My God, it's almost over.

Something was dripping on him.

Pip, pip, pip. Steady drops that gathered and became a river running off his face and into his hair. Black Jack groaned and tried to lift his head, to flex his fingers.


His eyes opened suddenly, and he found himself in the center of a pool of yellow light. He blinked up at the face coming into focus.

“Patrice?” He sat up, his head swimming. “What are you doing out here?”

Patrice pulled back and set the rag she'd been wringing over his face aside. She folded her hands on the knees of her bright white pajamas. Bright white dyed deep red from the knee down. “Eleanor shot me,” she said at length. “And Uncle Henry chased me.”

He recoiled, recovered swiftly, and reached for his bag. She was damned thorough, bringing it over to him from where it had skidded in his fall. “And stashed you in here?”

She nodded. It looked like she'd already done all her crying. “It's barred from the outside.”

“We'll worry about that later,” Black Jack said. He took the lantern from beside her. He could navigate his bag fine in the dark if need be, but after a knock on the back of his head he trusted his muscle memory somewhat less. “Where have you been shot? Show me.”

“It's not bad,” she said, cringing as she straightened her right leg out and hitched up the tattered leg of her pajamas.

To her credit, it wasn't too terribly bad. The bullet had struck her in the calf, just on the very inside of her leg. It put a deep gouge in her, but it had found an easy exit. More than likely, the breadth of the stain on her clothes was due more to her being soaked through with melted snow than it was to severe blood loss.

“I'll clean it and close it,” he said, taking the cuff of her pajama pants in his hands and splitting the leg up to her knee before she could protest. “You tell me what's going on around here.”

“I don't think they want to kill me. Or you.”

“Not my concern right now.” He pumped the plunger on a little bottle of sterilizing fluid. Aerosol was more convenient, but harder to fly with. “Besides that, shooting someone and locking them in a shed isn't exactly a caring gesture.”

“Spring house.”

“Hm?” He put his hand around her ankle so she couldn't jerk away and doused the wound with the solution. She didn't even flinch. Tough country girls were alive and well in America, it seemed.

“It's called a spring house. There's even a little well in it.”

“Unless I can swim out by that well, I don't want to hear about it.” He went back to his bag to prep some anesthetic. “Keep talking while I sew you up. Even numb, you'll want the distraction.”

She swallowed and looked up at the ceiling. It wasn't far to look. She didn't even wince when he administered the injection. “Okay. You know she shot be on account of me trying to help you, right?”

“I didn't. How exactly were you helping me by trying to break into my computer?”

“She made me do that. Morrigan did, I mean. Eleanor's sister. Twins.”

Black Jack didn't let the flash of realization that struck him travel further than his eyes, lest it unsteady his hands. The two girls in the photo, then. “I see. Because of the lab results.”

“Huh? No, she just didn't want to risk you talking to anybody. She got scared, I guess, when you turned out to be all... how you are.”

“And how am I?”

“Not like Rokuro.”

Black Jack had no reply.

“They were married, you know. That part's for real. Eleanor and Morrigan were both real hung up on Rokuro, and he just sort of... He was a scumbag, you know? What's a scumbag going to do with twin sisters fighting over him?”

“Take from both and damn the consequences to them.” Black Jack covered the closed wound over with gauze. “So, he married one of them regardless.”

She nodded. “Eleanor... won, I guess. She had control of the estate, so you could say she was just the better investment. And she was already pregnant. You can imagine how angry Morrigan was.”

Black Jack's eyebrows rose. “So she had been pregnant before.”

“She lost it pretty early,” Patrice flexed her knee to bring her bandaged leg closer. “Complications from drug abuse, I guess you'd call it on a record.”

Black Jack rocked back onto his heels and pulled himself up by the stone lip of the spring fountain jutting from the wall. He wanted to be shocked. Makube was exactly the kind of scumbag she said, and it was routine for scumbags with the means at hand to control a partner with drugs. “I won't ask you to tell me what she was using.”

She held the lantern up from her spot on the floor. The wavering light threw stark shadows over her soft, serious face. “Pretty sure you already know.”

He took it and panned the light around the single room. “I'm afraid I don't.” Opiates were a concern in this part of America, but he had no reason to suspect that specifically. He went to the door and tried it with no success, and noticed that the wind hissed through the gaps in the planks.

“Have you looked at the snowbells closely?” she asked. He hadn't. “They've got some kind of...” She searched for a word and didn't find it. “There's this fungus that gets on the bulbs that protects them up here when it's cold, and it grows up the stem when they grow. I don't know a lot about the life cycle or anything, but when you inhale it it's kinda magic mushroom-y.”

This girl had clearly never taken mescalin, but that was beside the point. “When you inhale it, it sits in your lungs and causes fungal pneumonia,” he said, momentarily aware of the faint rattle in his own chest. It could be elsewhere in the respiratory system, he was sure, blooming like algae and pumping out whatever chemical cocktail disoriented and eventually anesthetized its hosts.

“Yeah, most of the time,” Patrice said. He heard her scrape up to the fountain and pull herself up on it. “Rokuro wasn't interested in that part so much. He called it 'spectacularly versatile,' because you could sell it as a weapon, or a drug, or both if you got to understanding it fully. I don't, obviously. It doesn't even affect me, or Uncle Henry, or Morrigan.”

“But it affected Eleanor.” Black Jack went to his bag and got out one of the longer kinds of Kocher forceps he carried. Eight inches ought to be enough for proper leverage if he was patient.

“Only the magic mushroom part,” Patrice said. Black Jack didn't bother telling her that was impossible, that from everything he'd heard and observed the fungus needed to be alive in the body to have that effect. Otherwise everyone in the lodge would be loopy. “Rokuro wouldn't mess with it personally, but he kept bringing shady people up here to study it and try to make it into something useful.”

He didn't have to force the forceps through the widest gap, where he could see the bolt thrown over the door. He jammed the toothed end up into the bar and pushed. “And I suppose I'm one of those shady people, and the whole baby act was a ploy to get me here in the first place.”

She was quiet for a moment, or else whatever she tried to say got drowned out by the grating of wood on wood as he worked the bar free. “Well. You're half right. I told you they were both nuts about that scumbag.”

He slammed the meat of his palm into the Kocher's finger rings one more time, hard, and the bar swung free and thudded into the disturbed snow outside the door. “You did.” The words felt so heavy in his throat and sounded empty leaving it.

“He wrote while he was in prison the last time, so-”

“Yes.” Black Jack shouldered the door and let the wind and snow tear into the spring house. Makube would surround himself with the kind of women who would take revenge on the guy who condemned him to death, wouldn't he? He smiled stiffly into the stinging stream of ice. Yes, that sounded about right.


Cold wind spat in his face. One might expect this to make the fever more bearable, but in effect his hot exposed skin stung terribly, and he shivered and sweated under his coat. He bunched his hands up in his coat when he pulled it around himself, just to cover them up, and pushed into the wind. The storm had erased Patrice's bread crumb trail of blood drops and reduced the tracks of Henry's snowmobile to indistinct ruts that disappeared entirely where the trees didn't shelter them.

Black Jack didn't dare rely on the stream to lead him anywhere. In the white, in the dark, it would be too easy to blunder onto a thin sheet of ice covered over with snow and soak himself. His body was doing that well enough already. Instead, he tried to follow the general track he recognized from his trip down with Henry. The scenery had changed subtly in the newest dumping of snow, but he felt reasonably confident in his memory.

He had to pause and cough as he went, the cold air stinging his lungs as badly as his face and hands. Before long, he was spitting intermittent strings of red in the snow and puffing for breath on the slightest incline. It may not have been apparent at rest in the spring house, but his lung function was definitely affected by the extent of the infection.

He was leaning on a tree, his mouth and nose tucked in his collar as he tried to warm his face with his breath, when the whirr of an engine cut through the wind and startled him. Sucking a breath into lungs that protested holding it, he straightened up and flattened himself against the tree. Lights swept the snow further up the incline, winking in and out behind tree trunks. Black Jack was still, watching. The wind carried combustion smell to him.

Shortly, the snowmobile came to an idling stop with its headlights trained in his general direction.

He thought about running, but Patrice had run and been shot anyway. At length, he stepped away from his hiding place with his hands out at his sides.

The lean, tall figure stooped over on the snowmobile straightened up and stepped off, leaving the vehicle idling. In the spotlight of the headlights, he was just a shadow standing upright.

“Hey! Black Jack!”

He'd never imagined he'd be grateful to hear that voice calling to him. He waved weakly and grabbed his bag from where he'd dropped it. Kiriko came down the hill to meet him. He'd swapped out his soaked overcoat for a parka more suited to tearing around at a ski lodge. He looked... relieved. Or maybe it was the light making the drastic shadows of his carved face do strange things.

Or maybe Black Jack was hallucinating again.

Benign things.

Pretty lights and kind faces.

“Black Jack.” Kiriko called him out of his head with a firm voice and a gloved hand wrapped tight around the one he wasn't using to clutch his bag. “Come on.”

He came crashing back down into himself with a start. “Right.” He let Kiriko help haul him up the incline. It was better that way, he wouldn't want to rest halfway up.

And the tether to another human was nice.

“Sit,” Kiriko said.

Black Jack didn't sit so much as he fell into place on the center of the snowmobile's seat. It was newer and springier than the one he'd rode down with Henry. Kiriko took his gloves off, felt Black Jack's face and neck all over, and shined a pen light in his eyes. Black Jack suffered all this without complaint. In his mind, he simply didn't have the energy to spare on fussing. And it was necessary, he had to admit. He knew he wasn't well.

“You feel lucid?” Kiriko asked.

Black Jack took inventory of himself. He was tired, yes, maybe mildly delirious, but he was awake and aware. He nodded.

Kiriko made an annoyed sound and took his bag. “Well, you're cooking yourself shivering out here.” He lashed the bag to the back of the snowmobile and climbed back on. “Hold onto me and not the bag, all right? I don't want you swooning into the snow on a sharp turn.”

No time for arguing. No energy for fussing. Black Jack just scowled to himself and leaned forward to link his fingers over Kiriko's chest. He was so heavy, suddenly, now that he could afford to be still. The weight of his body pulled him further forward, pressed into Kiriko's back as they wove and bobbed through the trees.

It was nice.

Physically, he reminded himself hastily. Physically, it was very nice.

His body at rest. Dry warmth trapped between his chest and Kiriko's back. Shelter from the wind in his hair. It was good and nice and made him desperately want to slip into sleep.

Kiriko must have felt his grip going slack. He took a hand off the bars and laid it over Black Jack's.

“Try and stay awake for a few more minutes, doctor.” He let go when Black Jack started squeezing him, but didn't seem put off by it otherwise. In fact, he laughed. “We're almost there.”


An unexpectedly placid scene greeted him when he staggered into the lobby behind Kiriko. Eight people, only two of whom could have been any older then fourteen, sat collected in the pool of light and warmth in front of the fireplace. Some of them had cups to drink from. They all whipped their head around to the door when the two doctors walked in.

“Everything's all right,” Kiriko said, one hand up to quell any questions. “Go back to resting.”

Black Jack fell heavy on a sofa far out of the light, his bag abandoned at his feet. “You only woke the kids?”

“Imagine I exhausted my supply of the drug. If it's a fungal infection that's releasing whatever toxin puts people to sleep, and we don't have anything to hand for the infection, the ones we've managed to wake could slip away again and we'd have nothing to help them.” Kiriko slid his hands under the shoulders of Black Jack's coat and pushed it off. “Here.”

No, no, it wouldn't do to just let Kiriko undress him. He wormed away and shrugged out of the coat himself. “I'm all right.”

“You're running a fever that would send anybody not snowbound to a hospital,” Kiriko said. “You had your face smashed into the back of my neck the whole ride over. Did you think I wouldn't realize how bad off you are?”

Black Jack moved down the sofa and made himself look busy untying and popping off his boots. “There's not a Hell of a lot to be done about it right now.”

“Sleep and something for the fever are both valid courses of action. I recommend both.” Kiriko folded his arms and stooped down to speak into Black Jack's face. “These kids are still sick. What good are you going to do them if you pass out or go delirious?”

Black Jack peeled off his socks. Cotton under winter boots was a bad choice. His head drooped. “You can't expect me to sleep.”

“An hour.” Kiriko rooted in one of the pockets of his parka and held out a blister pack of pills. “To bring the fever down. Feel free to check, but I promise it's sealed. No poison.”

Murmuring to himself, Black Jack turned the package over in his hands for a few moments. He wasn't really looking at it. Kiriko, having slipped away while he wasn't paying attention, came back with a heavy stoneware cup full of something steaming.

“You wouldn't poison me,” Black Jack said, the words dribbling out of his mouth.

Kiriko leaned down and put the cup in Black Jack's hand. “Oh?” He took the pill pack and popped one of them into his palm. Black Jack took it and swallowed it with a mouthful of weak tea. “Maybe your head's clearer than I expected. Well. You're right, of course. You're treatable, and you want to live. I'm a doctor at the end of the day, after all.”

“That doesn't always stop you,”Black Jack said. He wanted Kiriko to go away, and being hurtful usually made people leave him alone.

It didn't work. Instead, to Black Jack's disgust, it brought him even closer. He settled on the sofa, leaning on the arm. “You're so young.”

The affronted face Black Jack pulled was entirely unplanned. His shoulders jerked up to his ears, and he sneered. “Don't act like that makes a difference! Your father could have been saved. Age has nothing to do with knowing the difference. Anybody else would give anything, try anything.”

In the dim light at the fire circle's edge, he could make out the shimmer of an imperceptible tremor in the surface of his tea. He was gripping the cup very hard.

God, he must have been tired to let it creep up like that.

Beside him, Kiriko sighed and stretched out his long legs, sliding down in his seat a little. Obviously, he hadn't wanted to do this right now, either. “A child might,” he said at length. “But when you reach a certain age, you start making important decisions for your parents when it's necessary. They aren't always easy, and you aren't always right.”

Black Jack downed the rest of his tea and left the cup on the floor. “That woman has a gun,” he said after a long silence.

“So do I,” Kiriko said, easily. “I imagine I'm a better shot, too, and less likely to hesitate. Don't worry about it.”

“You'd shoot her?” Black Jack opened his vest, pulled it off, and folded it over his coat. He was starting to feel warm again.

“In the center mass, to disable her, if it comes to that,” Kiriko said. He got up and consolidated Black Jack's clothes, boots, and bag into a neat pile near the sofa.

Black Jack shot up, unsteady on his feet. “She's pregnant!”

“And there's eight kids already alive here she could kill if she came in looking to start something.” Kiriko kept his voice low.

Struck wordless, Black Jack felt like his face was melting.

Kiriko's shoulders sank. He pulled down on Black Jack's arms to make him sit, slid his hands up to squeeze his shoulders. “I won't shoot her,” he said, firmly. “I promise. I promise that I won't.”

He was so tired. His breath caught and stung in his throat, and he wanted to cough.

“Lie down, at least.” Kiriko pushed on one of Black Jack's shoulders. Black Jack lilted and crumbled onto his side. “So, you know she has a gun. What else is going on here?”

“Those flowers she's been bringing in,” Black Jack said, making his arm a pillow so he wasn't speaking with his head smashed into the couch cushions. “The fungus grows on those. Like an ergot or something.”

Kiriko got down on his level. “There's no actual evidence that ergots have psychoactive properties.”

Black Jack tried to wave him away. “I said it's like an ergot, not it is an ergot.” He closed his eyes when Kiriko didn't respond to his angry waving. He breathed. Talking and lying down was so difficult. “I don't know what good it'll do now, but you should probably get rid of those. Can't be sure what treatment to pursue without equipment. Need to get a hospital helicopter here. And police.”

“I'm working toward those ends,” Kiriko said. “There's a fire watchtower a way's off that should have a radio, or at least exposure to signal for a phone.”

“And none of the family's been back here?” Something soft and light and bulky settled over Black Jack from his shoulders to his hips. He bunched up and opened his eyes just to narrow them at Kiriko. “Quit it.”

“They're hiding out somewhere, I'm sure, but not here.” Kiriko stood to his full height again. Black Jack could see laughter creeping near the edges of his mouth, pulling them up. “You'll have to forgive me. I do have a sister around your age, you know. I'm not without caretaking impulses.”

Black Jack pulled the collar of the parka around his neck and buried his face in it. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't treat me like I'm your little sister.”

“I disagree, all things considered, but I'll leave you be for now.”

He heard Kiriko moving away. “The cook girl,” he said. Kiriko's steps stopped, and Black Jack made himself sit up. “She's been shot and stashed in an outbuilding around where you found me. I treated her, but-”

“We'll leave her,” Kiriko said. “For now. If they put her there, they expect her to be there and won't go looking for her. It's cold out, but if she's inside she's out of the wind and the wet.”

Black Jack went quiet. He liked to think that he would have thought so far ahead under normal circumstances. “Right,” he finally said.

“Lie down and rest.” Kiriko plucked a throw pillow off an armchair and whipped it at Black Jack's chest. He caught it. “I'll bring you a real blanket and keep an eye on things in the meantime.”

As a compromise, Black Jack cozied back against the couch cushions, still sitting upright, and pulled Kiriko's parka around him.

He could sleep sitting up.

He did it all the time.


A shot rang out and Black Jack sprang to his feet, fully awake in an instant.

The light from the fire revealed no intruders.

He was alone with his pounding heart.

The blanket slid off his shoulders.

He breathed, rasping.

The front door opened and Kiriko craned his head in.

“Settle down,” Kiriko said, slipping back into the lobby. He'd reclaimed his parka and fixed a holster for his pistol to his hip. “The wind caught the door and slammed it. That's all.”

Black Jack regarded him suspiciously.

“Don't look at me like that,” Kiriko said. He crossed the room to him and handed him his bag from off the floor. “My history's exposed me to plenty of men who can't always tolerate loud bangs. I know the look. It's fine.”

Black Jack took his bag and slung the blanket over the sofa. “At any rate. Have any of the Audreys returned?”

“Not a one, and none of them were around when I went through the place. The guests are in their rooms with their spare keys. Everyone's stable, or as close as I could get them under these circumstances. How are you holding up?”

“Fine.” Black Jack found his boots and started tugging them on. “Are you going to the watchtower?”

“The storm's let up enough that I could probably talk someone into sending a helicopter.” Kiriko let Black Jack follow him to the door. “And you're set on tagging along, hm? What about your patient?”

“Where better to find her than where she'd be waiting to ambush me?”