By Any Other Name
It was a small blessing they had not both been sick at the same time, Jim reflected wearily. It was long past midnight on the third day of Blair's flu, and although the younger man's fever still ran high, it was down enough to allow Blair - and Jim - a bit of much needed rest.
Nearly all of Cascade had suffered from the virulent strain during the past month. Viciously attacking young and old alike, there had been several deaths from complications, mainly among those too young, too old, or those with immune systems too weak to fight off the attack. When Jim had contracted it, he'd felt miserable for four days, weak for three more, then was more or less back to normal with no lingering effects.
Blair, on the other hand, was a totally different story.
It was only two months after the 'nightmare at the fountain', as Jim had come to think of it. He only wished it had been some horrendous dream, and sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning when he was only half awake and suddenly remembered, for an instant, he thought that's exactly what it had been. The worst nightmare he could ever have imagined, and what made it all the more terrifying was that it had been so very, very real.
Thanks to Blair's drowning, Jim placed him firmly in the 'at risk' group when the flu hit Cascade. His lungs were still vulnerable to infection, and the strain of flu going around carried with it a horrible hacking cough, along with the merciless nausea.
Enough to drive a sentinel and Blessed Protector mad with worry and fear. Jim thought he'd reacted very competently, under the circumstances. He extended his own sick leave, paid a quick and very expensive visit to the grocery store for enough supplies to last a hospital full of patients at least a month, tucked Blair into bed after a visit to the doctor and drug store, then proceeded to hover like crazy.
Very logical, considering the circumstances, Jim concluded. So what if Simon laughed at him on the phone, uttering some nonsense about Jim finally getting a taste of what parenting was all about after all?
He was not Sandburg's father. He was his sentinel, and as far as Jim was concerned, that was an entirely different ball game. Sandburg's survival was tantamount to his own; of course, he was going to protect him at all costs. Compared to bullets, bombs, and car wrecks, what was a case of the flu?
Naomi had called, of course, with that incredible sense of timing only she possessed. Of course, she was too far away to be of any help, but she offered tons of well-intended, maternal advice instead. Some of the more practical tips Jim heeded; those involving herbs with strange-sounding names or channeling positive energy through healing trances went in one ear and out the other. After more than three years of nursing Sandburg through various degrees of illness and injury, Jim felt more than equal to the task at hand.
Blair talked to his mom, assured her that he was in capable hands, and that was that. Naomi went back to... whatever it was she was doing this time... and Jim went back to caring for her son.
Which, if he were to be honest with himself, suited him just fine.
It had rained unceasingly all day, and now that midnight had long since come and gone, all night long. A cold January rain that showed no signs of disappearing by morning. Jim had carefully nursed the fire in the living room, and with Blair's door open, the small bedroom was comfortably warm.
At least for Jim.
However, Sandburg, with his fever, alternated between violent chills and miserable sweats. If Jim wasn't holding Blair's hair back as he vomited or tucking another quilt over his partner's shivering body, he was trying to convince Blair not to toss off all the covers when he felt as though his body was burning up. Aspirin and the drugs the doctor had prescribed, along with juices and as much clear broth as his stomach could tolerate, had helped a little, but Jim knew they still had miles to go. At least tonight, the nausea seemed better.
Jim was grateful for small favors.
The sentinel leaned back in the chair he'd dragged into Sandburg's room to serve as his base of operations during the long hours. He couldn't bring himself to leave the young man alone. Not yet.
He'd tried once, slipping away upstairs to grab an hour or so of sleep.
It had lasted fifteen minutes. Then he'd heard Blair's coughing, a painful sound that brought Jim to his feet and down the steps in seconds. More Vicks, another spoonful of cough medicine, and a soothing back rub later, Blair drifted into a restless sleep, and Jim took up residence in the familiar chair, this time for the duration.
An hour's restless sleep wasn't worth the cost to Sandburg. He hadn't been there for Blair during the 'nightmare at the fountain', as he'd come to secretly call it; Jim would be damned if he'd miss being there for him now.
He closed his eyes and focused on Sandburg's breathing, just as he did hourly. A minute later, Jim breathed a sigh of relief. He detected no congestion in the tortured lungs, just the soft wheezing of stuffed sinuses. Hang in there, Chief. Those antibiotics seem to be doing the trick. Surely tomorrow we'll see some real improvement.
The broken whisper was so soft, Jim wondered if he'd been dreaming. Opening his eyes a slit, the sentinel peered through the darkness. Not a dream. Sandburg's bloodshot eyes were barely open, obviously searching for Jim in the darkness.
He should have left a light on, Jim chastised himself. Sometimes he tended to forget that Blair didn't have his enhanced eyesight. The dim light from the fire in the other room was more than enough for Jim, but apparently, not for his partner.
"I'm here, Chief," Jim assured him, scooting the chair closer to the small futon bed. "Sorry it's so dark. Want me to turn on a lamp?"
A tiny shake of the head was the only response.
Jim smiled. Poor kid. He looked undeniably pitiful lying there, so small beneath the multitude of covers piled over him. Fragile, as if one more violent cough would cause him to disintegrate before Jim's eyes. For an instant, Jim flashed back to the memory of Blair lying too still in the hospital bed after his 'death'. He suppressed a shudder and forced his mind to more pleasant images. "How about a candle, then? Nice soft light? Easy on the eyes." When there was what Jim interpreted as a tiny nod, he retrieved a single scented candle from Blair's nest of candles in the living room. Flipping it over, Jim read the small label on the bottom. Gardenia - one of the few floral scents that didn't drive his senses crazy.
Returning to his guide's room, Jim placed the candle on its stand on Blair's bookcase and lit the flame. Immediately, the tiny room was filled with a warm glow and the sweet scent of gardenias in spring. "How's that?" He returned to his chair beside Blair, reaching out automatically to check his partner's forehead, then Jim frowned. The fever was still hovering around 102 - still too high for comfort. He checked the small clock on the bedside table; an hour to go before Blair could take another aspirin.
Jim went into the bathroom and ran cold water in the sink. As he soaked a soft washcloth, he glanced at his own reflection in the mirror, then he chuckled in spite of himself. Amazing what a few late nights could do. He'd hate for anyone whose opinion he valued to see him right now. Death warmed over would be more appealing.
He stopped by the kitchen to get a bowl of cool water and a dish towel, then Jim returned to his vigil. He set the bowl on the towel, then placed it carefully on the bedside table. Taking the wet cloth, Jim began to sponge down Blair's face. At the touch of the washcloth, Blair's eyes opened to a slit. "J... Jim?"
Jim skimmed the cloth over Blair's cheekbones and chin, then moved down to sponge his neck. He kept his voice purposefully low; the kid had been having one hell of a headache. "Right the first time, kid. How you feeling?"
The heavy lids descended once more. "Lousy," Blair muttered, fretting with the covers. "Head hurts... hot... ache all over."
Jim slid the covers back, eliciting a sigh of relief from his patient. "I know, Chief. I know. But it's the fever making you hot one minute and cold the next. Maybe this will help bring it down. It's an hour before you can take another aspirin. I don't want you to stay uncovered long, just long enough for me to wipe you down."
Jim went about his task with gentle hands. He moistened the cloth again in the fresh water, then he began moving the cool cloth across Blair's chest. He smiled to himself as he worked, trying to imagine the reactions of his family and friends if they could see him going about his present tasks.
Carolyn would never believe it. She always claimed I didn't have the right instincts to be a care-giver. Maybe it was because she was so completely independent, so doggedly determined not to need my help in any way, to prove she was as capable, as strong as any man. I used to admire that about her, but I've come to realize that being too strong can become just as much a problem as being too weak.
My father... Wouldn't he just love to see this? Me, his macho, Army captain son, sponging down the man he shares his loft with by candlelight, worried sick that he might end up with pneumonia before all's said and done. Not once do I remember my father caring for me when I was sick. Before our mother left, she did. Sally filled in after she was gone. Even Steven on occasion, as I did for him. But never Pops. Guess he figured it would toughen us up to be eight, sick, and all alone. Yeah, right. Your theories of child-rearing turned Stevie into a virtual workaholic and me into the Ice Man. Great example you set there, Dad. At least, thanks to Sandburg, I've managed to move beyond those early lessons. But not before it broke up my marriage, treated me to a hell of a lot of lonely nights, and nearly cost Blair his life.
Even Simon... I'm not sure he'd understand completely, at least not how much I need to do this. I'm not sure he understands us completely, truth be told. Who could blame him? This whole sentinel thing, and this... this bond that's formed between Sandburg and me as a result, is completely beyond Simon's realm of experience. Hell, it's beyond anyone's realm, when you get right down to it, besides ours. Then again, Simon was at the fountain three months ago. He saw what I'm sure he never thought he'd witness, the complete breakdown and near-dissolution of one Jim Ellison. That might just have given him the insight he'd need to understand why I haven't slept in three days and now I'm sitting here in the middle of the night giving my roommate a sponge bath. Out of everyone, Simon would be the most likely to understand.
Jim paused for a moment, listening. The deep, steady rhythm of Sandburg's breathing told him that, at last, Blair had drifted into a rather restful sleep. Jim smiled gently, and with two fingers, brushed a single damp curl back from his friend's face, but Blair never stirred. Jim sat watching him for a long time, measuring the depth of his breaths and monitoring the inhalations and exhalations from his abused lungs. Even with his enhanced senses, he could find no sign that Blair had anything more than a bad case of flu and breathed a sigh of relief.
He dipped the washcloth again, refreshing it with cool water. Jim gently slipped his hand as far beneath Blair as he could without jarring the sleeping man to dampen both sides, then he worked the cloth back along the younger man's belly. If Blair felt his ministrations, he gave no sign. When he'd finished, Jim covered Blair up once more, carefully tucking the blankets around him for warmth. He returned to the bathroom with the used cloth and water, then returned with a fresh supply of both, took the fresh cloth and resumed bathing Blair's flushed face.
Damn it, kid. Look what you've done to me. Changed my... what is the term you'd use? My entire 'world view' or 'external perception' some fancy phrase like that. All I know is, I don't see the world or my place in it the same way, not since you came along. I think it's a change for the better, don't you?
An image from three months earlier superimposed itself on Sandburg's sleeping form. Blair... lying wet and cold and still on the dew-dappled grass... damp curls lying limply against his pale, blue-tinged face... the taste of death on his lips.
Jim shivered and shut his eyes against the vision. No! It didn't happen that way! He's here, alive, and with me. Don't go there, Ellison. Just... don't.
Opening his eyes, Jim gently stroked the damp washcloth across Blair's face again, pausing briefly to reaffirm the strong, steady pulse by resting his sensitive fingers against his friend's neck. He focused on the fact that beneath his hands beat the rhythm of life, that the image that had tortured him earlier was just that... an image... and not reality. "Thank you, Chief," Jim whispered, too low to disturb his sleeping guide. "I'll never understand what happened that day, but thank you for coming back to me. I didn't deserve to get you back, but... " Shaking his head, Jim fell silent, concentrating only on relieving his guide's fever and his own unspeakable gratitude.
After a few minutes, Jim folded the cool cloth and rested it on Sandburg's forehead. He sat back, snagging Blair's left hand, and studied his friend's pale features. So much about his life had changed in the years since Sandburg became an integral part of his life. So much about him had changed. His thumb stroked Blair's palm; he was fascinated to discover that he could discern each individual line that crisscrossed his partner's skin. How richly detailed the human body really was! What a shame that those who stole life so casually couldn't realize the depth of the miracle that every human existence represented.
Jim realized with a start that he was drifting dangerously close to losing awareness and pulled himself back immediately. A quick glance at the clock showed that at least another hour had passed, maybe more. It was hard to tell how long he'd been floating. He shook his head to clear away the remnants of the deep relaxation. Don't you dare zone, Ellison. The last thing Sandburg needs now is a comatose sentinel.
Strange how the events you think are minor, totally insignificant, can end up becoming the pivotal points marking your life. When the intense, excitable, energetic long-haired young man had bounced into Jim's life, never had it occurred to him that three years later, he'd still be sharing Jim's home, watching his back, and defining his life.
Lost in his thoughts, Jim was surprised to see that Blair's blue eyes, tired and weak, were open again. The younger man lay there quietly, huddled beneath the mound of blankets, just watching Jim. "Hey," Jim greeted him with a soft smile and a gentle squeeze of the hand encased in his own. "When'd you wake up?"
A small shrug moved the covers slightly. "Dunno. You seemed pretty relaxed even if you weren't quite sleeping. Didn't think you were zoned, though. Figured I'd just let you rest." The lids closed slowly, hiding the bloodshot eyes.
"Thoughtful of you," Jim quipped with a smile that removed any sarcasm from the remark. It had been considerate of the kid, actually. Blair certainly had reason not to be thinking of anyone else's comfort right now. "How're you feeling?"
No answer for a few long seconds. "Like crap," Blair finally admitted truthfully, then he muttered, "But at least I know what planet I'm on now. That's a definite improvement."
Jim chuckled. "Time for another aspirin." He shook a single tablet from the bottle on the bedside table and picked up a small cup of water. "Here," he coaxed as he slipped his hand beneath Blair's head, "let's sit up just a little." As he slipped the tablet past Blair's lips and brought the cup to his mouth, Jim added, "Not too much now. We don't want that nausea to kick back in."
Blair nodded once, took a couple of tiny sips of water, then Jim lowered his head gently back to the pillow. Blair released a weary sigh. After eyeing Jim for several moments, the younger man whispered, "Sorry to be so much trouble, man. I know the past few days weren't part of our agreement."
"When did we ever have an agreement, Junior?" Jim teased. When Blair didn't respond, he added quietly, "Anyway, it's okay. I don't mind, Chief. Forget it." Jim stroked his free hand across the sweat-matted curls, hoping to soothe and comfort. The flickering light of the candle sent shadows dancing across Sandburg's face, emphasizing his pallor and the dark circles etched beneath his eyes. Jim wound his fingers instinctively through the long curls, anchoring himself to his guide.
Blair's eyes peeled open a crack as his mouth curved up in a half-smile, the first one Jim had seen since Blair got sick.
"What?" Jim asked, tilting his head slightly to one side. "Something funny?"
The curly head shook once beneath his hand. "Just remembering... "
Jim was intrigued. "Remembering? What were you remembering, Chief?" He leaned forward, watching Blair's expression carefully.
The reply was barely audible. Sandburg was still so very weak. "... first time you called me that."
"What? The first time I called you 'Chief'?" Jim wondered what on earth had brought back such a memory. Then again, fever could do strange things to the mind. Best just to humor him.
"Yeah. I remember... " Whatever he was going to say faded away into nothingness.
"What do you remember? What were you thinking about?" Jim focused on the pale face lying on the white pillow. He didn't know where Sandburg was going with this, but somehow, it suddenly seemed important to find out. Although the kid might seem like an open book, Jim had discovered that his partner's true feelings were often concealed behind fast words and glib answers. Blair definitely preferred probing Jim's emotions to revealing his own. He'd talk on and on, and it wasn't until later that you realized you really hadn't learned anything about Blair personally at all. If his fever had loosened Blair's reluctance to talk about himself and his own feelings, then Jim fully intended to press his advantage.
After a long silence during which Jim wondered if his guide had fallen asleep again, Blair finally whispered, "... remember how you sounded... "
Surprised, Jim asked, "How I sounded? When I first called you 'Chief'?" Strange how a fevered mind worked. Gently, he asked, "How did I sound? What did you hear in my voice?"
Blair's brows knitted in concentration and perhaps, in some unpleasant memory, but his eyes remained shut. "Anger. You sounded mad. Sarcastic." Blue eyes flittered from beneath closed lids. "Like... you didn't like me much." There was a tiny shrug. "Guess you really didn't."
Jim felt like he'd been punched in the gut -- by a pro -- but an actual physical blow wouldn't have hurt as much. He knew he'd been short with the kid at the beginning of their partnership - impatient and not at all happy to have the anthropologist with the long hair and the limitless supply of energy in his life. Still, if he'd thought about it, Jim would have hoped that the friendship that had developed between them over the past three years would have erased those memories, those painful feelings.
Obviously, it had not.
Hurt, and feeling more than a little guilty, Jim released his hold on Blair's hand, but the younger man quickly curved his fingers around Jim's and held on, refusing to let go. "No... ," Blair whispered weakly.
Jim didn't know what to say. Would an apology serve any purpose now, so many years later, after the harm had already been done? Jim could only stare down at Sandburg's ashen features and wonder what other slights, things he had totally forgotten, the sensitive young man still carried around in his heart. "Blair... I... ," he began uncertainly.
"... S'okay, man." Blair turned slowly over on his side, not yet releasing Jim's hand. He curled up beneath the covers with the blankets tucked beneath his chin, his eyes still closed, dark lashes lying feather-soft against his pale skin. His voice was distant and drowsy. "Never had a nickname I liked when I was a kid. Those names hurt, Jim. Geek... nerd... Jew boy... freak. Not exactly cherished nicknames, y'know? Besides, what was in your voice then doesn't matter any more, 'cause it's not what I hear now."
Jim's heart tightened painfully. What kind of childhood must Sandburg have endured if those were the nicknames the other kids had given him? Names of hatred, born of cruelty. And what had he done? He'd hung a string of nicknames on the kid as long as his arm. Now that Jim stopped to think about it, he realized that he seldom called his partner by his given name.
Had he been hurting his best friend all these years? Unintentionally, perhaps, but pain was pain, regardless of the intentions. What emotions had Sandburg connected all this time with Jim's use of his favorite pet name for his partner? Had he inadvertently hurt Blair every time he called him Chief?
"What do you hear?" Jim asked finally, his voice betraying his concern, almost afraid to hear the reply. "What do you hear in my voice now... Blair?"
Slowly, tired eyelids forced their way open, and Blair looked up at Jim in the dim light of the candle. The sentinel felt a weak pressure from the hand wrapped within his own. "Same thing you hear in my voice, man. I hear warmth and friendship and... " There was a slight hesitation before he added, "And love."
The weary blue eyes, full and uncertain, watched for his reaction. When Jim didn't reply right away, a blanket of what could only have been embarrassment covered them, darkening the blue to a deep indigo. Blair's eyes dropped from Jim's face to study the top blanket tucked around him, as though he couldn't bear to look at Jim after his emotional revelation.
Jim allowed a sad smile to crease his face at his friend's sudden vulnerability and needless shame. He eased two fingers beneath the lowered chin, gently guiding Blair's face upward to look at him again. "And they say I have the good hearing in this partnership." Jim's smile faded slightly, as his voice took on a deeper, richer timbre. "You heard right, kid. You heard right."
A warm and glorious light transformed the darkness of those eyes, and Jim matched the grin on Sandburg's face with one of his own. Their eyes held, communicating silently everything that couldn't necessarily be said, then Jim glanced at the small clock on the bedside table. "It's nearly two a.m., Chief. Think you can sleep again?" He reached out and rested an experienced hand on Blair's forehead. "I think your fever's down a little."
"Yeah... " Blair yawned broadly. "Head doesn't hurt so bad. Think I can sleep."
"Okay," Jim agreed, settling back in the chair, but maintaining his hold on Sandburg's hand.
His partner looked at him quizzically. "Aren't you going on to bed? I know you've been up all night with me. You need your rest, man."
"I'll rest right here for awhile." There was no reason to return to his own room for what remained of the night, and Jim knew it. He'd only spend the hours tossing and turning, his hearing focused on the sounds from the small bedroom below. Blair wasn't out of the woods yet; too much could still go wrong. Until his guide had definitely escaped the threat of pneumonia, Jim intended to remain exactly where he was.
Where he belonged. What were a few lost hours of sleep when he could have lost so much more?
Leaning over, he gently batted Sandburg's cheek. "Sleep," he ordered gently. "I'm fine."
Blair watched him for several seconds through bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Okay," he conceded at last, nestling his head more deeply into the pillows, "but don't blame me if your back's hurting in the morning."
Chuckling, Jim tucked a spare pillow behind his head and rested back against the wall. "Deal. Now, sleep." He covered Blair's eyes with his hand, gently shutting Blair's lids. A tiny, contented smile touched his guide's lips as the sentinel slipped his hand away.
In his lifetime, he had known many names. He would always be William Ellison's son, regardless of the pain that identity had sometimes caused. A large part of him would remain Captain James J. Ellison, United States Army, and Jim took great pride in that title. He was Detective Jim Ellison in his professional life, Enquiri to the Chopec, along with the Sentinel of the Great City. To his friends, he was just Jim.
And to Blair... ? Jim hesitated as he considered exactly who he was to the young man lying peacefully now before him. Jim... research subject... his sentinel... his brother in all but blood... his best friend... his partner... his holy grail. It was a long and rather complicated list, but Jim realized that Blair seldom called him anything but Jim. Maybe the kid's past experience with nicknames had soured him on that particular cultural tradition.
Who was Sandburg to him? His roommate... his partner on the job, in his role as sentinel, and it appeared, in life... his best friend... his teacher and his guide. Jim smiled at some of the names he'd called Sandburg through the years. Chief... Darwin... Junior... Professor... Conan... Short Eyes... my little guppy. Each one a spoken testament to the ease with which the young man had claimed his place in Jim's life and in his heart.
Jim watched Blair sleep for a long time, mulling over the meaning and significance of such simple things as names, then he leaned over and blew out the scented candle with a single quick puff. The room plunged back into darkness, but it didn't matter.
The sentinel could see clearly now.
By dawn, Sandburg's fever would be down. He would begin to regain his strength, and soon, Jim could return to work. The sentinel could resume his protection of the Great City. Their lives would go on, virtually uninterrupted.
But during those last, slow, molasses-thick hours where darkness lingered, the sentinel was content to sit quietly in the dark and keep watch. To protect the cherished life within his care through the remainder of the night.
And through all the nights to come.
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