Sensory Overload 9 (2004)


K. Hanna Korossy

It was going to be a long day. Again.

Blair Sandburg tucked his straying hair back behind his ear and tried to think positively as he studied the wall of the Cascade PD elevator with interest. Anything other than meet the sly, amused glances of the two detectives sharing the small space with him. Yeah, they were from Vice and most of those guys were idiots anyway, according to both Blair's experience and Jim's warnings. And, yeah, so Blair hadn't exactly covered himself in glory those last few weeks, falling in love with the daughter of the man who'd turned out to be one of Cascade's biggest drug kingpins and then nearly getting killed for his trouble. Vice must have had a particularly big laugh about that one, when they weren't royally steamed with him for his "interference" in a drug investigation. Still, the snide comments and jabs were getting to him. Blair had thought he'd finally gotten past the worst of the hazing after several months of working with Jim at the Cascade PD.

"Hey, Sandburg, you wanna help us out with a case we're working on now? I don't think this creep's got a daughter, but there's a wife you can seduce."

Apparently not.

"Wait, Joe, doesn't Milagro have a son? Sandburg, you swing both ways?" The detectives exchanged a laugh.

Blair managed a weak smile, hoping that would shut them up. A month ago he would have shrugged them off with a colorful retort, indomitable in his joy to be working with a real live Sentinel.

A month ago he'd been years younger, carefree and full of excitement. And his heart had still been whole instead of torn in two, the other part now in Chile, well beyond his reach. Now, he felt bruised and heartsick, lost in this world he didn't belong in. A year ago he might have followed Maya back to Chile, perhaps found some anthropological study he could take part in while staying close to her. Now, he had ties, duties to his Sentinel and to the Cascade PD.

The latter of which, at least, didn't seem to want him.

"Naw, we better leave him alone. Next time Ellison might not get there in time to save him, and Banks wouldn't be too happy about us breaking his mascot."

Anger mixed up with grief suddenly welled so powerfully in him, Blair felt he'd explode with it. When the elevator doors pinged open a moment later, still two floors below Major Crimes, he shot out of the car as if he were being chased and headed for the stairs.

Just inside the mercifully empty stairwell, Blair shuddered to a stop, leaning against the wall beside the door. "Stupid," he muttered to himself. "They're just being stupid, and you're stupid to let them get to you." And he was -- he never would have made it through his turbulent life if he'd let every barb thrown his way find a weak spot in which to lodge. But he felt weak all over now, grieving and vulnerable and easy to hurt. He hadn't been sleeping well, food made him ill, and his studies were starting to suffer. All of which, unfortunately, made him one big, tempting target for the officers of the Cascade PD.

Blair sighed, disgusted with the world in general, and straightened before heading up the stairs with plodding steps. Two more days. Two more days and then Jim's four-day rotation was over for the week and the detective had planned a long weekend of camping for just the two of them. Two days and Blair could forget about the Cascade PD and Rainier University and maybe even, briefly, Maya Carasco and just concentrate on finding his center again, the peace that had been eluding him since Maya's abrupt departure. And maybe then everything else would fall back into place.

He hoped so, because Blair didn't know how he'd face the empty weeks and months that stretched ahead of him the way he was feeling now.

It was with real relief he clumped into the Major Crimes bullpen, his one sanctuary in the building. These were people who'd seen his successes as well as his failures, with whom Blair had worked hard and who, in turn, had come to accept him, especially after the Lash case. Rafe and H had ribbed him a little about Maya at first, but they'd had a different tone, one of almost affection, and after seeing his reaction they'd quickly stopped.

And this was where his Sentinel was.

Jim Ellison was unique, there was no doubt about that, but lately Blair had been wondering if his role as Guide to the Sentinel was something more than accident, too. It made sense that Jim was calmer and more in control when Blair was around: Sentinels functioned better with Guides. But Blair was starting to find it worked the other way around, too, that being around Jim seemed to... reassure him, somehow, bettering his mood and clearing his thoughts. Maybe it was some built-in mechanism to make sure the Guides stuck close to their Sentinels, Blair didn't know. It would have been an interesting topic of study, if only he could find the energy for it.

Jim wasn't at his desk, however. Blair curbed his disappointment, noting instead that the detective's jacket hung on the rack beside his desk and his computer was on, a Cascade PD badge screensaver waving across it. A styrofoam cup of still-steaming coffee sat next to the keyboard. Working with Jim had only increased Blair's anthropological observation skills: the detective had only left a minute ago and would be back soon, probably summoned to Simon's office for something. In the meantime, Blair sank into his chair next to Jim's desk with a grateful sigh.

They were still sharing a desk, which both Jim and Simon had promised would change someday, they were just vague about exactly when. Blair didn't really mind. He was perfectly happy working without a desktop, or even on the floor, and as often as Jim had him working on reports, he often got the main seat, anyway. For now, the arrangement suited him just fine.

For now. Blair caught the thought with another deep sigh. Was anything ever permanent? Feeling unutterably chilled and weary, he curled into his jacket to wait for Jim.

His movement bumped the mousepad, and the screensaver disappeared, revealing the e-mail Jim had been doubtless reading when called away. Blair almost turned away when his eyes caught on his name and, frowning, he bent closer to read.

Blair's face felt hot as he finished. The Supply Office -- what had he ever done to them? The whole building seemed to be having a joke at his expense, but nobody had taken it this far yet, a pseudo-official memo, addressed to Jim. Ellison was probably...

Amused. And that was where the shame really bit deep. For with all the veiled hostility and ridicule Blair had suffered that past week, Jim had done almost nothing. Comments made in his hearing received a glare, the few practical jokes a grimace, but never a defense or a word of support to Blair other than, "ignore them." Blair thought he'd even caught a flash of enjoyment at one or two of the more creative gibes.

The fact was, if Blair was painfully honest, he hadn't been feeling all that great in his Sentinel's presence the last week or so, either. Jim had given him space after Maya had left, shown a little sympathy, cooked a few nights it would have been Blair's turn. But he'd also seemed impatient when Blair had failed to bounce back within a few days, and uncomprehending as to why the jeers and digs bothered the civilian so much, irritation in his voice the few times Blair had raised the issue. So Blair no longer did, hoping it was obliviousness and not disinterest behind Jim's reaction, but fearing the worst. Jim had never tolerated Blair's sensitivities well.

Even when this really hurt.

The sound of footsteps intruded into his misery: Jim's arrival. Blair pushed himself away from the monitor and glanced up, but he could already see the clouds in his friend's face. Jim knew he'd read the e-mail and was annoyed with him. But Ellison didn't say a word as he stepped around the desk, closing the file with a curt stroke before he sat down.

"I'm glad you could make it in. Simon needs the rest of the reports on Carasco by this afternoon and guess whose desk he dumped it on?"

Jim wasn't even looking at him. Maybe that was for the better. Blair didn't think he could bear another look of disgust just then, and a lonely anger stirred in him for the Sentinel's disinterest in his feelings. Jim's "little brother" Danny Choi had been killed and Blair had walked gently for weeks, empathizing so much it hurt and trying to make everything possible easier for the grieving man. But he lost someone he loved and it was "ignore them" and jokes behind his back. How fair a partnership was that?

Let it go, he thought, desperate to make the sudden prickles in his eyes fade. Let it go; you'll just make it worse for yourself. How, Blair had no idea, but life had a way of plunging just when you thought you'd hit rock bottom. And he was already battered from that fall.

"So... where do we start?" He sounded almost normal, although Jim gave him a sharp-eyed glance. Hope stirred momentarily that his Sentinel would see his pain, say something to make it better, maybe send him home for some badly needed sleep. Blair's head ached and his body felt heavy and clumsy with fatigue. But those far-seeing blue eyes only narrowed, then returned to the computer.

"Seizure inventory needs to be typed, followed by the witness statements." He tapped a pile of folders that probably included Blair's own statement.

He nodded dumbly and again Jim hesitated, frowning now, but didn't pursue it once more, just traded places with him so he could work on the computer.

Probably for the best. Blair really wasn't up to a lecture about not letting some idiots get under his skin. Far too late for that one.

With grim determination, he set to work.

At least that was an escape, despite the reminders the words he typed stirred in him. But words had always been his distraction, and as Blair typed the last one, he looked up in surprise to find it was three hours later.

"Good job," was Jim's full reaction, along with a small smile. It was actually high praise from the detective and much appreciated in the past. Now it was a mere trickle of water in a parched desert. Blair nodded back, all business.

"Anything else?"

"How 'bout we grab some lunch first?"

"Okay." The thought of food made his stomach turn, but maybe a little soup wouldn't hurt. His body craved something even if his heart didn't, and Blair hid the moment of dizziness as he stood and followed Jim down.

God was kind; the elevator was empty, amazingly.

Jim was also studying the walls as if they held the clues to all his current cases, although Blair could have told him there was little to see. When had this awkward silence developed between them? Was it when he'd gotten involved with Maya? Blair felt himself blanch. Was Jim as turned off by Blair's emotional involvement in the case as the rest of the department seemed to be? Blair had thought he'd understood, even felt bad for him, but if it was just pity....

"Simon's dropping a few cases in my lap now that the Carasco's thing's almost tied up," Jim suddenly spoke up.

Blair had to feign interest but he made the effort. "Oh, yeah? Anything I've heard of?"

"One of them probably -- the Bonneville rapist."

Despite his own problems, Blair grimaced. It would have been hard not to hear about the serial rapist striking one of Cascade's quieter suburbs. "I thought Joel was working on that one."

Jim turned an imaginary ball around in his hands. In his own way, he was almost as much in constant motion as Blair. "He still is, but Simon wants us to give him a hand. Guy struck again yesterday and that makes seven attacks. The Mayor's about to go nuts over this one."

Blair nodded. That made sense. It was hard for one detective to handle a serial case with its multiple victims and crime scenes, even if he was as good as Joel.

Another brief pause, then he felt Jim cast a sideways glance at him. "Another case is those threats the dockworkers union's been getting. Simon thinks we should stake the headquarters out a few days, make sure nothing happens. It'd be good for the department's relationship with the union, too."

Blair nodded again. He wasn't crazy about stakeouts but he usually at least got some reading or studying done on them. "When?" he asked.

Jim was definitely eyeing him. "This weekend."

It took a moment to sink in; that was how tired he was. But then Blair stared at his Sentinel in disbelief. "But you told him no, right? That we had plans?"

"I told him maybe."

Blair stared at him speechless.

Out spread the large hands, placating. "Look, you'll still have a chance to take it easy -- there's no reason you have to come along. We can go camping next week."

Except he wouldn't make it until next week and Jim couldn't tell that or didn't even want him along on the stakeout and, darn it, he wasn't a five-year-old kid but he felt like sitting down and bawling right there.


Jim had started to reach toward him but Blair ducked away, not meeting his gaze. "No, you're right, Jim, that sounds good. We can go next week."

There was an uncomfortable pause and then Jim's even more uncomfortable, "Blair, I know this thing with Maya's--"

And he so did not want to go there. "Is over," Blair said flatly.

Jim wasn't the kind to push on something like this. In fact, Blair was surprised Mister Denial had even brought it up, but he certainly wasn't the kind to want to talk about it, God forbid, have a little soul-baring, some honest emotional displays. It might tarnish his image or something.

And hadn't Blair become a nice little cynic? Must be the company he kept.

The old elevator finally creaked to the bottom floor and the doors opened. The smell of food from the cafeteria down the hall made Blair's stomach shiver in a strange combination of anticipation and disgust. Even it didn't know what it wanted, he thought with an internal sigh. Big surprise.

They were a little past the lunch crowd, which meant they moved through the line quickly enough. Jim piled on a pair of sandwiches, chips, jello, a soda, a banana. Blair sniffed at the onion soup and decided he wasn't that hungry, but maybe jello would go down easy. He picked the least neon-colored one, orange, and followed Jim. The detective raised an eyebrow as he caught sight of Blair's sparsely filled tray but didn't say a word, just paid for them both. Then he turned to find a seat, Blair still trailing along behind, eyes downcast.

So perhaps it was his fault when he abruptly collided with someone from his right, sending both their trays flying.

Blair looked up, startled, into the pinprick eyes of McCheever -- also from Vice.

"Why don't you look where you're going?" the solid wall of muscle growled at him.

"I'm-I'm sorry," Blair stammered, sorting quickly to figure out who'd been at fault. He hadn't been looking, but what was McCheever's excuse?

"You notice every pair of nice legs within five miles, but you can't see two feet in front of ya?"

"Well, actually, you weren't in front of me..." And, oh, his big mouth was going to get him killed someday. McCheever was already turning red.

"Listen, you little--"

"Dan, he's sorry." That was Jim, offering an apology Blair was starting to think was owed to him and not vice versa. He turned to stare blankly at his partner.

"Yeah, well, who's gonna pay for this, Ellison?" McCheever indicated the spilled food on the floor. Apparently, he had as good an appetite as Jim.

Jim pressed his lips together but pulled a bill from his pocket and thrust it at the Vice detective. "Knock yourself out."

"Yeah, well, you just keep your mascot on a leash next time." He took the money grudgingly, casting a final sneer at Blair and, for a split second, a look of triumph. Blair stared back, still not believing what was happening.

"And you have a lovely day," Jim answered back acid sweet. "Moron," he muttered under his breath as he hooked an arm under Blair's and towed him, leash-like, to a nearby table.

Where Blair finally had the presence of mind to jerk himself loose -- vehemently. "You just paid him to push me around," he said in utter shock.

Jim was arranging his tray with anal efficiency. "No, I paid him not to make a scene, which you weren't exactly helping, Sandburg."

Blair leaned closer to him, anger finally beginning to bubble past the disbelief. "That wasn't an accident, Jim. He ran into me on purpose!"

Jim's eyes were hard. "You don't know that." He waved a hand at the seat in front of him. "Sit down. You can have my jello."

This wasn't about -- But -- How could he... All the protests died on Blair's lips and, numbly, he sank into the chair, almost laughing at the sky blue jello that was set before him. Jim's way of trying to make amends after the totally unsupportive, emasculating he'd just done. At best, he didn't have a clue, at worst, he was the same as the rest of them: uncaring, disdainful. Not a friend.

Mascot. Blair's cheeks burned.

And, unutterably weary and wounded, he found the strength to get to his feet. "I'd better go."

Curiosity more than concern lit the blue eyes that met his as Jim looked up in mid-chew. "I thought your class was at four?"

"I have some... studying to do before then."

A nod. "Okay. Are you gonna be home for dinner?"

If the food didn't kill him, the small talk would. "I don't think so."

The eyes narrowed at him as if searching for his real meaning. As if it weren't screaming off him already, and since when had Jim not seen what was below the surface, even? But all he said was, "Don't stay out too late."

"Right," Blair mumbled. The Sentinel needed his sleep, after all. He gathered his things and walked out of the room, proud posture melting into wilted defeat only once outside the doors.

He'd felt every eye on his back except the ones he wanted to really see him.

Jim had been watching TV, in fact, when Blair had straggled in just after ten, and after a bare minimum of words, gone to his room. He'd skipped dinner and kept up the feeble attempt to study nearly until two, then slept badly the rest of the night, dreaming of Maya in distress.

Which possibly explained why the room seemed to be floating as Blair finally crawled out of bed and made an attempt to dress the next morning. "All work and no sleep," he mumbled to himself, but it wasn't as if he were getting much work done, either, was it? What he needed was a nap. A week-long one would just about do. Or a camping trip, an escape from everything that reminded him of his pain, but now that would include Jim, wouldn't it? Not that the detective was free; there was that all-important stakeout.

He could always go alone, Blair realized. Fresh air, some fishing, lots of sleep in the fresh air...

And loneliness. There was no escaping that, was there?

Breathing shortly, Blair pulled his clothes on and went to wash up in a bathroom that was as shaky as the bedroom had been.

It actually made driving in to the station kind of interesting, the roads swimming around him. Okay, so he probably shouldn't have been driving, but he could do a few hours of work and then go home for a nap before his evening class. The one he'd switched to in order to free up the latter part of the week for the camping trip that wasn't to be.

Wait a minute.

Blair slowly raised his chin. Since when had his life revolved around Jim? He could go camping on his own if he wanted, and that wasn't loneliness, it was solitude, which he'd liked, once upon a time. And if the detective, or any other part of Major Crimes for that matter, had an issue with him, who cared? He didn't work there and owed them nothing. It wasn't as if he didn't have a life outside the department, unlike most of those crewcut cut-outs. Blair gave the traffic ahead of him a sharp nod. He wouldn't let them get to him; he'd show them instead how a little Sandburg determination and intelligence carried the day.

Blair almost bounced as he got out of the truck.

He shared the elevator up with some detectives from Robbery, and there was a whisper and some titters, but he stiffened his spine -- enough sagging. Maya was... he swallowed. Maya was gone, but life went on. And it was time he started living it instead of being stepped on by it. If they didn't think he belonged at the CPD, he'd just show them they were wrong. Even the world around him had stopped doing its lazy dance, his feet not quite so heavy now. How could he have forgotten his pride?

Jim looked up at him as he walked into Major Crimes, then took another look, and while his expression didn't change, something in his eyes did -- approval. He was tired of milquetoast Sandburg, too. That was good, right? Blair certainly was. This was what it took to survive in Jim Ellison's world.

"Joel's got an idea about the Bonneville case. I think it's a good one," Jim said by way of greeting.

"Oh, yeah?" Blair sat down on his chair, missing it by half but catching his balance before he could fall. Thankfully, Jim hadn't been watching. So maybe a nap still wasn't a bad idea.

"Yeah. The rapist usually hits during the day, homes where wives are home but husbands are at work, which maybe means he's casing the homes before he hits. Joel laid out a map of where all the attacks have occurred."

Jim opened a city map and laid it on the desk between them. The names on it were too tiny for his blurred eyes to read, but Blair could still see the pattern.

"A circle?"

Jim nodded. "We think he probably lives somewhere in the center and has been working his way out as he gets more confident. Which means the next place he strikes is gonna be around here." He drew a broad loop around the edge of a pins.

"So, you have some of the uniformed guys doing extra patrolling around there?"

Jim nodded again. "That's part of the plan. But Joel was also thinking we should go out there, knock on some doors, warn the residents."

That seemed like a lot of doors and Blair's energy level sank with his heart. Still, it was a good idea. Informed people were less likely to become victims and even one less rape victim would make any effort worthwhile. "Today?" he asked, trying not to sound weary.

"Soon as we're ready," Jim confirmed, then added in nonchalant afterthought. "You don't have to come if you don't want to, Sandburg."

His chin shot back up. "I can do this, Jim."

It worked better than he'd expected. Jim didn't even hesitate, just slapped his leg. "Good." He rose and crossed the room to talk to Joel without another word.

He could do this. Okay, he really didn't want to, but he could. And then nap. Assuming Jim wasn't planning to make this an all-day thing. Maybe he could nap in the car. He felt so tired, and the room was doing its loose-from-its-moorings thing again. Blair sighed. Could things get any better than this?

Bad question. In retrospect, he probably should have figured out how the door-to-doors would go, but he hadn't. Unsurprisingly, the women they were talking to really weren't happy to hear they were potential rape targets and the rapist was expected to continue to strike in their neighborhoods. Another time, Blair might have admired Jim's finesse at raising their concern and attention without outright scaring them. Another time, Blair would have chipped in and done his calming bit with the ones who got upset anyway. Now, it seemed most of his energy was going into remaining upright and not letting his body come apart at the seams like it kept feeling it would.

Jim stopped once between houses to ask him if he was okay, and even that little concession warmed him briefly. But Blair just gave him a dumb nod. It was easiest, and he wasn't about to admit how he felt to iron-man Ellison, anyway. He could and would hack it, just to prove those Neanderthals in the department wrong.

And Jim.

Blair forced his mind off the fatigue, looking around, trying to observe what he could. The houses all looked the same, small and neat boxes in various earth tones. There was probably a paper in that, the colors of houses, how they seemed to be designed to blend in to nature even when they'd been carved out of that same nature for the sake of people. Like the one they were walking up to, a nice cream color with white shutters and shades. Not even a pastel in sight.

They were halfway up the walk when Jim slowed, then stopped. Blair nearly bumped into him before staring at him, then frowning at the look of intensity on Jim's face. "You hear--?"


He shut up, not taking it personally, but laid his hand on the Sentinel's arm. Jim was casting his hearing out, listening to something, and often needed grounding when he concentrated that hard.

That was a much better reason for being there than to just prove some sort of point, Blair had to admit. He'd almost forgotten.

"What do you hear, Jim?" he finally asked softly.

Another pair of heartbeats and then the man's face hardened, eyes glowing with feral light.

The realization cut through the mush of Blair's brain like a sharp knife before Jim even said it.

"He's in there."

And then Jim was a blur, yanking his gun, dashing toward the front door.

After a slightly longer pause, Blair moved too, fumbling for the cell phone in his pocket and jabbing the speed dial button. He got the right one on the first try and Joel's voice was questioning in his ear.

"522 Sandy Vale Drive. The guy's here right now and Jim's going in." And then Blair snapped the phone shut and with an instinct that went deeper than any fatigue, went to back his partner up.

Jim had gone in the front, which meant either there would either be a confrontation in the house or the guy would flee out back. Blair ran around the nearer side of the house, almost tripping on a forgotten hoe, fumbling with the gate before he broke through into the back yard. Around another corner, and the back door was in sight, still closed. If it was locked and Jim needed him inside...

A shot fired inside the house, jolting Blair into another misstep, but he caught himself and plunged on. Jim needed him, Joel was God-knew-where, and this guy couldn't get away to rape again...

The back door rattled, then jerked open, and with Blair only a few feet away, a stranger in dark pants and jacket flew out the door. He went a few steps and then stopped and turned, and his arm came up.

The gun reflected the morning sun.

He hadn't seen Blair behind the open screen door, but Blair was close enough to hear the pounding footsteps of Jim in pursuit, almost at the door, about to be shot...

And Blair acted without thinking, hurling himself forward at the armed man.

The guy didn't see him coming soon enough, and Blair saw more than sensed the gun go flying as he got the rapist in the gut, hot breath whooshing out just above his head, the body folding underneath him as his tackle sent them both into the grass. They connected hard enough that Blair's bones rattled, too, and he wasn't the one underneath.

Jim was yelling something. Blair paused long enough to make sure the guy under him wasn't moving or an immediate threat before he shoved himself off, rolling into the grass beside him, and then just concentrating on breathing.

Jim was a flash of movement beside him. "You all right, Chief?" he called, and the snap of handcuffs followed the question.

Blair wobbled a "yes." He thought.

"You sure?" An out-of-focus Jim hovered into view.

He nodded, kept nodding as Jim extended a hand, which Blair had to concentrate to take. The pull to his feet was like the ground slipping out from underneath him, and Blair wasn't sure when he stopped moving.

Maybe he didn't.

"Sandburg?" Jim was asking, but he couldn't tell where the voice was coming from anymore, and it faded out altogether as he was caught before he hit the ground again, and sank anyway into silent, restful darkness.

"So, he's okay?"

His Sentinel's voice woke him up, or rather, the worry in it. This was when he was supposed to step in and help... as soon as he figured out where he was.

"He will be once he gets some food and sleep. Dehydration, low blood sugar, and exhaustion can be a pretty potent mix."

Oh. Blair didn't know the female voice, but more memories were floating into place, including why he was lying in damp grass, his feet propped up on something uncomfortable, and he knew she was talking about him.

"Has he been lightheaded, confused, pale in the last few days?"

Now came the crack about his always being a little lightheaded and confused.

"Yeah, he has been. But he lost somebody close to him a week ago. I thought he was just... grieving."

Maya. His heart sank like a stone in him.

"Well, that probably accounts for why he hasn't been eating or sleeping enough. Some people react to grief that way. We can take him in, give him some more glucose and a sedative so he gets some sleep."

No, no, no....

A hand settled on its shoulder, giving it a rough massage. "He could do the same things at home, couldn't he?"

"If you made sure he did. But only if he wakes up soon; I'm getting a little concerned he's staying under so long."

"Oh, he's awake already, aren't you, Chief?" Now an unusually gentle pat on the cheek. "Time to rise and shine; you're scaring the nice lady."

He didn't want to, unready to face himself, let alone the world. And Jim. He couldn't even imagine what the Sentinel was thinking. But if that's what it took for them to leave him alone... Blair pushed his eyes open, squinting at the sudden brightness and the blurs of dark leaning over him.

"Mr. Sandburg? Can you hear me?"

"Yes," he said thickly. A few blinks were bringing things into focus and there were more than two faces above him, including at least two cops he didn't know. Wonderful.

"My name's Trish. I'm a paramedic. I just need to ask you a few questions."

And there was Jim, settled next to him as if he sat down on the lawns of crime scenes everyday. More surprising was his expression, a mix of anger, relief, and concern. No teasing, no disgust, not even pity. Blair watched him, uncertain, as he answered Trish's questions in monotone. The detective never slipped, never changed expression except for a clenched jaw at the mention of Blair skipping meals. But that didn't look like disappointment.

When the paramedic was satisfied, she and Jim helped Blair rise to his feet. He was feeling better, he was surprised to realize, although the IV she'd just taken out of his arm had probably helped. And he'd gotten some sort of nap, after all, if not quite how he'd expected. Jim swung an arm down to pick something off the ground, and Blair realized it was the older man's jacket that had been bunched under his head. For once, the wrinkles weren't bothering Jim.

Blair wished he could say the same about himself and the crowd. The guy he'd tackled was gone, probably already on his way to the station -- how long had he been out, anyway? -- although there was a small group gathered around one spot nearby. The gun, maybe? The memory of it made him queasy, as did all the faces staring at him. Well, if he hadn't ruined his reputation completely with Maya, this would surely do it. Collapsing at a crime scene; why didn't they just shoot him and get it over with?

But Trish and Jim ignored the audience and walked him slowly around the house, one on each side of him holding his arms like he was some disobedient child. Maybe it wasn't a bad idea because the grass still undulated a little under his feet, but it was still humiliation on top of acute embarrassment and Blair sank into the truck's passenger seat with burning cheeks.

Another brief talk outside the truck and Jim signed something, then said good-bye to the paramedic and walked around to his side of the truck and got in.

He started the car before he turned to give Blair a look. Apparently Blair's pretending he was invisible hadn't helped. But the Sentinel said nothing, just put the truck into gear and pulled out into the road.

Blair watched the streets flash by, suburb avenues gradually becoming city blocks, until he couldn't stand the silence anymore. "Jim, if you're gonna tell me--"

"We're not talking about this right now," Jim said flatly.

It was worse than he'd expected. The bundled jacket, the gentle treatment, Jim's expression at the scene... Blair had thought the man had understood at least a little, but there was no leeway here. He pulled a little tighter into himself, miserable in more ways than he could count.

Jim either noticed or reconsidered, because both his bearing and his tone softened. "Sandburg, you heard the lady. You need sleep and food, and you're not gonna be thinking clearly until you've had both. So whatever we have to talk about will wait until after, okay?"

That actually made sense, even to Blair's congealed mind. "Okay," he said quietly. And then couldn't help but add, "I'm sorry, Jim."

There was a long pause, then an equally quiet, "I'm sorry, too, Chief."

They didn't say another word the rest of the way, and Blair finally propped his forehead against the car window and dozed.

At the loft, Jim was still doing the frog-marching thing, but his grip was surprisingly careful and he still wasn't hurrying Blair. The only things he didn't relent on was making Blair eat a bowl of vegetable soup before climbing into bed, and then putting away any book and journal within reach of the futon as if the temptation to read instead of sleep might prove Blair's downfall. As if. He already could barely keep his eyes open, the soup a warm, drowsy mass in his stomach, the room unusually cozy despite the large Sentinel towering over him. At least he hadn't tucked Blair in.

"Good-night, Jim," he slurred.

"Sleep well, Chief."

He was asleep before Jim shut the door behind him.

The wan beams of twilight streamed in through the small window when Blair finally uncurled and opened his eyes. He could have slept a few more hours with ease, but the soup seemed to have reminded his stomach of the existence of food and was rumbling impatiently for more. Besides, the worst of the cotton in his head seemed to have melted, the lightheaded ache of exhaustion gone. He'd studied for big exams in worse shape than this, and Blair cautiously stretched each limb, giving his tousled hair a scratch as he pulled on a pair of sweats and stood, ready to face the world again.

Or at least, the loft.

Of course, the loft held Jim, and the waiting promise to talk, and if that wasn't incentive to crawl back under the covers and disappear into sleep again, Blair didn't know what was. The heavy memory of Maya's loss also returned, snuffing out what little enthusiasm he had left for the day. But putting off the inevitable only made it worse. Better to face the worst and then see if there were any pieces left worth picking up, now that he didn't feel like he'd fall on his face if he took another step.

"Sandburg, you want bacon?" came the unexpected call from outside the French doors just as he was screwing up his courage to open them.

"Uh, no," he answered, his voice croaking with sleep, but Jim would have heard even if he whispered. Come to think of it, even Blair could hear the sounds of cooking now, of sizzling skillets banging on the stove top and the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Jim in domestic mode. Blair shook his head, no longer sure what to think.

He opened the door.

The detective was cooking indeed, looking a little sleep-tousled himself in his boxers and a loose robe. But he smiled pleasantly enough at Blair. "Good morning."

"Except for the part of it being nighttime, yeah," Blair answered.

Jim paused, giving him a look. "It's 6:45 a.m., Chief."

He blinked. A.M.? As in dawn, not twilight?

Jim nodded at the unspoken question. "Almost eighteen hours. That's a record, even for you."

Eighteen hours. The thought was staggering, and Blair stumbled to the nearest chair. "Guess I was tired," he mumbled.

Another critical look, but no other response from Jim; his roommate just slid something onto a plate and strode around the kitchen counter to set it in front of Blair, along with a glass of orange juice. Eggs, toast, and a bowl of warm cream of wheat -- it was like his birthday, only with a painful surprise at the end instead of a pleasant one.

Still, there were appearances to be maintained and Blair gave his cook a wary look. "I thought I was the one who was acting different."

He got a snort for that and a friendly, "Eat your breakfast, Junior."

Cream of wheat with cinnamon and sugar was one of his favorites and it went down easy, along with the juice and then a refill. The eggs were a little less appetizing, but Blair managed one, along with a few bites of toast. His stomach didn't seem to mind food as much as it had the last week, but it drew the line there and Blair finally pushed the plate away, pleasantly overstuffed.

Jim had meanwhile polished off his own plateful of eggs and bacon and toast, then ate Blair's leftovers without a word. He finished with a cup of coffee that made Blair sniff hopefully, but he'd thought he'd heard the words "no caffeine" in the hushed discussion with the paramedic and Jim wasn't offering, so he didn't ask. The truth was, he felt jittery enough.

In his own home, partly rested and stomach full and sitting with his best friend, he was ready to jump out of his skin, and Maya wasn't the whole reason anymore. Maybe the cops at the station had been right, maybe he was losing it. Those hushed snickers. He'd almost forgotten. And Jim not arguing with them. Blair's jaw set. Yes, he was hurting, but he really had tried, and if Jim didn't see that...

"McCheever ran into me on purpose," Blair blurted out, then flushed deeply. So not what he'd wanted to say.

Jim's eyebrows rose over his coffee cup, which he set down. "I know," he said calmly.

The bitterness started to flow back in, reclaiming its old place inside Blair. "Right, I forgot, you know," he said acidly. "Like you've known all along what they were saying about me. And it never occurred to you to tell them where they could stuff their 'supply recommendations,' did it?"

The one thing he didn't expect to see in his Sentinel, confusion, filled the man's face. "What good would that've done? Cops tease each other, Sandburg, it's how they relate. Saying something just makes it worse."

He sat up. "Yeah, well, maybe this hasn't occurred to you, Detective Ellison, but I'm not a cop. I'm not in the whole 'brotherhood of blue,' so they're not just teasing, and I can't 'tease' back."

Jim frowned. "Is that what this is all about? You got your feelings hurt?"

Blair winced in anger and misery. "No, Jim, this is about partnership. Remember that? It doesn't just mean I ride along and do your paperwork for you, it means backing each other up. You taught me that. You knew I cut myself open for the Carasco case, and then you just hung me out to bleed when Maya--" And he choked. He would have been mortified in other circumstances, but he was still hemorrhaging badly and didn't feel it.

The silence nearly finished him off, but then Jim spoke with a tentativeness he'd never heard from the Sentinel before. "Blair... I didn't realize..." A moment of regrouping. "I knew you were upset about Maya, and I didn't want to make it worse by acknowledging those clowns at the office. I talked to a few of 'em when you weren't there, and Simon's already looking into who sent that supply office memo -- personally, you couldn't pay me to be that guy when Banks finds him -- but we thought it'd be better if we just ignored it."

The logic of that grudgingly penetrated. Jim had been backing him up, in his own way. And Blair hadn't really wanted a blessed protector, anyway, just someone who'd noticed, and cared. He shoved his hair behind his ear, mildly chastened. "Yeah, well, maybe it would've been if--" He still couldn't say it.

Jim shifted in his chair. "Maya," he realized. "If I'd known how close you two would get, I never would've had you look her up, Chief."

"I know," Blair said immediately. It was one thing he'd never had a doubt about. Or that Jim felt bad about it. His behavior after Maya had left had made that very clear. So where had they gotten lost along the way?

When the pain didn't go away.

"I... loved her, Jim," Blair said in low, rough tones.

A deep sigh. "I know, Chief. I'm sorry."

They sat in silence, the Sentinel giving him space, Blair thinking despite the urge to only feel. Like about how differently Jim dealt with pain, sealing it up and going on, probably never even thinking someone else might need to handle it differently. But he'd always been a fair man, and so... Blair met the blue eyes with only slight hesitation. "It still hurts."

An uncomfortable nod, but it emboldened him.

"It's not gonna go away overnight with some sleep and a good breakfast, Jim."

"But it does get better, Chief. If you give it time. And sleep and food," Ellison added wryly.

Blair remembered again those weeks after Danny, his own treading lightly. Maybe they weren't that different. "If this breaks some kind of macho cop image, though, Jim--"

"What, fainting at a crime scene?"

He cringed in mock horror despite the seriousness of the discussion. "I didn't faint. Guys don't faint. I collapsed."

Jim nodded wisely. "Right."

"Seriously, man, I don't -- I know the guys at the station are gonna have a picnic over this but--"

"Timeout here, Sandburg. Over what? You tackled an armed suspect -- which Simon and I are both going to have a talk with you about later -- who was ready to shoot me, and then got knocked out. Sounds pretty heroic to me, Chief."

He shook his head in amazement. "So, that's the official story?"

Jim leaned close. "That's what happened. We don't have to go into what knocked you out, right? But before you get any more hare-brained ideas -- not like anything I've said has ever stopped you -- I don't care what those yo-yos down at the station think about you or me. If you heard half of what they said about us, your ears would fall off. But it's just talk, Sandburg. It's not worth your health or your safety."

"Yeah, well, knowing it and feeling it are two different things, man. It usually doesn't bother me, but they were talking about me and Maya, and--"

"And that topic's a little sensitive right now, Chief. I get that, but you should have told me it was bothering you. And let's not forget the little matter of obfuscating whenever I asked you if you'd eaten or gotten some sleep."

His cheeks burned. "I didn't think you were paying attention," Blair muttered.

"That's why I put the camping trip off, because you looked so beat."

Blair stared at him. "I was looking forward to that trip, Jim. I needed to get away for a while. When you cancelled, I thought..."

Jim scowled. "You thought I was brushing you off. Sandburg, I might see and hear better than everybody else but I don't read minds. Talk to me next time."

"You don't always listen, Jim."

"You're my Guide, Sandburg, make me hear," he said pointedly.

That Blair could do -- probably. And it probably wouldn't work as simply as Jim made it sound; if he wasn't in the mood to listen, a mack truck couldn't get through to him. But it was... comforting that he wanted to. Blair finally nodded.

"Good." Jim pressed his hands flat on the table. "Are we okay then?"

"Yeah." Blair offered his partner a small smile. "We're good."

"Glad to hear it, 'cause you need a shower and I have to get to work. I expect you to sleep until noon and then have some lunch. I filled the fridge last night. Don't even think about opening a book until after lunch, got it? You need to be on your feet if we're going camping tomorrow. And I'll bring some Thai home for dinner."

Blair's mouth actually gaped at that list. "I said we're good, not that you're the boss."

Jim smiled cheerfully at him. "Sounds good to me."

He grumbled, but he obeyed.

He was rounding the last corner before the Major Crimes bullpen when the sound of Jim's voice reached his ear. That alone wouldn't have made him jar to a halt. The tone did. If a cat playing with a mouse before the kill could have talked, it would have sounded like Jim's silken timbre now.

"Now, which part of that case again was Sandburg being a coward in, Joe? I forgot. Was it the risking his own life to find out what Carasco's drug shipment plans were, the ones you guys couldn't find out? No, I'm pretty sure that wasn't it. How about putting himself in harm's way to protect a civilian? No, that doesn't sound right..."

"How about almost getting himself killed because he was too busy worrying about his girlfriend?"

"And he still manages a better case clearance rate than you, Dan. What's your excuse?"

"But he's a civilian, Ellison--"

"Which means he should be doing a lot worse than you guys, not better. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say this was about jealousy."

A rumble of displeasure at that, but no one dared argue.

"So, let me make this simple for you girls so you can understand it. Sandburg's my partner. He's earned the right and he gets the job done. If you have any problems with that, you can take it up with me, or Captain Banks. Oh, and if I hear the word 'mascot' one more time, you're gonna find out what it really means to be on a leash. Am I clear?"

More mutters and the shuffling of retreat. Ten seconds later, the hallway was silent, but Blair still stood pressed against the wall, trying to calm his racing heart. The latest assault on his character stung, but far more of a shock had been Jim's defense -- uncompromising words he'd never thought he'd hear from the detective.

"So, you gonna come in or stand there all day?"

Jim's voice, just around the corner, startled him anew and Blair swallowed, then stepped past the corner as if he'd never stopped. "Oh, hey, Jim!" he said, badly feigning surprise at the sight of his friend leaning casually against the corridor wall, arms folded.

The Sentinel shook his head, then tapped a finger to his ear.

Blair shifted his balance to his other foot and swallowed again. "Okay, yeah, I heard. So, that was all for my sake?"

"If you mean, was it an act because I knew you were there, let me tell you, Sandburg, you missed the best part. But if you mean was I doing it for you, sorry to disappoint you, but..." Jim smiled unpleasantly. "...I enjoyed it."

No doubt he had, but Blair wasn't fooled. And it felt really good. He gave Jim a small smile. "Well, thanks, man."

He got a lazy grin in return and a light slap on the shoulder. And then they turned together and started toward the bullpen.

"So, what was the part I missed?"

"I think the word 'fainted' came up."

"Hey, I told you, guys don't faint!"

"Right. I said you'd swooned."


The End

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