(This one just ignores the events of TSbyBS completely!)
Thanks to Danae for her skills in beta-ing! Any remaining mistakes are mine alone.
A special 'merci beaucoup' to Lory for encouraging the birth of this story. This one's for you, my friend!
When Thunder Sleeps
Something had been gnawing at him all day. During the deposition Jim had to give first thing that morning, it had been tickling at his memory. It floated elusively just beyond his reach, teasing him to remember, niggling at him just enough to keep him slightly off balance. By the time the deposition ended, and they dashed through the downpour leaving the DA's office, Blair was certain that there was something he was supposed to remember.
Having Jim watch him so closely certainly wasn't helping. Although the detective was merely throwing him an occasional glance out of the corner of his eye, Blair was aware of his partner's inspection. Jim might think he wasn't being obvious in his partner-watching activities, but Sandburg had felt his sentinel's eyes focused on him for the last few miles. He knew he should say something to Jim, but he was using all his powers of concentration to attempt to remember the mysterious something hovering right beyond his vision. Somehow, he felt if he just thought hard enough, long enough, he would remember. If only he could remember! This whole day was turning into one damned long frustration!
"Chief? Anything wrong?"? At last, Jim had turned to his friend, eyeing him curiously.
Blair ignored the question. There it was again, flickering past in a quick, brilliant blur. The answer, the something he had forgotten. He almost had it, and then...
"Chief!" This time Jim's voice was stronger, more intrusive, and the mercurial answer vanished in an instant.
Irritated at being so close, only to lose his train of thought, Blair snapped, "Yeah, Jim? What?"
The sentinel stared for a long moment before returning his attention to the road. "What is it with you today, Sandburg? You've hardly said a word all morning, and now, you almost bit my head off. Sleep on the wrong side of the bed last night?"
His tone colored with remorse, Sandburg apologized and even forced a tight smile. "Sorry, man. It's nothing you did. There's just...I don't know...something...I know I'm supposed to remember, and I can't." His tempo increased. "Have you ever had something that was just out of reach, and no matter how hard you tried to remember, it wouldn't come to you? I mean, I know it's there, and I know it must be important or it wouldn't be bugging me this much, but I..."
"It wouldn't be that meeting at Rainier today, would it? What was it, your dissertation defense or something?" Jim's tone was casual, as if he was reporting the weather conditions.
Blair's heart tightened in panic, and he found it hard to catch his breath. A heavy feeling of dread crept through his body. "My defense!! That can't be today! It's scheduled for Thursday, and this is..." He was too overcome with panic to think clearly. "What day is it, Jim? Oh, my God, what day is today?"
Calmly, Jim pulled up to a four way stop and looked carefully at the other lanes before making a left turn. Finally, when they were safely moving again, he replied, "It's Thursday, Chief."
Reaching over, Blair snagged Jim's left wrist, tugging it over to see the time on his watch. "It's nearly 11:30! The meeting was scheduled for 10:00! How could I forget?" Blair's panicked blue eyes turned to Jim. "You knew the defense was scheduled for today! Why didn't you say something?"
Ellison shrugged, keeping his attention focused on the road ahead. "Not my job, Chief. You take care of the research stuff; I do the sentinel stuff. That's the way it works, right?"
Blair couldn't believe what he was hearing. Jim had remembered; his best friend had known that Blair's entire future hinged on the vote after today's meeting. If the committee approved his research and his findings, he would have his Ph.D. If not, it was all over.
He didn't know which was more painful, the fact that he had forgotten the defense or the fact that Jim hadn't said a word. That, even now, he didn't seem to care at all.
Blair looked around wildly. Where the hell were they? "Jim, I've gotta get to Rainier! Please! We can be there in fifteen minutes, if we hurry. Maybe they're still in the conference room. Maybe it's not too late." His mind whirling a mile a minute, Blair fought to analyze his options. "I don't have my notes, but I know this stuff backwards and forwards. I can do this. I know I can! We've just gotta go! Now!"
Jim shook his head. "No can do, Chief. I've got a stack of reports waiting back at the station. You said you'd help with those today. Sorry."
Sandburg's eyes widened in disbelief. "You can't be serious! Jim, this is the most important day of my career! And you're talking reports?!" Sandburg's voice cracked. "Please, man, I'm begging here! I've gotta get to Hargrove!" Staring at his friend in shock, Blair insisted, "Either drive me there, or let me out of this truck. Now! I'll find a cab. I'll run. Anything!"
With a heavy sigh of resignation, Jim turned left at the next corner. "Okay, Sandburg, okay! Just take it easy." As they headed toward Rainier University, Ellison added, "The things I do for you, Chief. Don't blame me if Simon crawls your frame when we get back to the station. He needed those reports on his desk today."
His hands shaking, Blair dug through his backpack. "I know I've got some of my notes in here. If I can just find them..." He was almost on the verge of tears.
This just could not be happening.********************
Sandburg bolted from the truck before Jim had time to put it in Park. He'd be soaked before he reached the building, but he didn't have time for a coat or umbrella. "C'mon, Jim," he called over his shoulder. "Come with me, man! You can wait outside or in my office!"
Jim called back, "Think I'll wait out here, Chief. I've got a magazine I've been meaning to look through. You go ahead." With a careless wave, he began to read.
A sudden crash of thunder almost obscured Jim's final sentence, but Blair heard it all too clearly. He forced himself to ignore the hurt that stabbed his heart at his friend's icy words. There was no time to deal with Jim's aloofness right now. He felt as if his entire universe had been turned upside down and shaken apart. Choking back a sob, Blair ran through the heavy downpour. Dripping wet and chilled, he threw open the heavy front doors to Hargrove Hall and tore down the hallway to the conference room where the meeting was scheduled.
They were still there. His two professors, Dr. Eli Stoddard and Dr. Thomas Rowley, along with Chancellor Edwards. His committee. The three people who held in their hands Blair's entire future in academia.
Blair burst into the room and hurriedly claimed the empty seat at the head of the conference table. Panting and dripping from his run through the rain, he looked anxiously around the table, trying to get a clue as to how terribly he had screwed things up.
From the looks of it, he had blown the defense of his dissertation all the way to hell and back. Twice. The eyes of a firing squad could not have been colder. Blair had to swallow hard to keep from sobbing hysterically. A firing squad. He almost wished he were facing a firing squad. Even that would not be this difficult.
What had he done?********************
Dr. Stoddard was the chair of his committee. The disappointment in his eyes hurt Blair far worse than the anger written on the faces of Rowley and Edwards. His mentor shook his head. "Blair, did you not realize that your defense was scheduled today?"
Sandburg held out his hands in supplication and fought to keep his voice steady. "I swear, I do not understand how this happened. All day, I've known there was something I was supposed to remember, but I couldn't think what it was. I looked at my calendar, but somehow it wasn't written down. I just can't believe I did this! I am so very, very sorry to have kept you all here waiting on me, but if you'll just give me the chance, I'm sure that I can..."
Chancellor Edwards slammed her notebook to the table, and Blair jumped at the unexpected noise. "Mr. Sandburg! Rainier University has bent over backwards to accommodate you over the years. Your unorthodox research topic, your strange schedule, your constant request for delays in completing your program, your habitual absences, your frequent injuries and hospitalizations - these have all been a strain on others in your department, and at times, an embarrassment to the administration of this institution."
The chancellor stood up and began pacing around the room, her hands gesturing emphatically as she stalked back and forth. "And today of all days! The defense of a doctoral dissertation is the apex of a long, strenuous program! Most graduate students have the date indelibly etched upon their memories, as they count the very seconds leading up to it with a combination of dread and hopefulness." Chancellor Edwards' voice turned cold, sarcasm dripping from each well-chosen word. "Not you, however. Not Blair Sandburg. You don't think the rules apply to you, do you? You are so confident, so unreasonably cocky about your ability to slip by when others would fail, to break the rules that others must keep, that you even insult your committee by forgetting the date and time of your dissertation defense!" Her angry words hung heavily in the air as she stared at Blair with hard eyes.
Blair stammered helplessly. "D...Dr. Edwards, I assure you that I never meant..."
Unexpectedly, Eli Stoddard broke in. "I am afraid I must agree with Dr. Edwards' assessment. I believe that I have been extremely patient with you, yet you have disappointed me once more. I am at the end of my patience, Blair."
Dr. Rowley nodded. "We've done all we can for you, Mr. Sandburg. I'm afraid this time, you've gone too far."
Lightening popped loudly outside, and the simultaneous boom of thunder rattled the panes in the tall windows. For an instant, the lights flickered off and on, then off and on again, lending a surrealistic flickering effect to the hard features of the dissertation committee.
Blair looked around the room, his eyes reflecting his growing shock. "What...? What are you saying?"
A cruel light glowed in Dr. Edwards' eyes. "It's over, Mr. Sandburg. You have failed to meet the expectations of this university and of your department. I'm rid of you at last."
Eli Stoddard smiled. "You hung yourself with your own rope, Blair. We're kicking you out."
Dr. Rowley added, "You're finished at Rainier. Forever."
Dr. Edwards held up a copy of Blair's manuscript. He noticed for the first time the shredder displayed prominently on the table. Had that been there the entire time? Blair found himself suddenly unable to speak, powerless to move or protest. It was as if he was an inconsequential cartoon character caught in a freeze frame, forever motionless, helpless to act.
This couldn't be happening!
"We're putting an end to this fiasco, once and for all." The chancellor chuckled. 'This is where this hoax you dared call a dissertation belonged all along, Mr. Sandburg. Better late than never!"
As Blair watched, horrified, Dr. Edwards proceeded to shred every page of his carefully written thesis. His heart pumped wildly, and his hands shook like fall leaves in a strong wind. Then, the shaking began to spread slowly throughout his entire body. His arms...shoulders...legs and feet. He couldn't stop it, couldn't stop the helpless shuddering.
"No..." he murmured. "No...no...no..." His voice grew louder, more insistent. "No! You can't do this! Please! NO!"
All Blair could see were the laughing faces of the three committee members; all he could hear were their cruel taunts as they jeered at him. The thunder sounded repeatedly, rendering unintelligible most of their words, but the fragments that he perceived were terrible enough.
"All for nothing!"
"Never deserved the opportunities we provided..."
"...amount to anything in this world!"
"Return to his commune and meditate..."
Blair shook his head frantically and covered his ears with his hands, trying desperately to drown out the thunder and the vicious voices. He screamed harshly, "Stop! I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! Please, no...no...n..." The words dissolved into broken sobs.
Suddenly, there were hands on his shoulders, strong hands, pressing him down and holding him motionless. He fought the restraining hands and cried out, "No! Let me go! I'm sorry!" Tears streamed down his face, hot, salty rivers of regret and remorse.
"Sandburg! Chief, it's okay."
Jim's voice? That had sounded so much like Jim, but Jim was in the truck. Reading. Jim hadn't even cared enough to come into Hargrove with him, to be close by when Blair needed him. It couldn't be Jim.
"No," he murmured. "Not Jim...doesn't care."
The hauntingly familiar, heartbreaking voice persisted. "Chief, please. I need you to open your eyes now. For me, okay? Just open your eyes. You need to wake up now, Blair. Listen to me, buddy. Follow my voice. Wake up for me, Chief."
Slowly, tear dampened lashes opened to reveal pain-filled blue eyes.
"J...Jim?" Blair whispered hesitantly. His hand reached out to brush lightly across Jim's jaw, as if he had to touch his friend to reassure himself that the concerned face leaning over him was real. "I thought..."
Touch sensitive fingertips gently brushed away his tears. "It's okay, Chief. Whatever you were dreaming, it's over. You're safe. I'm here now."
Sandburg slid over on the small futon and curled on his side facing his friend. He sighed deeply, glancing around his tiny bedroom in relief.
Accepting the unspoken invitation, Jim sat down beside him, one hand absently stroking his guide's blanket covered leg as he studied Blair's pale features. The kid looked like he'd been through hell and back in the short time he'd been asleep. "Want to talk about it?" Jim asked gently. "Was it Barnes? Or Lash?"
A hint of a smile teased the corners of Blair's lips. "Actually, no. It was Dr. Edwards. Along with Dr. Rowley, Dr. Stoddard...and you."
Ellison's confusion was reflected in his startled blue eyes. "Me? And Dr. Stoddard...? That's your entire committee, isn't it? What kind of a nightmare was this anyway, Chief?"
Blair thought for a moment, bunching his pillow more firmly beneath his head. "You know about post traumatic stress syndrome?"
Jim nodded. "Sure. It can occur after a traumatic event. Flashbacks. Unexplained nervousness and paranoia."
"Right," Blair agreed, his expression thoughtful. "I think that's kinda what this dream was. See, I dreamed I'd forgotten the committee meeting for my defense. We were in the truck and when I remembered it, you weren't concerned at all. It was like you didn't care. Then, when I finally got there, my professors and Dr. Edwards came down on me like a ton of bricks, jeering at me and shredding my dissertation." An unexpected shiver passed through him. "It was horrible, Jim, and so real." He added softly, "You didn't care..."
The sentinel reached out and gripped Blair's shoulder. "Just a dream, Chief. You did finish your dissertation, you got your degree, and even Dr. Edwards has to admit that you've done a fantastic job as a professor at Rainier. All that, and you've been great as an official consultant at the department. Right?"
His friend smiled gratefully. "I know. But, thanks, Jim. I really do know all that. It's just that I worked so long and so hard for my degree, now that it's over, my mind hasn't really grasped it yet. Guess the nightmare was my subconscious' way of reacting to the build up of stress over the years." Flipping over to his back, Blair yawned broadly. "Sorry I woke you up, man. Didn't realize I was yelling out like that."
Jim's warm smile reassured him. "Any time, Chief. Any time." Jim sat still for a moment, making no effort to leave, even though Blair seemed calm at last. His face grew serious. "I know it was only a dream, but I hope you don't really believe that."
It was Sandburg's turn to look confused. "Believe what, Jim?"
Ellison stared at a point somewhere on the wall above the bed. When he spoke, it was quietly, but with unmistakable conviction. "That I don't care. That I wouldn't be there for you."
Unbidden tears sprang to Blair's eyes. That Jim could take the rantings of a nightmare so seriously touched his heart in a way he never expected. Jim Ellison, the seemingly unemotional cop, hid a softness within that tough exterior that few were allowed to witness.
Blinking back the wetness, Blair shook his head. "No, Jim, I don't believe that. Not for a second."
Jim's eyes returned to Blair's face as he searched his eyes, seeking the truth in his words. Finding there the confirmation he sought, Jim nodded slowly. "Feel better now?"
"Definitely." Blair glanced upward and was silent for a moment. "Hey," he commented. "The thunder's stopped."
Jim listened for a moment, his head cocked in the familiar pose of the sentinel. "Storm's moved on out. Should be a clear day tomorrow."
"Good," Blair said with a smile. "Naomi used to tell me when I was scared of a storm that after it was over, the thunder was sleeping, and it was time for me to sleep, too." He snuggled deeper into his cocoon of blankets, feeling safe in the present and warm in his memories of the past. "Thunder's sleeping; nightmare's over," he murmured in a quiet, dreamy voice.
A few still moments passed, and Jim thought the younger man had fallen asleep. Then Blair looked at Jim with drowsy eyes and breathed in an almost silent whisper, "Jim's here." Through the darkness, Jim could see Blair's eyelids close again slowly, then his breathing evened out.
The sentinel's heart tightened with emotion. Could his mere presence comfort Sandburg that much? For a moment, he shut his eyes against the powerful feelings rushing through him. In his lifetime, he'd never been needed so much. Never needed anyone else so much. Jim reached out and brushed back a strand of curls from the peaceful face. "Shhhh...I'm here. Rest," he whispered with a lingering smile. "The thunder sleeps, Chief. The thunder sleeps."
He awaited the approaching dawn alongside his guide...guarding...watching. Simply being a sentinel...a friend...a partner and brother.
Notes: This story came from my own post-doctoral experience. For several months after completing and defending my dissertation, I'd awaken abruptly in the middle of the night, terrified that I'd forgotten an important meeting or left out a critical chapter or missed a step in my statistical analysis. I felt sure that Blair might experience the same thing after completing his hard-earned degree. Hence, the story. Man, this one sure brought back memories!
The title comes from a CD with the same name by David Helpling.
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