Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and if I made any money off this, I'd give up my day job, but that ain't going to happen.
Author's notes: This story languished on my hard drive for nearly two years before I dusted it off and hopefully made it palatable. The story takes place early in Jim and Blair's acquaintance. All mistakes are mine since it wasn't beta'ed. Read at your own risk.
"Chief, c'mon, wake up. Blair!"
It was his proper name spoken in Jim Ellison's familiar, but uncharacteristically near-frantic, voice that finally penetrated the layers of darkness and brought the anthropologist struggling to consciousness. Although the two men had only known each other for a few months, the student had already come to know that the cop never called him Blair unless he was pissed off or worried. He wondered which one it was this time.
Blair blinked the fuzziness from his vision as he fought the waves of agony crashing through his body. He heard a groan and wondered if the inhuman sound came from Jim. No, Jim was still talking to him. It must have come from him -- great, Blair Sandburg, spineless goober extraordinaire.
If it had been anyone other than Jim Ellison luring him out of the cottony darkness, Blair would have been perfectly content to stay wrapped in soft oblivion. Because being awake hurt like a son of a bitch.
"Take it easy, Chief. I know you're in pain, but we can't stay here," Jim was saying. "There's a bad storm on the way and we've got to get out of here."
Even though Blair was in pain -- a whole lot of pain, if he let himself think about it -- his innate curiosity couldn't be suppressed. "You mean you can actually smell rain coming? Wow!" Although his voice was raspy, the student's enthusiasm rang clearly. "I'll set up some tests, check with the weather bureau and--"
"Geezus, Sandburg," Jim growled. "We've got a big problem here and you're thinking up more tests?"
Blair suddenly realized how foolish he sounded. He had no idea what their situation was and here he was running off at the mouth.
His spurt of adrenaline vanished, leaving him gasping for air as his chest and ribs violently opposed the action. Hands rubbed his back, soothing and calming and allowing him to breathe more easily. In, out. In, out. In, out. This breathing thing wasn't too bad as long as he didn't talk, laugh, cough, or move. Of course, unable to do those things kind of put a crimp in his style.
"Talk to me, Chief. Let me know you're still with me," Jim whispered, his lips close to Blair's ear. "I need you."
I need you. Those three words held more power than the Holy Grail, but then Jim Ellison was Blair Sandburg's own personal Holy Grail. When his sentinel needed him, he had to be there.
Blair shifted slightly and became cognizant of heat surrounding him like a chrysalis. Strong arms wrapped around his torso, holding him close to a Jim-shaped furnace. He suddenly realized his eyes had closed again and concentrated on opening them. It felt like someone had put super glue inside his eyelids.
"Hey, Jim... I ever t-tell you about this friend's... contact lenses and... super glue?" Blair asked.
He felt a huff of air across his cheek and the slight shudder of Jim's chest where the student's forehead rested.
"I don't want to know," Jim said in a tone that told Blair he was rolling his eyes upward.
Despite Jim's wry amusement, Blair knew in his gut that something was wrong with his friend. Something like cosmically bad.
Blair finally got his eyes open then spent nearly a minute focusing them on Jim's shirt button which was two inches from his face. "What happened?" he mumbled into damp cotton.
"I have no clue. One minute I was sleeping and the next thing I know we're rolling down the mountain," Jim replied.
Blair battled the fog obscuring his memory. For the past week, Jim had been working eighteen hours a day trying to catch a rapist preying on teen-age girls in the downtown district. Blair had been busy with his own end-of-the-semester work and had only occasionally accompanied Jim to the office or on stakeouts. This morning he had finished posting his grades and intended to join Jim on stakeout tonight. The detective had advised him to get some sleep during the day, since Blair's hectic schedule had left little time for rest. Jim himself had only slept three hours the previous night before heading back to the station in the morning. Blair knew because he'd been awake during that time.
Exhausted, Blair had promised to get some rest so he'd be alert to help Jim with his senses, which tended to be more difficult to control when the sentinel was tired. On his way out of Hargrove Hall, he'd run into Robin, the new T.A. She'd been in tears -- she'd lost everything on her hard drive, including an article due by four o'clock. He couldn't abandon her, so offered to help her rewrite it. Of course, having heard she wasn't seeing anyone and possibly scoring a few points was a plus, too. As a thank you, Robin took him out to a late lunch, then offered "dessert" at her place. Although he'd been sorely tempted, Blair had taken a raincheck. He could still get four hours of much-needed sleep before he had to join Jim for the stakeout.
As Blair had entered the loft, the phone was ringing. It was Jim calling to tell him the perp had been apprehended so the stakeout was canceled. He'd then surprised Blair by asking him if he wanted to accompany him on a weekend camping trip. Blair had readily agreed, scheming ways to give the sentinel tests without him realizing it. Jim had told him where the camping gear was, and by the time Jim arrived home, everything was sitting by the door, including the groceries the anthropologist had gone out to buy after getting Jim's call.
Blair let Jim believe he'd gotten some sleep, and the sentinel didn't argue when Blair suggested he drive so Jim could get some well-deserved rest. The anthropologist remembered swaying to the music on the radio and Jim sleeping peacefully, his arms crossed and his chin tucked against his chest. Blair recalled glancing at him, smiling fondly at the boyish vulnerability in his slack features and the hint of drool at a corner of his mouth.
Then nothing. Had he fallen asleep at the wheel? Gods, he couldn't remember....
"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked. "Your pulse just doubled."
"N-no, I'm fine, Jim. Everything's kinda fuzzy." What if he had fallen asleep? Jim had expected him to rest and instead, Blair had spent hours with Robin. Granted, much of that time had been used to reconstruct her article, but he should've taken a raincheck on the lunch, too. But Blair Sandburg was not one to let opportunity pass him by, especially when it involved a pretty woman.
"Partial amnesia isn't uncommon with a concussion." Jim took a deep breath. "It's my fault. I should've waited until tomorrow morning after we were both rested to leave."
Blair swallowed the surging guilt in his throat. Geezus, he was a spineless wimp. He couldn't let Jim take the blame for something that had been his fault. He tipped his head back... and his confession was forgotten as concern replaced it. There was a large bump on Jim's right temple with blood seeping down the side of his face. Blair raised a hand, hissed at the pain the action caused, but it didn't stop his motion. He touched the lump lightly with his fingertips and Jim jerked as if he hadn't expected the contact.
"You're hurt," Blair said quietly.
"I'm blind," came the quiet reply followed by a snort of laughter. "Fat lot of good having sentinel senses if I'm blind, huh?"
Blair's breath stuttered in his throat. He'd royally messed up this time. If only he'd listened to Jim and gotten more rest instead of... Now Jim was blind. What if it was permanent? He forcibly calmed himself and spoke in an even tone, "It'll be all right, Jim. I can be your eyes."
Jim took a deep breath and some of the tension eased from his grimy features, as well as his steel-taut muscles. "Thanks, Chief." Blair could feel him draw the armor around his fear and bury it deep. Jim shifted away from him. "I need to know how you're doing, Chief. And no sugarcoating it," he said firmly.
Blair took a moment away from his self-castigation to take inventory of his aches and pains. "Everything hurts except the middle toe of my right foot."
"Smartass," Jim muttered.
"Okay, okay. I have a headache the size of Cleveland, probably a cracked rib or two and my left wrist feels either broken or sprained." Considering the steep rocky descent, it was a miracle he and Jim weren't killed. In fact, he suddenly realized they weren't in the vehicle and sharp rocks were jabbing into his side. "Did we get thrown out?"
"I dragged you out and pulled you up here, away from the vehicle. I could smell gasoline and didn't want to take a chance it might catch on fire."
What if Jim hadn't regained consciousness? What if the vehicle had exploded? What if...
"Calm down, Chief. We'll get out of here. I promise," Jim soothed.
"You can't promise that." Blair's voice came out terser than he'd intended.
Jim's nostrils flared and, even in the fading light, Blair could see his face settle into the granite mask Blair had seen slowly erode over the past weeks.
"I'm sorry," Blair said, his voice husky. He hadn't meant to take out his guilt and helplessness on Jim. He was the last person Blair should be angry with, but it would do no good to apologize now. Jim had slammed his emotional roadblocks into place.
"I'm going to check your injuries." Jim moved his hands down Blair's sides then ghosted them over his chest, lightly prodding here and there. "One cracked rib but it didn't puncture the lungs," he diagnosed, his tone clinical. He continued his tactile exam, tilting his head as he monitored the grad student's heartbeat and respiration. "Deep bruise across your chest, probably from the seat belt." His brow creased as his hands skimmed down Blair's right arm, then his left one. Blair hissed in pain as the sentinel's hands carefully grasped his left wrist. "It's sprained," Jim announced grimly.
"Will wrapping it help?"
"It won't hurt."
Blair struggled to sit up and Jim awkwardly helped him. Finally, they both sat at downward slant, their knees bent and their feet braced flat on the ground to keep from following the laws of gravity down the steep slope. The anthropologist tugged his oversized shirt out of his jeans and stifled a groan as he ripped a long strip from the bottom with his good hand.
"What are you doing, Chief?" Jim demanded, his head cocked to one side.
"Making an ace bandage. Do you think you can give me a hand wrapping my wrist?" Blair asked.
"I'll probably end up turning you into a mummy."
"I'll take my chances." He pressed the end of the makeshift bandage into Jim's hand, then guided it to his injured wrist. "Use your sense of touch, man."
Jim nodded tersely and began to wind the flannel material around the student's wrist. Blair worried his lower lip, not wanting to give in to the ache that throbbed through the already-swelling area. Or the self-recriminations that battered at his conscience.
Once Jim was done wrapping, he and Blair worked in tandem to tie it off.
"Is it dark yet?" Jim asked.
"Twilight," Blair replied. "But it seems darker because of the clouds."
Blair nodded, belatedly realizing Jim couldn't see the gesture. "Yeah." He squinted through the growing darkness to try to see the top of the incline. "It looks like we're about a hundred and fifty feet from the top. Think you can make it?"
"Try'n stop me," Jim said grimly.
The detective struggled to his feet, his hands flailing as if he were drunk. His fingers caught a nearby bush and he held on as he regained his equilibrium.
"You okay, Jim?" Blair asked worriedly. He turned, ignored the pain, and shifted to kneel on the damp earth. His heart thundered in his ears and his limbs trembled.
"Just a little woozy. Probably the head wound," Jim replied.
"Yeah." Blair fought to bring himself upright.
He wrapped his left arm around his injured ribs and struggled to stand. He bit his lower lip to keep from groaning, but Jim must have heard his sharp intake of breath and he reached out, searching for his partner. His fingers brushed Blair's sleeve and a hand latched onto the anthropologist's right arm. Between the two of them, Blair managed to climb to his feet.
"Score one for Ellison and Sandburg," Jim said with a weak grin.
Blair didn't even try to smile back -- Jim wouldn't be able to see his attempt anyway. "Grab onto the back of my jacket, Jim, and I can lead you up."
"Damn it, Sandburg. You're not in any condition for this."
"Like you can do it blind?" He hated his waspish sarcasm, but between his injuries and his burdened conscience, he wasn't feeling very tactful.
Jim stiffened and Blair knew he'd scored a direct hit. You and your big mouth, Sandburg, Blair thought with self-disgust.
"I'm just saying I'm the one who has to take point here. You gotta trust me on this, Jim," Blair said, his voice more earnest.
"I trust you." Jim's voice was so low Blair almost missed the quiet words.
Then something occurred to the younger man. "Do you have your cell phone?"
"Yeah." Jim tugged it out of his jacket pocket. "I thought of it after I woke up, but I couldn't see the display. It probably doesn't work down here."
He held it out in the general direction of Blair and the student took it. Blair flipped it open. His stomach dropped at the digital message -- No Signal. "You're right. It can't pick up a signal from here. Maybe at the top."
"Maybe. Let's get up there before the rain starts."
A raindrop plopped on Blair's nose. "Too late." He took Jim's hand and placed it in the folds of his jacket. "Hang on."
The anthropologist tried to take a deep breath, but aborted the attempt when his ribs protested. Vehemently. He hissed at the piercing pain.
"Chief?" Jim's worried voice sliced through the thickening darkness.
"I'm okay," Blair managed in between shallow quick breaths. "Let's go."
The grad student clenched his teeth against the expected pain and began the long slow tortuous climb up the steep hill. Jim tried to keep close but every so often a tug on his jacket told Blair the sentinel had fallen back. He bit back on his short temper, telling himself Jim didn't do it on purpose. Hell, the sentinel was doing a lot better than Blair would in the same situation.
Gods, what had he gotten himself into when he'd agreed to become Jim's unofficial partner? In the three months since he'd hooked up with Jim, he'd been shot at, spit on, nearly blown up, and kidnapped by a serial killer intent on making Blair his next best friend.
Blair had only himself to blame. He'd talked his way into Jim's life, then his loft apartment. It was him who'd spouted the crap about the thin blue line to Captain Banks, desperate to become Jim's shadow. Now here he was -- tired, hurt, and pissed off with everything and everyone, but mostly with himself. And taking it out on Jim.
He struggled upward as the raindrops increased in volume and size. Lightning split the sky and thunder followed, rumbling across the mountains like a giant arising from slumber. Blair shook his head slightly, trying to banish the image of the Jolly Green Giant rising from a field of pea and corn plants.
Damn, he was losing it. It had to be the head injury. If he was this bad, how was Jim? Blair suddenly realized the detective had been too quiet the past few minutes. He paused. Jim ran into his back and lost his balance. Blair reached for him and caught his sleeve, then wrapped his fingers around Jim's wrist, steadying him.
"It's all right, Jim. I've got you," Blair soothed.
Jim pulled out of his grasp, his mouth a thin line with white creases at the corners.
Frightened by the sentinel's eerie silence and the agony clearly evident in his face, Blair reached for him again, but the moment his fingers touched Jim's arm, the older man jerked away. Another round of thunder, this one closer and sharper than the previous ones, and Jim pressed his hands to his ears.
His senses! It should've been obvious -- the sentinel was injured and tired, and those factors alone had been proven cause enough to send Jim's senses spiraling out of control. But with both...
"Jim, I want you to listen to my voice," Blair began, speaking in a low modulated tone. "We have to get your senses back under control, big guy. Everything is too much right now." He continued to talk in the soothing voice which came naturally when he dealt with his sentinel. As the anthropologist spoke, the etched lines of suffering gradually diminished from Jim's face until only the normal crow's feet remained. "Better?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Sounds were getting too loud and the rain was feeling like shotgun pellets."
"You should've said something," Blair scolded.
Jim's jaw muscle knotted. "I thought I could handle it."
"But you couldn't. Jim, man, don't shut me out like that. If I don't know what's bothering you, I sure as hell can't help. And right now, we both need to be as good as we can be."
"Is that something like being all you can be?" Jim said with a shadow's smile.
"Only for you grunts. Let's keep going."
Blair felt Jim's firm grip on his jacket and they continued the hellacious climb. They'd come less than half the distance and the rain was doing a good imitation of the forty days and forty nights before Noah's ark set sail. The student slipped, and Jim caught him, steadied him, and they kept going.
They climbed another ten, then twenty feet. The top was less than fifty feet away now, which was a good thing since Blair's head was spinning and his stomach was interviewing for the Great Wallendas. He took a step, felt a sharp tug on his jacket and nearly lost his balance. He snatched onto a bush with his good hand as his heart pounded in his chest. He turned his head, but found empty space behind him.
Oh gods! What happened? Where had Jim gone? He squinted through the growing darkness, his heart in his throat. He finally spotted him about fifty feet down, curled into a ball.
"Jim! Can you hear me? Jim!" Blair called. Viscous fear coated his throat. "Jim!"
After a few moments of tense silence, the sentinel's uncharacteristically weak voice floated back. "I'm fine, Chief. Keep going."
The hell I will.
"I'm coming down," Blair called down, keeping his voice even.
"Don't! I'll be all right until you can get help."
"I'm not leaving your sorry ass down there, Ellison. We'll get out of this together."
A sound -- a cross between a laugh and a snort -- drifted up to the student. "Damn it, Sandburg. I'm going to kick your sorry ass if you come down here."
"You're more than welcome to try. Now shut up and let me concentrate," Blair said, already moving down the slope cautiously.
Jim heard the scrabble of pebbles as they rolled down the hill and he covered his head with his arms, sucking in his breath when pain erupted in his right arm. He tentatively drew the fingers of his left hand down the right limb. Warm, slick fluid coated his fingers and the smell of blood abruptly filled his nostrils, making it impossible to breathe. He hacked violently and curled tighter into himself. His head pounded and his arm throbbed ten times worse than it had moments earlier. Raindrops hammered his back like nails being driven into his skin.
The damned senses were spinning out of control, just like the pre-Sandburg days. The remembered helplessness battered at his control. Panic threatened to consume him, and James Ellison -- Major Crime detective and ex-army Ranger -- struggled to contain his panic. He concentrated on the meditation techniques Sandburg had been trying to teach him, but he had a cursory grasp of those, at best. God, he wished he had paid more attention to the annoyingly energetic student, but there always seemed to be more important things to do, like laundry or cleaning the bathroom. He promised himself he'd pay more attention to Blair's lessons if they made it out of this mess.
He focused on the patter of rain on the rocks. Each droplet had its own distinctive pitch as it hit granite or a spiky plant. Plop! Splat! Drip! Plunk! Each one different...
"C'mon, Jim, come back to me. We're soaked to the skin and we're going to get pneumonia if you don't snap out of it."
The anxious tone rather than the words themselves propelled Jim out of his zone-out. He searched for Blair but there were only shadows. He jerked, frightened. "Chief?" he cried out.
A hand captured his flailing one and the familiar calluses on the capable fingers soothed his frazzled nerves. He clutched Blair's hand, strove to see through the inky darkness. A heartbeat, which he'd come to recognize as Blair's, slipped past the multitude of sounds. Squinting, Jim could make out the pale oval of Blair's face through the sheeting rain. "Why is it so dark?" he demanded.
"You were hurt, Jim. The accident? The bump on your head? Remember?" Blair explained, his voice husky and his words a little too fast.
It all came back in a rush, swamping Jim and causing his controls to vacillate wildly.
"Dial them down, Jim. One at a time. Start with touch. C'mon, buddy, you can do it. Turn it down... five... four... three... two. Easy. Better?"
Jim nodded minutely and whispered, "Yeah."
"Now sound. Same thing. Dial down."
Blair talked him through turning down all his dials, except sight. Then the grad student did the opposite, trying to turn up the brightness. Jim was able to bring it up a notch, enough to make out the shadowy figures of nearby rocks and trees, and the solid, comforting shape of the man he had come to think of as a friend.
"Jim?" Blair asked quietly.
The older man nodded, feeling the relief from his senses as if he'd just been released from a steel-toothed trap. "A lot better. Thanks." He sent Blair his best glare, and hoped it was aimed in the right direction. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You were supposed to climb to the top."
Blair snorted. "If you're looking for mindless obedience, get a dog. I said I wasn't leaving you and I meant it." The exasperation was clear in his voice.
Jim couldn't help it: he laughed and laughed, until tears were mixing with the rain streaming down his cheeks. "A dog, Sandburg?" he managed to ask, knowing it wasn't that funny, but for some reason, it seemed like the most hysterical thing in the world.
"Yeah, well, I hear you can house train them," Blair said.
Jim heard his smile; could almost see the crooked, self-effacing grin on his roommate's face. "They wouldn't leave the lid up on the toilet or wet towels all over the bathroom?"
"No wet towels, but they might leave the lid up. Best watering bowl in town."
Jim's chuckle was half groan. "That's disgusting, Chief."
"Hey, you have to admit I wouldn't do that." The simple bantering calmed both men. "Besides, you're the one who started it."
"I wasn't the one who brought up getting a dog."
"Yeah, yeah." Blair leaned close to him and all signs of humor disappeared. "You cut your arm pretty good, Jim. I need to get the bleeding stopped." There was a ripping sound as Blair tore another piece of cloth from his shirt. "Let me wrap this up, then we can get going. Dial it down."
Jim concentrated on his pain dial and managed to feel only a mild discomfort when Blair took care of the wound.
"Okay?" Blair asked. Jim nodded. Blair took hold of his bicep and helped him rise. "Come on, buddy, we still got us a mountain to scale, and I don't see one of those St. Bernard's with a keg around its neck."
Jim tried to recoup his anger at Blair for endangering his own life by coming down the dangerous incline to help him. But the emotion wouldn't materialize; he couldn't fault Sandburg for doing what partners did for each other. Only he wasn't his partner, at least that's what Jim kept insisting. It was Jim's defense to keep from getting too close. God knew what happened to those he let in -- Jack Pendergrast had vanished without a trace; Mike Solomon in Vice had tried to frame him; his brother had blamed him for the near destruction of their father's classic car; and his father had denied him his senses. Shit. He didn't need some hyperactive anthropology student turning on him, too.
But Blair hadn't betrayed him in the past weeks they'd worked and lived together. In fact, they only seemed to draw closer, grounding their initial shaky foundation with growing loyalty and respect. Blair never laughed at him or told anyone how Ellison was reduced to a drooling idiot during a zone-out. No, Blair never belittled him; he'd merely accepted Jim, his house rules, and his freakish senses with a shrug of his shoulders, as if those things were normal.
Jim remembered his first impression of the flighty young man. He didn't consider the encounter in the hospital as their first meeting, but at the university when he'd slammed the student against the wall. Though Sandburg had been frightened, he had countered Jim's angry words with facts. And hope. Then had proceeded to save his life.
Damned kid -- he had more courage than sense throwing himself in front of a garbage truck for a man he'd just met. And Jim would've been dead if Blair hadn't acted so impetuously.
Shaking his head, Jim concentrated on the dim shapes on the ground as he climbed. He held tight to Blair's jacket though he was prepared to let go if he felt himself slip, just as he had done earlier when his foot had landed on a slick rock. There was no way in hell he was going to drag Sandburg down the rocky slope with him.
The rain continued unabated. Lightning and thunder sliced through Jim's defenses, threatening to undo his precarious grip on his senses. A jagged slash of incandescent white light burned against Jim's retinas, even with his limited vision. The simultaneous thunderclap played hell with his hearing. He released Blair to press his hands to his ears. Pain exploded in his head, rippling like water disturbed by a rock.
And then Blair's voice beckoned.
He opened his eyes to find even more light filtering into them -- enough that he could make out the wet straggly hair that stuck to Blair's skull and the side of his face, which had a swollen bruise on his cheekbone.
"You back with me, Jim?" Blair asked quietly.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm back, Chief." He smiled hesitantly. "Remind me not to bitch about your tests so much anymore."
Blair smiled, a phantom of his usual radiant one, but the intent was there. "You heard it here first, folks. Jim Ellison agreeing to tests."
"Let's not get carried away, Sandburg. I just said I wouldn't complain as much." Blair huffed a laugh, then grimaced and Jim reached out to lay a hand on his soaked shoulder. "You all right, Chief?"
Blair's eyes were closed as he answered, "Ask me again when I'm sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket and watching a Jags game." His eyes flashed open. "Hey, is your sight back?"
Jim shrugged. "There's still more gray than anything, but it's coming back slowly."
"Thank God," Blair breathed.
"You worried about a sentinel with only four senses?" Jim couldn't help but tease.
The kid stiffened like Jim had just sucker-punched him, then turned around. "We're almost there. Just another thirty feet or so."
Frowning, Jim took hold of Sandburg's jacket. Didn't Blair know he was only kidding? But what if Sandburg was helping him only because he didn't want to lose his dissertation subject? That thought made Jim feel like a performing seal at Sea World.
So maybe there had been some subconscious bitterness in his tone. Who could blame him? Certainly not his boss Simon Banks who had asked him when he was going to cut the kid loose. Simon believed that Blair could do some tap-dancing, teach Ellison a few parlor tricks to control the senses, then everything would be back to normal and Major Crime wouldn't be stuck with a flighty student observer in its midst.
Jim had believed that once upon a time, too. However, half blind and hanging onto Blair as they struggled up a steep rocky hill in a deluge surrounded by thunder and lightning, Jim could see more clearly than he ever had before. Blair Sandburg wasn't some duct tape Jim could slap on and fix what needed fixing. In their short time together, their lives had become entangled, going so far as to live together after Sandburg's place exploded a month ago. And what about that week ultimatum he'd given Sandburg? Why hadn't he cracked down on that?
Because I like the kid's company.
And what happens when he gets sick and tired of the real Jim Ellison and leaves?
The hill grew steeper and it took all of Jim's energy and concentration to keep up with Blair. Jim's foot slipped dangerously, but he caught himself without releasing his lifeline. Blair's footing, too, was shaky and Jim steadied him more than once.
The edge was there within their grasp and he gave Blair's backside a shove to help him over the last couple feet. Then Blair was extending his hand and helping Jim over the lip to the road's flat surface. They laid flat on the ground, with Blair's head resting on Jim's bicep. They sucked in air and tried not to drown as the rain buffeted their already drenched, shivering bodies.
Finally, Jim ruffled Blair's rain-soaked hair. "Hey, Chief. Think that phone'll work now?"
Blair opened his eyes and stared at Jim as if he wasn't sure who he was. With Blair lying close beside him, Jim recognized the increasing fever beginning to flow through the student's battered body. Heedless of his injured arm, he helped Blair to a sitting position, then kept a steadying arm around his shoulders. "C'mon, buddy. The hard part's over."
Blair visibly shuddered, then reached into his pocket and pulled something out. Though Jim could see it was the phone, he couldn't distinguish the buttons. "Speed dial two," Jim said.
Blair managed a quirky smile. "No kidding. 'Stay in the truck and call Simon.' Sound familiar?"
Jim's face warmed. "Sarcasm doesn't become you, Sandburg."
Blair's answer was a slightly shaky finger gesture that Jim was barely able to discern. Then he hit the correct buttons and Jim cocked his head to listen. There was some static, but at least the phone was ringing. After three rings, a familiar bellow came through the line.
Blair's smile lit the darkness. "Hey, Simon. It's Blair. We need the cavalry."
With an arm wrapped around his bruised ribs, Blair stood in front of the balcony door watching the rain flow down the window in continuous streams. The night lights of Cascade were reflected back in muted colors, which wavered across the wet glass.
Since he and Jim had been rescued by Simon two nights ago, Blair had argued and fought with his conscience, even though he still wasn't certain what had happened on that mountain road. The doctors had said he was suffering from a type of amnesia not uncommon with a head injury. But Blair couldn't help but believe he had fallen asleep at the wheel. If that were so, then he had nearly killed Jim.
Forty-eight hours ago Jim Ellison, the only living sentinel Blair knew of, had nearly died because of Blair Sandburg's irresponsibility.
"What's so interesting out there, Sandburg?" Jim asked from his sprawled position on the couch.
Blair turned to face the sentinel who was picking idly at the bandage on his forearm. The grad student had an almost-matching one around his sprained wrist. "Just the rain."
"It's supposed to end around midnight according to him." Jim motioned to the weatherman on the TV screen. Full sight, including sentinel vision, had returned within a day after the accident. "I hope he's right. I've got a tow truck pulling the Expedition up tomorrow."
"D-Do you think it's salvageable?" Blair asked hesitantly.
"It's insured." Blair didn't miss Jim's grimace as he added, "But the premium will probably double. At least we both survived." The detective eyed Blair closely. "Is something wrong, Chief?"
Blair trudged over to the sofa and sat at the opposite end from Jim. He resisted the urge to groan at his rib's discomfort. "Yeah, Jim, something's wrong."
Apprehension flitted across Jim's face, replaced almost immediately by a stoic mask. "What is it?"
Blair fidgeted with the Ace bandage around his wrist as he struggled to find the courage to say the words. "The accident was my fault."
Jim relaxed visibly and smiled slightly. "Accidents are called accidents for a reason -- they're nobody's fault, Chief. You probably hit some loose gravel on the side of the road or swerved to miss an animal." He shrugged. "It's hard to say."
Blair's head came up sharply. "Then this wasn't an accident."
"You were trying to go over the edge of a mountain?" The sarcastic question was tempered by Jim's smile.
Anger, swift and illogical, brought Blair to his feet, but it disappeared almost immediately. He pulled a hand through his hair. "I think I fell asleep at the wheel."
Jim's eyes widened at the blunt confession. "What?"
"I didn't sleep before we left."
Jim frowned in bewilderment. "I thought all you had to do was post your grades, and you told me you were done with those by nine. I didn't call until almost three."
"I know, I know." Blair's stomach ached. "I planned to get some rest just like we talked about, but then I ran into this TA and she needed help with an article she lost on her hard drive, so I stayed to help her and she took me out to lunch as a thank you. Then I came back here and you called and asked me if I wanted to go camping. And since I figured it was the perfect chance to run some tests on your senses away from the city, I jumped at the chance. But I didn't get any sleep beforehand and I must've fallen asleep while I was driving." Finally Blair stopped his rambling, but he couldn't look at Jim, afraid of what he might see in his friend's face.
Silence fell thick and cloying between the two men. Blair raised his head slowly, to find Jim's jaw muscle was knotted. The sentinel reached for the remote and began channel surfing.
Blair's heart pounded in his chest and he knew damned well Jim could hear it. What the hell was he thinking? Sometimes he hated how Jim could hide his feelings so well.
Unable to bear the heavy atmosphere in the loft, Blair said, "Talk to me, Jim."
The sentinel didn't pull his gaze from the TV. "What do you want me to say, Chief? That it was all right to lie to me? That you could've fallen asleep even if you had taken a nap?" He finally turned his head to meet Blair's eyes, and the student shivered at the blue ice in his eyes. "I can't do that. You should've come clean, Sandburg. We could've waited until the morning to leave."
"I didn't lie to you," Blair insisted, feeling the tug of anger once more.
"You didn't tell me the truth, though, did you?" Jim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "When we first started working on these sentinel senses, you said I had to trust you in order to make it work. You didn't know what you were asking, Sandburg. Trust isn't something I hand out like a gym towel. But the more time we spent together, the more I gave in to this trust thing. I trusted you, Blair, and you let me down."
Cold dread settled in Blair's gut like a dead snake, but he felt torn. "It wasn't like that! Maybe I do things without thinking once in a while, but I would never intentionally hurt you, Jim."
"I thought you cared about our relationship, but I guess you care more about impressing some girl and getting her phone number." Jim suddenly stood, dropping the remote on the couch. "Watch whatever you want. I'm going to bed."
Blair jumped up and blocked his way, ignoring the ache of his ribs. "I've been on my own for years. To be accountable to someone is still new to me. Cut me some slack here, man. I do care about our relationship, but I also have a life outside you."
Jim stared down at him, his expression cool and forbidding. "I had a life, too, Sandburg, before these damned senses took it from me. If I could I'd give them to you so you could study them to your heart's content and I could go back to how it used to be."
Blair stood frozen in the center of the living room, hearing Jim go through his evening routine of checking the locks. When the sentinel walked past him to the stairs, Jim didn't even glance at him.
The student dropped to the sofa as a weight settled across his chest, threatening to suffocate him. The past month had been one of the best months of his life -- living and working with Jim as if the two of them had known each other for years, instead of weeks. He had never fallen into such a fast and easy camaraderie with any of his other roommates. He and Jim took turns cooking and cleaning. They argued about Wonderburger and the hot water and who forgot to buy toilet paper. In short, they acted more like family.
And Blair had thrown that away for a few hours of "scoring some points".
But what if I didn't fall asleep at the wheel? What if there was another reason I went off the road? The little voice taunted him with an alibi, but Blair couldn't afford to believe it. He'd been lucky this time -- Jim's injuries had been minor. But what about next time?
Through his thoughtless actions, Blair had uprooted the seedling of friendship growing between Jim and himself. He covered his eyes with his forearm. Tomorrow at the university, he'd ask around to see if anyone knew of a vacancy. He'd already taken advantage of Jim three weeks longer than the allotted week, and though Jim hadn't said anything yet, Blair knew it was only a matter of time.
Jim lay awake for a long time. He heard Blair shift again on his futon and a small groan accompanied the movement. He would be willing to bet the student had forgotten to take his pain pill before lying down.
Had Blair fallen asleep at the wheel Friday evening? And if he had, how did Jim feel? Angry, sure. Hell, the student had lied to him. Maybe not technically, but by omission. But there was also concern, and a large dollop of guilt. If he hadn't been so insistent about getting out of Cascade, he would've noticed how tired Blair was, and none of this would've happened.
But, damn it, Blair should've shown better judgment. Even though he looked young, Blair wasn't a kid. What if they had ended up on the stake-out? Blair would've been so tired he wouldn't have been any help.
Jim's anger surged again. If the student was serious about helping him, he was going to have to become more responsible. Jim wouldn't tolerate the cavalier attitude Sandburg had shown on Friday.
A soft moan from the bedroom below caught Jim's attention, and before he knew what he was doing, he'd pulled on his robe and headed downstairs. His feet carried him to Blair's doorway and, after only a moment of indecision, he pushed aside the curtain and entered. He stood motionless, his eyes automatically compensating for the darkness and allowing him to see Blair's pale features.
Jim thought back over the past few months and more specifically, the time since Blair moved into the loft. At first, Jim had regretted his decision to let the student stay but as the days turned into weeks, he found he liked eating meals with someone; liked trading stories about their respective days; hell, he even liked Sandburg's unbridled enthusiasm and trying to keep up with the younger man's agile mind -- a kind of intellectual work-out.
Blair shifted restlessly and Jim crossed the floor on soundless bare feet. He leaned over and touched the kid's shoulder. His restive motions stilled and his breathing fell back into a normal sleeping pattern. Jim squatted down and removed his friend's shoes, then shifted his legs so he could get the blankets over the still-dressed student.
Jim straightened and crossed his arms, then gazed down at the younger man, at the butterfly bandages on his brow and the bandage around his wrist. His sentinel vision allowed him to see the dark circles beneath Blair's eyes and the shadow of whiskers against his pale skin.
His heart missed a beat as he realized Blair wouldn't have been hurt at all if he'd never met James Ellison. He wouldn't have been trapped in a hostile takeover at the PD or kidnapped by a serial killer. Even now Jim remembered clearly his terror that he'd be too late to save Blair's life after Lash had taken him, then when he'd found him, the relief had nearly overwhelmed him. He'd even given the younger man a hug.
Tough guy Ellison hugging another man? If anyone had seen him, they wouldn't have believed it. Jim had a difficult time believing it himself, but Blair brought out some primal protective instinct in him. Was it only because Sandburg helped him with his senses when everyone else thought Jim was losing his sanity?
No, that answer was too simplistic. There was more between himself and Blair; some bond that even now was growing stronger, increasing a strand at a time. Jim shifted uncomfortably. He wasn't certain he liked being bound so tightly to one person.
Blair had made a mistake. It had been a case of bad judgment exacerbated by not divulging what he'd done. Did that null and void all the right choices the grad student had made since they met?
Jim rubbed his brow, willed the headache to recede. Tomorrow he and Blair would talk. They had to if they wanted to go forward with the sentinel/guide thing.
It was a matter of trust. And friendship.
"What's wrong, Jim?" Simon asked as he paused in front of Jim's desk.
Ellison replaced the phone in its cradle and his face grew warm. "Uh, I was just thinking out loud, sir."
Simon studied him for a long minute. "My office." He strode away, not even looking back to see if Jim was following him.
Sighing, Jim rose and entered his captain's office.
"Close the door," Banks ordered.
Jim did so and stood at parade rest, his hands clasped behind him and resting at the small of his back. "What is it, sir?"
"Geezus, Jim, sit down. You're not in the damned Army anymore." Annoyance filled Simon's voice.
Reluctantly, Jim lowered himself to one of the two chairs in front of the captain's desk and waited. He'd been back to work for two days, but had been on desk duty. After his doctor's appointment tomorrow, he hoped to get back on the street. With or without Sandburg.
"What's going on?" Simon asked without preamble.
"Going on, sir?"
"Cut with the sir crap. I'm asking as a friend."
Jim relaxed and slouched in the chair. "It's Sandburg, Simon."
"What about him? He's okay, isn't he?"
The worry in the tough captain's voice surprised Jim. "I guess. I haven't seen him since Sunday night."
"Why? I thought he was on semester break or something."
Jim traced the bandage around his healing injury. "It is, but it's like he's avoiding me. He's gone when I get up and he doesn't get back until I'm in bed."
Simon rolled his cigar between his fingertips, his eyes narrowing. "What happened?"
The sentinel shifted restlessly in his chair. "He lied to me, Simon." There, it was out.
"Last Friday he told me he was going to get some sleep so he could go on that stakeout with me, but when the perp was caught, we -- I -- decided to go camping instead."
Simon shuddered. "Don't remind me. I can still see you and Sandburg on the side of the road looking more dead than alive when we got there."
"Sandburg made time with some coed that day instead of sleeping, and he thinks he fell asleep at the wheel. We could've been killed." The intensity of his words surprised even Jim. But it wasn't anger at Blair or even fear for his own safety that made him curt, but concern for the younger man's life
"But you weren't," Simon said firmly "Don't tell me you don't remember when you were that age. Hell, we all did our share of sowing some wild oats."
Jim's spine stiffened and he leaned forward. "But he told me he was going to get some sleep so he'd be alert that night. If I can't trust him to do something as simple as that, how can I trust him with anything else?" Jim paused. "Besides, maybe you were right. Maybe it's time to cut him loose."
"Whoa, slow down there, Jim." Simon's eyes narrowed behind his gold-rimmed glasses. "Can you handle this sentinel thing by yourself?"
Jim squirmed in his chair, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I don't know."
"From what I've seen, you can't," Simon said bluntly. "I've seen the way the kid has helped you."
Jim shrugged, not certain how to respond.
"He's trying, Jim, but from what I understand, the practical aspects of this sentinel thing are all new to him, too. So is riding along with you. Cut him some slack. He's bound to make mistakes, but I have a feeling he's a fast learner, too."
Jim looked past Simon to the gray dreary day out the window. He had come down hard on the anthropologist, but it wasn't all due to his disappointment in him. He owed Sandburg. Big-time. And how did he repay him? By treating him like a criminal for being human.
"And neither you nor Sandburg knows for certain that he fell asleep. The state patrol who inspected the scene saw skid marks moving from the other lane into yours," Simon said quietly. "It's not conclusive, but it's possible Sandburg saved your lives by avoiding a head-on collision with a reckless driver."
Hope followed by a sick feeling hit Jim. What if Blair hadn't fallen asleep? What if he had saved their lives? The fact that Blair had lied to him remained, but the student knew his limits better than Jim. If Blair had thought he was too tired to drive, Jim had to believe he would've told him.
The reason for the accident might never be known. But didn't Blair deserve the benefit of a doubt? Jim took a deep breath and smiled slightly at Simon. "So, when did you change your mind about him?"
Simon appeared startled, then a crooked smile claimed his lips as he shrugged self-consciously. "There isn't any one time I can point to. I guess he just sort of grew on me."
"A little like a fungus," Simon and Jim said together, then laughed.
Jim sobered. "I never figured I'd actually come to like the kid, but I do. I respect him, too. He's smart, Simon. Smarter than me, in more ways than one."
"You should tell him."
Jim stood. "First thing when I get home."
Simon shook his head. "Now. And that's an order, Detective Ellison."
"Go home. Now. Apologize. Then take the rest of the day off and spend it with the kid. I have a feeling he could use a friend right now."
Jim swallowed the lump in his throat. "Yes, sir."
Twenty minutes later, Jim entered the loft and tilted his head. Sandburg's heartbeat told the detective he was in his room. Jim dropped his keys in the basket and hung his coat on the rack by the door. He strode over to the curtain which acted as a door to the small bedroom, and knocked on the wall.
The curtain was shoved back and Blair's startled face popped into view. "Jim? What're you doing here?"
Jim shrugged, his heart tripping in his throat. Damn, this apologizing thing was tough. "Uh, Simon gave me the rest of the day off."
"Is your arm bothering you? Is it your senses?"
Blair's worry both warmed Jim and made him feel even more guilty. "No, I'm fine." His gaze darted over Blair's shoulder and what he saw froze the blood in his veins. "What're you doing?"
Blair's face paled but his usually expressive eyes displayed nothing, which bothered Jim more than he liked. "I'm packing. I'll be moving out this afternoon."
"Why?" Jim demanded.
Blair took a step back, but he didn't appear frightened, merely defensive. "I've already been here three weeks longer than I should've been. I mean, I know how you like your privacy and all." He laughed weakly. "And gods know, I can never remember to pick up my towels in the bathroom or change the toilet paper roll or keep my stuff in neat piles."
"Where are you going?" Jim asked, his voice husky.
Blair glanced away. "A spare room in a friend's house."
The student's heartbeat exposed his lie. "You don't have any place to go, do you?"
Blair continued to throw clothes in an army surplus duffel bag. "Hey, I'll be fine. Blair Sandburg always lands on his feet."
Jim had absolutely no clue what to do. For a man of action, it was a helluva predicament to be in. But hadn't it been that way ever since his senses had come out of hibernation? And hadn't it been Blair who had taught him what to do; how to control those senses? Blair understood. He knew how much Jim needed to be in control and he had allowed Jim to take control of his own life.
And the detective had taken Blair's assistance like Jim Ellison deserved it and he didn't have to say thank you because, by God, the senses had screwed up Jim's life and he hadn't done anything to deserve this shit. So wasn't Blair only giving Jim what was right and equitable?
Yes, in Jim Ellison's egocentric world...
But what did Blair get out of their relationship? A dissertation. It suddenly seemed scant reward for all he was giving Jim.
Ellison shifted uneasily -- he was looking in a mirror and didn't like the face of the man staring back at him. That man was a taker and if he wanted Blair to stay, he'd have to learn to become a giver. And, son of a bitch, he wanted to give Blair something: his dissertation and those three letter which were so important to him, and a roof over his head.
He wanted to give him his trust... and his friendship.
"Don't go." Jim didn't know he was going to say the words until they sneaked past his lips.
Blair stopped and faced him. "What?"
"Don't go," Jim repeated with more volume, his voice trembling.
"I screwed up. You don't think you can trust me anymore."
The anguish in the younger man's voice tore at Jim's soul and conscience. "'To err is human,'" he said quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on Blair's.
"'To forgive, divine'," Blair finished the quote, his eyes narrowed.
Jim's throat suddenly felt too tight. "I hope you're not calling me a god, Sandburg, because we both know I can be a real asshole."
Blair scrutinized him, as if trying to see into his very soul and for the first time, Jim wasn't afraid. Blair had already seen so much more of him than anyone else.
"No argument there," Blair finally said.
Jim feigned a scowl. "I had hoped for a little disagreement here, Chief."
Blair's eyes lit up with a mischievous twinkle. "Nah. Can't argue with the truth."
Jim laughed. "I don't know whether to hug you or kick your ass." Then he stepped forward and hugged Blair awkwardly, but felt the rightness of holding and sheltering his guide within his arms. He rested his cheek on Blair's curly crown. "I trust you, Chief, as much as I can trust anyone."
Blair's arms tightened around Jim's waist and he spoke against his chest. "I'll never keep anything important from you again. I promise."
Jim released him and caught his gaze. "Just keep me in the loop, okay buddy?"
Blair nodded. "I can do that." He paused, his feet shifting restlessly. "Does this mean you want me to stay?"
"I thought that's what I said."
Blair grinned widely. "I definitely have to study Jim-speak some more."
"You'll have a home here for as long as you want it. Is that clear enough?"
The younger man's eyes grew suspiciously bright. "Oh, yeah."
Jim detected the slight scent of salt and laid his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Is something wrong?"
"No. In fact, nothing could be better."
Jim smiled fondly and tousled Blair's curls. "I can think of something that would make it better."
"Wonderburgers. My treat." Jim tugged Blair out of his room and to the door.
"No way, man," Blair argued, though there was mirth bubbling in his voice. "Do you know what that stuff does to your arteries?"
"Nope," Jim said unrepentantly as he tossed Blair his jacket and donned his own. He ushered his guide out the door. "And I don't want to know either."
Blair's laughter washed across the sentinel and Jim knew he'd made the right decision.
After they ate lunch, he and Blair would go to Home Depot and find a real door -- maybe one of those French doors -- for Sandburg's room. If the student was going to stick around for awhile, he deserved some privacy. Then maybe they'd head to Linen's Things and buy some new sheets and a comforter for the futon. It wasn't like he hadn't been planning to replace the bedding sooner or later anyhow. And, of course, they would have to get curtains for the windows, too. Another thing he'd been thinking about buying.
Oh, hell, who was he kidding? Simon was right. The kid did just kind of grow on him, like some hairy fungus.
Jim only prayed that he could keep Blair safe until the kid attained his doctorate.
It was the least he could do for the young man who had disrupted Jim Ellison's existence by bringing hope and life back into it.
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