Blair Sandburg turned off the Volvo's engine and leaned back in his seat, his fingers clutching the steering wheel. Although everything looked the same, it wasn't.
Not even close.
He glanced at his backpack on the passenger seat, wondering if maybe he had to return to the loft. Surely after being out for two weeks he'd forgotten something. But after going through a mental list, he realized he had everything he needed.
Everything but the guts to get out of his car and walk to Hargrove Hall.
His heart hammered in his chest and a wave of tremors swept through him. A coughing fit caught him off-guard and he struggled to breathe through the paroxysm. Even though he'd been declared fit, his lungs weren't back up to par after his up-close-and-personal encounter with drowning.
Finally, he was able to drag in a breath, then another and another. He wiped the streaming tears from his cheeks and derided himself for his cowardliness.
So what if some crazy sentinel had drowned him in the fountain not one hundred yards away. So what if he'd been clinically dead. So what if Jim had brought him back to life with something akin to a miracle.
It was done and over with. Alex Barnes had blown her circuits. Jim had helped him move his stuff back into the loft. And he was alive. Now all that was left was the talking...
Yeah, like that'll ever happen, Blair thought with a pang of angry disgust.
He banished the pointless thought. He knew his friend and sentinel too well to push the issue. Jim was who he was and if Blair insisted on talking about the Barnes episode, Jim would merely do his clam impersonation.
Back to the problem at hand -- getting out of his car and to Hargrove Hall without losing it.
"I can do this," he murmured to himself.
Concentrating, he uncurled the fingers of his left hand that had again wrapped themselves around the steering wheel. "Yes!" He glared at his right hand. "Your turn." After a few moments, he had both hands free.
Next step -- get out of the Volvo. He closed his eyes and took some deep calming breaths. He'd walked past the fountain a million times over the past eight years. The fountain hadn't changed.
But I did. I died in that fountain.
"Shut up," he scolded his inner voice.
Two students walked by and waved. Blair recognized them from his 101 class and smiled back at them. Seeing the familiar students helped him rebalance himself and brought back a sense of normalcy.
"This is stupid," he muttered to himself as he shoved open his car door.
The cool morning air eddied into the Volvo, bringing with it the scent of damp grass. Scenes from that early morning scampered through his mind and even though he knew he'd been unconscious -- dead? -- during that time, he remembered everything clearly. The clinical aspect of his brain theorized that he'd had an out-of-body experience, where he'd risen above himself and watched the drama of his life and death play out. The mystical side insisted that he'd been on a plane of existence that dwelled between life and death and that's where Jim's spirit animal had met his and brought him back to earth. He hadn't decided which he believed.
Returning to the matter at hand, he ordered his feet to plant themselves on the pavement, but they remained stubbornly within the car.
Why was this so damned hard?
Tires crunched across the blacktop, alerting him to the arrival of another vehicle in the lot. He kept his gaze averted, hoping it wasn't someone he knew. A door slammed and footsteps approached him, sending his heart into overdrive.
He reached for the handle to close his door, intending to escape. But out of his peripheral vision he recognized his roommate. Relief exploded in him and he let out a gusty breath.
"Hey, Chief," Jim greeted, ambling toward him.
Blair looked up and met his eyes, hoping Jim didn't have his spidey-senses aimed in his direction. He'd know something was wrong. "Hey, Jim. What brings you over here?" he asked with false nonchalance.
"You forgot this," Jim said, holding out an apple. "It was sitting on the table so I figured you'd planned to bring it with you."
Blair couldn't remember taking an apple out of the fruit basket on the island, but he wasn't about to admit his amnesia to Jim. He forced a laugh. "Guess I was in such a hurry to get back, I left it behind."
"Guess so." Jim's tone was light but Blair sensed something else lurking behind it.
Blair stepped out of the Volvo and took the apple from Jim's palm and slipped it in his backpack. "Thanks. It'll make a good morning snack."
Jim merely nodded and waited, as if he was expecting Blair to say or do something more.
"Um, well, I guess I'd better get to my office," Blair stammered, his haunted gaze skimming past the fountain.
"Don't forget to lock your car," Jim reminded.
"Oh, yeah, thanks, man."
After ensuring his Volvo was locked up, he took the first tentative step that would take him past the core of his recent nightmares.
"Any idea what you're doing for lunch?" Jim asked.
Blair frowned. "Haven't thought about it."
Jim started walking toward Hargrove Hall and Blair fell into step beside him, allowing the sense of security he always felt around the sentinel to spread through him.
"We could hit Wonderburger for a couple of super size burgers and fries," Jim suggested, waggling his eyebrows.
Blair snorted. "In your dreams, buddy."
"Can't blame a guy for trying."
Jim's look of penitence didn't even come close to sincere and Blair laughed at his friend. "I thought you were going to be too busy to get away today."
Jim shrugged. "I have to eat sometime."
Taking one and a half steps for every one of Jim's, Blair contemplated his own schedule. "I have an hour off at noon so if we go someplace close, I can probably swing it. How about the Eclectic Cafe? They've got burgers and salads."
"And homemade malts."
Blair slapped the back of his hand against Jim's flat belly. "You keep eating those and you'll lose your six-pack abs that make women swoon."
Jim tugged Blair's ponytail lightly. "And you keep eating salads and you'll turn into a lettuce head."
"Ha ha." As a comeback it lacked originality, but Blair was gratified when Jim grinned nevertheless.
Jim opened the door to Hargrove Hall and ushered Blair ahead of him. Together they continued on to Blair's office. "So what do you say I swing by here at noon and pick you up?"
Blair blinked, realizing that he'd walked past the fountain without noticing it, thanks to Jim's company. And if his partner picked him up for lunch, he would be spared passing it. Suddenly another thought struck him -- it would be easier for Jim to simply meet him at the cafe.
He halted in front of his office door and studied the sentinel, wishing he had Jim's senses. "I didn't forget that apple, did I?"
Jim glanced away. "You said you did."
"No, you said I did and I just agreed."
The detective's face reddened slightly as he glanced at his wrist. "Hey, look, I'd better go. Simon's probably considering putting an APB out on me." He gave Blair's shoulder a squeeze and his eyes revealed gentle concern. "Don't work too hard, Chief. You're still not at a hundred percent. I'll see you at noon."
Before Blair could say anything, Jim was striding back down the hallway. He narrowed his eyes as he watched the sentinel until he disappeared around the corner.
Obviously Jim didn't want to explain why he drove all the way to Rainier when it would double his distance to the station. What would bring him...
The answer pole-axed Blair. The apple had been a ruse, a reason for Jim to come to the campus. He knew how difficult it would be for Blair to walk past that fountain and he came by to get him past that hurdle. The lunch, too, was Jim's way of helping him get through this first day. By picking him up on the steps for lunch -- something he never did -- Blair wouldn't have to walk past the reminder of Alex Barnes and all the mistakes he'd made.
Warm affection suffused Blair. Maybe Jim didn't like discussing things, like emotions and the spiritual side of the sentinel/guide relationship. But Jim's actions often times articulated his feelings more eloquently than any spoken language. It was a language which Blair was becoming more and more fluent, but still faltered with sometimes. This time, however, Jim's message was loud and clear. He'd shown his concern and apology the best way he knew how.
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