Published: Sentry Duty 4 (2000), available from: www.agentwithstyle.com
K Hanna Korossy (Anna Kelly)
They trained him for this. Endurance, blocking out the pain, keeping secrets, even to the grave if necessary. Of course, that had been protecting national secrets, not police witnesses in protective custody, but it was still life and death, secrets in his care. His duty till death.
That didn't seem far off anymore.
He hadn't heard the first part, but he was well aware of what was being asked of him. His mouth was nearly too dry to do it, but he managed to spit fairly decently at the shadowy face.
The resulting blow would have emptied his stomach if he hadn't done that long before.
He had no idea how long it had been. Pain stretched seconds into hours, and he'd been awash in the stuff, unanchored. His tormentors were professionals, the injuries deliberately painful instead of damaging. It was a skill he recognized from having been taught it himself. He wasn't dying -- yet -- but the torment kept reaching new highs even when he thought it couldn't get any worse. He didn't even have the energy anymore to be angry, just hurt.
The shadow figure said something once more, but he couldn't even make it out anymore, his mind too punch-drunk and overdosed on pain to make sense of anything. Why don't you just get it over with...
James Bond had fainted after one broken finger. Jim Ellison had hung on to consciousness through three, plus other assorted brutal assaults. His hands had no feeling left in them except for slashes of pain from movement of broken bones and the wires that bound and were now embedded in his bloody wrists. Even the mercy of unconsciousness, which he'd given into after a particularly cruel kick between his legs, hadn't provided refuge long as they'd been quick to revive him, wanting him aware for every minute of it. Only, awareness was becoming a relative thing.
Training, both military and Sandburg's, had helped for a while as he'd turned every dial as low as it could go, but every human body had limits, even a Sentinel's. The agony thundered far beyond the dials' reach, and lack of water and sleep intensified the effect. Sanity retreated before an assault like that, and he'd long ago withdrawn into himself, away from the pain in order to survive at all.
Cold water suddenly splashed him in the face, jerking his consciousness back to the small room, and he gasped, trying not to tremble at the cold and shock. He couldn't help it, already chilled from sitting in the frigid room, the metal chair, clad only in an undershirt and boxers. His ribs sent quiet screams of warning throughout his system, and awareness began to fog again.
"...pain won't do it, we'll find something that will." Squinting through puffy eyes revealed no discernible characteristics of the speaker, but the anger was clear in the sharp voice. Not that he cared. "...sodium pentothal? Or perhaps seeing someone else suffer would be incentive? Your roommate..."
That smacked his sluggish mind into gear. The drugs... he wasn't quite sure what the drugs would do to his sentinel-enhanced sensitivity. It was possible that would get them the information they required. But bringing Blair into it -- that was the last straw. Not only would he have to give them what they wanted then, but his Guide would undoubtedly be hurt, perhaps even killed in the process. He couldn't let that happen.
There had been something... he'd considered an option before, when his mind was still clear enough to weigh and discard possibilities, and rejected it just as quickly. It had been too risky while there was still a chance of escape and survival, nor was he sanguine about relying on his senses as a last resort. But now there wasn't a choice and he had no desire to tempt fate.
Chief, I'm sorry. If his Guide somehow got to him in time, perhaps he could help, but it wasn't something terribly probable. Most likely this was it. But the witness -- and Blair -- would be safe. And that was reason enough.
It was the last thing he heard before he turned one single dial, his hearing, up to its highest level, and turned it inward. The sound of his own heartbeat roared through his murky brain, and deeper still, the rush of air through his lungs, blood through veins and arteries. Into broken capillaries, pooling into bruises beneath his skin, the rest pumping on in an endless circuit throughout his body like some surging red river. The swirling flood of sound caught him up, carrying him along with it, deep into a zone and far from the room and the pain and cognizance of anything outside.
Jim Ellison slumped in the chair, chest no longer visibly rising and falling. And when his cursing captor jerked his head up, no pulse was to be found in his bruised neck.
An hour later, a car pulled up to a back alley dumpster just long enough for two large men to struggle out with their burden and manhandle it inside, and then the car disappeared into the night. In the alley behind them, nothing moved except for a foraging rat.
This isn't real. Kidnappings were something you read about in the newspaper, not what you experienced yourself. And yet there was no other word for it, because people didn't just leave work and never show up at home. At least not methodic people like Jim Ellison.
Blair paced the end of the office that Simon had relegated him to some time ago, just enough room for four steps forward and four back. Being at the station was a start; he'd gone there as soon he'd discovered that the truck had made it to the loft but Jim hadn't. Simon had gotten on it immediately, much to the anthropologist's relief... for all the good that had done. Three days later, there was still no sign of the missing officer, even as every available man in the department raked the streets. The kidnapping of one of their own was something each took very personally.
But no one more so than Blair Sandburg. School had been put on indefinite hold and he'd left the station only to change and eat, and only then when pestered into it by the captain. Even sleep had become cat naps in one of the empty cells while Blair waited for news and helped track down every lead they had.
All for nothing. Not one word. For God's sake, Jim, where are you?
The maddening thing was, they knew too well who was behind it. The most high-profile case Ellison had been on before his disappearance was the protection of a very damning witness against a very untouchable racketeer. There wasn't much guesswork involved in who would want to kidnap the detective and why. And still there was no progress, no slip-ups by their quarry, no hiding place they could tie him to. Detective James Ellison had simply vanished from the face of the earth.
Blair shivered as he turned to retrace his steps again, absently wrapping his arms around himself. The thought had struck earlier that he should have worried more about the potential loss of his research subject, of Ellison-the-Sentinel. But that seemed petty and insignificant at the moment; the anthropologist couldn't bring himself to care now about his thesis or theories or research. The one thing that was on his mind, scaring him to death, was the thought of losing Jim, his best friend.
Abruptly, Blair gasped for air and realized he was on the brink of hyperventilating. That won't help a thing... gotta be ready if -- when -- something happens. That had been what Simon had drilled into him as reason for sleep and food, and he reminded himself of it over and over. Gotta be ready if Jim needs you. Stifling another shiver, he dropped into the nearest chair at the table and pulled the mess of files in front of him again. They'd been over it so many times already, he could recite most of it in his sleep, backwards, and yet there was always the possibility--
Simon's door suddenly swung open and Blair's head snapped up, immediately taking in the captain's expression. He shot to his feet before he was even aware of it, while all his blood seemed to rush the opposite direction, and he grabbed the edge of the table to keep himself steady. "Simon--"
"They found him. He's alive."
If Banks said anymore, Blair didn't hear it. He was already heading out the door to the elevator, heart heavy with dread but feet flying with hope. Jim's alive... Everything else was negotiable.
It wasn't until they were in Simon's car, lights and sirens clearing the way to the hospital, that reaction set in and his hands began to shake, but he stuffed them in his pocket and hoped the captain wouldn't notice. Euphoria did that to a person, as did desperate fear, and he had no desire to try to explain which one he felt. Blair wasn't really sure about that himself.
Jim's alive. He's alive. He repeated it to himself, lips moving silently, all the way to the hospital. And finally decided that maybe fear and hope weren't such different things.
Simon had had to tell him twice in the waiting room before it finally started to get through, and even then, Blair cringed from the picture it formed in his mind. Jim had been found in a restaurant dumpster by an early morning employee only through sheer luck. All the captain knew beyond that was that the detective had been badly beaten, enough so that at first they hadn't been sure he was still alive, and that he'd not regained consciousness since his rescue. A dumpster. Oh, God...
Seemingly boundless energy was usually Sandburg's ally, getting him through all-nighters and letting him keep up with two full-time jobs, Jim's and his own. But now it drove him to pace again, round and round the small room, unable to calm himself until they received some word. Simon had given up after a few attempts to get him to sit down, and now stood quietly conversing with some of the men who had slowly trickled in to wait with them, the group growing as word got around and people got off work. Blair didn't even recognize most of them except by casual acquaintance, but they were here to show their support, and he couldn't help but be touched. Now if only the doctor would come and tell them something...
Beaten. How could someone do something like that to another person? To Jim? He'd never been able to understand that, nor how his partner could take some of the atrocities of the job like that in stride. Jim was the tough one of the two of them, and the thought that somebody could subdue him and then work him over made Blair's last certainty seem to crumble.
Were you able to turn it down or did your senses make it worse? The question had plagued him ever since the car ride over, and he suspected the answer was the latter. Blair couldn't even imagine that, a body tuned to sensation being exposed to the most deliberate overload of painful impressions possible.
A sudden jarring set him off-balance. A wall. He almost laughed -- he'd walked into a wall. Someone reached out to steady him, and the next moment, both his arms were firmly taken and he was pulled over to the couch. A startled glance around revealed a uniformed officer he didn't know on one side and Joel Taggert on the other, though he hadn't seen the bomb specialist come in.
"I'm all right," he argued halfheartedly, making no move to pull away until he was sitting on the plastic couch next to Simon.
"Sure, kid," came Joel's warm voice. "Why don't you sit down for a minute, anyway. I'm getting tired just watching you."
Blair smiled at that, and the thought that he had friends in the room. It wasn't nearly enough to clear the sick feeling from his stomach, but it helped.
The doctor arrived a few minutes later, and he was the first one to his feet, only vaguely aware of Simon's hand on his shoulder.
"Is he--?" Words fled.
Simon's exact words, saying so very much and way too little. They still should have made all the difference, but the words were so serious, Blair's heart only skipped a beat before thudding worriedly, heavily on.
The report was staggering. Broken fingers, wrist, nose, seven cracked ribs, restraint marks on the neck and wrists and ankles, general deep bruising. Not just worked over to teach a lesson, but systematic pain applied in order to break. The doctor's admonition that it could have been worse and that it wasn't as bad as it looked didn't help much at all.
His last words, however, chilled Blair's already numb heart.
"We have him on a respirator now to take some of the strain off his body and let it heal -- he was barely breathing and we had some trouble finding a heartbeat when we came in. Detective Ellison's been stabilized for now, but his readings are still depressed and I can't tell you anything for sure yet."
Blair shut his eyes, staying on his feet only out of sheer determination. And anger.
"If one of you would like to see him for a little bit, one person would be all right," the doctor added.
"Sandburg," someone said from the back of the room, an unfamiliar voice, and there was murmured agreement around the room. Blair opened his eyes again to stare at them in surprise. A roomful of cops wanted him, the civilian, to be the one to go?
Simon was smiling that paternal way he did the few times Blair was too upset to give him grief about it and nudged him toward the door. "It's unanimous, Sandburg. Go talk to your partner."
And with a last grateful look at them all, he did.
He'd seen Jim in the hospital before with minor injuries, had ridden the whole blindness thing with him after they tangled with Golden, had even tended some smaller cuts and blows in the field and at home, but he'd never seen Jim look so... hurt before. Ellison's usually stoic reactions and the occasional bandage or limp couldn't have prepared Blair for this sight.
Maybe it was the face and hands. He'd had enough psychology to know that injuries to those two parts of the anatomy were the most disturbing because they were where the majority of a person's personality was expressed. Jim's face was discolored and swollen out of shape, his eyes hardly visible from puffiness and the gauze covering his nose. The respirator that filled his mouth only added to the distorted effect. And his hands... touch-sensitive, sentinel hands; one was completely wrapped up past his wrist, the other splinted and bandaged at the wrist alone but held immobile for the IVs. Bruises, some of them obvious knuckle impressions, spread across what was visible of the detective's arms like some obscene plague, also stretching up his chest, broken only at the neck by ligature marks that Blair was too familiar with from crime scenes of the past. Suffocation as restraint, or one more means of applying pain?
His breath unsteady and choked, the anthropologist moved forward anyway, despite wanting to get as far away from the room and the pain as possible. Because the only thing he wanted to do more, that he had to do, was help Jim get through this and maybe try to ease some of the worst of the ordeal away. With Jim comatose for unknown reasons, they weren't even giving him painkillers until he woke up. The task seemed incredibly daunting and way past Sandburg's abilities, but then, that had never stopped him before.
Blair slowly eased the unwrapped hand into his own, careful not to jar but needing the tactile for what he had to do. It was a good guess that Ellison's sense of touch had been completely short-circuited, probably blown right out of the water. Blair would have to carefully start the process of trying to bring it back to manageability for when Jim woke up, beginning with countering the pain with a positive sensation, an anchor in the chaos of sensory overload.
Jim's lax hand firmly in his, Blair leaned forward, swallowing bile at the sight of misshapen familiar face. But his own reactions didn't matter right now.
"Jim, listen to me," he began, quiet and far calmer than he felt. Everything was subjugated right now to his role as Guide, even his terror for his best friend and the ungraspable horror that one human being could do this to another -- to his other. "It's all over now. You're safe, in a hospital, and it's time to come back. Feel my hand in yours..."
He was still talking ten minutes later to his just as unresponsive partner when the nurse came to shoo him out.
Blair sat on the green plastic couch, eyes open but not seeing a thing. Vision was one of the things that had gotten blurry since he'd been there, along with his awareness of his surroundings and any sense of time. People -- friends -- moved in and out of the space around him, talking to him sometimes. But all he could concentrate on were his thoughts, trying to find a way to reach and help Jim.
The couch dipped next to him but he ignored it until steam and the unmistakable smell of black coffee was suddenly thrust under his nose. He blinked at it, then at the person who offered it.
Simon Banks was watching him, and Blair smiled tepidly back, automatically accepting the coffee without making any move to lift it to his mouth.
"If you don't drink it, Sandburg, I'm gonna see you get it intravenously. I'd rather not have you fall over on me again."
He blushed at that, stressed brain finally beginning to tune in to what was being said to him. "I didn't fall--"
"Drink." Simon hadn't become captain without gaining an impressive air of 'don't you dare argue with me' authority. Blair didn't try, the hot, bitter drink scorching its way down into his churning, empty stomach. He frowned at that, otherwise uncaring, and took another sip.
"Good," Simon nodded in approval. "You won't do Jim any good if you wind up in here, too."
"I'm not doing him any good now," Blair said quietly, sinking back into withdrawn memory of the silent, battered body. He was not usually one to indulge in self-pity, but that was the raw truth.
"You don't know that, Sandburg. You've always been able to reach him before when nobody else has been able to get through. You'll see." Determined optimism was no doubt something else they taught in captain school.
Blair shook his head wearily. "I don't think it's that easy, Simon. It's like... he's zoned out from the pain, probably on his sense of touch." The anthropologist had been thinking about it for some time and it was the only thing that had made sense, between the depressed heartrate and respiration and Jim's complete lack of responsiveness. If only the answer, too, was as obvious. He sighed. "I tried all the usual stuff, giving him a different focus, talking to him, but either the overload is too much for him to get through or... he's gone too far." His throat burned, and it wasn't from the coffee.
"Couldn't he have controlled it, turned it down or something if it got to be too much?" Simon asked in an undertone, the conversation for their ears alone. At some other time, it would have thrilled Blair to be having a serious conversation with the captain about Jim's senses, but now it only felt useless.
"Only to a certain extent. If it became too much, or if fatigue and the pain made it too hard to concentrate and keep it in control, he couldn't. Maybe if I'd been there..."
"If you'd have been there," Banks said gently, "Jim would never have been able to hold out like he did." The witness had been relocated to another location as soon as Jim had disappeared, but no move had been made on the original safe house. Jim Ellison apparently hadn't talked. "Zoning probably saved his life then. I'm guessing they thought he was dead and just dumped the body."
Blair winced at the wording. The body. No doubt Jim would have seemed gone without careful observation... He frowned suddenly. What if... "Simon, maybe that's why he did it." He sat up straighter, a blanket from God-knew-where slipping down his shoulders. "I've been thinking he zoned out on the pain when it overloaded him, but what if he did it on purpose, to... to keep from having to talk?"
Simon was frowning, too. "You mean deliberately zoning out? Wouldn't that be dangerous?"
The sick feeling returned, stronger than ever, and Blair tried to swallow against the nausea. "Well, yeah. If he hadn't been found in time, or if he can't be brought out of it..." Oh, man, he couldn't think about that anymore. "But he knew what would happen, that his heart and respiration would slow way down and without a close look they'd probably think he was dead. Or at the least they wouldn't be able to get anything out of him. If he was desperate enough..." Again, he didn't want to go there, to consider what threat they could have used or how close Jim had been to breaking in order to resort to something so risky. Probably relying on his Guide to bring him out of it, too. Blair huddled under the blanket, wrapping his hands around the warm styrofoam cup in his hands. Suddenly he felt very small.
As if knowing what he was thinking, and maybe he did, Simon said quietly, "Sandburg, if anybody can do it, you can."
"Simon, I don't... I tried already. I don't know what else to do."
"Blair." There was enough steel in the call that he automatically looked up, staring at the captain. "You know why everyone in this room has stayed here with you and wanted you to be the one to go in to see Jim?"
He was about to protest that they weren't here for him but for their fellow officer, but Simon cut him off again.
"Because you're his partner, Sandburg. Maybe they don't understand how or why, but they know the meaning of that word. They're worried about Jim, sure, but they know you're who he needs and what he means to you, too." His tone grew wry. "'Closed societies' are very good at supporting their own."
Blair swallowed, speechless, touched beyond what would have embarrassed him in other circumstances.
Simon's voice grew gruff, his usual follow-up to more sincerity than he was comfortable with. "So what about it, Sandburg? Are you going to be there for your partner?"
That much at least he could promise without hesitation. "'Course," Blair said, in a tone that implied offense at even being asked that.
Banks nodded. "You'll figure out the rest." He nodded at the cooling cup of coffee clenched in Sandburg's hand. "Finish that up and then we'll see about putting some real food in your stomach."
Too tired to argue and too dazed to bother trying, Blair obeyed, thoughts once again racing with new energy as they turned back to Jim.
He didn't know what Simon had said to the staff to get him in, but as long as it worked, he didn't care. Blair knew enough about hospitals to realize that both unlimited access and some measure of privacy were extreme rarities, and yet they'd been granted both. Now if he could do his part...
"What do you need, Sandburg?" had been Simon's only question. The captain's faith in him both buoyed him, giving him courage, and scared him to death. In fact, as he'd left with the doctor and Simon to go to Jim, every face in the waiting room had looked at him with that same mix of hope and faith. They didn't even know, and still they trusted him to guide his adrift partner back. Blair just wished he knew for sure that he could, or even that he was going about it right.
"Uh, I need some apple and cinnamon tea. It's right above the sink, behind the chamomile. Also the candle on the coffee table, the yellow one. He said he liked that, it sorta reminded him of me. That's it -- uh, no, wait." His mind was running too fast for him to follow. "Can't use that around the oxygen. Never mind. Then how about, uh... I know, my bottle of shampoo from the bathroom. It's the herbal stuff. Jim knows that one a mile away..."
Blair was half-talking to himself by the end, pacing in front of the ICU cubicle door. Then he remembered Banks and suddenly flushed. The captain was frowning at him in the way he did when he had no clue what Blair was running on about -- but was willing to listen anyway. It had never struck the anthropologist before how many times Simon did that, finding the patience to sit and listen for a moment to Blair because he believed the observer might have something helpful to say even if it didn't seem like it at first.
Now, Simon opened his mouth, looking for all the world like he wanted to ask the obvious questions, then he shut it again and shook his head. "I'll take care of it." Simple as that, and then he turned and left.
Blair absently stared after him for a moment, wondering if there was anything he could have named that Simon wouldn't have promised to get for him, then dragged his mind back to the doorway he was avoiding.
How could you brace yourself to see someone you cared about, in pain? The fact that Jim seemed so oblivious to it was even less comfort. What good was a Guide when his Sentinel was absent, in spirit if not in body?
They were about to find out. Blair pushed open the door and went in.
His partner looked, if anything, worse than before. The bruises had darkened to their full horrible glory, and the feeling of... distance, was even stronger than before. Mechanical noise drowned out the natural sounds of life in the room, and Blair found himself wishing for sentinel hearing if only to reassure himself that Jim was still under all the tubes and wires and bandages.
There was always the next best thing. Half afraid to touch so broken a figure, he slipped forward between two contraptions and cautiously reclaimed the hand he'd had before.
"Jim? I'm back. They're letting me stay this time; Simon must've really laid it on thick to pull that one off. Or maybe he just yelled at them -- you know how he gets when he's upset about something." His halfhearted grin faded fast. "Everyone's pretty upset. You know how the station is when one of the guys are down, so it's about time you snapped out of this and started complaining about being in the hospital again. I'll even take a, 'Shut up, Sandburg' right now, and how many times do you get that offer?" This time he barely cracked a smile at his own joke. Humor was usually Jim's way of dealing with strain; Blair was no good at it when he was breaking inside.
The anthropologist braced his hip against the bed and leaned forward, closing the distance between the two of them. Up close, Jim looked even worse, and Blair couldn't help but wince again at the thought of sentinel-sensitive tissue and bones being that tortured. That was just superficial stuff, though, he reminded himself. The body would mend -- the doctors would see to that. The spirit was his department.
He gently rubbed the hand in his, concentrating on the particularly sensitive fingertips. "Okay, Jim, I'm not leaving until you wake up and throw me out, so let's just... do this. I know you zoned on purpose to keep from talking," -- or maybe them killing you -- "but you're safe now and it's time to come out of it. You're not with those scumbags anymore, you're here with me, with Blair. Simon's here, too, and the rest of the guys, waiting to see you. It's safe to come out of the zone now."
There wasn't even a flicker of response, and though he'd not really expected one, it was hard not to feel the disappointment. Blair eased up on the abused hand he realized he'd been squeezing too hard, and both his touch and voice became gentle, like the tone he used with frightened victims in crime scenes they came across. And on Jim when he was particularly upset about some new sensory overload.
"Jim, I know you can't really trust yourself to listen right now, and that's okay. I'm guessing hearing is what you used to zone on, anyway, which means I'm probably talking to myself here." Blair had thought about that a while and it only made sense. Neither taste nor smell were likely candidates, and sight and touch would have only brought more of his tormentors into Jim's agonized mind. "But I think you're aware of my voice, somewhere, even subconsciously. Don't fight it, just let it pull at you, bring you a little closer." Close enough, he hoped desperately, to be snagged by the other hooks he intended to try.
Blair went on carefully, explaining in detail what he intended to do, modulating his voice in a careful rise-and-fall to both soothe and draw.
The door opening behind him didn't even break through his concentration at first, then Simon was standing behind him and Blair slowly tapered off, trying not to drop the fragile thread of connection he'd hoped he'd woven.
"Did you find everything?" he asked over his shoulder in the same even tone, directed at Simon while his eyes remained on Jim.
"I think so." Simon was staying carefully neutral, too. He'd never made any secret of the fact that he wasn't comfortable with the sentinel 'mumbo-jumbo', and yet in testament to his faith in Blair's ability he was trying hard to keep his skepticism quashed. That meant an awful lot to Blair, both the faith and the effort. He'd have to thank the captain for that later.
"Could you get some hot water to make the tea with?" Blair added, finally pulling his eyes away for a moment, more for need to check what Simon had brought than out of politeness. Jim had become his focus and priority, and would be until Blair was sure he was all right.
"Already done. I went down to the cafeteria before I came here." Banks pushed the warm styrofoam cup into Blair's hand, the scent immediately reaching the Guide.
"That's great, thanks. But could you put more of the tea in it? I need it really strong."
Even Banks' deliberate patience was beginning to wear thin. "Sandburg, what are--"
"Please, Simon. The taste has to be strong for it to get through." He was already reaching for the bottle of shampoo, nodding as he turned it and saw the label. "And do you think we could get a saucer or something to pour some of this out into? The bigger the surface area, the better."
Simon frowned but added more of the tea to the cup, then picked up a small plastic tray off the nightstand and poured enough shampoo into it to cover the bottom. "How's that?"
Blair took another quick glance. "That's good. Could you set it over here," he pointed to the adjustable rolling tray that he'd already slid right up near Jim's head.
"You're triggering his senses." Awareness was beginning to dawn in the captain's voice.
"More like reaching them. They're already on, just overwhelmed by his hearing, I think. If the stimulus is strong enough, it should get through to... wherever he's gone and break the zone." Blair had nearly slipped into the cadence of lecture mode before readjusting his tone again.
"So why this shampoo and tea?"
"Uh, well," Blair stumbled, abruptly self-conscious. "The tea is something I introduced him to. It's the only one I have that he really likes, and sometimes I make it for him when he's tired." Or just plain cranky, but he'd never tell Jim that, so the official excuse was fatigue. "And the shampoo smells like me. Jim's mentioned before that my hair's often the first thing he smells when he knows I'm coming." Besides latching on to his heartbeat. But Simon didn't need to know everything.
There was a pause. "So you're telling him its you."
No sarcasm or teasing, just a matter-of-fact statement. Blair risked a glance away to convey his gratitude, and Simon's scowl at being caught caring made the corners of his mouth turn up. "Yeah... something like that. It's all I can think of." He didn't mention that he'd also briefly considered Simon's cigars as an olfactory stimulant, or Jim's favorite soda for taste, and settled on stimulants that related to him because... well, Jim usually reacted most strongly to him. Something had been tuned between the Sentinel and his Guide that Blair didn't even try to understand but wasn't above using. And if it helped Jim now, being the laughingstock of the squadroom would be a small price to pay.
A large, warm hand settled briefly on his shoulder from behind. "Good luck, Sandburg. Just... do what you have to do to bring him back." And before he could answer, the captain was gone.
Never did like me to say thank you, Blair grinned to himself. He gently rubbed his thumb against his partner's fingertips. "He's a lot like you, you know that? Probably some kind of cop thing." It would make an interesting study, if Blair had ever really did set out to observe police societies.
Still no response, and his smile grew sober. "I've got everything set up now, so we're going to start. Nice and gentle, just let yourself take it in and respond to it." He picked the tray of shampoo up, bringing it close to Jim's face. "I know you're probably not getting much through a broken nose, but just pick up the traces. Let it remind you of--" me? "--being back home, being safe, being among friends. Think about what you feel when you smell that scent."
Aggravated, would probably have been an aware Jim's retort, but Blair knew better. Ironically, Blair being there to help if needed seemed to make the detective feel more in control, and even in their first weeks together, the anthropologist had seen that relief steal into Ellison's eyes whenever he appeared. It had been some time later when he'd abruptly realized that it was no longer relief he saw in Jim but honest joy, pleasure at his company. Though Jim wouldn't have admitted it under torture.
The automatic flip thought made him suddenly shiver, no longer an innocent hyperbole. For the umpteenth time -- now there's a scientific term -- he let himself study each injury inflicted, each indication of hours of excruciating pain and mistreatment, and be revolted by the inhumanity. Hurting you just because of what you know, not caring who you are. And it wasn't the only living embodiment of his research thesis that he was thinking of. This was about Jim Ellison, the best friend he'd ever had and person that he'd ever known.
Snap out of it. Jim was what mattered here. Blair swallowed, not letting himself dwell on his fatigue or fears. He had to do this, not only provide a bridge, but be the bridge. Putting the shampoo down on the nearby tray freed his hand to reach for the tea next, and he was already jumping ahead to consider how he could manage to get a few drops in past the invasive breathing tube.
And when he picked up his rolling narration, there was no sign in his voice of how terrified he really was.
The whole world was a rushing red current. Waves pounding to some unrecognized but familiar rhythm, it carried him along, submerging him in the feel and taste and touch and smell of it, until he knew nothing but that crimson beat. No anchor holding him to the outside any longer, even time became meaningless, measured only in the steady, resounding thumps.
Ghostly wisps of other knowledge, of awareness beyond his world, invaded sometimes, but at first he knew they weren't safe and repelling them wasn't difficult. Then, slowly, incomprehensible dissatisfaction began to invade, feelings that he wasn't supposed to remain here, after all. They drew him insistently toward the danger he still knew existed out there. But the lure was insistent, and with no rational thought to figure it out, he began to give in, letting it pull him.
Only, it wasn't that easy. He'd gone far, all downhill, falling willingly into that red flood, and now that he turned to go back, it was like climbing upwards through a swamp. And he knew he didn't have the strength for that.
But the wisps responded to his helplessness, thickening into threads, then binding together into ropes. He still could have fought off their pull, for falling was nevertheless easier, but there was something well-known about them, something that felt safe, that would be worth coming back out for, even back out into danger. And so he grabbed on with the little strength he had left and let them pull him where they willed, trusting the force that sent them after him.
The current pulled him from the other side, still drawing him down, relentless, until he didn't know if he could stand it anymore, ropes or no. Soon he would be torn in two, and it hurt...
And then suddenly he was free, tumbling with the abrupt release of the red deluge, it's throb already fading away behind him as he fell, this time forward.
Pulling Jim from a deep zone never lacked drama. Usually it meant a sudden rush of air as Ellison started remembering to breathe again, then the violent shake of a body that was rediscovering itself, confused eyes instantly seeking Blair out both for relief and explanation as time and life started up again.
Now was no different. One moment Jim Ellison lay completely comatose, looking far too lifeless for Blair's liking, then suddenly he was all movement, limbs spasming in sudden return of sensation and thrashing in confusion, his fingers reflexively tightening on Blair's so hard that his Guide knew it was quite possible bones would break under the strain. And frantic blue eyes that looked all too aware mutely conveyed the overload of agony he felt.
Blair gasped, too, with his partner's sudden intake of air, and immediately dove forward into Jim's line of vision, his one free hand moving frantically to balance the overwhelming negative sensations, fluttering from the detective's forehead to his arm to his shoulder. Only his voice was calm.
"Jim, it's me." That much he saw the Sentinel acknowledge, for all the good it did. His partner's eyes were already filling with involuntary tears of pain; he was too sick and confused to know anything but how badly he hurt, his controls shot with the weakness of injury and the zoning. "You're okay, you're safe, in the hospital," Blair ran on, not even needing to look over as he reached out and gently stopped the bandaged hand that was moving up toward the tracheal tube. "It's going to be okay, Jim. Listen to me, to my voice. Concentrate on it, put everything you've got into just listening. You can do this..."
Those stricken eyes were his gauge as he talked. First there was no recognition in them except for awareness of Blair's existence, all the focus turned inward on his own suffering and teetering on the edge of zoning again, this time on his inundated sense of touch. Then as Sandburg frantically talked, building up artificial control from the outside-in with his voice, the eyes lightened a little, beginning to hear what he said and responding. They never moved from him except to sometimes squeeze shut against the pain, and even the need for that seemed to be lessening. The anguish began to drain away, Jim's whole body slowly untensing.
Sandburg whispered on, now content to rub the close-cropped head near the forehead where at least it didn't seem to hurt, his eyes locked on his Sentinel's just as his Sentinel's were on him, the iron grip that held his hand finally loose enough that he went back to gently brushing the fingertips in light, distracting tactile sensation.
"You're doin' great, Jim. Everything's turned down low, faded away. Just you and me. You can go to sleep now, it's safe. I'll be here, I promise."
Jim was really listening to him now, responding without effort to his Guide's steadying words, able to manage the pain enough that his body could get the rest it needed. And finally, finally, those exhausted eyes shut and Ellison drifted off into secure sleep.
He really was safe. Blair's voice faltered and fell away, the true drain on his body and soul just then beginning to hit. Only the sheer need to finish what he'd started was keeping him on his feet in blatant denial of gravity and his own lack of strength. With a considerable, concerted effort, he pushed himself up from against the bed and staggered to the door, not at all sure how he'd proceed down the hall but not awake enough to wonder about it.
He needn't have worried. Just outside the door, pacing the same worried circles he had... hours? days? before, was Simon, unlit cigar firmly clenched in his teeth. At the sight of Blair, he instantly stepped up to the anthropologist.
"Sandburg? Is it Jim?"
One very weighty nod. "He's 'kay. Sleeping."
"Sandburg?" Simon was frowning at him though Blair couldn't figure for all the world why. Jim was back; what more could the captain want? Or anyone else, for that matter. "I'll go call a doctor. Why don't you sit down, kid--"
"Promised I'd stay," Blair managed.
And then his own world crashed to a halt and went black.
He was still too tired to awaken all at once or with a great degree of clarity, but Blair Sandburg forced himself out of unconsciousness out of sheer need. His own need to know, and the knowledge of someone else's need of him.
It took a few blinks to take in what he was seeing, the hospital room with the one other bed in it and its lone occupant. Jim's room? How had he gotten back here, in a bed, in his clothes, and how on earth had they let him stay? Maybe more of Simon's strings, and Blair was grateful for it. Then, on the heels of that, Jim! And Sandburg was jumping up from the cot onto his feet, a little too fast for his body's liking as the room swayed and dipped around him. Blair rode it out, then struggled over to the bed.
Jim was doing better. It wasn't just wishful thinking: bruises were starting to fade, the respirator was gone, and his sleep seemed healthy, real sleep instead of the zoned-out coma of before. Jim Ellison had beat the odds once more and was finally mending.
Maybe the minute vibrations of his movement penetrated the Sentinel's unconsciousness... or maybe it was the splash of saltwater on his hand, but the detective stirred under Blair's scrutiny, beginning a wake-up process that looked as difficult and drawn-out as Blair's had been.
Exhausted eyes finally blinked foggily at him, the dilated pupils almost obscuring the blue irises. They winced shut again nearly as quickly from the deluge of light.
"It's okay, Jim, just turn it down. You can do that. Turn it down as low as it can go and then open your eyes and adjust it to where its comfortable."
He could see Jim cautiously obeying, and when the eyes opened again, they looked normal -- and stared at him in blank confusion.
"Better? Everything else turned down low enough?" At least the older man didn't seem to be in pain like he'd been before.
One very slow, slight nod.
"Do you remember where you are?"
The blank look was back, unsettling him, and he took that for an answer.
"No, huh? That's okay, you're in Cascade General. You're gonna be okay now, Jim."
The piercing stare turned more knowing, almost concentrated, and Blair was the one confused for a moment until he realized Jim was reading his heartbeat, gauging the truth of his words. He almost smiled. It wouldn't have been above him to lie to Ellison in order to reassure him, but this time his conscience was clear, thank God. Jim really was safe now, and Blair Sandburg intended to see he stayed that way.
Jim apparently reached the same decision because something in his face relaxed, his eyes beginning to droop shut. There were still lines of tension and pain in his bearing and expression, but it was no longer the out-of-control deluge of before.
It was a slight, bodiless whisper, but it carried far enough. Blair broke into a huge grin, finding Jim's hand for a light squeeze and almost ecstatic to get one back. Jim was asleep seconds later, not much up for conversation yet and his body demanding rest, but it didn't matter. Sandburg had gotten his Sentinel back. The thought was so huge and sobering after all the worry of before, Blair had to bite his lip hard not to start bawling from the sheer emotional ride of it. Maybe late that night in bed, alone, but not here and now.
One more gentle, affectionate squeeze, and he rested Jim's hand back on the bed, then went off to share his good news.
He'd felt the difference before, but it was on their first brief foray back to work a week later when Blair was first consciously aware of the change. Everywhere they went, his bandaged but smiling and gingerly mobile partner drew happy welcome backs. A man down did hit a station hard, and some measure of its peace and normalcy returned with the restoration of their fallen fellow officer. People were genuinely delighted to see Jim back.
But as it had been all week long, some of the affection was directed to him, too, and not just an overflow from the detective. Officers and staff alike stopped to welcome him, too, with smiles and the pats on the back they withheld from a still-bruised Jim. It wasn't just shared joy, either, Blair gradually realized, though there was that. It was also, oddly enough, gratitude. Simon's earlier words about not cops just commiserating with him for the loss of his partner but also counting on him to be there for Jim, hadn't really hit before, but there was some truth to it. By being there for Jim, even in ways they didn't fully get, he'd done something for them all, and that was cause enough for acceptance.
As if he'd needed a reward. The tall form next to him, occasionally leaning against him for support or simply grinning at him with wholly un-Ellisonlike exuberance, was reward enough for this anthropologist.
They had discussed the experience a little, trying to find other ways to deal with deliberate zoning should the need ever come up again -- though Blair shuddered at the thought -- and dissecting each of their experiences and perspectives. Usually being grateful made the detective uncomfortable and gruff, but something had been breached in the shared ordeal that made him more willing than usual to talk. It wasn't just survival euphoria. It was awe at what they could accomplish together, and gratefulness. Blair knew exactly how he felt.
However, already there'd been two brief explosions brought on by Jim's frustration with his limitations, and Blair suspected this kindler, gentler version of his roommate wouldn't last much longer. And that was just fine with him. He wasn't sure he'd know what to do with a soft Jim Ellison, anyway.
He eased the bigger man into his office chair, getting a gentle squeeze on the shoulder for thanks, and Blair grinned. But he wouldn't complain while the good mood lasted.
Their stay at the office didn't last long; Jim found his strength aggravatingly fleeting and Sandburg with typical fussiness had wisked them out of there as soon as the cop's fatigue began to show. He tried to be annoyed at his roommate's protectiveness but found he couldn't. Not after what Blair had gone through and done for him.
Truth be told, Ellison still didn't understand it completely. He'd gone into the zone knowing full well he'd probably never come out of it, the possibility that he'd be rescued, let alone that Blair would get to him and be able to help him, extremely remote. He should have known better. There was no better way to motivate his young Guide than to give Sandburg a seemingly impossible challenge.
Blair drove them home from the station and slowly escorted him out of the car and into the loft. Jim would have chafed once at the help even though, frankly, he still needed it, but now he accepted it without a word. No doubt he was surprising Blair as much as himself with his newfound docility. With a wry internal grin, Jim had to admit that even he knew he wasn't usually this easy to get along with.
Inside, he headed straight for the couch, and soon Blair was there again, handing him his medicine and a glass of water, the blanket off the back of the couch, even helping him slip his jacket off, though Jim drew the line at that. He slapped lightly at the kid's hands and Sandburg had let him take it from there, flashing that irrepressible smile at him before heading back to the kitchen.
Perhaps what surprised him most about what his partner had done, Jim realized as he eased down on the couch, was that the only reason it had worked was his trust and recognition of his Guide even at the subconscious level. There had been no thought to it, no rationality, simply knowledge that it was Blair who was reaching out to him and his own automatic response in kind. Jim doubted there was anyone else on earth, including his own family, whom he trusted at that level. And for someone who'd faced a lot of terrifying things in his life, that was still a scary and humbling thought.
And oddly comforting.
There were sounds of Blair puttering in the kitchen, humming something under his breath, and even when Jim stretched out his hearing to listen, he still didn't recognize the odd tune. No doubt one of the weird jungle pieces Sandburg was into. The anthropologist was moving around, fixing something with the assurance of someone completely at home. In Jim Ellison's loft. He shook his head with disbelief at the thought, but he couldn't deny it. Blair was home.
Maybe that was why what he'd done had reached Jim when nothing else could.
Ellison yawned, shifting until he wasn't putting pressure on his sore ribs. Figuring out all this Sentinel/Guide stuff was usually Blair's bailiwick, though. All that really mattered to him was that it worked, and if a roommate and best friend was part of the bargain, well, it would be tough but he'd make do somehow.
Very funny, Jim, he could already hear his friend's voice, and Ellison grinned at the thought. Yeah, he thought as he drifted toward sleep. He could learn to live with that.
Back to The Loft