Valley Of Doubt
(Epilogue to Survival)
Note: This story was written in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the SentinelAngst List, and begins as the episode 'Survival' ends…
The medication the rescue workers gave him did wonders to dull the fiery, sickening pain that radiated throughout his whole body from the bullet wound in his leg, to a raw, persistent ache. It also helped to distance the sharp headache lingering from the day before, after he'd banged his head on a rock during their wild river run, and later been knocked unconscious by Wade, a wacko hunter straight out of Deliverance. Determined to keep up his brave front, Sandburg tried to ignore the reality of what was going to happen after they strapped him securely into the metal basket-like stretcher, distracting himself by flirting with the attractive FBI agent. He even joked about having a 'problem' with Jim, laughing that he couldn't help himself from pursuing romantic possibilities, even in the direst of circumstances. But the laughter had a shaky edge, and his eyes kept flickering to the hoist, and the helicopter hovering noisily above, its massive rotary wing blowing wind down upon them. However, when Ellison gave the 'thumbs up' signal to the pilot, and the chopper began to lift him into the air, all trace of bravado vanished like mist in the wind; colour fled his cheeks, leaving him marble-white and his eyes widened with naked fear.
"Jim, I'm afraid of heights man; help me," he blurted, his stomach twisting and plummeting, his chest suddenly tight. But he was immediately ashamed when Jim told him confidently that he'd be all right. "I'm not afraid," he chanted, a desperate mantra, but his voice quaked and the forced laughter was tinged with panic. "I'm not afraid!"
Grinning encouragingly, Ellison stepped back as the stretcher bearing his partner lifted higher, faster, as the helicopter moved from its hover over the old mining camp and banked away.
"JIM!" Sandburg shouted then, suddenly too terrified to care anymore about sounding like a wuss. "JIM!"
Both Banks and Ellison stiffened at the raw panic they heard in the young man's voice. Shooting Jim a sharp look, Simon demanded, "Is he phobic about flying?"
"No, not exactly. He said he's afraid of heights, but I never thought it was this bad," Ellison grated, suddenly alarmed and frustrated that it was too late to do any good, or in any way reassure his obviously terrified friend.
Banks and Ellison watched with growing helpless concern as the dangling basket bearing Sandburg rose high in the valley between the mountains, swinging wildly in the roiling air currents, as the chopper banked away and picked up speed. Even Simon could still hear the distant hoarse, panic-edged cries from the young, wounded grad student, and he shook his head with sympathetic sorrow, regretting the fear he heard resonate in the desperate shouts. "JIM!" rose over the roar of the helicopter and the rush of wind. "JIM! Get me DOWNNNN!!!"
With an increasing sense of deeply sorrowful regret, for Sandburg had been hurt in the effort to rescue him and save his life, Banks listened to the heart-wrenching pleas as the chopper and its burden shrank to dots in the distant sky, finally vanishing from his sight over the long valley. But Jim could hear his partner long after, his throat tightening at the anguished cries shouted with a voice growing increasingly hoarse with limitless terror, until even he couldn't hear the panicked entreaties or see his friend dangling in the wind.
Simon squinted at the look of distracted concern on Ellison's face, and then he frowned, realizing Ellison had been able to hear Sandburg's panicked cries long after they'd faded for him. Reaching out, he gripped Jim's shoulder. "He'll be okay," Banks murmured. "There was no choice but to fly him out - his leg needs to be treated as soon as possible."
Nodding as he chewed on his lower lip, Jim replied quietly, "I know that, Simon. What with the blood loss and shock, and the medication they gave him, he was already flying pretty high before they took off. It's just that, well," he paused, looking out across the long valley, "I don't think I realized just how afraid of heights he really is."
"Sandburg's as brave or braver than the next guy - he's proven that in spades," Banks replied staunchly. "But phobias are strange things, Jim - they aren't rational."
Thinking of his own irrational fears, Ellison nodded and turned away to sort through the gear the FBI had ferried in, to ensure they'd have what they required for their prolonged, overnight, wait for their own ride back into town. The closest small town to their isolated location only had one small Search and Rescue helicopter available. Sandburg was the first to be airlifted out on the three-hour, one way, journey; next, the FBI would take Quinn and his woman, but it would be too dark to come back for them that night. The chopper would fly out a third time, for him and Simon, in the morning. Even with luck and good weather, it would still be eighteen hours, maybe more, before they'd get to town and be able to check on the kid.
Ellison tried not to imagine how long three hours of panicked terror could be…or how long the better part of a day could seen when worried about the well-being of a good friend. Shaking off his anxiety, he told himself firmly that Blair would be fine. Sure, he'd lost a fair amount of blood, and had suffered more than one serious blow to his head, but he hadn't seemed to be in shock and had been fully alert. The bullet had gone straight through, causing a lot of pain but no broken bones. They'd sew him up, give him some antibiotics, push some fluids into him, and he'd fine - at least he'd have a dry, warm and comfortable bed for the night, which was a good deal more than he and Simon had to look forward to during their last night in the damp forest. But despite his determined optimism, once again, Jim found himself gazing off along the valley between the mountains, and thinking about Sandburg's skyrocketing heartbeat, hammering hard and fast under his plaintive protests as the basket had swung through the air.
It was close to noon the next day before the Deputy Sheriff, who had picked them up at the small airfield outside of town, dropped them off at the small, two-story hospital in the heart of Benson Falls, a community of fifty thousand souls. She pointed to the motel down the block, indicating that rooms had been reserved there for them, and then waved to the Sheriff's Office across the street, where they could seek whatever help or support they might need while in town. Thanking her, they got out and loped up the short flight of steps to the entrance, intent on finding out how their favourite unpaid, civilian observer was doing, masking their concern by making bets with one another about how many nurses he'd already lined up dates with.
Jim strode to the Visitors' Information Desk, introduced himself and asked for guidance on where to find his partner.
"Sandburg? Yes," the blowsy, middle-aged woman nodded as she reached for the telephone on her desk. "We've been waiting for you," she added, a little repressively, as if they should have made an effort to arrive a good deal sooner, as she punched in a number. "If you'll just have seats over there," she nodded toward a row of linked metal, padded chairs, "it will just be a few minutes."
"Uh, you can just give us directions to his room," Ellison replied, frowning a little in confusion, wondering if she was calling a volunteer escort. "I'm sure we can find our way."
"I'm sure you could," she replied briskly, "but Dr. Fisher wishes to speak with you first."
Simon stiffened beside him, even as Jim felt a shaft of anxiety. "Why? Sandburg's all right, isn't he?" he demanded sharply.
"If you'll just have a seat," she encouraged again, and then half turned away to speak into the phone. "Dr. Fisher? Yes, the people you've been waiting for, the friends of Mr. Sandburg? They've just arrived. Yes, Doctor, yes. Thank you." Once again she swiveled to face them, lifting her brows as if in surprise to find them still looming over her, and not ensconced in the chairs as directed. "He'll be here in a few minutes. If you'd - "
"Just take a seat," Simon rumbled. "Yeah, we got that part." Reluctantly, wanting more information as badly as Ellison did, he tugged on Jim's arm to pull him toward the waiting area.
"Simon, don't you think this is a little weird?" Jim muttered, his head canted to one side as he tried to pick out his friend's voice or heartbeat amongst the myriad noises of the hospital. "Did she say they'd been waiting for us?"
"Well, it's a small town, Jim," Banks tried to put a good face on it. "No doubt, everyone has heard about our adventure with Quinn. Sandburg's probably a local celebrity, having been flown in by chopper with a bullet wound. Things are always a little more friendly and personal in little communities."
But Jim seemed unconvinced. Banks shrugged and leaned back in his chair; he hadn't believed his words of encouragement, either. Something was strange all right. Damned strange. But until this Dr. Fisher arrived, there wasn't much they could do but wait and not borrow trouble with useless speculation. The kid had been stable when he'd been flown out of the mountains, but leg injuries could be tricky. Sandburg might have developed a blood clot or something, and that could be serious. He'd taken a couple of pretty bad blows to the head, too, and sometimes such injuries worsened over time. Simon swallowed against his suddenly dry throat as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped as he tried not to think about such complications being more than simply serious - but he knew all too well that they could be fatal.
"Damn it," Ellison muttered in frustration, his jaw tight. "There's too much conflicting noise. I can't get a bead on him."
"Let it go," Simon murmured, but his own voice was strained. "We'll know what's going on soon enough."
Snorting, Jim got up to pace with impatient restlessness.
It was fully five minutes before the epitome of the kindly country doctor came down the hall toward them. Verging on elderly, with a fringe of wispy gray hair and a serviceable, if clearly antique, suit, robust yet with a kindly expression, he moved with calm purpose. Simon rose to stand by Jim and they moved to meet him, but he waved them back. "I'm Dr. Reginald Fisher," he called just loud enough to be heard. "You are Mr. Sandburg's friends?"
"Yes," Simon replied, his gaze narrowing in concern. "I'm Simon Banks and this is Jim Ellison. Blair works with us at the Cascade Police Department. We'd like to see him."
Coming up to them, Fisher gestured toward the line of chairs and he perched on one as well, leaning forward so that he could see both of them. "Of course, but I'd like a few minutes of your time first," he said, his gray eyes astute and assessing. "First, let me assure you, your friend is recovering well from his leg wound. The repair went fine with no complications. And though he was still suffering from the effects of a concussion, he appears to be reasonably alert and coherent this morning."
Both taller men visibly relaxed at his words. "Then, why did you want to speak with us?" Ellison demanded.
Fisher's lips thinned and then he frowned thoughtfully. "I wondered…well, how would you describe Mr. Sandburg's normal demeanor?"
"What do you mean?" Banks asked uncertainly, wondering what the physician was getting at.
"Is he an unusually quiet, introspective man?" Fisher clarified. "Even…morose?"
"Sandburg?" Surprised by the unlikely description, Banks barked a laugh. "Nuh uh. The kid never stops talking or bouncing from place to place. He's impossible to tie down."
"Why?" Jim cut in, warily watching the doctor carefully.
Sitting back in the chair, Fisher shook his head. "I was concerned that we weren't seeing normal responses," he replied with a preoccupied frown. He scratched his cheek and then focused his attention back on the other two men. "Mr. Sandburg was in deep shock by the time he arrived at the hospital late yesterday afternoon, only barely conscious and unable to respond to any questions. But his injuries alone did not appear to warrant such a debilitated condition."
Jim and Simon stiffened in concern. "His leg wound didn't seem that serious," Banks observed, worry etched on his brow. "Did he start to bleed heavily on the way in?"
"Well, his hemoglobin count was low, but we've given him a couple of liters of blood," Fisher allowed. "But, since he's awakened, his affect has still been very subdued, almost flat, and he's barely responsive, as if he is largely unaware or unconcerned about what is going on around him. I'm not sure, frankly, whether we're seeing a deep depression, a schizoid response of withdrawal from reality or some other repressed state of mind. I'd hoped you might have some information on his past medical and mental health."
Jim frowned anxiously as he cast a quick look at Simon, seeing shared understanding spark in his superior's eyes. Shifting his gaze back to the doctor, he explained, "Sandburg has a phobia about heights, and we've been worried about the impact the air evacuation might have had on him. He was…deeply panicked by swinging over empty space as they flew in. We could, uh, hear him yelling for help."
"Ah, I see," Fisher nodded, sagely. "That explains a great deal. His mind may well have retreated, somewhat at least, from reality to distance himself from his fear. It's a very long and extremely uncomfortable flight over the mountain valleys for anyone who has difficulty with heights."
"What does all this mean, exactly?" Banks asked then, as Jim stared into space, evidently trying to assimilate the doctor's words. "He'll be okay, right?"
"His odd behaviour has to be temporary, a result of shock," Jim decreed, not wanting to contemplate anything different. But deep down, he was worried that Sandburg might be suffering from something akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even as he considered the elusive condition, his chest tightened and he had to swallow hard. As a result of his experience in the Army, he knew only too well that, often, people never seemed to fully recover from overwhelming, traumatic events. But that was when they didn't get help immediately, he reassured himself, hoping he was right. "I want to see him," he said then, abruptly standing.
Standing as well, the physician looked from Ellison back to Simon, shaking his head as he replied to Banks' enquiry, "I'm sorry, I don't have the expertise to advise you properly. We don't have a psychiatric specialist on staff, I'm afraid. I think the best thing will be to get him back to Cascade as soon as possible, to arrange treatment there. Although, perhaps, once he sees the two of you and feels himself less isolated, he'll snap out of it. I hope that will be the case."
"When can he be released from here?" Banks asked. "If he needs to be seen by a specialist in Cascade, we should probably arrange transport as soon as possible."
"I agree," Fisher replied. "As I said, his leg is healing well and I see no reason why he couldn't tolerate the four-hour drive as early as tomorrow."
Turning to Jim, Simon gripped his friend's shoulder. "You go see how he is and let him know we're here. I'll go over to the Sheriff's Office to check in with Joel and make arrangements for a rental car. I may as well also see if I can round us up some new clothes. Shouldn't take me long." Banks wanted to see Sandburg for himself, but he suspected Jim would appreciate some minutes alone with his partner first.
"Thanks," Ellison muttered and then followed the physician to Sandburg's room.
Blair was in a semi-private room, but the bed by the doorway was empty. When Jim walked in, he paused to study his friend for a moment. Sandburg was staring out the window, but didn't seem to be actually looking at anything. His face was pale; the dark shadows under his eyes and his unshaven cheeks making him look haggard. He lay perfectly still, barely even blinking, and he had an air of lethargy or great exhaustion - or maybe great sadness. Listening closely, Jim decided his partner's heart was beating strongly and his breathing was clear if a little slow. The Sentinel could detect no sign of fever, so the leg wound seemed to be healing without complication, as Fisher had said earlier.
"Hey, Chief," he called out quietly as he moved toward the bed.
Sandburg blinked at the sound of his voice, and slowly turned his head toward Jim, but no grin of welcome appeared, and his eyes seemed dull. He licked his dry lips and his gaze dropped away from Ellison's as he barely gave a nod of acknowledgment. Then, briefly, he seemed to gather up his dregs of energy to observe hoarsely, "Guess you and Simon just got to town, huh? You both must be anxious to get back to Cascade."
Jim frowned at the raspy, barely audible voice; it sounded like talking must be painful. His own throat thickened with the realization that Sandburg must have screamed until he'd lost his voice during the flight under the chopper. "Well, we were more anxious to see how you were doing, Sandburg," he replied as he moved to stand close to the bed. "You okay?"
Nodding slowly, Blair turned to again stare sightlessly at the window. "Fine," he croaked. "Sorry to be so much bother, that's all."
"Bother?" Ellison echoed, uncertainly. He'd never seen Sandburg so remote or lacking in vibrancy. "What are you talking about?"
Sandburg gave a tiny shrug and remained silent for a long moment. Then, wearily, he replied, "Been thinking about…a lot of things. I was pretty useless the last few days. Just kept slowing you down. Getting into trouble. Shouldn't have gone along, I guess." His eyelids dipped, and he picked listlessly at the sheet under his hand. "You were fine. Didn't need my help. I was just…a nuisance, mostly." His lips tightened and thinned, and then he added, very softly, "And a coward."
"Whoa, hey, come on," Jim protested as he lightly gripped his friend's shoulder. "Where did all this come from?"
Blair stiffened under his touch, and his jaw tightened - the most reaction he'd shown since Ellison had walked into his room. Flashing a quick look of humiliation up at Jim and then, veiling his eyes quickly, he turned his head away. "You heard me; I know you did," he whispered roughly, and Jim knew the kid was referring to his panicked cries for help. Swallowing against his painful throat, he added, "I'm sorry, man, but I…" His voice caught and he had to compress his lips tightly as he again swallowed heavily, wincing a little. "I can't do this anymore," he rasped.
"You're just tired, Chief," Ellison rumbled as he tightened his grip. "You've had a rough couple of days. You'll feel better when you've had some rest."
But Blair shook his head once, his eyes still downcast. "No," he murmured, his voice sounding empty and lost. "I won't. Go home, Jim."
"They must have you on some heavy-duty meds to mess with your head like this," Ellison countered, trying to sound jocular but failing. "You're starting to worry me, here."
Sandburg remained silent, and Ellison could almost feel him draw away, though the younger man remained motionless. It was as if his spirit was fading. "Look, I know that flight out was tough," Jim said then, soberly, frowning when Blair flinched. "And it didn't help that your defences were already down, what with the shock of being shot and the blood loss. I wish there could have been another way to - "
Sandburg pulled out of his grip to roll on his side, his back to Ellison. Jim sighed and shook his head, wishing he had a clue what to say or do to ease the kid's suffering. Obviously, what he was doing wasn't helping much. "Chief, what do you need?" he asked, beginning to feel alarmed. "What will help?"
But Blair remained still and silent, and Ellison could feel him withdrawing, further and further away.
"Mr. Ellison," Dr. Fisher called softly from the doorway, from where he'd been observing the interaction. When Jim looked back over his shoulder at him, the physician waved to him to follow out to the hallway.
Jim hesitated, not wanting to just walk away, but he didn't know what to do. Sighing again, he nodded. "I'll be right back, Chief," he said. "Your doctor just wants to talk to me for a minute." When he got no response, he rubbed Sandburg's arm, and then turned to leave the room.
"Don't come back, Jim," he heard behind him, so soft even he almost missed the words. "No point."
Ellison whirled back around, his eyes narrowing in consternation. Shaking his head, he retraced his steps and circled the bed to stand in front of his friend. When Blair wouldn't look at him, he squatted down, to try to see into Sandburg's eyes, but the half-lowered lids frustrated his efforts. "Listen to me, Blair," he growled softly, worry making his voice harsher than he intended. "Stop beating yourself up for something you couldn't help." Sighing when he still didn't get any reaction, he stood. "I will be back," he stated unequivocally before going to talk with the doctor. "Count on it."
Fisher led the way along the hall to a waiting room at the end. Unlike big city hospitals, this lounge was cozily furnished with old but comfortable chairs and sofas, with lamps to enable visitors to read the myriad magazines and journals, scattered on various low tables, that had been donated to ease their hours of anxiety. The old doctor settled into one of the armchairs and waved Ellison to the one across from him.
"Well, you got more of a reaction than anyone else has so far," he said briskly. "I've heard a little of what happened in the mountains, but not the details. Why is Mr. Sandburg so convinced he was a burden, more than a help?"
Jim raked his hand over his head and absentmindedly rubbed the back of his neck. Shrugging, he replied, "In addition to chasing down an escaped murderer who had taken our boss hostage, we ran into some crazy hunters who wanted the money the criminal had stashed after a robbery, before he was caught and sent to prison. They, uh, drove us into jumping from a cliff into the river, and Blair hit his head on a rock or something. When I left him to rest while I searched for the trail, they caught up with him and threatened to kill him. A fight ensued between the hunters, and one killed the other, but Sandburg managed to escape. And then, when we were in the process of arresting Quinn and the woman who'd helped him escape custody, the hunter caught up with us and shot Blair." Jim's lips thinned thoughtfully as he stared down the hallway. "I think it's the flight out that bothers him most, though." Turning back to the doctor, he added, "I get the feeling that he's ashamed, more than depressed or withdrawn."
Nodding, Fisher replied, "You may be right about that. It's difficult for a police officer to think his colleagues have witnessed him succumb to terror."
"Blair's not a cop," Jim corrected wearily, hating to give voice to the lie once again. "He's doctoral student of Anthropology at Rainier University, who's studying the police as research for his dissertation. He's been assigned to work with me for the last couple of years."
Startled, Fisher blinked. "I see. Well, perhaps this misadventure was more than he imagined having to deal with, and it overwhelmed him."
Shaking his head, Ellison licked his lips and then disagreed. "Since just about the first day on the job, Sandburg has faced down mad bombers, white supremacists, psychotic serial killers - you name it. Nothing has ever shaken him this badly."
"Two years…" the doctor reflected. "Well, perhaps he's struggled to hide his anxieties and natural nervousness in a strange, and apparently very often dangerous, environment. It would be normal for him to hide his fears in an effort to keep up with you and the others he's encountered in the police force; he'd want to garner some measure of respect and credibility - that's only human." Pausing, he shook his head as he imagined what the young man had endured during the flight out of the mountains. "From the damage to his throat, I'd imagine that he must have been screaming in terror for quite some time during the transport here. If he believes you heard any of that, he may feel he's lost your respect." Nodding again, thoughtfully, he added, "So, yes, I think you may be right. We may be seeing an extreme case of humiliation and shame, aggravated by his other injuries, leaving him feeling weak and ineffectual. And that may have caused a kind of situational depression."
"He's got nothing to be ashamed of," Jim grated fiercely. "He's one of the bravest, most resilient and inventive men I've ever known, and he's contended with felons and situations that would give the most experienced cop nightmares."
"Well, Mr. Ellison, I'd say it's your job to make him understand that," Fisher said with a small smile. "Your good opinion appears to be important to him, and you seem to be concerned enough about him to want to try to help him deal with this."
Jim's gaze dropped as he thought about that, and then he nodded, though 'concerned' didn't begin to cover how he felt about Sandburg or the commitment he felt toward helping the younger man recover from this trauma. In truth, he felt guilty for ever allowing Blair to accompany him on the dangerous trek to rescue Simon, and saw it as his responsibility to help make his partner 'whole' again.
Dr. Fisher stood and briefly gripped Ellison's shoulder. "Good luck, son," he said quietly, before turning away to attend to other duties.
Jim remained in the waiting room, silently pondering the problem of Sandburg's depression and sudden loss of confidence, and wondering how best to help his partner. If their situations were reversed, he knew Blair would have no difficulty coming up with the words and examples to help put the sense of personal defeat by overwhelming fear into perspective. But Ellison wasn't as handy with words and found intimate, personal conversations daunting in the extreme. Blowing out a long breath, he scrubbed his face with his hands, and was about to return to Sandburg's room, when Simon appeared. The big man looked weighted down more by concern than by the shopping bags in his hands.
"Jim, how is he?" Banks asked as he strode into the visitors' lounge.
Shaking his head, grimacing a little, Ellison shrugged. "Not good," he sighed. "He seems to have gotten it into his head that he's a useless burden and a coward - says he's not sure he can do 'this' anymore."
"Damn," Simon grunted as he sank into the chair vacated by Fisher. "So, what does he need? Counseling? I could set up an appointment with the department's psych expert."
"Yeah, that's maybe a good idea," Jim allowed slowly. "But, more, I think he needs to know he hasn't lost our respect. He's, uh, very aware that we heard him yelling as he was flown away."
Banks nodded thoughtfully. "I wonder," he mused hesitatingly, "if the kid isn't right, though. I mean, not that he's a coward - but he takes 'way more risks as an unpaid civilian than I've ever been comfortable with. And you seem to be doing okay, right? Maybe it's time to cut him loose, at least from active participation in your cases."
Intellectually, even emotionally, Ellison didn't disagree. If anything, he wished he didn't have to drag Sandburg into difficult and potentially dangerous situations. The kid had been at risk far too often in the past two years - hurt, sometimes badly, and nearly killed on more than one occasion. Jim's dependency on Blair's support bothered the detective greatly, leaving him feeling helpless, vulnerable and out of control - not to mention, guilty when things went bad. But his gut rebelled at Simon's suggestion; a fundamental, physical, very deep visceral rejection of the idea of cutting Sandburg loose. Sure, on this latest mission, his senses had been fine; hadn't spun out or spiked once. But, what if they had erupted into dysfunction and he'd been on his own? And he couldn't help but wonder if his control was as good as it was because Sandburg had been with him - a subtle kind of 'grounding force' that he'd come to rely upon to keep him focused and balanced.
Regardless, he was absolutely certain that terminating Sandburg's role as his unofficial partner at this particular juncture would do more damage than good - Blair would, no doubt, interpret it as confirmation that he was no longer trusted or respected, and be left to cope with his feelings of humiliation and failure on his own. And, with all he'd given and contributed, all he'd risked and survived with the inherent bravery and commitment he'd brought every day since they'd met, that just seemed wrong.
"Maybe," Ellison allowed in response to Banks' comment. "But, I don't think so." Looking across at his friend and superior, he shrugged. "I know you aren't comfortable with this sentinel business, Simon. I don't think I understand it all a whole lot better than you do, to tell you the truth. But I do know Sandburg makes an essential difference…I think I need him, even now when things are so much better than they were in the beginning. Wish I didn't, frankly, but I think I really do." He paused. "And besides - how do you think he'll feel if we cut him loose now, when he's already convinced that he's a useless failure?"
Simon nodded thoughtfully. "I see your point; we'd never convince him that he's not a coward, or that we don't blame him. Okay, it's your call," Banks rumbled as he stood. "So, where is the kid?"
Standing, Jim led the way back to Blair's room.
When they walked in, they found Sandburg once again lying on his back, but one arm was lifted to cover his eyes. Simon looked questioningly at Jim, and Ellison replied, "He's awake."
Nodding, Banks moved to the side of the bed nearest the window and stood there awkwardly, but he quickly got hold of himself, squaring his shoulders as he asked in a compassionate, but no-nonsense tone, "Sandburg, what's this I hear about you feeling under the weather? Is your leg bothering you? Do you need some medication?"
Blair stiffened, unaware until then who had returned with Jim, having assumed it was the doctor. Swallowing, he replied with his raspy, muted voice, "No, I'm fine, thanks."
"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "You know, I appreciate it when people look at me when I'm trying to have a conversation with them."
Sighing, Sandburg lowered his arm and flicked a quick look at Banks before lowering his eyes to the foot of the bed. Jim had taken up a position on the side opposite Simon, so he was effectively bracketed, unable to turn away from one man without facing the other.
The older men exchanged a quizzical look, but Banks forged on. Holding up one of the bags before placing it on the bedside table, he said, "I picked up some fresh clothes for you; a shirt, new jeans, underwear and socks, for the drive home tomorrow. We're all a bit grungy from running around the woods too long."
Sandburg's lips compressed, but then he took a deep breath and seemed to gather his forces. Looking up at Banks, though he had trouble maintaining eye contact, he said carefully, "Thanks, Simon. That was, uh, good of you. I'll pay you back." Cutting a quick look at Jim, and then studying his feet once more, he asked uncertainly, "Are you sure you don't mind taking me back to Cascade tomorrow? I mean, I could stay here a little longer, and get a bus or something in a few days."
Snorting, Simon looked around and pulled up a chair, to take a load off his own protesting and stiff muscles, and make himself more comfortable. "Your doctor says you'll be ready to go with us tomorrow," he finally replied in an easy tone. "We wouldn't feel good about going without you, anyway."
Blair dipped his head once in acknowledgment as he murmured, "Thanks."
Once again, Banks shook his head and looked across the bed at Ellison. Cocking a brow, he jerked his head toward the younger man, a nonverbal direction to 'say something.'
"Chief," Jim began stiffly, worried about saying the wrong thing, but unable to beat around the bush, "it isn't like you to just give up like this. I mean, you know people aren't responsible for phobias - you didn't treat me like I was some kind of failure when you found out how I feel about open water. Why are you being so hard on yourself?"
Sandburg's jaw clenched as he shook his head, a minute, tight, gesture. "You didn't yell your head off like a maniac until you lost your voice, and then freeze up like some kind of zombie, too terrified to hardly breathe," he finally whispered, deeply ashamed. "You just did what you had to do, like always."
"Hey, that's not exactly true," Ellison countered, aware his boss was studying him with no little interest, having never heard any of this before. "I couldn't have done it without your help to get me to focus exclusively on the ship. You know that."
Blair shrugged, clearly unconvinced.
"C'mon, you're blowing this all out of proportion," Jim cajoled softly as he gripped his partner's shoulder.
Stung, Sandburg looked up at his friend, his eyes dark with pain and humiliation. "I was useless out there, Jim, and you know it," he charged hoarsely. "I nearly drowned in the damned river, and would have if you hadn't hauled me to shore. I got caught by those freaks because I was stupid, plain and simple, and was just lucky to get away - and one of them died in the fight with the other one over whether to murder me or not." He swallowed and looked away briefly, feeling guilty for causing that stranger's death. Forcing himself to once again face Ellison, he continued with a husky rasp, "And then I got shot and couldn't handle the smoke - Simon would have been killed if you hadn't blown up that shack! I was in the way, a distraction and a danger. And then, to top it off, I screamed like a banshee instead of being grateful to get flown out of there first, to be brought here, for treatment. You didn't want me to go with you in the first place, and you were right. You would have been a lot better off on your own, and Simon could have gone with you to find that back exit from the cave, if he hadn't had to stay with me. So, I don't think I'm 'blowing this all out of proportion'. I think we're all just damned lucky I didn't get the two of you killed with my incompetence."
"Sandburg, it wasn't your fault those two hunters decided they wanted in on the stolen money, or that they shot you," Simon intervened quietly but firmly. "It could as easily have been me or Jim that got hit."
Once again Blair's gaze dropped and he shrugged. "I appreciate that, Simon. But the fact is, I'm a liability. And…and now you both know that I'll fall apart under pressure - lose it completely." His voice wavered and he blinked hard as he tightly crossed his arms across his chest. "Please," he whispered brokenly. "Please just leave me alone. I don't…don't want to be m-more of a b-bother than I've already b-been."
Banks scratched his head and looked helplessly up at Ellison, who gazed just as dispiritedly back. They both felt like they were harassing a broken man, tag-teaming him when Blair was too exhausted to deal with them. It scared both of them to see him in such deep and, ultimately, unreasonable despair. It wasn't rational, and was probably a hangover from his terror during the long flight out of the mountains.
Shrugging, Banks stood. "Son, we'll give you a break and let you rest tonight," Simon said quietly as he, too, reached to clasp Blair's shoulder. "But while you're busy beating yourself up, take a little time to remember the guy who jumped out of a plane over Peru to save a friend; the same guy who insisted upon heading into danger two days ago, to save the same friend. I care about that man, and I respect him. I won't hear you trashing him, you hear me? You just think about that."
"And while you're at it," Jim added tightly. "You might want to give some thought to the guy who stayed on an oil rig not too long ago, to find and diffuse a bomb so that other men wouldn't be blown to bits. You're not a coward, Chief. We know that. You need to know it, too."
With that, Banks and Ellison left the room. Blair looked up then, and stared at the empty doorway, wishing he could believe them. But all he could remember was how he could have been the cause of Simon being killed - and the sound of his own screams until he couldn't scream anymore. The horrific fears he'd felt during the entire escapade, from having to leap off a cliff to running in blind panic to get away from the crazy hunter, to the shock of being shot and believing Quinn was going to kill them, to the ultimate, endless terror of swinging wildly in the wind so far above the valleys below, rose again, swamping him, so that he moaned with despair as he curled onto his side. Pressing his eyes closed, he tried to deepen and steady his breathing, and to quell the nausea roiling in his belly. His leg throbbed in counterpoint to his blazing headache and, finally, he sought the only refuge he could…
…and let himself slide down into the darkness of sleep.
But his fears and doubts found him even there, haunting his dreams and tormenting him with terrifying nightmares, in which he saw Simon blown away by Quinn - and felt the wire basket tilt and fall away, so that he was screaming out his last breath as he plummeted helplessly to the valley below.
The next morning, Simon stayed with the rented car, while Jim went inside to collect Blair. When Ellison arrived in his partner's room, he found Sandburg up, showered, shaved and dressed in the stiff new clothing, his hair severely pulled back from his face, and his manner subdued.
"Ah, good, you're ready," Jim said with forced cheeriness. "You have breakfast?"
"Yeah," Blair replied, feeling no need to confess his stomach had been twisted into too many knots to eat it.
A nurse came in with a wheelchair and Ellison helped his friend into it. On the way past the desk, he was handed crutches for Blair's use while his wounded leg was healing. Minutes later, the kid was settled in the back of the car, his leg stretched out along the seat beside him, and they headed out to the highway.
"Feeling any better today, Sandburg?" Banks asked as he drove them out of town.
"I'm fine, Simon, thanks," Blair replied, but his voice lacked conviction as he stared listlessly out the window, at the passing scenery.
Jim caught his boss's eye and shrugged. The kid still looked exhausted and was in no condition for a prolonged and difficult discussion. In silent accord, they decided to leave him alone for the duration of the trip. But that didn't mean they couldn't talk to one another. And if they happened to be talking about things that involved Sandburg, well, he could join in or not. It was up to him.
"Jim, you never told me you had a phobia about open water," Simon observed with transparent purpose. "Seems odd, you being an ex-Ranger, right? Care to share?"
Well understanding his superior's ploy, and appreciating it though he didn't really like talking about it all, Jim's lips quirked slightly in chagrined amusement. Clearing his throat, he said, "Sure, why not? You see, it's like this. When you get dropped into deep water on a mission, you can see land or a ship, or whatever the target is, but, uh, open, rolling waves, with no land in sight - now, that's something different." Reluctantly, but determined to be candid for Sandburg's sake, he added tightly, "Gives me the shakes just to think about it. I felt downright sick flying over the ocean to the rig, to tell you the truth."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Jim," Simon replied with a frown, sincerely meaning it. "You should have told me - I wouldn't have asked you to go out there, if I'd known. Why didn't you?"
Sighing, Jim shrugged. "I guess I was ashamed, embarrassed, to say anything, Simon. Pretty dumb, huh? I mean, I know you wouldn't hold it against me."
"Damn straight," Banks growled. "Might have referred you to counseling, though, to learn how to conquer it, or at least live with it. But phobias, well, they just seem to come out of nowhere. Why d'ya think you're nervous in open water?"
"Nervous doesn't quite cover it," Ellison replied ruefully, still feeling queasy whenever he thought about it for too long. Rubbing his nose, he shook his head. "I'm not sure where it came from, to be honest. Didn't even know I had it until the first time we were flying a mission at night over the ocean. Only thing that kept me from losing it was that it was too dark to really see much of anything, so I could tell myself to think about something else. But when I can see it - well, then it's damned hard to ignore."
"I read that phobias are usually related to a sense of being out of control," Banks mused. "And are tied to fears of dying. Natural enough. The wonder is more folks don't suffer from them. Maybe it takes a good imagination to react so strongly."
"Could be," Jim allowed. "It's as good an explanation as any."
"So, how'd you get past it?" Banks persisted with a glance in the rearview mirror. He could see that Sandburg was listening, and the kid looked thoughtful. "You said that Sandburg helped somehow?"
"Yeah, he did," Ellison replied unequivocally. "Blair figured that if I dialed up one sense, my sight in this case, to focus on the ship I was swimming toward, and tuned out everything else, then I could kinda almost zone on the ship and forget I was in the middle of the ocean."
"Neat trick," Simon acknowledged. "But, what if you had to swim somewhere and you couldn't see your destination? What would you focus on then?"
Ellison stiffened and went a little pale as he shook his head, not really wanting to think about it.
"The horizon," Blair murmured from the back seat, his need to reassure Jim overcoming his lethargy and depression. "During the day, anyway. The North Star, to keep heading in the right direction, at night."
Ellison sucked in a deep breath and let his shoulders relax. Looking back over his shoulder, he asked uncertainly, "You really think that would work - I mean, if I ever had to do something like that?"
"Sure," Sandburg replied, his tone neutral, almost flat. "You're determined, and nothing gets in the way of you having to do what has to be done. So, yeah, you'd be fine."
Not missing the slight emphasis, Jim frowned. "What about you, Chief? Would something like that work for you, focusing on the horizon, I mean?"
Sandburg swallowed hard and lowered his head. "The problem is, you usually have to look down to see where you're going, and that's…well, that's when it all goes bad," he said miserably.
Unconvinced, Ellison continued, "But, right after we met, you climbed a tree. And then you climbed out of a window onto that flimsy platform to get away from Kincaid's men. You were okay in the helicopter when we were headed out to the rig, and on the way back, too, for that matter."
"What?" Jim pressed, shifting in his seat to look back more comfortably.
"Well, first of all, I wasn't about to freak out on you the first day we met and you'd grudgingly agreed to work with me," Sandburg grated, his throat tight. "And, besides, the tree wasn't all that high. Even if I fell out of it, I likely wouldn't have killed myself. And, during the siege, well, I'd already seen those guys shoot Joel. So I figured my odds of living were better outside the building, even if only on that window-washer platform - but you have NO idea how hard it was to let go of the window sill and just drop." Blair shuddered at the memory. "As for flying to and from the rig in a helicopter, well, again, I wasn't going to let you know I was afraid. I mean, I figured you'd think I was a wimp. So I babbled about how exciting it all was, remember, about how men braved the elements and conquered all?" He laughed, a low bitter sound that held no amusement. "And I just kept telling myself that the helicopter was safe. So long as I was in it, I wouldn't fall from the sky."
"Why wouldn't you want to talk about your fears, Sandburg?" Simon asked then. "Everyone is afraid of something."
"Everyone doesn't shriek their fool head off in mindless hysteria," Blair muttered, crossing his arms as if trying to compress himself, make himself smaller somehow. "Jim says he was afraid, but that didn't stop him."
"Uh huh," Banks rumbled. "But he says that's 'cause you were there to help. Maybe that's part of what makes a difference. Not being alone with the phobic fear."
Blair lowered his head, thinking about that. "What about you, Simon?" he asked, his voice small. "You got any phobias?"
"I'm scared shitless something will happen to Daryl, and I won't be able to protect him," Simon replied with absolutely no hesitation. "When they hung him out that window - my God, I…I couldn't think. I thought I'd have a heart attack. Would have done something stupid if Jim hadn't grabbed me and pulled me out of the street."
Sandburg lifted his head and turned to gaze at Banks, making brief eye contact when Simon glanced up to the rearview mirror. "And that's the honest truth, Blair," he added softly. "I lost it and was just reacting."
Jim was also studying his boss thoughtfully, as he grappled with the whole phobia thing. "Maybe you're right, Simon. Maybe having someone else there to, I don't know, ground you, makes the difference in dealing with the fear." Turning back to Sandburg, he continued, "Maybe if you'd been in the chopper, instead of hanging alone underneath it…or maybe if there was a greater danger, like you were bleeding to death at the time and knew you had to get to a hospital as fast as possible…or if the ride hadn't been so long - maybe you would have handled the fear differently."
"Maybe," Blair sighed as he pulled the tight cord from his hair and raked his fingers through it. "But the fact is, I just about lost my mind out there. I've never been so petrified in my life."
"The point is, Chief, you probably won't have to do anything like that ever again. That was the worst ever, and you survived it," Jim said compassionately. "You're not a coward, Sandburg, no more than me or Simon are cowards."
Looking away, his expression again despondent, Blair murmured, "Maybe not - but I was still a useless liability."
Jim grimaced and bowed his head. "That's not true," he replied, discouraged.
"Yeah, it is, and you know it as well as I do," Blair replied bleakly, as he rubbed his aching forehead. To forestall further conversation, he shifted against the seat and closed his eyes, seeking the uncertain solace of sleep.
Jim opened his mouth, intending to argue the point, but he paused as he really looked at Blair, and then he tightened his lips, his eyes darkening with concern. His friend looked utterly wasted, pale and haggard, diminished somehow with none of his usual vitality and exuberance. There were bruises darkening his face, and the kid absently rubbed at his aching leg. His gaze dropping away, Jim turned to stare out the windshield. His throat tightened with worry, but he told himself they'd made some progress - Blair had voluntarily entered the conversation and, even if reluctantly, had admitted that he might not be the coward he condemned himself as being. It was a start, at least, at drawing him out of his well of despair.
Propping his elbow on the window ledge, his chin in his hand, Ellison thought back over the last several days, and how he'd not wanted Sandburg to go with him on the rescue mission. Should he have insisted more strenuously that Blair stay behind? He shook his head, doubting that the kid would have ever agreed to let him head off into the forest alone, and honest enough with himself to admit he wouldn't have ultimately refused the support. Much as he still hated to admit it, he needed Sandburg with him, especially when he knew he was going to strain his senses. But his senses had turned out to be fine. So, was Blair right that he'd been little more than a burden or liability? Jim chewed on his inner lip as he thought about it - because if he was going to convince Sandburg otherwise, he'd have to be clear himself on why it had been a good thing, even a necessary thing, to have his partner along, though the bare facts of the actual events might suggest otherwise.
The rest of the journey was quiet, as each man lost himself in his thoughts.
Simon found himself regretting that Sandburg had been pushed to his limits only because the young man been brave and decent enough to have set off with Ellison to rescue him. The bullet wound, though painful and a shock, would heal and the kid would likely turn it into a kind of trophy to thrill his lady loves; but Banks was less sure Blair would recover from the psychic wounds of suffering a fear so great and terrible that he'd almost withdrawn from reality, and then experienced a sense of humiliation and shame that was crippling. He frowned as he thought about how the grad student appeared to take external threats in his stride, even the threat of being murdered but, like any other man, had difficulty defeating the deep-seated demons in his own mind.
Jim pondered his relationship with Sandburg. When he'd first met the kid, he'd thought the hyperactive student was a few cards short of a full deck, and likely hopped up on something to boot. He'd been skeptical, to say the least, but the young man just kept coming up a winner, both in terms of an endless flow of ideas on how to manage his senses, and also in dealing with the inherent hazards of police work in a large, coastal city. Though Jim knew, at first, he'd resented the need to depend on anyone, let alone someone so very different from himself, Sandburg had slipped under his radar and was now almost an extension of himself; certainly, the younger man was integral to his life, his work and his home. Sure, Blair was annoying sometimes. His constant chatter and indefatigable energy could be exhausting; he didn't have an affinity for orderly neatness; and he only took orders he saw the value in, though Jim had to admit the kid usually did what he was told in potentially dangerous situations. But, despite all their differences, one thing was very clear to Ellison: Sandburg would do anything in the young man's power to help him, regardless of the dangers or potential consequences. And that was something extraordinary, a depth of personal commitment to him that no one else had ever had. Most of the time, now, after nearly two years of working together, living together and having become fast friends, Jim tended to take that commitment for granted. But as he glanced back and saw how defeated Blair looked, how miserable and sad, his heart twisted. It was time to give something back, something other than being a fascinating research project. It was time to be the committed friend, who wouldn't let the kid suffer through this crisis of confidence alone, but would find a way to help him get his balance back. Whatever it took.
Blair curled against the seat as much as he could and not pull the stitches in his leg, and thought about what the others had said about their phobic fears and how they dealt with them. He was slightly ashamed to be amazed at how supportive both men were being - he'd thought they'd either laugh at him or be disgusted in a distant sort of way. God knew, he was disgusted with himself and cringed inside every time he thought about that hellacious ride out of the mountains. He'd never been so terrified in his life; never so overwhelmed with fear that his mind had finally virtually shut down in self-defence. That was nearly as scary as the fear itself had been, because Sandburg knew very well that he depended on his mind being up to any challenge, any situation. If he lost the capacity to think, he was indeed helpless. And it galled him to know he'd done it to himself. The fear was unreasonable, had no basis in any kind of rationale or even experience, so far as he could remember. He liked to think of himself as flexible and adaptive, but such phobic terror argued a deep need for control and an even deeper fear of losing control of his life. And he'd sure lost any scrap of self-determination when he'd been strapped into that basket and then suspended for an eternity over the yawning depths of the valleys below. His gut clenched and he shuddered, just thinking about it.
Forcing his thoughts in another direction, dragging in a cleansing breath, Sandburg again considered his complete lack of contribution to Simon's rescue. With no little chagrin, he acknowledged to himself that he'd come to feel he was indispensable to Jim, essential to the older man's wellbeing, and now he knew, without doubt, that simply wasn't true. He wanted to feel good about that, knowing as he did that Ellison functioned so well now because he'd helped Jim learn a lot about his senses, and he knew how important it was to his friend to feel independent. So he should be happy, right? Not sad, or scared…or lost and empty. But he knew if Jim no longer needed him, then it was time to finish his diss, get his PhD and move on. Only…he didn't want to. He loved the life he'd discovered at Ellison's side, loved having a stable home and contributing to such important, even exciting, work. Still, even if Jim and Simon could overlook his pathetic behaviour, there wasn't a lot of reason to hang around anymore. Blair was surprised to know how very much that realization hurt, how bereft it made him feel; but his feelings didn't matter. It was time to get his act in gear and move on.
When Simon pulled up in front of the loft, he got out of the car to help Sandburg extricate himself from the backseat and steadied the smaller man while Jim got out his crutches and handed them to the kid, one at a time. Blair mumbled, "Thanks," and unsteadily began to shift his balance to accommodate the metal supports and keep his weight off his bad leg. But Banks reached out to lightly grasp the grad student's arm, drawing his attention.
"Before you go inside, I wanted to give you some things to think about, Sandburg," the big man said soberly, a frown of concern marring his visage. "First, you've said that you shouldn't have gone along with Jim; that you were, as I think you put it, 'useless' during the operation. Well, for starters, I've never noticed that you have the power to read the future. You went because you thought Jim might need you, and he might well have. Just 'cause he didn't this time, doesn't mean he won't again in the future. And, more than that, I just wanted to thank you for going into a dangerous situation to help rescue me. I'm sorry you ended up hurt."
Blair gaped a little at the serious, sincere, tone and then flushed, embarrassed by the appreciation he saw glowing in Banks' eyes. "You don't need to thank me," he murmured uncomfortably. "You would have done the same thing if it was Jim or me who was taken by Quinn."
"Yes, I would have," Simon agreed earnestly. "But I'm a cop and that's my job. You went because you're a friend, a good friend, one I'm grateful to have. If there's anything I can do to help you feel better about what happened out there, I hope you'll tell me."
Nodding his thanks, Blair again began to maneuver around Banks, only to be stopped again.
"One more thing," Simon told him with the tone of command. "You're being very hard on yourself right now. I'd like you to be as kind to yourself as you are to anyone else in a similar predicament. For example, think of how you reacted to Joel when he just had enough one day and started to shake. Did you hold it against him? Think badly of him? No, you didn't. You were compassionate and did your best to help understand him that any man has his limits. Don't be judging yourself more harshly than you did him. Okay?"
Blair's throat thickened and he had to bow his head to blink back the burn in his eyes. His chest was tight and he clamped his jaw to keep his lip from trembling. He would never, in a million years, have expected such kind and insightful advice from Simon - honestly would never have thought the big man cared enough about him to bother. Once again, he felt ashamed, but mostly he was simply deeply moved. Lifting his head, he nodded. "I'll try, Simon. Thanks, man."
Banks patted him on the shoulder and then moved out of his way. Jim gave his boss a grateful look as he ambled slowly beside Sandburg, keeping one hand lightly on his friend's back to steady him, and to catch him if he stumbled. When they reached the entryway, Simon called out, "Take your time and make sure you let that leg heal. But remember I expect you both back to work as soon as possible!"
Ellison looked up with a grin and waved. Blair stilled, but then looked back over his shoulder and gave Banks a long, thoughtful look…but then he nodded. It was enough to reassure Simon, who waved back and then got into the rental vehicle and drove away.
Neither man spoke as they navigated to and into the elevator and then along the upper hallway. Jim let them into the apartment, and Blair started to head to his room.
"How about I make us some lunch before you hit the sheets, Chief?" Ellison suggested, wary of simply letting Blair withdraw into his little hideaway.
Sandburg was about to refuse, but was surprised to find himself actually feeling hungry. Pausing, he looked at Jim and said agreeably, "I could eat."
"Good. Have a seat and I'll heat up some soup, or would you prefer an omelet?" Jim asked with a wave toward the table.
"Soup would be good," Blair replied as he pulled out a chair and sank down onto it, balancing his crutches against the edge of the table. He watched Jim root through the cans in the cupboard and then open one, spilling the contents into a saucepan. "Simon said some nice things just now," he ventured thoughtfully.
"No more than the truth," Ellison replied as he filled the coffee machine and set it to perk. Turning to lean against the counter, he crossed his arms and then added, "Some of us tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on other people. Simon was right to point that out and suggest such an unconscious mindset is counterproductive."
Nodding, Blair dropped his gaze and picked at a loose threat on his shirt. "I think he was wrong, though, about you still needing my backup," he murmured disconsolately. "I mean, you only agreed to let me help you until you had a good handle on your senses and, well, I think we're there."
"Why? Because I didn't zone in the forest?" Ellison probed neutrally, narrowing his eyes as he studied his young friend.
"Well, yeah," Sandburg agreed with a quick look to judge Jim's demeanor, as his voice had given nothing away. "And, you'd rather not have me hanging on your tail, right?"
Ellison shrugged as he turned to stir the heating soup. "The stuff I had to do over the past few days was relatively easy, when you think about it. Simon's cigars and the smell of smoke on his clothing are pretty distinctive, particularly in the virgin forest. Hearing voices at a distance, when everything else is quiet, isn't hard. And seeing light against the darkness is no trick, either. But, uh… I think sometimes that I have better control when you're around, than when you aren't. As if your presence, your voice or something, grounds me."
"Really?" Blair asked, his curiousity immediately engaged. But then his doubts assailed him again. "You're not just saying that?"
"No, Chief, I'm not," Jim replied carefully. "Simon was right. I probably do still need you, especially here in the city, where the constant barrage of smells, sounds and lights are a perpetual distraction and put a strain on my senses."
"Hmm," Sandburg pondered, his expression thoughtful, as his intellect began to reassert itself over his debilitating emotions. "Maybe we should test that, somehow, but I'm not sure how to go about it," he mused. "If I don't go with you, and it turns out you needed me, then you'd be at risk."
"Maybe we can just take some things on good faith, Chief," Jim replied, trying to forestall more tests.
"Maybe," Blair murmured, unconvinced, as the scientist in his mind warred with the friend who wanted to accept such reassurances. Sighing, he returned to the issue at hand. "Still, I shouldn't have gone with you. I just complicated everything, made things more difficult."
"I know it seems that way," Ellison allowed. Turning away from the stove, he added, "But we didn't know what would happen when we started out." Pausing, he studied Sandburg's dejected slump, then continued, "It's not like any of it was your fault, Chief, or that you ever flinched from what we had to do, like jump off that cliff. I had no idea at the time how really hard that must have been for you. And, uh, well, I probably shouldn't have left you alone when you were hurt; especially knowing those maniacs were tracking us. We could have taken it more slowly so that you could have kept up, or even taken a bit of a break."
Sandburg shrugged off the apology; if he hadn't been along in the first place, Jim wouldn't have to feel badly about having left him behind for a while. Noting the continued downcast look, Ellison sighed and turned to pour the soup into two bowls. He carried them to the table, and then got spoons, crackers and some bread and butter. By then, the coffee had finished and he poured two mugs before joining Sandburg at the table.
They ate for a bit in silence, and then Jim asked, "Chief, what's really bothering you? Is it that we know you're afraid of heights or that you feel it was a mistake to go with me - or something else?"
Setting down his spoon, Sandburg replied slowly, "All of the above, I guess." He lifted his troubled gaze to Jim's and tried to explain, as best he could, though emotions can be difficult to put into words. "I really hate that you guys heard me screaming like a baby - I despise myself for being so afraid and behaving like such a fool. And, I guess, I'm…wondering if you really do still need my help. I've…I've loved working with you and really don't want to stop. But, if I'm in the way, more burden than help now, well, I guess, I should be giving you a break and getting out of your life."
"Chief, only a fool feels no fear," Ellison replied steadily. "And you're no fool. If someone dropped me in the middle of the ocean and left me there for hours, I'd be hard pressed to keep my cool. You were hurt, in pain, light-headed from blood loss and shock, and on some heavy-duty painkillers, so your reactions were exaggerated and you had less than your usual self-control. And you were trapped in a basket swinging over a void for hours, alone and helpless. I'm only sorry that was necessary - and that I couldn't help you, make it better, somehow. Give yourself a break, already."
His lips compressed and his brows arching under his curls, Blair swallowed hard and nodded. "You don't think I'm a complete wuss?" he ventured.
"Well, yeah, but then I always did," Jim grinned back as he reached to ruffle his friend's hair. When Sandburg snickered reflexively, Ellison felt his some of his own tension ease. If the kid could laugh, he'd be okay. "Can you just accept you're human and let it go? I'll try to make sure you're never put in such a situation again."
"I'll try, Jim," Sandburg sighed. "But it just washes over me, you know? The memories just come out of nowhere and grab me and the next thing I know, I feel sick and scared and stupid all over again."
"It can take a while to get some distance, but it'll get better," Ellison replied reassuringly. "Give it some time."
When Blair nodded and picked up his spoon, Jim continued, "There's something else. I know our deal isn't a lifetime thing, but I'm not sure I'm ready to fly on my own yet. So don't be so quick to think it's time to move on, okay?"
Looking up gratefully, immensely relieved, Sandburg smiled a little as he replied, "Okay, Jim. Like I said, I'm in no hurry to move on."
Cocking his head thoughtfully, Ellison mused, "Maybe you don't have to move on. If you like this life so much, you could go to the Academy and become a cop."
Blair blinked at that suggestion. "Uh, I don't think so," he stammered. "I mean, would you really want me behind you with a loaded weapon in my hand?"
Grimacing as he thought about it, Jim shook his head. "Maybe not," he allowed, and then teased, "It is a kinda scary thought."
"Though, then at least you'd have another gun handy when you drop yours," Blair teased innocently with a deadpan expression.
Ellison glared at him playfully and then rolled his eyes. "You do like to live dangerously, don't you, kid?" he muttered threateningly.
Unabashed, and certainly unworried by the glare, Blair grinned at him. "You know, I think I do," he admitted, with some of the familiar sparkle in his eyes, as his natural resilience and optimism began to assert themselves over his insecure uncertainties. "It's a rush, man."
Ellison scratched his cheek, trying to keep a sober expression, but then he gave up and chuckled. "You know, I think you're going to be okay."
The grin faded as Blair took a breath. "You and Simon have really helped," he said sincerely. When Jim waved off the gratitude, Sandburg insisted, "No, I really mean that. You didn't laugh at me or treat me like a schmuck. And you've both helped me put it into perspective, so it's not so…overwhelming and humiliating. I really appreciate that. I guess I was feeling pretty lost there, for a while."
Jim's gaze softened as he studied his young friend. "That's what friends are for, Sandburg. To be there when you can't find your way; to lean on when you're tired. Right?"
"Yeah," Blair murmured softly, as he felt the stiff tension in his body finally begin to ebb away. "Right. I'm lucky to have such good friends."
"People make their own luck, Chief," Jim replied, as he turned his attention back to his meal, uncomfortable with the depth of gratitude he read in Sandburg's eyes. "You've been a good friend to the two of us, not to mention the other guys downtown. Joel, for instance, still talks about how you helped him when he needed it."
Sandburg sat back in his chair and studied his friend, well aware that Jim had a hard time accepting soft words or emotions, brushing them off as unnecessary. Ellison was more comfortable with action, with defining a problem and then sorting it out, than he was with dividing up the credit afterward or receiving praise. "Maybe so," he finally allowed softly. "But I was sure lucky the day the stars and fates aligned to let me find you. That had to be the luckiest day of my life."
When Jim shrugged but kept his face down to hide the slight blush of pleasure, Sandburg smiled. "But, maybe, I should start carrying a weapon, just to make sure one's available when -"
"Don't push it, Junior," Ellison growled, pretending to be offended.
But when Blair laughed, a light ripple of sound, Jim found himself fighting a smile. "Eat your soup," he ordered with mock severity, and then grinned himself, delighted, when Blair saluted, snapped a "Yes sir!" and dug in with good appetite.
Yep, the kid was going to be okay, and Jim was only a little surprised at how very good that awareness made him feel inside.
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