Written: 2004

Sentry Duty 5 (2005)


AS MANY CHANCES AS NEEDED



K Hanna Korossy






It was funny how sometimes he listened to what Sandburg said with total attention, interested in every word, learning from the man's boundless store of information and real insight into others. And other times it was all how Blair said it, what he wasn't saying, and anything else Jim's senses were picking up, not the words themselves.

This was one of those latter times.

"I'm all right, Jim. Really, man, I'm fine."

The contradiction that he talked like a slowed recording, or that Jim was holding up a good portion of his weight while he said it, didn't seem to occur to Blair. For all that incredible insight, the kid could also be incredibly obtuse. Or maybe it was just the knock on the head.

Jim steered him around the police cars, to the open door of the waiting ambulance.

"Jim--"

"Shut up and let them take another look at you, Chief," Jim said kindly, and propped him up while the younger man climbed up into the rear of the vehicle.

"But they already--"

"Finally." The equally young paramedic was frowning at the sight of Blair, which made Jim grin. "So, are the bad guys in custody now?" the medic asked Sandburg.

"Yeah, but--"

"And the girl's safe?"

"Maya. Yes--"

Jim's grin widened.

"And your partner's here."

Sandburg heaved a sigh. "Yes."

"Then you've taken care of everything you said you needed to, right? You promised an hour ago you'd be back after that so I could take you in."

"I was -- an hour?" Blair gave the man a baffled look as he sank onto the edge of the gurney. "It wasn't -- Jim?"

He nodded firmly. "Over an hour, Sandburg. It was still light out when we got here, remember?" Jim nodded back over his shoulder. The rain was starting to fall harder, every drop a soft brush on his skin or pluck of his shoulders and back.

Blair made a face, but Jim recognized the look of capitulation. "Yeah, okay. But I'm fine, nothing a good twenty-four hours of sleep won't cure."

"You and me both, Chief," Jim agreed, reaching down to lift Sandburg's feet as the paramedic eased his shoulders down on the gurney. Blair groaned softly as he went, equal parts pain and pleasure to Jim's practiced ear. After that whack the kid had gotten, it probably felt great to lie down and let the world steady for a bit. Already his eyes were at half-mast, stubborn curiosity in a tug of war against sheer fatigue.

"You wanna come along with him?" the paramedic was talking to him, and Jim blinked, snapping back out of whatever mini-zone he'd been in, the sensation he'd focused on already lost. They really did both need a good night's sleep, as soon as Sandburg had his head examined. Jim's mouth tugged at the thought even as he nodded.

"Sure. Just give me a minute."

It didn't even take that long to ask someone from the department to take care of his truck, then Jim climbed into the back of the ambulance and settled himself near the foot of the gurney. The paramedic already had Blair covered in a blanket and was taking his blood pressure. Jim patted one covered leg to let the kid know he was there, then sat back out of the way.

Blair's heartbeat slow fractionally at the contact, and the paramedic gave a satisfied nod as he put away his equipment. "Looks good. I don't think they're gonna admit you, Blair, I just want the ER doc to take a look at you and give you a prescription for the monster headache you're gonna have tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah," Blair said quietly.

"Good." The paramedic turned away, storing his equipment, cleaning up. He probably thought a quiet patient was a good sign, not knowing Sandburg any better. Jim sniffed, rubbed at his nose, and unobtrusively slid a little closer to the gurney's head.

"What did the agent say about Maya?"

Blair's eyes had opened again and he was staring at the roof of the ambulance. Behind him, Ellison could see the driver get in, and the ambulance engine started, running shivers of vibration through Jim. "She says they're probably not gonna prosecute Maya, but they will deport her and bar her from returning."

Jim nodded, paused. "She got off lucky, Sandburg," he said gently.

"Yeah, I know."

"Doesn't mean you can't go down sometime and see her, either." He wasn't so keen about that idea; the girl had never been anything but trouble for Blair, but Jim would have been a hypocrite to deny the hold love could have on a guy.

Sandburg nodded silently.

Apparently it could even shut up a perpetual talker. Jim made a face, patted the blanket-covered form again. "Things'll look better when your head doesn't feel like it's gonna explode anymore." He got a frown from the paramedic at that, and, more importantly, a ghost of a smile from Sandburg.

"Not a problem. I mean, I already got over her once, right? And she wasn't stringing me along that time. I'm okay, Jim, I'm just... tired."

Well, bitterness wasn't the first thing he would have wished on the kid, but if it worked, more power to him. At least it would tone down the rose-colored glow love gave everything, even kidnapping.

The ambulance started moving, every bump in the road carried up its shocks to rattle Jim's teeth, and he swallowed a sigh. Well, at least it wouldn't be a long trip; Cascade General was only a mile or so away. And the jarring didn't seem to bother Sandburg any. The kid was dozing by the time they left the docks. It wasn't the first time he'd envied Sandburg, and probably wouldn't be the last, but that would remain Jim's little secret.

They took Blair immediately in upon reaching the hospital, his affiliation with the department a plus for once instead of a liability. He never would have met Maya in the first place if she hadn't been part of Ellison's case, Jim couldn't help but think once more, but they'd already agreed not to go there. The what-ifs could pile up way too fast in his business. Instead, after they rolled Blair back down from x-rays, Jim wearily grabbed a copy of Sports Illustrated as he sank into the one chair next to Sandburg's gurney, and tried to focus on football.

Sandburg dozed. The nurse finished taking her readings and left. An intern wandered in, did his own check, and left. Another nurse came to do something else. The curtain was drawn with each arrival and opened again with the departure, and the breeze seemed to catch each one of Jim's hairs. The floor bounced slightly with the pass of every gurney and cart, juddering harder whenever the elevator down the hall chugged past the floor. Football, that was all that mattered, not all the vibrations and currents and the soft stroke of nearby sounds on the tiny hairs in his ear--

Jim slapped the magazine down on the counter next to him and turned his focus inward, looking for those often-elusive dials. They had to be there somewhere in the dark, but all he cared about now was the one for touch. Felt like it had broken off at maximum. Jim gritted his teeth and sought deeper.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

The new voice yanked Jim back to the emergency room cubicle in a rush. An older doctor had entered and was giving them both an assessing glance.

A murmur from the bed. Jim's annoyance at the interruption faded as he caught the sleepy lines of strain in his friend's face. Sandburg hurting always seemed to cancel out any other worries, and Jim stood and stepped up beside the gurney, giving the kid a smile as his eyes slid over to Jim, relaxed a notch, and returned to the doctor.

Jim followed his lead.

"Everything seems to be okay. Are you having any nausea, double vision, dizziness?"

"No, just the headache from Hell. And... tired."

The doctor's mouth twitched sympathetically. "That's to be expected -- you did receive a hard blow. Even without a concussion, you're bound to be in some pain for the next few days."

Jim's ears pricked up. "No concussion? That mean I can take him home now?"

"The nurse'll bring the forms, and a prescription for the pain."

Huh. Sandburg had actually been right for once. Jim put out his hand. "Thank you, Doctor."

It felt like sandpaper. "You're welcome."

"Yeah, thanks, Doc," Sandburg waved from the bed. The doctor gave him a wave and a smile back, then they were alone.

"You wanna finish your nap first, Sandburg? You were ready to drop off there." Jim really hoped not, but the kid's well-being came first. A nurse appeared with clipboard and pen, and Jim signed the top two sheets, then stuck the pen in Sandburg's hand and held the clipboard as he signed the third one.

"No, home. Bed. Now, Jim." He wobbled upright halfway before Jim made a face and helped him sit up all the way.

"You using one syllable words isn't exactly reassuring, Chief."

He got a focused and dirty glare for that. "If I'm gonna feel crapulent anyway, I might as well be in my own commorancy. Is that better?"

"I'll let you know as soon as I look it up," Jim said dryly. He helped Blair over to the edge of the gurney, holding his arm in a solid grip while Blair found his balance, then slid to his feet. "You sure you're okay? You're not gonna pass out on me or anything?"

"No promises, man," Blair said wearily, but he seemed steady enough. Still, Jim kept hold of his arm as they walked slowly through the curtain, an uncomfortable brush against his face and neck, then through the emergency room, detouring only to drop off the paperwork. The door was their last stop, then into a waiting cab.

The change of air pressure from the hospital to the rain to the cab made his ears pop uncomfortably. Jim rubbed one absently as he sorted out Sandburg's increasingly sprawled body, finally propping the damp head against his shoulder and the rest of him more or less stretched out on the seat. The wet strands of Blair's hair left uncomfortable snail traces against the skin of Jim's neck, but he ignored it, concentrating instead on his Guide's slow breathing and steady heartbeat. No spikes of pain hitched either as he inched toward sleep and grew heavier against Jim, no discomfort tensing his muscles. He really would be all right, Jim was beginning to let himself believe, despite kidnapping and being knocked around and new heartache. They were lucky.

Now, if only the cab had had better shocks than the ambulance, Jim would have been a happy man.

Somehow he managed to pay the cabbie, manhandle a half-asleep Sandburg out of the cab, shut the car door behind them, and open the apartment building door in the midst of cutting winds and stinging rain. Water flowed down his back, sticking his shirt to his skin in uncomfortable patches, and pooled in his shoes. Jim cursed his way out of the deluge and inside, dragging Blair obliviously in after him. The kid immediately started shivering.

Taking a deep breath, Jim gave up trying to steer the ungainly mass that was his partner and pulled Blair's arm over his shoulder instead, cinching him close with a hand around the younger man's waist. It made Jim's cold, wet clothes rub harder against his chafed skin and conducted Sandburg's every tremor through his own body, but it also allowed them to make actual progress. That was worth the trouble. By the time Jim started to tremble with cold, too, they were leaving the elevator and nearly at the loft door.

"You want me to heat up some soup, or to just go straight to bed?" The mumble he got in answer was such a tangle of sound, even his hearing couldn't make sense of it, but he got the gist. "Bed it is," Jim murmured, and changed course from the living room sofa to Sandburg's room.

The clutter was somehow comforting, even though Jim nearly tripped over one book and slipped on another before they reached the bed. He sank Blair down on the edge of the futon and ran his hands over the kid's clothes. They felt saturated to his sensitive fingers, but at the very least they were damp.

"Let's get you changed into something dry first, huh?" Jim coaxed, knowing at this point he was talking to himself, but he was used to that by now with Sandburg. The kid was so scrawny, his coat and two layers of clothing, even wet, slid off him with ease. Jim pushed a clean t-shirt into his hands, and pulled shoes and socks off while Blair grappled with the shirt. Jim pulled the wet chinos off last, then gently pushed his Guide into the bed, pulling the comforter over him. It grated softly through Jim's hands as he straightened it out.

"Thanks, Jim," came the sleepy murmur from the depths of bed and blanket, and Jim snorted softly.

"'Crapulent' -- you made that one up, didn't you?" But he only got a soft wheeze of sleep in response. He shook his head and crept out, shutting the French doors behind him.

The grainy wood nearly sent him into another sensory shock.

Jim set his jaw grimly. Okay, sense of touch out of whack, he got that. Didn't know exactly how it had happened, except that he'd been knocked out briefly, too, then he'd stretched his senses to their max while looking for Sandburg without his Guide there to, well, guide, not to mention the fact his senses always seemed to get a little screwy when Blair was out of commission. The anthropologist would probably have some long-winded theory about that one, although to Jim it was fairly simple: he worked best when Blair was present and functioning. No mystery there. It was the reason his few-week ride-along had turned into a more-or-less permanent deal, as had the temporary living arrangement.

Well, one of the reasons.

It didn't mean he was helpless by himself, however. Sandburg made things easier, true, but his role was Guide, not Doer. In the end, it was still up to Jim. And he'd sat through Sandburg's fix-it sessions enough to know what he needed to do this time.

Jim crossed to the living room sofa and sat gingerly, ignoring the uneven give of the cushion or the wave of displaced air at his movement or the catching slide of his wet clothes. If he did this right, none of that would matter.

Focus.

Wait, candles. Jim fumbled for the nearby box of matches and struck one. The rough wood made him cringe, but he resolutely lit the fat white candle sitting on the coffee table in front of him, felt the wave of heat and smoke wash over his face, and stifled an automatic cough.

Focus.

Five dials, right? Well, six if you counted pain, but that was just another aspect of touch. Five would do for now, and he sought for them in the grey of his thoughts, the familiar straight row, neatly numbered and labeled. Sandburg would probably have a fit if he knew that little detail, but some things weren't even his Guide's business. Sight and hearing, the big ones, were first, then smell. Touch lingered in the back with taste. They should be right...

The candle sputtered, and the wave of heat made Jim gasp.

No dials, at least not where they were supposed to be. Well, this was his mind, his imagination, right? He'd just make them. Jim concentrated on conjuring up the picture.

Not happening.

He puffed out a frustrated sigh and opened his eyes again, conscious of the brush of skin against his eyeballs. This was ridiculous. He was the one who made the dials -- why couldn't he do it now? It seemed so easy when he did it with Sandburg. And his Guide was out for the count in the next room.

Fine, Jim clenched his teeth. He could live with this until it either got better on its own or Sandburg figured out how to fix it. It was late anyway, time for sleep, and that usually fixed whatever was off-kilter. Sleep sounded awfully good, actually.

Jim yawned and stumbled upstairs.

The air bit his damp skin as he pulled off his wet clothes. Jim pulled out a pair of boxers and his softest worn shirt and pulled them on, relishing the slide of soft cotton and silk against sensitive skin. That wasn't so bad. And silk sheets awaited. Just tooth-brushing first...

The thought of the bristles against his gums set his stomach roiling. Okay, maybe not tonight. One day wouldn't doom him to cavities, and he would clean up his breath tomorrow before facing anybody. It was a plan.

Jim eased into bed with a soft sigh.

Ah hour later, he finally got up again.

It wasn't discomfort, not exactly. The silk sheets were still smooth, his clothes still soft, his skin dry now. But the conscious feeling of the touch of material against every millimeter of his skin, the unrelenting barrage of input from his nerves, was a constant sensory assault that allowed his tired mind no rest and pulled him repeatedly to the edge of a zone. Nerves were supposed to stop registering an unchanging touch, the reason people weren't constantly aware of the clothing they wore or the chair they sat on. The mind wasn't prepared for that kind of continual stimulus, and so it had been built with safeguards. Jim's had gotten misaligned along with his touch dial, on constant alert without relief. And that was increasingly uncomfortable, not to mention exhausting.

Jim sat up and swung his legs out of bed, feeling his feet mold to the slight irregularities of the polished wood floor. This was crazy -- he was going crazy. Soon he'd be feeling the air exchange in his lungs and the peristalsis of his intestines, and then he really would go nuts.

It was time to put pride aside and wake Sandburg.

He padded down the loft stairs, the steps trembling nervously as he went, and crossed over to the closed French doors with purpose... then stopped. Pushed one open silently with a finger and paused again.

Blair had just come home from the hospital. The bandage on his brow was stark against his skin and blinding to Jim's night-tuned eyes, an unneeded reminder he'd been hurt. His eyes were crinkled together in pain that lingered even in his sleep, and his breathing was the deep and slow rhythm of exhaustion.

Jim hesitated. The man needed sleep badly, that was obvious. How fair was it to wake him just to walk Jim through a process he should have been able to do on his own? One that really could wait until morning if it had to. So Jim wouldn't be getting much sleep; that wouldn't be a first.

Ellison moved away silently, feeling the pressure and texture of the wood beneath his feet, the shirt on his shoulders and sweats on his hips, the wisps of air currents again his skin. They'd grown more abrasive in just the minute he'd been standing there, but he could stand that for a few more hours, couldn't he?

One more step, and his shin scraped against the living room end table.

And time stopped to make way for the pain.

No bullet wound, blow, or slice could compare to that blast from every nerve in his leg. Agony, pure and white, seared through him, shorting out everything in its wake. It overloaded his brain, shut down thought, took control of his body. He might have even sobbed from it, and wouldn't have cared.

It took eons to ebb, and left Jim a limp and drained puddle on the living room floor, body throbbing as if he'd been worked over by experts. His hand trembled as he reached up to brush wetness from his face, even the slight motion painful.

Oh, yeah, maybe he could wait until morning, but how rational would he be by then?

Jim lay still until enough strength returned to stand, then he slowly picked himself up and stumbled into Blair's room.

"Sandburg?"

Not even a twitch of response. Okay, so maybe a whisper wasn't the best way to wake a tired sleeper. Jim inched to the side of the bed, cringing at the painful scrub of the carpet against his bare feet, and leaned over Blair.

"Sandburg?" he said louder this time, and touched a blanket-clad shoulder. It hurt.

"Hmm? Jim?" The voice was sleepy, only half-aware, but the relief made Jim nearly giddy. "Wha's wrong?"

He straightened. "I'm sorry to wake you, Chief, but I need your help with something."

"Yeah, sure." He was fumbling with his glasses, blinking at Jim.

Oh, right, the kid couldn't see in the dark. Jim reached over and snapped his desk lamp on.

More furious blinking, but Sandburg was soon sitting up, more or less awake, and looking at Jim with concern even as he yawned. "What's going on?"

It seemed a little silly suddenly. His shin still felt like it was on fire, his muscles corded from the strain of resisting the pain, and even now Sandburg's every movement was sending new scours of airs over him, but Jim still felt stupid saying it. "My sense of touch's out of control -- I can't find the dials to turn it down."

It was proof of just how tired Blair was that he didn't seem too alarmed by that. Other times, a mere glance at Jim when he was suffering far less than now was enough to send his Guide into a worried flurry to divine the cause and fix it. This time he just yawned again and nodded. "Okay. Let's go through it one step at a time. Sit down and relax."

Easier said than done. Jim eyed the hard wooden desk chair doubtfully, but eased himself down on it. Not too bad, but it made the material of his clothes press harder into his skin. He could have probably counted every thread.

"That's good." Blair crawled out of the blankets to perch on the edge of his bed, facing Jim. "Now close your eyes, concentrate. Picture the dials."

Jim frowned into the darkness of his mind's eye. "I can't."

"That's okay, it might take a minute." A warm finger touched his arm and he jerked back as if it'd stung before realizing it was just Sandburg. "Wow, you really are touchy. Uh, no pun intended. Just try to relax, Jim, block out everything but my voice, and the picture in your mind..."

He listened to his Guide's voice, the pitch and tone that fit his ears just right. It could build walls around him like nothing else could, or penetrate the walls he'd built. There had to be something genetic about Guides, too, Jim had long decided, because nobody's voice could reach him like Sandburg's. Even the barrage of his skin's sensations faded.

And the row of dials started to coalesce out of the darkness.

Thank God. He reached for them too soon, saw them waver and fade, and heard Blair's voice strengthen and flow in to shore them up. They became opaque, three-dimensional, solid. And the touch one was indeed twisted up as far as it could go.

"Okay, you see them now? Good, now just start turning the one for touch down. A little at a time... now we're at acute but it's no longer painful... keep turning as we go down past sensitive, heading toward normal." A choked sound he recognized as a yawn, but that didn't distract him. His Guide's drowsy voice was soothing every aching nerve. "...keep going... turn it all the way down, Jim. It doesn't hurt at all now..."

And it didn't. The clothes seemed to melt off his skin, the chair barely underneath him, the currents fading back into the air around him. He even had to confirm Sandburg's light touch on his arm with his eyes, his arm pleasantly numb after the battery of before.

"Better?" Blair had also sensed his easing discomfort.

"Yeah, a lot," Jim said with relief. The absence of pain made him feel light. "Thanks, Chief."

"No problem." But he coughed as he said it, and Jim narrowed his eyes at his Guide, hearing the scratch in his voice now. How long had he been talking while Jim had sought those stupid dials? And with what was probably a blistering headache, too.

"How 'bout some tea before you go back to sleep?" Jim asked lightly, careful not to sound like he was coddling. Neither of them was comfortable with fussing, but it had cost Blair to help him and tea was the least Jim could do. Maybe it would help with Blair's pain a little, too.

Sandburg was too tired to dissemble. "Yeah, sure, that sounds good. The rosemary tea is in the blue canister -- it's good for headaches." He rubbed at his forehead as he spoke.

He'd been right. Jim gave his friend a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as he rose to go into the kitchen. And how nice that it didn't hurt. He barely felt it at all.

Despite the blast his nerves had gotten, they seemed to be recovering now, nearly deadened. Jim could feel the weight of the kettle in his hand as he hauled it out and filled it with water, then the compression of his fingers as they closed on and twisted the stove's dial, but there was no sensation of texture or temperature. It was unspeakable relief. After he made this tea, maybe even had some himself, he'd finally be able to get some sleep, maybe clean into tomorrow afternoon. It was already... Jim squinted at the microwave clock. Only 9:30? Huh, felt like later than that. He and Sandburg were turning into old fogies, he thought with a ghost of a grin.

Sandburg appeared in the doorway between his room and the kitchen, still blinking sleep out of his eyes, and he glanced up at Jim with a weary smile. It was good to see; maybe he really would get over Maya easier this time. Jim hoped so for both their sakes.

And then Blair's eyes widened, rounding with shock, and Jim's good humor vanished. What--?

"Jim, what -- move your hand!"

The horror in his voice registered a moment before the words did, and Jim yanked his arms to his side without even thinking about it. You didn't disobey your partner when he sounded like that, no matter how little sense he was making.

Then he looked down at his hands.

The left one was fine, curled into an automatic fist. The right one, however, the one he'd snatched back from where it was resting on the stove, was smoking, deep crimson lines scoring the palm in the criss-cross pattern of the stove top grate, blisters already rising along their length. Jim stared at it in astonishment, wondering inanely why something that looked like that didn't hurt.

Sandburg didn't say another word, just lunged at him, white-faced, and grabbed his right arm, pulling Jim over to the sink. He turned the water on full blast and stuck the burnt hand underneath.

Jim couldn't feel the water, either. The wrongness of the whole thing started to sink in, and he turned with bafflement to his roommate.

Blair only glanced up at him for a moment, concentrating on washing down his hand. "You didn't feel it, did you?" he asked.

Jim shook his head. "Still don't."

"And the water?"

"No -- I can do this." He pulled his hand free impatiently but kept it under the stream. "What's going on, Chief?"

He realized Blair deliberately wasn't meeting his eyes the same moment he recognized the thick choke of guilt in the man's voice. "It's my fault, Jim -- I was half-asleep -- I wasn't thinking, but that's no excuse..."

His mind was starting to clear, the pieces coming together. "That's why I couldn't feel--"

Blair nodded miserably. "We turned it down all the way -- no touch at all. You couldn't feel the stove getting hot. It looks, uh... this looks bad, Jim."

But he hadn't turned that range on, had he? Jim glanced back and saw the red glow of the stovetop next to the one the kettle sat on. A stupid mistake coupled with a black-out of his senses. Jim sighed. Soon he'd be competing with Sandburg for that the title of Trouble Magnet.

Sandburg was dashing around the kitchen gathering supplies: a plastic bag, a dishtowel, ice from the freezer. The ice went in the bag, which he then wrapped in the towel. He reached over to turn off the stove on his way back to Ellison's side. "We'd better get you to the emergency room so they can take a look at that, Jim."

Funny how dispassionate you could be about an injury when it didn't hurt. Jim examined it with a clinical eye. "First and second degree -- it'll be fine, Chief. Some ointment and a wrap and it'll be good as new." Well, in two weeks or so... but Blair didn't look like he would take that news well. In fact, he didn't look like he was taking any of this too well. "Blair--"

"I still think we should go in." He'd stopped in the middle of the kitchen finally but was still in constant motion, running a hand through his unkempt curls, tugging at his t-shirt. Still avoiding Jim's eyes.

"I can take care of this myself, Sandburg," Jim rode right over the protest. "You just have to keep the area under water until the burning stops..." Hmm.

A sickly smile ran across Blair's face. "Yeah, there's that part, too. We're gonna have to turn the dial back up so you know how bad it is. We can't risk you having another accident because your touch is offline, anyway."

A pleasant thought. One of the good things about being a Sentinel was that you could turn the pain down if it got to be too distracting or uncomfortable. So why did Blair look like the one who was about to get burned? Jim narrowed his eyes at his Guide. "Chief, this wasn't your fault."

"Yeah, right." The voice was pitched low enough that he had to boost his hearing to catch it. "I know better than to turn any of your senses off completely. Our senses are there to protect us, to warn us something's wrong. You turn one off and it's easy to get hurt, even killed. I know that."

"Seems to me I was there, too," Jim said easily. Yeah, Sandburg's voice had lulled him into doing what it asked without question or, often, thought, but there was no reason to raise that little tidbit right now. The kid was feeling bad enough. Jim would just be more careful next time, pay attention to what Blair was telling him to do...

"Jim." Blair stopped fidgeting and just stood, staring him in the eye for the first time. He was pale, shaken, and his injury was the least part of that, Jim knew. "The Guide thing works because you trust me, because you know I'm not going to hurt you. If I've lost that... I don't think I can keep doing this. I won't be able to help you if you're second-guessing everything I tell you, and right now I wouldn't blame you if you did. I am."

"I do trust you, Sandburg," Jim said automatically, wondering when things had taken such a sudden nose-dive, then realizing a moment later he had just lied. Well, not completely -- he did trust Blair's intentions and that the man would never hurt him on purpose. But by accident, a little inattention...

It must have shown in his face. Sandburg always did know how to read him a little too well. Blair's expression went bleak just before he turned away, grabbing a plastic bowl out of the kitchen cabinet. "Well, we have to try this, anyway," he said quietly as he dumped the ice in and filled it halfway with water from the edge of the flow running over Jim's hand, then took the injured appendage and stuck it into the water in the bowl. His touch was gentle but his body language was stiff, uncomfortable. Hurting.

Jim opened his mouth to say something, lost the words, closed it. What was he supposed to do, lie again?

Sandburg held the bowl in one hand and guided Jim to sit at the table with the other. The bowl went on the table next to Jim, then Sandburg sank into the chair across from him, once again meeting his gaze full-on even though it looked like it took real effort to do so. "Okay, Jim, close your eyes."

He did, startled momentarily by the loss of anchoring without his sight or touch. Only the soft sounds and smells of the loft remained, and Jim's nose wrinkled as he realized he faintly smelled his burned flesh. It reminded him of-- His eyes flew open.

Blair leaned in toward him. "It's okay, Jim. Relax, close your eyes, clear your mind of everything except my voice. That's all you're sensing right now."

The shade of tension that had accented his words and sent an involuntary alert through Jim, was fading as he slipped into familiar Guide mode. And Jim felt himself responding just as automatically, as trustingly as if the last five minutes had never occurred.

"Okay, now picture the dials. Sight, sound, hearing and taste are all set at normal levels, but touch is turned all the way down. Slowly, start turning it back up, about halfway to where the others are."

A faint throb echoed through his hand, followed by a prickle of heat and the wash and tingle of ice water. And there was also a light touch on his wrist, keeping the hand still and submerged even when instinct made him want to pull away.

"That's good, Jim. Now, still going slow, keep turning it up until it's as high as the others are."

The tickling heat became a sting, then a burn. The water kept it from becoming too searing, but pain pulsed from his wrist through his fingers. Jim clenched his jaw, determined not to let it distract him, and kept turning until the dial was set where the others were, and his hand blazed. He let out an involuntary gasp.

"You can turn the pain down a little without lowering touch, Jim. Find that dial -- just a little bit, just until it doesn't hurt as bad."

The fire eased to a smolder, uncomfortable but not so bad he couldn't tune it out. Jim steadied his breath and finally opened his eyes to look at the hand. The ache made sense now, following the lines of red on his palm and fingers, but slowly numbing from the cold. Soon he was breathing normally again, the burn nothing more than an irritation. He looked up at Blair with the beginnings of a grin.

It didn't last. His Guide looked almost ill, soul-weary tired despite the departure of his sleepiness, and his eyes were pinched with pain. Not up to coaching Jim through Sentinel exercises, either now or when Jim had wakened the man earlier, but they hadn't had much choice either time.

He did now, though. "Chief--"

"I'm, uh, gonna get a little air, Jim, okay? You just keep soaking that hand and give me a yell when you're ready for the ointment." And then he was bolting for the balcony door.

Jim watched him go, trying not to wince at the slight weave in his Guide's step or the almost visible weight on his shoulders. The balcony door slid shut behind Blair, and Jim shook his head as Sandburg's arms immediately wrapped around himself to ward off the night chill. In t-shirts and boxers, it wouldn't be long before he froze out there, but it was obvious he needed the space, and who was Jim to argue with that?

He glanced down at his hand again, at the angry red lines of burnt flesh. This was at least as much his fault as Blair's. He'd known he was feeling more numb than usual, whether from where the dial was set or from the absence of the earlier overload. And he'd been the one to turn on the wrong range, then foolishly rest his hand on it. Even with touch turned down, his other senses could have picked up something was wrong. Not to mention Jim's expecting his hazy Guide, still recovering from a head injury and just roused from deep sleep, to be at the top of his game. Trust? Jim had trusted the younger man with his life, more than once. But expecting him to be perfect, how fair was that?

The hand had gone completely numb, the burn only a faint itch now of something being off. Jim pulled it out from the water to examine it. Definite first degree burns, with a few second degree blisters. He'd gotten a lot worse than that after the crash in Peru, and a few times since. It was nothing he couldn't handle, and Jim stood and strode into the bathroom. A healthy smear of ointment that made his skin begin to smart again was followed by a few layers of gauze to keep out infection. Not exactly comfortable, but manageable.

Now for the real injury.

Jim detoured into Blair's room for the kid's thickest blanket, then went on to the balcony, stepping outside but leaving the glass door open behind him. He tossed the blanket at Sandburg as he looked up at Jim in surprise, and nodded at him.

"Put it on. I don't want to have to take you back to the hospital tomorrow for pneumonia."

A flicker of expression too fast for him to read, and Blair obeyed, wrapping the blanket around himself. Jim immediately heard the chatter of teeth ease. Sandburg nodded back at him, at his hand. "You should've called me."

"I think I've done that enough for one day, don't you?" Jim said tersely, then grimaced as he realized how that sounded. "It's not bad, Chief," he said more softly.

A soft snort. "If you're trying to tell me this isn't a big deal, Jim, don't bother. I'm the one who saw you leaning on that stove like nothing was wrong, remember?"

"I should've noticed it even without the touch -- it's not your fault."

"Yeah, I'll try to remember that next time I'm telling you to trust me on something." He hunkered down into the blanket, a move that reminded Jim of a turtle pulling its head into its shell. Protecting itself against the world, against getting hurt. Again.

"I do trust you," Jim protested, and believed it wholeheartedly this time.

He saw Blair swallow. "That's part of the problem," he said quietly. Blair turned to face him. "Don't you get it? I messed up with Maya -- I can deal with that. Got myself snatched, then knocked out -- okay, didn't exactly cover myself with glory there, but I've screwed up cases before and we've managed. But a Guide hurting his Sentinel, abusing his trust, you realize how wrong that is? That goes against everything I've learned in the past few years, Jim, everything I believe in. That's the whole reason I'm here, to be the Guide, and if I'm messing that up--"

"Whoa, wait," Jim put up his hands. "What do you mean, 'messing that up'? This was one mistake, Sandburg, after more than a year of always coming up with the right answer. I think that's a pretty good track record."

"'Pretty good' doesn't cut it when one screw-up can mean your life, Jim," Blair shot back. "What if I hadn't come into the kitchen when I did? You could've done permanent damage to that hand. Or with touch turned off you could have tripped over something or gotten some kind of internal damage and you wouldn't even know it until it was too late. What I did to you was dangerous."

"And I asked you to do it," Jim answered just as hotly. Where did the kid get off thinking he was responsible for everything? "I knew you had your brain scrambled earlier today and were on sedatives, but I still got you up to help me. This wouldn't have happened if you'd been one hundred percent and we both know it, Sandburg."

The blanket had slipped down Blair's shoulders but he hadn't seemed to notice, his attention riveted to Jim. "Do you realize how much I'm making this up as I go along?" His voice had softened with despair. "Half the time I have no clue what I'm talking about, Jim, I'm just trying stuff until something works. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later."

Jim stared at him, taken aback. Had Blair been worrying about this all along, that one false step and he'd fail his Sentinel fatally? That was a heckuva load for one man to carry.

Enough.

"Blair," he said quietly, and saw Sandburg blink at the use of his first name. "I'm gonna tell you something only Simon knows." He hesitated, hating feeling this vulnerable, hating more the look in Blair's eyes. "The day we met at the hospital, I'd asked Simon for some time off because... I thought I was going crazy. I was zoning, hearing and seeing stuff I knew I shouldn't be, just losing it."

Jim dragged his good hand through his hair. "None of it made sense until you came along. A lot of it still doesn't make sense, but it works because you're here." He motioned for silence when Blair opened his mouth to speak. "That doesn't mean it's all your responsibility. I screw up a lot of it -- half the time because I didn't listen to you in the first place." That admission didn't come without some chagrin, either. "But you make it a lot easier. Maybe we're both still figuring this out, but anything you add to the mix is just gonna help."

No need to go that last step and mention that anything Jim would have come up with that evening would've turned out even worse. He had a little bit of pride left still, and Blair was a smart guy. He'd figure it out.

There was a long silence. Blair pulled the blanket up around his neck again and looked out into the city, Jim doing the same. He couldn't help but sneak a peek at the younger man's heartbeat, satisfied to hear it slow and steady, not racing with alarm as it had been in the kitchen. At least Blair was solidly on his feet now and wasn't about to bolt on him again.

But if all this soul-baring stuff didn't help, Jim would tie the anthropologist down and mash some sense into him the hard way.

Blair finally moved, unexpectedly chuffing a laugh. "That must've been hard to say."

"That obvious, huh?" Jim asked ruefully, unsure yet whether to be relieved or not.

"Well, you're not exactly known as Open-Book Ellison."

"Only when I have to be, Sandburg." And depending on the company.

Blair's face closed again, the internal struggle continuing. He didn't often think of the expectations he placed on the younger man, but Jim was keenly aware of them at that moment. Who would want to carry that weight? Of course, if Blair quit, Jim was in trouble and he knew it. But he had to believe, for the sake of his own conscience, that Sandburg was better off for their partnership, too, and not just because he had a roof over his head and a subject for his paper. It's about friendship, Blair had told him just a few months before, and Jim had thought that meant as much to Blair as it had come to mean for him.

Sandburg sighed, his head dropping into shadow. "How's your hand?" he asked softly.

Jim lifted the appendage to look at it, letting Blair see, too. "Stings a little. I'll live, you'll just be writing the reports for a while."

Blair almost laughed again. "And that'll be different... how?"

"Wiseass," Jim cuffed his head.

Another pause, and the humor left his friend's voice. "Are you telling me you trust me to keep doing the Guide stuff, Jim? Because right now, I'm not so sure."

Jim considered that. "Fair enough. If you want to give it some more time, I understand -- I'm not gonna make you sign a contract, Chief. But yeah, I do trust you. I've been trusting you for a year now -- nothing that happened tonight's made me want to rethink that. I just won't expect the usual Sandburg miracles when you're fresh out of the hospital next time. Deal?" He held out his left hand.

Blair looked at it for a long moment, then slowly reached out and took it. "Deal."

He shook it solemnly, then without warning, used the leverage to pull Sandburg back into the living room.

"Hey!"

"Your hand's freezing, Junior. Get back to bed."

"I wasn't the one who got me out of bed!" Blair nearly lost his grip on the blanket and scrambled to keep it from sliding off him completely.

"Yeah, well, I'm sending you back now."

Sandburg muttered something under his breath as he turned toward his room but Jim didn't bother turning up his hearing to catch it. He just grinned, then remembered something. "Hey, you still want that tea before you turn in?"

Blair turned back to him, stark surprise on his face. "Are you serious? No way, man. I don't even want you near that stove again tonight."

True, he hadn't exactly inspired faith with his previous attempt, but Jim grinned at him. "Still got one good hand," he held it up.

Blair groaned and shuffled again toward his room.

"Hey."

Another pause and patient gaze, even though he could see hunger for sleep in Sandburg's face now. Jim looked him in the eye. "You're not screwing up my cases, you can ask anyone in the bullpen; it seems to me it was Maya who messed things up, not you; and you have never abused my trust, so quit beating yourself up, Chief -- your head's taken enough knocks for one day."

Blair gulped, eyes growing bright, and took a step toward Jim.

"Uh!" Jim raised a finger. "Bed," he pointed. He'd already reached his mushiness quota, and didn't relax until Blair reluctantly obeyed.

But he heard the quiet "Thanks, Jim," as the French doors shut. And it was good to see that look in Sandburg's face again.

His hand barely hurt at all as Jim climbed into his own bed and quickly dropped to sleep.

The End


Back to The Loft