Disclaimer: All Characters belong to Pet Fly, UPN and Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended and no money has changed hands. They don't belong to me, and honestly I don't have the time to keep them out of trouble. *g*
Author's Note: For Kat, 'cause she asked so nicely -- plus it gave an idea for my SA dues! Not very much Sentinel and Guide activity in this one. It's mainly about friendship
Thanks: Huge thanks to Bobbie and StarWatcher for always giving freely of your time to beta my stories. (A few changes were made after this story was beta'd, so any mistakes made are mine.) Thanks also to Arianna for your words of wisdom. And, lastly to wolfpup for giving my stories a home.
Feedback: Always welcomed and always appreciated. email@example.com
"Mom, please don't cry... I know mom, I know it's hard, but please don't do this again. No, mom, I'm not saying that. Of course you need to remember, I'm not saying you shouldn't, but you've gotta start to let it go... What!... mom, please... don't say that... I never said that. You know that's not fair."
Jim Ellison inserted his key into the front door of apartment 307. "Why did I even bother?" he muttered, shoving open the unlocked door. "Sandburg, how many times have I told you to lock the door when you're here by yourself?"
Blair swung around at Jim's intrusion, a nervous look spreading across his handsome features. "Hey, mom, look, I gotta go... no, I'm not running away," he hissed into the receiver. "Look, I really gotta go. Jim needs to use the phone. I'll call you next week, okay? Yeah, love you, too." With a relieved sigh, he disconnected the call. "Hey, Jim, didn't expect you home so soon, man."
Jim moved further into the apartment, throwing his keys on the kitchen countertop. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, fine... everything's just fine." Blair ran his fingers through his hair, his eyes deliberately avoiding contact with the detective's. "What were you saying?"
"I was saying to keep the door locked, Junior."
"The door, right." Blair moved into the kitchen and snatched a glass from the drainer. "I meant to lock it, but the phone was going crazy when I came in."
Jim leaned against the counter, studying his somewhat jittery partner. "So, how's your mom? You two didn't exactly sound like you were having a mother-son, 'Hallmark' kinda moment."
"Yeah, well, you know Naomi." Blair filled his glass with tap water. "You still need me to come with you on the stakeout tonight?" he asked, changing the subject.
"I thought you were up to your elbows in students' papers?"
"Yeah, I am, but there's no reason why I can't grade them in the truck."
"This is gonna be another all-nighter, Chief."
"That's cool, man. I don't have my first class until ten." And it's not as if I'm sleeping much anyway, he thought wearily.
Jim moved toward the stairs. "I'm gonna catch a few hours of shuteye. I suggest you try and do the same." He huffed as Blair gave him a casual brush-off. "I mean it, Sandburg," he said as he trod up the staircase. "You're starting to look a little ragged around the edges."
Blair moved to the door and picked his backpack up from the floor, unbuckling the clasp. "You're just jealous that you don't have my stamina." He pulled a stack of papers from the battered pack. "It's called the curse of the old, man. After staying power, the bladder's usually the next thing to go." He smiled up at Jim. "But don't worry, big guy, they don't usually shoot you until you start to drool."
"Get some sleep!" Jim bellowed from the upstairs bedroom.
"Yeah, yeah," Blair muttered as he positioned himself at the kitchen table. "Maybe in the next millennium." He flipped over the first paper in the stack and started to skim over the contents. His concentration wavered quickly, his eyes drifting to stare out the balcony windows, his gaze not even noticing the approaching summer storm. "Happy birthday," he whispered. "I love you."
Jim rifled through the contents of the cooler he'd packed before they left. He hated 'all-nighters,' particularly when it was street surveillance. It wasn't so bad if they were holed up in a building where he could get up and stretch his legs, but stuck in the limited confines of the truck cabin for ten hours straight was not his idea of fun, especially when it was raining cats and dogs outside. "You want one?" he offered, pushing a sandwich under Blair's nose.
His preoccupied partner pushed away the offering, his right hand still madly scratching notes on the paper he was grading. "You gotta eat something, Chief." Jim tried again.
"I already ate," Blair lied. Truth was that his stomach was a bundle of knots. This time of the year always had him on edge, but for some reason it was worse than normal. Maybe it was the fact that twenty-five was meant to be a milestone -- a milestone that was never reached.
"When?" Jim asked, putting the sandwich back in the cooler.
"When, what?" Blair gave his dimming book light a tap.
"When did you eat?"
"At the loft, before we left."
"I thought you were sleeping."
Blair sighed, placing his pen in the crease of his folder. "Well, I guess I must be multi-talented," he quipped, removing his glasses and rubbing his tired eyes.
"You want some help with those?" Jim asked, indicating the stack of papers sitting on the seat between them.
Blair rolled his eyes at Jim's offer. "Not unless you've taken a crash course in the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea and the practices of cannibalism among the highland tribes."
Jim picked up one of the papers. "No, but it can't be that hard to understand."
Blair snatched the student's essay from Jim's hand. "I'm just going to forget you said that." He adjusted his glasses back on his face. "Now, if you don't mind."
"Great, just my luck to get stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with a partner who's got a terminal case of PMS," Jim grouched.
"Jim!" Blair said in exasperation. He had hardly made a dent in the papers he was grading and was not in the mood to deal with a bored Jim Ellison. "Didn't you bring a book or something? You're starting to drive me insane here, man."
"No, I didn't bring a book, Sandburg. It's a stakeout remember? Concentration and observation are the key elements."
"Well, Kojak, concentrate and observe and leave me in peace to get this done."
"Kojak!... You trying to tell me something, Chief?" Jim objected, taking off his cap and running his hands through his short-cropped hair. "You know, Sandburg..." The detective's next sentence was cut short by the glare he received from the grad student. A glare that left no doubt in his mind that now would be a good time to shut up.
Completing a quick sensory scan of the area, Jim gave a bored sigh. Something told him that tonight would be a 'no show' and a complete waste of time. Maybe I should have brought a book, he mused. He settled back in his seat and watched the rain as it pelted down against the windshield.
"Ellison, pick up." Simon's urgent voice burst through the police radio.
"Maybe an early mark, Chief," Jim hoped as he lifted the handset. "Hey, Simon, nice to hear your cheery voice."
"Jim, I want you and Sandburg to get over to the turnoff to Boson's Landing, right away. H and Rafe will cover your position."
"Why, what's up?"
"A car's skidded off the road and gone into the river just before the bridge. The woman driver tried to get the passengers out and on the bank, but one of the boys got swept away." The airwaves went silent for a moment. "Jim, prepare yourself to help search for a body. The child's only four and he can't swim."
Blair paled in his seat as the detective geared the truck and floored the accelerator. The neatly stacked bundle of papers slid sideways and spilled to the floor as Jim manoeuvred a tight U-turn and sped off in the direction from which they'd originally come.
The rain was blinding, pelting down in furious, sporadic waves, as the wind whipped up a storm that matched the force of the swollen river itself. Jim tossed his spare raincoat in Blair's direction as the two men exited the truck and hurried over to the embankment. The car, a late model sedan, was perched a quarter of the way across the river, a large boulder the only obstacle stopping it from being swept away. "Jim!" Simon shouted, his words becoming lost in the roar of the river. "This is Captain Eton. He'll be coordinating the search."
"Thanks for coming so quickly." The Captain extended his hand to both Jim and Blair. "We've got additional crews on the way, but time is paramount."
Jim looked down at the scene with disbelief. "Why the hell didn't she stay in the car until help arrived?"
"She underestimated the force of the current. She got the first two kids out of the car and safely to the bank, but by the time she went back for the third, the flash flooding upriver had made its way to this point. The boy slipped out of her grasp and was washed away."
Both Jim and Blair accepted halogen flashlights and a pack of basic equipment. "I've got a crew concentrating on this side of the river. If you and your partner could start along the parallel bank, I'll get backup to you as soon as it arrives. And Detective... prepare yourself for the worst. If you find the body, don't put yourself at risk to extract it."
As the finality and hopelessness of the words spoken by Captain Eton registered, something irrational inside of Blair snapped. "What the hell do you mean by body?" he shouted against the howling wind. "I can't believe you've signed and sealed the kid's death warrant already." Blair grabbed the Captain's jacket by the sleeve. "The badge says Search and Rescue, not Search and Recovery. How the hell can you just give up like that?"
"Sandburg," Simon yelled, yanking the observer's hand off the Captain's jacket. "Have you gone totally crazy? What the hell has gotten into you?"
Jim intervened, pulling Sandburg away from Simon. "I got it, sir," he said, giving Blair a push toward the bridge that would take them across the river. "Chief, I don't have time to nursemaid you on this one, so I'll make this very clear... "
Blair stopped in his tracks and yelled in disbelief, "Nursemaid? Funny, Jim, I thought that's why I was here."
Jim glared at the younger man. "Sandburg, if you can't handle this, go wait in the truck."
Blair pulled away from the detective and broke into a jog. "Are you coming or not?"
Reaching the other side of the bridge, the pair made their way down to the river's slippery bank. "I think sight is the best option, Jim." Blair strained against the roar of the river. "There's too much intense background noise to try and filter the sounds out." He touched his sentinel lightly on the arm. "I'll be right behind you."
Jim nodded, concentrating his efforts to enhance his eyesight. He felt Blair pat him on the back. "Let's get to work." Their earlier argument took a back seat as sentinel and guide settled into their natural routine, a routine that had become as automatic and instinctual as the act of drawing in breath.
As they made their way down the river, Blair fought hard to control the nauseous feeling that was creeping into his gut. Please, not again, he prayed silently.
Twenty minutes of searching had turned into a fruitless exercise. As the minutes ticked by, both men were fully aware of the ramifications. The chances of finding the boy alive were diminishing rapidly. Flashlights on the other side of the river, mingled with the occasional shout of the boy's name, added to their sense of dread. The window of opportunity was closing rapidly.
Jim turned around to face his partner. "Chief..."
"No, Jim, don't say it!" Blair exploded. "Don't you dare give up!"
"I'm not giving up, but whether you like it or not, the chances of finding the kid alive are growing pretty damn slim."
"I can live with pretty damn slim," Blair retorted. "What I can't live with is the fact that we gave up when there's still hope."
"Look, Chief, I can hear the search party not too far behind us. You start making your way back and see if they've come up with anything. I'll make my way a little further down stream." Jim knew that if the child had come this far, chances were it would have been face down. He squeezed Blair's shoulder. "Watch your step, okay?"
Blair read Jim's body language loud and clear, and he knew that the man was right. The chances of finding Jackson alive weren't optimistic. Nodding with reluctance, he started to make his way back upriver toward the search party.
With the sentinel now out of sight, Blair stopped and took one final look. Shining his flashlight over the surface of the water, he was aware of the futility of his actions. He was just about to turn away when a small reflection caught his eye. Focusing the beam just beyond a small outcrop of rocks, his heart started to pound "Oh my god." Stumbling to the bank, he shouted in Jim's direction. "Jim... Jim, I found him... he's still alive!"
Clinging to a partially-submerged log that had become wedged between two rocks, Jackson was holding on for dear life. Water pummelled his small body, as he clung with all his might. Without a second thought for what he was about to do, Blair peeled off his jacket. With one last, desperate cry to Jim, he waded into the river, the current at knee level strong enough to nearly knock him off his feet. He clambered onto a large boulder and sighted a line of rocks that practically formed a pathway out into the middle of the river. If he could just keep his balance on the smooth, slippery surface, he knew he could reach the boy. This time, he knew he could do it.
Reaching the last rock, Blair stretched out his arm in desperation. His fingers could just touch the log that Jackson was clinging to, but the child was still out of reach. "Jackson, take my hand," Blair shouted.
Shivering uncontrollably with fear, the boy made no effort to release his deathlike grip on the log. Blair tried again. "Jackson, I know you're scared, but I'm gonna get you out of the river. I can't do it by myself, buddy, I need your help. Just let go of the log with your right hand and reach it out to me."
The child didn't answer. Numb with fear, he wildly shook his head from side to side, his frantic actions causing the log to slip slightly. "Jackson, stop!" Blair yelled, but it was too late. A final build-up of water forced the log from its lodging, and it broke free. Blair dove for the log, but his body slipped from the rock and plummeted into the river. As he was dragged under, he felt his hand touch something solid. Jackson was his only thought as he took hold and propelled them both toward the surface. Gulping in a lungful of air, he pulled the boy close. Helpless to fight against the raging current, all Blair could do was to wrap the child in a protective embrace, his own body taking the full force of the river's rage as he was pounded and battered against the rocks. Caught up in the strongest part of the current, his hopes of being washed toward shore dwindled quickly. His thoughts turned to the past. The river had beaten him once again.
Tossed over a rocky cascade, Blair and Jackson were sucked down into the depth of the abyss. In a wild, desperate effort for life, Blair's body shot its last reserve of adrenaline through his veins. His mind screamed at him to keep going, his legs burned with fatigue as they kicked furiously for the surface. Jackson's small body was now lax in his arms, the boy flopping around like a rag doll in a washing machine. Dragged back down by another swirling whirlpool, Blair's own body had no more left to give. A feeling of regret washed over him, as he said a silent prayer -- a prayer for another brother lost. As he resigned himself to his fate, a sharp tug on his collar stopped his descent. The pull turned into a painful grip on his biceps as his head broke the surface of the water. "Jim," he spluttered and coughed, expelling a lungful of water.
"Blair," Jim yelled. "Can you brace yourself on anything? I don't have enough leverage to pull you up."
Blair looked around frantically, kicking with his feet, praying for contact with anything that would help alleviate the burden of his weight. "No... nothing."
"Chief, you're gonna have to help me. I need you to grab hold with your other hand."
Blair couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. "No, are you crazy! I'm not letting go of Jackson."
"Sandburg, I can only hear one heartbeat... he's gone, Chief." Jim tried to pull Blair higher, only to find himself losing his precarious position on the fallen log. "Blair... you're gonna have to let go."
"No!" Blair shouted. "I won't let him go."
"Sandburg, he's dead," Jim shouted back. "The boy is dead. There is nothing else you can do. I can't hold you for much longer."
Blair's pain-filled eyes stared up at his sentinel. He knew that Jim was right, there was nothing else that could be done for Jackson now, but he still couldn't bring himself to let go. "I can't... Jim... I can't do it."
"Chief... please, you have to." Jim's voice faltered. "I'm not gonna lose you."
Before Blair had a chance to consider the unthinkable, another pair of hands was added to Jim's. Lines were secured and Jackson was plucked from his grip. The passage of time stilled as he was dragged from the river. One minute he was preparing himself to let go, the next he was standing on the riverbank, a blanket wrapped firmly around his shoulders. "One, two, three." He was vaguely aware that he was counting in time with the female EMT as the she performed CPR on the young child's body. "Please breathe... please breathe," he willed. He felt Jim's arm snake around his shoulder, and he didn't offer any resistance. He turned into the embrace, not caring what others thought. "Please breathe... please," he whispered against Jim's wet jacket.
Suddenly, shouts of encouragement filled the air as the boy coughed up a lungful of water. Orders were issued as I.V. lines and an oxygen mask were secured in place. In a flurry of quick, precise motions, Jackson was moved from the wet, damp earth onto a stretcher and whisked away into the night. Slaps of congratulations and words of admiration rained down on Blair's back, but he ignored them. He didn't move his head from Jim's shoulder. He stood silently, like a child with his face buried in his father's neck in order to shield himself from the outside world -- if he couldn't see them, they couldn't see him. He closed his eyes momentarily and, for the first time in days he could feel himself drifting off. "You did good, Chief," Jim whispered into his hair. A last squeeze was given and his wall of protection crumbled down around him as Jim let go. "Let's go get you checked out."
Jim pushed the cubicle curtain to one side. "Heard the doc's given you the all clear."
An exhausted Blair Sandburg lifted his head. His damp hair hung in ringlets around his face, making him look suspiciously like Shirley Temple's male counterpart. His wet clothes had been bagged and he was sitting on the examination table dressed in a pair of old scrub pants. "Yeah, barely a scratch. Pretty amazing, huh?" he commented dully.
"For you, yeah, pretty amazing." Blair had been lucky to escape without serious injury. A cut above his left eye had been stitched and dressed and, apart from some pretty colourful bruises peppering his back and chest, he was fine. Jim moved further into the small space. "I spoke to the staff up in the ICU. Looks as if Jackson's gonna be okay. He's awake and responding to stimuli."
Blair's eyes widened. "No... no brain damage?"
"They're confident he's gonna make a hundred percent recovery, Chief -- thanks to you."
"And to you." Blair looked at Jim's face closely. "You okay, man?"
"Me? I'm fine... aside from the fact that I nearly let a four-year-old child die... yeah, I'm doing great."
Blair reached out and touched Jim's arm. "You only heard one heartbeat, big guy. You thought Jackson was dead... hell I thought he was dead. It would have been physically impossible for you to pull both of us up without ending up in the river yourself. If you had thought for even a minute that he was still alive, your decision would have been different."
A look of uncertainty flashed across Jim's eyes. "Here," he said, passing Blair a crumpled t-shirt. "I found this at the bottom of my gym bag. It's a bit gamy, but if you don't breathe in too deeply, you shouldn't pass out." Handing the shirt to his partner, Jim added, "I can't help you out in the shoe department, Chief. You're gonna have to barefoot it outta here."
"Summer rain and bare feet, man. Some of my best childhood memories." Blair eased off the exam table and pulled the shirt over his head. "I am so ready to get outta here."
"Blair." Jim latched onto his partner's arm as the younger man pushed past him. "You're wrong, you know. Even if I had heard two heartbeats, I still wouldn't have let you go to take hold of the boy." In an unexpected move, Jim pulled his guide into a fierce hug. "That was way too close, Junior... Don't you ever do that to me again."
Blair returned the hug. "I know... I won't."
With his feelings bubbling too close to the surface, Jim swung his arm around Blair's shoulder. "Come on. Let's get outta here, you're starting to smell like stale sweat socks."
"Hey, whose fault is that?"
"You feel like going fishing?" Jim asked, leading Blair down the hallway. "Simon mentioned that he can get the loan of a cabin for the weekend."
"Sounds like a plan, man. Definitely sounds like a plan."
"Hey, good news." With his arm still firmly around Blair's shoulder, Jim manoeuvred his partner around the mass of people crowding the busy hallway. "Brown and Rafe made the bust."
"Nope, Byron showed just after we took off. He had forty kilos of cocaine in the trunk of his car."
"You do realise we'll never hear the end of it," Blair moaned, bracing himself to face a gloating Henri Brown.
"You betch'a," Jim replied with a smile.
Darkness, brilliant and more alluring than the rarest opal, descended. He was not afraid; instead a fascination settled over him as the spectrum of colours from this pure gem passed in front of his eyes. The colours intensified, and so did his sense of calm; love surrounded him. A cheeky smile, not so unlike his own, appeared. Hold my hand Bwaih; mommy says you need to hold my hand. The little hand slipped into his; it was warm, alive within his touch. We go now Bwaih. He smiled. Of course he would go. He would always follow... that was what he was meant to do, he knew because his mother had told him so. He lifted his foot, but was held back. The tiny hand slipped from his grasp and started to move away. Caleb! A strong grip slipped around his waist and pulled him backward. No! he cried, struggling to break free. No Caleb, no. The grip tightened, pulling him into an embrace. It's okay, Blair... it's okay, sweetheart... it's not time... not yet.
"Caleb!" Blair screamed. He bolted upright, sweat pouring off his body. He blinked hard, taking a few minutes to get his bearings. "Fuck," he whispered, wiping his hand over his sweat-slicked face. A pounding on the stairs found him lurching from the bed, his stomach rolling with the rhythmic beating of panicked footsteps. Jim burst through the wooden doors, just as he burst out. He pushed past the startled man, making it to the bathroom without a moment to spare. Not making it as far as the toilet, he aimed for the sink, his retching intense and violent. A hand moved past his line of vision, and he was vaguely aware of the sound of a squeaking faucet. He felt Jim press into his body, but was unperturbed by the close proximately of the larger man. Jim's presence never made him feel crowded. The detective didn't realize it, but he filled a desperate void in Blair's life -- a void that had been empty and lifeless for so long.
Breathing heavily, with his body having no more to expel, Blair ran his fingers under the cool, running water. "You okay, Chief?" Jim asked with concern, his hand running up Blair's back in long, soothing strokes.
Blair nodded, his voice not yet having the strength to answer. He cupped his hands, splashing water on his clammy face, gratefully accepting a towel that Jim handed to him.
Starting to feel slightly human again, a look of embarrassment crept across his tired features. "Sorry about that," he croaked.
Jim's eyes held no annoyance, only worry. As expected, Blair allowed a large hand to brush across his forehead. "At least you're starting to get some colour back. For a minute there I was wondering if you were practising to become a French mime."
Blair threw the towel into the sink. "It must'a been something I ate."
"Since you haven't eaten enough lately to keep a sparrow alive, I very much doubt that." Jim moved to sit on the edge of the tub. "You wanna talk about it?"
"Talk about what?"
"About how a nightmare can cause you to heave half your insides down the bathroom sink."
With his defences on the rise, Blair moved from the small room. "Jim, it's nothing man." He stopped at the sofa, fully aware that Jim was close behind him. Scrubbing his fingers through his hair, he tucked a stray piece behind his ear. "I've just been a little stressed and overworked. I guess it just finally caught up with me."
"So this has nothing to do with the fact that you nearly drowned tonight?"
"No," Blair said a little too quickly. "I'm fine, you're fine, and Caleb's fine."
"Jackson... the kid's name was Jackson, not Caleb."
"Jackson... yeah... that's what I said," Blair replied nervously.
Jim could tell by the look in Blair's eyes that the younger man was hiding something. That was the second time tonight he'd heard that name. Drawing on past experiences with his elusive friend, Jim decided that now was not the time to charge at Blair like a bull at a gate. "So, there's nothing you want to talk about... get off your chest."
Blair grabbed the remote off the table and switched on the TV. "I'm fine," he insisted.
"You got classes in the morning, Chief?"
Flicking through the stations, Blair made an effort to keep his tone light and casual. He was fine... it was just a dream... a dream that Jim didn't need to know about. "Yeah, got early office hours. I have to be at Rainer by eight." He risked a quick glance at Jim. "You don't need me, do you?"
"No, I'm pretty much caught up with things," Jim lied, having no intention of telling Blair about the stack of paperwork that littered his desk. Glancing at the TV, he asked. "You planning on staying up?"
"For a while. I'm not really tired anymore. Think I might just hang out here and do some channel surfing. Besides I have to get up in a few hours anyway."
"You sure you're feeling okay?" Jim asked again. Blair didn't appear to be suffering from any lingering effects; he was still a little pale, but other than that he seemed pretty much okay. The sentinel gave his guide a quick sensory once over. "Maybe you've got a slight concussion?" Jim stated, knowing full well that whatever was nagging Blair wasn't physical.
"Jim, I'm fine," the young man insisted again. He flopped down on the sofa. "I'd tell you if there was something wrong." He waved Jim away. "Go, man, shoo... back to bed and get your beauty sleep." He moved his concentration toward the screen. "God knows you need it."
Jim pounced immediately, using his full body weight to plaster Blair against the cushion. "What was that, Chief?" he asked, getting ready to inflict a major noogie on Blair's already messed up hair.
Blair laughed, lifting his hands to save his hair from a serious knot attack. "I said you were beautiful, man... really, really beautiful... inside and out," he added.
Jim pushed himself from Blair's body. "That's what I thought you said." With a final look, Jim left his partner to his 'Thunderbird' marathon, and padded back up the stairs. "Hey Chief," he called. "If you do want to talk, you know were I live."
Blair's eyes filled with expression. "Thanks, man," he whispered. He listened as Jim reached the top of the landing and made his way back to bed. Closing his eyes, Blair rested his head back against the sofa cushion. The face that filled his dream was back. His eyes sprang open, and he knew that sleep wouldn't be happening anytime soon.
Jim sat silently as his bedraggled partner dragged himself from the bedroom; another night of tossing and turning had obviously plagued his friend. "Morning, sunshine," Jim smiled, mustering his cheeriest disposition. "Coffee's hot." All he got for his efforts was a wave and a grunt as Blair disappeared into the bathroom. "Okay, no coffee," Jim muttered. He pushed back from the table, and set about making breakfast. He was going to need a good, hearty one when plan B kicked into action. It had been three days since the river incident, and during that time Sandburg had hardly slept a wink. One look at the kid when he arrived home last night had Jim's panic bells ringing louder than Notre Dame Cathedral on a Sunday morning. Sandburg was literally asleep on his feet when he walked through the door, and if he insisted on going to the University today, he'd have to do so as a passenger.
By the time Blair exited the bathroom, he was already running behind schedule. "Jim, why didn't you yell out that it was getting late?" he grouched, emptying his sock drawer on his bedroom floor and searching for anything that didn't have a hole. Finally emerging in an old pair of faded jeans and a t-shirt, he smoothed down his hair and grabbed his pack.
"What about breakfast, professor?"
"No time." Blair rushed from the apartment. "See you tonight."
Jim poured himself another coffee and settled back in anticipation of the show that was about to take place. Before Blair had woken, he'd removed the distributor cap from the Volvo. The old classic wasn't going anywhere today.
Right on schedule, heavy footsteps mingled with a few unrepeatable phrases could be heard in the hallway. The front door swung open. "Damn heap of junk." Blair looked over at Jim in utter frustration. "I can't believe it won't start. I've just spent three hundred bucks at the mechanic's." He paced the floor. "Worthless piece of scrap metal."
"Do my ears deceive me or did I just hear you refer to your precious, one-in-a-million, beloved 'classic' as a piece of junk?"
Blair glared at Jim and the sentinel smiled smugly. "So, I guess this means you'll be needing a lift?"
Storming out the front door, the young man yelled back, "I'll meet you down at the truck, and hurry will ya? I'm already late."
Sporting an ear-splitting grin, Jim grabbed his keys. "I just love it when a plan come together."
The halls of Hargrove were empty as Jim's footsteps echoed against the floorboards. Sandburg had been giving him the brush off for the better part of the day, insisting that he was too busy to take a break. It was now eight o'clock in the evening and, in Jim's opinion, time for all good little anthropologists to be safe and sound at home. And since he was the kid's only means of affordable transportation at this hour, Sandburg really didn't have a choice.
He reached his intended target and pushed open the door. "Unbelievable," he hissed. "Sandburg, have you got total shit for brains? You're in an empty building with only a few underachieving security guards on duty and your door is unlocked. I swear to god, on the way home we are renting 'The Sorority Murders'." Jim stood with his arms crossed against his chest, waiting for an answer. "Sandburg, are you listening?"
With his eyes staring blankly into space, Blair didn't acknowledge Jim's intrusion.
"Chief?" Jim moved closer, waggling his fingers across Blair's line of sight. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn Sandburg was asleep with his eyes open. Reaching out, he gave his guide a small shake. "Blair, you in there?"
Blair blinked rapidly. "...Jim?"
"Everything alright, Chief? You were so far off with the pixies it wasn't funny."
Blair blinked again. "I w..as?" A distinctive slur was evident in his speech.
"Yeah... you 'was'." Jim swung Blair's chair around. "You wanna tell me what's going on?"
Blair blinked several times as if the action would somehow miraculously recharge his failing batteries. "Nothing... 'm... fine."
"Yeah and I'm Elmer Fudd." Jim flicked off the desk lamp. "You, my young friend, are going to the hospital."
Hospital was one word that Blair seemed to understand and one word that seemed to give his tired body an instant energy boost. "No!" he exclaimed, surging to his feet.
Jim grabbed him by the shoulders. "Chief, I walk in here to find you doing the best Sentinel impression I've ever seen, you're barely capable of stringing two words together, let alone a complete sentence." Jim tightened his grip. "And you're wobbling around like a sailor on shore leave, and you expect me to ignore it?"
"Jim, please," Blair pleaded. He was so tired he couldn't even think straight enough to plead his case. His eyes stung with fatigue and his muscles burned with exhaustion. "Please," he whispered again.
Jim's hand moved to cup Blair's face. "When is this going to stop?"
Blair closed his eyes briefly. "Tonight... I promise."
"If I take you home, you promise that you'll sleep?"
A simple nod was the sentinel's answer.
"Then, I guess, I'll keep you to your word." Jim pulled Blair close, tucking his friend under his arm. "Just lean on me, Chief."
If only I could, Blair thought. If only you'd stay close enough to keep the demons away... then I could sleep.
Jim threw back the covers and planted his feet on the floor in frustration. "I knew I should'a been more specific," he muttered. To be fair, Blair had kept his promise. The minute they'd walked through the front door, the tired young man dove for the sofa, falling asleep before Jim had the chance to suggest that maybe his bed would be a better place to rest. Puttering around quietly before finally settling down to watch the late news, Jim wasn't concerned about disturbing Blair; in fact the more background noise he made, the deeper Blair seemed to sleep. He'd managed to strip the kid down to his boxers and had covered him with a light sheet before heading off to bed himself. That had been three hours ago and, unfortunately, three hours seem to be just the right amount of sleep to renew Blair's energy levels.
Jim pushed off the mattress, preparing himself to do battle. He felt that he'd been more than patient up until now, giving Blair ample time and space to work through whatever was bothering him. He'd learned that the more he pushed Sandburg when he was in one of his moods, the more reclusive the kid became, finding any excuse to take off and not come home. Generally, if he gave Blair some room, the kid would pull himself out of his funk, but not this time. This time whatever was eating him was consuming him. Time to take off the velvet gloves, Jim thought, heading for the stairs. This time he intended to leave no room for evasion. For Blair's sake, he needed to get to the bottom of things before the nocturnal wanderer wound up in the hospital.
Jim padded down the stairs just in time to intercept Blair as the younger man was placing the milk carton to his lips. "Freeze!" he ordered.
Startled by Jim's voice, Blair jumped, causing the contents to spill down his chin and onto his bare chest. "Now look what you made me do," he grumbled, grabbing a kitchen towel to wipe up the mess. Jim plucked the carton from Blair's hand and put it back on the shelf in the refrigerator.
"Hey," Blair protested, "I was drinking that."
"Not anymore." Jim shut the fridge door with a bang. "If I have to listen to you get up one more time to use the bathroom, I swear to god I'll superglue the end of your dick closed."
Blair took a few steps away from the larger man, instinctively covering his boxer-clad groin with his hand. "That's a bit harsh, don't you think?"
"What is harsh, Chief, is the fact that you've managed to get three hours sleep out of the eight that you should be getting each night. For the past hour and a half you've opened and closed the balcony door three times, you've made two cups of tea, neither of which you've managed to drink, and I'm not even gonna mention your newfound desire to try out for the Olympic pissing team."
"I can't help it if I need to take a leak... and I only opened and closed the doors twice. It's hot in here, man." Before Blair could think of any more excuses, the phone rang, causing Jim to glare even harder. "I suppose that's my fault, too," Blair muttered
"Sandburg, at two in the morning, everything's your fault." Jim reached for the phone. "Ellison," he barked into the receiver.
Blair moved into the living room and flopped down unceremoniously onto the sofa. Jim had every right to be pissed off. After all, it was an ungodly hour and here he was wandering around the loft like a kid on Christmas Eve. Trouble was, he had long past reached the point where he had any control over the will of his body. For the past few days he'd had a pounding headache, which he couldn't seem to shake. His stomach and food were definitely not on speaking terms, and the aches and pains that he'd been experiencing of late confirmed that he did, in fact, have two hundred and six bones in his body. He rubbed his tired face. If only he could shut down... shut down and forget.
A wet kitchen cloth suddenly flew across the room and landed on the side of his head with a resounding 'thwack'. Jim was standing with his hand over the receiver. "Naomi," he mouthed.
Blair jumped to feet, waving his hands frantically and shaking his head from side to side.
"Um, Naomi, Blair's not here at the moment... yes I do realise it's two in the morning, and no, I don't know where he is. Yes, I'll tell him you called and I'll make sure he calls you the minute he walks in the door. Okay, I'll tell him... no Naomi, I won't give him a big kiss, but I will tell him you said you love him... Okay... yes... good night... bye now."
Jim pointed his finger at his partner. "You owe me big time, Junior. Care to fill me in on why your mother was calling at this hour and why you have this sudden urge to play 'Little orphan Annie'?"
"Hey, you know Naomi. Who knows why she does half the things she does?" Feeling uncomfortable under Jim's scrutiny, Blair edged toward his bedroom. "Well, I guess I should be getting back to bed." He faked a yawn. "Need my beauty sleep, man."
Jim rounded the sofa and moved to block his friend's escape route. "Not so fast, Sandburg. I think it's about time you and I had a little talk."
"Talk? Jim, we talk all the time. What could we possibly need to talk about that couldn't wait until morning?"
Jim edged closer to Blair, backing the younger man up against the wall. "Oh, I don't know, I could think of a couple of things right off the bat."
"Such as?" Blair challenged.
"Such as the reason why you can't seem to sleep, or the reason for your sudden lack of appetite, or the reason why you seem to be avoiding coming home."
"I am not."
"Then where have you been for the past few nights?"
"At the U -- you knew that. I've still got a ton of marking to get through before the end of term."
Jim moved closer. "That's funny, I seem to recall the girl in the office saying that all grades had been posted days ago."
"What?" Blair exploded. "You checking up on me now?" He tried to move past the large form blocking his way. "I don't owe you or anybody else an explanation of where I am or what I'm doing."
Jim pushed Blair hard up against the wall. "Bullshit you don't! When I have to sit back and watch you self-destruct, you owe me a hell of a lot more than an explanation."
Blair pushed back, but Jim didn't budge. He kept moving forward, literally backing Blair into the corner, their bodies now so close Jim could almost feel his guide's heart pound against his own. Time to go straight for the jugular, he thought. "You wanna tell me what's going on with you and your mom?"
Blair's heart rate increased and Jim knew he'd hit a major nerve. "Why are you avoiding her, Chief? What the hell did she say to you this time?"
Blue eyes, which moments before were full of fury and anger, suddenly glazed over with unshed tears as Blair's barriers tumbled down. "She won't forgive me," he whispered like a lost child, his eyes pleading with Jim to make the pain stop.
Jim moved even closer. "Forgive you for what, buddy?" he asked pushing for information.
A single tear trickled down the younger man's face, shattering into separate streams as it hit his stubbled cheek. "For Caleb."
Jim thumbed away the moisture. "Who's Caleb, Blair?" His thumb travelled up to the dark hollow under Blair's misery-filled eyes. "Tell me, Blair... please, talk to me."
Without warning, Blair's legs buckled and he slid down the wall.
"Crap!" Jim swore, taking most of Blair's weight and guiding him to the floor. Blair's eyes were still open but, as earlier that evening, they were vacant and bare. Immediately feeling for a pulse, Jim found it steady and strong. "Chief?" he asked, tilting his friend's face back gently and studying his pupils. "You in there, buddy?"
A flicker of recognition passed over Blair's face. "Tired," he breathed. He batted Jim's hands away, an action that seemed to require an enormous effort. "Need to lay down."
"Not here, kiddo," Jim protested "Let's get you up and into bed."
Blair shook his head, "No... too tired... not move." He pushed his palms against Jim's chest, forcing the older man into a sitting position. "Stay," Blair slurred. "Stay so... can sleep."
With a final sigh he lowered his head onto Jim's lap and closed his eyes. "Keep the demons away," he whispered. Within seconds, the exhausted man was sound asleep.
"It'd help if I knew which demons I was fighting," Jim said softly, easing him around to lean against the wall. There was no doubt in his mind that the floor was where he'd be spending the remainder of the night. Blair had asked him to stay, and he had no intention of doing anything else. A cooling breeze from the open balcony doors drifted across their bodies. His hand swept away a curtain of chestnut hair. "Good night, sweet prince," he whispered.
"Are you two greenhorns ready to hit the wilderness?" Simon hollered as Jim opened the front door.
"Not so loud," Jim hissed, ushering Simon into the apartment. "Blair's asleep."
"Jim, it's already seven-thirty. We gotta hit the road if we wanna get some decent fishing in this afternoon." Simon glanced toward Blair's bedroom, his eyes coming to rest on the still body of Sandburg, curled up on the floor, a pillow tucked under his head. "Why is he asleep on the floor?"
Jim moved into Blair's bedroom and started rifling through the grad student's drawers. "'Cause that's where he collapsed."
"Collapsed!" Simon moved quickly over to Blair, bending down to get a closer look at the younger man. "Is he alright? Have you called an ambulance?" He laid his hand on Blair's chest to assure himself that the kid was actually breathing. "How do you want to do this?" Simon asked.
Jim poked his head out of Blair's room. "Do what?"
"Get him to the hospital, of course." Simon glared at Jim. "Have I just walked into the twilight zone?"
Jim was fully aware that he was being nonchalant, but he had no intention of telling his captain that he'd spent the night on the floor with Blair's head cradled in his lap. For reasons he couldn't quite explain, the younger man brought something out in him he'd never experienced before. He knew he treated Blair differently. When it came to reaching out and offering support, Jim had no hesitation in regards to his young guide. Half the things he did for his partner when the kid needed him, he could never imagine doing for anyone else. So for Blair's sake as much as his own, he put on an act. "Simon, firstly I'm sure Blair would appreciate a trip to the hospital like a hole in the head; and secondly, he's not sick."
"So, you're just telling me he took a nosedive on your living room floor because he's very, very, tired!" Simon answered sarcastically.
"Basically, yes!" Jim knelt down on the floor, trying to ascertain the easiest way to get Blair up and into some clothes.
"Well, you could've at least put him to bed," Simon replied, removing his hand from Blair's chest.
"Hey... you ever tried moving a hundred and fifty pound anthropologist who doesn't wanna be moved?"
Simon studied the sleeping form. "Guess not... so what now?"
"Now we get him up, into some clothes and into the car. I've already packed all our gear... the guppy is the last item on the list." Jim ruffled Blair's head. "Hey, Chief... wakey, wakey."
"You seem to be taking this all very calmly, Ellison," Simon said, helping Jim shift Blair into a sitting position. "How the hell did he get like this in the first place, anyway?"
"That is exactly what I intend to find out." Jim lifted Blair's arm and pushed his hand through the shirt's sleeve.
"I know the kid's been pushing the envelope lately, but it's nothing out of the norm." Simon shifted Blair to lean against him while Jim worked on the other arm. "Maybe the doctor overlooked something the other night after you plucked him out of the river. I mean, you just never know when it comes to head injuries."
"Simon, I suspect whatever is going on with Blair isn't a result of any injury. I think it goes a hell of lot deeper than that."
"How do you mean?"
Jim buttoned up Blair's shirt. "Once I find out, I'll let you know." Turning his attention toward his guide, Jim tried once again to rouse the young man, who hadn't budged an inch. "Come on, buddy. Time to open those baby blues and greet the day." Blair stirred, his eyelids fluttering open for a brief second before drifting shut. "Oh no you don't, Junior," Jim said, giving Blair a shake. "Angling without pants is not a good look... scares the fish."
"Huh," Blair mumbled.
Jim gestured for Simon to take hold of the younger man's arm so they could drag him to his feet. Blair blinked, trying hard to focus his gaze. "Oh hey, Simon." He smiled dumbly, his arm draped around the police captain's shoulder.
"Hey, yourself." Simon smiled back, now supporting all of Blair's weight while Jim encouraged Blair to lift his feet, so he could slip the kid's pants on.
"Jim, has he lost weight?"
"I think so, but it's nothing a couple of days of good old-fashioned gluttony won't cure." Whether Blair liked it or not, Jim was determined that his roommate was going to eat. He was also going to sleep, and most importantly, he was going to share whatever it was that was bothering him.
Jim pulled Blair's shorts up and fixed the zipper in place. "You need the bathroom before we leave, Chief?"
"What about the glue?" Blair mumbled, his eyes drifting shut once more.
Simon raised his eyebrows. "Glue?
"Jim's... gonna glue my dick closed?" Blair garbled, his head now resting on Simon's shoulder.
"What!" Simon quizzed further, concentrating a glare toward Jim. "That's a bit harsh, don't you think?"
Jim gave Simon a wry smile. "Funny, that's what he said." Making sure that Blair was relatively steady on his feet, Jim guided Blair toward the bathroom.
"Definitely the twilight zone," Simon muttered. "I'll go throw your stuff in the car," he called out, as the two men disappeared into the bathroom.
"Hey, grab a pillow from Sandburg's bed will you? Somehow I think it's gonna be a very peaceful drive."
There is a god, Simon mused, picking up the bags by the door.
"He still asleep?"
"Yeah... dead to the world."
"He's not dead, Jim." Simon replied noticing the distinctive slump of his detective's shoulders.
"He could have been." Jim suddenly felt heavy and deflated, like the weight of the world rested entirely on him.
Simon turned his back, his hands moving swiftly up and down, the delicate, intricate scales of his prize catch shimmering in the afternoon sun as he removed them with practiced ease. "I think you're being a little over-dramatic, don't you?"
Jim snagged a beer from the cooler sitting next to one of the worn deck chairs and leaned back against the porch railing. "No, not really." Twisting off the cap, he flung it at the cooler, watching as it missed completely and bounced across the wooden deck. "What if he had been driving or crossing the road, or in the tub? What would have happened then?" Jim paled, suddenly realizing how potentially dangerous Blair's condition had become over the past few days.
Simon turned away from the crude outdoor sink, which was situated on the outside wall adjoining the kitchen, the half-scaled trout still in his hand. "Or standing on the edge of a cliff, or playing on the railway tracks, or driving a semi at high speed down the freeway."
Jim shot him a dirty look. "I'm serious, Simon."
"So am I." He placed the fish on the scratched aluminum surface and wiped his hands on a kitchen towel that had been strung through the belt loop of his shorts. "Look Jim," he said, his voice tinged with exasperation at his friend's continued self-denigration. "The kid's fine. From what you tell me, he didn't even really collapse, he just kinda... wilted." He walked over to the cooler, extracting an ice-cold ale. "You said yourself that in a few days he'll be as good as new. All he needs is some sleep and a few decent meals under his belt."
"Whether he'll be fine or not is not the point, Simon."
"No, it's not. The point is that Blair is a grown man, and last time I looked, he had a mind of his own. A mind that is more than capable of making decisions regarding his own well being." Simon threw his bottle top at the cooler, a smug smile spreading over his face as the top hit its mark. "If things were getting too much for him to handle, he should have said something. He could have come to either one of us and said he was overloaded. Sandburg should never have let it reach the point that it did."
Jim's eyes flashed with anger and he straightened his stance immediately. "So you're saying that this was all his fault... that we shouldn't be held accountable for any of it? You and I both push him, Simon. We push him for a commitment to the PD that he shouldn't have to make. We're always expecting that he'll drop whatever he's doing to come running after us. He's not even paid, for shit sake." Deep down Jim knew that Blair's workload had nothing to do with his guide's collapse. But it was a hell of a lot easier to blame Simon and the PD, rather than give in to the fact that he could have prevented the whole episode. He should have intervened earlier and taken control. He should never have let it get this far.
Simon matched Jim's stance. When it came to confronting the great Jim Ellison, Banks never backed down. He was just as pigheaded and just as stubborn as the detective, and it was times like these that Jim might as well just toss his 'Ellison Book of Intimidation' straight out the window.
"So we pushed, but that's part of the job, whether he's paid or not. He's not under any contractual obligation. Sandburg chooses to be a member of the team. His choice, Jim." Simon rubbed the condensation off his bottle and wiped his hands on his shorts. "You, of all people, know that when the shit hits, it hits hard and it's a job in itself not to get buried in it." He pulled one of the deck chairs closer and lowered himself onto the faded fabric seat. "But this time, when push came to shove, Blair had every opportunity to say no. To let us know that he was stretched too thin."
"You wanna tell me when exactly that opportunity occurred, Captain?" Jim spat, still aiming his guilt at Simon.
"When I was busy playing boss, detective." Simon took a long swig of his beer. "About a week ago I confronted Sandburg about him burning the candle at both ends. I asked him if he wanted to take a step back with the stakeouts until his workload at the university eased off, but he assured me that he was fine."
"Oh that's great. Sandburg assures you that he's fine and you take his word for it. Of course he'd say he was fine. Christ, Simon, you know how evasive he can be when he wants to be. What exactly did you say you were playing again?" Jim challenged.
"Your boss, Ellison," Simon replied, without an ounce of emotion. The two men stared at each other for a few minutes, before Jim glanced away in an effort to get his anger under control.
"I'm sorry," he finally relented. "That was uncalled for." They locked eyes again and Jim immediately knew that Simon understood and that he held no grudge. They'd been friends too long for that.
"Jim, you're not the kid's keeper. You can only do so much." Simon pushed himself from the chair and moved back over to the sink. He picked up his scaling knife and, by his body language alone, Jim knew that the older man was not through with his lecture. "Just remember one thing," Simon said, pointing the knife at Jim as if to emphasise his point. "No matter how much we need Sandburg's help, he is still just an observer. If this happens again, I will pull his pass." He turned back to the sink, blocking his face from view. "If the kid ever got hurt because his mind's not on the job, I don't think I'd ever forgive myself." Simon sliced through the belly of the fish and turned on the tap. "Even if there does happen to be extenuating circumstances that perhaps one of my senior detectives has neglected to inform me about."
Jim drained the last of his beer, leaving Simon's last comment unanswered. Sometimes he underestimated just how intuitive his Captain was. "How long until you're ready to start cooking?" he asked.
Simon shrugged his shoulders. "Twenty, give or take."
"I'll go toss some greens together." Jim left his empty bottle on the porch railing and made his way inside. Bypassing the kitchen, he headed toward the room that he was sharing with his partner. Keeping in mind the damaged, rusted hinges, he pushed the door open, already aware that Blair was deeply asleep. Moving closer to the bed, Jim let his eyes drift over Blair. Even though he'd slept for fifteen hours straight, the kid still looked exhausted. The window was wide open, but the room was still hot, the meagre breeze doing little to make an impression on this year's Indian summer.
Blair was sprawled out on his back, his unbuttoned cotton shirt exposing his bare chest. Jim reached out and lightly traced the outline of one of Blair's more spectacular bruises, his fingers barely making contact with skin. "Thank god for your guardian angel," he whispered, knowing full well that his best friend could have easily lost his life that night at the river. Jim moved his hand up to feel Blair's forehead. He knew the beads of sweat that had formed were simply a result of the stifling afternoon heat, but he felt for a temperature anyway.
Blair mumbled an incoherent word and shifted from his back to his side, Jim's presence disturbing his sleep. Moving his hand away Jim took a few steps back and lowered himself to his own bed, content to sit and watch -- content to be on guard against the demons.
The afternoon and evening came and went as summer days tended to do. Chores were kept to a minimum, the heat providing the perfect excuse to slow down and take it easy. The conversation was light and casual as the two men shared a meal and discussed tomorrow's agenda, a schedule that included nothing but fishing and relaxation. Throughout the clanging of dishes and quiet laughter, Blair slept on. His meal was covered and placed in the refrigerator, sleep taking priority over nutrition.
As Jim drifted toward consciousness, he was vaguely aware that something was amiss. He could still hear the heartbeat that had become ingrained on his psyche, but the proximity was further away than it should have been. Fully awake, he glanced over at Blair's bed, not surprised to find it empty.
Strolling out on the deck, Jim found his partner sitting quietly on the top stair. "What'ya doing out here?" he asked.
"Just stargazing," Blair replied, not the slightest bit startled by Jim's voice. "When I was a kid, Naomi used to tell me that the stars were really angels in disguise, keeping watch over those who were left behind. She used to say they twinkled so brightly so we'd always know where to find them." Blair pointed toward the night sky. "See that one up there... that's my angel." He waited until Jim settled next to him. "That's Caleb, Jim... that's my brother."
Leaving a dumbfounded Jim Ellison in his wake, Blair stood and moved to the bottom stair. "I was five when he died... he was only three."
Jim moved immediately to stand behind Blair, still stunned by his guide's revelation. "Chief, I'm so sorry... I had no idea," where the first words of comfort that sprung into his baffled mind. His hands found their way to Blair's arms, rubbing up and down as if he needed to instill some warmth into the younger man.
"It's okay, you couldn't have known." Blair took hold of Jim's hands and pulled them to wrap around his chest. "It's not something I talk about." He shuddered slightly and pulled Jim's grip tighter. If there was one thing that he could always rely on, it was that Jim would never deny him the comfort of his touch.
"Why didn't you ever tell me, Chief?"
Blair hesitated. "Because I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?... Afraid of me?"
Blair leaned the back of his head against his sentinel's shoulder, once more glancing up at the stars. "Afraid that once I told you, I'd see the same look in your eyes that I see in Naomi's." He took a deep breath. "It was my fault Caleb drowned. It was all my fault."
"How could it have possibly been your fault?" Jim asked in utter disbelief. "You were only five."
With one last squeeze on the arms that encircled him, Blair broke free from the embrace. He moved further into a clearing in front of the cabin, and sat down on the lawn. "When I was young, my life was completely different from the one I've told you about. I was a different person and so was Naomi."
Jim moved to sit by his partner. "We lived in a big house in a leafy suburb of Maine. The perfect life, man. A mom who doted on us, a step-dad who treated me like I was his own son, and a little brother who thought I was superman. Picture-perfect, until the day that Caleb's dad died... that's when everything started to fall apart."
Jim sat silently, watching Blair fidget nervously with a blade of grass. "You see, Martin," he glanced over at Jim, "Caleb's dad, didn't have an insurance policy. It wasn't until after the funeral that Naomi realised what a difficult financial position she'd been left in. With the cost of the funeral taking up most of our savings, she had no choice but to get a job if she wanted to keep the house. It started off okay. She'd drop us off at a friend's who had volunteered to help out. They'd look after Caleb during the day and pick me up from school in the afternoon. But like everything, people soon got sick of the imposition of looking after someone else's kids and it didn't take long for the offers to run dry."
Blair shifted his position, crossing his legs in front of him. "Somehow Naomi managed to convince her boss that she could do the same job working from home, so the spare room was turned into her office. As her workload grew, the responsibility of looking after my brother rested more and more on my shoulders."
Blair looked over at Jim. "I didn't mind, you know. I really did love him." Blair took in a deep, cleansing breath. "Anyway, one day while Naomi was busy working, Caleb and I decided to go down and play in the river behind the house. It was a hot day, and even though I knew we weren't supposed to go down there by ourselves, he kept at me, and I gave in. Where we usually played wasn't very deep, but for some reason we wandered a little further downstream. In the middle of the river there was a large boulder and I decided to swim out to it. I told Caleb to stay put, but he could be a stubborn little guy when he wanted to be."
A sudden, sad smile flashed across Blair's face. "Remind you of anyone?"
"Yeah," Jim smiled back, his expression reflecting the same sadness.
"Even though Caleb could swim, he wasn't that confident. About halfway there, he got into trouble. I swam back to get him, but by the time I reached him, he had started to panic. I tried to keep us both afloat, but I just couldn't. I wasn't strong enough."
Blair gave Jim a look that almost made the sentinel's heart break in two. "I couldn't keep him above the water, Jim."
Not being able to stand Blair's pain any longer, Jim pulled his guide into an embrace, securing the younger man tightly within his arms. He didn't speak; he just waited until Blair composed himself enough to keep going.
After a few minutes of silence, Blair continued. "I really don't remember who found us or pulled us out of the river. All I remember is sitting on the bank while they covered my brother's body with a sheet." Blair burrowed deeper into Jim's hold. "I'll never forget the sound she made, Jim. Until the day I die, I'll never forget the scream she let out when they told her that her baby was dead."
Jim buried his face in Blair's curls, tears stinging his eyes. "Oh god, Blair, I'm so sorry. I'm so god damn sorry... I don't know what to say."
Blair patted Jim's arm, which had a vice like grip on his chest. "It's okay big guy. You don't have to say anything." Blair's voice dropped to barely a whisper. "There's nothing you can say. It was my fault -- simple as that."
"What!" Jim exploded, releasing Blair. "How can you even begin to think that?"
Blair didn't take Jim's outburst to heart. He knew it wasn't aimed at him, or even intentional. It was purely the sentinel's way of reacting to a situation that was out of his depth. A situation he couldn't control and couldn't fix.
"Look after your brother." Blair met Jim's eyes. "Everyday that's what she'd say to me. Look after your little brother, Blair."
Jim scooted around so he was kneeling directly in front Blair. "Chief, what happened was an accident. It was not your fault. You were only five, for Christ's sake. How can you possibly have been expected to be responsible for a three-year-old? Naomi was the adult, the one who should have been responsible, not you."
"You try telling her that," Blair said quietly.
Jim placed his hands firmly on Blair's shoulders. "You can't possibly tell me that your mother blames you?" When Blair didn't answer, Jim pushed again. "Blair?"
Blair shoved himself off the lawn and away from Jim. "No... yes... hell I don't know." He started to pace. "You don't see the look in her eyes, Jim. You don't hear it in her voice. I know she loves me, but I also know that a part of her can't forgive me for what I did. Whether right or wrong, he was my responsibility. 'Look after your brother, Blair'." His voice cracked. "Look after your brother." A mother's tears... a son's guilt.
Jim sprang to his feet. "Chief, what did your mother do after Caleb drowned?"
"I don't know." Blair continued pacing. "What does it matter what she did?"
"I'll tell you what she did. She quit her job, she sold everything she owned and dedicated the next twelve years to the person she loved most in the world."
"And how do you know that?"
"Because," Jim said, taking Blair by his shoulders and keeping him still. "I live with her son and I've witnessed firsthand how much she loves him."
"Then why, Jim?" Blair pleaded. "Why can't she say, 'I forgive you, Blair'?"
"Don't you see, Chief? She's never forgiven you because she's never blamed you."
"Jim, you don't understand, man," Blair whispered.
"No, Chief, you're wrong. You're the one who's got it wrong, buddy." Jim gave sturdy shoulders a hard squeeze. "I know how much pain you've been through, Chief, but put yourself in your mom's shoes, just for a second. Can you even begin to imagine how much guilt she must have harboured over these past years?"
Blair looked at him dumbly.
"She knows, Blair. She knows that her son is dead and it's a death that rests on her shoulders. Surely you must have see that in her eyes?"
As Jim's words registered, the dam that had held back so many years of emotional turmoil burst, engulfing Blair within its turbulent water. Jim's heart went out to the younger man, who had wormed his way not only into his life but deep into his very soul. Reacting on nothing but instinct, Jim did the only thing he knew how to do when Blair was hurting -- he pulled him close and held on tight. "She's never blamed you, Chief. Never once has she blamed you. She'll never forgive you because it was never your fault."
Supported by Jim's strength, Blair finally allowed himself to cry. He cried not only for himself but also for his mother and for a brother lost.
As the hours passed, two men crossed the borders of friendship and entered the realm of brotherhood. They shared more of their lives with each other than they had ever shared with any living soul. They laughed, they cried, but most importantly, Blair started on the long road toward redemption.
Lying on his back, looking up into the night sky, Blair asked. "Do you think it's true?" He glanced over at the man who was lying next to him, a man who given him the greatest gift he could ever hope to receive -- unconditional love.
"Do I think what's true?"
"That the stars are angels."
"If your mom says they are, then it must be true. Mothers are never wrong, Chief."
"Jim... thank you." Blair switched to his side, supporting his head with his elbow. "Thanks for sticking by me, man."
"Well, that's what brothers are for, Junior." Jim smiled at Blair's expression. "Brothers don't necessarily have to be born of blood, Chief. Sometimes the best brothers are the ones you choose yourself." Jim got to his feet. "And I should know, 'cause I'm speaking from experience." He held out his hand. "Come on, it's time for bed. I don't plan on letting Simon get a head start in the morning."
With a smile that couldn't possibly get any wider, Blair held up his hand toward Jim, "You don't have to worry about that, big guy. You two don't stand a chance against me."
Jim yanked Blair off the grass. "You have so much to learn, my little guppy. So very much to learn."
"You gonna stick around to teach me?" Blair asked with sincerity.
Jim flung his arm around Blair's shoulders as they walked back to the cabin. "I'm not planning on going anywhere -- Brother of mine."
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