Lean On Me
Epilogue to 'Dead Drop'
Note: A short story written in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the SentinelAngst List.
Jim hadn't been able to face contacting Simon after subduing Frank Rachins, AKA 'Galileo'; he'd failed, pure and simple, and four innocent people were dead - one of them his partner and best friend. Time enough to face the grim sorrow in the eyes of his coworkers and boss, their grief and, worst of all, their sympathy for the magnitude of his personal loss and even pity that, ultimately, it was his failure that resulted in the horrific tragedy. After cuffing Rachins and making a terse call for medical assistance for Ronny, shutting down the connection before anyone could say anything about the terrible explosion, he'd stood staring out the window at the street below, trying to assimilate what had happened - trying to make sense of what was senseless. He was vaguely aware of sirens and of fire trucks arriving. Maybe the explosion had caused a fire lower down in the building - or maybe they were simply the 'clean up crew', skilled in going into fiery remains to extricate whatever was left and ensure the building was safe and secure. Whatever. It didn't matter. Nothing much seemed to matter anymore.
Stunned by the inescapable shocking reality that Sandburg was dead, blown to bits in the explosion so that there wasn't even a body to see one last time, Jim was barely able to function under the weight of his boundless grief and guilt. Finally, not particularly sympathetic to the fact that Rachins had received a flesh wound when Ronny had shot him, he hauled his prisoner down the thirty-six flights of stairs to the lobby, to hand him over to the uniforms. As he numbly pushed his captive none too gently across the marble floor, he caught a voice he'd thought never to hear again and froze in consternation, wondering if he was losing his mind. Turning to gape at one of the elevators that was just opening, Jim felt sharply queasy with astonished and overwhelming relief when he saw Sandburg exit with Joel, along with the other shaken, but euphoric-to-be-alive, people who had been rescued from the disabled car four. Dear God, they had survived the explosion? Sandburg wasn't dead? He didn't know how or why the miracle had happened, but his knees felt suddenly weak, and he was dangerously close to tears of jubilation, to know that his own failure hadn't spelled their brutal demise. Blinking hard, his jaw tight to contain his overwrought emotions, he unceremoniously shoved 'Galileo' into the waiting hands of two uniformed officers with a ragged, "Book him: five counts of attempted murder, 10-25 extortion, and resisting arrest."
Taking a breath before going to join Sandburg, who he could now clearly both see and hear was safe and sound, Ellison closed his eyes and tried to banish the maelstrom of emotions that had raged since Rachins had pressed the remote trigger. He'd heard the bomb in the elevator explode; he had wretchedly believed to the depths of his soul that Blair and the others had been blown to smithereens in that one sickening frozen moment in time. God, he'd been devastated by the horrific knowledge that, despite all his best efforts, he'd ultimately and absolutely failed his partner and best friend - and that, because he'd failed, Blair was dead, coldly and cruelly murdered by that miserable, worthless piece of shit. And in the next heartbeat, he'd been consumed by such a passionate desire for revenge, overwhelmed by such pure, icy rage, that he'd almost killed Rachins in the blind fury that had washed over him. Only long years of training, and the stark realization that Sandburg would have deplored yet another wanton murder that day, had kept him from tossing 'Galileo' through the shattered window and down dozens of stories to the unforgiving pavement below - that, and the fear he might inadvertently kill yet another innocent bystander, by hurling such foul garbage from the heights.
Ruthlessly, he quelled the nausea that still roiled in his gut and took another deep breath. Sandburg was alive and that was what counted; not the fact that he'd failed or didn't have a clue how the people trapped in the elevator had managed to survive. Though the kid sounded jubilant, riding the crest of adrenaline and what had to be profound relief, a crash in the relatively near future was more than likely. Jim figured the least he could do was have his own act together, so that Blair could lean on him when the aftereffects of having very nearly died in a horrific way, let alone the strain of being held helpless and hostage in a death trap, asserted themselves. He rubbed a hand over his face, clearing away any trace of the unsettled weakness of guilt and despair that still lingered and, acting as if it was all business as usual, pushed through the crowd to his partner's side. Sandburg was just finishing up his well wishes for Caitlyn, the woman who'd been part of the plot that could have gotten her and everyone with her killed, before she was led away by the uniforms. Shaking his head as he moved up behind and reached to grip Blair's shoulder, Jim wondered at the fountain of compassion that seemed to spring eternal from the wellspring of Sandburg's soul.
Startled, still nervy, Blair jumped at the touch but, when he turned, he flashed a blinding smile up at Jim. "Hey, man," he breathed and leaned back briefly into Jim's sure strength.
Soothed by that small, unconscious action of affiliation and trust, Ellison looped an arm around the smaller man's shoulders, and led him away from the crowd, intent upon taking the kid home where he'd be safe, and could let the strain of the day's misadventure ease away with some measure of peace and privacy. They bantered on the way out of the building as Blair reflected that the carving that had brought him there in the first place was supposed to guarantee good luck. He said it ruefully, as if good luck was the last thing he'd experienced that day, but Jim knew differently, for all that he mocked the artifact. Luck might have been all that had saved the kid and the others trapped with him. Briefly, Jim wondered if he should offer up some sacrifice to the ancient deity, but shook his head and shrugged off his whimsy as he led Blair to his truck.
"But my car is just across the street in the lot," Blair protested when he realized where they were heading. "I can drive myself home."
"Indulge me, okay?" Jim countered as he opened the passenger door. "We can come back for your wheels tomorrow. Right now, I think you may be a little too high on life to really pay attention to the road."
Grinning, Blair bobbed his head agreeably. "You could be right about that, man. God, it is SO good to be alive - I feel like dancing!"
"Right," Ellison replied sardonically as Sandburg climbed in, and headed around to the other side. In truth, he felt a bit of a fraud because he was just as emotionally strung out and distracted as his partner evidently was, though actually bursting into a soft shoe routine seemed a tad over the top. The simple fact was, he didn't want to let the kid out of his sight - not now, not when he'd just gotten Sandburg back after believing him dead. To say so, though, would sound 'way too mushy, even if he could actually find the words to voice his incredible relief and gratitude.
As he started up the engine, he asked, "So, how did you manage to survive the explosion, Einstein?"
"Wow, that was so cool!" Sandburg enthused as he turned to face Jim, his eyes alight and his hands in constant motion. "I'd done a stint as a welder for two summers in a sheet metal plant and got pretty good at it - the fastest torch in my crew!" he chirped with enthusiastic recollection. "Anyway, I realized the other guy had a toolbox and I asked him if he had a welder's torch and, sure enough, he did. Well, I knew you'd be trying your damnedest to fix the mess we were in, but that clock was ticking, you know? I figured it wouldn't hurt to try to help ourselves, especially as we hadn't done anything but be terrified victims for what felt like all damned day, even though I guess it wasn't much more than an hour, really."
Jim nodded encouragingly, his eyes on the traffic, as Blair babbled out his story, still bubbling with the adrenaline that was awash in his system.
"So," Blair concluded, his ebullience wavering a bit in recollection, "I, uh, kicked out the floor and dropped the briefcase like seconds before it blew! There was this incredible roar of the explosion, and heat and fire blasted up through the hole in the floor, but then it dropped away pretty quickly - we were all huddled back against one another and the walls, so nobody even got scorched. Man, we were SO lucky."
Jim's throat closed as he realized how fearfully close it had been, and his grip tightened on the steering wheel until his knuckles were white, before he willfully made himself relax. "It had nothing to do with luck, Chief," he finally managed to rasp. Casting a quick look at his friend, he went on, "You did everything right today - everything. You kept your head, helped everyone else stay calm, got the story out of Wilkinson's daughter so I knew where to find her louse of a husband, Rachins, and you saved your life and theirs with your quick thinking and skill."
Blair was absolutely radiant with the praise. "You think so?" he asked, his insides still quivering with the terror he'd tried so very hard to not reveal during the ordeal.
"I know so, Chief," Ellison affirmed with a sharp nod, his gaze still on the traffic. "You did great. Really great."
"Thanks, man," Sandburg sighed as he relaxed back against the seat. "That means a lot."
Ellison shook his head, uncomfortable that his praise could mean so much when he'd been the one who had failed that day. Sandburg sure as hell didn't need to thank him for acknowledging that the kid had been the hero of the hour. Glancing at his friend, he saw the moment of relaxation had already given way to more nervous energy as Blair sat up, his fingers beating an unconscious tattoo on his thighs as he gazed out at the passing world with a look of wonder on his face, no doubt thinking about how close he'd come to never seeing these streets again. And that thought made Jim's gut clench as he remembered the same thing.
Too close. Too damned close.
Sandburg's distracted silence continued the rest of the way home. Continuing to monitor him surreptitiously, Ellison could see the unnatural and hectic flush of excitement fade, taking with it the almost feverish glitter in his partner's eyes. Blair was coming down, but still seemed relaxed if no longer euphoric. When they parked outside the building, Sandburg had enough bounce left to amble jauntily along the walk and into the building slightly ahead of Jim.
But his steps faltered when he neared the elevator.
"We can take the stairs," Ellison said quietly, silently cursing the unpredictable conveyance. Usually, one had to wait an age for it to arrive in response to a summons but, this afternoon, it was not only present and available but its doors were eerily standing open, as if to mock Sandburg with its willing availability. Either that, or taunt the kid with the challenge to admit he harboured fears he hadn't yet acknowledged.
But Blair swallowed and shook his head at the suggestion, though he longed to do as Jim encouraged. "Elevators are part of the modern world, Jim - a daily experience. I can't…can't freeze up every time I have to ride on one."
"Yeah, well, you don't have to do everything today, Chief," Jim countered. "You can ride elevators again tomorrow."
"I don't know, man," Blair hesitated, clearly wanting to head straight for the assured safety of the stairs. "If I don't do this now, it might only be a lot harder tomorrow."
Swallowing, Ellison's eyes narrowed as he looked away, hiding the ache he felt at Blair's turmoil and sudden, sweaty, pallor. "Whatever works for you, Sandburg."
Squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin with the defiant air of a man heading to the gallows, Blair took a deep breath and then stepped inside the small box. Admiring his courage, Jim followed him and tapped the button for the third floor, hoping the damn thing was busted and frozen in place. But his silent prayers went unheard, and the pitiless doors wheezed shut as the mobile cubicle lurched into motion.
Blair paled further, growing ever whiter as the contraption took its own sweet time rising to their floor. But when it jerked to a shuddering halt, the kid turned a sickly shade of green as he scrambled toward the painfully slowly opening doors. Jim thrust the apartment key into Blair's hand, understanding that the kid was going to lunge down the hall as soon as he could clear the widening gap, and then followed quickly on his heels. Sandburg fumbled a bit, his hand trembling, as he struggled to open the lock; and then he was pushing inside, the door banging wide open in his wake, and he tore across the apartment, barely making it to the bathroom before Ellison heard him retching violently.
Jim closed the door and stopped by the fridge to pull out a bottle of water before going to squat by Blair. Crouched on his knees, the kid was gripping the lip of the porcelain bowl with both hands as if it were the only thing holding him up as he leaned over it, gagging and sobbing for breath.
"Easy, Blair," Ellison soothed as he rubbed his friend's back. When Sandburg finally sagged back to sit limply on his heels, Jim flushed the tank and handed him the open bottle of water.
Wordlessly, the kid fumbled for it and took a sip to rinse his mouth and spit it out, and then he took a tentative swallow. "Oh, man," he gasped, still sickeningly white with sweat beaded on his brow, dampening his hair. "I'm sorry, I thought I had it all under control but, all of a sudden, it just hit me, you know?" A shiver ran through his frame and he shook his head. "When the elevator lurched, all I could feel was it falling away under my feet, not knowing when or if it was going to stop."
Jim wrapped a steadying arm around him and Blair leaned his shoulder against Ellison's chest as he fought his churning emotions. "You need to talk about it, Chief," the older man encouraged. "Get it out."
"Yeah, you're right," Sandburg agreed, his voice hollow as he continued doggedly, his mind struggling to regain control, to try to think rationally. "That's the fundamental basis of all counseling regimes. Talking helps to distance the trauma, objectify it, so it can be dealt with and set aside. Basic psychology. But I…" he voice caught, and took on a plaintive note, "I don't want to lay it all on you, man. I mean, it's not your job to put me back together if I start blubbering like some kind of wuss, you know?"
Ellison moistened a facecloth and gently wiped his friend's face. "I'm your friend, Chief; I'm here to listen and lean on so long as you need it," he murmured. "You went through hell today."
Nodding, still pressed against Jim as if he needed the support, he licked his dry lips and swallowed convulsively. "Thanks, man," he whispered, sounding lost and vulnerable, his voice shaky.
"Take your time, kid," Jim murmured as he tightly wrapped both arms around his friend and bowed his head to rest his cheek on Sandburg's head. "Take all the time you need." Long minutes later, when the shakes seemed to have passed, he asked quietly, "You want to take a shower, wash it away?"
Sandburg's gaze flickered around the small room as he eased himself out of Ellison's embrace, and he shook his head decisively. "Uh, no, not right now. Small places are making me feel kinda claustrophobic or something." But when his gaze fell on Jim, he said in a rush, "Unless I stink of fear and it's getting to you. I…I could shower."
"No, no, I'm fine," Jim hastened to assure him. "You want to get some air?"
"Yeah, that would be good," Blair replied wanly, accepting Ellison's steadying hand to help him stand. He blew a breath and said again, softly, "I'm sorry - I didn't think I'd lose it like this."
"Don't apologize, Chief," Jim replied firmly as he guided Blair from the bathroom. "You're handling everything just fine."
They moved out onto the balcony, and Blair hauled in one deep breath after another, and then drank some more water from the bottle he still clutched tightly in one hand. Gradually, his pallor gave way to a more natural tone, his shallow breathing eased, and his tight shoulders relaxed marginally. Jim stood close by his side, Blair's shoulder pressing into his arm. Finally, slowly, Sandburg began to talk.
"I was in a hurry, because I knew I was going to be late for our lunch, and I was so glad, you know, to finally get on that elevator and figured, with luck, I wouldn't keep you waiting too long," he recounted, his voice distant, almost detached. "This guy got on right behind me and said something weird directly to me, I forget what, when he got off a few floors down. But it struck me as strange, you know? I, uh, didn't notice at first that he'd left his briefcase behind. Of course, I didn't know then that he was Caitlyn's husband, and that there was a bomb in the 'case. Anyway, a few floors later, the elevator lurched and came to a dead stop. I couldn't believe it! I mean, just when I really wanted an express to the ground floor, I had to get stuck for who knew how long? That's when I called you and…and you told me what was going down."
His voice fell away as a shudder rippled through his body. "I was…g-glad you trusted m-me with the truth; trusted me not to p-panic and scare everyone else shitless," he stammered, his voice tight. "I…I d-did the b-best I c-could to stay c-calm."
Once again Jim lifted an arm around his shoulders, steadying him. "You did great, Chief. Nobody could have done better."
His jaw clamped tight, Sandburg swallowed back the nausea his memories engendered and fought to regain some semblance of control. "God, Jim," he sighed. "When it dropped the first time, man, I was terrified. And every time afterward, it was worse, you know? 'Cause we were expecting it, dreading it." He paused for a long moment as he stared out toward the harbour and let the afternoon sun warm him. "Anyway, you were there for most of it. You saw how we all got thrown around every time he dropped the car." Remembered desperation and anger surged again, though its heat was muted, "I couldn't believe it when Wilkinson wouldn't negotiate immediately! It was his daughter, for crying out loud! Man, that guy was cold. No wonder Caitlyn was so sure he'd never deal."
"He might not have, if you hadn't kept your head and found out she was pregnant," Jim replied as he rubbed Blair's arm. "You did everything right, Chief."
"Not that it did us much good," Blair grated, shaking his head. "He was determined to kill us, wasn't he? How could he do that with his own wife and unborn child on that elevator? What kind of monster can do something like that?"
"A man that is pure evil, Blair, driven by ruthless, insatiable greed; a monster that has no soul," Jim said bluntly, even coldly, as he silently commended the bastard to hell.
"The only thing that kept me together was that I knew you'd get us out of there," Sandburg said then, his voice low and intense as he gripped the railing and stared sightlessly toward the horizon. "I knew you would do everything in your power, everything possible to save us; that if anyone could end the nightmare, it was you." Not noticing that Jim had bowed his head and pressed his eyes closed, Blair continued, "But when I found that bomb in the briefcase, and Joel said there was nothing we could do to disarm it…and it just kept ticking down - oh, man, that was SO scary. I couldn't…couldn't just stand around and wait to be rescued, you know? Couldn't just be a victim. I'd had it with the bastard's games and threats, and with the fear and helplessness. It wasn't that I didn't trust you, Jim - it was just that I had to DO something." Sighing, he raked his fingers through his hair, and then admitted softly. "But I damned near killed us, didn't I? I don't know if it was shoving the briefcase through the hole that triggered something, or maybe it was the free fall that upset the timing mechanism; but I know it erupted before it should have. I'm just lucky I didn't blow us all sky high."
"You didn't do anything to set if off, and if you hadn't dumped it, you'd be dead now," Jim said thickly as he unconsciously tightened his grip around his partner's shoulders, needing to feel his warmth and solidity. "If you'd waited to be rescued, you would have died when the bomb was detonated."
Caught by the tone of Ellison's voice, husky and strained, Blair stilled and turned to look up into his friend's haggard face and haunted eyes. "Detonated?" he echoed, his eyes narrowing as the meaning sank in. "The bastard detonated the bomb?"
"Yeah," Jim rasped, his chest tight with the memory as his arm slipped from Sandburg's shoulders and he turned his face away.
Confused Blair shook his head and he blinked as the knowledge led him to consider, for the first time, what had been going on outside the claustrophobic elevator as he'd been feverishly cutting a hole in the floor. "What happened, Jim?"
But Ellison shook his head, and his shoulders tightened as he crossed his arms and dropped his chin to his chest, trying to hold in the guilt, desperate not to get lost in the sickening memory of that distant explosion and all that he thought it had meant.
Concerned now for Jim, his own distress forgotten, Blair clasped his friend's arm and compelled, "Tell me."
Heaving a sigh, the older man scrubbed his face with his hands before once again crossing his arms. Looking up to the sky, he licked his dry lips and tried to work up saliva to moisten his parched mouth and throat. "Well, when you got the info that the drama in car four was just a setup, a distraction, and he was really after the Bullion Exchange, I headed up to the thirty-seventh floor - I was almost there anyway. I was sure I heard the sound of a drill and voices," he grated, and then cleared his throat. "Hell of a distraction," he muttered with an unconscious shudder. "I raced up the stairwell to the right floor, and heard a shot, but the door was bolted from the inside - so I ran on up to the roof and rigged a body harness with some rope, and then I rappelled down the side of the building."
Sandburg gaped at him, visualizing the sight of Jim dangling over the edge of the horrifically high building. God, if he'd fallen…
Unaware of Sandburg's intense scrutiny, Jim swallowed again and shook his head. "I put a bullet through the window to shatter it and then barreled through - but Frank got the drop on me. We, uh, ended up fighting for the gun. I got it, but he had the remote detonator. Rachins had set the whole thing up, to use his brother, Ronny, and Caitlyn, and then kill them, because he'd figured out that Ronny was the father of her child; and he hated them, thought them weak and worthless."
"Oh, God," Blair murmured, feeling sick. Instinctively, he examined his Sentinel closely, noting scratches and bruises he'd not seen earlier in his own emotional turmoil, on Jim's face and hands, the scraped knuckles. "He might have killed you."
"It was a standoff," Ellison reported bleakly, his expression lax and too pale, his eyes dull, as he again felt the fear and the despair. "I told him to drop his weapon, but he had the detonator in his hand - and he ordered me to drop mine or he'd trigger the bomb."
"But you didn't, did you?" Blair demanded breathlessly. "You wouldn't - he would have killed you!"
Turning his face back toward Sandburg, though not meeting his eyes, he shrugged. "I…I wasn't about to trade your life and the lives of those other innocent people for mine," he said with devastating candour. "And I couldn't risk shooting him because even an instant kill would've made his muscles spasm and…"
Remembered horror flashed in Jim's eyes, and the echo of his limitless fury resonated in his voice, as he grated, "But Ronny didn't know that; he shot Frank - but Rachins didn't go down and I jumped him, trying to get the detonator from him. But he wasn't about to surrender. He was having too much fun, enjoying the power and wallowing in his own cruelty. He…he smiled, so cold and…triumphant," Jim swallowed hard as he closed his eyes and said hollowly, sounding strangled, "and then he pressed the trigger…and I heard - felt - the bomb explode."
Blair's eyes widened, as he understood what that meant. Jim had thought he'd been killed - that they'd all been killed - in that single, shattering moment. "Ah, Jim," he moaned in empathy as he moved in closer to wrap his arms around his friend and hug him tightly. His eyes blurred and he felt a physical ache at the stark pain he'd read in Ellison's eyes. "I'm so sorry."
Ellison drew a shuddering breath, blinking away the burn in his eyes as he held onto Sandburg, needing to be anchored, reassured. "I went berserk," he admitted then, his voice strained. "Damned near threw him out the fucking window. God, I wanted to annihilate him. We'd done everything we could to make car four safe from further assault or destruction…and…and I'd gotten to him in time to stop the bomb from going off. B-but…I'd…f-f-failed. I thought…I thought h-he'd k-killed…"
But his voice cracked again and he had to stop to rein in his emotions, to swallow the bile in the back of his throat. Blair was here, alive. It had just been a waking nightmare, not real. He told himself he should be handling this better - but he couldn't stop the shudders that rippled through his body or the trembling of his lip as he dragged in shaky breaths.
"It's okay, Jim," Sandburg murmured as he tightened his grip. "You didn't fail, you hear me? He was going to blow it anyway; if you hadn't burst in on him, he would have - you know that. You bought me the time I needed to dump the damned thing. You made it possible for us to survive. We won, man. We beat him together."
A muted sob broke from Ellison's chest as he clung to the best friend he'd ever had. If Sandburg had died that day, he didn't think he'd've been able to survive the memory of that moment, of watching Frank press his thumb down on the trigger, and sensing the explosion with such utter clarity. To have lost his partner in that way would have damaged him beyond repair; that he knew, with inescapable certainty. Some emotions couldn't be put on a shelf; some losses couldn't be mourned but, ultimately, survived. Sometimes, the vital objectivity, even the cold distance he maintained from the horrors he faced down - those from his past as well as those in his current reality - could not be sustained. Blair was his one real vulnerability, a fact he sometimes resented and often regretted, because he needed the kid so much, and his need put Sandburg in danger far too often. But, in this moment, there was no resentment or regret, only overwhelmingly gratitude that Blair had survived.
For a long moment, they leaned into one another, embracing tightly, each supported by the other's sure strength and presence, the warmth of their friendship and commitment to one another melting away the icy grip of remembered terror.
Almost reluctantly, they finally separated, each more concerned about their partner's distress than their own.
"You okay?" Blair asked quietly, gazing up at Jim with naked concern as he rubbed his friend's arm.
"Yeah, I am, now," Ellison sighed as he reached out to rake his fingers through Sandburg's hair, to feel the silky warmth and reality of his Guide, and then he lightly brushed Blair's cheek with the back of his fingers as he asked, "How about you, Chief? Are you okay?"
Blair quirked a half smile as he nodded once, slowly. "Yeah," he murmured, "thanks to you, I'm good." But then the smile widened and his eyes sparkled as he shook his head. "No, I'm wrong about that - I am GREAT, man. I'm alive, and life is amazing. I'm young, got my health, a fine place to call home," he added with an expansive wave at the loft before turning to grace Jim with a wide open gaze that was bright with jubilant sincerity, "and the best friend any man could have on God's green earth. Life just doesn't get much better than this, you know?"
Chuckling at his partner's irrepressible joie de vivre, Jim reached out to haul Blair into a rough, playful hug and planted a kiss on his brow. "Yeah, kid, I know," he sighed, as he let Sandburg's warmth chase away the last the of demons and he smiled, a sweet smile of peace and contentment. "I know."
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