriously considering it. Because as an informational gateway it frankly isn’t doing a whole hell of a lot.

So Jim doesn’t talk. I could deal with that. Really hadn’t thought much about it. Jim was too damaged, too screwed up sense-wise. Speaking wasn’t even on my radar screen. I was more interested in other forms of communication. I mean, Jim gets sign. Really *gets* it. It’s tactile and most of the time it’s a good mimic for the real thing. "Eat" looks like eating. "Sleep" looks like sleeping. Put the two together and you’ve got "home".

I wasn’t even going for speech and now that he’s got me boning up on protolanguages, he’s steadfastly refusing to give a repeat performance.

"Jim." He’s watching me again, and after three days, constant surveillance is getting a little old. "We need to talk about this talking thing."

In three days I’ve arranged to bunk on Cleo DeLuca’s couch as soon as the docs give me the go ‘head to start back teaching. I’ve managed to beg and borrow most of the textbooks and teacher’s guides I lost. I’ve calculated that if I don’t drive any more than is absolutely necessary and never eat more than six bananas, four apples and eight Ramen noodle cups a week, in a month I should have two months rent saved up. If I start getting hypoglycemic I can always weigh whether the gas I’ll use up getting back to chez Ellison is worth one of Sally’s breakfasts.

Yep, in three days I’ve accomplished a fair bit.

In those same three days Jim has pretty much dazzled everybody with his vocabulary. What did I say? Thirty-seven words? Try forty-nine -- and that was yesterday alone. William is even talking about an ASL tutor.

Although I’m pretty sure Jim’s internal dictionary is bound to shrink mightily if faced with a stranger, that’s not the real reason I’ve been not-so-quietly discouraging the idea. I’m still hoping Jim will start speaking – on a much more regular basis than three words in two weeks.

"So," I say, patting the couch, encouraging my unwary charge to come sit next to me. "What is it you really like, hmm?"

Jim gingerly lowers himself to the cushion, overly careful not to jar me. He smiles his small, slightly distant Jim-smile.

"What would make you talk?"

Okay, so the question is decidedly rhetorical on my part but Steven, who's headed out on his way home after his usual check-in, stops long enough to say "try his sculpture" before giving a quick kiss to Jim's short hair.

Jim signs "bye" which nets him a happy hug. Steven’s continual delight at having these small, silent conversations with his brother is pretty much the best damn reinforcement you could find. While I - the guy who’s supposed to be knowledgeable about this stuff – just sit here having a major "duh" moment.

Wonder how many neurons having a building fall on you knocks out? Besides the obviousness of the answer, I also realize that Jim hasn't set foot out of the house since I got here. And probably, with his constant hospital vigils, hadn't been able to use his best emotional outlet since before all this happened.

"Damnit, Jim. You're not supposed to give that up for me."

Jim's forehead creases into an immediate frown. His hands make the sign for "pain".

"Whoa, no." I cover his hands with my own. "No hurt."

"You love ..."  I'm signing as I go, cast and all, until I get to "sculpture", which I'm probably kidding myself to think I could spell at this point. Never mind we hadn't tried to teach Jim the alphabet, and the basic ASL guide we've been managing with so far probably didn't include art terms. I fall back on miming sculpting something and adding the sign for cat. 

"Come on," I offer my hand to Jim and he uses the opportunity to very gently ease me to my feet. "Let's go play in the clay."

It's already past twilight, but Jim never notices the difference, apparently able to cope with sudden changes to low light.

"Jim." I have to call after him and make him wait for me as I'm now not only tottering, but half-blind. "Hey man, most of us can't see in the dark. Just you and the cats, so you're gonna have to give me your hand."

Not only dark, it's cold. Jim is this mass of warmth and strength beside me and I let him lead me to the old garage. Funny to suddenly think of Jim as the one who's competent in this relationship.

The fluorescent lights make the studio seems bare and stark and I shudder in the chill. A second later I find Jim's barn jacket wrapped around me – in its own way a breakthrough bigger than I want to consider at the moment. It's all I can do find a table to lean against. Right above it, I spy a state-of-the-art thermostat on the rough wood wall and silently thank the great purchasing power of Ellison Enterprises as I turn it up to seventy-two.

Jim is doing his reconnect-thing. He has to touch, make sure everything is the way he remembers it. He stops before the morphing pair of man-animals. Sensitive fingers go straight to a certain spot and Jim closes his eyes, maybe searching for the exact place he left off. Maybe finding something he's been thinking about doing for the past two weeks, when he didn't get a chance to vent his fear and frustration in his usual way.

I've wondered where Jim goes when he just sits so still and watches me. Wondered if in its own way Jim's mind is working out his sculptures.

He opens his eyes to look at me.

"Beautiful," I say, circling my face with the sign.

Jim's hands raise halfway and suddenly know that what I've given him, what words he has, what verbal capabilities he has, are incapable of expressing what he's already expressed; what I, so
far, have been so incapable of reading.

The clay is cool under my hands and touching it, Jim standing stilled in the bright, freezing light makes me feel reverent. 

"We have stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity – and nothing is holy anymore," I murmur, Jung seeming an appropriate benediction.

A little confused at the strength of my reaction, I turn to look at the rest of the pieces. Busts of his family. The bust of me. But, always, the imposing figure of the cat, lately joined by a wolf and now both figures morphing into human form.


"The jaguar has a long history with the native peoples of the South American jungles. The Mayans and Toltecs believed their Sun God became a black jaguar when he disappeared at night into the underworld. The Olmecs thought their shamans had the power of were-jaguars and once transformed could cure disease and divine the future."

In a way it's a non sequitur, but many of the other pieces have the look of the jungle cat. The short, barrel-like body on strong, stout legs. The weight evenly distributed through the muscular neck and shoulders.

Jim has stood patiently through my anthro lesson, still half-poised to sign. He reaches a hand toward one of the cats and with a look of intense determination makes a single sign, palm facing him as he brings a flattened hand toward his chest.

Mine.

"Yeah, I know, Jim. Your work is beautiful."

He drops his eyes and stars blankly at the cracked, stained floor. It's one of his natural defenses against overstimulation, but I can't quite figure out what's making him so disturbed. The fluorescents' hum and crack is more noticeable against the dark stillness. The place is a little musty from having been kept closed and cold. Maybe it's just the passage of time – that he's been away too long and has to learn to tolerate the studio again.

"Maybe we should go--"

Jim has moved to stroke the head of the wolf sculpture. His hand makes the opposite of the gesture he's just made.

Yours.

"You made that ... for me?"

I lose him again for a minute to the myriad cracks in the concrete floor. We've been here before. Jim is clearly trying to communicate something and getting a little closer than he's managed up until now, but not close enough for me understand. I hobble over and rub a hand up and down his arm.

"It's okay, Jim. We'll get it eventually."

Unexpectedly he shakes his head and steps away from me, my hand still hovering where his shoulder had been. After a few feet he stops. His eyes are bright and desperate.

Help. Mine.

"I ... I'm sorry, Jim. I don't understand what you need me to do."

Sleep. Speak.

I'm not afraid of Jim. I've never been afraid of Jim. But for a second, he looks feral in the artificial light and when he reaches out toward me, I flinch. And for Jim, body language is the most basic of tongues, read even when he could read nothing else.

He's devastated, cringing back even as a split-second later I go to him. He retreats toward the man-animal pair, his steps awkward, his foot twisting as he trips over one of the grates in the floor. In a minute we are both on our knees, the duo towering over us. Jim's arms hang limply by his sides. His eyes are closed and I recognize the deep retreat that will take him away to wherever he goes when he rocks.

"Hey," I cup his chin. "No, no. Don't leave me, man. I know I'm being totally stupid, but it's not your fault. We can do it. I've nearly got a goddamned PhD so I know we can do it. Try again. Please, man."

The eyes that open are a bit dazed, as if he's already gone, but he blinks a couple of times so I know it's not a zone.

A shaking hand presses against my chest.

"You," I translate.

After a long moment, Jim withdraws the warm touch and he joins his trembling hands together to form the next sign.

"Sleep."

He hunkers back on his heels and reaches up to the man-wolf, then makes the sign I've been pestering him with for three days.

"Speak."

My mind is stumbling all around, concepts of cause and effect blurring. I dream about wolves because Jim makes wolves; Jim loves stories about wolves. There was no wolf until ...

"Jim, I dream about wolves because I see them here, in the studio."

The hand, still shaky, presses to Jim's own chest, then makes the same motions again, only this time he reaches for the taller morphing cat figure.

I.

Sleep.

Cat speaks.

The fall from my knees to my butt is luckily not a long one.

***

Naomi was like a doctoral course in comparative religion. She could prepare a seder plate while quoting Baha'u'llah, then go off and commune with Asatru. She would not be landing tail-first on a freezing cold floor because, like Marco Polo, she'd found unicorns only because she went looking them.

All right, all right … I'm babbling.

Sudden cosmic shifts in perspective will do that to you.

Jim's concerned face hovers near mine, grave and beautiful, and I reach up to touch his cheek.

"Jim," my voice is barely a whisper, "I think you're a shaman."

Bits and pieces of anthro lore start to tug painfully at my brain. Among the tools shamans are known to use to enter hallucinatory trance states are enforced isolation and sensory deprivation. Even torture. Odin used torture, hanging himself on the world-tree in order to gain secret wisdom.

Haverick Rutherford, in his ignorance and cruelty, gave Jim pain and Jim ...

Oh god. My hands are shaking and I drop them, numbly watching them twitch on my thighs until they're covered by Jim's steady ones. He pulls me to my feet, then reels me in as I sway, holding onto my sleeve as he takes me toward the house.

Sally is there, opening the door. William frowns at the sight of Jim in his shirtsleeves and me bundled in both our jackets. He touches Jim's arm and frowns deeper, then goes to find his cashmere cardigan, the one Jim likes to stroke.

The normal activities of a night with Jim go on around me. He's quickly wrapped in the soft, blue sweater and ensconced on the couch to warm up. Sally brings mugs of hot cocoa and smiles when Jim wants to hold it himself. She sits on the low table in front of the sofa and tries to not place a steadying hand underneath as Jim sips. William walks back from setting the alarm on the back door and gives a gentle pet to Jim's hair.

Freeing one hand, Jim finds my wrist; encircling it with warmed fingers. Sally takes the tilting mug from him, but it's no longer of any importance. Around us the room seems to be retreating. There is only Jim and I, his hand grasping my wrist, his arms catching me as I slump in exhausted sleep.

***

William shakes me awake, then proceeds to disentangle me from an equally sleepy Jim. He cajoles Jim into standing then escorts him upstairs to his room. Jim is dazed and compliant.

I think I’m just dazed.

As nobody is going to tuck me in, I stumble around doing the nightly stuff – brushing my teeth, shrugging into the pair of flannel sleep pants and a spare thermal pullover. Sally has turned on the bed’s electric blanket, as she would have Jim’s, and I slip cold toes into the previously unknown bliss of a warmed bed.

If I hadn’t just come to the unenviable conclusion that I am the world’s biggest idiot, I could settle down into the comforts only money brings and sleep away the residual aches and pains that still get me by the end of the day.

Toss. Turn. Right side. Left side. Nope, the body is willing but the brain is hamstering on its wheel. With a sigh, I stagger up and retrieve the laptop, ducking back into the warm haven of sheets as quickly as possible.

Not often that I get hit by the mental equivalent of the New Canada Short Line. There’s a part of my brain softly chanting "stupid, stupid, stupid" and another part desperately signing on to Google so I can prove to myself just how stupid I’ve been.

At what point did I forget that the pictures of half-animal, half-men figures found in ancient cave paintings are thought to be depictions of the shamanic trance state? There I am staring for months at the equivalent of the Sorcerer drawing in the caves of Trois Fr่res and I just don’t see it. As if Jim doesn’t already have enough fucking stupid people in his life, he gets an anthropologist too wrapped up in his own vision of Sentinels to see that Jim is way more than the sum of his sensory parts. That Jim, damaged as he is, is in some ways more whole than I am.

I find the laptop in my hands, about to be shattered against one of the available walls, and the thought that I actually *would* shocks me enough that I drop it back on the bed. Wasn’t there something about the Universe not giving you more than you can handle? ‘Cause this … this makes the drowning I thought I was doing seem like a wade in the kiddie pool. This is some full-blown existential panic attack, complete with wheezing and black spots.

Somebody’s hands push me back on the pillows.

Oh, man. I gotta get a grip on myself. I’ve got seriously non-existential stuff to do. Another day here. A night on Cleo’s couch. Two lectures on Thursday. Breathing would be good, too. I should do breathing.

One of the hands moves to my chest, stroking a steady rhythm that eventually my lungs follow. In. Out. In. Out. I’m not dying, as easy an out as that might be. I’m never dying. Panic attacks are definitely the antithesis of the death state, even if they feel otherwise. I know this. I know about serotonin and presynaptic nerve terminals.

Eventually my eyes decide to cooperate.

"Jim?"

He’s still a little distant, detached. Not quite normal, or what I’ve come to think of as normal for Jim. He’s not making eye contact and is back to using touch as his main communication method. Despite what I’ve seen, what he’s shown me, Jim is still deeply imprisoned.

This man is a miracle, but it’s not the kind of Disney miracle where Jim’s going to suddenly be all right. This is the kind of miracle that will take a lifetime of hard work. From him. From William and Steven. From Sally.

From me.

Jim’s profile is dark against the low light of the bedside lamp. I pull myself up and Jim still doesn’t look at me, his eyes not quite focused but steadfastly fixed on something beyond my shoulder. I’m still panting, but my lungs are cooperating now.

I can do this.

I can do this for Jim.

I can do this because, as slow on the uptake as I am, I’m the only one who’s gotten this far.

I press my palm to Jim’s chest, gently rub the warm flannel over his heart. In response he lays a corresponding palm over my own.

I can do this.

For Jim.

For us.

~end~