Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Warnings:Bad language.

Spoilers: This is set during the last season, with spoilers for earlier episodes.

Author's notes: This story was first posted to the Sentinel Angst list and benefited from the comments of list members; I am grateful for their help. Special thanks go to Elaine for her wonderful beta-work and to all the SA medical experts who answered my idiot questions. Please send feedback and criticism to DCStreets@aol.com.

Communion

By DCStreets

********************
In the harsh light of the hospital room, the still form on the narrow bed looked impossibly pale. The man seated beside the bed anxiously adjusted the blankets; then he lowered his head dejectedly, resting his forehead on the edge of the mattress.

"My fault."

A sigh greeted this resumption of an oft-sung refrain. "It's not your fault."

"Yes it is! God, Simon...he wouldn't have been there if it weren't for me."

As if recognizing that remonstrations were useless, the unwilling recipient of this confession maintained his silence.

"He was there because I needed him--I asked him to be there."

"Because he wanted to help." Simon shrugged. "Don't make more of this than there is."

"Because he wanted to help me."

"Well...yeah."

"How can I live with that? It could have been so much worse; he could have...oh god." The deep voice broke; almost against his will, Simon took a step forward.

"He wouldn't want you to be thinking like this."

"It's not his job, Simon. He doesn't have the training--"

"Don't be an idiot."

"But it's true--"

"Are you trying to tell me," Simon's voice was tight with disbelief, "that you think this accident occurred because you didn't train him right?"

"Well, I should have made sure he was wearing protective--"

"I'm not listening to this. You're honestly suggesting that this job was so dangerous, so perilous, so hideously hazardous"--the mockery in Simon's deep voice was deadly in itself--"that an ex-Ranger, covert-ops, Detective of the Year like Ellison couldn't handle it?"

"Simon--"

"Jesus, Sandburg! What the hell do you archeologist types--" "anthropologist" "--get up to, anyway?" Simon spoke louder over Blair's correction. "Because I don't like the implications of this. No friend of mine is going to be working in the Rainier anthropology labs, if they're so fucking treacherous."

"He won't, I promise. I'll never ask--"

"I'm talking about you, Sandburg!" Simon pushed himself between the bed and Blair's chair, giving the dejected student a great view of his newly shined shoes. Compelled by proximity, Blair finally raised his head and met Simon's eyes. Simon gave him a wry half-smile before slipping again into his world famous traffic-stopping glower. "This lab--if it's really so dangerous that an ex-Ranger can't be expected to come out unscathed, I think I should be calling the authorities."

"It's not..." Blair trailed off, glancing miserably at the bed.

Simon snapped his fingers loudly. "I'm still addressing you, Sandburg; I'd appreciate your attention. You're saying you purposefully invited one of my detectives to perform the life-threatening procedure of helping you unpack for an exhibit, is that right?"

"No, but--"

"You forced my detective to pick up an artifact without wearing some of the latex gloves you had on."

"No!" Finally, Blair nodded. "I get it. It was an accident."

"Thank you." Simon stood and stretched his shoulders. "You're much easier to reason with than your partner, Sandburg. Hell, I'd still be pestering Ellison to talk."

"I wish you were." A second later, Blair gave a wry chuckle. "Simon, you keep sighing like that, I'm going to have the nurses check you for leaks."

"Funny." Walking back to his corner, Simon draped himself against the ledge of the windowsill. "I was impressed with your report."

Sandburg grimaced. "Well, if there's any part of police-work I'm good at by now, it's paper work." He sighed, and Simon graciously forbore to comment. "Besides, they wouldn't let me sit with him for the first few hours. I had a lot of time."

This was news to the Captain, and he leaned forward. "I thought you were with him."

"In the ambulance, yeah. But when we got here--" Blair's voice deepened suddenly, and he shook his head roughly. "--they made me leave the room."

"I'm surprised they could."

"They were right." When Blair glanced back at him, Simon winced at the misery in his gaze. "I was making it worse. He kept shouting--freaking out. When I left he calmed down." He swiped angrily at his eyes. "I made sure they weren't drugging him, convinced them to keep the lights low and the sensory input to a minimum. When he got quiet, I thought he was zoning. I was afraid--"

Simon remembered the horror of Blair's fear, and he stepped forward to rest a hand lightly on the man's shoulder. "The doctor said he's just sleeping it off."

"Yeah, I know." He made an abortive wipe at his nose, then accepted Simon's handkerchief along with his look of distaste. "Sorry. Thanks. It's just..."

"Yeah."

They both turned to look again at the man lying so still before them. "Simon--thanks for being here, man. It's...it helped."

"Like there's somewhere else I'd be." Simon snorted quietly. "How am I going to earn my frequent vigil points if I don't show up whenever I have the excuse?" He shook Blair's shoulder lightly. "I just wish you two would quit giving me the excuse."

"We're trying, Simon. I swear." A movement from the bed grabbed Blair's attention. "Jim? Jim, if you can hear me, come on back, okay?"

Simon moved to the side of the bed and added his command: "Time to wake up, my friend. Come on."

"You...through with...the mush?" The voice was rough from earlier shouting, but to his audience it sounded wonderful.

Simon laughed and clapped him gently on the arm. "Yeah, it's safe."

Jim opened bleary eyes and scowled at his Captain. "That you, Simon? I thought for sure there was a soap-opera on."

"Damn, Jim, and we were just about to get to the good stuff, too. Simon," Blair turned slightly, addressing the older man with a melodramatic gesture, "you've been like the father I never had! How can I thank you for coming through like this for me?"

Jim chuckled weakly at Simon's obvious discomfort. "Don't expect him to start calling you 'son' just yet, Chief. You've hit his mush-limit."

"It's not mush to be there for your best team--and friends," Simon said with a slight growl. "I'll get the doctor." He strode quickly out the door, oblivious to the stares that followed him.

"Wow." Jim's response was so incongruous that Blair had to stifle a chuckle.

"Yeah. Double for me. Guess you can tell you had us pretty worried."

"I hate to live a cliché, but...what happened?"

"Ah." Blair paused, confused. "Long story. Do you remember offering to help unpack the exhibit of South American artifacts being donated to Rainier?"

"Vaguely."

"Oh. Okay. Well...how vaguely? 'Cause it's kind of important to the story, you know."

"Why don't you just tell me from the beginning?"

"Why don't you not." The voice from the doorway startled both men; Blair actually jumped, quite a challenge when seated.

The woman standing a step in front of Simon wore a doctor's white coat, but Jim had reason not to believe such signs. The fact that she had treated him in the past mollified him only somewhat, and he stared at her skeptically.

Faced with such an enthusiastic welcome, the doctor briefly crossed her eyes at him before beginning her interrogation. "Detective, I'd rather hear the story from you--unadulterated by your partner's suggestions. What do you remember?"

"I remember helping unpack artifacts."

"Hmm. 'Vaguely', if I heard correctly." As she opened her mouth to ask another question, Jim turned again to Blair.

"Did you write up a report of the incident?"

Blair glanced apologetically at the doctor as he said, "Do you remember an incident?"

"I'm in the hospital." Jim shrugged. "Pretty good guess there was an incident."

"Detective, I'd like to know what you remember--"

"If it's a case, Chief, I need to know the facts. Simon, can you get me a copy of Sandburg's report?"

"Sure thing, Jim."

"I'll check out the--"

"Her lips are moving, but we don't hear a noise!"

The three men froze. Blair was the first to respond to the weirdly declaimed statement. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, so I am making a sound. Wonderful. Then maybe you'll listen." The doctor leveled a Simon-worthy scowl at the three of them. "I'm not asking these questions for my own entertainment, gentlemen. Frankly, if I were the type to be easily amused, today would have been the jackpot. But I have to treat my patients, not just enjoy the show. So I'm going to ask Detective Ellison about the killer peanuts that had him so worried earlier, and you two," she glared fiercely at Simon and Blair, who stood straighter and slumped lower, respectively, "you two are going to take a break, go grab a cup of coffee, and come back in about an hour."

"Doctor Tsosie, I think Jim would appreciate--" "Killer peanuts?" The partners spoke as one.

Laying a calming hand on Jim's wrist, Blair continued alone. "I think Jim would appreciate it if I could stay--" Blair broke off as Jim twisted his hand free and raised it to lightly touch the center of Blair's chest. Jim's face was lined with confusion; Blair quickly covered his hand. "It's okay, man."

"You're okay?" Jim's voice was barely audible, but his fierce stare was more eloquent than words.

Blair nodded softly. "Yeah, man. I'm okay. So're you." He squeezed Jim's hand where it still rested on his chest. "Everything's going to be okay, Jim."

Even the exasperated doctor paused as a moment of silent communication passed between the partners. Finally, Jim sighed. Smiling faintly, he patted Blair gently over the heart. "Yeah. We're okay, Chief. You go with Simon, start getting me signed out of here."

"Excuse me--"

"We'll talk about this when we get home, Chief." Blair looked at him intently, then nodded.

"Hello?"

"No problem, man. You just get all the info from Doctor Tsosie, and we'll work on it."

"Hello! Excuse me! A few hours ago you were bouncing off the walls--literally, I might add--screaming about cats and clowns and killer legumes. You are not leaving the hospital tonight." The doctor looked on the verge of bouncing off the walls herself.

"Sure I am, doc. I'm leaving in the custody of my Captain and my partner. You've got brawn and brains right there, if you're worried about flashbacks. I don't feel weakened; you don't know what caused my attack so you're not going to be able to treat it; and you probably can't wait to get rid of me. So bring on the AMA forms and I'll get out of your hair." Jim met the doctor's icy glare steadily.

"Oh, I'm sorry Doctor...did I miss your graduation? Any chance you've got a copy of your diploma handy?"

Blair stepped forward only to be frozen in place by a vicious glance from the doctor. His peace-making attempt thwarted, he settled for making an uncomfortable gesture that encompassed both combatants.

Braced for further altercation, Jim faltered slightly when the doctor's gaze rested momentarily on Blair before returning to Jim. Her look of battle-ready antagonism softened. "Jim, would you give me a few minutes before you dash out of here trailing nurses and heated objections?" She held his eyes for a long moment, and he slowly nodded.

Inclining her head slightly, she spoke without turning away from her patient. "Captain Banks, Blair, if you'll go down to the cafeteria for...say, fifteen minutes...you'll find our coffee is as bad as ever."
***********************
"Okay, so how did we end up down here?"

"I'm working on that." Blair took a reluctant sip of the light brown liquid in his paper cup, grimaced, and raised an eyebrow at his companion--who was drinking with no more enthusiasm than he had shown.

"Work harder."

"Well, are you at least keeping track of the time? I see no reason to give her more than her fifteen minutes."

"When did I become clock-monitor, Sandburg?"

"Um...since you're the only one here with a watch?"

Simon exercised his leaks again. "It's been about twelve minutes. Let's wait a few more."

"I don't like this. Jim was...I think some of his hallucinations were really visions. I should be there." Receiving no response, Blair continued with less confidence, "You know, in, like, a shaman capacity."

Simon snorted quietly. "Yeah, why don't you go tell the doctor that."

"No, really. I should be there. It's my right. Witchdoctor/patient privilege." Blair grinned winningly, but Simon shook his head. "Okay, maybe I'll give her a few more minutes."

The shrill beeping that suddenly emanated from beneath the table startled both men. Simon shoved his chair out, stopping when Blair fumbled in his backpack and pulled out his blaring cell phone. "Hello? Cool. Yeah, it's a gift. One sec." He disposed of the phone quickly, at the same time closing his bag and standing to leave. "Jim says Tsosie is very impressed by our patience, and we can come back now." He reached out to grab Simon's arm, stopping his paper cup in mid rise. "Don't finish that, Simon; you don't need the stimulant right now. I thought you were about to call the bomb-squad when my phone rang."

Staring pointedly at the hand on his arm, Simon waited until the offending limb was removed. He had intended to lead the way back to Jim's room, but instead found himself following Blair's rapid departure. He didn't realize he had sighed again until Blair glanced back over his shoulder. "Simon, man, you're breaking my heart. Come on."
***********************
They arrived at Jim's room just as the doctor was leaving. She acknowledged their presence with a curt nod, not pausing in her final words to her patient: "...come by with the results as soon as we have them. Otherwise, you're free of me until tomorrow. Blair--" Blair jumped in response to her voice, moving back from the chair that had been his goal. "--I've requested that the standard Ellison-Sandburg special be set up in the room. However, if my colleagues at the nurses' desk inform me that you have kept our patient awake all night, I will be forced to regret that decision." She raised a hand to forestall Blair's objection. "And I base future decisions on past regrets."

Blair finally managed to speak. "Thanks, Doc, but I don't really want to stay here tonight."

There was a measured pause.

"I've got a lot to do, you know. Spent more than a few hours here already. Probably makes just as much sense for me to go home, take a shower, get some sleep." He looked up at her with engaging frankness.

"Cute." She scowled. "Captain Banks, I've no doubt I'll see you tomorrow. Until then gentlemen." She paused to glance back at the bed. "Anything else, detective?"

"No, ma'am."

She nodded briskly and turned to leave. Jim's voice called after her: "Only...thanks."

"You're very welcome, Detective." Her gait did not falter, and the soft rubber tread of her walk was soon inaudible.
***********************
"I just thought she made sense. I really should stay--and it's only overnight. Hell, they won't even have the lab results for another few hours."

"And that's all." Simon sounded doubtful.

"Yeah." Jim hitched himself into a more comfortable position, waving away Simon's attempt at help. "I mean, I wouldn't want her trying to solve my cases..."

Blair spoke suddenly, breaking the stillness of the room. "Oh man, is that what she told you?" Jim didn't deign to answer, and Blair cracked up. "Oh man, she did! Classic."

"And it wasn't anything worse?"

Jim shook his head at Simon's obvious concern. "Look--I must have scared you guys--" he broke off at Simon's weighted glance. "I must have worried you guys a little. I understand that. But by the next shift they'll know what this was, and by tomorrow night I'll be home. Simple as that. You know how much paperwork they punish you with if you try to leave these places early."

Simon wasn't satisfied: he hadn't been made Captain for nothing, and something didn't fit. But it was getting late. It had been a really long day. And whatever it was, Sandburg would take care of it.
********************
"You know, I might really have not wanted to stay. I don't see why she didn't even consider the option." Blair looked over at his temporary roommate, who was determinedly ignoring him. "I mean, maybe I had a class. Maybe I had a date. Why she'd just assume I'd want to crash on that foul little torture-device they call a cot--"

"Did you have a class?"

"No."

"Did you have a date?"

Blair stared intently at his shoe.

"Chief?"

"Uh...not date so much as...nothing really. Just a kind of study get-together. Sara has the new National Geo ice-mummies video, I was bringing food. No biggie."

"Damn. Chief, you don't really have to stay here."

"No, hey, I was joking. I don't--"

"I know you were joking. I'm not. You don't have to stay here."

"Oh yeah, right. Like I'd really leave. Even the doctor knew better than that, man."

Jim watched his partner for a long moment, then grudgingly smiled. "Then quit whining."

Blair grinned back at him. "You're welcome, man."
********************
"Have to admit I'm with Simon on the whole "shocked he's still here" thing. I thought for sure you'd sign yourself out."

"Tsosie wields her paperwork like a sword. Faced with being forced to stay, it made sense to volunteer."

Blair sniffed. "Yeah, like they could force you to do anything you didn't--" he broke off as Jim reached out and caught one of his gesticulating hands. "What--?"

Pushing up Blair's many layers, Jim exposed his arm and then caught Blair's gaze for a brief, silent moment.

"That's not anything, man." Blair snatched his hands back and stood up, toppling his chair in his haste to step away. "That's not--that is so not anything, man. That's...don't even tell me she threatened you, Jim. This is such bullshit. Did she--"

"No one has to threaten me, Chief!" Jim sounded almost as angry as Blair. "No one has to threaten me to protect you, okay?"

"I didn't--I don't need any protection! Not from you."

Jim didn't answer.

"Jim, it wasn't your fault. You were--you thought there was a threat. You were protecting me--protecting both of us. And it's so minor."

"Doesn't look minor from here."

"Dammit, Jim!" Blair paused in his pacing to smack the palm of his hand against the wall. "I am not enduring a night of your guilt, man. So just get over it now, okay?"

"No guilt." Jim smiled wryly at Blair's obvious disbelief. "Okay, some. But I'm not dwelling."

Blair stood waiting for the trick to be revealed. "Why not?"

"It wasn't your fault with the Golden. I try to at least be consistent."

"Oh." Nodding in dawning comprehension, Blair slowly resumed his seat. "That's right. You can't go sackcloth on me, because that would invalidate your reassurances after my bad trip, huh?"

"Seems likely."

"I hadn't even thought of that yet." Blair's voice held a hint of bemusement, and Jim laughed.

"Sorry to get ahead of you, Chief."

"No, no. That's cool." Shaking his head, Blair was oblivious to Jim's continuing affectionate humor. "So no guilt, right?"

"I didn't say that. I only promise not to dwell."

"Or brood."

"You drive a hard bargain." Blair's expression offered no loophole, and finally Jim shrugged. "Deal."
********************
"So, not to dwell--" Jim's casual introduction of the subject was interrupted by Blair's soft laugh.

"Because you're not the type."

Jim smiled in response. "No. Not to brood, either." He paused, allowing time for an interjection that didn't come, before continuing, "Want to tell me what happened?"

"Not really." The deep concern in Blair's eyes belied his aloof tone, and under Jim's prolonged attention, Blair finally broke. "But I guess you want to know."

"Not really, but I think I should." Jim sat up in bed, leaning forward to rest his forearms against his bent knees. "Don't you?"

"Yeah."

There was a long silence as Blair gathered the wayward threads of memory. Finally he shifted forward onto the edge of his chair, placing one hand on the mattress near Jim's shoulder. "You agreed to come help me unpack a shipment at the U--did Doctor Tsosie say I could tell you this now?"

"You're free and clear, Chief." Jim tried to ignore the look of quickly suppressed hope that had accompanied Blair's question. Neither one of them could afford the luxury of ignorance.

"Yeah. Okay. Well, you agreed to help me unpack--"

"Agreed, or offered?"

"What? What difference does it make?" At Jim's chiding look, Blair raised his hands slightly. "Hey, I'm not the one doing guilt here, okay? Don't look at me like...okay, you offered. I didn't ask, so it's not my fault. Are we happy now? Sheesh." Blair planted his hands firmly on the mattress again. "Now, if I can finish a sentence?...Okay.

"You offered to help me unpack the shipment of donated artifacts from South America. We both figured you might recognize some of the items from your time with the Chopec, and I needed to get the donation unpacked before the holidays, because trust me, as of tomorrow no one's going to be down in the artifact room except penguins. Rainier's too damn cheap to heat the area over break. Do you remember anything about the shipment?"

"Nothing."

"Well, it wasn't such a big deal. I mean, it's a nice donation, and we'll certainly use the items in classes...but it's not really stuff that's going to end up in the museum. Nothing particularly old or unique, just the souvenirs you get when you do some in-depth traveling. So I volunteered to unpack and inventory the items, basically because I wasn't too busy. A lot of TAs are frantic this time of year, trying to get their work done before heading home. So we went there this morning early--too early, in my opinion, but that's one of the downsides of having an eager volunteer." Blair winked at Jim, who maintained a look of superior punctuality despite his urge to grin in response.

"And you weren't wearing gloves, because you said you weren't going to be handling the artifacts, although I never should have accepted that."

"I don't like the gloves; they feel...off."

"Tough. You should have been wearing gloves, because you must have touched an artifact." Jim recognized the physical language of intense concentration that overtook Blair's gestures: it wasn't the scholar speaking now, but the detective. This was his consolation in the gray hours of the night, when he wondered if he had wrongly dragged Blair into a world of crime and intrigue. He recognized this language in Blair, because he too was fluent.

"This is what I think happened--of course, we won't know until we get the results back from your blood, urine--"

"Snot, yeah, I get it. Go on."

"Sorry. And we'll probably need the results back from the police lab; Simon's put a rush on it, so we may even get that before your--the other results. But I figure you came into contact with the shaman's bowl."

Blair looked so eagerly expectant, it hurt Jim to have to fail him in immediate uptake. "I don't..."

Waving his hand, Blair hurried on. "Sorry man, I mean--there was this bowl that, according to the tag, was used by a shaman in various rituals. Well, there's a good chance those rituals involved hallucinogens--ayahuasca, mescaline and other natural drugs are common in various vision ceremonies. Did you recognize the feel of it?"

Maybe it was because he was only a few hours back into consciousness, but Jim thought Blair was being more than usually obscure. "Did I recognize what?"

"The way the drug felt? I mean, is it something Incacha ever used?"

"Incacha didn't need any of that." Jim tried to keep his voice level.

Blair's eyes narrowed. "I don't--"

"Incacha was the real thing. He didn't need any chemical 'assistance', okay?"

"Look, man, that's not--ritual drugs are a common and accepted part of many shamanic practices, okay? This is not some sort of fucked up Nancy Reagan moment, man. This is a serious anthropological--"

"You look, Chief." Carefully keeping his voice down, Jim nevertheless managed to express enough outrage that Blair flinched. Jim put a hand out and gently clasped Blair's forearm, sharing warmth to counteract the chill of his words. "I'm not going to pass judgment on holy men who need outside help to bring them visions." Jim squeezed lightly, and Blair shut his mouth before speaking. "That's not saying I don't have opinions, but I'm not going to go into them now, because neither one of us needs that. We're coming from two different sides of this, okay?" Blair nodded slowly, unconvinced.

"All I'm saying is that Incacha didn't need them--okay, didn't use them. Better?" Blair subsided. "Incacha had spirits lining up to talk to him. The spirits made fucking appointments to talk to Cacha. So to get back to the subject we were on before this debate: I wouldn't recognize any ritual drugs from my time with the Chopec."

"Okay."

"Okay."

They sat in silence for a moment, both still smarting under unintended offenses. Jim realized the topic had not been dropped, however, when Blair murmured, "They made appointments, huh?"

"Yeah." His burning pride in his late shaman was gradually set aside, however, as Jim registered the unhappy tightness of his new shaman's posture. "Chief, what's up?"

Blair wrapped his arms around his chest, an unconscious gesture of self-comfort that hit Jim like a slap in the face. "It's just...I can't...I'm just so far from filling his role, you know? Forget it." Blair shook his head dismissively. "Forget it. It's not important."

"You're right: it's not." It was almost a relief, finally having the chance to face a confrontation that Jim had known was inevitable. He had known Blair would question this, and finally he could suggest the answer. "You know what, Chief? Not to destroy any hero-worship thing you might have going here--either for Cacha or me, since we both saw ole big, bad and feline--but the spirits are generally a pain in the ass."

"What?" Blair's voice squeaked slightly, and Jim watched with some amusement as he cringed away from whatever spiritual repercussions Jim might have called down upon them.

"The spirits generally stepped in when Cacha wasn't having any luck figuring it out on his own. I mean, they do kind of help those who help themselves--not all old sayings are bullshit."

"No, I'm completely against old sayings myself, man. You know us anthropologists." The sarcasm in that statement was cutting.

"I know. So is it your fault that you tend to figure stuff out before the spirits get so frustrated they step in?"

"You're suggesting I don't get visions because I don't need them?"

Although Blair certainly meant no insult to his predecessor, Jim felt compelled to interject a small defense. "Incacha didn't have all the advantages you have, Chief. No labs, no microscopes..."

"No laser-pointers, no vending machines..."

Jim laughed. "Right. So sometimes the spirits stepped in. My original point--before you got anthropologically offended, that is--is that anyone will have a vision under the influence of a hallucinogen--"

"That doesn't invalidate--"

"Let me finish, okay? So then maybe the gift comes in interpretation. Okay, I get that. But Cacha didn't need drugs."

"Or maybe he just didn't like enemas." Blair's calm suggestion was greeted with a surprised snort of laughter from Jim and a deep voice from the doorway.

"I don't even want to know, gentlemen." Simon looked as if he had unaccountably walked in on an autopsy when he was expecting a flower-arranging class--or, considering his profession, vice versa.

Blair took one look at his face and struggled to speak through his own laughter and over Jim's. "Simon, you don't--we were just discussing shamanic ritu--"

"Did I ask, Sandburg? Let's keep this on a need-to-know basis." Simon used his height to full advantage, towering over his two subordinates, who finally managed to smother their laughter. Ignoring their red faces, Simon held up a file. "Lab results."

"Traces of herbal intoxicants on the bowl, right?" Blair bounced slightly in place, and Jim met Simon's glance with a wry smile.

"That's your theory, Sandburg?"

"Yup. Am I right?"

"The bowl was clean." Blair's face fell comically. "There were, however, trace amounts of a designer drug on the plastic bag." Simon paused expectantly.

"Oh. Well." Blair shuffled back in his seat, dejected. "That was my second theory."

"Right."

"What kind of designer drug, sir?"

"Something new." The Captain looked suddenly tired. "Something not good. To quote Jerry, this is a 'mondo nasty party drug' we have on our hands."

"Are you sure he didn't mean that in a good way?"

Simon shook his head. "No. Jerry says it's usually taken by mouth--goes by the name of Communion, because it comes in little wafers. Jerry was surprised that you had a skin-contact effect --he asked if you had any blood contact."

"No, just skin-surface."

"Must be a sentinel thing, then." Dejection forgotten, Blair was once again an eager participant.

Simon grimaced and then ignored one of his least-favorite phrases. "You didn't get even close to a street dose, though, just from handling the plastic bag."

"So a normal hit would be worse?"

"No. Without your senses, a normal hit wouldn't be too rough." Simon glanced in the file. "Users report seeing sparkles, slight hallucinations--"

"What qualifies as slight?"

"One girl said she saw butterflies; kids report strobe lights when there weren't any. Basically just seems to make a party more..." Simon searched for a word.

"Mondo nasty, sir?" Jim asked, grinning slightly at Simon's testy frown.

Before Simon could reprove his detective, Blair said, "You wouldn't look so serious if it were that benign. It's not just Jim's reaction that has you worried, right Simon?" He leaned forward, gesturing toward the file. "What else?"

"There have been some bad trips, and it's definitely not something you want to take before driving. But that's not the biggest problem. Seems like some kids wanted more for their buck. They dissolved the wafers and injected the liquid." Simon's gaze encompassed his two suddenly serious men.

"Bad, sir?" Jim asked, watching his boss carefully.

"Panic reaction, hyped up adrenaline with very low doses--at even moderate doses, it's a..." he checked the file and read, "...neuromuscular blocking agent affecting the muscles of the extremities, then those of the neck and limbs, and, finally, those involved in respiration. In fatal doses, death is caused by respiratory paralysis." His voice was deep with anger as he set aside the file. "They're awake until they suffocate. Bunch of college kids at a party--neighbors found three dead and two unconscious. One of the two died later, and the other is permanently brain-damaged."

"Shit, Simon." Blair's voice cracked painfully.

"Yeah."

"Well, can't we--" Jim broke off angrily, then continued, "--shouldn't we start an education campaign? I mean, if it's only fatal when injected, we tell the partiers not--"

"Already started, Jim. But it's probably not going to stop the deaths. Vice got word from Seattle PD that dealers are already using it to spice up IV drugs. It's cheap, it packs quite a hit, and it's deadly in the wrong mix."

"Not exactly what you want to leave up to your friendly neighborhood dealer." The two cops shared a bitter glance.

"Oh man." Blair looked up at Simon. "So what are we going to do?"

"Well, here's the good news." Simon sat down on the edge of the bed at Jim's invitation, balancing the file on his knee. "Your shipment came from Seattle, right?"

"Yeah, some guy getting rid of his mementos."

"Well, that guy seems to have been reusing his zip-locs. Not the smartest move, but he couldn't foresee a Sentinel handling his donation."

"So?"

"So, it's not much, but we give the address and the evidence to Seattle PD and see what they come up with."

"Not much is right." Blair shook his head in frustration. "What good does the name of one more user do us?" Without waiting for an answer, he stood and walked over to the corner where his backpack lay abandoned. "But hey, we work with not much all the time, right Jim? Here's the address." He started to hand a sheaf of papers to Simon, then pulled back. "It's the inventory, so let me just copy the part you need."

"You carry it with you?"

"I kind of left in a hurry--it was in my hand, it ended up in the bag." Blair missed Jim's sudden look of concern as he quickly copied out the address and handed it over to Simon.

"I'll get Henri right on it. He's primary on this one," said Simon in response to Jim's questioning look. Jim seemed about to protest, then subsided, glancing again at his partner.

Address in hand, Simon had almost made it to the door when he found himself blocked by the doctor.

A wry look crossed her face as she noticed the files that the captain held, and Simon couldn't resist needling her. "Seems my lab beat yours."

In a courtlier age, her nod would have been a bow as she acknowledged a fair hit and handed her file over to Jim.
***********************
"Dr. Tsosie suggested I bring along a second dinner." The young orderly blushed painfully as she set the tray down in front of an appreciative Blair.

He appreciated the orderly, that is. One look at the contents of the tray, and he was hard pressed to seem properly grateful. He waited until they were alone with their meals before addressing Jim in a peevish tone. "What's Tsosie got against me, anyway?"

Not feeling up to the long list, Jim merely looked apathetically at the tray in front of him. It held cut vegetables, clear soup, pasta, and fruit--markedly different from the mystery meat, whipped potatoes, buttered carrots, and chocolate cake confronting his partner.

"How come you got better stuff?" asked Blair.

"This is better?" They shared a look of mutual good-humored disgust before Jim said, "I'll trade you."

"Why did we get different meals, though...oh. Never mind, I'll eat this."

Blair's turnabout was so sudden that Jim had no chance of following. "Why would you want to eat that? Give it to me."

"No way, man." Blair took a pointedly large bite of meat, making a noncommittal face at the taste. "Tsosie ordered these for us, man."

"So?"

"So, she just had your blood tested. Eat your veggies. And we're going to be reviewing the Wonderburger rules."

Jim wilted under his partner's determined glare. Reluctantly, he began to graze.
***********************
The room brightened fitfully as Blair flipped through the channels available to hospital patrons. Ignoring Jim's grunt of interest at CNN, he continued along the list until a show caught his eye. He settled down with every sign of extreme nostalgic pleasure.

"Oh look, it's the not-so-little Dutch boy." Jim's sudden burst of unwarranted sarcasm interrupted Blair's enjoyment.

"Shut up, man. I used to love this show."

"I can't believe it's still on."

"Yeah, well...popularity counts for something, man." Blair settled in, determined to overlook any further attacks on an old favorite.

"I couldn't believe it was popular when it was first on. Cable channels with slots to fill have a lot to answer for." Disregarding the near-palpable 'I'm not listening' vibes emanating from his partner, Jim continued, "I mean, look at it! The characters are fine, but the plots? Come on: Mob-connected girlfriend dies for cop boyfriend? Cop gets dosed with street drugs by vengeance-seeking bad guys? His partner dies and comes..." Jim trailed off into the painfully pointed silence. He thought back, mentally reviewing his list as the stillness lengthened and became more intense. "Okay, point taken."

"Thank you. Ooh, cool car!" Blair sat up to get a better look of the classic on the small screen. Without looking towards the hospital bed, he spoke softly: "Sounds like you watched it too, man."

Jim focused regally on his magazine--only looking up at the screen when he was sure that Blair was engrossed in the admittedly ridiculous but definitely enjoyable plot.
***********************
"Are you going to tell me the rest of what happened?"

Blair sighed, but did not drag his attention away from the news they were both ostensibly watching. "Nothing more to tell. You had a bad reaction; I called for an ambulance; you woke up here."

Never trust a Sandburg when he's succinct. "That's all?"

"That's the basics, yes." Blair was showing a fascination in the reporter's analysis of diet options that would have suggested a probable eating disorder to the casual observer.

"Blair..." There was no answer, and Jim finally leaned back in bed. Blair continued to watch the perky human-interest reporter with entirely false absorption. Jim watched his partner with honest concern.
********************
"Hutch would tell Starsky, you know."

This got a reaction. Blair turned his head sharply, thought for a split second, and then said, "And how do you figure that you're Starsky?"

"Well--"

"Hey, man, as the only nice curly-haired Jewish boy in the room, I definitely have dibs on Starsk, okay?" Blair's outraged tone was belied by his growing smile. "Let's keep in mind who the big goy cop is."

"Okay!" Laughing, Jim raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. "Starsky would tell Hutch, too, though."

"Yeah." Blair looked down at his jacket with sudden interest.

"Chief."

"Yeah," said Blair again, picking at the hem of one sleeve. "I didn't even know anything was wrong, for a little while. You said there was a threat; you pulled your gun; I started to call for backup." Blair didn't see how Jim's face froze at the mention of his weapon. "Before I could finish the call, though, it was pretty obvious the threat wasn't...wasn't something a couple of uniforms could handle." Glancing up from the attack on his jacket, Blair noticed Jim's pallor for the first time. "Jim, you okay?"

"I had my gun drawn?" Jim's voice shook.

"Hey, no, Jim. Not a problem--you gave it to me right away, okay? I said, can I have the gun, man?, and you handed it right over to me. You knew something wasn't right. You said the jaguar was there," Blair continued in an attempt to distract Jim from his horror. "Do you remember anything about that?"

"No. God, Chief..."

"S'okay, Jim. No harm, no foul. Let's not dwell too long on the whole gun thing, okay? I'm still dealing with my own demons." Jim nodded raggedly, flashing back to another time and horror.

"When the EMTs arrived, you weren't quite sure what was going on. I didn't want them to use any drugs--they didn't want to either, of course. So we finally got you settled down and to the emergency room. I convinced them to leave you alone with the lights dimmed. With less sensory input, you calmed right down. You fell asleep, and the rest you know."

"Yeah, and those bruises were what...from the jaguar?"

"I got knocked down; it's no big--"

"Love the passive voice there, Chief." Voice tight with anger, Jim sat tensely staring into the distance.

Blair stood and moved to the side of the bed, leaning in slightly until his side pressed against Jim's shoulder. "You thought I was in danger, Jim. You pulled me behind you and shielded me with your body." Blair shoved him slightly. "You were seeing all sorts of shit, man, and your first thought was to protect me, okay?" Cupping Jim's face in his hand, Blair turned him until their eyes met. "So don't expect me to whine about a few bruises."

Jim slowly placed his hand again above Blair's heart, then delicately traced along his ribs until he found a telltale warmth. "Just bruises?"

"I promise."

They shared a moment of silence. Finally, the tension in Jim's frame relaxed. Smiling sweetly, Blair leaned into him again and moved toward the cot folded in the corner. "I'll set up the torture-device. You go get ready for bed."
********************
Blair's breathing had reached the quiet, comfortable plateau just before sleep when Jim spoke.

"Chief, you awake?" He knew the answer, but couldn't think of a better opening.

"Yeah, Jim. You okay?" The deep voice was already slurring softly; Blair hardly moved at Jim's whisper.

"They're not always a pain in the ass, Chief."

There was a long pause, but Jim knew Blair had not fallen asleep. "Don't know what you mean, man."

"What we were talking about." Staring up into the blue-tinted shadows, Jim forced himself to continue. "Before Simon came in."

Another long pause. "Enemas?" Blair sounded a little more awake--and a lot confused.

"No. Jeez, Chief."

"Well we were. At least I were. Was." Blair grunted softly as he rolled onto his back and looked at Jim. "We were talking about rituals and spirit--oh."

"Yeah, 'oh'. Sometimes they're not--sometimes they're a fucking miracle, okay?"

Without speaking, Blair reached out and took Jim's hand in a firm grip. Clutching convulsively at this lifeline almost lost, Jim could feel the tender pulse where Blair's fingers laced between his own and the warmth of blood running beneath the skin. He could feel the life racing smoothly, easily through his partner. He listened for a long time, hearing when Blair finally eased into sleep. Forced by their handclasp to sleep on his back, Blair snored softly, a steady, steadying whisper of assurance. Jim listened greedily to that promise, counted the soft throbbing between his fingers, and followed the two down into sleep.
********************
If they were still holding hands when Tsosie came in at six the next morning, she gave no indication of the fact when, hours later, she examined Jim before discharging him. "From what my lab techs and the police tell me, there's no evidence of flashbacks with this new drug. Since your exposure was anomalous, however, you will call me if there are any signs of recurrence. You will call me if you have any questions. And you will please stay away from here for a while."

Jim grinned at his partner, who rolled his eyes. "Doc, you keep saying stuff like that, I'm going to think you don't like me."

"Yes, that kind of miscommunication would be awful, wouldn't it? Don't let the door hit you when you leave, gentlemen."

Blair lost his battle to suppress his laughter once the doctor was out of sight. "At least she didn't forbid you to 'darken her sheets again' this time."

"Yeah. I'm wearing her down."
********************
"Just lie down."

"Tsosie gave me a clean bill of health, Chief."

"Yeah, and next time she's here in the loft, she can let you get your own lunch. But now I'm here, and you're lying down."

"I don't need--" Blair's hand on Jim's chest interrupted his protest.

"Do I ask for a lot here, Jim?" Before Jim could answer, Blair raised an admonishing eyebrow. "Important stuff."

"What, not counting unending tests?"

"Not counting." Blair smiled crookedly. "I'm asking you to lie down, okay, Jim? I want you to lie down and watch TV and let me--you know, work through this my own way. Think of it as doing me a favor."

Jim smiled wryly as he sat down and graciously allowed Blair to cover him with an afghan. "I spoil you rotten, Chief." He shifted uncomfortably under Blair's suddenly intense gaze. "What?"

"You do, you know." Blair looked away, blinking rapidly. "You..."

"It's okay, Chief." Reaching out slowly, Jim rested a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Everything's okay now."

"Yeah. Okay." Blair handed him the remote, hand shaking only slightly. "So find something worth watching while I cook."

"Whoa, the remote. I have the power." Jim made a quick pumping motion with his fist, and Blair laughed. "So, do I get steak, too?"

"Don't push your luck, man." At the sight of Jim's comically depressed face, Blair sighed. "Okay, spaghetti with meatballs."
***********************
Under the influence of a drug, you bruise your guide. You scare him, put him through a day and night in one of his least-favorite places. And now he looks at you with eyes full of guilt and runs to fetch things for you like he's working for tips. Jim wondered sometimes at the way Incacha's voice, in his head, could come up with these completely screwy similes.

What is wrong with this picture? Incacha-in-his-head sounded a little exasperated at Jim's musings, and Jim hid a laugh.

"What, Jim? Can I get you anything?" Blair was already half out of his seat. What the hell was left to get? Blair had placed practically every liquid in the house by the couch. He had ferried books and magazines and papers until Jim's location was becoming a fire-hazard. Of course, he could always use the endless supply of liquids, should fire break out... Shaking himself free of such inanities, Jim finished his detecting and began using his covert ops training.

First step in the campaign...create a diversion. During Blair's next compulsive trip to the fridge for more liquids--Tang? What was he, an astronaut?--Jim made a strategic strike on the thermostat.
********************
"Just because you've got an excuse to bury me under blankets, don't think you're turning up the heat, Chief."

"I can see my breath in here."

"Try brushing." Jim pushed fretfully at the heavy blankets covering his legs.

"Oh, tres amusing, my friend. Tsosie said you should keep warm."

Jim tilted his head quizzically. "And this was when you two went out for a passionate tete a tete? Because I remember 'no caffeine, no alcohol', but nothing about 'lots of expensive electricity'."

"Well, you probably should keep warm anyway."

Blair did look rather pathetic, walking around with his hood up. Steeling himself, Jim refused to yield to temptation and invite Cratchit to order more coal. "I am warm, Chief."

"Yeah?" Blair stalked over to the couch and pulled away the pile of blankets. With relief, Jim felt circulation return to his lower limbs. Ignoring Blair's barely audible aspersions on his senses, Jim watched in amusement as Blair rapidly built himself a small cocoon of blankets and resumed his reading.
********************
"There's nothing good on TV."

"You just flipped past 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Charlie Brown Christmas.' When does the spirit of goodwill start to rub off on you, man?" Blair answered idly, still focused on the author's completely unjustified assumptions about Burton's romantic life. Why a writer obviously more interested in fiction had chosen to write a biography--

"When I have something to watch on TV. Could you maybe find a video?"

Blair looked up, drawn by the sound of unrepentant grinching. "You want me to find you a video?"

"I mean, I would, but you told me to lie down." Flashing him a shit-eating grin, Jim worked to segue into a look of surpassing innocence.

"A video. Okay." Getting up, Blair moved to the bookshelves. "What do you feel like?"

Chicken-dance time. "I feel like--" Blair's sudden dagger-gaze shut him up, and the world would never know what Jim Ellison felt like at that moment. Starting again, he said in a conciliatory tone, "How about something befitting the season?"

Blair pursed his lips. "Unlike, say, Capra or the round-headed kid." He raised a hand to forestall comment. "No, man, I know just what you need. It's not the newest one, and you're not nearly the date I wanted to watch this with, but here we go." Pulling out a yellow-framed tape case, he inserted a video and pressed play. "Ice mummies. Very seasonal."
********************
"Sandburg, this cocoa is cold."

There was a pregnant silence from the kitchen.

"Sandburg?"

Blair slowly walked to the couch where Jim lay watching television. "Just a few minutes ago you were complaining that it was too hot."

"It's cold now."

"Yeah. Entropy will do that, man. You need it nuked?"

Looking up into his partner's grim face, Jim said, "Wouldn't want to put you to any trouble."

"No trouble." Blair gave a half-smile. "Gives me time to add the rat poison."

Jim slowly pulled the mug back to his chest. "Then again, chocolate milk sounds good."
********************
Indicating the bowl of popcorn Blair had just set down, Jim asked, "Could you chew that for me?" He wasn't prepared for Blair's response, which involved a spin and strike motion that would have earned a 9.9 from even the Russian judges.

"Damn, what was that for, Sandburg?" Moving his feet further out of reach, Jim rubbed his ankle pathetically, making his play for Best Actor in the role of horribly wronged and injured partner. Blair merely growled and swatted at his feet again.

"Have you been annoying the hell out of me on purpose?"

"I don't know what you mean." Under interrogation, admit nothing.

"Man, you'd better know what I mean, because if this was not just an act, you and I are in line for some serious testing to figure out what the hell crawled up your ass and died, okay?"

Jim shifted uncomfortably. "Lovely image there, Chief."

"Were you being purposefully obstreperous?"

"Ob...what? Is that like obfuscator, Chief? Because I think we know which one of--" He stopped as strong fingers descended upon his toes. "Okay. Okay, yes. But you don't seem guilty any more."

Blair looked at him for a long, silent, terrifying moment. "So this was for my sake?"

Not to say the entertainment value wasn't a big plus too, but-- "Yes?" He hadn't meant for it to come out as a question, but he knew his partner's sometimes unexpected strength, and he feared for his toes.

"You were...what was it, 'spoiling' me again?"

This time Jim settled for a nervous nod.

Blair forced his jaw to unclench. "I can promise you I no longer feel even the slightest bit of guilt."

"Sorry, Chief." Jim had the grace to look embarrassed.

"Not as sorry as you were going to be. Don't drink that cocoa."

Jim glanced down at the rewarmed liquid in front of him. "Why not?"

"Let's just say we haven't tested all the ingredients in those chocolate flavored laxatives yet."

Jim looked long and hard into the no-longer-guilty gaze of his partner and then lifted the mug to his lips.

"I'm warning you, man, you don't want to drink that." Blair reached out quickly, then sighed as Jim took a long swallow. "Damn."

Jim smiled with open affection. "Obfuscator."

"Can't I even bluff you anymore, Jim? This is so pathetic." Shaking his head ruefully, Blair watched Jim take another appreciative swig of cocoa.

"Next time leave out the untested ingredients bit. You might dose me with a laxative, but only one you'd tested."

Blair gave him a long look. "I'll keep that in mind. You feel up to some testing?"

"You're coming in with me tomorrow, right?"

Sighing, Blair answered, "Right. No reason for the innocent to suffer. Some other time, then." With that promise, he went into the bathroom to get ready for bed. He paused as Jim spoke quietly behind him.

"Thanks, Chief."

Not trusting himself to speak, Blair merely nodded and flashed a wry, forgiving grin over his shoulder.
********************
As they left the station, Blair once again got behind the wheel of the truck. Jim noticed that he was driving as carefully as he had less than an hour ago when they had first arrived. It was, perhaps, a sign of lingering guilt. But if it protected his sweetheart, Jim wasn't going to complain.

"Nice of the crooks to take the day off, too."

"Just because it's quiet now--" Jim broke off, then shook his head. "Let's not jinx it."

"I hear that. Nice that Henri got to go visit his aunt," Blair said idly, paying more attention to the road than to his own words. Cascade was getting a white Christmas--if you count really cold rain. I'm dreaming of a gray Christmas just didn't have the same ring. "Of course, his day off means we're stuck with this."

"Such a trial--forced to go to your alma mater."

"Yeah, but Jim--"

"Can we not rehash this?" Jim took one look at his partner's set features and sighed. "Okay, hash away."

"It's just incredibly stupid for you to be going back there."

"I'm just acting as an audience, Chief. You'll grab a couple of the bags, and we'll take them over to the lab. A fingerprint could make the case."

"I could go over there alone."

"Chief, I really hate to keep saying this, and in a lot of ways I'm not sure it still applies--but you're not a cop."

Blair sighed. "So you're just going to stand by the wall and stay out of the way." It wasn't a question, and Jim had to reflect, as he had in the past, that sometimes Blair showed signs of having missed a brilliant career in the military. His drill sergeant would have taken notes on that last command. Suppressing an urge to salute, Jim merely nodded.

"I take it from the rattle that you just nodded?" The laughter in Blair's tone required no answer, and Jim shook his head good-naturedly. "Okay then, let's get out there and make sure no Cascade kids start taking Communion." He shot a questioning grin at his passenger, and Jim rolled his eyes.

"Funny, Chief."

Blair shrugged. "In this kind of weather, I shouldn't tempt thunderbolts, I guess." Blair took a careful turn onto the Rainier campus. "Wrong punishment, anyway. Thunderbolts were Zeus and Thor--I don't have any personal knowledge of the alternative, but I know that much from my studies."

"You and Naomi never..." Jim trailed off. How to put that? 'Never did the whole Christianity thing' sprang to mind, but it didn't seem quite right.

"Nah. We explored a lot of options, but mainstream religions weren't really my mom's favs. Lucky, I guess, since it frees me to be here on the case with you on this otherwise festive--oh, hey," he turned to Jim in sudden concern. "How about you, man? Aren't you supposed to be with your dad or something?"

"We're all getting together next week, once Steven gets back from Tahoe."

"What about..." Blair frowned. Pulling the truck to a stop in the empty parking lot of Hargrove's loading dock, he turned in his seat. "What about the spiritual component, though? Have I been really remiss, as your shaman...should I be, hell I don't know, encouraging you to go to mass or something?"

Jim grimaced. "Chief, it's not like I'm really orthodox. You don't have to worry."

"But you were raised in the church, right? Maybe we're overlooking--"

"Blair." Jim interrupted softly. "My shaman was recently resurrected with the help of animal spirit guides and a dead Chopec."

Blair waited in earnest incomprehension. As realization gradually dawned, his eyes widened. "So the formal structure of theological pedagogy--" he broke off, obviously not sure of the final destination of such a great start.

Jim smiled gently. "I have a little spiritual wiggle-room."
********************
"That was Sara?" At Blair's subdued nod, Jim winced. "Sorry, Chief. Guess she really had her heart set on ice mummies."

"I was bringing the food." They both treated the comment like the unnecessary distraction it obviously was. "I was also supposed to return the storeroom keys. Wonder which part has her so upset...no Sandburg's special green-chile chicken or the fact that she couldn't finish her unloading when she wanted to yesterday? Either way, I don't think she's going to be my Ms. Right."

"I'm not sure it's only that...she seemed kind of nervous around me."

Blair glanced up at his partner. "Don't know how anyone could be nervous around you, man." He nimbly ducked Jim's perfunctory swat. "Why do you think that, anyway? All I saw was the death dump. You'd think a friend in the hospital would be enough of an excuse for a canceled date."

"Especially since you even introduced the friend as proof." Jim laughed shortly, then paused. "Come to think...that's when she got nervous."

"When I introduced you?"

"Yeah--her heart rate jumped a little, and her temperature rose about a degree."

Blair stepped in front of Jim and turned to face him, forcing them both to stop on the stairs. "When I introduced you..." he waved a hand, "all that happened."

"Yeah?"

"Damn, man. Just remember when she calls you, you don't like ice mummies, okay?"

"What?" At Blair's exasperated 'duh' gesture, Jim turned to look after the young woman who was briskly walking away. Not bad. The old man's still got--ow! "What was that for?" Jim asked angrily, rubbing his arm.

"She's a smart, funny, intellectual woman."

"Oh, and that's supposed to be a problem--"

Blair poked him firmly in the chest. "Who owns every mummy video. It'd be like dating a forensic--" he thought about what he was saying, struggled for a moment, and then sighed. "Take her, man. She's all yours." He turned to resume climbing the stairs, glad of the chance to escape Jim's thousand-watt smirk.

He was going to have to stop introducing the big lug. 'I'd like you to meet my roommate. Big, buff, sensitive--kind of. And if you have a cop fetish, this is your lucky day.' Good going, Sandburg.
********************
"Well, you were right." Jim spoke quietly, in unnecessary deference to the stillness of Rainier's empty campus.

"Damn. I never have a tape recorder when I need one."

"Funny. Look, there's Chilly Willy."

"What?" Blair looked up questioningly from his somewhat fumble-fingered attempt to unlock the door of the artifact room. "Oh...yeah. Well, I wish I had been wrong this time, despite my undeniable pleasure at your historic announcement. If it gets any colder, my hands are going to stop working...there!" he exclaimed his victory as the key finally slid into the lock.

"Let me help with--"

"Jim, didn't we have this conversation already? You're not helping with anything, okay? I still think you should have stayed in the truck."

"I didn't want to encroach on your territory."

"Har dee har. Just stand over there, and don't touch anything, okay?" Punctuating his statement with a light thump on Jim's chest, Blair pushed him toward the wall and moved to turn on the lights. "Just make like a wallflower." With a final warning scowl, Blair walked over to the open shipping crate on the floor by the low table, pulling on a pair of latex gloves he had taken from the dispenser by the door.

The room showed obvious signs of a rapid departure--when the EMTs had removed their patient, Blair had wasted no time on anything but locking up. In the corner, an overturned chair and books askew on a shelf suggested to Jim the location of at least part of his showdown with unreality. He wondered if that was where he had pulled his gun; the thought made him ill.

Blair gave no overt indication of the same misgivings at their return to this place, but Jim could see the subtle signs of nervousness that betrayed his apprehension. He didn't linger over the artifacts lying on the wooden table, merely placed the inventory next to them and moved on to the crate. The individual small bags that were his goal were packed inside larger plastic sacks. Pushing aside a drift of packing foam, he pulled out one of the larger bags. "I'll grab zip-locs from a couple of the big bags, okay?"

"Good idea." Jim watched from his position by the door as Blair rummaged through the crate for another sack. His search pushed some of the packing materials over the lip of the crate, and they fell around his feet like...well, a lot like worm-casts, really, but if Jim worked at it, he could almost imagine that it was clumpy snow. He was opening his mouth to comment on Blair's makeshift White Christmas when Blair pulled his hand back with a sharp exclamation.

"What?" Jim made two strides across the room before Blair's eyes pinned him back against the wall.

"Nothing man. Stay over there, okay?" He looked at his hand and scowled. "Splinter. Got too close to the edge of the crate--my own fault." He peered at the palm of his hand and pulled out a half-inch piece of pine. "Damn, glad it wasn't under my nail...looks like one of those bamboo slivers." He started to wipe his palm on his jeans, thought better of it, and pulled a tissue out of his jacket to staunch the blood. "Right through the glove," he added with disgust, pulling off the offending latex.

"Chief, can I--"

"You can stay there."

"Right. Don't get blood on the artifacts."

Blair grinned, still holding the tissue balled up in his left hand. "Watch it Florence, your sympathy is overwhelming me." At Jim's answering grin, he waved his still-gloved right hand. "I'll just work on a division of labor principle. One hand for digging through the crate," he demonstrated, "and the other for getting the bags." He pulled out another sack and laboriously untied it with his right hand. "You know, we could have used the bags from day-before-yesterday if I hadn't been so tidy, throwing them away as soon as we were done with them. Now whose fault was that?"

"I don't think I can take the blame."

"Maybe not, but it's got to be your influence. I was never that anal before," Blair said, laughing to himself. Gathering a collection of plastic bags at one end of the table, he returned to the crate. "See, and now I'm going to clean up this mess--your insidious influence..." he trailed off, looking at the cylinders of packing foam he had just shoveled into the crate.

"Chief?" Noting Blair's unusual stillness, Jim was suddenly on the alert. A quick scan showed respiration and pulse a bit rapid, but he knew better than to leave his assigned post. "What's wrong?"

Blair was staring silently, accelerated breathing his only response to the question. He glanced up at the repetition of Jim's question and raised a shaking hand. "Stay where you are, man. I'm serious." He leaned back against the table.

"You're starting to worry me here, Chief. What the hell's going on?"

"You know...I don't think we've got a guy reusing his baggies here, Jim."

"What--" Jim's question died unspoken as Blair slowly held up one of the foam cylinders. A light pressure split off the end, which floated down gently as a snowflake to the concrete floor.

"God damn." Jim cursed like a prayer as Blair released another delicate wafer to waft downwards. "Good catch, Chief. Grab a sample, and we'll..." Jim's voice faltered as he noticed a red smear on the material Blair had dropped. Blood on the snow, he thought irrelevantly--a good title for a western.

"Christ, Sandburg, don't let that stuff touch your hand." Blair's only acknowledgment was his slow release of the rest of the material. Still leaning against the table, he stood staring at his feet for a second before taking off his coat. He pulled off the other glove, dropping it inside-out on the pile of clothes he was accumulating.

"Sandburg, what the hell are you doing?"

Walking over to the far wall, Blair ignored the question, stopping only to kick off his boots halfway there. Jim was shaken out of his bemusement by the sight of Blair's hands fumbling uselessly at the button of his jeans. The cold of the room didn't explain his inability to use his fingers.

The panicked heartbeat, Jim's quick strides, and Blair's shout all blended into one moment of crisis. "Stop! Stay right where you are, Jim."

"Sandburg..." Jim raised his hands in entreaty, only to shift them into a defensive gesture as his partner turned on him.

"Don't move!" The shout echoed around the large room, bouncing weirdly off the cold floor and cinder block walls. Distractedly, Jim followed the echoes even as he pulled out his cell phone.

"Chief, I'm just going to call for help."

"Fine." Blair gasped like he'd been sprinting. "But you do it from over there, man. You are not leaving that wall." The final order wavered, and Jim cursed quietly to himself.

"Yeah, this is Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. I've got a possible drug overdose. I need an ambulance at Rainier's Hargrove Hall." Keeping a wary eye on Blair, he gave his phone number, the address, and a quick description of the location.

"It's okay, Chief, help's on the way. Can I come over there?" At least this time there was no gun drawn, but Jim didn't want to create a crisis if it could be avoided. Blair was visibly shaking now, and his breathing sounded harsh with panic.

When Blair turned to look at him, Jim actually stepped back at the sight of his fury. "No you fucking cannot come over here. God damn it, man! God damn it...I'm not going through that again, okay?"

Jesus. What was this, something about the Golden incident? Jim kept his voice low. "I'm not a threat here, Blair, you know that. Come on, why don't you let me come on over...or you come here, okay? We can meet in the middle."

Blair laughed harshly. "We can't meet in the middle, you--" He visibly restrained himself. "Jim, I don't want to insult you, here, but try to think for a second, okay?" He breathed heavily for a second, holding up a hand as if to force Jim to stay where he was. "We've already seen your reaction to this shit. So you just stay over there, and we'll wait for the EMTs." The level of threat in his voice was undermined by the sudden collapse of his legs. Grunting as he hit the ground, he leaned back against the wall, gasping.

"Chief--"

"Shut up, man!" When Blair rolled his head to the side, Jim was shocked to see that his eyes were bright with tears. "Damn it, listen to me. We know you have a bad reaction to this. I'd--" his voice broke, and he shook his head angrily. "You know I'd love to have you over here, helping me. But there's bound to be some of it on my jeans, and I can't get them off. Who knows, it's probably on my skin, too, and my hair. You've just got to stay over there. Even if I could get rid of any surface contamination, we don't know if you can't maybe get it from my sweat or whatever." His eyes were wide, frantic. "So you can't touch me, man. No matter what happens, you just wait for the EMTs, okay? Because last time was bad enough, and this may be worse...Jim, you've got to stay over there. You promised me, Jim."

No matter what...Jesus. Jim turned and ran back towards the door, heading for the box of gloves. Behind him he could still hear Blair's gasped orders, muffled now by the spreading numbness, his voice slurring as if he were drunk. Focusing his hearing farther out, Jim cursed silently at the lack of any sirens. They were on their own.

It was getting hard to breathe now, and Blair tried uselessly to calm his heart, relax into darkness. He was drowning again, lungs failing not filling, but drowning nonetheless. Scared to die, scared to die alone, but...

'Incacha, please. Please, I know I've failed you; I've squandered your gift, but please, please don't punish us both. I can't do it this time; I need them. Send them to help me this time, Incacha. Let me have a guide this time. Please, Incacha, damn you please? Keep him over there, make this quick. Please.' The room was getting darker, lit by tiny stars of red, and he could feel the water rising, faster now. Maybe fast enough. He wished he could say good-bye, but this was better. Jim was still across the room. 'Make it quick, Incacha.'

Good-bye.

The last fluttering gasp was Jim's warning. With the gloves already on, he dropped to his knees beside Blair's awkwardly sprawled body, wincing away from the desperate entreaty in the glazed eyes. Unbelievably, Blair managed to force a final plea--always have to have the last word, huh Chief?--through lips frozen by the drug. Jim read his eyes more clearly than he could hear the word.

"I know what I promised, Chief." He gently shifted Blair onto his back, tilting his head back gently to open his airway, sickened by the utter lack of response in the lax body. Pinching Blair's nose shut, he leaned down and gave a long breath. He raised up, waiting through the quick exhalation, smiling reassurance into Blair's panicked eyes. "I lied."

Leaning in for another breath, Jim kept his hearing turned outward. Nothing yet. The pulse under his fingers still raced frantically, screaming at him the reproaches that Blair could not voice. Breathing again then lifting his head, he gently wiped at the tears running into Blair's hair, feeling their warmth strangely distant through the isolating gloves. "It's okay, Chief." He didn't waste any more time on verbal comfort, knowing that Blair depended on him for every breath. Continuing the steady rhythm of respiration, he soothed them both with the constant, delicate pressure at Blair's temple, counting the steady promise of his pulse while listening for help.
***********************
"What about brain damage?" Jim had listened through the Doctor's good news as if waiting for the other half of a vicious joke. Now his fear had been spoken, his shaking voice betraying his desperation. Simon's grip on his shoulder tightened.

Tsosie shook her head. "You told me he never stopped breathing--you performed artificial respiration, and he was breathing on his own by the time the ambulance arrived."

It hadn't been a question, but Jim nodded raggedly. "He wasn't breathing on his own for maybe three--four minutes. He never lost consciousness."

"Then you really don't have to worry. I see no signs of damage, by the way. The other case that Captain Banks told me about--the victim who is now severely brain-damaged--that was because of prolonged lack of oxygen. The drug, when taken intravenously, doesn't actually affect the brain. It affects the muscles, acts as a paralytic." She paused in her explanation, recognizing the disinterest of her audience. Neither of the men standing anxiously in front of her cared for the medical details. "You made sure Blair didn't go without oxygen. You saved his life and his mind, Jim."

Seeing the sudden moisture in the detective's eyes, Tsosie gave in to a rare flash of generosity. She glanced down with spurious interest at the file she held, giving both men a chance to regain control.

"Can he have visitors?" Simon's suspiciously gruff question was her cue to look up.

"Better than that. He can leave. We've got a good handle on this drug intravenously, and it's been--" she checked her watch, "--six hours since he was brought in. All usual warnings apply, Jim, and if you have the slightest question about anything, bring him back in, but you can take him home."

This was unexpected, and Jim shook his head slightly, as if he might have heard incorrectly. Tsosie smiled wryly. "I have a feeling he'll get better care at home than he would here. Mostly he's just scared. It's a pretty unpleasant experience--even when your partner's right there helping you through it. We see both of you too often, Detective--" She broke off, muttering under her breath, "I guess Santa thought a stocking of coal wasn't sufficient for me this year."

ôSpeaking of which--here. Merry Christmas." She handed Jim a vaguely heart-shaped red case. "It's a pocket mask. Blair seems very worried that the drug might have affected you through contact with him. Unlikely, but considering your sensitivities, it might be wise to avoid the possibility in the future. Start carrying it."

"Aw, and here I thought she was asking you to be her Valentine." Simon mumbled quietly enough that Tsosie was able to ignore the muffled comment.

Shooting them both a baleful scowl on principle, she continued her final orders. "He'll be exhausted for a while--coming off of the adrenaline rush. Make sure he's warm and comfortable, get him to eat something." She paused thoughtfully for a moment. "And, if you can, let him talk about the experience. He seems pretty upset."
***********************
Tsosie had obviously majored in understatement.

"What the fuck were you thinking, man?" Blair shouted at Jim as soon as he entered the door, causing Simon to mutter an excuse about a wheelchair for Blair's discharge and beat a hasty retreat.

Bereft of his backup, Jim settled for standing in the doorway for a moment, reveling in the sight and sound of a living, breathing Blair. Okay, a living, breathing, spitting-mad Blair...but you couldn't have everything.

"What the fuck? I mean, shit man, you promised me. You promised me you'd stay away, you promised. You lied to me man, I can't believe this. I can't believe you'd do that, when you knew what was at stake. Just because you don't remember the nightmare doesn't mean we want to go through it again, Jim, so how could you--how the hell could you do that, Jim? I begged you, man. I'm lying there, and I'm fucking praying to Incacha like he's a god, man, and he didn't deign to answer and you didn't listen for shit." Blair's voice broke, and he angrily dragged the shoulder of his hospital gown across his face.

"I had it covered, Chief."

"Oh right! Right, you had it covered. You put on gloves and that's supposed to be some big fucking concession to my concerns, right? How did you know it wouldn't get you through my spit, man? Or my tears, for that matter." He glared at Jim. "I was crying like a wuss because I wanted you safe so bad, Jim, and you just blew that off. That's not partnership, man."

Remarkably, this prolonged attack was prompting no reciprocal anger in Jim. He smiled quizzically at his irate friend. "So I was supposed to just let you stop breathing and die, Chief? I was supposed to watch that?"

Blair smacked his hand against the table by the bed. "No. God--but..." He shook his head. "It was only a few minutes. You can make it that long without--" Jim's hand against his lips stifled the rest of the sentence.

"Not a chance, Chief. You know that. You know I could no more do that..." Jim frowned. "Just no."

Blair looked, if possible, more miserable than he had under the influence of the drug. "Jim, how am I supposed to work with you if you don't listen? I can't work with you if I can't trust you with something like this."

"Something like this? This gonna happen often, Chief?" Jim sighed. "Then maybe we have a problem. Because you can't trust me to let you die." A sound drew both combatants' attention. Simon stood awkwardly at the doorway, wheelchair braced like a shield between him and the room.

Jim shrugged off his coat and thrust it toward Blair. "I bagged your clothes for the investigation. Tsosie's let me borrow a couple of the hospital's blankets. You want to continue this discussion at home?"
********************
"Didn't mean to call you back from your vacation." Jim's voice dragged Blair out of an exhausted sleep. He didn't remember much of the ride home, just his final thanks to the nurses and the beginning of his stately trip down the hospital's halls with Simon pushing the chair. They must have manhandled him up to the loft somehow--he shied away from the embarrassment of that image.

"Yeah, I know how that can be. She was okay with you leaving in the middle of Christmas?" Jim was smiling into the phone, and Blair felt absurdly angry at whoever was on the other end of the line. No making Jim happy when they were in the middle of an argument, damn it! Of course, he had slept in the middle of their argument...

"Oh yeah, I'm down with that. As long as you got leftovers. Yeah, yeah, but it's only once a year." Jim suddenly looked serious, glancing towards Blair as he listened to a prolonged discourse on the other end of the line. "No shit...why did she wait a day? God, that's pathetic. No, hey, great work, H. I'm really impressed. Can you get our statements tomorrow? Good. Yeah, I'll tell him. Thanks, same back at you." He paused for a second. "Yeah, ho ho ho."

Turning off the phone, Jim seemed suddenly engrossed in the complicated mechanism. Blair watched suspiciously.

"What's up, man?" He hadn't forgotten that he wasn't speaking to Jim, but he gave himself a brief break.

Jim walked over to the couch, sitting when Blair moved his feet. "That was Henri. They caught the Cascade end of the smuggling ring...well, 'ring' is a bit of an overstatement." He glanced apologetically at Blair. "Sara."

"Shit."

"Yeah. I'm sorry, Chief. I know you and she--"

"Have never even dated, thanks to, you know, the whole ice mummy debacle. It's no big deal, man. Just--damn. I never would have thought..."

"Grad school's expensive, Chief."

"Thanks for pointing that out, man, I never would have guessed." Despite the sarcasm, Blair nodded gently. "I just wouldn't have thought she'd do something like that."

"If it makes you feel any better, she was horrified to hear what it did to you...both of us, I guess. Henri says she thought it was harmless, just spreading some party drugs around."

"Damn. I can't believe she'd be so stupid."

"I didn't want to be the one to say it...but yeah."

"Wait." Blair frowned in confusion. "She said she had some stuff to unload the day after we...you know, the day after you got drugged and I stood her up. But then we were at the hospital or home. Why didn't she go in and get the stuff?"

"You had the keys."

Blair scowled. "Yeah, I know that. She was pissed about that. But it's not that hard to break in. Why didn't she find a way?"

"I really don't think she's a great criminal mastermind, Chief. You've dated smarter felons."

"Oh thanks, man." Jim avoided Blair's swat easily, joining his reluctant laughter.

"So..." Jim squinted at his partner. "Are we okay?"

Leaning forward, Blair stretched out his shoulders and groaned softly. "I don't know, man. I--it's stupid, I know, but I feel all mixed up. I was scared and pissed and frantic and terrified and...and I'm glad I'm alive and glad I'm not a vegetable, okay? So thank you, Jim, definitely." He stared down at his feet, rubbing his shoulder with one hand. "But at the same time I'm also...I don't think...I don't know, man. I begged you--ordered you, and you didn't listen. And I don't know if I can...I mean, I can. I know I can. I can forgive you anything, man, surely I can overlook the whole 'saved my life' thing. But I could use an outside perspective on how, you know? I could use some help..." He looked up slowly, and gradually his gaze tracked over to Jim.

"Chief?" Blair didn't meet his eyes, and Jim felt a tiny creep of superstition at the visionary stare directed over his shoulder. There was nothing there. He didn't hear anything, feel anything. Blair was just phasing out there, no need to turn around...

Blair stared for a long, tenuous silence and then nodded. Meeting Jim's eyes finally, he smiled. "Yeah man, we're good. Could you get me a drink, maybe?"

Jim nodded, relieved. Maybe today didn't have to be the first day of joint therapy after all. As he stood, he suggested jokingly, "Cocoa okay?"

"Sounds great. Skip the laxatives, though."

Good. Humor was good. They'd work through it with humor...

Jim resolutely refrained from looking back when, beneath the sound of his shaman's soft laughter, he heard an approving purr.

THE END

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