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.

Delayed Impact

by Arianna

Beta by StarWatcher

For Hopeanne, with thanks
for your generous donation to Moonridge 2007

You suggested that perhaps Blair had been hurt more badly than he let on after falling into the dig
in Breaking Ground, and asked for an epilogue that would explore such a scenario.

********************

Jim looked from Sandburg to Cassie, and then dropped his gaze to the bag of chips in his hand. Though he had to give her points for being enthusiastic, and she wasn't stupid, exactly, her judgment sucked and he didn't trust her. His partner, on the other hand the 'ever keen to make new friends Sandburg' didn't seem to get that the woman was trouble. Not only that, Sandburg didn't realize that she was jealous as hell of him and his right to ride-along status when she'd kill to 'play detective'. So, Jim was highly skeptical of her flirtatious manner with the both of him, figuring that she was trying to con them into letting her get close, all in order to do their jobs rather than her own. In fact, he rather suspected that her medium to long term strategy was to replace Sandburg as his partner and that was never going to fly. It was too bad that she had asthma and couldn't pass the physical to actually become a cop, but that was life and not his problem.

And it sure in hell wasn't Blair's problem. Her mucking around in stuff that she had no business in had left his partner at risk; if she'd been willing to wait until Blair had gotten in touch with him to exercise the search warrant, Sandburg wouldn't have been sitting outside that apartment building alone, and wouldn't have been taken by the killer. It was just damned lucky that things hadn't gone bad, really bad. They'd barely gotten out of that dig before the whole damn place collapsed behind them.

When Jim looked at Cassie, he saw a dangerous woman, one that could get them killed if they weren't very careful.

The idea of Sandburg dating her, allowing her to play her little buddy-buddy game, made his blood run cold. She was using Blair, pure and simple, and that didn't sit well with him. Not well at all.

Still, they were colleagues of a sort and he didn't need a lot of grief from Forensics. So, best just nip this little flirtation in the bud, but nicely, one professional to another.

"I think we should ... decide to be just friends, all of us. And stick to it," he suggested with a glance at her and a meaningful look at his partner.

Blair looked a bit startled, but Cassie, ever aggressive and having to have the last word, just had to make a challenge out of it. "You think you guys can handle that?" she returned, sarcastic doubt heavy in her tone.

Yeah, like you're so irresistible, Jim thought but managed to keep from rolling his eyes. However, the gambit had worked, because Blair didn't look all that impressed now, either. Sandburg held his gaze and then smiled back at him, wordlessly accepting the boundaries Jim was laying out, trusting him to have his reasons, and they both shrugged before turning their attention back to her. Jim kept munching on his chips and Blair didn't say a word, just gazed at her blandly.

"Uh-huh," she muttered, evidently not pleased, and pushed the elevator button. "Okay. Fine. Good," she brazened as the doors opened and she entered. They watched as the doors closed, though Jim called, "Toodles. Goodbye," just before she disappeared from view.

As soon as the doors had closed, though, Blair quickly shifted to stand in front of Jim. The bland expression now supplanted by wry disparagement, he parroted, "I think we should just be friends."

"Right," Jim agreed, but couldn't keep all hint of the smile from tweaking the corner of his mouth. Blair had played along with him, but the kid knew how Jim felt about Cassie and 'friendly' wasn't it.

"Right," Blair echoed, not giving an inch and clearly expecting some explanation for the arbitrary ruling.

Not giving the expected inch, and not sure he felt inclined to explain himself, Jim gestured toward his body and challenged playfully, "You want some of this?

Calling his bluff, Blair nodded. "Yeah."

Barely containing his grin, Jim surged toward him and Blair more than met him halfway, and they bumped their chests together in the age-old challenge between equals.

"Bring it on, man," Jim dared. But, not in the least intimidated, Blair just laughed, and started to push past to go back into the bullpen. With a wide smile, Jim turned with him and, holding out his bag of chips, he offered, "Want some?"

"Sure," Blair agreed and reached to help himself just as Jim slapped his back with cheerful good humor. He was surprised when Sandburg grunted as his step faltered and he nearly stumbled. Though Blair tried to hide the wince that flitted across his face by turning away, Jim caught the spasm of pain.

What the hell?

But Blair kept going, staying a half-step ahead until he reached Jim's desk and dropped onto the chair he'd long ago commandeered as his own.

"What's wrong with your back?" Jim demanded, not impressed with the avoidance routine, as he rounded the desk and sat down behind it.

"Nothing," Blair replied and reached for the bag of chips.

"Sandburg," Jim growled, his gaze narrowing.

"Nothing important," Blair qualified, and then sighed. "I must've pulled or bruised a muscle the other day. No big deal."

"The other day? What? When you fell into that underground chamber? I thought you said you were fine."

"I am fine," Sandburg returned, beginning to sound huffy. "It's just a bruise, okay?"

Jim studied him and then nodded, but he didn't intend to let it go. As soon as they got home, he was going to take a look at this bruise. That had been a bad fall onto uneven ground littered with broken stone, bricks, and splintered pieces of wood. And if it was just a bruise, then it shouldn't still be so tender that a light slap would cause a sudden burst of pain.

Blair munched on a chip, and pushed the bag back toward Jim.

"That all you want?"

"Yeah, I'm not really hungry," he replied as he opened the case file and began to fill in the routine forms.

"When'd you last eat?" Jim asked, frowning as he tried to remember if Blair had had breakfast. They'd been in a rush and no, he hadn't.

Sandburg shrugged. "I'm fine, Jim," he insisted, his tone distant and dismissive while he applied himself to completing the documents. "Give it a rest, already. You take falls worse than that every other day without it being any big deal. I'm fine."

Taken aback by Blair's rationale for minimizing whatever pain he was feeling, Jim studied his partner, who was very obviously ignoring him. Was Sandburg holding himself to a standard that could be measured against whatever degree of physical abuse Jim could subject his body? And did that make any sense?

Turning away, Jim felt uneasy, but wasn't exactly sure why. Somehow, it felt wrong to think of Blair as not up to the same physical demands. They were both men, right? Just because the kid was an academic, didn't mean he couldn't tough it out like anyone else. And well, he did. He kept up. He didn't complain, not even when he got shot a year ago. But Jim knew his body; knew when an injury was nothing more than a bruise and when it might be something more. He'd learned that awareness the hard way, as a soldier and as a cop, as a man who worked out regularly and knew his body's tolerances. Was Blair as likely to know when an injury was serious, as opposed to one that could be shrugged off with an ice pack or a hot soak?

The other question, Jim asked himself, is why haven't I ever realized that he thinks he has to compare himself to me? Why haven't I ever picked up on this before? Chewing on his lip, Jim told himself he was going to get a good look at this bruise, and see just how bad it looked, as soon as they got home that evening.

********************

Pretending to be oblivious of Jim's scrutiny, Blair kept his focus on the forms he was filling out, and worked at keeping all trace of the nagging pain he was feeling from his face, even though it was pretty awful. By concentrating on his breathing as well, keeping it slow and even, he hoped he'd pass muster with the sensory survey that he was sure Jim was conducting. Damn, it was just a bad bruising, right?

His jaw tightened when he remembered what his back, upper arms and shoulders, and legs had looked like that morning in the bathroom mirror and shower, or as much as he could see, anyway. Even his feet and ankles had begun to swell which he thought was a bit odd, given the fall had happened two days before but he had dropped straight down amidst rotted, broken timbers and shattered bricks and mortar, and had landed hard on his feet on the uneven ground before slamming down onto his back. And he'd also thought it was strange that the bruises on his lower back seemed to be getting worse, more darkly purplish-black than they'd been yesterday. But he'd crashed hard onto the broken timbers and stone that had really dug deep into his back, under his ribs, leaving him completely winded, unable to even gasp at first. He'd only begun to get his breath back by the time Jim had found the ladder and was climbing into the pit. Basically, Blair figured he was very lucky to not have cracked a few ribs or even vertebrae, as opposed to having simply pulled a few muscles. Maybe, with really deep bruising, it just took a while for the discoloration to come out? Blair was sure he'd heard that someplace.

In any case, he sure wasn't feeling any better; if anything, he felt a good deal worse as time went on. Since the accident, he'd been popping aspirin like candy, but the analgesic barely took the edge off. The deep, throbbing pain beneath his ribs in his mid to lower back left him feeling more than slightly queasy, so he sure wasn't hungry and didn't even feel like drinking very much.

Regardless, he didn't want to make a big deal out of it. In a day or two, he'd be feeling great, right? There was no reason to go whining to Jim or anyone else that his body felt as if he'd had an altercation with a rampaging elephant. Yeah, right, like that was going to happen. Nope, he was just going to suck it up and be tough, just like the rest of these guys. If nothing else, it was a matter of self-respect. But, even more, he was a little worried that if he got hurt many more times, Simon might be inclined to pull his observer's pass. The Captain didn't like it when the unpaid civilian got too beat-up; could make the department look bad. Besides, the guys surrounding him in the bullpen shrugged this kind of thing off like it was nothing he'd only look like real wimp if he bitched like some girl that he'd hurt his poor legs and back.

Some girl? Sighing, he thought of Cassie and his mixed feelings about her. She was bright, no question about it, and gutsy; too much so, in his view. She pushed too hard in her very apparent determination to do detecting rather than the job she was hired to do. But Blair couldn't fault her initiative or her courage in pushing her limits, like tackling crime scene work despite her very evident and debilitating asthma. He liked her energy, but didn't like the games she played, pretending friendship to get an inside track, flirting and then backing off like a blushing maiden on the grounds they 'worked together'. And he was well aware that she would walk right over him to get to Jim, if his partner ever showed the slightest interest in her or gave her the least bit of encouragement. Blair was under no illusions that he was anything but a means to an end for her an inside track to the side of the star detective on the force.

What surprised him was Jim's barely-veiled antipathy toward her. She was attractive, and a redhead, intelligent and driven all traits that generally appealed to his partner. But Jim wasn't comfortable with the fact that she didn't play her position. Blair figured that Cassie just didn't understand men all that well; didn't know that women who intruded on their turf with no jurisdiction were, basically, just really irritating. Men like Jim, alpha males, didn't always play by the rules, but they knew what the rules were and respected them. Ignoring said rules was no way to impress them. But, even so, that little 'let's all just be friends' gambit had been a bit odd. Jim didn't usually care who Blair dated. Take Sam, for instance. Jim thought she was a headcase, but hadn't done the 'let's just be friends' thing with her. No, he'd been putting boundaries around Blair, and Blair didn't know if those boundaries were for his benefit or Cassie's. Or maybe both.

With a mental shrug, Blair let the ruminations go. He wasn't so attracted to her that he'd pursue the interest in the face of Jim's clear antipathy. It was just curious, that was all. A minor mystery he could draw upon as a distraction if Jim pushed too hard about his bad back when they got home.

Which really did hurt like blazes, and was annoying the hell out of him.

Glancing up at the clock and deciding he could push the envelope and take a couple more pain killers, he asked as he got to his feet, "You want a coffee? I'm going to make myself some tea."

"Yeah, that'd be good, Chief, thanks," Jim replied, his attention now on his own reports.

Encouraged to think his stonewalling might have worked and Jim would cease and desist the probing into why his back was still bothering him, Blair went down the hall to the breakroom. While he waited for the kettle to boil, he popped two more aspirin.

********************

They were scarcely in the door when Jim said, "Okay, let's see your back."

Blair quirked an amused brow as he continued moving on into the kitchen. "You are so predictable," he chided. "You want a beer?"

"I want to see those bruises."

"Geez, man, who made you my mother?" Blair asked with a laugh, shaking his head as if bemused. "I told you, I'm fine." He drew a bottle out of the fridge. "So, you want one?"

"Yeah, sure," Jim agreed, though he didn't look happy. "Why are you being so evasive?"

"Evasive?" Blair challenged with a laugh, and hoped it didn't sound as forced as he felt it was. Handing Jim a bottle, he moved away, into the living room. "Look who's talking. You come flying off pickups, fall off trains, drop through how many different rotting warehouse floors, jump off roofs, get knocked down, beat up, and have you even once, ever, shown your bruises to me or let me do anything to help you? Like give you a massage or make sure you don't need to see a doctor? Huh? No, no you haven't. You soak in the tub or grab the peas from the freezer. And that's it. So why should I show you my bruises?"

"It's not the same thing," Jim objected, following him across the floor. "I know what my body can take."

Blair gaped at him and, for a moment, was speechless. "Excuse me? What's that supposed to mean? That I'm some kind of idiot that doesn't know what his body can take? Or just that my body can't take as much as your body can because what? I'm not the man you are? Not as good? Not as tough? Well, okay, I'll grant you that, but I think I can tell a bruise when I see one. God, would you just give it a rest?" Sinking carefully onto the couch, determined to keep the pain he felt a secret, he went on, "Besides, I want to talk to about something else. What the hell was that today, the 'let's all just be friends' bit? Since when do you care who I flirt with?"

Jim blinked at the shift in the conversation and frowned. "It's not about who you flirt with, Chief," he replied, sounding uncomfortable. "It's Cassie. I well, I don't trust her."

"I know," Blair said. "She pushes too hard. And she doesn't play her position, so you never know what she might pull next. It's disconcerting and ultimately dangerous."

"Exactly," Jim agreed, his posture relaxing, as if relieved that Blair understood. "But it's more than that." Sighing, Jim sank into his chair. "I think she's playing you."

"To get close to you," he agreed. "I figured that out, too. But she's bright, Jim. And she's, I don't know, fearless, I guess. I kinda respect that."

Jim's mouth thinned and he grimaced, shook his head. "Do you know that she resents you? That she'd like to replace you? That she figures she has more of a right to tag along than a civilian observer?" he challenged.

"Tagalong?" Blair echoed, his tone deliberately flat. He took a swallow of beer, forcing it down against the incipient nausea he'd felt all day. "Civilian observer," he murmured, his expression as cold as his voice. "You know," he went on, feeling edgy, "intellectually, I know that's all I am. But after seeing a colleague murdered, and nearly being killed myself because of the help I was giving on the case, that all feels kinda hollow, you know?"

"Sandburg, I didn't mean "

"I think I know what you meant, Jim," he cut in as he stood, glad of the excuse to exit stage left. God, his back was killing him. "And, yeah, I'm not so obtuse that I haven't picked up on Cassie's resentment of my freedom of engagement because I'm partnered with you. But you know what? All that still didn't give you the right to put boundaries around me today in front of her. It was disrespectful." He paused and shook his head. "And you're not the only one putting limits on me lately. Simon took me aside because Cassie and I were eating at the desk while we worked on the code warned me that 'fraternization' wasn't allowed. Since when? Nobody cared when I was dating Sam, or got upset when she tried to set fire to my face as I recall, you thought that was funny. I'm not a kid, man. I don't need you or Simon in my face telling me who I can or can't spend time with. You don't own me."

"Chief, I didn't mean "

Waving off his comment, turning away, Blair called over his shoulder, "I'm not really hungry, so you go ahead and have dinner without me."

"Chief! You haven't eaten all day!" Jim objected, belatedly realizing he'd gotten sidetracked from his concerns about the injury to Blair's back.

"Fasting is good for both the body and the soul," Blair shot back as he continued toward his room. "I'm just not feeling sociable, okay? I'll see you in the morning." And, with that, he decisively closed the door to his room. Pressing one arm across his body to brace the pain that was getting pretty bad, he swallowed hard and staggered toward the bed. Easing down on it, he placed the half-empty bottle of beer on the bedside table and curled forward, both arms crossed tightly, stretching his back, as if that could alleviate the pressure of the deep agony that sure in hell wasn't getting any better. He focused on taking slow, deep breaths and tried to envision the pain flowing out of him, draining away, but that didn't help. Giving up on the efficacy of the breathing exercise, Blair dug into his pants' pocket and pulled out the aspirin bottle. Fumbling with the top, he tipped out three tablets and washed them down with a gulp of beer.

Slowly, he lay down on his side and drew his knees up, again to try to stretch out his tight, aching back. When he heard the sharp rap of knuckles on his door, and Jim's worried, "Chief, are you sure you're okay?" he replied as evenly as he could, "Yeah, fine; just tired and a little pissed off. I'll be okay after some sleep, man. Give it a rest."

He listened and was relieved to hear Jim's footsteps retreating.

But he wondered if he was fine. Wondered why he was feeling worse as time went on, instead of better. Wondered if he shouldn't just admit he was a wimp who couldn't handle a few bruises; that he'd never be the kind of tough guy jock that Jim and everyone else in MCU seemed to be. But, God, he got tired of being treated as if he wasn't quite good enough, or didn't quite belong. After three years, after being kidnapped, poisoned, shot, and whatever, his life threatened innumerable times, and all the help he tried to give to the best of his ability, he just got so fed up with being what? The observer that really was all that he was? Tangential? A tagalong? The kid?

The questions were too much to deal with; it was just too damned hard to concentrate. He'd give it another day and if it still wasn't any better, he'd admit to Jim that he was hurting pretty bad. But maybe he'd feel better in the morning. God, he sure hoped he would.

Closing his eyes, he gave all his attention to quelling the nausea that left him feeling so queasy, and simply tried to ride the waves of pain that pulsed on either side of his spine from his ribs to his hips.

********************

Jim listened to Blair's ragged breathing. Damn it just how badly had the kid been hurt the other night? He finished his beer and tossed the empty bottle in the trash. Though his appetite had also taken a hike, he decided that he needed nourishment and put soup into a pot to heat on the stove. Frustrated, he rattled around in the kitchen, and told himself that it was early. Sooner or later, Blair would emerge from his room and, when he did, Jim intended to get a good look at those bruises.

He found himself thinking about Blair's reaction to his suggestion that 'they all just be friends'. Jim hadn't thought about it being disrespectful at the time he'd just wanted to avert future problems. But he could see his friend's point. Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck and tried not to simply be pleased that he had drawn a line in the sand. Cassie Cassie was dangerous. Her behavior in the past few days had shown that in spades. Her judgment was flawed. It had been crazy to go to the victim's apartment without proper backup and look what had happened. Blair might have been killed.

No, as angry as Blair was about the whole thing, Jim couldn't regret that he may well have quashed whatever game Cassie had been playing in trying to pit the two of them against one another. Blair might be irritated with the means he'd chosen, but his partner's remarks also revealed that Sandburg hadn't been unaware of the underlying tensions. However pissed off Blair was, so far as Jim was concerned the boundaries were necessary. Without them, who knew what trouble Cassie might get the kid into in the future? This time, Jim's hunch had gotten him there in time to avert tragedy and he didn't want to risk any future occurrences where they might not be so lucky.

After he ate some soup and saved the rest for Blair in case he did get hungry later, Jim went into the living room to watch television. From the sounds he could pick up from the little room under the stairs, he didn't think Blair was sleeping, and he still expected his friend to emerge at some point.

But the hours drifted by and the French doors stayed firmly closed. Finally, Jim gave up and went to bed. Maybe Blair would be feeling better in the morning. If not, Jim was determined to get to the bottom of just how bad his friend had been injured.

********************

Blair still felt tired when he woke early the next morning, and the ache in his back hadn't gotten any better; if anything, it seemed to be settling in, deep and uncomfortable, and worrying. Moving stiffly, he went to the bathroom to shower and shave. Peering over his shoulder at his image in the mirror, he grimaced at the spectacular rainbow of colors that mottled the skin over his back and shook his head. He felt unwell, he guessed. A bit irritable and out of sorts, probably because he wasn't sleeping well and hadn't for days. Distantly, before he flushed the toilet, he thought the color of the water looked a deeper orange than usual, but shrugged it off. He hadn't been eating or drinking much, just hadn't felt hungry or thirsty, so his system was probably a little out of whack.

Anxious to be on his way before Jim got up and started in again on wanting to check out his injuries, Blair got dressed as quickly and quietly as he could, and slipped out of the loft without eating. He still wasn't hungry and figured he'd pick up a sandwich or salad later at the university cafeteria. God, he felt like shit, but it would be an easy day, just some research in the library. Jim had the next two days off, so at least he didn't have to worry about hurrying downtown later.

********************

When he woke, Jim wasn't happy to realize that Blair had already left. Irritated, he wondered if the kid was actively avoiding him, because he knew Blair didn't have any classes or office hours on the weekend. But then he decided he was making too much of it all. His partner always had work that needed to be done at Rainier; papers to mark, lessons to plan, research to do. There was nothing particularly unusual about him going to the university on what would normally be considered a day off.

And, as he headed downstairs to shower, Jim hoped that maybe Blair was finally feeling better. Otherwise, he would have probably stayed home and taken it easy. He held that thought until he walked into the bathroom and was caught by a pungent, slightly sour scent. It was faint, and all mixed in with the herbal and masculine scents he associated with Blair, but there was something not quite right. Not quite the way Blair usually smelled.

Frowning, Jim wondered what was causing the odd and unusual odor, one that he couldn't quite place.

********************

Blair squirmed in the hard chair in the library carrel and bowed forward, trying to ease the persistent, deep and increasingly painful ache in his lower back. Weary frustration with the relentless discomfort assailed him and he tightened his jaw against either moaning or cursing the Fates for the ceaseless torment. Dammit, all he'd been doing was trying to help Jim figure out whether a murder had happened or not. Wrapping his arms around his body, nearly doubling forward, he drearily wondered just how bad he'd been in a previous life; sure seemed as if he'd stored up an awful lot of negative karma that he was now evidently working off.

He'd been popping aspirin all day, but the mild medication didn't seem to be doing any good at all. He felt nauseous and restless, too tired to concentrate, and it hurt too much to get up and move around and stretch the muscles of his back. To add to his misery, something seemed to be wrong with the heating system in the library, making the place uncomfortably warm. Glancing up at the clock on the far wall, he wondered if he should go home and lie down. But he didn't want to deal with Jim's third degree about how much he was hurting. He was just bruised. Why the hell wasn't the pain starting to get better? It wasn't like he'd done any real damage, right? He had no trouble walking. There was no pain radiating down his legs. So, he hadn't actually damaged his spine or compressed a disk or pinched a nerve. He felt like such a wuss, making a big deal about the lingering pain from a single, simple fall.

Determined to ignore his body's whining, he again tried to focus on the article he was reading, but the words were blurring. Sighing, he pulled off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. When he'd first arrived that morning, he'd been able to get some work done. But, as the hours had gone on and the ache in his back had intensified, he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate and knew he was wasting his time.

With another dismal sigh, he closed the magazine and stuffed his notepaper into his pack. Moving stiffly, he stood and returned the journal to the rack and walked slowly out of the library. Outside, he winced against the glare of the bright sun and then shivered when a gust of wind lifted his hair and whistled down the back of his jacket. God, he felt like absolute hell.

Hunched forward in an attempt to ease the ache in his back, he made his way across the grass to the parking lot. Though he knew the distance to his car was no more than a block, it seemed impossibly far away and took an inordinate amount of time to finally get there and he felt exhausted by the time he finally slid carefully behind the wheel. Just the thought of driving back to the loft was daunting. Man, he sure hoped he'd be able to get more sleep when he got home than he'd managed the night before, or any of the preceding nights, for that matter.

********************

Jim heard Blair's slow, plodding, almost shuffling walk along the hall from the elevator. Concerned, he rose from his chair and had the door open before his friend had time to insert his key. Blair seemed startled and blinked up at him, as if not quite registering his presence, and then pushed past.

"Hey," Blair said, as he let his backpack fall to the floor and started to undo the buttons of his jacket. His fingers fumbled a bit, as if the simple act of removing his coat was something complicated and difficult to do. His face was pale but for the slight flush of fever on his cheeks and the dark hollows under his eyes.

"Chief, you look like hell," Jim muttered as he slipped the jacket off Blair's shoulders and hung it on a peg. And, when he took a breath, he again smelled that sour, sickly scent he'd picked up in the bathroom that morning, stronger now and clearly emanating from his partner.

"Gosh, thanks, Jim," Blair muttered, bending to pick up his pack. Jim heard the bitten-back soft moan but, when he moved to help lift the bag, Blair pulled it away and started toward his bedroom.

"Sandburg, I can see you're still hurting," he stated, his tone sharp with worry. "I want to see those bruises."

Blair didn't bother turning back to face him, just waved him off and continued across the floor. "I'm fine. Just a little tired. Think I'll lie down for a while. Maybe take a nap."

Watching the stiff gait, the slightly hunched posture, Jim grimaced irritably. With two steps, he'd caught up with Blair and grabbed his arm to hold him in place. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded. "You're obviously hurting here. Let me see "

Irritably, Blair pulled away. "Would you give it a rest, already!" he shouted. "God damn it, Jim. I'm not a child. Not your responsibility. I bruised my back. That's it. That's all. I'm so sick of being treated like a kid who can't take care of himself. Just let it go."

"Sandburg, there's something wrong," Jim shot back. "You're running a low-grade fever and you smell sick."

"Smell?" Blair echoed with a look of disgust. "You're saying I smell? Well, gosh, I'm sorry, Jim," he went on sarcastically. "I know it's hard with those heightened senses and all, but I've been working all day, I'm tired, and maybe I'm coming down with a cold. It's been a hectic week. For Pete's sake, I'm doing the best I can here. If my stink offends you, maybe just turn it down and tune me out."

"I didn't say you stink," Jim objected. "I said you smell sick."

"Uh huh," Blair grunted, again turning away. "Well, I'm sure sick and tired of being hassled. I just need some sleep and I'll be fine." He headed toward the bathroom, muttering, "But since I apparently smell so bad, I'll take a shower first. Wouldn't want to offend your sensibilities."

"Have you eaten today?" Jim demanded, following along behind him.

"Geez, you're worse than a Jewish mother," Blair complained, and shut the bathroom door in his face.

"Yeah, like you'd know about that," Jim snapped, but to himself, not wanting to escalate the incipient fight any further. Turning away, he grated, "Like your mother ever showed much concern about your wellbeing." But he took a breath and tried to rein in his irritation. It had been a busy week, and far from an easy one, for Blair, anyway. He'd taken that fall, had seen his murdered colleague, and had nearly been killed, not to mention pulled at least one all-nighter, trying to break that code to help solve the case.

Maybe he was just tired. Maybe it was only a cold or minor case of the flu. Maybe Blair was entitled to be irritated about the way he and Simon had pulled his chain over Cassie. And while Jim had been able to enjoy a day off, Blair was right he'd had to spend his free day catching up on his own work at the university. Fine, okay, Jim told himself. Give the kid some space.

So when Blair left the steamy bathroom a few minutes later and disappeared into his room, Jim let him go without any more expressions of concern about his health.

********************

Blair crawled into his bed and curled into a ball on his side. God, he felt like the proverbial piece of shit and he dearly hoped the additional aspirin he'd just taken would soon kick in. Vaguely, he wondered if maybe he was getting sick on top of everything else. But he felt muddled and so hideously tired, and his back ached so badly, that he couldn't think. Closing his eyes, he prayed to the sentient Universe to grant him respite from the pain and bless him with healing sleep.

********************

Jim jerked awake to the sound of heavy books thumping, one after another, onto the floor. Beneath him, he could hear Blair muttering in agitation, and light was streaming from the lower bedroom. Rolling his eyes, he checked his watch and saw it was only a little after five in the morning. When another book hit the floor, he sat up in irritation. What the hell was Sandburg up to at this ungodly hour of the morning?

Pulling on his dressing gown, he stomped irritably down the steps and along the short corridor past the bathroom. One of the French doors was open so, not bothering to knock, he walked right in and stopped dead at the sight of Blair's naked back. The bruising over his shoulders had mottled to yellow, but over his mid and lower back, the skin was still angrily purplish-black. The kid was hunched over on the side of his bed, shuffling through texts on the bookshelf and muttering with worried agitation. Jim could feel the heat radiating from his skin even from several feet away and the pungent sour smell was so strong he nearly gagged.

"Sandburg, what are you doing?" he asked, no longer angry but very worried, as he moved farther inside.

Startled, Blair turned to face him, but he moved awkwardly, as if he was in severe pain. The sickly sallow tone of his skin was stark under the dark stubble of his beard and his eyes looked sunken, though they glittered with fever. "Notes," he muttered, sounding both distracted and upset. "I need to find my notes, man. I know they're here someplace," he rambled on, turning back to the bookcase. "Have to find them. 's important. Need them. Have to help you with your senses an' smell is bothering you. Need to figure out why. I'm missing something. But I can't find my notes. Can't find them."

His voice cracked in despair, and he curled forward, one arm wrapped around his body as his other hand shoved more books along the shelf, knocking two more to the floor, as he fumbled to find what clearly wasn't there.

Jim hurried around the end of the bed and dropped to one knee beside him. "Whoa, slow down, Chief," he soothed as he reached out to still the restless seeking hand, his eyes narrowing as he felt the high fever burning Blair's skin. "You don't need the notes right now, okay?"

Blair looked up at him and tears filled the fever-bright eyes. "You don' unnerstan'," he argued. "I have to help you. An' I need those notes, man. I need them."

Jim reached out to gently brush strangling, wild curls off Blair's face, and then felt his forehead. "Blair, you're burning up," he said, very gently but firmly. "You're sick."

"'m hot," Blair admitted with a woeful nod. "An' an' my back really hurts, Jim. I I din't wan' t' complain, you know? 'Cause I know it's nothin'. But, but it hurts, man. Really hurts."

Jim nodded as he studied his friend. "C'mon, Chief. Let's get you dressed. We need to go to the hospital."

"Ah, no, man," Blair protested, seeming even more distressed. "I don't wan' t' bother you. 'S just bruises, you know? 'm sorry. I just " He turned his face away and stared at the bookcase. "I have to find those notes. I just I just can't remember and, and can't seem to think ."

Jim stood and rifled in Blair's closet, pulling out a shirt, sweater and jeans. Though Blair seemed scarcely aware of what he was doing, he managed to get the kid dressed, and then, anxious about the odd and alarming edema in Blair's lower appendages, he slid a pair of loafers onto Blair's swollen feet. "Just sit here for a minute while I get dressed," he directed, doing his best to sound calm and matter-of-fact as he got to his feet.

Blair blinked up at him, confusion in his eyes. "Dressed? Are we going somewhere?"

"Yeah, we're going to the hospital."

Worry flooded Blair's eyes. "Hospital. Why? Are you feeling sick, man? Is something wrong?" He struggled to his feet and reached out for Jim, but swayed dizzily.

Jim caught him by the arms and eased him back down on the bed. "I'm fine, Chief. Don't worry, okay? You just rest here for a minute."

Nodding dazedly, Blair nodded. "Okay, Jim," he agreed with weird docility, but his gaze drifted around the room as if he wasn't quite sure where he was. His face creased with pain and, wrapping his arms around his body, he moaned softly as he curled forward.

Deeply worried, Jim rushed from the room and back upstairs, where he threw on his own clothing. In less than two minutes he was back downstairs, guided Blair out of his room, and helped him get his coat on. Looking like he could barely stand, Blair leaned against the wall while Jim drew on his own jacket.

"I don' feel so good," Blair admitted uneasily, sounding slightly more aware, and he swallowed hard. "Feel kinda sick."

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied, and he looped a supporting arm around Blair's shoulders as he helped him from the apartment and down the hall to the elevator.

Once inside the conveyance, Blair leaned heavily against him and stared at the closed door. "'m so sorry," he whispered miserably. "I don' why it hurts so bad, you know? 's just bruises, right? God, what a wuss."

"You're not a wuss, Sandburg," Jim corrected firmly, though he was careful to keep his tone kind and supportive. "You're sick, kid. There's no shame in that."

Blair's gaze slowly tracked up to his face. "I try to keep up, Jim," he confided, sounding woeful. "I really try not to slow you down, you know? To help."

"I know, and you help a lot," Jim assured him, anxiety clenching in his gut at the haunted worry in his friend's eyes.

He guided Blair out of the elevator and outside toward the truck parked at the curb. Blair's pace slowed and faltered even more, and his hands fumbled for a grip on Jim's jacket. He started to sag toward the ground and Jim hurried to get his arms around him, to hold him up.

"I f-feel r-really awful," Blair stammered in confusion. "An' an' it's so cold and dark, man. What happened to the lights?"

Jim searched his face and realized Blair was no longer focusing, as if he couldn't see. God, the kid was on the edge of passing right out! Tightening his grip, he half-carried, half-dragged Blair the rest of the way to the truck and hastily bundled him inside. As Jim was buckling the seat belt, Blair slumped against the seat. "Jim?" he whispered, his voice reedy and faint. "'m scared, man. I I f-feel like maybe I'm d-dying ."

His heart clenching, Jim cupped his friend's cheek. "You're not going to die, Blair," he insisted. "You just hold on, okay? Just hold on."

But as he hurried around the hood and got in, he couldn't help thinking about his days as a medic and how dying men somehow knew, could somehow feel, their life ebbing away, even when it wasn't clear how sick they really were to anyone around them. He remembered one case, a young soldier, who had only been feeling sick for a few hours and seemed to have the flu, but who had all of a sudden said with stunned fear that he thought he was dying. And he very nearly had died when his appendix ruptured less than an hour later.

Jim gunned the engine and sped down the dark, deserted street. "You're going to be okay, Blair," he said again, his voice rough with fear. "You hear me? You're going to be fine."

But when he glanced at Sandburg, he knew Blair hadn't heard him. The kid was no longer conscious.

"Jesus, Chief, what's wrong with you?" Jim growled helplessly, wishing with bitter self-recrimination that he'd paid more attention, and had been a whole lot more persistent about checking Blair's injuries. "What the hell is wrong?"

Grimly, he floored the accelerator.

********************

As soon as they arrived at the hospital, Jim yelled for help to get Blair to a treatment room. The medical team jumped into action and, within what seemed barely minutes, Blair was stripped of his clothing and ice packs were placed around his body to lower his temperature from the dangerous 104.5 degrees; if it got any higher, the doctor explained briskly, he'd be in danger of convulsing.

When the doctor began to examine him, Jim told her about the fall Blair had taken earlier in the week. She directed the staff to turn Blair onto his side, and she frowned and nodded thoughtfully when she saw the severe contusions. Then she pressed down lightly with both hands on the darkest bruises on his lower back and, even unconscious, Blair cried out in agony. Jim had to turn his face away, his jaw clenched and his hands fisted, as he fought the urge to shove her away, to make her stop hurting the kid.

"Do you know if he's been taking anything for the pain?" she asked, drawing Jim's gaze back to her. "Aspirin or Tylenol?"

"I don't know," he admitted, feeling incompetent and neglectful. "Probably. I know he's been pretty uncomfortable for a few days now. But he didn't say much except that he was bruised and that he didn't think it was anything serious. He, uh, he hasn't been eating much the last few days." Swallowing hard, his gaze shifting to Blair's haggard face, he shrugged helplessly. "He wouldn't let me check him out, and I didn't have any idea of how sick he was until this morning, when he seemed confused, a bit delirious, and I realized he was running a high fever."

Again she nodded and issued brusque orders to the nurses for blood and other tests, and to start an intravenous drip of glucose and saline.

A lab technician bustled in to take blood samples, and then Blair was swiftly wheeled out for a series of x-rays and ultrasounds of his back and abdomen. Meanwhile, Jim gave information to an officious clerk and then paced with barely contained agitation in the waiting lounge. As the minutes dragged on, Jim reached out from time to time with his hearing, but he was afraid of focusing too closely for too long and zoning, so he had to repeatedly pull himself back and simply wait with mounting frustration for answers. When Blair was brought back into Emergency, the doctor gave Jim permission to sit with him and said that as soon as the results of the tests were known, she would speak with him further.

Though Jim well understood the need for the ice packs, he hated to see Sandburg shivering with cold and fever and wished he could just bundle the kid up in blankets to keep him warm. Restless, deeply anxious, unable to sit quietly, he stood by the gurney in the curtained off cubicle, and gripped Blair's wrist, monitoring both pulse and body temperature with his sense of touch. The vile stench of sickness surrounded his friend and, though Jim was pretty sure he was the only one who could smell it, the odor scared him; it signaled something was seriously wrong. Blair's face was deathly pale, but for the flush of fever on his cheeks and, barely semi-consciousness, he mumbled and moaned softly, clearly in distress and in significant pain.

The doctor hadn't voiced any possible diagnosis, but after seeing how her touch on Blair's back had nearly sent the kid off the gurney in a paroxysm of unbearable pain, he'd figured that his friend had badly damaged his kidneys in the fall. Dammit, why hadn't Blair admitted the pain was so bad? Why had he thought he just had to suffer through it?

And just how bad was the damage? How sick was he? And why was it taking so long for those damned tests and x-rays and whatever to be done, so he could get some answers, and Blair could get the treatment he so obviously, even desperately, needed? For God's sake, it had been nearly two hours since he'd brought Blair in.

Jim heaved a shuddering sigh, and rested his palm on Blair's hot brow. His heart clenched while he listened to Blair's confused and jumbled words, understanding that somewhere inside his head, Blair was still worrying anxiously about him and his senses, trying to figure out what was wrong. The low moans and restless twitching of the kid's body as he tried to escape the pain that he could no longer hide tore Jim apart. "Shh, easy," he murmured, bending to bring his face closer to Blair's. "I know it hurts," he went on, his voice tight with regret for his friend's suffering and fear about just how bad things might be. "But you'll be okay, Chief. You're gonna be okay. Don't worry about stuff right now. Just try to rest."

Straightening, he wondered if Blair could even hear him, if the kid had any idea at all of what was going on or where he was. God, he hated feeling so helpless and impotent to do anything to make things better. For the hundredth time, he glanced at the round clock on the wall and wondered where the hell the doctor was. Surely, they could at least do something to mitigate the pain.

"Jim?" Blair's voice quavered uncertainly, his teeth chattering with cold. "Wha's goin' on?"

Forcing himself to smile reassuringly, Jim again leaned down a little and stroked his hand over Blair's brow and head. "You're in Emergency, Chief. You're well, you're pretty sick. But they're doing tests to figure out what's wrong, so they can get you fixed up."

"Sick?" Blair echoed, sounding dazed by exhaustion but his expression was tight, as if he was again trying to hide the extent of the pain he was feeling. " 'm cold, man. Soooo c-cold."

Jim pressed his lips together as he debated whether or not to share his suspicions of what was wrong. Deciding to stick to the facts and keep it simple, he explained, "You're running a high fever, so they've got ice packs all around and over your body to bring it down. Soon as the fever breaks, we can get you warmed up again."

Blair's gaze dropped away and then flitted around the room, as if he was trying to orient himself, trying to make sense of what was happening. "I don' remember getting here," he murmured, his eyes narrowing and his jaw tightening as he tried to shift and then stiffened.

"I know you're in a lot of pain, Chief," Jim told him, keeping his voice low and steady. "But they can't give you anything until they figure out what's wrong. The doctor wanted to know if you'd been taking aspirin or Tylenol to cope with it."

Blair closed his eyes and gave a small nod. "Aspirin," he admitted. "Wasn't doing much good, no matter how much I took." Giving Jim a quick glance and then looking away, he muttered, "I didn't want to make a big thing of it. Just bruises."

"Might be more than bruises, Sandburg," Jim replied. He again hesitated and then added, "I think you banged up your kidneys pretty bad. I think that's why you've been in so much pain, and why you're so sick now. You should have told me."

Blair huffed a breath and his eyes glazed. Blinking rapidly, sniffing, he swallowed and muttered, "S-sorry to be so much trouble. Guess I screwed up again."

Jim grimaced and his grip on Blair's wrist tightened. He hadn't meant to sound like he was criticizing the kid. Blair sure in hell didn't need to feel hassled, not now, not when the fever and pain were playing hell with his emotions. Right now, he just had to rest, concentrate on getting better.

"Yeah, well, I screwed up, too," Jim sighed. "I should have had you checked out after that fall. Was stupid to just let it go. I know better."

His expression strained, Blair shook his head. He still wasn't making eye contact when he argued, "I'm not a kid, man. And you're not my mother. Not your fault. I just I just ." But his voice petered out, as if it was all just too much effort.

"Let it go, Chief," Jim urged, scared by how weak and lethargic Blair seemed, how despondent. "The important thing is that you're getting the help you need. C'mon, ease up on yourself and rest, okay? Just rest."

Blair's face creased with pain, and his hands fisted as he rode it out. His shivering worsened and, if anything, his pallor was becoming more grayish, eerily deathly. When the spasm eased, he looked up at Jim, and Jim felt chilled by the shadows of fear that he saw there. "I if I don't " Blair stammered. "Really not your fault."

"Stop it," Jim ordered sharply, knowing all too well what the kid was trying to say. Blair evidently still felt as if he were dying. "You're going to be fine, you hear me?"

Blair's gaze searched his, and then dropped away. He seemed to shrink into himself, and Jim could have kicked himself for sounding so harsh. The kid was scared and just doing the best he could. "Chief," he offered, his tone deliberately softer as again, very gently, he stroked Blair's head. "I know you're feeling really bad, really sick, and that it hurts like hell. But but the doctors know what they're doing. You really will be okay."

God, he hoped he was right about that. But what if both kidneys were so damaged that 'getting better' just wasn't going to happen here? What if there were other internal injuries? What if . Jim shut down his futile questions, knowing they were only making him more anxious and not achieving any purpose. 'What ifs' could drive them both crazy.

Blair seemed to have drifted into troubled sleep, and was once more mumbling inarticulate words, sounding anxious. Jim again glanced up at the clock and struggled against the urge to charge out into the hall, shouting for the doctor to do something, anything, that might help.

The reek of sickness seemed to explode around him and he nearly retched. Looking down, he saw sweat beading on Blair's face, the perspiration carrying toxins out of his body. Jim felt a wave of relief to know that the fever, at least, was finally breaking. But the relief was short-lived. Maybe the danger of convulsions was past, at least for now, but Blair was still very, very sick. However, the change in Blair's condition gave him the excuse he needed to go in search of the doctor.

When he found her at the desk, making notes in a chart, he said gruffly, "His fever looks like it's breaking. And he was conscious for a few minutes. Said he took a lot of aspirin, but it didn't seem to do any good."

"I was afraid of that," she replied, and scraped her fingers through her short, dark hair. "Aspirin complicates and accelerates kidney failure." Turning away, she called to one of the clerks, "Sara, have those blood tests on Sandburg come back yet?"

The older woman looked around from a file she was working on and nodded. "I was just putting them in the chart for you. I've got the x-rays and ultrasound results, too, whenever you're ready for them."

"I'm ready now," the doctor said as she stood and moved across the small workspace to retrieve the file. For long minutes, she studied a number of documents, her expression one of deep concentration, and then she pulled x-ray films from an envelope and held them up to the light. "Sara, go ahead and get this guy admitted to the medical ward. But before he's taken up there, he needs to have dialysis just as soon as the Unit is ready for him."

Jim swallowed hard. Dialysis? Did that mean Blair's kidneys had completely shut down? God, how bad was the damage?

She replaced the x-rays, and then made notes on the file. When she was finished, she gave the file to the clerk, said, "I've ordered antibiotics and a sedative to help with his pain. Make sure he gets the first injections before he's transferred out."

Then she returned to Jim, who was waiting impatiently and trying his best to keep a lid on his churning emotions. "Your friend is very ill," she said, and he had to resist snapping that that was pretty obvious, all things considered. "Both kidneys have suffered severe bruising and are in acute renal failure; neither is functioning above five percent right now. There's evidence of internal bleeding and considerable edema of the tissues. The fever and infection are the result of the accumulation of toxins in his blood."

Jim's throat went dry and he held himself very still. "Will he recover?" he managed to ask, aware that his voice was thin with fear.

Her gaze flickered away. "We need to take this a step at a time. The dialysis treatments will clean his blood of impurities and waste, and the antibiotics will fight off the infection. But it will be a few days before the edema and bruising of his kidneys reduce enough for us to know whether or not there has been permanent damage done."

"And if the damage is permanent?" Jim pushed, needing to hear the worst so he could could what? Adjust to it? Prepare for it? Be ready to deal with it?

"Then the prognosis isn't great," she stated bluntly. "Dialysis would be a way of life if and until a kidney donor could be found. But let's not jump to worst case scenarios just yet. Mr. Sandburg is a young, otherwise healthy man. If the injuries are for the most part superficial, he might well be back to normal within three weeks."

"But if he has to survive on dialysis, how long "

"Detective Ellison," she cut in, sounding tired. "I'm really very busy here tonight and there are people who need attention now. I don't have time to speculate about what may or may not happen in your friend's case. If his kidneys fail to respond, you'll need to work with his regular doctor and whatever internist is brought in to consult on the implications and options. Seriously, it's far too soon to begin digging Mr. Sandburg's grave. Give him some time to heal."

With that, she brushed past him, hurrying off to her next patient.

Jim stood gaping at empty space, his mind stumbling over the word 'grave'. He'd been thinking in terms of diminished physical capacity and the medical costs of prolonged treatment. He hadn't ever thought that the situation could be so bad that that there was even a remote possibility that Blair could could die. He blinked and nearly staggered, but got hold of himself and shook off the sudden chill that gripped his bones and mastered the hollow breathlessness that had paralyzed his chest. Swinging around, he hurried back to Blair's side and was disconcerted to find the cubicle empty. Where had they taken him? Dialysis? Where was that?

He had to find Blair. He didn't want the kid to wake up and find himself attached to some machine without knowing why or what the hell was going on.

Striding back along the corridor and to the Admissions Desk, he did his best to rein in his anxiety, telling himself that the doctor had said Blair needed time, that the dialysis and the medications would help make him better, and that he had a good chance of full recovery. Shouldering past others waiting in line for information and attention, he flashed his badge without any compunction or remorse, and immediately got directions to the Dialysis Unit, and the number of the room where Blair would be taken afterward.

As he moved briskly along yet another corridor, up two flights of stairs and down a long hall, he continued giving himself a pep talk, focusing on the best case scenario, and refusing to dwell on how stupid, and what an utter waste, and how awful, how unbearable it would be if Blair didn't get better, if he ended up paying the ultimate price for simply doing his best to help and for feeling as if he couldn't or shouldn't complain about the fact that he'd gotten more badly hurt in that fall than anyone had realized this past week.

Jim felt anger build in his chest when he remembered that they wouldn't even have been at that damned excavation site if Cassie had been doing her job instead of flitting around playing detective, looking for a murderer before the professionals had even had a chance to investigate. In those moments, when he thought about what her meddling might cost, Jim loathed her with a passion that took his breath away.

But he couldn't simply blame Cassie. It wasn't that easy. Why the hell hadn't he been paying more attention? Why hadn't he noticed that the ground he'd just walked over was unstable? Why hadn't he been more persistent when he knew Blair was suffering significant pain? And why in God's name had Blair allowed it to get this far? Why hadn't the kid admitted how badly he was hurting, so they could have gotten him checked out days ago?

When he walked into the Dialysis Unit, he found Blair lying stiffly on the gurney, his troubled, frightened gaze fixed on the ceiling, his blood flowing through tubes into and out of the machine on the far side of the bed. All the questions, all the recriminations and need to assign blame, or at least responsibility, fled in the face of the kid's pallid exhaustion and evident fear. Swallowing hard, Jim took a deep breath to calm himself and then approached his friend's side. "Can't turn my back without you sneaking off," he teased gently as he reached out to lightly grip Blair's shoulder. "How're you doing, Chief?"

Blair turned his wide, haunted gaze to Jim. "I don't know," he answered uncertainly, sounding hollow with fear, more than a bit lost, and badly confused. "I woke up here, hooked to this machine, and I don't know what's going on. Nobody has told me anything. I don't remember getting sick but I just feel awful." He lifted a hand toward Jim, who took it and held on tight. "What they're doing it's dialysis, right? God, it hurts and feels weird. And my back, the pain it's pretty bad, man. I " He faltered and his gaze fell away as he visibly struggled with his emotions.

"Hey, hey, easy, Chief," Jim hastened to reassure him. "You did a number on your kidneys when you fell, and they're all swollen, so they're not functioning well right now. That's why you got so sick, so fast. But the fever has broken and they've got you on antibiotics to fight the infection. The dialysis is just a short term measure to to clean out your blood and give your kidneys time to heal. When we get you up to your room, when this is done, I'll see if I can get them to give you something for the pain, okay?"

His jaw tight, Blair's nod was stiff, but he tightened his grip on Jim's hand as if he was afraid to let go.

"Try to rest, Chief," Jim urged. "Sleep would be the best thing for you right now. C'mon, close your eyes and try to relax."

Blair flicked him a look and exhaled a shuddery breath. With another tight nod, he obligingly closed his eyes, but his body remained taut with tension. Jim began stroking his brow, and he kept up a low murmuring litany of reassurance to distract Blair from his discomforts and fears. "You'll feel better once this is done, you'll see. You're gonna be fine, Chief. I'm here and I won't be going anywhere, not until you're settled. So so just go with it, let it flow, don't fight it." Gradually, Blair seemed to relax and, finally, he slipped into sleep.

Watching him, monitoring him with his senses, Jim continued to lightly stroke his brow, and retained his grip on Blair's hand. God, the kid looked so sick and so unnaturally, frighteningly frail. It had all happened so fast that the severity of his illness was shocking; he'd seemed generally okay, except for the pain, just yesterday. Even though he already appeared better than he'd been early that morning, and the fever wasn't as high, his skin was still flushed and warm to the touch. At least his respirations had evened out, and were slow and deep, and his heart rate seemed to have settled into its normal solid rhythm. But Jim could see lines of pain around his eyes and mouth, and whenever he thought about Blair's dysfunctional kidneys, he felt scared. "You're gonna be fine," he whispered again, and desperately hoped that would be true.

********************

Several hours later, Jim made sure Blair was settled as comfortably as possible in his room, and had finally been given something strong enough to mute the pain he was suffering. The antibiotics he was being given left him feeling nauseous, but they also pretty much knocked him out, as they waged war with the poisons in his body. The few moments when he woke from time to time, Blair was again muddled about where he was and, though he didn't admit it out loud, Jim could tell he was frightened by what was happening, most especially since he couldn't make sense of anything. More blood tests were taken after the dialysis treatment, a different bottle of intravenous fluid was hung on the pole that grew out of the top of the bed, and another injection of antibiotics was given. Blair mostly slept through everything being done to him, for which Jim was grateful.

When his stomach growled, insisting on food though Jim didn't feel like eating, he went down to the cafeteria for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee. And then he went outside, for a fast walk around the block to get some fresh air. Before he returned to the hospital, he stopped at a telephone booth and called Simon, to tell him what was happening.

"His kidneys!?" Banks exclaimed. "Damn, that could be bad."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, his throat tight. "But the doctor in Emergency said Sandburg had a good chance of full recovery. She said we need to give him some time, to see if they heal."

"I'm really sorry to hear this, Jim," Simon sighed. "Kid sure doesn't deserve this. You want me to come down there?"

"No, that's okay," Jim replied, feeling tired. "He's sleeping most of the time. The meds have hit him hard, and the infection, too, I guess. I'm going to hang around, make sure he doesn't need anything. Don't know if I'll be able to make it to work over the next couple days. You mind if I take some leave? I well, I want to stay close, until we see how he's doing."

"No problem," Simon assured him. "Your last case is wrapped up and we don't have anything pressing on the roster right now. Keep me posted, okay?"

"Will do," Jim agreed. "Thanks."

After hanging up, Jim thought briefly about trying to track down Blair's mother. But the daunting task of trying to trace her movements was more than he could deal with just then. Besides, he wasn't sure, as much as Blair might appreciate seeing Naomi, that her presence would be all that helpful. He could just imagine her wanting to burn sage in the kid's room, and arguing about the meds he was on from the perspective that some exotic herb or other would be so much better. Shaking his head, deciding he'd wait until Blair was coherent enough to ask if he wanted Naomi called, Jim returned to the hospital.

When he got back to Blair's room, his friend was still sleeping. Jim settled in the armchair by the window and opened up a magazine he'd bought in the gift shop downstairs. Maybe it was crazy to hang around. Blair was getting the care he needed. But he just seemed so vulnerable, so confused and scared when he was awake and, so far as Jim knew, nobody had really explained much to the kid yet, hadn't told him what to expect or what his chances for recovery were, so Jim hated to leave him alone. He'd requested a small television be brought in on his way past the nurses' station, and he figured it would probably be arriving soon. Sit here and watch television or sit at home and do the same thing didn't really make much difference to him. Either way, he'd be worrying.

Better to just stay here, where he might be needed.

********************

Blair felt as if he was floating in a dry, hot fog. His body ached, but distantly, as if he wasn't really attached to himself, which was confusing and worrisome. Every so often, he'd hear Jim's voice, or the voices of strangers, and he could sometimes manage to open his eyes and see his friend or a nurse, and he'd remember that he was sick and in hospital. But he wasn't entirely sure why he was there or how sick he was, or even what had made him sick. He felt restless and fretful, frustrated to be so muddled but, try as he might, he couldn't seem to wake all the way up.

He began to wonder if he was simply trapped in a very annoying dream.

********************

"Shouldn't he be doing better by now?" Jim demanded, knowing his anxiety was making him sound abrupt and harsh, even accusatory, but unable to temper his emotions or tone. It had been two days since he'd brought Blair to the hospital and he'd hoped the antibiotics and the dialysis would help. Hell, he'd hoped that his friend would be well on the way to recovery by now. But Sandburg had remained largely unresponsive, never fully awake, and he still looked like death warmed over. If the antibiotics were supposed to kill the infection and the fever, they didn't appear to be working, because Blair was still running a temperature.

"The functioning of his kidneys hasn't improved," the internist, Dr. Mayhew, replied blandly. "So the toxins are again building in his body. The antibiotics will help, but it takes time. I'm scheduling him for another dialysis treatment later this afternoon."

"Why aren't his kidneys getting any better?" Jim probed. "I mean they will get better, right? It's just a matter of time?"

Mayhew chewed on his inner lip as he considered the question, and then he shrugged. "I don't know, yet, if they'll improve much or not. From what I can discern from the x-rays and ultrasound, and what you've told me about his drop of more than fifteen feet onto broken bricks and timbers, I'm guessing that some of those bricks or the ends of the rotten wood jammed hard up under his ribs and very badly battered the organs. It's an unusual situation for the kidneys to receive such debilitating injury, the cause is more often a devastating accident that rips into the body and does massive gross damage. And, most often, only one kidney takes such a hit, leaving the other one to increase its functioning, to offset the loss. Having both fail like this is very hard on the body the toxins in the blood impact on the functioning of all the other organs, too, lowering their efficiency." He paused and then went on, "The injuries were then compounded by the amount of aspirin he took to counteract the pain he was feeling. Aspirin, large or constant amounts of it, impedes the functioning of the kidneys and does its own damage to the tissues. Since his kidneys aren't doing their job of cleaning the blood, his liver has had to take on double duty, and I'm keeping an eye on its functioning. The good news is, so far, his liver is coping fine."

Jim scraped a hand over his mouth. Somehow, the fact that Blair's liver hadn't yet started to fail didn't strike him as fantastic news. He'd not thought that any such complication could be a problem. God, this was turning into a nightmare. "So you're telling me that not only might he not get better, he might actually get worse?"

"Yes," Mayhew replied with a bleak nod. "That's what I'm telling you."

"Do you have any timeframe here is there a point when you'll give up hoping the kidneys will improve?"

The specialist studied Blair. "If he's going to get better, we should see some positive change in the next few days, but improvement may be gradual, and for the next week at least, slow. Even if the kidneys begin to respond, I think he'll need to continue dialysis for at least another seven to ten days. After that, if his body is going to return to normal, we should see marked improvement."

Jim swallowed the questions about what would happen if there was no improvement. He didn't want to go there; didn't want to acknowledge that possibility. He nodded in understanding and turned away from the doctor to gaze down at his friend. Blair's skin looked stretched over his bones, and his lips were chapped despite the gel Jim glossed over them every couple of hours. His hair was lank, lacking luster, and his eyes were sunken and dark. His hands and arms had thinned down, so that he looked wasted. And the sickening scent of the toxins poisoning his body rose from the bed, an invisible miasma that nobody else seemed able to smell but that scared Jim, because he knew as long as he could sense it, Blair was well, without the dialysis, he'd be dying.

Behind him, Mayhew said, "I'll check back tomorrow. In the meantime, Mr. Ellison, I suggest you start looking after yourself. The staff tell me that you're virtually camping out here."

"He doesn't know what's happening to him," Jim replied, his voice low with his effort to control his worry and his frustrated helplessness. "I don't want him waking up alone."

"Well, we won't kick you out," Mayhew told him. "At least not yet. But you'd do well to go home and get some rest. I'm sure he wouldn't want you standing sentinel, not at the cost of your own health."

Jim flinched at the doctor's words. Sentinel? Some sentinel he'd been when he hadn't even seen his best friend growing so sick, when he hadn't done anything to determine why Blair had been in so much pain days after his fall when he hadn't insisted that Blair get checked out in the first place immediately afterward. "If if he'd come in to be checked sooner, like right after he fell, or when the pain got worse, could something have been done to prevent this?" he asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer.

"Maybe," Mayhew replied. "We might have been able to do something to reduce the edema of the tissue sooner, or get him on dialysis before the toxins made him so ill or given him something for pain relief that wouldn't have worsened his condition, like the aspirin did but, maybe not. The damage was done by the fall, and we just have to play it out. I don't find there's much profit in worrying about what 'might have been'. We need to deal with what is."

Jim nodded. It was good advice. All the guilt in the world wouldn't make Blair well again. "Thanks," he muttered, and heard the doctor leave.

Blair was moving with feeble restlessness, as if trying to wake up, his fingers plucking ineffectually at the sheet covering him, his brows furrowing. Jim covered his hand with his own, stilling their movement, and he leaned down to stroke Blair's cheek with the back of his fingers. The skin felt dry and slightly rough, and Jim imagined he could feel the poisons leeching out of his pores. "It's okay, Chief," he murmured, and was pleased to see the frown ease. He was sure Blair could hear him, or at least his voice, and take some comfort from his presence. "You just need to keep resting, Blair. You need time to heal. But you'll be okay. Don't worry about what the doctor said. He doesn't know you. Doesn't know you're a fighter or that you don't know how to give up. You'll get better, Chief. You will be just fine."

Blair blinked and opened his eyes, but his gaze was unfocused and dull. But, still, he tried to track toward Jim's face and he tried to smile, and his fingers curled briefly in a weak grip around Jim's, before he drifted away again.

Jim's throat tightened and he pressed his lips together to still the tremble that threatened. God, he hoped he was right, that Blair would recover. He hated seeing the kid like this, so helpless and ill. Couldn't bear the thought that he might not get any better. He stroked Blair's brow, brushing the curls back, and squeezed his friend's hand. And then he returned to his chair by the window, to continue his vigil.

An hour later, Cassie breezed in with an arrangement of bright balloons printed with a 'Get Well Quick' message and a wide smile that faded in shock when she saw Sandburg. "My God," she exclaimed, coming to a standstill at the foot of the bed, "he looks like he's dying."

Jim leapt to his feet, furious at her intrusion and loud, insensitive words. "What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded coldly, moving to block her from getting any closer.

She gaped at him, apparently startled by his anger, and stammered, "I just heard today that he was sick and and I came to cheer him up." Shifting to look past Jim at Blair, she went on, "He really does look awful. What's wrong with him?"

Jim wanted to wring her neck. "He's sick. He hurt his kidneys in the fall at the excavation site last week. He's going to be fine," he replied, staunchly optimistic and very afraid that Blair could hear her. "But he's not up to visitors right now. You should go."

As if offended by his tone, she grew haughty, "I have every right to visit. He's a friend, after all."

"Friend?" Jim repeated, his lip curling with aversion. "Some friend. You think we don't both know you resent his observer status? Or that you were trying to coerce him into acting without me the other night, when he was taken and nearly killed? Or that you encouraged his interest just to get close to the case and to me? He doesn't need friends like you."

"Oh, come on," she argued, her face flushing as her gaze slid away from his. "You're exaggerating. I was just helping with the case and he was helping me. He's just a civilian observer, after all."

"Wrong. He is my partner and he was working on our case; you were trading on his good nature to insinuate yourself for your own purpose and glory," Jim countered, his tone low and deadly. "For that matter, he wouldn't've been at the damned site if you hadn't been meddling where you had no business. And you almost got him killed by dragging him out to that apartment without getting in touch with me first. You're a menace, Cassie, and you're dangerous. And he sure in hell doesn't need you coming in here shouting about how awful he looks. I think you'd better just leave."

"It's not my fault he fell through the rotten flooring," she disputed, though her tone was more subdued. She looked at the balloons that seemed so inappropriate in view of Blair's debilitated state, and then she thrust them at Jim. "Tell him I hope he's feeling better soon," she said in a rush, and then escaped from the room.

"Bitch," he muttered under his breath. He looked at the balloons with disgust, and he was tempted to throw them away, but he thought Blair might get a kick out of them. So he deposited the arrangement on the windowsill behind the chair, where he wouldn't have to see them.

********************

"How's he doing?" Simon asked, keeping his voice low after he and Joel entered the room that evening.

Jim stood to welcome them and glanced at Blair as he said, "He had another dialysis session today, and the antibiotics seem to be keeping the fever in check."

"Yeah, but is he getting any better?" Joel probed. "What's the doctor have to say?"

"Basically that he needs time to heal," Jim said, unwilling to voice the more dire possibilities. "He said the injuries were unusual, and that's why he got so sick so fast."

"So he's going to be okay?" Simon prompted, the worry in his face easing.

Jim looked away, not sure what to say and not wanting to outright lie with assurances that might not prove to be true. "I hope so," he finally replied. "We'll know for sure in another few days."

Blair sniffed and stirred, and his eyes opened. He frowned as he looked around and then up at his visitors, and Jim could see he was confused, though his eyes seemed brighter, more lucid, than they had for days.

"Hey there," Jim called softly, moving to gently grip Blair's shoulder. "Look who's finally awake."

Blair scrubbed his face with a hand and winced a little as he shifted in the bed. "Man, I feel like I was stomped by a herd of elephants," he complained, his voice thin and reedy. "What the hell happened?"

Jim had lost count of how many times he'd explained things to a semi-conscious and fractious Blair, but this time he dared hope his friend would understand and remember. "When you fell last week, you banged up your kidneys and they're not functioning too well right now," he explained succinctly, having winnowed the story down through repeated tellings. "The toxins in your blood made you pretty sick, and you've needed dialysis a couple times, and you're on antibiotics."

Blair gaped at him. "Wh-what?" he stammered, looking from Jim to Simon and Joel, and then back again. Memory hit and with it realization seemed to dawn on his face. "Oh, shit. The pain in my back. That was because of my kidneys, and not just bad bruising?"

"Got it in one, Einstein," Jim replied with a small smile, deeply pleased that Blair's mind seemed to be functioning again and the kid was putting it together. "Suffering in silence wasn't the best idea, but Doctor Mayhew the internist looking after you said that even if you'd come in right away, the damage had been done. Taking all that aspirin, though, didn't help any."

Blair seemed to sag against his pillows. "Dialysis? A couple times?" he repeated, his pitch rising anxiously. "How long have I been in here? And and how bad is the damage?"

Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulder to lend support and reassurance. "You were delirious with fever early Sunday morning when I brought you in, and it's Tuesday evening. Mayhew said your kidneys need a few more days, maybe another week, to start to bounce back."

Blair sighed and shook his head, his gaze again drifting around the room, taking in the intravenous bottle and tubing, and then the balloons by the window. "Hey, nice balloons," he observed, looking again at the three men towering over him.

"Cassie brought them this afternoon," Jim told him, his voice flat. Simon grimaced and Joel looked away, but Jim saw him roll his eyes.

"Oh," Blair murmured. His expression tightened and he added to Simon, "Hardly counts as 'fraternization' if I didn't even know she was here."

Simon looked surprised, maybe at the bitterness of Blair's tone, and Jim belatedly remembered that Sandburg had complained about Simon's warning the week before. "Everyone just hopes you'll be feeling a lot better soon, Chief," he said to ease the sudden tension in the room.

"It's good to see you awake, Blair," Simon offered, sounding subdued. "You're a lot better tonight than you were when we've been here before."

Blair's irritation faded at the news that this wasn't the first time Simon and Joel had been in to see him. "I'm just tired," he said in apology. "Feel like shit, to tell you the truth." Turning back to Jim, he asked, "But the doctor said I'll get better, right? This " he gestured at the room, "this is just temporary?"

Again Jim felt torn. He wanted so badly to give a blanket assurance, but that wasn't fair. What if things didn't improve? He took a breath and looked away from Blair's anxious gaze as he offered, "The doctor in Emergency said that because your health is generally good, you've got a good chance of full recovery once your kidneys have had a chance to heal. The internist figures you'll probably need a few more dialysis treatments and says the antibiotics should take care of the infection."

Simon and Joel glanced at one another. "Uh, look, we can see you're still pretty wiped out, so we won't stay any longer," Joel interjected. "You need to keep resting, Blair. We'll, uh, we'll see you again tomorrow evening. You take care now. Don't give the nurses a rough time."

Blair looked up at them and nodded. "Thanks, guys, for coming to see me," he said somberly, with a worried glance at Jim. "Sorry I'm not better company."

"Oh, that's okay," Simon assured him, forcing a smile as they turned to go. "We won't hold it against you."

Blair gave them a small smile and a wave as they left the room, and then turned his attention back to Jim. "What aren't you telling me?" he demanded, sounding both irritated and frightened.

Sighing, Jim looked away briefly, but knew he had to bite the bullet. Blair deserved to know the truth. Swallowing, he met Blair's gaze and admitted, "Your kidneys are still only functioning at about five percent, and nobody knows how much better they'll get, or if they'll get any better at all. It's too soon yet. But the doctors are hopeful, and so am I."

"Hopeful," Blair echoed, all emotion leeching from his voice and face. "Shit."

"Chief, it's just too soon. You need to give your body time," Jim urged. "Don't be borrowing trouble by anticipating the worst, here."

Blair studied him, and his gaze narrowed before it dropped away, leaving Jim with the uncomfortable feeling that Blair had somehow discerned the fear that plagued him. He felt awkward and uncomfortable, wanting to reach out with a reassuring touch but unable to do so, now that Blair was awake. It would feel too intimate, too intrusive, when the kid looked like he was trying so hard to keep his own emotions in check.

Finally, Blair nodded. "When was the last dialysis?" he asked.

"This afternoon."

"Guess that's why I'm finally a bit more with it," Blair murmured. He blew a slow breath. Glancing again at the balloons, he asked, "What's with the cold tone when you said Cassie brought those? That was nice of her."

Moving away, Jim shrugged and sat down in the uncomfortable chair that he'd begun to loathe in the last two days. "She's not my favorite person," he replied, knowing he sounded angry, though he tried to keep his tone level.

"Jim, it's not her fault that I fell," Blair said softly, sounding so weak and scared that Jim felt tears prickle the back of his eyes. "This isn't anybody's fault, except maybe mine, for not checking things out."

Jim could feel himself tighten up; he wanted to rage that it was her fault, or maybe his own, for failing to pay close enough attention, and he wanted to shake Blair for having ignored the signals his body had been giving him. But he was afraid his rage would only reveal his own latent terror that Blair might not recover might be at very grave risk. And, regardless of his own feelings, he knew Blair wasn't up to much more discussion that evening. His eyes were drooping and he looked about to fall back to sleep. So Jim simply gave a grudging nod and let it go.

Blair sighed wearily. "If you were a betting man, what odds would you give me?" he asked uncertainly, obviously needing reassurance but also wanting the truth.

Jim lifted his gaze and he felt nothing but determination as he replied, "Damned good ones. As far as I'm concerned, you're going to be just fine."

To his surprise, his words won a wan smile. "Good," Blair replied, his voice fading. "'Cause I might be down, but I'm not out."

"Not by a long shot, Chief," Jim returned with a smile of his own, relieved to know the kid was back in the game and would fight to get better. "Close your eyes, Sandburg. Your body needs rest."

"What about you?" Blair asked then with a searching gaze. "You look worn out, Jim. Like you haven't slept for days. You should be heading home."

"I'm fine," Jim assured him, but when Blair frowned and looked like he might argue, for peace he added, "I'll stay just a little longer, until you're asleep. And then I'll head home for the night."

"'Kay. Thanks, man," Blair murmured and yawned widely. Shifting stiffly onto his side, he obligingly closed his eyes and Jim could tell, a few minutes later, that he'd slipped back into sleep. But, despite what he'd said, Jim didn't immediately leave.

Instead, he sat and watched Blair sleep, and monitored him, seeking signs of renewed health. Blair's lucidity was a good sign, or he hoped it was, and not just a result of the dialysis combined with the impact the antibiotics were having on the infection. He could still see pain etched in Blair's face, and he wondered if the kid should have requested some medication, but Jim thought the fever was down, and Blair's lungs sounded clear and his heart was strong.

And not just his heart, Jim told himself. This man is a fighter. He won't quit. And he'll never give up. He frowned and hung his head. Would strength of will be enough? Or would Blair's body betray him? Swallowing his fears, he sighed. He had to hold onto the hope that everything would be fine or he'd be no good to his friend. Over the years they'd spent together, most often, he'd been the one in need of support and Blair had never failed to be encouraging and had always been there for him. Now it was his turn to be there for Blair, whatever happened.

An hour later, though he had to force himself to do so, he decided he could and probably should go home to his own bed.

Standing, he lingered a moment more, his fingertips lightly brushing Blair's stubbled cheek. "See you in the morning, buddy," he promised softly, and then turned away.

********************

Blair woke with a groan and wasn't immediately sure where he was. Blinking to clear his eyes, he gazed around the darkened room and the light streaming in through the half-open door to the corridor beyond. Oh, yeah, he sighed to himself. The hospital. And the deep throbbing pain in his back was stemming from his damaged kidneys, kidneys that weren't currently, at least functioning. The pain had bothered him for days, growing worse, an annoyance that became increasingly debilitating and frustrating but, until now, he'd never been afraid of it.

He was afraid now.

What if he didn't get any better? What would that mean, exactly?

Dialysis would keep him going, but he suspected that would be expensive, and he wasn't at all sure he had the insurance coverage for treatments that would be a way of life. But, without them, he'd die.

The fear coalesced and hardened into a heavy lump in his chest. God, he really, really didn't want to die.

Shifting, he tried to find a more comfortable position, but there seemed to be no escape from the relentless aching that was nearly all-consuming, dulling his ability to think coherently and escalating his emotional sense of helplessness and incipient terror. But he couldn't let the pain master him just couldn't. He tried deep breathing, but that didn't help and, reluctantly, he fumbled around until he found the call button pinned to the bed. Pushing it, he told himself that sometimes hard drugs were necessary, and man, this was sure one of those times. His hands fisted, his whole body tight in resistance to the pulsing agony deep inside, he waited as patiently as he could for a nurse to come.

Staring at the empty chair where Jim had been sitting, part of him wished his friend was still there. Somehow, Jim's presence reassured him, made him feel safe. God, what a wuss. Going on thirty years old in another year, and he wasn't man enough to handle this on his own. Jim needed his rest. It was a good thing he'd gone home because, from the way he'd looked, he'd been sitting in that chair a long time, maybe even days. Not to mention nights.

Closing his eyes, Blair thought about how irritable he'd been in the days before he'd apparently become delirious with fever; short-tempered, impatient, verging on being downright nasty. But Jim had still been there for him and had made sure he'd gotten the care he needed. Man, he'd been so lucky to meet the man, not just because he was a sentinel, but because against all the odds he'd become the best friend Blair had ever had. Jim wasn't like anyone else he'd ever known. He didn't care about esoteric theories, and wasn't interested in debating academic philosophies or perspectives. He was concrete. Solid. More about action than than words. He got things done without a lot of fuss. And he was, well, heroic. Not that he couldn't also be a pain in the butt, all anal and irascible. But he also had a wicked sense of humor, and he was good company. God knew, the man was courageous and not just in public. He'd faced his fears about his senses and had pretty much mastered them. Jim didn't know how to give up. He was strong and steadfast and decent.

The nurse finally came in, interrupting his thoughts. He asked for something for the pain, and she disappeared again, with the promise of returning soon. He sure hoped it would be soon; he wasn't sure how much more he could stand without embarrassing himself with tears or something. Man, he hated to feel this helpless, this out of control. This weak. Not that he'd ever thought of himself as a particularly strong person, but he wasn't used to feeling so devoid of energy, so fragile and vulnerable that he didn't think he would even be able to stand up without falling on his face. Even when he'd been shot, he hadn't felt this utter sense of debilitation, as if he'd been beaten within an inch of his life, battered and sore and aching all over and scared. God, he was scared.

If his kidneys didn't get back to normal, what then? A transplant, maybe? What would that cost? How long would it take to find a match? Oh, man, he really didn't want to have to call Naomi and worry her about this, let alone say, "Hey, Ma, got a kidney you can spare?" Not that she wouldn't give him one, if she was a match. But he hated the idea of asking; of maybe putting her life at risk if, at some future time, she needed more than one kidney herself.

God, he had to stop with these negative vibes. They weren't helping. And in a metaphysical sense, they could be disastrous. Okay, so assume his kidneys began to improve, as Jim had said the doctors thought might well happen in the next few days. That wasn't so long to wait to see if things would get better. If they even got only half better, well, that would be like having one fully functioning kidney, right? So that should be enough to get on with life.

Would it be enough? Would he be able to go back to living the way he was used to, running around between Rainier and the PD running around behind Jim? Could he keep up? What if he couldn't? Would that mean he wouldn't be able to keep working with Jim? Would he have to find someone else to to give Jim the support he still needed. 'Cause there was a big difference in generally mastering his senses, and dealing with unexpected spikes or being ambushed by a zone-out while he was concentrating too hard on one sense. Jim couldn't go back to working alone; he needed a partner. A partner who understood his special skills and needs.

The nurse returned and Blair obligingly rolled onto his side, though the pain of the effort took his breath away. He tried not to wince at the sting and burn of the injection. She tightened the sheets under him, plumped his pillows, straightened the blankets and fussed until he wanted to tell her to just leave him the hell alone; but he knew that would be rude. So he bit his tongue and gave her the best smile he could manage as he thanked her. And then he sagged against the mattress, waiting for the medication to distance the pain, make it less demanding and immediate.

Gradually, he felt himself relaxing. The pain was still there but not important. He felt as if he was floating, the world around him not quite real. Man, this was good stuff. Even made him feel downright euphoric and, at the same time, as if he wanted to cry. Drowsiness settled over him, and he hoped he wouldn't have nightmares in which demons were chasing him and he couldn't run fast enough to get away, or worse, in which Jim needed him, was in deadly danger, and he couldn't get there, couldn't make himself heard, couldn't help. He hated that particular nightmare. Really, really hated it.

I don't want to let him down, he thought as he drifted away from consciousness, and he prayed with muzzy, almost desperate intensity, Please, help me to never let him down.

********************

When Blair next woke, his gaze immediately sought the empty chair and he couldn't resist smiling to find it occupied. "Hey," he murmured, and yawned.

"Hey, yourself," Jim replied with an answering smile. "How're you feeling this morning?"

Blair's gaze faltered, and he covered his hesitation by shifting his position in the bed. He didn't want to complain, but the pain in his back had returned with a vengeance. And that couldn't be good, right? That had to mean his kidneys were still down for the count. "Okay," he said, wishing that were true.

A frown puckered Jim's brow and he rose to stand beside the bed. "Nice try," he observed, his tone dry. "Now how about giving the truth a try?"

Grimacing, Blair gave a small shrug. "Like shit," he admitted grudgingly. "My back is killing me, and a newborn kitten could knock me over."

Jim nodded as he pushed the call button. "That's better," Jim approved. "If we're going to beat this thing, you have to be honest with me and the staff here, not to mention the doctors."

"Yeah, I know," Blair sighed and weakly raked back his hair. Lifting his gaze, he said, "I hate this. I hate feeling so rotten and and inadequate. Like I'm about to shatter into a million pieces or something."

Jim gripped his shoulder. "I can imagine. But you've been really sick, Chief. It's not surprising that you feel weak and that you hurt. Give yourself a break, here."

Blair nodded and when the nurse appeared, a different one from the night before, he asked for something for the pain.

"Do you feel up to breakfast?" she asked, and his gut immediately rebelled at the thought of food, even though he felt hollow inside.

"No, no, I don't think so," he replied with a heavy swallow against the nausea that threatened. "Maybe just some tea?"

"Fine, I'll bring that along with your morning meds and a shot to ease your discomfort," she told him and swiftly darted away.

"You sure you couldn't manage some food?" Jim pressed. "Might help you feel stronger."

Blair closed his eyes and shook his head tightly. "Maybe later," he temporized, feeling like a wimp. He had to do better than this. Jim was right. He needed to do everything he could to get better. But his back hurt so bad and he felt so wretched. Tears of frustration burned in his eyes, and he wanted to curse at his unruly emotions, his complete inability to accept everything stoically, like a man.

He felt Jim stroke his brow and comb fingers through his hair and he trembled, the tears dampening his lashes no matter how hard he tried to hold them back.

"Easy, it's okay," Jim murmured. "There's no shame in being sick, Sandburg. With the cocktail of meds and toxins in your system, not to mention the constant pain, it's no wonder you're feeling overwhelmed right now."

He sniffed and swiped at his eyes. "Yeah?" he countered, wishing his voice was stronger, not so reedy and thin. "Somehow, I don't think if it was you, that you'd be losing it."

"You're not me."

Blair pressed his lips together and struggled to master his errant emotions. "Sometimes," he admitted, his voice close to cracking, "I wish I was. More like you, I mean. Not such a wuss."

"Chief, look at me," Jim commanded, though his tone was gentle.

Blair turned his face away, ashamed of being so out of control. It wasn't so much that he thought men shouldn't cry, just that just that Jim wouldn't. And he didn't want Jim to think he was weak. Even if he was.

"C'mon, Blair, look at me."

He swallowed and, reluctantly, blinking quickly to clear his eyes, he looked up at his friend.

"You said something about being a wuss when I was bringing you to the hospital," Jim told him, concern in his eyes. "That's why you didn't complain about how bad the pain was, or how sick you were beginning to feel, right?"

Embarrassed, Blair nodded. "Dumb, huh? I sure screwed up this time."

"Would you stop that? Stop putting yourself down," Jim complained irritably. "Sandburg, I don't know where you get the idea that you're some kind of wimp or coward, or that it's unmanly to admit when you're hurting bad."

"Ah, c'mon, Jim. I know you're just trying to make me feel better, but we both know that I'm no match for you or any of the other guys downtown," Blair muttered with contemptuous self-disparagement. "Hell, even Cassie risks respiratory collapse to do what needs to be done."

"You are so full of shit," Jim snapped, stepping away to pace beside the bed. Turning back to Blair, pointing at him, he said with forceful conviction, "You are not a wimp or wuss or whatever it is you think you are. From day one, you've risked yourself to do whatever had to be done, whether that was pulling me down in front of a truck or getting on a bus with a mad bomber. You're afraid of heights, but you jumped out of a plane because you knew I'd need your help in Peru. You went with me after a murderous bastard like Quinn to help rescue Simon, and you even got shot for your trouble. You've gone into danger practically every damn week since we've met, unarmed and without hesitation, because because I need you there with me. You're a grad student, Chief, not a cop. You've never been trained to survive in my world, but that has never stopped you, not even when I was literally blind and still going into situations that could have gotten us both killed."

"Yeah, but "

"There are no 'buts', here, Chief. None. I don't know where you get the idea that you might slow me down or are somehow not up to the tasks we face," Jim cut in, his tone insistent. "And I don't know where you got the idea that you aren't physically tough enough to make it in my world. You're plenty tough enough. And brave enough. So cut the shit, already."

Blair felt himself go all still inside. "You mean that?" he asked, not quite able to believe it.

Jim rolled his eyes and challenged, "Sandburg, when do I ever say stuff I don't mean?"

Blair looked at him for a long minute, and then away, as he tried to think through the pain and raw emotions that surged through him. Where had he gotten the idea that he wasn't good enough? "I guess it's just that that I get tired of being, I don't know, different, maybe. I know I'm not like anyone else in Major Crime. That I'm younger, and like you said, not trained. I feel like I'm always playing catch-up. And I see the hits you take and you just bounce back; I know I could never do that, physically, I mean. I feel like I'm always second-guessing myself. And I'm scared a lot of the time, even if I don't show it I hope I don't show it. Scared of the situations we get into. Scared that I'll screw up."

"Ah, Chief," Jim sighed. "Let me assure you, you don't show it hell, half the time, you scare the shit out of me because you don't stay back when you should, and you put yourself at risk when I wish you wouldn't. But being scared isn't an absence of courage. Courage is about doing what has to be done even when you're scared, despite being scared."

Blair could feel himself flush with mingled embarrassment and pleasure. Jim thought he was brave?

But Jim was going on, "And, okay, so you don't have the same physical stamina or abilities. Sandburg, I work out in the gym every day and so do most of the other guys to stay in top shape. I know what my body can take, and I know how to take the falls without hurting myself. I'm trained to do just that. But you you just jump right in without the training. Of course you don't bounce back the same way. Nobody expects that you would or should. Nobody but you."

Frowning, Blair wondered if that was true, if he really had been expecting something unrealistic of himself, something more than others had expected of him. Maybe. Wouldn't be the first time, that was for sure.

Jim paused and, when Blair didn't say anything, went on, "And and you do bounce back, Blair. Every time. Whether it's after being targeted and damn near murdered by a psycho or getting slugged or shot, you haven't quit. I don't think it's in you to quit. But that doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel pain when you're hurt. Or not allowed to ask for help when you need it."

"I guess I'm not used to asking for help," Blair admitted softly. "Used to be, there wasn't anyone to ask." He looked up at Jim. "I, uh, well, I really appreciate that you're here, you know? That I'm not not dealing with all this alone."

"That's because you're not alone," Jim told him. "Not anymore."

Blair's throat tightened and he was very glad when the nurse reappeared with his medication and a tray with a mug, a steaming pot of tea, and a small individual serving of honey. Jim helped him turn on his side and supported him while she gave him the shot, and then helped him sit up straight enough when she lifted the head of the bed, so he could take his other medications and drink his tea. When all the flurry of activity was over and she had left again, he blew over the hot liquid and took a sip.

And then, feeling shy, he looked at Jim and said, "Thanks, man. I thanks, well, for everything."

"God, don't start," Jim retorted, his tone sharp and aggrieved, but a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth as he whined playfully, "If you start thanking me for every little thing, I might have to start thanking you and you know that 'A', that's not my style, and 'B', there'd never be an end to it."

Blair snickered at the beleaguered tone, and wondered if the pain killer was already making him a little giddy.

Jim reached out to squeeze his shoulder briefly, before moving away. "Friends don't need to thank each other for doing what friends do," he muttered over his shoulder before he turned to sit down on the chair.

"No," Blair agreed, warmth filling him as he smiled at his friend, knowing it wasn't only really good drugs that were making him feel as if his heart might burst from happiness. "No, I guess they don't."

When he'd finished the tea, Jim pulled a deck of cards and a cribbage board from a paper bag on the floor beside his chair. "Feel up to a game?" he asked.

"Sure," Blair replied, glad to have something to do to while away the empty hours. But the game was less than half over before his limited energy was gone. Yawning, he said, "Sorry, man, but I'm fading here."

"You can stow the apologies with the gratitude, Sandburg," Jim told him as he gathered up the cards. "We can finish the game later. If you need to sleep, then sleep."

"I need to sleep," he replied, and curled onto his side. "You don't have to stay."

"I know," Jim said, as he settled in the chair with his newspaper.

Blair woke when the nurse came in to give him his bed bath. "What time is it?" he mumbled, feeling disoriented.

"Nearly eleven-thirty," she told him as she filled the metal basin at the sink in the corner of the room.

"Oh, man," he sighed, turning to Jim. "Hey, why don't you go for a walk, and maybe grab some lunch? I'll be here when you get back."

"Sounds like a good idea," Jim replied as he stood and stretched. "You want me to get you anything?"

"Nah, I'm good."

Though he found the experience of being bathed more embarrassing than anything else, he nearly moaned with pleasure when she massaged his feet. Before she'd finished, he'd fallen back to sleep.

********************

Jim stuffed his hands in his pockets as he ambled along the sidewalk, lost in thought. Blair had been better since the dialysis treatment the day before; more alert, for one thing. And he smelled like himself, the stink of the poisons in his system no longer so cloyingly present, though the scent was still there, lingering in the air like an invisible demon of sorts. The antibiotics were finally working, or seemed to be, because the fever was gone. But the kid was still so pale and gaunt, downright haggard. And weak. So very weak that it was frightening.

And he was still suffering a lot of pain, or would be, if the meds didn't knock him out.

Bottom line, Jim had to admit to himself that any signs of improvement were modest, at best, and probably transient, unless his kidneys improved a whole lot and damned soon. He told himself to be patient. That it would take time. And he told himself not to be pessimistic.

Pushing his concerns away, telling himself that worrying was a waste of energy and snorting to himself like he could stop being anxious he shifted his thoughts to the conversation they'd had when Blair had woken up that morning. Though he'd been more abrupt than he'd intended to be, Jim thought that Blair had gotten the points he'd wanted to make. The tension between them that had grown the week before was gone, and he was glad of that.

Shaking his head, he marveled that Blair had done such a great job for so long in hiding his worries about keeping up or screwing up. Jim would never have guessed the kid was anything but confident, but he supposed he shouldn't have been so surprised that Sandburg was only human after all. The past years couldn't have been easy. Not by a long shot. Smiling to himself, he had to give the kid credit for well, for a whole lot. But his smile faded when he recalled Blair's admission that he wasn't used to having someone to lean on. Jim felt badly that, even after all their time together, somehow Blair had still felt he was, more or less, on his own. Well, at least he knows different now, he thought, and was damned glad to have had a chance to make that point, too.

Turning back toward the hospital, Jim thought about how much he'd taken for granted about Blair, and how little he really knew the kid, at least in some ways. Just what kind of life had he lived to feel so alone, when he was surrounded by people who cared for and about him? Certainly, Blair seemed to have lots of friends at the university, and everyone in Major Crime accepted and liked him.

Chewing on his lip, he thought about Naomi, and the nomadic childhood Blair had had; developing long term relationships grounded in trust would have been hard, if not impossible, in those circumstances. Maybe he'd learned a long time ago that he was basically on his own, and hadn't realized that the fundamental circumstances of his life had changed. And Jim thought about how the kid was really a bit of a chameleon, fitting in with apparently effortless aplomb, so good at the protective coloration that nobody looked much closer, just accepted the image he projected. But there was a lot of truth in the image, truth that maybe Blair didn't give himself enough credit for. Sandburg was a confident man, bright and resilient, inventive and charismatic. He had a good sense of the ridiculous, leavening the hard times with humor and a generally optimistic enthusiasm grounded on what he could learn from any given situation. Maybe his insecurities were simply a reflection of the fact that he was still young, still finding out who he was.

When he got back to the hospital, he went to the cafeteria for a light lunch, and then returned to Blair's room. The kid was still sleeping, and Jim told himself that was the best thing for him. Sleep helped heal the body in some mysterious way he didn't understand but knew was true. Probably had something to do with marshalling energy to focus on the business of getting better.

But his nose twitched at the ever-present and now again more noticeable scent of sickness that he'd come to associate with the dysfunctional kidneys, and he swallowed hard. Trying very hard not to be disappointed, he sternly told himself it was probably just too soon yet for the improvements he'd noted last evening and that morning to be permanent.

He was glad his senses had forewarned him when Mayhew arrived in late afternoon and, waking Blair to examine him and test his lucidity, told them the blood tests weren't showing any marked change for the better. He was able to absorb the news without flinching, able to take a positive stance after the internist left, using the same argument with Sandburg as he'd already given himself.

"It's too soon, yet, Sandburg," he said with a shrug, as if the discouraging news was nothing to be concerned about. "Give it some time. You feel up to finishing our game?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair agreed, though he seemed subdued. With good reason, Jim reflected, as he dealt out the cards, but he held on to his determinedly pragmatic perspective, remaining as positive as he could be in the circumstances.

Blair managed to finish the game before his energy again flagged and he sank back in exhaustion against his pillows. Seeing the deepening lines of pain on his friend's face, Jim encouraged him to request more medication to help him rest, and Blair didn't fight the idea.

But once the kid was asleep, Jim sat with his arms tightly crossed and his head bowed, as he held in his own pressing anxiety. Please get well, he thought, fighting a growing sense of desperation. Please, Chief, please, please get well.

********************

As the hours passed the next day, Blair's modest improvements gradually eroded and Jim could smell the toxins again building in his body and leaking out with his perspiration. The kid's skin was getting itchy and he had a hard time not scratching, which only added to his discomfort and growing irritation with himself and the situation. Jim wondered if the uncharacteristic irascibility was because of the poisons polluting his body and brain, or if it was a cover for other, more vulnerable emotions.

Blair couldn't keep his mind on their card game, though he made an effort until Jim sighed and tossed the cards in. "I can see that you can't concentrate today. Why don't you just admit this isn't any fun? We don't have to play."

"By 'this' do you mean the game or the whole damned situation?" Blair muttered as he, too, tossed his cards on the mobile over-bed table. He looked away and his jaw tightened, and then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, man," he sighed. "I know you're doing your best here to keep me occupied, and I appreciate that. I'm just so sick of feeling sick, you know? Of never feeling any better." He hesitated, and then said very softly, his voice cracking a little, "Of wondering if I will ever feel any better."

Jim felt sorrow well inside his chest and he wished so badly he had the power to make Blair well. "Chief, I can understand that it's discouraging, but Mayhew told us he expected that you'd continue to need dialysis this week. And you're bound to feel like shit with that crap in your blood. Be weird if you didn't feel a little sick. He said this morning that you'll have another treatment tomorrow, and you'll feel better again then."

"For a day or so," Blair snapped. "And then I'll feel like hell again. And even the treatment doesn't take away the damned pain that's driving me more than half-crazy." Again, he visibly reined himself in and, his thin hand trembling with weakness, he raked back his hair. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he apologized again, sounding very close to tears as he struggled for control. "You don't deserve to be the brunt of my frustration. If you want, I'd more than understand if you need a break. You don't have to spend every waking moment here. Simon must not be pleased about you missing so much time at work."

"Simon understands that I need to be here right now," Jim replied, doing his level best to sound supportive without giving away his own growing concerns about Blair's lack of improvement. "Don't worry. I'm not taking your bitchy mood personally."

Blair snorted at that, and even gave him a small grin. "I appreciate that, I think," he said. But the smile faded and he picked restlessly at the sheet that covered him. "I know I'm rotten company these days."

"You're entitled," Jim told him with a casual shrug. "Chief what do you need? Something for the pain, maybe? Quiet time to sleep a little? Something to ease the itching?"

"Nah, I'm still a bit buzzed from the last shot, and I hate taking so much of the stuff," Blair sighed. "And all I seem to do anymore is sleep. I'm bored and discouraged and and " His voice caught and he swallowed hard, his jaw again clenched against whatever he'd been about to admit.

"And what, Sandburg?" Jim probed, but as gently as he could.

Blair didn't reply right away. He stared into the distance as if looking at demons that haunted him, as if determined to face them alone. But then he met Jim's gaze, his eyes shadowed by worry and illness. "What if what if I can't ever go back to the way things were?" he asked, his voice low and tentative. "What if I can't keep up with you, anymore?"

Jim didn't know what to say to that Blair's concern was too close to some of his own. But he could see, and hear in Blair's hitched breathing and elevated heartbeat, that his silence was scaring the kid. So he took refuge in what he kept telling himself. "It's too soon to be worried about that, Chief. Way too soon."

"Is it?" Blair pushed. "It's over a week, Jim, and nothing seems any better. Maybe "

But Jim cut him off, not wanting to go there. "I know, I know. But all that aspirin you took to combat the pain complicated things and slowed down the healing. The aspirin prevented natural clotting, so the slow bleed into your kidneys continued for days, until we got you here, where you could be treated. So, it's really only been a matter of three or four days of real healing time, Blair, not more than a week. I mean, think about it, about how long it takes for a bruise to be absorbed by the body and healed."

When Blair looked stricken by the reminder that he'd only made himself worse and done more damage, Jim hastened on, "Taking that aspirin is more than understandable. You couldn't know it wasn't helping. Was, in fact, prolonging and increasing the damage. Chief, you could not know that! So, don't give yourself a hard time about it."

Blair shook his head tightly. "If I'd gotten checked out sooner, if I hadn't been so stubborn about it, I might not have made everything so much worse," he argued, but then lifted his hands to stop the discussion. "I know, 'what ifs' and 'if onlys' don't do any good. I can't change the past."

Silence fell between them, and stretched. "What else is worrying you?" Jim asked finally, certain that Blair hadn't shared it all.

Sandburg turned his face away and closed his eyes, a physical distancing and denial. Jim reached out to clasp his arm, and hid his wince at how thin the kid had become, how close the bone was under the skin. "It's okay to be scared, Chief. It's not weak or or wrong. Not something you have to hide. This is all pretty scary stuff."

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah, it is," he admitted, his voice hoarse and rough. He cleared his throat and faced Jim. "I don't have the insurance, or at least, I don't think I do, for chronic treatments. This stuff is all really expensive, man and I don't want to even imagine what a transplant would cost, if one is needed or even possible. And I can't afford to be off work forever. My faculty chairman and Edwards are already making noises about how often I'm absent, even if I do manage to get my classes covered. And and I really am worried about whether I'll be able to keep helping you. I don't I don't want to let you down." His voice cracked and he stopped talking, again swiftly turning his face away as he clamped his lips together, and he held himself tightly, as if afraid he might be about to shatter.

Jim's throat thickened with sorrow, stealing his ability to reply, at least verbally. Without hardly realizing what he was doing, he sat on the side of the bed, and drew Blair into a hug, holding him with firm strength. At first, Blair only stiffened more, but then, gradually, he relaxed into Jim's embrace and, finally, his own arms lifted to encircle Jim and return the hug, and his hands fisted in Jim's sweater as he held on. Jim could feel him trembling, and rubbed a hand over his back to soothe and warm him. "It'll be okay, Chief," he finally managed to say. "We have to both hold onto that right now. You're strong and basically healthy. Your body wants to get better and it will, you'll see. You'll be okay. For God's sake, Sandburg, don't worry about letting me down. You never have. One way or another, no matter what, we'll work things out."

And Jim meant it, every word. But if, God forbid, Blair didn't get well, if he always needed treatments, Jim would find a way to help him. Sandburg had been hurt on the job after all, hurt helping him at a murder scene. Even if Blair was only a civilian observer, surely arrangements could be made to cover any costs that he might face in the months and years ahead. And whether or not Blair could stick with him on the job, their friendship was for good, and Blair would always have a home in the loft as long as he wanted or needed it.

But but he had to believe that the worst case scenario wouldn't be the one they'd have to live with. He had to believe that it was just a matter of time before Blair recovered, at least enough to live a normal life.

He just had to believe that.

Blair settled in his arms and, when the kid dozed off, he carefully laid him down on the bed. Closing his eyes, Jim focused his senses on his friend, searching for signs of health and strength. And he found lots to encourage him in Blair's strong heartbeat and even respirations but he couldn't sense anything that suggested Blair's kidneys were doing any better. Heaving a sigh, he blinked his eyes and scrubbed at his face to wipe away his despair and weariness. It had only been days. There was time, yet; time for his partner's body to heal.

Once again settling in his chair by the window, Jim found himself recalling other hospital stays, other close calls, when Blair had been badly hurt during a case. Given the nature of his work, their continuous proximity to highly dangerous situations and individuals, such incidents were probably bound to happen occasionally, though each time Jim felt the weight of responsibility. Hard enough to see your partner hurt when that partner was a fellow cop. Damned near impossible to accept when the man was a civilian who shouldn't ever be exposed to such dangers, let alone on a regular basis. Only Jim hadn't had any choice. He'd needed Blair beside him if he was going to be able to do his job; needed the kid's help in using his senses and, often, in surviving them when they went wonky.

But now, Jim wondered if, over the years, he'd come to take Blair's presence by his side for granted. And if, maybe, he was still dragging Blair along on cases more out of habit than necessity. Did he really still need the help that much? Shouldn't he be able to manage on his own now, drawing upon all the lessons Blair had taught him? Was he needlessly risking the kid's life just because he liked having Blair there and had grown used to relying upon his support, not just with the senses but with the resolution of the cases themselves? Blair's input, his observational skills and intelligence had often contributed to solving those cases. Their partnership was no longer about either Blair getting enough information to finish his paper or Jim learning enough to use and control his senses effectively. Blair had said nearly a year ago that he had more than enough material to write ten dissertations. And Jim knew his control was increasingly reflexive, that he probably could manage, most of the time anyway, without help.

So that meant that they were risking Blair's life needlessly because they enjoyed working together and because it had become a habit of sorts. There had been no real need for Blair to be at that crime scene last week. No need for him to have been injured, or to suffer like this. No need to maybe face lifelong problems and ill health. No need .

Could he manage without Blair's ongoing backup? Jim really didn't know for sure and the idea of not working with Blair left him feeling bereft. But he wasn't being fair to the kid, not when the risks of their association were so high. Maybe the time had come to try doing more on his own, to break his dependency and his reliance on Blair's unconditional support. Jim nodded to himself and vowed that if when Blair got better, he'd do just that. Take on more individual assignments. Maybe go away for a weekend on his own. Find out if he could go it alone.

He realized then in the silence of that room, as he watched Blair sleep and listened to him breathe, aching at how sick the kid was, and how scared, that it wouldn't be easy to let Blair go. Blair was the best partner hell, the best friend he'd ever had; given his druthers, he'd far rather always have the kid beside him. Letting him go would, well, hurt, probably in more ways than he could even begin to imagine.

But he couldn't keep going through moments like this, moments in which he feared for Blair's life and felt the guilt of responsibility; couldn't keeping risking Blair for his own comfort and the pleasure of the kid's company. That just wasn't right.

What if he found out that he couldn't do it alone anymore? Couldn't be certain of his ability to function fully without Blair's specialized and intuitive understanding of his senses? Again, Jim wearily scrubbed his face and sighed. He guessed he'd find out, wouldn't he? And if the answer was that he really did need the kid beside him and always would, well, they were going to have to talk about that. Because he couldn't just assume Blair would put his own life on hold forever.

Shaking off his morose musings, Jim told himself that all those issues and decisions were for the future and had no real place in the here and now. His own comfort, security and hopes didn't matter a damn, not in the face of Blair's injuries.

Right now, the only thing that mattered was that Blair be well again.

********************

When the still insistent pain in his back woke him that night, Blair stared at the empty chair by the window as he debated whether to ask for more medication or not. God, he hated being so reliant on drugs just to get through a few hours at a time; and he hated feeling so sick, having no energy and being, well, depressed. Most of all, he hated the fact that he'd broken down in front of Jim and whined about his worries. Like Jim needed to hear any of that. But Jim had sure been good about it and hadn't given any sign that he was bothered by the fact that Blair had lost it. Jim was a damned good friend, and Blair knew how lucky he was to have the man in his life. Smiling despite the pain, he reflected on how strange life could be, throwing him together with a cop he'd never have met if not for his research, and giving him the best friend he'd ever known or would probably ever know.

Jim had urged him not to worry, at least not yet, about the future. And what he'd said about the time it would take for his kidneys to heal, because of all the aspirin he'd unwittingly taken, made a whole lot of sense. Maybe things weren't as hopeless as they seemed. Beyond all that, Jim was sure showing his support, being here every day, all day and evening, helping to distract and comfort him, letting him know he wasn't alone. And Blair was pretty sure Jim would never tease him about any of this, about being weak and wimpy, about nearly breaking down into tears. Jim could be irascible and moody, but he didn't have any meanness in him.

Jim had asked him that day if he wanted Naomi found, but Blair had shaken his head at the offer. No. No way did he want his mother to know about this until he knew himself just what the prognosis was going to be. Much as he loved Naomi, he sure didn't need her fussing around, waving sage and sounding off about natural cures, however right she might be about them, or well, finding any number of ways to say, "I told you so," in terms of him having got hurt on the job with Jim.

Besides, he wasn't entirely sure where his mother way, anyway, even if he had wanted to see her.

His thoughts returning to Jim, he wondered what they'd do if he couldn't keep up anymore. Jim was doing really well, generally, but Blair was reluctant to think about his friend trying to manage all the time on his own. Was there anyone who could help him? Simon didn't have the time, that was for sure. He couldn't be going out with Jim on stakeouts or investigations; that wasn't his job. Cassie, now, she'd leap at the chance to work with Jim but Cassie was more concerned about her own, well, glory. She'd be charging off to follow up on something she thought was important, arguing with Jim all the damned time, and forgetting that the whole point of being assigned to Jim was to help him and give him the backup he needed. No, Cassie wouldn't do at all.

There really wasn't anyone else that Blair could think of who could take on his job, if he couldn't keep doing it. Blair didn't think that was simply hubris on his part; he knew he'd done a good job over the years and that Jim had come to trust him. That trust meant the world to him.

Frowning into the darkness, he pondered the future, the one in which he got better and nothing had to change. How long could things go on the way they were? Would there come a time when Jim decided that he could manage on his own? Chewing his lip, Blair figured there was a good chance of that happening; but he wasn't as sure that that time would ever come in the sense of Jim being able to go back to working without a partner. No matter how good he got with the senses, there was always the danger of a spike or overload or zone, always the possibility of being distracted or of missing what he might detect with one sense while he focused on another. Blair supposed that was why the ancient sentinels had always worked with partners or guides, as Burton had called the companions. Even sentinels trained from birth had needed partners.

Rolling onto his back, his knees drawn up to ease his back, Blair thought about what that meant for his own life. Before meeting Jim, he'd thought he'd follow the traditional academic track, winning his doctorate, becoming a tenured professor somewhere, doing field research to stay fresh and current. Except for the field research, that vision of the future had always left him feeling vaguely unsatisfied and restless, and he thought that was why he'd taken so long to obtain his academic credentials. He was in no hurry to hit the tenured track, to have nothing but years of the same lectures to look forward to, the same wrangling in faculty meetings that went nowhere, and only the occasional student who really cared and showed any spark of inspiration. For more than a year now, Blair had known that he had found a niche that he loved, though it surprised him how much he enjoyed helping Jim with his work. Sure, a lot of times it was scary, and he didn't think he'd ever get used to seeing the victims, the anger and pity he felt for them, but he liked helping to bring killers and animals like those who sold drugs that ruined countless lives to justice. He liked that a lot. And he loved, simply loved, working with Jim, helping him with his senses, being there when he was needed. It all gave him a sense of worth and purpose that standing in a lecture hall never had, however much he enjoyed sharing knowledge with others.

All things being equal, there was no question in his mind that he'd be more than content for life to go on the way it was for as long as Jim wanted and needed him around like for a lifetime. Sure, it would be good if he could get paid for the work, so he didn't have to also juggle things at Rainier, and he couldn't put off his dissertation forever. And, maybe, at some point, it would make sense to get his own place, one that was close by, so he wouldn't be far if Jim had need of him. Theoretically, he supposed, he might want to get married someday and have a family but, somehow, after the life he'd led with Naomi, he didn't trust relationships to last and, as much as he kinda wanted kids of his own, he wasn't sure he had the first clue about how to be a father. Deep down, he suspected that he'd never be able to make enough of a commitment to marry someone, that that just wasn't in the cards for him. More consciously, he was aware that his first commitment would always be to Jim, and he was more than okay with that. At some point, he and Jim were going to have to talk about the future, and consider what possibilities might exist for him to have a permanent place at Jim's side. Sighing, Blair wasn't at all sure he wanted to be a cop himself, but maybe he could be hired on as a consultant. Maybe. Someday.

But that was some distance off in the nebulous future. There were more demanding and pressing issues to be concerned about. Like his health. And Jim's need for backup. And the fact that there wasn't anyone else who could provide that backup.

"I really do have to get better," Blair muttered, and grimaced against the aching throb in his back. "You hear that kidneys? Enough lollygagging around, here; enough lying down on the job. You need to get your act together. Acute renal failure is just that: 'acute', meaning immediate and, most importantly, short term. I don't have time for any chronic problems so, what do you say? And, hey, Jim really does need me and we don't want to leave him hanging in the lurch, do we? You gonna give me a break and start working again anytime soon? God, I hope so. This being sick has gotten old real fast. So, get better already!"

He snorted at his whimsy and curled again on his side. Feeling like shit but determined to not ask for more medication, he focused his attention on taking slow, relaxing, deep breaths, and imagined the pain flowing away on his exhalations.

Imagined his kidneys perking up, stretching a little, cleaning house, and getting ready for business.

Imagined feeling well again and how really great that would be.

Between one breath and another, he fell back to sleep.

********************

Jim arrived early the next morning, to be there in time to accompany Blair to the Dialysis Unit. During the hours of the treatment, they played a variety of card games to pass the time, and keep their minds off the reality of Blair's blood being shunted out of his body and cleaned mechanically. Jim could see and smell the beneficial effects of the treatment, though, and was glad to see Blair's color improve and some of the shadows leave his eyes. And his energy was always better after a treatment, which only made sense, Jim supposed, in that he was healthier without all the toxins polluting his body.

When they got back to Blair's room, the nurse was waiting to bathe him, and Jim was grateful to have the last traces of the sickness removed from Blair's skin, so that he smelled more like himself. Afterward, when the nurse asked Blair if he felt up to eating, Jim was greatly encouraged by his friend's request for some scrambled eggs, toast and tea.

"You're hungry?" he asked, once the nurse had left. Jim didn't think Blair had eaten much of anything since his injury more than a week before. This had to be a good sign, right?

"Yeah, yeah, I am," Blair admitted, and then slowly smiled, as if he'd only just realized that this might mean he was getting better. "Really hungry."

Jim couldn't help the smile that filled his own face, or the lump that thickened in his throat. "Good," he said. "That's good, Chief. Real good."

He didn't eat everything the nurse brought, but it was a start. They played more games of cards and, though Blair shifted uncomfortably every once in a while, trying to find a position to ease his back, and Jim plumped pillows behind him, the kid didn't ask for any pain meds, and he seemed to be doing reasonably well without them. His energy flagged in the afternoon, and he settled in for a nap, waking only when a lab technician came to take the usual blood tests around dinner time.

When Blair woke, he was hungry again, and managed most of the soup and easily digested tuna casserole and jello that was on the meal tray. And he actually seemed glad to see Simon and Joel when they dropped in for their usual evening visit. The four of them played a few hands of poker, and Blair laughed when he gathered up his pile of chips.

"Always great to see you guys," he teased, eliciting a playful growl from Simon that only served to make him laugh again.

Jim and the others beamed at him as they said their 'good nights', all of them very glad to see him feeling better than he'd been only the day before.

"You think he's getting better?" Simon asked, sounding hopeful, as they waited for the elevator.

Jim looked back down the corridor at Blair's room. He didn't want to let his hopes get too high, too soon, but he hadn't caught any of the sour scent of toxins building up in Blair's blood again, not like he had several hours after all the previous dialysis treatments. "I hope so," was all that he could bring himself to say, feeling a bit superstitious and not wanting to risk saying more.

"He sure seemed more like himself tonight," Joel observed as the elevator opened. "Still way too thin, though."

"Well, he ate for the first time today," Jim told them. "Twice. So his appetite is finally back."

Joel grinned and slapped Jim's shoulder as he and Simon got into the elevator. "That's great news," Taggart replied, and Simon nodded in concurrence. "See you tomorrow night," they chimed as the doors slid shut.

When Jim returned to the room, he found that Blair had fallen asleep. A fond smile played around his lips as he gathered up the cards and straightened the bed covers, tucking them in around his friend's shoulders. "Guess we wore you right out, huh?" he murmured. "But it was a good day, Chief. A good day."

Jim stayed another two hours, mostly just because he didn't feel like going home. The loft always seemed just a bit too quiet whenever Sandburg wasn't there. And he wanted to be around if Blair woke again, as he often did when the pain roused him. But Blair slept through the evening, his breathing deep and even, and his color stayed healthy the deep shadows under his eyes even seemed to lighten a little, though Jim thought that might only be wishful thinking on his part.

By the time he left, he could again scent a slight trace of sourness on the air, and he sighed in disappointment. But, he told himself firmly as he left the hospital, it was far less than usual so maybe those kidneys were finally starting to work again. Looking up at the stars in the night sky, he took a deep breath and let hope fill him.

********************

When Jim arrived the next morning, Blair was already scarfing down breakfast, though he complained that the eggs were dry and not nearly as good as those at home.

"It's all part of the plot to make people want to get well and go home," Jim teased, as he took his place in the chair by the window. "You look like you slept well," he went on, as he reached out with his senses to assess his friend's health. The sickly scent was there, but definitely less pronounced, and Blair's eyes were brighter. Hell, even his hair seemed less lank and dull.

"Slept like a baby, all night long," Blair confirmed with a grin.

"How's the pain in your back?" Jim probed, and was sorry to see the grin falter.

"Well, it's still there, but I think I'm sure it's not as bad," Blair told him. "I haven't had to ask for pain meds for nearly twenty-four hours. That's gotta be a good sign, right?" he asked hopefully.

Nodding firmly, Jim agreed, "Yes, I'm sure it has to be, Sandburg. Just if you need the meds, don't be suffering needlessly, okay?"

"No, I won't," Blair allowed with a grimace. "I've learned my lesson. Suffering in silence wasn't such a hot idea."

"No, no it wasn't," Jim replied, his tone mild, feeling no need to belabor the point, given how hard the lesson had been.

Blair rolled his eyes and snorted. "You say that as if you didn't do exactly the same thing, all the damned time. Who do you think I learned all those lessons in stoicism from?"

Well, he had to admit, the kid had him there. Jim brushed his nose and chuckled. "Make you a deal," he offered. "Next time I'm really hurting, I'll let you know, so long as you never again try to hide being hurt from me."

"Deal," Blair agreed, holding out his hand, and they shook on it.

When a nurse came in a few minutes later and, on the condition that Blair solemnly promised to drink lots of fluids every day, removed the intravenous needle from the back of his hand, they both heaved a sigh of relief. Things definitely seemed to be looking up. An hour later, when Blair asked Jim to help him to the bathroom because he "really had to go," they were both nearly incandescent and not a little giddy his kidneys were definitely working again. Maybe not all the way, but working, definitely working!

Mayhew gave him hell, when he arrived that afternoon, though, for not peeing into a cup so that the output could be measured and examined for color, clarity, and sent to the lab for analysis.

Blushing, Blair avoided looking at Jim as he apologized. "Oh, sorry, I should have thought of that. I was just so glad to be going again that it just never occurred to me. Anyway, it was, uh, a darker orange than usual, if that helps. And probably only a few ounces."

The specialist nodded, and asked Blair to turn on his side so that he could examine his back. Jim would have left, but Blair asked him to stay, so he lingered, looking over the doctor's shoulder. The bruising was healing, the skin now more yellow and the dark purple splotches were gone. When Mayhew pressed against Blair's kidneys, the kid grunted rather than yelped, like he had days before.

"The pain's easing, isn't it?" Mayhew asked when Blair had returned to his back.

"Yeah, a bit," Blair agreed. "Didn't hurt nearly so much when you touched me this time, and I'm managing without pain meds now."

"Good," Mayhew muttered as he leafed through Blair's chart and considered the lab reports. Closing the chart, he gave Blair a small, tight smile. "Your blood work is also showing some improvement. It's still modest, and you'll need at least one more dialysis treatment, but I'm encouraged. We'll see how the next two or three days go. If your kidneys keep responding and output increases, then I think you may do just fine."

Blair nodded and ventured a smile of his own. "So, you think the odds of me getting better are pretty good?"

Mayhew hesitated and rubbed his chin judiciously. Finally, he nodded. "Yes, yes, I think you've got a good chance of complete recovery. But we won't know for sure for a few more days."

"That's great," Blair enthused, "thanks."

Jim, his relief so vast he had to sit down, could only nod in agreement.

********************

The next day, Blair felt strong enough to take a shower on his own, and he sighed with the sheer pleasure of being clean when he returned to his room, his hair wrapped in a towel. "Man, that felt good," he murmured as he climbed back onto the bed. "But I'm bushed."

"Not surprised," Jim replied as he stood to unwind the towel and dry Blair's hair. "After so many days in bed, and being so sick, not to mention the antibiotics you're still on, it's no wonder your energy isn't back to normal yet."

"I guess," Blair allowed with a yawn, content to let Jim look after him. "They told me this morning that they're going to let me go another day without dialysis, so I guess that's another good sign. Man, I'll be so glad to be all better. They're nice enough here and everything, but I really want to go home."

Jim finished drying his hair and got a fresh towel from the bathroom to lay over Blair's pillow, to protect it from getting damp, and then he helped Blair settle against the plumped up pillows. "You really are feeling better, though, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yeah, I am," Blair told him. "It's like I can think more clearly. I don't feel so dozy and no comments from the peanut gallery about that, okay?" he went on with a grin. "My back's still sore, but that awful pain is gone. And I don't feel so weak and well, I just feel a whole lot better."

"I'm glad," Jim said, his tone and gaze soft. "Really glad, Chief."

"Jim, you've been so great through all this," Blair replied. "I mean it, man. I would have gone stir crazy in here all by myself. And, well, when I was scared, you helped a lot, to make me feel better. To keep me from getting discouraged. I really appreciate everything you've done and the way you've spent time with me."

Jim shrugged as if embarrassed and unsure what to say. "Where else would I have been?" he asked, seeming seriously mystified by Blair's comments. "I was worried about you, Chief. And, well, this is what friends do, right? They look out for one another."

"Yeah, Jim, it's what friends do," Blair answered, his chest tight with emotion. God, how had he gotten so lucky to rate a friend like Jim?

Looking relieved that Blair had agreed with him, Jim relaxed and reached for the deck of cards on the bedside table. "Feeling lucky, Sandburg?" he challenged with a crooked grin.

"Definitely," Blair assured him. "I definitely feel very lucky, man." And, from the quick look and then shy smile that Jim gave him, Blair hoped Jim understood he meant more than about winning a game or two, more than just about getting better.

And even losing most of what he'd won the night before to his partner didn't diminish the glow of warmth he felt inside.

********************

Blair continued to improve over the next few days as his kidneys gradually came back online. On Sunday evening, not having picked up any trace of the scent he'd come to dread, and seeing how good Blair was feeling, Jim decided he could go back to work without worrying that Blair might need him during the day.

Blair agreed and heartily concurred with his decision. "Simon's been great in giving you so much time off, but yeah, he must be champing at the bit to get you back in harness."

Still, Jim called the next morning before heading off to work, just to make sure Blair had spent a good night, and again later in the day, to see if there was anything his friend wanted or needed.

"I'm good," Blair assured him. "See you later, man." And he had sounded good, solid, the weak, reedy quality of his voice supplanted by his more usual vibrant tones.

When Jim came in to visit after leaving the PD on Monday evening, Blair was waiting for him, a huge grin on his face. "They did a whole bunch of tests today, x-rays and an ultrasound, and guess what?" he exclaimed, as soon as Jim had walked through the door.

Though he could guess, Jim didn't want to ruin his friend's fun. "What?" he asked dutifully and waited for the news he hoped he was about to hear.

"My kidneys are back to one hundred percent, man!" Blair announced, punching his fists into the air.

"Ah, that's great news, Chief!" Jim told him fervently, and the next thing he knew, he was beside the bed, hugging the stuffing out of his partner. "God, I'm so glad," Jim gusted. "So glad."

"Me, too, Jim," Blair murmured, hugging him just as tightly. "God, me, too, man."

When Simon and Joel joined them later in the evening, the room rang with hearty congratulations and the laughter of joyous relief.

"So, does that mean you can go home soon?" Joel asked.

"Yeah, in a day or so, I hope, as soon as they know everything is stabilized and there's no relapse," Blair told them. "Man, it will be good to sleep in my own bed again."

"I can imagine," Joel replied with a huge grin splitting his face.

"And when can we expect to see you back down at the PD?" Simon asked. "Everyone's been asking," he added, as if to deny his own hope that Blair would return soon.

"Next week, I hope," Blair replied.

"Well, let's see what the doctor has to say about that, Sandburg," Jim cautioned. The kid was still as thin as a stick, and it would take a bit of time for his body to recover fully.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Blair grumbled, but he brightened immediately. "If not next week, then soon the week after, for sure."

Jim couldn't resist smiling at his friend's eagerness to return to duty by his side, and nodded encouragingly. He'd be damned glad to get Blair back. "Yeah, the week after, for sure," he allowed. "But you might have to stay in the truck, for once. No charging off after the bad guys."

"Ah, man," Blair whined. "You know I don't do that. Catching them is your job. I just do my best to keep up with you."

Jim laughed. "Your best has always been plenty good enough, Chief," he assured him, investing warmth in his voice and, he hoped, in his eyes. Blair blushed a little, but he looked very pleased.

********************

Blair wasn't happy about having to stay in the hospital until the following weekend, while his electrolytes and kidney functioning was monitored, as was his weight and appetite. But, finally, his got his release papers signed on Saturday morning. He was all dressed and ready to go by the time Jim arrived.

"All set?" Jim asked, looking around the room to make sure nothing got left behind.

"Oh, yeah," Blair agreed as he slid off the bed and grimaced at the wheelchair the nurse was pushing. With a sigh, he picked up his backpack and acceded to hospital policy; so long as she pushed him to the exit, it was fine with him. When he climbed into the truck and buckled his seat belt, he gestured imperiously and said, "Home, James."

Jim just chuckled and put the truck in gear.

God, Blair was glad to finally be going home. And he knew Jim had to be relieved, too, to not have to suffer all the scents and sounds of the hospital. The man hadn't complained, but Blair knew that spending so much time there over the past two weeks couldn't have been easy for him.

When they got home, Jim led the way inside and, as he threw open the door to the loft, he called, "Welcome home, Chief. Welcome home."

Blair inhaled deeply and smiled as he looked around. "Feels good to be back," he said quietly. "Real good."

Jim slipped the backpack from his shoulder and carried it through to Blair's bedroom, while Blair shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the hook by the door. He went to the fridge and pulled out two beers.

When Jim returned, he accepted a bottle but lifted a brow at the one in Blair's hand.

"Hey, I finished the antibiotics three days ago, and beer's good for the kidneys, man. Keeps them working," Blair assured him. "I'm fine, man. Really."

Nodding, Jim chuckled and lifted his bottle to ping against Blair's in a toast. "To keeping those kidneys working," he offered with a grin.

"Man, I will definitely drink to that," Blair concurred with hearty agreement and took a long swallow.

"So," Jim ventured as they ambled into the living room. "You clear on house rule number whatever number it is?"

"Six hundred and forty-three," Blair teased, but nodded. "Yeah, I'm clear. The next time I get hurt, I make sure you know about it."

"Damn straight, Sandburg," Jim returned as he sat down and clicked on the television. "Even tough guys like us can hit a wall every once in a while."

"Tough guys, huh?" Blair ventured as he took his usual place on the sofa.

"Yeah, real tough guys," Jim agreed with a grin, but then sobered. Sitting up, cradling the beer in his hands, he went on, "I know you don't remember what you said that night, about trying not to be a wuss, but you were wrong, Chief. So wrong. In some ways, you're one of the strongest men I know. So don't sell yourself short, okay?" He hesitated, and then went on, "I mean, just 'cause you're vertically challenged and all."

Surprised into a laugh, Blair shook his head. "I am not short," he protested. "I'm of average height."

"Sure you are, Sandburg. You just keep telling yourself that," Jim chuckled, sitting back and sipping at his beer as he surfed the channels, looking for a game.

Blair leaned back on the sofa, glad to be able to do so without feeling any protest from his back, and savored Jim's words.

One of the strongest men I know.

He'd never received a tribute that had meant more to him.

Smiling to himself, he watched the channels skim from one program to another. "Oh, hey, wait, go back! That looked like something interesting on the Discovery Channel."

Jim grunted and kept surfing. "Maybe, if I can't find something better than learning about the statues on Easter Island," he muttered and shook his head.

"Man, that island has a really interesting history, what with the mutineers finding refuge there, and how isolated it was. God, the poor people never learned to live successfully off the sea, and eventually the population got too big to be sustained by what grew on the island; had to be really terrible when the food ran out. Nobody really knows what the statues mean, but it's fascinating the way they are all positioned, looking out to sea. And they're, like, massive, you know?"

Jim turned to look at him. "Why do you want to see a program when you already know all that stuff?" he challenged, but a grin played around the corner of his mouth.

"Well, you never know, they might have discovered something new," Blair replied. "Besides, it's good to expand your horizons every once in a while, too."

"My horizons?" Jim snorted. "Trust me, I've seen as much of this world as I want and then some. Give me a comfortable home, a beer, and a good game, and I'm a happy man." He paused and then added, "By the way, it's your turn to cook tonight."

"What? That's it? I just get home from the hospital and it's my turn to cook?" Blair protested, but couldn't hold back a smile as he threw a cushion at his friend's head.

Jim fielded the catch and tossed it back with a laugh. "Good to have you home, Sandburg."

"Yeah, I can see that," Blair complained. "Always tough when the slave's away." He turned his attention to the game Jim had found, and settled back to enjoy it. "Chinese?" he ventured.

"Works for me," Jim agreed.

Blair grinned and sipped at his beer. Yeah, Jim was a real slave driver, that was for sure.

Man, it was good to be home.

Finis

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