Written: 1998

Published: Sentry Duty 3 (1999), available from www.agentwithstyle.com


IT'S ABOUT COMMITMENT



K Hanna Korossy (Anna Kelly)






"What's to think about? Go!"

Jim's words to his Guide not three weeks before played around in his head. He'd meant it wholeheartedly then, the encouragement to go to Borneo, knowing Blair would enjoy the trip and deserved the break. Jim had had no idea yet that the trip involved at least a year's absence and pretty much the end of their Sentinel/Guide relationship, not even catching on when Blair had suddenly gotten serious, hesitant.

"You really think I should?"

Jim sighed, rubbing his jaw tiredly as the past flowed back into the present. No, Chief, I don't think you should at all. I'm even asking you not to. And that was as far as he let himself follow that train of thought, before sinking back into the plastic chair and the voices he was listening to down the hallway.

He had been a medic; a lot of the medical jargon he was hearing should have made sense but didn't. Instead, he focused on the tone of their words: urgent, worried. Even veteran hospital staff let their concern bleed into their voices when they were amongst themselves, working to keep an injured patient alive, growing increasingly frenetic as their efforts failed. It was only when they came out to talk to the family that they became stoic and determinedly optimistic. But nobody expected the 'family' to have sentinel hearing that listened carefully to every procedure and problem.

They were definitely worried. That much Jim had picked up without question from the male voice he'd decided was the ER doctor in charge. It wasn't a losing battle yet, he refused to believe that, but the staff had sped up, grown a little more desperate, and frustration had crept into the faceless doctor's voice.

Jim slid his hearing over to the object of their concern, the heartbeat already thumping in the back of his thoughts without conscious effort to seek it out. He concentrated instead on the breathing, and heard now the cause of concern. The breaths that had been regular and deep on the way in, if hitching with pain, now were short gasps and grew more shallow as Jim listened. He half-rose out of his chair without realizing it, probing further, listening for the cause. There was a strange whooshing sound, like a rush of air, in concert with each gasp, and Jim latched on to the sound, trying to sort it out and identify it. It sounded like some balloon losing air...

"Pneumothorax!" the doctor suddenly shouted, just as Jim himself made the diagnosis. A torn lung, letting air out into the chest cavity and putting pressure on the lungs, causing them to collapse, eventually causing death...

Jim sat back hard on the chair, abruptly too shaken to stand.

He knew the procedure and unwillingly matched the motions to the sounds as an incision was made in the chest wall and a tube inserted to let the trapped air out. The rush of escaping air made him drag oxygen heavily into his own lungs, not wanting to be hearing any of it but unable to stop listening. The staff had grown mostly silent, doing the procedure by rote, waiting to see if it would work, to see if the patient's system could handle this further shock.

To see if Blair would survive.

Jim rubbed his face with both hands and, with all his strength, forcibly turned off everything but the heartbeat that was racing but steady.

"What about our project? This, uh, Sentinel thing," his memory went on, seemingly on a separate track from the current reality.

'Project' had seemed like the right word then -- clinical, detached -- to appeal to a student who was debating between one research project or another. Blair would be gone for a year, and Jim knew that if the kid went, he wouldn't find Jim Ellison waiting for him when he came back. At least not the same Ellison he'd left. A year was an eternity when you were alone and the one person who held the key to your sanity took off for an 'incredible opportunity'.

Or died on a hospital table.

Project -- yeah, right. It was his life. What happens to our 'project' if you quit here, Sandburg?

But that hadn't been what he'd said then.

"Then you should do it," Jim had stated firmly, before he had a chance to reconsider. It wasn't fair to Blair to assume that he would give up all his opportunities and dreams in order to help keep Jim's life under control. Ellison had been selfish enough with his demands on the grad student's time and problem-solving abilities, but when it came down to it, he couldn't go that far. Maybe with the techniques his Guide had already taught him, he'd even be able to manage on his own, Ellison consoled himself, only to recognize in his heart that he was a liar. A good-intentioned one, but a liar nonetheless. Even though he hated, sometimes even resented it, the fact was that the 'project' wouldn't work without Blair, and that meant... what, exactly? Jim didn't care to contemplate it.

He experimentally extended his hearing again, sighing lightly at the sound of the breathing that had steadied and deepened considerably. But the doctor's voice ordered another unit of blood, a bad sign. If hardly a surprise. The considerable amount that had spurted out before Jim had been able to get it under some control had indicated a damaged artery, and in the shoulder it was trickier to get to. The knife had apparently gotten the lobe of the lung that went up under the clavicle, too. And that was just the obvious initial damage; he'd had Sandburg move his fingers before the kid lost consciousness, and while they seemed to move as well as could be expected, there could still be all sorts of nerve damage. So many delicate nerves ran through that joint and so much depended on them.

Depend... It had been an ugly word once. Depending on someone meant they had you at their mercy, an unwitting victim to their whims -- whims like going on an ideal research project. Dependence meant losing it all when the other inevitably failed you. And they always did. It had taken a year, but Jim had finally forgotten that, only to be brutally reminded by Blair's cheerful announcement. It hadn't even occurred to Jim to wonder how his Guide could consider such an abandonment, struck only by the inevitability of it. The look in Blair's eyes when Jim had encouraged him to go had almost made the Sentinel stop and rethink his assumptions, but he didn't allow himself that luxury. Good-bye, it was fun while it lasted, you're on your own now. Wasn't that how life always went?


"What about our project?"

Jim got up to pace, the new waiting room they'd directed him to just as uncomfortable and sterile as the first, the ER waiting area. At least he was alone here, waiting to hear for news of the surgery they had finally rolled Sandburg off to. The doctor had told him little news -- a lung had been torn and needed repair and reinflating, the artery had been cut but not severed, and they wouldn't know much more until they got him on the table and had a good look at his shoulder. Nothing conclusive yet, not even an upgrade from critical.

The heartbeat throbbed on in his weary thoughts, a reminder that while there was life, there was hope.

"What about our project?"

The memory was getting repetitious but Jim couldn't stop it -- the question was a good one. There was more than one way for a Guide to leave, and then what would happen to the Sentinel? He'd never asked if Blair's research had turned up any answers to that, and the kid had never mentioned it on his own. Maybe they'd both hoped it was unnecessary information.

What would he do without Blair? Not just with his senses, but with the rest of his life?

"I'm your back-up. You need me."

Dear God, yes, I do. Whether he wanted to or not, he did need Blair. And maybe, in time, needing hadn't become such a terrible thing.

"You need me." Sandburg had said the words as he shrugged into his hastily packed backpack. It had been the sight of that, as if the kid were only intending to go to the university to study for the afternoon instead of into the wilds of Peru, that had prompted Jim to a quick "no" -- that and the absurdity that he, a jungle-trained special forces officer, would need a civilian, a student to help him out. He hadn't thought then of the irony of those words, you need me, coming from his Guide only an hour after they'd talked about Sandburg leaving. Back-ups didn't take off for a year-plus. Especially not when they were needed.

I do need you, don't I. I think I realized that even before you did. Which was why he'd given in to Blair coming with him without any more of a fight. His training, his common sense had said no, but his heart knew better.

Jim paced to the other end of the ridiculously small cubicle, checking his watch again impatiently as he did. Nearly one-and-a-half hours. Not too much time, relatively speaking, certainly not unreasonable to repair all that damage, but it stretched and weighed and pulled at him until he thought he'd go crazy at the wear of it. He'd never been a patient man, not unless he was on a stake-out or some other function of duty, when he could easily sit motionless for hours. But not when he waited to find out if his best friend -- if both of them -- would be all right.

"I'm your back-up."

Sandburg had said that so unequivocally out there in Peru. Jim should have nipped that one in the bud the moment the younger man had said it. Back-up was for cops, doing what they were trained to do. If Blair hadn't been playing back-up, he wouldn't be in the OR that very moment. Jim would have been, instead, and that was the way the detective preferred it.

Even if he saved your life? For it was quite possible that that's what the kid had done. Ellison was usually the protector, looking out for his young Guide, making sure Blair wasn't exposed to more than he could handle or ever put in harm's way. The detective failed in that last all too often, partly out of his need for Sandburg at his side, partly because of the grad student's stubborn determination, but God knew he tried.

There just hadn't been any cause for worry this time; Ellison was a fair man and he had to admit as much. The homicide scene had been several hours old, absolutely no sign of the perpetrator still being there. The two of them had done their usual thing, sweeping the site carefully while Jim tried to catch every detail and Blair studiously avoided looking at the body, concentrating instead on his partner, offering suggestions, ideas. The uniforms had retreated to keep the perimeter secure and curious onlookers away, leaving them alone in the alley where the body had been found, but that was how they worked best. There had been no reason to stay alert for danger, or for Jim to extend his hearing to search for anyone besides the officers and rubberneckers.

And so, concentrating on trying to pinpoint a faint odor to the point that he'd nearly zoned out on it, he missed the running footfalls, the displacement of air, the low, insane rumble of one James Harvey Benenson as the man had rushed out of the building behind them with knife upraised, heading straight for Jim. Blair, close at the detective's elbow as always as he coached Ellison, was the only one who'd noticed in time, knocking the Sentinel out of the way and stopping the blade himself.

Back-up. Good God.

Jim had his gun out by then, had shot and made sure Benenson had gone down, then knelt to try to stop all the blood from flowing out of the shoulder that had been speared, succeeding only partially. He was kneeling in a puddle of the stuff by the time the paramedics had arrived. And Blair had never said a word throughout, only stared at him silently, partly in pain, mostly in shock, and completely with trust, listening to Jim's stumbling reassurances until he'd finally passed out.

"I'm your partner."

Something else Blair had said in Peru that Jim hadn't argued. Despite the fact that he'd fully expected Sandburg to leave for Borneo the day they got back, it hadn't really occurred to him to disagree. Blair was his partner, by excuse first, then grudging admission, then unquestioned assertion. Partners backed you up, helped you out, worked in sync with you, held your life in their hands.

Took a knife for you.

"Oh, God," Jim whispered into the quiet room. "Please let him be okay." I can't do this without him.


"I'm not leaving my friends."

Jim had told the chopper pilot that as they'd neared the site Simon's 'copter had gone down, almost the same words he ground out to the doctor who insisted there was no point he stay now. Blair had gotten through the surgery with flying colors and would only sleep for some time -- wouldn't Detective Ellison be more comfortable at home?, they wheedled. No, he would not, he'd answered back impassively. Simon had been by to brief him on Benenson and had urged him to leave as well, but the captain was quicker to accept that it was useless. Jim intended to stay until Sandburg was out of the woods and, preferably, arguing with him to go home, too. Until then, he had no intention of leaving his friend.

So Blair slept on next to him, oblivious to Jim and all Ellison's contemplations. His cheeks were still too pale and his sleep unnaturally deep and still, but he was breathing on his own and the detective could almost begin to believe that he was out of the woods. Almost. Grimacing at his own sentimentality, he reached out and laid a hand on Sandburg's chest, marrying the feel of the heart that still beat strongly to the soft pulse in his ear. Thus anchored, he let his thoughts drift again.

Peru still weighed heavily on his mind. He'd gone there hoping to find Simon and Daryl alive, and had ended up being tested and, he hoped, passing. The choice had been given, staying a Sentinel or becoming a normal human again, the very thing Jim had wished for and railed on about so often. It was being offered with no strings, the alternative being committing his life and soul to his gift. And it had only taken him seconds to make the decision -- or maybe all of the previous year. Before Blair, the senses had been a curse, a burden. With Sandburg's help, they'd become an asset.

Blair again. Ellison studied the young face in front of him. It always comes back to you, doesn't it? Maybe he was looking at this all wrong, wanting to be on his own when really Sentinels and Guides were a matched set. One didn't go without the other. Maybe I wasn't the only one who was being asked to make a choice.

Blair sighed in his dreams, turning his face slightly toward Jim and then stilling back into unconsciousness. Ellison withdrew his hand, almost having forgotten it was there and, after a moment's loss, finally enveloped the smaller hand in his larger one, once more feeling the reassuring beat under his fingers. Blood loss was exhausting, not to mention the trauma of the injuries. Even though the only sign of injury was the little bit of white bandage on the shoulder visible above the blanket, the danger had been real and serious. Jim Ellison needed a little bit of help to make his heart believe what his head logically knew.

"I'm glad you came," he'd said up in those Peruvian jungles, and seen the delighted, touched expression on his Guide almost at once. They weren't hard words; why couldn't he say them more often?

"I'm glad you stayed," he tried softly in the quiet room, but whether the hesitation he heard in his voice was reluctance to break the silence or to voice his feelings, he wasn't sure. He had never been very good at talking about how he felt, feeling silly and naked when he did, just like his father had etched into him. Blair, on the other hand, was all about emotions and sharing and undisguised, unabashed expression. It had been unnerving for Jim at first, especially knowing he was entrusting so much of himself to this free spirit who often seemed to have no idea what he was doing. But Ellison had learned to unbend a little, and Sandburg had learned to rein himself in a little, and somehow they'd met halfway. It was in some ways very much like unlearning some of his childhood, only, his teacher this time was gentle and caring and so excited for him every step of the way. It was often still unnerving... but more and more Jim found that, nevertheless, he kinda liked it.

He curled his fingers more tightly around the lax hand, possessive in his grip. I am glad you came. I'd never be the same if you left. Jim almost snorted at the thought. Not like I'm the same now. Dad would never recognize me. The thought didn't bother him a bit.

Guess we both made choices. Sandburg had faced a test as surely as Jim, and made his decision, first in going to Peru after one friend and then staying in Cascade with another.

Sandburg stirred again, heart speeding up a little, and Ellison leaned forward hopefully. "Blair? You with me, buddy?"

It took another minute of rising to consciousness but he could see the struggle taking place, until finally the blue eyes opened halfway as if they were weighted down. A little out of focus and confused, they drifted for a moment.

"Blair? C'mon, Chief, you in there?" Jim squeezed the trapped hand lightly as he placed his other hand on Sandburg's brow, adding another tactile sensation to the gentle plea. "Sandburg?"

The exhausted eyes had followed the motion of his hand and finally found his face. And abruptly they cleared with contentment, smiling at him the only way for which Sandburg had energy enough. It was plenty.

"That's it, Chief," Jim said warmly, giving the kid's face a quick stroke with rough tenderness. "Everything's fine, you just sleep and I'll be right here."

Sandburg relaxed even further and acknowledged that, still without moving a muscle, and then slipped back into unconsciousness just like that, trusting in his Sentinel's word and presence.

Jim gave the smoothed face one last pat, then withdrew back into his chair but kept a firm grip on the younger man's wrist.

"It's about friendship. I just didn't get it before," Sandburg had said to him with wonder in his voice when they'd returned from Peru. The declaration had warmed Jim clear through at the time, melting a lot of ice that had formed on his soul. Only later had he thought to wonder at the statement; friends came and went, and certainly didn't usually encompass all the Guide stuff Blair did for him. What about when another friend needed Blair, too? Or if, God forbid, they grew apart with time as friends often did? Where would that leave the Sentinel? And even more so, where would that leave Jim Ellison?

But he'd been wrong, Jim realized now, looking at the peaceful face of his friend, a face that had cleared at seeing him and had gone back to sleep confident in his care. The friendship Blair had been talking about wasn't just about enjoying each other's company, or about how he happened to be feeling at the time, or about the kind of acceptance Sandburg seemed to offer to anyone who crossed his path. It was a commitment, to follow Jim to Peru if necessary, to be half of a pair, to be the Guide to the Sentinel. And even to risk his own life for his friend, not out of humanity as he had the first day they'd met, but because it was the role he'd accepted and made that vow to.

"It's about friendship."

"What do you know, Professor; for once you were right," Ellison murmured.

Blair's mouth curled up in his sleep. And Jim followed his Guide.

The End


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