(Sequel to Guilt)
For Tia…This is your story!
Thank you for honoring me with a donation to Moonridge that this story might be written…
and for allowing it to be posted that others might read it.
… Blair handed him a copy of his will. Silently, Jim took it. And then he pulled a document from his coat pocket and handed it to Blair.
Not sure what to expect, Sandburg eyed him narrowly, then opened it. When he saw what it was, he swallowed hard. "You sure about this, Jim?" he asked, looking up from the Power of Attorney Jim had given him.
"Yep," Jim replied seriously as he gazed into Sandburg's wide eyes. "Because there's no one in my life, Chief, who I trust more than you." (From Guilt by Arianna)
From his hospital bed, Blair gazed at Jim's earnest expression and then a smile, slow and amazed, grew on his lips until it reached his eyes. The younger man had to swallow hard before he could murmur, his voice catching a little, "Jim…you have no idea how much that means to me…thanks. I promise, I'll never do anything to betray you. I, ah, I just hope I never have to use it, you know?"
Ellison nodded his head and looked away, embarrassed by the emotion in Sandburg's eyes and voice. Blair knew his secrets, lived in the same apartment, was his partner…and had risked his own life to save Jim's twelve days ago when he drove Ellison's truck between the detective and a heavy transport that was running him down in a narrow alley. Yesterday, Sandburg had entrusted Jim with his own Power of Attorney and, just now, he'd given Ellison his wills, both living and last testament. Such open and generous faith frightened the Sentinel, who hoped never to have to exercise the powers given to him so freely. It was staggering to think that the same complete trust in return affected the kid in similar ways, seemed as infinitely important and valued.
Briefly, Jim pondered what an odd pair they must seem to others. He was an irascible police detective pushing middle age, a man known for his deliberate isolation and outright refusal to let anyone get too close; and yet here he was, partnered with an effervescent, hyperactive, brilliant young grad student of anthropology, with wild hair and a pronounced tendency to babble, who could make friends with a stone. Nobody had ever thought that their agreement borne of necessity--Jim to learn how to control his heightened and very recalcitrant senses, and Blair to have a real live 'sentinel' to study for his dissertation-- would bloom in less than a year into something so very much more. Closer friends than either had ever known before, brothers in all but blood, bound by the mystical and mysterious relationship of Sentinel and Guide, the two men were each devoted to the other's well being and happiness. Either would die to protect the other, without hesitation…but, more, they wanted--even needed--the other to live to be whole themselves.
Jim found it more than a little scary to have this soul-deep commitment to another's well being, to need Sandburg for his own happiness, and wondered if Blair felt the same. It hadn't been planned, was certainly not expected, and the awareness of what they each had become to the other was still fresh…and more than a little overwhelming. It would take time to get used to, to feel that one was not imposing on the other, to feel deserving of the love that was freely and unconditionally offered. How did one ever feel worthy of such an incredible gift? How did one come to understand that 'worthiness' had nothing to do with it?
Unconditional was just what it was. Unconditional.
"You okay, man?" Blair murmured into the silence, wondering if Jim was already regretting his gesture of trust.
Shaking his head, Ellison looked back, but smiled reassuringly at the worried doubt in Sandburg's eyes. "No, I'm not okay, but that's not about this. I mean it, Chief…there is no one I have ever trusted the way I trust you. But I won't be 'okay' until I can get you home, where you belong."
Blair smiled again at that, if wearily, as he laid his head back against the support of the pillow. The visit with the lawyer, who had just left as Jim arrived, had been taxing. He did his best to seem like he was well on the way to recovery, but the truth was, his body hurt like hell and the amount of work still needed before he'd be 'whole' again, was daunting in the extreme. Added to that, the strong medication they gave him to help manage the pain left him feeling perpetually dozy.
Seeing the pallor and the shadows of exhaustion and pain in his young friend's face, Jim reached to pluck the official document from Blair's hands--and noticed the slight tremor in the sensitive fingers. Slipping the document into the envelope with Blair's wills, he studied Sandburg.
"You need to rest," Jim said quietly, and then reached to brush curls, slightly dampened by sweat, from his friend's brow. Frowning, he observed almost to himself, "You've got a fever."
Nodding briefly with evident weariness, his thin reserves of energy crumbling and taking with them the pretense of strength and normalcy that he tried so hard to sustain, Blair explained, "The nurses noticed it this morning. They took more blood to see what's causing it." Pausing to catch his breath, and to lick dry lips, he continued, his voice increasingly raspy and weak, though he tried to hide how very tired he was, "Could be from the wounds in my chest or back, or could be my leg. They've started a broad-spectrum antibiotic. I'll be okay."
Ellison didn't like the sound of this. On top of Sandburg's injuries--which included a compound, complex double fracture of his left leg (that still needed surgical repair), a simple fracture of his right leg, a dislocated left shoulder with badly bruised and stretched muscles and tendons, a broken right arm, a skull fracture and concussions, cracked ribs, the puncture of a kidney that had been repaired and a ruptured spleen that had needed to be removed, not to mention the severe laceration of his liver--his lungs had been compromised and pneumonia was a dangerous risk. With no spleen, infection was an even greater threat than ever. Now, as if all that wasn't more than enough for his battered immune system to cope with, Blair was supposed to head back to the Operating Theatre later that morning, to have his left leg finally repaired.
"They going to postpone the surgery?" Ellison asked, worried.
"Nah," Blair sighed, wishing this next hurdle was over. "They've put it off too long already to give me time to get strong enough to handle more prolonged surgery. But I guess the bones have started to heal crooked; they're gonna have to break them again." Looking away, he winced at that thought. "The longer they put it off, the more complicated it gets…"
He took a deep breath and turned back to Jim and, seeing the look of empathetic pain in his friend's eyes, and worry, forced himself to sound more positive as he said confidently, "It's okay; I'll be all right."
"You need anything?" Jim asked, hating the feeling of being a helpless bystander who could do nothing to make his friend, his Guide, well again…and quickly.
Blair smiled up at him as he slowly shook his head. "I have everything I ever needed, Jim," he said quietly, his eyes blazing with meaning. "Thanks to you."
Jim's head dipped and he had to blink hard against the sudden prickling in his eyes, not to mention swallow the rock that had appeared in his throat. God, he loved this kid so much it filled his chest and ached within him. Biting his lip, he wondered how it could be possible to feel so much love…more, to receive it. Sniffing, he lifted his gaze back to his partner's steady eyes. "Just…just do what they tell you, okay? Behave and don't fight the medication they need to give you, to help with the pain and infection, and… well, we'll work on the physical therapy when it's time."
His smile broadening, Blair snickered, "Yes, Mom. I'll be good, I promise."
Huffing a laugh of his own, Ellison asked, "Do you want me to try to track her down?"
"No, man," Blair replied with an indulgent grin, though he was very evidently fading, his eyelids beginning to droop and his voice even softer in volume, wispy. "She'd only worry and feel she had to be here. And you know Naomi…she means well, but I think she'd drive the doctors and the nurses crazy with endless suggestions for natural, herbal alternatives--not that I don't agree with her, but now is not the time to complicate things--not to mention offering diagnostic assistance by reading my aura. And, well, you don't need her filling the loft with sage…"
Jim's brow quirked up and he rubbed his nose unconsciously at the memory of Naomi's last visit. He'd been sneezing for days until the residue of the burning sage had finally been cleared out of the air. "Right," he muttered with a small grin. "But if you want her here at some point, you just let me know. I'll find her."
"I know; thanks," Blair replied and then unsuccessfully tried to stifle a yawn, wincing as he lifted his left arm to cover his lips.
"Look, Junior, you need to get some sleep," Jim instructed, using his 'don't bother arguing voice', as he pulled the straight-backed chair closer. He settled into it, and then reached to cover Blair's left hand lightly with his own. "Close your eyes. I'll be here if you need anything."
"Jim, you should go--there's nothing for you do here," Sandburg protested, hating to feel like any kind of burden to his partner.
"Nothing more important to do than this," Jim replied with mock gruffness. "Go to sleep."
Smiling fondly, Blair nodded, shifting his arm a little so that their hands were lightly clasped. Blinking wearily, he finally let his eyes close and drifted to sleep.
Ellison tightened his grip on Blair's limp hand as he watched his friend intently, all his senses attuned to Sandburg's life signs. The younger man had seemed stronger the day before than he did now, and Jim could sense the fever sapping his energy, making his heart work harder, beat faster, his respirations quicken though they were shallower. Dammit, the last thing Sandburg needed on top of everything else was an infection. The Sentinel clenched his jaw against the emotion that surged in his chest, fear and the sickening sense of helplessness that he could do nothing but wait and watch--and hope that Blair soon started to get better instead of worse.
When they took Blair to surgery, Jim was to restless to just sit in the empty room and wait. Determinedly positive that it was only a matter of time before he could take Sandburg home, he left to pursue his list of errands. First, he headed down to the physical therapy department, to find out what would be needed to help Blair once he could go home. Then he went to the home care office, to get a list of what he'd have to do to make the loft 'Blair-friendly' during his recovery. He signed all the forms to authorize bringing in the necessary equipment and to waive the option for a nurse to visit daily to evaluate his partner's care and progress.
Then he went home to pick up and reply to all the dozens and dozens of messages on the answering machine and notes in the mailbox from friends, students and colleagues--both at the University and at the Police Station--who'd heard about the accident or seen the headlines and were getting in touch to find out how Sandburg was. He patiently called each one to reassure them and thank them, promising that he'd pass their good wishes along to Blair. He'd anticipated the local calls and notes, but the unexpected voice on the machine caught him by surprise…and he smiled. Dialing the number, he identified himself and smiled again with fondness as he listened to the warm expression of love and concern for Sandburg that flowed down the line.
"He'll be amazed to know you heard anything about it," Jim replied, and learned that the story had been picked up nationally. In the back of his mind, he registered that this was further indication that Naomi must be somewhere out of the country, as she hadn't phoned to find out what was going on.
"I'll tell him you called. It'll mean a lot to him; thanks," Ellison promised as he terminated the conversation. Staring at the phone for a moment afterwards, he reflected that Sandburg certainly did know some fascinating and truly wonderful people.
Ellison's next stop was the station, to arrange for a leave of absence to care for his partner when Blair finally got home. If the surgery went well, and the infection (whatever it was) didn't complicate things, Jim might actually be able to spring him free as early as the weekend.
As far as the Sentinel was concerned, that day couldn't come too soon.
The nurses noted his return as he ambled with easy familiarity down the hall and into Blair's vacant room; Sandburg was still in recovery. Jim sat down and opened the newspaper he'd brought, unconcerned about the wait and simply glad to have gotten back before his friend did. He wanted to be there when the kid woke up. He didn't notice the nurse put in a call to the surgeon, as she'd been requested to do as soon as Detective Ellison returned.
Some minutes later, Jim was surprised when Dr. Gary DesLoupes, the surgeon who had operated on Blair the night of the crash, strode into the room and leaned comfortably on the side of the bed to look down at the detective.
Jim paled. Though the doctor's manner was studiously calm, his presence wasn't usual and didn't bode well.
"What happened to Sandburg?" he grated, straightening, the newspaper slipping forgotten to the floor.
Raising a hand to forestall any excessive concern, DesLoupes replied steadily, "He'll be all right. But the infection flared in his lung, complicating things a bit. We've got him on a respirator to ensure full aeration. Part of the problem was due to the original injury, but more it's the result of his enforced bed rest and lack of mobility. We've got him on antibiotics, and the respirator will help him breathe for the next day or so until the meds do their thing. This is only a temporary setback, and he'll be much better in a couple of days. I wanted to ensure you knew what was going on, as he'll be looking to you for calm and reassurance. So, any questions?"
"You're sure he's going to be fine?" Jim pressed, his face an emotionless mask that hid the turmoil within.
Nodding once decisively, DesLoupes replied confidently, "I am. This wasn't unexpected and it's nothing we can't treat."
Jim blew out a breath, licking his lips as he nodded. Rubbing the back of his neck, he asked, "How's his leg?"
Straightening from the bed, DesLoupes answered soberly, "It was a very bad set of breaks, just below his knee, so we needed to work on the joint as well. But, we've got everything back in place and he should heal as good as, maybe better than, new. We've immobilized the leg, but left off the cast for now, to allow access to the wound."
"How long before the cast can go on?" Jim asked, knowing this was a critical requirement before Sandburg would be allowed to go home.
His gaze a little unfocused, bobbing his head side to side unconsciously as he thought about it, DesLoupes finally replied, "If it heals as I expect, we should be able to put on the protective cast in four, maybe five, days."
"And then I can take him home?" Jim clarified, having his priorities clear.
The surgeon studied the intense cop who had risen to stand before him, dwarfing his shorter stature. If anyone looked less like a nurse, the surgeon had never met him or her. "Are you certain you want to? There are institutions designed to take patients for their rehabilitative care…"
"I'm sure," Jim cut in. "I've got medic experience from the army. And I think he'll be happier at home."
"This is a fulltime commitment, Detective, for months," DesLoupes tried again. He was reluctant, only too well aware of how the best of intentions could evaporate like fog under the heat of the sun, when days turned into long, arduous weeks and then into months.
"I've already arranged the leave," Jim replied, his tone insistent. "I want to take him home as soon as I can."
Smiling, the surgeon surrendered. "I can see that," he replied warmly. "All right, once we have the cast in place, and providing the lung infection is under control, you can likely take him home in five or six days."
Jim smiled then and nodded, "Thanks, Doc."
Ellison was grateful for the warning when they finally wheeled Sandburg back in from the Recovery Room. If he'd seen that respirator tube and his Guide's total pallor and lifelessness without any preparation, he would have been completely unnerved. As it was, it was hard enough to look at Sandburg, so limp now, again looking utterly fragile and wasted. His skin was hot from the fever, and Jim could hear the wheeze in his chest, despite the respirator. He'd seemed to be doing so well for the last couple of days. It had been too easy to forget how desperately badly he'd been hurt and how much he was probably still suffering, despite his insistence that he was 'fine'.
Jim took up his post as unofficial sentry, and spent the next half hour helping the nursing staff to bathe his friend with tepid water to fight the effects of the fever, and hopefully to bring it down. He knew fevers, by definition, aren't bad things, but simply the visible evidence that the body was fighting off infection. But, a weakened body didn't have a lot to fight with, and a prolonged, high fever could be debilitating, even dangerous. IV bottles were changed, to keep refreshing Sandburg's body with nourishing fluids, and the output of the Foley catheter was monitored with relief…visible proof that his kidneys were functioning just fine.
Simon dropped in, which was no surprise, and Jim lifted concerned eyes to welcome him.
"How's he doing?" Banks asked as he entered and then frowned in sudden wariness as he took in the unexpected respirator, the pallor. "What happened?"
"Got a bit of an infection in his lung," Ellison reported. "But the doctor says he'll be okay in a few days."
Nodding somberly, Banks moved into the room to stand over the bed. Sighing, he unconsciously drifted delicate fingertips across Sandburg's fevered brow. "The kid just doesn't get a break, does he?" he murmured.
Jim quirked a brow, a half smile playing around his lips at Simon's obvious and tender concern, but he chose not to pull his boss's chain about it this time. They were all worried about the kid, and Ellison was touched, as he knew Sandburg would be, to know how very much people cared about the special young man. "He's going to be okay, Simon," Jim reiterated, investing the strength of determined confidence into his voice.
Banks cut him a look and then stepped back from the bed. "Anything you need? Anything the rest of us can do to help?"
Shrugging a little, Jim answered thoughtfully, "I've got things arranged to take him home. But he's going to be laid up for quite a while and, well, you know what he's like. He's going to go stir-crazy. So, if you or some of the others could drop by to visit once in a while…"
"Count on it," Simon assured him. "Just try to keep us away," he added with a smile. But the smile faded as Simon's eyes drifted over the traction frame. Sandburg had one leg in a cast, the other immobilized and covered with a thick bandage, and another cast on his right arm. The sling on his left, to support his damaged shoulder, was no longer present, but Banks knew it would be a while before Blair could put a lot of weight on that arm. Bandages still swathed his chest, abdomen and disappeared around his body to also cover his back. "He's going to need a LOT of help, for weeks, maybe months…" he murmured. His eyes again flicked up to Ellison's. "If you ever need a break…"
"Thanks, but I'm sure we'll be fine," Jim replied, perhaps more briskly than he'd meant--but it was his job, even his need, to take care of Sandburg, and nobody else was going to do that for him.
Wordlessly, Simon nodded, then glanced at his watch. "Well, I guess I'd better get back to the office. I'll let the others know he's holding his own. Maybe we should hold off on visitors until he can talk again?"
"Yeah, that'd be a good idea," Jim replied gratefully. "In a couple of days, once the respirator is out and the fever's down, he'll be more up for company."
It was another hour before Sandburg began to stir. Jim had been listening to the thump and whoosh of the respirator, matching his own hearing against the heart monitor and deciding that his reading of the nuances of the slightly elevated beat was more precise. He'd also been busying himself with keeping cool cloths on Blair's forehead and over the pulse beat at the base of his throat.
The heart monitor kicked up, registering a higher speed of beats. Sandburg's whole body stiffened suddenly, his back arching, and Jim knew with regret that the pain was beginning to register with a vengeance as Blair surfaced toward consciousness.
Jim gripped Sandburg's hand a little tighter, his thumb drawing small circles on the soft skin, while he leaned over the rail and his other hand slowly stroked through Blair's curls. "Easy, buddy," he murmured. "I know it hurts. Just don't fight it…let it wash over you…"
Blair moaned deep in his throat, but gradually, as Jim continued to talk to him, the muscles of his body relaxed as he stopped fighting the pain that burned up from his legs, through his gut and chest. He blinked against the light, still not fully conscious and then chuffed against the respirator, his eyes flying open in panic.
"Whoa, it's okay," Jim hastened to assure him, squeezing Blair's hand while the other cupped Sandburg's cheek. "You're on a respirator, that's all. Let it breathe for you."
Wide eyes clouded with frightened questions tracked to Jim's gaze and Blair's grip on his fingers tightened.
"I know it's scary," Ellison said quietly. "But they finally figured out the infection is in your lung. The respirator helps to push oxygen all the way down, and it's easier on you than trying to breathe on your own with a congested lung. You're on antibiotics, and it's only for a couple of days…"
Blair groaned as he closed his eyes, hating being muzzled, despising his helplessness, wracked with pain that just wouldn't quit. Muddled by the confusion of the anesthetic still in his system, the effects of the pain medication and the antibiotics, weakened by fever and pain, he couldn't keep tears from leaking out under his lashes to slide down his face. He grimaced, embarrassed by the involuntary weeping, and he turned his face away from Jim, hating the feeling of being so pathetic.
Jim's thumb gently brushed the tears away. "It's all right, Chief," he reassured quietly. "The tears don't bother me. Don't make you less a man…"
The mobile young face relaxed then as his closed eyes crinkled and lips quirked in a small smile. Sandburg blinked rapidly and then turned that wide gaze back at Jim, one brow quirking in question, his reaction as clear as if he'd spoken aloud. No? This from the man who would die of mortification if anyone saw him cry?
Jim chuckled in return, but shook his head ruefully as he wiped away the track of another involuntary tear. "They saw me cry, Chief, while we waited to know if you were going to be all right. Imagine that… and I survived the experience," he offered with soft irony.
The look in Sandburg's eyes melted with all that those words meant, and he squeezed Jim's hand. "I know, Chief," Jim whispered as he stroked Sandburg's cheek with his fingertips. "You know I feel the same way, right?" he asked huskily, relieved at the slight nod and the sparkle of a smile in the eyes and small lines around Blair's lips. Clearing his throat, Ellison continued more firmly, "But, right now, you need to rest, sleep. Okay? Can you do that for me?"
Nodding a little, Sandburg's eyes blinked heavily and finally closed as he drifted back into the darkness.
Blair was pretty much out of it for the next three days, while his body worked hard at fighting off the fever and repairing his many severe injuries. Though Jim's preference would have been to stand sentry by his bedside 24/7, the detective knew that he also needed to rest if he was going to be able to bring Blair home and care for him.
So he did runs back and forth between Blair's bedside and his own bed in the loft, making side trips to pick up supplies. He stocked up on groceries like Sandburg's favorite teas and scented candles, cans of soup and frozen stuff that wouldn't go bad, so that he'd not have to go out much once he got his partner home. He also bought extra towels, and sheets for the hospital-style bed he had had moved into the loft, which had joined the other equipment he would need for Blair's comfort and physical therapy. He loaded up on books, all the newest publications of Sandburg's favorite authors and magazine journals, and a few of his own favorites as well. One day, he popped into a music store, and scanned the racks of relaxing environmental sounds and music combinations, searching for something to approximate the experience of being outside by a river or lake, or in a park with birds and rushing water, wind sighing through the trees.
He kept Blair's department head apprised of Sandburg's condition, and confirmed that the kid could have an unspecified leave of absence without risking his teaching fellowship or status as a Ph.D. candidate, though the time off would be without pay. Using his power of attorney, Jim contacted the bank about Blair's loan payments and arranged to keep them covered, as well as clearing all outstanding credit card balances.
The infection finally gave up the battle, retreating if not surrendering outright to the power of the antibiotics, and the respirator was duly removed. Five days after the surgery, the wound in Blair's leg had healed well enough to risk covering it over with a cast. On the sixth day after the surgery, the nineteenth morning after he'd been crushed in that alley, though he was still very weak and suffering the residual effects of the lung infection, Sandburg was ready to go home--or so Jim and the doctor agreed.
Blair wasn't so sure.
"Man, you can't be serious!" Sandburg exclaimed when he realized what Jim had planned. Taking a deep breath to argue further, he broke into a fit of painful coughing, agony sharply knifing through his right side. He groaned, his back arcing reflexively as his muscles spasmed and his breath caught, helpless to brace himself with his broken arm.
Jim reacted instantly, laying a strong hand against the bandaged ribs, pressing in, to help him catch his breath. "Easy, buddy, just breathe slowly…"
Jim frowned as he continued to brace his friend, and watched Sandburg struggle to breathe. Truthfully, as much as he wanted the kid home, Ellison thought Sandburg could have benefited from a few more days of rest before the trauma of the move. But, the doctor had decided he was strong enough, and these days, the shortage of beds meant people got pushed out of hospitals as soon as it was at all feasible for them to be cared for elsewhere. Besides, once the hassle of the actual transfer was over, Jim knew he could give as good, probably better, treatment as Blair would receive from an over-stretched staff, especially now that he was entering the recovery stage of care and had been moved out of Intensive Care.
As Blair relaxed against the pillows, Jim lightly stroked Sandburg's brow as he soothed, "That's it, Chief. You're all right." Once he was assured that his friend was breathing okay and that the spasm had passed, Jim turned his attention back to overseeing the preparations for Sandburg's transfer onto the gurney.
Blair rolled his eyes and weakly shook his head. Taking care to speak slowly so as to not further irritate his lung, he argued a little breathlessly, "I need to be in a rehab facility, man, maybe for months! God, Jim, I can't even get out of the bed! I'm helpless! You seriously do NOT need this."
Jim nodded absently, signaling that he was listening, even as he supervised the guys who were readying to shift Blair from the bed. With all the weights and lines of the traction on both legs to be dealt with, it was a slow, complicated procedure.
"Are you listening to me?" Blair demanded, his eyes tracking back and forth between the men working around the bed and Jim.
Jim's eyes flicked up to him, a perfectly serious expression on his face as he avowed, "I always listen to you, Chief."
Snorting, Sandburg shook his head. "I wish," he mumbled. "Look," he tried again, trying to sound eminently reasonable. "You have much better things to do than be cooped up at home with me for weeks on end! And the loft! Oh, man, think of the disruption, the confusion…this isn't going to work."
A confused expression played across Jim's face, as he asked with simple sincerity, "Don't you want to come home?"
The fight went out of Blair and he sagged on the bed; his left arm, which had been waving to punctuate his remarks, fell to his side. "Ah, Jim," he sighed, his voice hoarse. "That's not fair, man. You know I want to go home. But--you're going to hate this, hate taking care of me…I don't want you to end up hating me…"
"Never happen, Chief," Jim reassured him with a serene smile as he patted Blair's shoulder, his attention momentarily again distracted to ensure the lines and weights didn't get tangled and that tension was maintained to hold Blair's legs steady and straight. When there was no response, he flicked a glance back down at Sandburg--silence from a typically babbling Guide wasn't usually a good sign.
At the look he found on his partner's face, he shut away the confusion around them and squatted down, so that his eyes were even with Blair's as he said steadily, "You want to come home. I want you to come home. This isn't just for you; it's for me, too. For the both of us. I know what is needed and for how long. I want to do this for you. Please, don't fight me on this."
Blair gazed steadily into his best friend's eyes, and the intensity of the love that burned there for him, and the naked need to do this, to care for him and ensure his safety, took his breath away. He had to bite his lip to keep it from trembling and blink against the burning in his eyes. God, so much of the time, Jim was remote and abrupt, even cold. So often, he seemed almost to resent the necessary intrusion of the anthropologist into his life, as he deeply resented the need to be helped. Jim was a loner; it hadn't been easy for him to accept a partner, much less a roommate--let alone someone he'd never, even in his wildest nightmares, have imagined knowing as more than a suspect in some crime. He didn't express emotion easily, in any way except, maybe, touch. Words…well, soft words of caring or gratitude anyway, often seemed to get stuck in his throat.
But, at rare, never-to-be-forgotten moments like this, Blair felt the surety of the other man's love for him, and the commitment Jim felt toward their friendship, wash all the doubts and uncertainties away. Like a warm, gentle wave backed by the everlasting power of the ocean, it swept over and through him, touching his heart and soul with a strong, unhesitating and unwavering promise that Blair could count on, for the whole of his life. Overwhelmed, overcome, Sandburg could only nod and then whisper huskily, "Okay, Jim. Thanks, man."
Patting his shoulder, satisfied, Ellison stood and continued to oversee the move that would bring his incapacitated partner back home--where he belonged.
The transfer was exhausting, particularly for Sandburg. By the time they'd rolled the gurney into the loft, he could only gape at the metal monstrosity in the middle of the living room. A three-quarter sized hospital-type mattress, but thinner and already covered with softly laundered, fresh-smelling sheets, was held within a frame that would hold the traction steady but allow the bed to be rotated. Once on it, Blair could be securely strapped and rolled onto his stomach at regular intervals to look at the floor and ease the pressure on his back. There were mirrors attached and angled so that whether right side up or upside down, he could see around the whole apartment, even though he'd be always be held immobile in the bed.
They shifted Blair, as gently as they could, from the wheeled stretcher onto his new resting place, and then set about restoring the lines and weights of the necessary traction on both legs. He was pale and trembling, his jaw clenched, his eyes tightly shut, and his lips slightly parted in a tight line as he panted against the pain that arced like fire through his whole body. Despite his best efforts, the odd whimper escaped along with a single tear that etched its way down his colorless cheek.
Jim stood by him, holding tightly to his hand, gently stroking his brow and head, as the men worked around them. Ellison felt a sharp shaft of pain in his own gut, and his chest was tight with the sorrow of watching Sandburg suffer so, and not being able to ease it. But, finally, the EMTs were done; their gear packed up and loaded on the now empty gurney.
"Thanks, guys," Jim said quietly as he showed them to the door and closed it behind them. Swallowing, he turned back to Sandburg, and the insulated carafe of cool water beside the small bottles of pills placed in easy reach on a side table at the head of the bed. Without asking, he shook out what was needed to combat the pain and half filled a glass with water. Turning back to Blair, he eased his friend's head up, holding out the pill and, when it was wordlessly accepted, he held the water to Sandburg's lips to help him drink. Then, he settled his partner back onto the pillow and adjusted the soft flannel sheet and light woolen blanket that covered him.
Moving quietly around the loft, letting his best friend cope with the pain in peace and privacy, he punched on a soothing environmental CD that was already loaded on the player, and lit a couple of the vanilla and cinnamon candles before going into the kitchen to brew a pot of Sandburg's favorite mint tea.
Blair concentrated on his breathing and tried to relax the muscles that had spasmed in his body. The scent of the candles surrounded him, familiar and soothing, encouraging deeper, slower breaths as he gradually relaxed into the pain and then felt the slight euphoria of the medication as it took hold. The sounds of wind and the wash of waves, together with the light trills of bird song, worked even more magic. He blew out a long slow breath and then another, and decided that he might just live after all. Blinking, he looked up to see Jim standing beside him, a steaming mug of tea in his hand.
"You want to stay flat, or would you like your head up a little?" Jim asked.
"Um, up a little, if you don't mind," Blair replied, feeling a bit dizzy.
Once the bed was adjusted, Jim gave the mug to Blair, helping to hold it in his left hand and move it to his lips, until Jim was sure his grip was steady.
Blair took a sip, sighed and smiled softly. "Thanks, man," he murmured gratefully. "I needed that."
With a short nod, looking like he'd just won some great honor, Jim turned away and settled in his own chair by the foot of Blair's bed. From there, he could see Sandburg and the whole apartment, including the door to the outside hallway, the balcony doors and the hall to the back. It was the perfect place to keep unobtrusive, instinctive watch.
Blair smiled a little as he realized that, and then his eyes lifted to check out the changes to the living room. The television was still by the fireplace, the bookcase against the wall. The loveseat was gone, but the sofa paralleled the balcony doors, so he would be facing anyone who might come to visit, and could still see outside with no effort. Glancing up at the mirrors on either side of his bed, he could see the kitchen and the dining table, and the door to the hall. Looking to the side, he could see the door to his own room, and found the errant love seat, against the wall under the stairs.
"God, Jim, did you do all this yourself?" he asked, his voice weak and thready with exhaustion, humbled and amazed at the care that had been taken for his comfort and sense of inclusion. Jim could have easily just stuck him back in his small room and not have disrupted the entire loft.
"Yeah, well, the nurses were getting tired of me hanging around all the time," Ellison replied with a diffident shrug, pleased by the glow in Sandburg's eyes. But his pallor was worrying, and Jim could still hear the rattle of lingering infection in his lungs.
"Not hardly," Sandburg teased, his words slurred a little by the medication, "I think a few of them wanted to tie you down in the next bed and have their way with you, man."
Jim snorted and then laughed at the image. Under different circumstances, and in a different milieu, he might have welcomed the attention from one or two of them. "So, what do you want to do?" he asked his roommate, wanting Blair to feel as much in control as was possible in his situation. "Watch a little TV? Have a snooze? Look through some of the thousand and one get well cards that have arrived for you?"
Blair's eyes lost focus as he tried to make his way through the choices, but his lids were drooping and Jim stood to rescue the still half-full cup of tea. As Sandburg slipped into sleep, Ellison murmured, "Welcome home, Chief."
The next three days were a haze for Sandburg as he drifted in and out of heavy sleep. Blair's temperature spiked again briefly, but enough to alarm Ellison who spent a sleepless twenty-four hours bathing his skin to keep him cool until the fever finally broke. For most of those three days, Sandburg only woke when the coughing spasms attacked, bringing searing agony with them. He'd blink against the light, trying to get his breath and find Jim there, always there, bracing him, encouraging him, soothing away the fear.
Patiently, Jim fed him nourishing broths and juices--even when he was still more than half asleep--to keep up his strength and fluid levels, to ensure the fever and infection didn't dehydrate his body. Ellison cared for Blair with skillful competence--more, with devoted tenderness--only taking short breaks for himself to sleep in the chair by the bed, instantly awake when Sandburg needed him.
The Sentinel kept watch, oblivious of his own weariness, focused only on the needs of his Guide. Holding his hand, or gently stroking Sandburg's brow or cheek, murmuring soft words, Jim reassured the younger man when he was restless, made anxious by his illness. With quiet dedication, he tended to whatever was needed, using his strength and skill to change linens and shift Blair's limp body with studious care and wordless devotion.
And if the Sentinel wept quietly in the night, aching with the wish that there was more he could do for Sandburg than watch and wait for Blair to get stronger, wishing with all his soul that his Guide might have been spared this suffering, who was to know?
But, gradually, Blair grew stronger; waking for longer periods of alertness, color coming back into his cheeks. Eyes dulled by illness and relentless pain began to clear and sparkle again. But it was still another couple of days before Sandburg was really aware enough to begin expressing concern about how much trouble he was being, and wonder how long he'd been 'out of it'. Jim just smiled and shook his head--told him not to worry about it. Squeezing the kid's shoulder lightly, Ellison said that the important thing was that he was getting better.
'Important thing'? In the Sentinel's world, right then, that was the only 'thing' that mattered.
And, finally, four weeks since the night they'd cut Blair out of the Suburban, Jim began to believe that it was really true. He wasn't just holding his own any more--Sandburg was finally beginning to show definite signs of improvement.
Though Sandburg continued to get stronger, it wasn't easy; far from it. Now that he was more lucid again, five days after coming home, there were new hurdles to climb, those of embarrassed helplessness, followed almost immediately by irritated dependency.
"Oh, man," Blair gritted, flushing bright red and not quite meeting Jim's eyes.
"The urinal or the pan?" Jim asked, matter-of-factly.
His shoulders tight, his head down, Sandburg mumbled, "Both, I guess…"
"Coming right up," Jim replied easily as he moved into the bathroom to warm and dry the metal receptacles before bringing them into the living room and deftly positioning them for use.
"God, I hate this," Blair muttered, still unable to look at his friend. "How can you stand…"
"I was a medic, Junior," Jim interrupted. "There's nothing you have or can do that I haven't seen before. Relax, it's no big deal."
"Oh, yeah, it is," Sandburg mumbled, still blushing as he tried to relax and do his 'business'. "It's a really big deal."
Scratching his cheek as he moved to the balcony windows to give his roommate some modicum of privacy, staring out at the city, Jim answered easily, "It's just like in the hospital, Chief. No different. Elimination of waste is a natural function of the body. Don't worry about it…or I'll end up having to give you an enema."
Surprised, Sandburg barked out a laugh. "In your dreams," he shot back, but the laugh had relaxed him. "Okay, I'm done," he muttered shortly afterward, blushing again as Jim turned to remove the evidence and clean him up.
Ellison could feel the heat of humiliation radiate from his best friend's skin and sighed. "You didn't blush like this when the nurses…"
"They were NURSES," Blair cut in, shaking his head, gritting his teeth to endure the attention of his friend's hands on his body. "It was their job, and I'm kinda getting used to having to have this kind of help in the hospital. Though that's probably not a good thing, now that I think about it. But I digress. They weren't sentinels, with heightened senses so that this has got to be disgusting, or my best friend, partner and roommate who has NEVER before now touched or, er, anyway…never had to take care of me like I'm some kind of helpless baby and it's not just for a day or even a week…this is going to go on and on until I can get my legs back, or at the very least until I'm rid of this damned cast on my arm…
"Breathe, Junior," Jim suggested as he settled Blair against freshly turned, cool pillows and adjusted the sheet before turning to dispose of the waste.
"Jiimmm!" Blair wailed at the flat interruption. "I really, really, really hate making you do this stuff for me. I mean, I've been able to go to the bathroom by myself since I was a really little kid, you know? And you're a cop, man, not a nurse. I can't believe you aren't disgusted…"
Returning from the bathroom, Jim finished drying his hands and threw the towel over his shoulder. Then he went to the kitchen to fill a basin with not too hot water, picked up a bar of soap and returned to Sandburg's side.
"Time for your morning bath, Einstein," he said, cutting into Sandburg's protests, as he set the bowl down and flipped the sheet down to Sandburg's waist before moving to undo the strings of the gown behind his neck.
Huffing, Blair asked, "Morning bath? It's the middle of the afternoon. Did you hear anything of what I just said?"
"Yep, heard all of it," Jim confirmed as he dipped a cloth in the water and wrung it out. Looking up to meet Blair's gaze, he continued, "In case you've already forgotten, you slept all morning, so you missed getting your bath. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, about you or taking care of you that is disgusting. So can it, Chief. I know you hate being helpless, but there's nothing either of us can do about that." With that, Jim lifted the cloth and thoroughly washed his Guide's face.
Blair spluttered and blinked once the cloth was removed, rinsed and brought back to gently rinse off the soap. Shaking his head a little, he watched Jim wash what he could reach of the right arm above the cast and then the left, before moving to wash shoulders, neck and upper chest above the bandages.
"I think I'll be able to leave these off when I check the wound later," Jim murmured quietly as he lightly touched the bandage, and then moved the sheet lower to wash Blair's abdomen. Pulling the sheet back up, he moved down to the foot of the bed and carefully, gently, washed Sandburg's toes and then moved up to his thighs, above the casts. "Want to 'finish' it yourself?" he asked with just the hint of a teasing smile.
Blair held out his left hand and 'finished', all the while shaking his head and muttering under his breath, too low even for sentinel hearing.
"What was that, Chief?" Jim asked, maddeningly calm. "I didn't quite catch it."
Sighing as he held the cloth to his friend, Blair replied quietly. "I said this is a big deal, Jim. I can't believe you really want to do this for me."
Taking the cloth, Jim called back over his shoulder as he moved to the bathroom to get the shaving kit. "Believe it, Sandburg. You'd do the same for me and don't even try to pretend you wouldn't."
"Yeah, well, but…" Blair stammered, but desisted and thought about that. Yes, he would. No question. Because he loved Jim and would always do everything in his power to help Jim when he needed it.
Coming back, Ellison made short work of lathering Blair's face. As he began to shave his friend, he observed with a certain superior air, "At least as a medic, I actually know what I'm doing, whereas you'd only be able to offer good intentions…"
"Weally?" Blair tried to sound offended but, as Jim was holding his nose and pulling the skin of his cheek tight, the reply was ridiculously nasal.
"Really," Ellison replied, but then grinned, his eyes dancing with merriment. Ruffling his partner's curls, he went back to concentrate on shaving the rough stubble from Sandburg's face and neck.
Though Blair had any number of witty comebacks, he decided that, with the sharp blade of a straight razor scraping along the skin of his throat, that perhaps--just this once--discretion was the better part of valor.
Still more tired than he wanted to let on, and far weaker than he'd ever admit, Sandburg fell back to sleep before Jim was finished shaving his face.
Later, Blair woke up to find that his bed had been 'flipped' and he was now facing the floor-which was singularly uninteresting. Though Sandburg knew he must have been in this position any number of times over the last how many days, it was the first time that he was aware enough to notice how constraining it really was. His whole body was strapped to the mattress by a firm, webbed net that held him securely without crushing him--he couldn't move if his life depended on it. Blair blew out a breath and then another as he tested the restraints that bound him to the bed and kept gravity from having its way with him.
Jim noticed but continued to read the newspaper.
Another heavy sigh, almost a snort.
"Did you want something, Sandburg?" Jim asked.
"I can't move, man," Blair grated, though the irritation only thinly covered a deeper anxiety. "I'm tied to this damned thing and I--can't--move."
"That's the idea, Chief," Jim soothed as he rustled the paper while turning a page, ever so eminently reasonable. "If you could move, you'd fall out."
Blair swallowed, and tried to fight the anxiety that was building at the feeling of being utterly trapped. It was bad enough when he was on his back, but then at least he could tell himself that, if absolutely necessary, he could roll off the bed and onto the floor and haul his ass to the door, like if he had to, if there was a fire, or…no, don't think about it. Breathe.
The rioting heartbeat and shallow breaths caught the Sentinel's attention and he set the paper aside, to move to squat where Blair could see him by looking in one of the mirrors. "What is it, Blair? What's wrong?" he asked quietly.
"I…I'm trapped here, man," Blair replied, his voice thin and high. "Like, if I really, really had to, I still couldn't get out. What if…what if…"
"Whoa, easy," Jim consoled, hearing the fear, understanding it as he shifted to kneel so that he could comfortably touch both Blair's face and shoulder. "If you ever had to get out of there, I promise, I'd have you out in a heartbeat. You're safe, Blair. Nothing is going to hurt you."
"But--you can't be here all the time…"
"Sure I can," Jim affirmed. "And if something really required me to leave for a while, Simon or Joel or one of the other guys would be here with you. You're safe."
Ellison felt the trembling under his hands settle as Blair's heartbeat and breathing slowed.
"I hate this," Sandburg sighed.
"I know," Jim murmured.
"Sorry for being a wimp," Blair muttered.
"You're not a wimp," Jim objected fondly. "You're the bravest man I know."
Sandburg's breathing hitched at that. His voice very low, Blair finally asked what he'd been afraid to ask ever since Jim had insisted that he was coming home. It was easier somehow, to ask when he couldn't see Jim's face. "You're not--you're not doing this 'cause you feel guilty, are you? 'Cause, we talked about that--and you don't owe me anything…"
Ellison settled himself on the floor at an angle where he could look up into Blair's eyes. "No, Chief, I'm not doing this because I feel guilty," he said as honestly as he could, knowing this was important. "I'll admit, I hate that you have to suffer like this for what you did to save my life. I don't want you to ever do anything like that again--but I'm grateful. I always will be. But, guilty? No. I stopped feeling guilty about it a while ago."
Blair nodded as much as the retaining strap around his forehead would let him. "How long is it going to be like this, Jim? How long before I can take care of myself?" he asked, his voice small and hollow, for the first time bringing himself to ask for the details he'd been dreading to hear and consciously avoiding.
Rubbing his neck, Jim studied his partner's body as he answered, "Your back, chest and abdominal injuries are just about all healed, though it'll be as much as a year before you get your full energy and endurance back. That's common and only to be expected from such major damage and surgery. Your concussion healed weeks ago. The cast can come off your arm at the end of next week, but the legs, well…another two months for your right leg and at least a month and maybe more after that for the left one, before you can get rid of those casts."
Looking up at Blair, who was watching him intently, he continued, "We need to get started on the PT soon, to do as much as we can to keep your muscles from atrophying and your ligaments from tightening up. It's going to be hard work, and it's often going to hurt. But it's necessary. Once the casts come off, it'll be easier 'cause you'll be able to get around on your own--sleep in your own bed--but it'll be far from over, even then. It's going to take time and patience, Chief."
"A long time…" Blair whispered, his gaze drifting away as he struggled with the narrow reality that his life had become.
Ellison studied him for a moment, waiting to see if the kid would say anything more. It was hard to see that look of resignation creep over Sandburg's face, a weary sense of simply having to endure. When the silence continued, he shifted, ready to move back to his chair, when his motion was stilled by Blair's voice.
"Jim?" Sandburg called softly, shifting his eyes to once again meet the detective's gaze.
"Thanks, man…thanks for wanting me here and for…well, for being willing to take care of me…"
A smile tugged at the corner of Jim's mouth as gazed into those huge eyes, dark now with uncertainty about the future and shadowed by pain.
"You don't ever need to thank me, Blair," Ellison said quietly. "I want you here--I need to be able to take care of you, to know you're safe with me. Don't worry. It'll take time, but eventually, you're going to be okay."
"Blessed Protector, huh?" Blair murmured fondly.
"Yeah, I guess," Jim replied, reflective, uncertain, having no words to describe his driving instinctive need to have Sandburg where he could take care of him personally, watch over him, protect him. "Whatever it is, I just need to know you're safe."
"Owowowowow!" Sandburg complained loudly as he tried to lift his back up from the mattress a week later. Jim had decided he was well and strong enough to begin the necessary physical therapy to strengthen muscles sorely weakened by more than the month of enforced complete bed rest since the 'accident'. As he strained his abdominal muscles, his left arm looped around Jim's neck with Jim's large, strong hands supporting his back as he lifted a little at a time, he felt pain in his legs and pelvic area, his ribs and back…and stomach.
"Complaining isn't going to make it any easier," Ellison observed dryly. "C'mon, you can do it. Watch your breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth, deeply…slowly…"
"Easy for you to say," Blair grated, grunting as he tightened his abdominal muscles and pulled his upper body up to lean against Jim, panting from the effort. "God! I'm as weak…as a kitten!"
"So long as you don't scratch or bite, Tiger, we'll get along fine," Jim chuckled.
Blair snorted, and then began the torturous exercise of lying slowly back down again.
The guys had dropped in to visit on a regular basis the first week and continued do so in the weeks following, but didn't stay long at first, finding it awkward to know what to say, and only too aware of the pain still lurking in the kid's eyes in the brief periods when he was awake. But, the day the arm cast was removed, eighteen days after he'd come home, the doctor coming to the loft as that was far easier than transporting Sandburg to the hospital, they'd planned a celebration.
For the first time in the weeks since he'd been hurt, Jim and Blair were going to host what had become a regular poker night with the other guys. Jim shifted the table so that it was beside the bed and arranged the chairs around it. Simon arrived first with his arms full of bags of chips and the other absolutely essential munchies. Joel wasn't far behind him with a case of beer. And then Rafe and H came together, also heavily laden with bags of food for sandwiches later and another case of beer.
"Hey, Hairboy!" H called out merrily as Jim divested them of their coats and Simon carried their bags into the kitchen. "Guess a game of strip poker wouldn't be fair…you're all but butt naked already, kid!"
Rolling his eyes, Blair grinned into the mirror as he drawled to the tall man still by the door behind him, "What makes you think I'd be the one left with my ass hanging in the wind?"
Rafe and Simon snorted, while Jim just shook his head. Before long, they were all ensconced around the table, studying their hands and anteing up.
It was a good night, filled with the easy laughter of friends. And Sandburg had been right…he wasn't the one who lost that night.
"You got aces hidden under them sheets?" H demanded, throwing in another losing hand. He scowled, but his eyes danced good-naturedly as he helped Jim sweep up Sandburg's winnings into the growing pile on the kid's side of the table.
"Nope," Blair snickered. "Just live a good, clean life…"
"Yeah, well as the guy helping you to live clean, Junior, you could leave a few shekels with me," Jim groused with a mock glare.
No longer self-conscious about having to rely upon Jim, Blair just grinned unrepentantly at his best friend, and his best friend grinned right back.
But, as the evening drew on, Jim kept an eye on his partner. When he saw the lines of strain appear around Blair's eyes and mouth, and the darkening shadows of unadmitted pain and exhaustion, he called the last game. The guys lingered a little longer over coffee and sandwiches, but then took their leave. By the time Simon slipped on his jacket, Blair was already dozing.
"I know it's going to be a while, yet," Simon said quietly. "But, damn, it's good to see him having a bit of fun, hear him laughing again."
"Yeah, I know," Jim rumbled, equally quietly. "He was so excited about everyone coming over tonight. Thanks, Simon…and thank the others, too."
Shrugging, Simon shook his head. "No thanks needed, Jim. We're all glad to see him getting better."
"I'm bored!" Sandburg whined as he threw a journal onto the floor. "There's nothing on TV except those mindless, blithering talk shows we've been watching for what? A month now? About why blondes have more fun, or how to do a facial properly or the shopping channel with all that crap that nobody wants or needs, and they probably can't afford, but buy anyway…"
"So, take a nap," Jim suggested, his eyes glued to the latest thriller by Grisham.
"If I sleep any more, I'll turn into Rip Van Winkle," Sandburg complained, stretching his arms, feeling distinctly stir-crazy.
"Could be…Sleeping Beauty, you're not," Ellison muttered, turning a page.
"Jiiimmm!" Blair cajoled. "Entertain me!"
"Huh? What?" Ellison asked, finally looking up. "Do I look like Ed Sullivan?"
Blair snickered at that image. "No, you don't…but I'm really bored, here, man. I've been reading and napping and watching crap on TV, and reading some more, and my legs ache and my back's sore…"
"If you could do anything you wanted without getting out of bed, what would it be?" Jim asked, a teasing light in his eyes. "Want me to call up one of your last hot dates and invite her over?"
Blair rolled his eyes as he sagged back against the mattress. "I wish…" he sighed. "But I don't think I'm quite up to those acrobatics yet." He sighed again, heavily.
"Want to play a game?" Jim asked.
Perking up, Blair asked, "A game? What game?"
"Well, I don't think you're quite up to the speed and dexterity required of a computer game, so how about scrabble or clue or a card game…cribbage, maybe?"
"All right!" Sandburg crowed. "Bring out the cards, man. I'm going to clean your clock!"
Jim snorted. But he set aside his book and went to get the board and the cards.
If the days were long, and often hard, however much Sandburg pretended he was doing 'just fine', the nights, even now, eight weeks since the accident, were longer and harder. In the darkness, Blair struggled to deal with the aching, gnawing pain in his legs and back, biting his lip when muscles cramped cruelly, trying not to awaken Jim, who needed his own uninterrupted sleep. The young man would bite on a sheet or his pillow to muffle moans, and swallow convulsively to choke back unwanted, humiliating tears of corrosive agony or weary frustration. Though his body was healing, the cost in energy and pain, the frustration and helplessness of dependency wore away at his spirit.
And then, quietly, with no fuss, he'd feel a strong hand gently soothe his brow, or massage the muscles of his back and thighs, easing away the cramps, letting him breathe easily again. Sensitive fingertips would brush the salty moisture from his cheeks and lift a cup of cool water to his lips while supporting his head.
"I'm sorry, man," Blair would sniff or choke out softly, his voice a tight whisper of pain and need.
"Shh," Jim would murmur, "let me help. Just rest…"
Wordlessly, Jim would straighten the bedclothes and make sure the pillows were giving the right support. He'd bring a warmed urinal without needing to be asked. He would massage Sandburg's aching back and shoulders, and softly, slowly stroke his brow and hair until the kid finally drifted into sleep. And then he'd return to his own bed, wishing with all his heart that he were the one recovering and suffering that pain rather than his partner and best friend. Wishing--as he lay on his back and stared up at the skylight, listening to the sharp hitches of breath and soft unconscious moans of pain that Sandburg would never give in to when he was awake--wishing with all his heart that there was more he could do to help.
In the days and weeks after that first poker game in the loft, when the guys dropped in to visit Blair insisted that Jim use that time to get out of the loft, to shop or run or just go to the park to feed the ducks, anything to get some fresh air and peace away from the chaos of the loft and the presence of an immobile and increasingly twitchy grad student who rarely stopped babbling. Just because he was literally chained to the bed and the indoors, Sandburg didn't see why Jim had to be locked away inside and condemned to servitude for the duration, without even the briefest of breaks.
Jim hesitated to go, but when he realized how important it was to Blair to see him 'get a break', he went. He'd pick up a few supplies from the store, and sometimes he rambled in the park, but mostly he ran when he was away from the loft. Ran to keep up his own muscle tone and stamina. Ran to avoid looking at the sky and trees and flowers and all the things that Blair couldn't see right now. Ran because if he kept moving fast enough, very few people noticed that the big man racing past them had tears on his cheeks.
Ran until he was exhausted.
And then he'd slump against a tree, his arms crossed tight against his body as he slid to the ground and covered his face, hoping that might block out the images of a crushed Suburban or the bloody, crumpled body inside. Or the sounds of Blair whimpering almost soundlessly in the night as he bit down on the edge of his pillow to stifle the cries of distress from the relentless pain that wracked his body all the time, but was hardest to endure in the darkness. It tore something inside to see Sandburg hurting, to hear it, to smell the salt of tears he tried so hard not to cry. It hurt deeply to see his best friend suffering like this for having saved his life. Oh, he'd been honest enough when he'd told his partner than he'd stopped feeling guilty. He had-he accepted that Sandburg had acted out of love and commitment, selflessness and with a terrifying courage. But it still hurt to know that the kid was suffering so badly and so long for the simple reason that he loved one Jim Ellison and would risk anything to keep Jim Ellison safe.
No one had ever loved Jim like that. No one had ever thought he mattered that much, that he was worth any sacrifice. It humbled him and overwhelmed him, and left him feeling so immensely grateful that he ached with it. That crazy bohemian kid with the wild mane of hair, who rarely shut up even when he was asleep, so brilliant it was scary, had blown into his life…and hadn't turned it upside down, but had finally made sense of it. Jim had loved many people in his life, but he'd never felt the need to take care of someone the way he felt protective of Sandburg; keeping the kid safe was a driving imperative in his life.
And he'd tried. God, he'd tried. Rubbing his eyes with heels of his palms, he remembered the day Sandburg had been hurt-how abrupt and cold, how downright miserable he had been because the kid had been late. Like it was tantamount to the world ending, or some damned thing. But it wasn't annoyance, not really. It was the irritation and temper borne of a constant feeling of fear and resentment that he needed Blair with him and, in needing him, had to take the kid into danger time and time again--danger he only too obviously could not always protect Sandburg from.
Shaking his head, pushing himself to his feet, Jim told himself he could only do his best and hope something like this never happened to Sandburg again. As he jogged slowly toward home, he reflected on how Blair seemed to feel guilty for needing the care and attention, for requiring Jim to 'slave' over him, as Sandburg put it. The kid didn't seem to grasp that not only was there no choice--that Jim couldn't conceive of being anywhere else or doing anything else--but that he didn't want to be doing anything but what he was doing. All Jim could do was try to ease some of his pain, keep Blair as comfortable as possible and work with Sandburg to restore strength and resilience to his body. He didn't resent it or wish someone else could take care of Sandburg for him. How could he ever not want to be there, to ease pain when he could? Or see the glow of health coming back into his friend's cheeks and body…sparkling in his eyes or blazing from his smile? Jim only wished he could do more, could wave some kind of magic wand and make Blair whole again, complete, without the suffering and without the helplessness that Sandburg despised so much.
The thing was, Jim Ellison loved Blair Sandburg and he knew it. Loved the kid like he might have loved Steven if their lives and childhood had been different. Loved him like he'd loved his men, who had followed him into the mountain jungles of Peru and died. Loved Sandburg the way he'd loved Danny Choi. Loved him like all of the people he'd ever cared about, only more so. As if all the love he'd ever felt for anyone was now all coalesced into the pure flame that burned in his heart for Sandburg, that filled his chest and brought light into his life. There wasn't anything in the whole world that Jim wouldn't do for Sandburg, and do gladly.
Taking a breath, he'd jog up the stairs to the loft, and he'd be smiling when he pushed open the door--smiling because he was happy to be home where the sound of Sandburg's laughter lightened his heart and gladdened his soul.
Three months after the fateful night in the alley, the cast on his right leg was removed. Blair had been working out with light weights for the last six weeks to restore the muscle to his arms; the steel triangle dangling from a chain linked to a bar over his head helped him do his stretches, sit-ups and to lift himself to help Jim tend to his needs. Not perfect by a long shot…but a whole lot better than life had been at first.
As soon as the cast was off, Jim started working his right leg. Stretching, bending, lifting, pushing to give resistance against the sole of Blair's foot while Sandburg pushed back, working the kid until Sandburg's skin glowed with healthy sweat and he was panting with the effort.
"God! You're a slave driver," Sandburg huffed one day a week or so later. "Enough!"
Jim quirked a disapproving brow as he straightened and crossed his arms; but then he sniffed ostentatiously and scrunched up his face. "Maybe you're right," he allowed, pinching his nose. "You stink pretty bad."
"You shit!" Blair snorted, throwing a pillow at him as Ellison, laughing, ducked away to get the basin of water, soap and towel, to give Sandburg his bed bath. The younger man insisted on doing as much for himself as he could, while Jim acted as handmaiden, soaking and rinsing and wringing out the cloth, passing the towel when it was wanted. But Jim still had to wash and dry his feet and legs for him.
Blair leaned back into the support of the mattress he had long ago begun to loathe as he watched his best friend work patiently to ensure his comfort. "Only a couple more weeks, Jim, and I can give you your manumission. It's been really great having a slave, but I bet you'll be glad to be a free man again," he said dryly.
Jim just shrugged and kept drying Blair's leg. The skin was pale and dry, the muscle wasted. It was going to take time for Sandburg to be really fit again. If Blair thought that he'd be able to be 'normal' once the last cast was off, he was due to crash in major disappointment.
"I know you don't like me to thank you, Jim…but I really am grateful, man, for everything," Blair continued quietly.
Setting aside the towel, Jim grabbed a bottle of skin lotion and squeezed it into his hands, warming it before he began to massage the thick moisturizing cream into the dry skin. His eyes on his task, he finally replied, "I know you are, Chief, grateful, I mean," he replied equally quietly. "And I also know how tough this has been for you. Lying around like this, not able to do for yourself, suffering cabin fever…you haven't complained, you know. Not really. Not once. You've made it as easy as you could."
Blair blew out a breath, thinking of all those dark nights when he'd not been able to suppress the whimpers of pain or to sniff back the tears of frustration or hurt that just wouldn't be resisted. Thought about his fists clenching the sheets, or biting down on the blanket to keep from screaming out his rage and frustration at being so endlessly helpless. Thought of Jim, appearing quietly beside him to soothe and do all that he could to take away the pain, all the different kinds of pain. He'd never have imagined the gentleness at the core of this big, tough, man. He never would have thought that hands that could be so brisk, even rough, as he subdued a felon, could also be so kind, and even tender. Not once, not in all the weeks, had Jim ever given him cause to feel embarrassed or a burden. Not one single moment had there been a look or sound or expression of irritation or unspoken wish to be somewhere else.
The scientist in Blair recognized the upside--that this whole situation had allowed the Sentinel to bond with his Guide in a profound way. Jim knew every inch of his body now. Knew his every sound and scent. Had, in a primeval way, staked claim to Blair's body as his own, every bit as much as Jim's own body was his own. The anthropologist knew the Sentinel needed this. Needed to safeguard and protect, care for and nurture his Guide. It was instinctive, even irresistible.
But the man that Blair Sandburg was, was overwhelmed by the love, the unconditional love and care that was lavished upon him, patiently, without any hesitation or reluctance. It blew him away, beyond anything he'd ever experienced in his life. He felt humbled by it…and certainly unworthy. But he also felt validated in a way he'd never known. There was nothing that was too much for Jim to offer, nothing he could ever ask and feel Jim would not respond wholeheartedly, even gladly. Sandburg's chest felt full and tight with the emotion that thrummed in his heart. He swallowed and hesitated, but then he whispered, "I love you, too, Jim. God, man…so much even I don't have words for it…"
Jim's hands paused on his leg as his whole body stilled. Wordlessly, he swallowed and blinked, and then lifted his gaze to Blair's steady wide eyes, so infinitely blue, so candid and honest. Finally, Ellison found his voice, though it was rough with emotion. "I know," he murmured softly. "Thank you."
And then he went back to his ministrations.
Blair shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. Jim was thanking him. For being loved. Sandburg had seen in the depths of those blue eyes, eyes that could be so cold they were chilling and scary, eyes that were guarded almost always…he'd seen how moved Jim was by his words. How almost startled and disbelieving he was, grateful and finally accepting but still as if he thought it all a mystery he couldn't understand. God, how much has that man been hurt in his life? Blair thought. I swear--I swear he'll always be safe with me, he vowed silently. God…how did I ever rate a friend like him?
Blair could hardly contain his excitement. It had been more than nineteen weeks since he'd been crushed in Jim's truck. Almost five full months since he'd been out of a bed and able to move around on his own two legs. But this was the big day--the day when he rid himself of the last hateful cast, when the metal monstrosity in the living room could be banished. He wouldn't be tied down any longer and he'd have his own room back. He'd be able to get out of the loft and see the world again, be part of it, to walk and even run. Hell, he'd be able to go to the bathroom on his own, and what heaven that would be! Whatever. This was the day when both he and Jim got their freedom back.
Jim could literally feel the excitement thrumming from Sandburg, palpable energy, his friend's face flushed with anticipation, eyes sparkling, impatient to be finally free of the traction that tied him down. H and Rafe had agreed to be at the loft to meet the guys who would dismantle and haul away the bed and then put the furniture back into place while Jim followed the ambulance bearing Blair back to the hospital to have the cast removed and final x-rays taken to confirm the healing of the bones. As he drove, Jim was conscious of a feeling of dread deep in his gut. Sandburg was too excited. When he found out how weak his leg still was, how he'd still need crutches for a while and how painful PT was going to be in restoring wasted muscle--well, the disappointment was going to be a big letdown for someone who just ached to dance.
It all went like clockwork and the x-rays looked good--even great. Blair had grinned like a kid on Christmas morning as they cut off the cast, but the wide smile had wavered a bit when he saw the thin, wasted leg, and the ugliness of the scar. He took a breath and nodded when the doctor assured him it would fade in time. And crutches? Hey, why would he need crutches? His leg was healed, right?
Jim was there to catch him when he almost fell on his face, proving that he needed crutches after all. It hurt Jim to see the flare of pain and confusion in Sandburg's eyes as his leg gave way on him, and the embarrassment that quickly followed, with the painful flush burning in his cheeks to have acted so foolishly, so hopefully, in front of him and the doctor, to see the bright sparkle in those eyes dim.
They went directly to the Sports Clinic, to begin the serious business of physical therapy in professional surroundings. Sure, Jim had had Blair working out as much as possible on the bed, but it wasn't the same. Both legs needed work, as did the rest of his body, to get back into the casual and carefree fitness Sandburg had enjoyed before he'd nearly gotten himself killed in that back alley.
Blair paid attention to everything the therapist told them, his face a mask of grim resolution. But Jim could read the anger and the frustration. The kid had endured all those weeks in the bed by holding onto the belief that at the end of them he'd be able to walk. Now he was furious that he couldn't. Not yet. Not easily or without support.
When they finally got back to the loft, Blair thumped in awkwardly and stood a moment in silence as Jim helped him off with his jacket while he gazed around the restored living room. Then he hitched his way across the floor to his room, where he closed the door.
Jim looked around the room then, seeing it as the kid had just seen it. Restored. Back to normal. It had to hurt, because Blair was a long way yet from being fully restored and back to normal.
Sighing, Jim got a beer and went out onto the balcony, determined to give Blair space and privacy. But he could still hear the racing heart, and the telltale hitch in breathing, the sniffs as Sandburg fought the urge to weep in anger and frustration. Maybe even in fear, wondering if he would ever, really, be whole again. Not wanting Jim to know he was afraid or upset, not wanting Jim to feel badly about it, because his life was still a mess, because he'd made a fateful decision to put his own life on the line to save Jim's.
Ellison took it as long as he could, but then turned back into the loft and padded to Blair's door. He knocked softly and then went in, not waiting for permission, knowing it wasn't likely to be forthcoming.
Blair was sitting on the edge of the bed, curled forward, his hair hiding his face and his arms crossed around his body. Quietly, Jim sat down beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. They sat like that a long time.
"You told me," Sandburg finally murmured, "you told me that there'd still be a lot of work."
Jim shrugged a little and just squeezed his shoulder gently.
"I wasn't listening, I guess," Blair continued, his voice raw with hurt. "I just wanted so badly…" His words caught and his breathing hitched as he sniffed again and brushed at his eyes.
"I know," Jim rumbled, low and soothing. "It's just going to take a little more time."
Sandburg blew out a bitter breath and nodded. "I guess." Making an effort to see the upside, he manfully straightened his shoulders and lifted his head. "Well, at least I can make it to the bathroom on my own, even if showers still seem to be lost in the mists of the future. And, hey, at least the loft is put back together."
"You'll be put back together, too, Chief," Jim replied, studying his young friend. "It won't be much longer."
"Like Humpty-Dumpty, huh?" Blair tried to joke, but then faltered, remembering that they hadn't been able to put Humpty back together again. "How much more time, Jim? How much longer is this going to take?"
"Realistically?" Ellison mused, thinking about it. "You won't need the crutches for more than a couple of weeks, and then a cane for a while after that. But--you were really badly hurt, Chief. To get all your energy back? To feel completely well again, well, it'll be a few months yet."
"Months," Blair echoed with a sigh, shaking his head.
"You're going to be okay, Chief," Jim promised, meaning it.
"Yeah, sure," Sandburg replied, no longer sounding convinced. He bowed his head again, wondering how he could ever admit to the fear he now felt. Fear he hadn't felt since that day back in the loft when he'd fully realized how helpless he was, how vulnerable. But he'd had Jim with him then, and been assured that Jim would take care of him, however much Blair might have wished the care hadn't ever been required in the first place.
But now, he would be able to get out on his own, and he wouldn't have Jim to lean on. And he still felt vulnerable--in a weird way, more vulnerable than he'd felt since the accident had happened. He was unsteady on his feet, ungainly and awkward. What if he fell and broke something else? God, the very of idea of returning to casts or traction, to being completely helpless again, cramped in his gut, leaving him feeling nauseous.
And he was afraid for the first time that maybe he'd never really make it all the way back.
But what scared him most of all, was how much he'd come to depend upon Jim and lost trust in his own capacity to handle whatever came at him on his own. He felt as if something was still broken inside, and that left him feeling uncertain and very, very fragile.
The PT progressed, the sessions long and painful as Blair exercised muscles that had atrophied and ligaments that had tightened. Often it hurt so much his eyes glazed with tears, and he was sweating heavily--utterly exhausted--when they were over. But he persevered, and was only too glad, a couple of weeks later, to toss away the crutches one day and limp out with just a cane. Then, a few weeks after that, he was able to limp out without the cane.
Jim was there, with him, encouraging him every step of the way. To support Sandburg's efforts toward greater mobility, Jim took him to the park and to the shore, to walk along forested paths or by the ocean, encouraging him, after he'd progressed well enough, to jog slowly, to run again.
Blair was grateful for the encouragement and the support--but he was also feeling very discouraged. No matter how hard he tried, he seemed always to be off-balance, awkward, liable to trip over his own feet. He knew his gait was disjointed and he couldn't seem to shake the limp. Everything was working. His arm and shoulder were fine, the muscles of his legs coming back to normal. Yeah, everything worked.
It was just that his limbs didn't seem to know how to work together any more.
It was scary, like he'd forgotten how to walk or run.
As time went on, he became more discouraged and frustrated, irritated and angry when Jim pushed him to do more, kept telling him that it was just a matter of time, that it would get better…that he'd get better.
"Look," he snapped one day, deeply tired, as they entered the loft after a particularly discouraging session. "I can walk, all right? I can even run, so I can keep up with you if I need to. So, let's just--settle, okay?"
"Settle? What do you mean, 'settle'?" Jim demanded, his eyes narrowing as he studied his partner.
"Settle! As in, accept that this is as good as it's going to get," Blair sighed, turning away.
"Oh, no," Jim argued, shaking his head. "That's not good enough."
"No?" Blair flared, whirling back, staggering a little with his uncertain balance. Waving a hand for emphasis, he shouted, "Well, I'm sorry I'm not good enough for the great Jim Ellison. That I'm not an athlete, or I look like a geek when I walk now, let alone run! I know you sacrificed months of your life to put me back together, and I feel really bad about not being good enough, but I'm tired, man! And I don't know what else to do! This is it! This is me--this is the best I can do now! So--deal with it. I have to."
Taken aback by the anger, the hurt words, the underlay of guilt and the sense of not being good enough… hearing the fear, Jim raised his hands in a gesture of calm. "Whoa, Chief, slow down here a minute. I didn't sacrifice anything--and this isn't about me. I know it's hard…"
"Yeah, sure you do," Sandburg muttered bitterly as he turned away, his shoulders slumped. "When was the last time you forgot how to walk like the normal person you used to be?"
Blowing out a breath, Jim licked his lips and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sandburg--I think, maybe, you need to do something that exercises the whole of your body at one time. You know, get everything working in unison. For months now, you've been concentrating on individual parts of your body at PT, but continuous motion is different…"
"Tell me about it," Sandburg sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Look, Jim, I know you want to help. And, you've been really great through all of this…"
"Something like swimming," Ellison cut in, not willing to give up.
"Swimming?" Blair repeated, looking up at him. If it were possible, the look on his face was even more despairing. "I can't…I can't," he struggled to explain. Taking a breath, aware of Jim's intent look of absolute concentration upon him, he finally managed, "I'm not good in the water, Jim. Something about putting my face under, I don't know. All my life, that's scared me. Like I'm going to drown or something. I can swim, I forced myself to learn how…but spend hours in the water? I don't think so."
Looking away, the younger man shook his head, a look of resignation on his face. "I'm sorry, Jim," he said quietly. "But--I think this is as good as I'm going to get…"
Despondently, Sandburg continued across the loft to his room and closed the door. It had been twenty-six weeks since the accident, and hard as it was to accept, Blair was seriously beginning to believe he was never going to get any better than he was in that moment.
Jim watched him go, and then looked away, worry etched on his face. Rubbing the back of his neck, he thought about his theory that Sandburg needed some activity that would require all the muscles of his body to work in tandem, flowing in motion, strong and graceful. He stilled as an idea occurred to him, frowning as he thought about it, and about all the surgeon had said during their many visits. He had assured them that, if anything, Sandburg's leg should be as good as, or even better than it had been, given the repairs that had been done.
Moving to the kitchen, Jim pulled out his small, personal book of phone numbers and then grabbed the portable phone from the wall, carrying both out onto the balcony. He punched in the numbers…
"Hello, this is Jim Ellison," he said then listened, his expression intent. "He's doing really good, but…but he needs something more. I don't know. His body isn't coordinated. He's off balance and awkward…and he's really discouraged, ready to give up trying anymore. I remembered that you'd said that if there was ever anything you could…"
Jim bowed his head as he listened, and a slow smile played around his lips. "His name is DesLoupes, and his number is 555--6820…I was hoping you'd say that…when do you think you can…I'll pick you…okay. Okay. See you when you get here. Uh, look, thanks…"
Jim terminated the call and stood looking sightlessly out over his city, hoping he hadn't just made a really big mistake.
For the next two days, Sandburg holed up in his room, working on his computer and claiming that he needed to get his lesson plans ready for the next term, when he'd resume his classes and responsibilities as a teaching fellow. Though he'd gratefully accepted Jim's help in covering his expenses during his 'downtime', Blair was determined to pay back every cent. The sooner he got back to work the better; so far as he was concerned, there wasn't any point in wasting any more time to drive his body to do what it very apparently could no longer do.
Sandburg forcibly pushed back his despair. He'd just have to deal with it. But--he wasn't sure how he was going to get used to the odd feeling of vulnerability he had now, or his fears that he wouldn't be able to keep up with Jim when they were chasing down some bad guys. He felt fragile and awkward, as if he might break again if he weren't careful. And, God knew, he didn't want to ever be broken again. The thought of spending any more months held captive and helpless in a bed made him feel physically ill. No, he'd just have to slow down, get used to his limitations, be careful. Just have to accept that this was the way it was now.
For his part, Jim decided not to fight about it and let Blair have his space. He was so nervous about what he'd done that he figured it was just as well if Sandburg avoided contact with him, or the kid would figure out that something was up.
Finally, the expected knock came and Jim literally bounded across the loft to fling the heavy door open.
"Come in!" he urged, smiling in relief and hope at the pint-sized but sturdy woman with the short salt and pepper hair that stood in the hallway. If this didn't work, he didn't know what else to try. "Blair!" he called out. "You've got company!"
Blair saved his work and shut down the computer before limping out of his room. He stopped in consternation when he saw who was standing in the living room.
"Janey?" he gasped, and then a smile of delight broke over his face at the sight of his very old friend and former skating coach. "Janey!! What are you doing here?"
She opened her arms as he limped to meet her, hugging him fiercely. "I heard about what happened, Blair, and it's long past time that I came to see how you're managing," she replied. Stepping back, her hands gripping his arms, she looked him up and down critically and then nodded as if satisfied. "You're looking good. Strong. Healthy. And I saw that you only have a bit of a limp left."
Looking away, he nodded. "I'm doing okay," he said quietly. "Better than I might have been," he added with a genuine smile. He might have been dead.
Nodding thoughtfully, reading more than he knew in his eyes and voice, Janey turned to Jim. "Mind if I kidnap the kid for a while? We need to do some catching up."
"He's all yours," Jim grinned, though his eyes were shadowed, haunted by hope.
"Hey, I don't need his permission to go out with my favorite girl," Blair teased as he walked Janey toward the door and grabbed his jacket. "Don't wait up!" he called over his shoulder, laughing, as they headed out.
Janey insisted that they take her rented car, and Blair didn't pay a whole lot of attention to where they were going, content to ply her with questions and listen to her stories about the kids she was working with now. Janey had been his coach more than a dozen years ago, when he'd been a contender for the World Championship in skating. Taken out of competition by a sniper, the damage to his knee had meant he'd had to give up skating, and he'd moved on with his life. But a few months before the 'accident', he'd run into Janey again when he and Jim had been investigating threats against the top contenders in last year's World Championship competitions. He'd been blown away by the recognition and awards he'd been given during the grand finale ceremonies…recognition he'd earned but been denied so many years before. He knew he owed Janey for that, as he owed her for so much. She had been one of the few constants in his young life and he'd always loved her.
But, gradually, his flickering glances at the streets they were passing caught his attention and he realized where they were going. But, shrugging, he didn't think much about it. Maybe she needed to meet with someone at the arena.
When she parked and waved for him to come in with her, he followed along, unsuspecting, until they got to the small dressing room cum office she'd been using the last time she'd been in town. When she went to the desk, picked up the men's skates and turned to hold them out toward him, his voice died away and his face lost all expression. Shaking his head, he took an unconscious step backward.
"What's this all about, Janey?" he asked then, dragging his eyes up from the skates to meet her steady gaze.
"I've rented the rink for practice sessions every afternoon for the next month," she informed him calmly. "It's time we got to work."
Shaking his head, his mouth suddenly dry, Blair protested, "But, I can't! My knee…and I can hardly walk in a straight line anymore…Janey, you don't know…"
"Yes, I do know," she cut in. "I've spoken with your surgeon, Dr. DesLoupes, and told him I'm your trainer. The repairs they did on the breaks required them to put in a new cap on your knee--a better one than was available years ago, one that will give more strength and allow more flexibility. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to skate."
Looking away, running a hand through his hair, pale and more than a little shaky, Blair tried to explain why it just wasn't possible to do what she wanted. "Janey, I've been working out for, like, months! I've lost my sense of coordination and balance. There's no way I can skate now…I'll break my neck if I try."
Moving toward him, she gripped his trembling arm, forcing him to look at her. "Listen to me," she directed, her tone that of the no-nonsense coach of old, the one who 'knew better', who could see his potential far more clearly than he could. "You can skate. There's a kind of 'mind memory' in the muscles. Like riding a bicycle--you don't ever forget how. You need this, Blair…you need to work your body as a single element of being. Get your muscles working together again, and not against one another."
"I don't…" he tried again.
But she was like a force of nature, not to be denied. Gently, she pushed him back and down until he was sitting on the bench along the wall. While he stared down at her, she pulled off his sneakers and put on the skates, tying them tightly, and then she put on a pair of her own. Standing, she held out a hand. "Come on, kid. The ice won't get any colder."
Swallowing, unable to resist her but very afraid, he took her hand and followed her out into the tunnel and then onto the ice.
When Jim heard the unsteady, almost halting limp in the hallway, he winced. Jaw tight, he stood to greet his roommate as Blair entered, all the while fighting a sinking feeling that he'd made a really big mistake when he'd called Janey and asked for her help.
Blair looked wiped out when he came in and wordlessly hung up his coat. His hair was hanging in curls still damp from exertion, and he looked stiff and sore. When he turned, Jim was appalled to see his friend blinking rapidly to clear the glaze of moisture from his eyes.
Looking up at him, Blair said quietly, "You called her, didn't you?" Not waiting for a response, he lifted his hands and let them fall dejectedly. "I know you're just trying to help, Jim…but you have no idea…no idea how much this hurts…"
His voice cracked and broke; and he bowed his head as he turned to limp toward his room. Pausing, his back to Jim, he asked the question that had been haunting him, wondering now if Jim was worried about the same thing. His voice was so faint that the Sentinel could scarcely hear him, as he murmured, "Is it that you're afraid I can't keep up anymore? Is that it? You want me to, what? Finally face it? Disappear?"
"Ah, Jesus, Chief," Jim blurted, finally finding his voice as he crossed the room in long strides to grip Blair's shoulder. "I didn't want to hurt you--and I'm sure as hell not trying to tell you that you can't keep up or I don't want you around. I just…I just didn't know what else to do to help you."
Blair relaxed a little under his grip and nodded wearily. When he didn't say anything more, Jim asked, "So, has Janey gone back home?"
"Are you kidding?" Blair exclaimed, his voice cracking. Turning to look up at Jim, he continued, "She's rented the rink for weeks, and won't take 'no' for an answer." Looking away, shaking his head dazedly, he murmured, "It's hopeless. I'm hopeless, but neither of you have the least idea how to give up."
Swallowing, he took a deep breath and murmured, "I guess--I guess the least I can do is try. For you and Janey, if not for myself. I just--I just can't even hope any more, you know? It hurts too much when I fail, when I realize I'll never be like I was."
"Chief, I…" Jim tried to encourage him, or apologize, but he didn't know what say or do. The pain in Blair's face, the sorrow and lost look in his eyes cut Jim to the deepest reaches of his soul.
But Blair lifted a hand, cutting him off. Turning away, he limped to his room.
Janey came to pick Blair up every day, and every day he left with the air of a man going to his execution. But she was an immovable, irresistible force and seemed incapable of being discouraged. Jim went back to work, and tried to not think about what was going on down at the arena.
Janey, in the manner of all brilliant coaches, didn't see what was, but what could be. She watched Blair, studied his moves, spotting where he was unconsciously favoring his leg, hesitating to commit himself to let go and allow his body to move freely. Gradually, day after day, she illuminated actions he was unaware off, corrected pacing and balance, and gradually, his movements steadied and grew smoother.
The improvements were gradual, almost imperceptible at first, but as the days and then the weeks passed, Blair could tell that his gait and balance had improved. One night, when Jim watched him crossing the loft from the kitchen to the living room, he observed softly, "It's working, isn't it?"
Startled, Blair looked back over his shoulder as he sat down on the couch. "You can tell?" he asked doubtfully.
"Uh huh," Jim asserted as he carried in two bottles of beer, handed one to his friend and then sat down in the chair across from him. "Your movements are smoother, more confident. You're better balanced and less self-conscious of how you're moving."
Blair thought about that as he took a sip and then pushed his hair back behind his ears. Well, that made three of them that agreed he was making progress, as Janey had been enthusiastic in her observations that afternoon about how much better and stronger he was than when he'd started. But something still wasn't right, and he knew it. Something was missing. For all that his gait had improved, Sandburg still felt off-balance, incomplete somehow…
"What is it, Chief?" Jim asked, frowning as he studied the worried expression in Blair's eyes. "What's bothering you?"
Shrugging, Sandburg shook his head. "I honestly don't know, Jim," he replied, the discouraged note back in his voice. Looking up at Jim, he allowed, "You were right, I have to admit that now, to call Janey and ask her to help me. She's been really great. And, I am doing better, I guess…"
"But?" Jim encouraged.
Blair felt the hollowness at the base of his belly, and in all honesty, he finally recognized it for what it was, but as hard as he tried, he couldn't understand why it was there, why it haunted him. He didn't like to hide anything from Jim and, though this embarrassed and confused him, he felt he had to admit to it. Taking a breath, his eyes wide pools of distress, he continued softly, "But--I feel scared all the time. I don't know why, man. It's like something's still broken and I don't know how to fix it. These sessions with Janey--they've helped physically, I guess--but all the time I'm with her, working out, I'm just so scared. It's really hard, Jim, to face that every day. I…I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this."
"Maybe you're just trying too hard, Chief," Jim offered, though he was deeply worried about the fear and confusion in Sandburg's eyes. If these sessions were causing him that much distress, maybe, maybe it was time to call a halt. "It takes time to get over being hurt as badly as you were hurt. Time to get all your energy back."
"Maybe," Blair echoed, his voice low and his gaze distant, but he didn't think it was a matter of time.
He thought it was a matter of courage…and not having any, any more.
It had been more than three weeks since Janey had started working with him, and though there had been constant improvement--albeit slow and gradual--still Blair hesitated to do all that Janey asked of him when he was on the ice…and the hesitation made him awkward and uncertain. And the awkwardness fed his fear, his sense of vulnerability. His anxiety would build each day until he was trembling with it, and furious with his inability to just 'get over it'--whatever 'it' was. It was stupid; he knew it. He could feel that he was stronger. He knew he was skating competently. But the fear just kept gnawing at him, eroding his confidence and leaving him disgusted with himself.
One day, once again seeing the distress building and his movements becoming shaky and uncertain, almost tentative as the practice session drew to a close, Janey thought she might have finally figured out what the problem was. Skating across the ice to face him, she gripped him by the arms and looked up into his troubled eyes. "You won't break," she said firmly.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"You aren't made of porcelain," she insisted. "If you fall--when you fall--you won't shatter into a thousand pieces."
His eyes widened as he realized she was talking about more than falling on the ice. It had taken more than a week, but he had learned, as he'd known years ago, that he could slip or skid and not hurt himself beyond a minor bruise or sprain. She was talking about something else--about taking bigger risks, about testing the limits like he used to do, about risking serious injury…or maybe, just risking failure and proving once and for all he wasn't good enough anymore to push the boundaries of life. She was urging him to try what he pretty much knew was impossible, not because it was important in itself, but because of what it represented--the willingness to not 'settle', the courage to push beyond the 'safe' and maybe fail, but to know that he'd given his damnedest, that he'd really and absolutely done his best.
He looked away, and she could feel him tremble under her hands. "You won't break, Blair. I promise you. Don't be afraid to let go."
"I--I did break," he whispered, his throat tight, his face pale. "I--don't want to ever…"
"No, YOU didn't break," she said, her voice now soothing, if no less compelling. "Some bones got broken, and they've mended. You're whole again. You're here, on the ice, skating again…YOU don't break. You never have and you never will. It's not who you are. Do you understand me? You can do this, Blair. You can do anything you decide to do."
He stilled under her hands, and then turned to look at her, uncertainty in his eyes. "Are you sure? I feel broken."
"I know," she sighed, shaking her head. "You've been through hell. And that has to have been pretty damned scary. But listen to me and believe me. I know you. I know that heart, so full of courage, and that soul, so full of beauty and the belief in possibilities. Believe in YOUR possibility, Blair. I do. I never stopped believing in your possibility."
He shrugged a little, embarrassed by her words, but she saw a spark in his eyes that had been sorely lacking.
"Yeah?" he asked, softly, like a lost child. "You really believe I can do this? You're not just snowing me?"
"I more than 'believe', kid--I know," she asserted, no doubts in her voice or eyes. "Now, get that cute little ass of yours in gear and skate, dammit!"
His lip trembled, but he bit it to still the emotion it revealed. "I'm scared, Janey," he admitted then. "I'm so scared."
"I know, but 'scared' has never been enough to stop you, and I'll be damned if I'll let it stop you now," she told him. Taking a breath, she committed, "If we have to come out on this rink every day for the rest of your life, you are going to prove to yourself that you can do this. So, now, later, next year--it's up to you. What's it gonna be?"
He closed his eyes and took deep, centering breaths to calm his emotions and the hammering of his heart. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he opened his eyes and looked into hers, and saw the unlimited belief in him that resided there, the sure knowledge that he wasn't broken, that nothing could ever really break him. Whether or not he was ever able to perform the stunt she was asking of him wasn't the issue and they both knew it. The issue was that he honestly try, and have the courage to face the outcome, whatever it would be.
Sniffing, he wiped his mouth and nose with his hand and nodded, pulling away from her.
Turning, he pushed away to skate across the ice.
He wasn't broken.
He could do this.
Jim had stayed away from the arena, but was finding it was increasingly impossible to remain uninvolved. Every night, when he got home, he found Sandburg in his room working on the laptop. Their dinners were quiet affairs, neither finding much to say. After their conversation the evening before, Ellison couldn't stand it any more. If it was hurting Blair this badly, if it caused him so much evident distress, well, then, the progress he'd made was enough. They'd 'settle', if that's what Blair really wanted, for what he was able to do now.
God. 'Settle'? The kid was alive, and he could walk again. Not so long ago, that alone seemed like it would be miracle enough.
So, finally as the afternoon wore on, Ellison threw in the towel, grabbed his jacket from the hook behind his desk and headed out to the arena. Once there, he climbed up almost to the top and slipped in high in the bleachers, taking a quiet seat in the shadows to watch. Certain he'd been unobserved, that neither Janey nor Sandburg knew he was there, he sat hunched forward, his hands clasped between his knees. Though he was high above the ice, his eyesight allowed him to see as clearly as if he was down on the rink, skating next to his friend. He'd watch and see how the kid was doing, and if he agreed that there was no more improvement to be had, then he'd quit encouraging Sandburg to keep trying for the impossible.
He saw Blair break away from where Janey had been coaching him, moving uncertainly and slowly at first, and then with greater speed and more elegance--even grace--across the ice than Jim would have expected, given how discouraged Sandburg had seemed every night for the last three weeks. He saw a smooth, economy of motion, with increasingly visible strength in the way Sandburg thrust against the ice and, God…
…leapt to spin in the air!
But even as he leapt, Jim could see the hesitation, the holding back…
Jim jerked, almost calling out when Blair lost it in mid-spin and crashed to the ice, skidding for some long yards before he stopped. But, when the kid picked himself up again, shook himself as if shaking off the fall, and turned to listen to the instructions that Janey was calling to him, Jim settled back down. Watching. Wondering what was going on. What had happened?
This wasn't the discouraged young man who had been plodding off in the afternoons and dragging himself back hours later.
As Blair launched again into a long, fast skate down the length of the rink, Jim could detect no hint of imbalance, or favoring of the bad leg. The man down on that ice was determined, confident and strong, moving with athletic competence.
Jim felt himself begin to hope that he was finally seeing the Blair he'd known before the accident, the Guide who'd so fearlessly become part of his life; the cold lump of dread that he'd been carrying around in his gut began to melt away.
I can do this! Blair chanted in his mind like a mantra as he picked up speed. I can do this…I remember how. It's all a matter of speed, balance and pacing…and strength. I can do this! I let myself fail on that jump; I felt it--I was still doubting myself. Janey believes in me. Jim believes in me. I am not broken…I can DO THIS! I believe in me!
He felt his momentum peak as he sped down the ice. Taking a deep breath, affirmations echoing in his head as he pictured the moves flowing…he launched himself into the air, bringing his arms in close to his body as he whirled in a double and then, arms spreading wide for balance, back down, solidly, onto the ice, to push off and up again, harder, higher, twisting, bringing his arms in close to his chest, whirling…a triple! And back down, his skates gripping the ice with sharp sureness as he glided backwards in a long loop, bending forward and his arms wide until he shifted direction, straightened and then swept into a tight whirl in the center of the rink, his arms up straight over his head…and then brought a foot back and stopped himself, cold, dramatic…
His face was alight with joy as his eyes lifted to the back wall, high up in the shadows…and saw Jim rise to his feet in a surge of motion, punching one fist into the air, in enthusiastic excitement at what Blair had just accomplished!
"You did it!" Janey cried, laughing and crying as she skated out to grab him in a tight hug. "I told you, you could do it! Blair Sandburg…you are amazing!"
Tears on his cheeks, Blair hugged her back. He'd accomplished more than an elaborate stunt, and they both knew it. He'd beaten the fear. Panting, he murmured into her short, graying hair, "I couldn't have done it, not without you…" and looking up, he added, "and Jim."
Gazing up at the tall man standing above him, almost lost in the shadows, knowing that Jim could see and hear him just fine, he continued fervently, "The two of you just wouldn't give up on me, or let me give up on myself," he said to them. "Thank you--oh, God, thank you."
Up in the stands, Jim heard every word, as he was meant to do. He smiled broadly at the light sparkling in Sandburg's eyes, and the bright smile on the kid's face as Sandburg stepped away from Janey and waved him down. Jim had to swipe at his own eyes as he waved back and started to skip down the stairs, two and three at a time.
His heart light, happy to the depths of his being, Jim was already planning what they'd do that night to celebrate…the fanciest, most expensive and exclusive restaurant in town and Janey and Blair would be his guests.
It had been seven and a half very long and grueling months, and even now, his stamina and resilience might not be all the way back to full hyper-energy levels, but Sandburg was finally back…and whole. He wasn't broken any more. Finally, after so very many months of pain and frustration and fear, the kid had made a full recovery--and gotten back more than he'd had when he'd raced the Suburban down that dark alley and put his life on the line for his best friend. Most importantly, his inner core of confidence was again intact.
When Jim reached the last row and leapt over the barricade onto the ice, Blair was there to meet him, unabashedly grabbing the older man in a tight, exuberant hug.
"You saw it, didn't you, Jim? You saw me jump?" Blair babbled, excited, his face glowing with his accomplishment. "I can skate again, man! Isn't that--well, amazing!"
"Yeah, I saw you, Chief," Jim replied, hugging Blair back as he looked across the ice at Janey, mouthing a very heartfelt and sincere 'thank you'. "But I agree with Janey. YOU are what is amazing, Sandburg. God, I'm so proud of you."
"Thanks, man," Sandburg murmured, pulling away as he looked up into Jim's eyes. "Thanks for never giving up on me."
Jim shook his head at the impossibility of that ever happening as he ruffled the kid's hair, provoking an expected, "Not the hair, man!"
Laughing with Blair, they turned to move across the ice to meet Janey, as Jim replied fondly, "Never happen, kid…it's just not possible to ever give up on you. Like the sun, you just keep rising to the occasion to brighten each and every new day…"
"Wow! That was almost poetic, Jim," Blair teased, pleased in spite of himself.
"Yeah, well, I guess I've been hanging around you too long," Jim growled with mock ferocity, again ruffling Blair's hair. "It's time things got back to normal, Junior…c'mon. I'm taking you both to dinner to celebrate. And, frankly, you need a shower to clean up first. You stink."
"Hey, it's just a good, natural sweat, man," Sandburg teased, feeling exuberant, even giddy with joy, as he looped an arm around Janey's shoulders and they all continued across the ice to the exit on the far side.
"Fine, Mr. Natural…but you still stink," Jim insisted. But then he grinned and looped an arm around Sandburg's shoulders. "C'mon, Chief, let's go home."
"I don't know, Jim," Sandburg called as he ambled out of his room, fiddling with the cuffs of his snowy white shirt, trying to decide whether to wear them down or folded up a couple of times. "I don't think I've got anything to wear that's quite up to the standard of this place, you know?"
In the process of slipping on his sport coat, Ellison turned to his friend and couldn't resist a smile. The kid's hair was a wild mane of curls, and he was wearing that technicolor vest and his best gold earring. "You look fine, Chief. Don't worry about it. Exclusive doesn't mean 'black tie'--it just means exclusive. C'mon. We'll be late picking up Janey."
Blair looked up with a grin and shrugged, talking all the way to the front door. "So, how did you manage to get a table? Man, I've heard that place is booked up for months."
Holding open the door, relishing the way his partner fairly bounced across the room, the embodiment of the concept of 'lightness of being', Jim sniffed, assumed a slightly superior look and simply said, "You just need to have the right connections."
"Yeah, right," Blair drawled as he led the way out.
After meeting Janey at her hotel, they walked the short block to the restaurant. Once there, when asked for his name, Jim simply said, "Ellison." Though the maitre d' looked momentarily nonplussed, he recovered and led them to their table.
Blair had noticed the slightly confused look on the man's face and mumbled to Jim as they were led through a comfortable and not in the least pretentious dining room, "He looked like he was expecting someone else, Jim."
"Hmmm," Jim murmured. As they were seated, the man asked urbanely, "Will your father be joining you tonight, Mr. Ellison?"
"No, he won't," Jim replied neutrally, hiding what it had cost him to wangle the reservation, and then casually turned his attention to the menu.
Leaning closer, Blair asked, "Your father?"
"Uh huh," Jim replied with casual indifference, albeit feigned. "William. This is his usual table."
Sandburg's eyes flashed wide as he gaped. "Your father is William Ellison? Like, the richest guy in the Northwest?" he squeaked.
"Uh huh," Jim drawled, and then placed their order for wine. Turning eyes that gave away nothing to Sandburg, he added, "Let's not explore that revelation tonight, okay? Relax, enjoy yourself."
Janey had been watching the byplay with some amusement. Seeing that Jim had no intention of discussing his family, she launched into stories about her latest crop of Olympic contenders, deftly steering the conversation into smoother waters.
The evening passed swiftly, full of laughter and good spirits. The service was smooth and unobtrusive, conducive to an ambiance of warmth and comfort. The food was superb and the wine…well, it was a rare and rich vintage, suitable--in Jim's opinion--unto the day.
It was over all too soon, and before he knew it, Blair was hugging Janey good-bye in the foyer of her hotel; she'd be leaving first thing in the morning. "Thank you for everything you've ever given me, Janey," he said as he embraced her. "I really love you, you know?"
"I know, sweetie," she replied and pecked him on the cheek. Stepping back, she looked up at him and said, "As hard as it was for you, I'm really glad we got to spend this time together. I've missed you. And you know I love you, too."
Jim hugged her warmly then, and told her if there were--anything--that he could ever do for her, all she had to do was call, and he'd be there, no matter what. She smiled as she hugged him back, thanked him quietly for having trusted her and for the wonderful dinner, and then with a wave, she disappeared into the elevator.
As they sauntered back to the truck, Blair said, "You used your father's name, didn't you?"
Ellison shrugged and looked up at the night sky. "Well, I wanted to go there tonight. And, an average cop would likely have to wait a year on the waiting list for a table."
"Not so 'average'," Blair muttered. "Why didn't you ever tell me…"
"Another time, Junior," Jim replied as he unlocked the truck. "That's a story for another time."
When they got back to the loft, Jim locked up and then went out onto the balcony, as was his habit, to look out over his city before heading up to bed. Blair followed him out, leaning quietly against the doorjamb as he studied Jim's back, wondering a little about the mystery of Jim's father. But he knew his best friend well enough to recognize the wall that held back hurt, and tonight was not the time to storm it. Instead, Blair found himself reflecting on the greatest fear that had haunted him in the last few months--the fear that he might someday fail this man; that he'd lost the courage and capacity to back Jim up the way he deserved and needed. Blair's greatest relief was in knowing now that whatever was required, he could do. Even if it meant his worst nightmare--being helpless and stuck again in some damned bed for months at a time. He could and would do whatever was necessary to protect and safeguard this rare and special man.
Ellison wondered at his partner's uncharacteristic silence and sincerely hoped that Blair wasn't going to probe for more of the Ellison family history. But, he figured he might as well ask and get it over with. "What's on your mind, Chief?"
"I was just thinking about this guy I know," Blair replied quietly. "A real tough guy, hard as nails. And, man, he can be as cold as the arctic wind. Scary, too, when he wants to be. But, you know…that tough guy has got the most unbelievably compassionate heart, the most incredibly sensitive soul, and he can be as gentle as a mother with her newborn babe."
Jim stiffened a little, but only grunted softly, "Yeah?"
"Oh, yeah," Blair affirmed, his voice rich with sincerity. "I think there'll always be two images of that guy in my head, that I'll never forget as long as I live. The first one is kinda hard to describe. It's like you're in the middle of this huge, cold, violent ocean, and you're sure you're gonna drown. And it's so dark, man…I mean, it's like total blackness all around you. And all of a sudden, there's this place of absolute calm, and warmth…and you know you're absolutely safe, so safe you can rest and sleep. Cause he's got you and he's not going to let go. And the other image is seeing him in the shadows, and all of a sudden, he just surges to his feet, and he's so happy, he's like glowing…lighting up the darkness around him. And you know why? Not for himself. But for someone else, because they've achieved something that mattered a whole lot to them."
Blair took a breath and shook his head. "I gotta tell ya, Jim--I wish everyone could have a friend like that tough guy, I really do. 'Cause then everyone would feel like the luckiest guy on the face of this earth."
Keeping his back to Sandburg, Jim nodded a little, and wiped his face, sniffing as he replied very quietly, his voice hoarse, "Well, you know, Chief, everyone's got their own take on the world and the people in it. Take your tough guy, for example. Could be that he was lost in some dark, vast wasteland for a long time. And maybe he even figured that that was all there was. But, one day, this shiny, gold key just jumped into hand, like magic, out of nowhere. And--and that key opened up all these doors and windows he didn't even know were there, and let light and fresh air in, so that the wasteland became a garden. That tough guy, well, he tried to be real careful with that key, and he held onto to it tight. But, as tightly as he held it, one day it slipped out of his hand and he was…was so afraid he'd lost it."
The tall man took a breath and looked up into the night as he continued, "That key, though, doesn't get lost so easy. It's one helluva strong key. Looks all glittery and soft, like gold, but it's got steel in its core. You gotta know, Chief, that tough guy would do anything to keep that key safe, to hold onto it for dear life--cause without it, he knows he'd be back in that cold and very dark wasteland. So, uh, maybe it's the tough guy who figures he's the luckiest man on earth. So long as he's got that key, he knows he'll be okay."
Blair stood in silence for a long moment, marveling at the poet who disguised himself as one miserable son of a bitch so much of the time to so very many people. Finally, he murmured, "You are truly an amazing human being, Jim Ellison."
"Takes one to know one, Chief," Jim replied succinctly, his voice dry.
But a soft smile played around his lips as he gazed up at the stars.
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