Disclaimer: No they are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN & Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This story is dedicated to my very generous and very patient Moonridge winner, Donna. She asked for a story that involved William and Steven with a good dash of hurt comfort on the side. I 'hope' I've managed to pull it off. Please be aware that although this story takes place after 'His Brothers Keeper', some events do stray from canon. So if your imagination is not up to that, perhaps you should give this one a miss.
Thank you: A huge thank you to Bobbie and StarWatcher for your wonderful beta skills and input into this story. Once again, I couldn't have done it without you.
Summary: Post 'His Brother's Keeper.' When Steven sets out to enlist his brother's help with a family problem he unknowingly starts a chain of events that leaves Blair's life hanging by a thread.
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Steven Ellison leaned back against the bar, casually watching his brother from across the crowded room. Estranged from the man for the better part of fifteen years, the youngest of the Ellison clan hadn't been surprised when the detective had spared him no favours during the recent investigation into the family business. Despite being exonerated of any personal or professional wrongdoing, Steven was still astutely aware that there was something very amiss behind the closed doors of the corporation's boardroom, and he couldn't help but wonder if now was the opportune time to try and coax 'big brother' back into the fold. Although Jim had long ago shunned everything remotely to do with their family, maybe the detective, who still bore the family name, was in fact the perfect man to rattle a few of the skeletons haunting the company's closets. Who better than an Ellison to stir up a bit of Ellison trouble? he thought.
Although not really one to put too much store in the powers of fate, Steven still had to question the timely reappearance of his brother back into his life. Perhaps now was the ordaining moment, a moment where he was supposed to put a voice to suspicions that had been niggling away at him for the past six months. But, trouble was, there was no way of doing that without broaching the subject of their father. Although the two Ellison men may have shared the same last name, there was nothing analogous when it came to William and his eldest son.
A lot of water had passed under the bridge over the years but, instead of washing away the grievances between William and his first born, it appeared to the youngest of the Ellison sons that the only thing it had managed to do was gouge out an impassable ravine, leaving a gaping chasm which neither father nor son had any desire to try and cross.
Drawing himself out of his musings, Steven continued to watch his brother as he bantered casually with a young man who had been introduced earlier to him as 'Blair Sandburg'. The smile on Jim's face was genuine as he baited and teased the kid who, even in his obvious state of inebriation, was performing a more than an admirable job of wiping up the pool table with him.
A rowdy round of applause erupted from the centre of the smoke-filled room as Sandburg successfully sank the black ball in the corner pocket. A wide smile spread across the kid's face and, although Steven couldn't hear what Blair was saying or decipher his brother's response, the body language between the two men spoke louder than words ever could.
Feeling a strange sense of need to regain the closeness he'd once shared with a brother who was now practically a stranger to him, Steven's sense of longing was heightened when Jim grabbed Sandburg around the neck and feigned a series of fake punches toward the kid's body. Images of two young boys playing out a similar scene flashed through his mind, and it left him wondering how their relationship had managed to take such a downhill slide.
You know the exact answer to that question, he thought, unable to draw his attention away from Sandburg. It wasn't entirely their father's fault although, earlier that evening, Jim had assured him it was. A large part of the blame needed to be laid at his feet, for the simple truth was that he had been a teenage boy tired of living in the shadow cast by his older brother. Problem was, back then he never considered that removing the shadow also meant losing the one who made it.
As the band of drunken revellers from the recently formed "Cigar Club" welcomed their newest member with an off-tune rendition of "We are the Champions", Steven watched his brother weave his way through the crowd and head back to the bar.
"I warned you they were clowns," Jim smiled, nodding to the barman to refresh his glass.
"Seems like a good bunch of guys, though," Steven replied, finally dragging his attention away from Blair. "So, are you all good friends or just co-workers?" he asked casually.
"A little of both, I guess," Jim shrugged. "I suppose it depends on who you're referring to."
Steven mimicked Jim's relaxed stance and took a long swig of his twelve-year-old scotch. "No one in particular, really. Although Sandburg... Blair isn't it?" he queried. "Doesn't really strike me as typical cop material."
"He's not," Jim stated, very matter-of-factly.
Choosing to ignore the curt, succinct tone that accompanied his brother's answer, Steven pressed forward, letting his curiosity about Sandburg get the better of him. "But I thought you said he was your partner?"
"He is." Jim straightened his own stance and eyed Steven carefully as he tried to gauge his younger brother's motivation for the current line of questioning. "Blair's a consultant with the department," he finally replied, feeling the all too familiar defensive mechanisms of his youth kick into gear. Although Steven's questions were fairly innocuous, he was uncertain about how much of his life he was ready to reveal to a brother he hadn't seen in over five years. Sharing information about Sandburg was equivalent to handing Steven an open book and telling him to turn to the page that was headlined, 'The Sentinel -- Freak of Nature or Modern Day Superhero'.
With fine malt whiskey warming his belly and giving aid to the strength of his Dutch courage, Steven continued to ignore the familiar warning he saw in his brother's eyes. "A consultant in what?"
Seeming to appear out of nowhere, Blair injected before Jim could answer, "A consultant in common sense."
"Sandburg, what are you up to this time?" Jim groused good-naturedly, as Blair squirmed between his body and the solid redwood panelling of the bar.
"Me?" the observer questioned. "Maybe you should be asking them for the answer to that."
Turning around, Jim came face to face with Simon and Brown. He sighed, growing weary of the continued 'friendly' harassment Blair had received since winning a couple of bucks on the ponies. "Guys, give it a rest and leave the kid alone."
"Now, now Jim," Simon slurred. "We have no intention of harming a single hair on the kid's wealthy little body." He poked his finger into Ellison's chest. "All we want to do is take some of the weight off his shoulders. Help ease the burden of what to do with some of those fine greenbacks he won. And," Simon continued, flashing Jim a broad smile, "us being the generous, thoughtful guys that we are, we figured that Blair might appreciate being given the opportunity to get in at the grassroots level of a very lucrative deal."
"Yep, lupecraptive is the word," chimed Brown, who, by the way he was squinting, appeared to have lost most of the sight in his right eye. "And genkerous, too, like Simon says." He laughed. "Huh, 'Simon says', that's funny."
Banks' smile disintegrated, replaced by a glare that did nothing to abate the giggles coming from the drunken cop.
"Simon," Jim said, removing his Captain's finger from his shirt. "How many times do I have to tell you... Sandburg has no money to speak of." He shifted his gaze to rake over the equally inebriated figures of Joel and Rafe, who were slowly, but surely, bringing up the rear in an unsteady stagger. "Translation for those who have trouble understanding basic terms at this late hour -- the kid is a struggling, overworked, underpaid grad student whose only opportunity in the area of 'grassroots' is exactly as the term suggests."
"Hey, I resent that," Blair complained, poking his head out from behind the brick wall known as Jim Ellison.
"Which part?" Jim asked over his shoulder. "The part about you not having more than two nickels to rub together, or the part about you having sex in the grass?"
"I had sex in the grass?"
Jim rolled his eyes at the confusion etched into the kid's face. "And you call yourself an expert in foreign cultures."
"I am an expert," Blair huffed. "I'm just not so good at it right this minute."
With a high percentage of his brain cells awash with alcohol, Sandburg had absolutely no hope of deciphering Jim's remark. His concentration on the current conversation came to a sudden end and his train of thought switched tracks abruptly, coming back to the reason why he was standing behind the detective in the first place. Plucking The Daily Racing Form from his inside pocket, he peered over Jim's shoulder and smiled at Simon. "But I'm really, really good at other stuff." He tapped the Form with his finger. "Did I mention who you should take in the fifth tomorrow, Simon?" His smile broadened and he tried unsuccessfully to contain his laughter. "Nope, I don't think I did."
"You just never learn, do you?" Ellison breathed. "Sandburg, you want me to take two steps to the left?"
Blair's mirth stopped suddenly and the heavy weight that Jim felt against his body suggested Sandburg wasn't far behind the keystone cops in terms of brain function or motor skills coordination.
"Nope." Blair's hand awkwardly patted Jim's shoulder. "You stay right there... gotcha back here, big guy."
"Gee, thanks, Chief. That makes me feel just so safe." Jim waved down the bartender. "Fred, would you mind calling a cab to take the city's finest home to beddy bye?"
"One step ahead of you detective. Taxi's already out front."
Swivelling around, Jim managed to steady Sandburg before he toppled over. Dragging an unoccupied bar stool across the floor with his foot, he firmly pushed Blair down, making sure the kid's backside and the chair were firmly acquainted. "Stay," he ordered. Glancing toward Steven, he asked, "You mind keeping an eye on him for a minute while I make sure these fine gentlemen find that cab?"
"Sure," Steven replied, somewhat amused at the turn of events.
"Sandburg," Jim said. "I'll be back in a minute, but while I'm gone, I want you to stay put, right here." He tapped Blair under the chin. "And mind your p's and q's. The q's in particular, Chief," he reiterated. "No questions, okay?" He leaned closer to Blair, letting the noise in the bar mask his next statement. "Loose lips, Chief. Ships aren't the only things they sink."
"Lips are sealed, Jim. Pie hole shut, key turned and thrown away," Sandburg replied, breathing an intoxicating fume into Ellison's face while tossing an imaginary key over his shoulder.
"I so do not want to be around you come morning," Jim mumbled, before gathering up the rest of the troops and marching them toward the door.
"So, Steven," Blair said, doing a Henri and closing one eye in order to try and focus on the other man's face. "You ever spent any time alone in the wilderness?"
"Oh, man," Blair groaned. The previous night's frivolities had turned from a nice, fuzzy, intoxicated feeling, to the not so euphoric state of a full blown hangover. Flopping an arm up over his eyes to guard against the invasion and the associated pain of the morning sun streaming in through the window, he rolled his tongue around his mouth. "Great, bird cage syndrome," he moaned, knowing that the gritty sensation in his mouth was only the beginning of the misery that would no doubt be his morning.
As his aching head tried to piece together the events of the night before, his concentration was interrupted by a knock on the front door. Turing his head toward his own closed door, he waited for the sound of movement beyond the threshold of his room. The knock came again, this time a little more loudly. "Jim," he called, wincing at the sound of his own voice. "There's someone at the door, man."
There was no response, and whoever it was at the door apparently had no intention of going away.
"Great, just great," Blair grumbled, throwing back the bedcovers. Wary of the delicacy of his head, he swung his legs slowly over the side of the futon. Although his eyes were still bleary, there was no mistaking the sight that greeted him. "What the hell!" he ground out, snatching his robe from the floor to cover up as best he could the black, sequined, spandex tights that somehow had made their way onto his body; no doubt courtesy of his conveniently absent roommate.
Another knock on the front door made him grimace.
"I'm coming, I'm coming, already," he grumbled in frustration, as the persistent visitor kept up the barrage not only on the door, but also on his head. "God help you if you're selling Girl Scout cookies," he muttered. Gingerly making his way through the living room, he clumsily fiddled with the lock before swinging open the heavy, green door. "Steven!" he exclaimed with surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought you might need some sustenance this morning." Steven held up a brown paper bag. "Bacon and egg roll from the deli on Eighth Street. Best hangover cure known to man."
"Um, thanks," Blair replied, still surprised by the unexpected guest. "Oh, hey, sorry," he apologised. "Please, come on in." He ushered Jim's brother through the door. "I don't know where Jim's got to this morning."
"Shower, perhaps." Steven tilted his head toward the sound of the water running from the room off the hall.
"Oh, yeah," Blair agreed. He wasn't firing on all cylinders yet, and hadn't quite managed to put two and two together.
"Nice tights," Steven commented.
Sandburg pulled his robe tighter. "Yeah, well, your brother has a very warped sense of humour sometimes." He eyed Steven's smirk. "You didn't have a part in this, did you?"
Steven held up his hands in defence. "Hey, don't look at me, it was all big brother's idea. I just took the photos."
"Great," Blair groaned. "Just what the world needs... two Ellisons." He moved toward the hall. "Make yourself at home. "I'll go hurry the lone Stooge along; guess I should be grateful he didn't have Curly and Moe with him."
Without bothering to knock, Blair barged into the bathroom.
"Hey, Chief," Jim smiled congenially, ducking his head out from behind the shower curtain. "How's the head this morning?"
"Fine, thank you very much," Blair, replied, curtly. "And don't even try and tell me you didn't hear the knock at the front door. He pulled at the front of the close-fitting spandex tights that were part of a costume he'd worn to a recent university bash. "Man, how on earth did you even get these on me?" he complained. "And why, more to the point?"
"Payback," Jim simply said.
"Payback for what?"
"For playing air guitar on the coffee table at one in the morning with your hiking boots on and treating the neighbours to the most colourful rendition of 'I want to Rock and Roll all Night' that I've ever heard.
"Oh," Blair said, having absolutely no memory of the event. "Fair enough then, I guess," he conceded.
Sandburg lowered himself onto the closed toilet seat lid. "Steven's here."
"So I heard." Jim pushed back the shower curtain and reached for a towel. He suppressed a smile, inwardly very impressed by his creative prowess. "You want some aspirin?" he asked, deciding to take a small measure of pity on Blair's dishevelled form.
Blair closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tiled wall. "You got a whole bottle handy?"
Ellison reached into the cabinet and shook two pills from the bottle. He handed them to Sandburg, along with a glass of water.
Sandburg cracked open his eyes. "Thanks, man." He took the pills and breathed deeply as his stomach did a sudden flip-flop and threatened a major revolt. "So," he said, trying to turn his attention toward something other than his churning gut. "Was I any good?" He swallowed hard. "Air guitar was always my specialty."
Adjusting the towel firmly around his waist, Jim knelt down and studied his partner. Sandburg really did look like shit. "Let's just say that in the talent department, you're no Gene Simmons, kid." He ran his finger down Blair's cheek, scraping off some of the white muck that he'd used to decorate Sandburg's face with the night before. "But don't worry, just 'cause you haven't got the moves, doesn't mean you don't have the looks." With a gentle slap to Blair's knee, Jim got to his feet. "I better go see what Steven wants. You think you might live to see another day?"
"Probably not." Blair eased himself off the toilet lid and moved slowly to the sink. Without looking in the mirror, he bent down and sucked a mouthful of water from the tap. Rinsing, he made a face, grimacing at the disgusting taste that remained. "God, just how much did I have to drink anyway?"
"You tell me, Chief. I wasn't counting." Jim pulled on his robe. "Although I suspect half your problem this morning has just as much to do with the cigars, as it does with the beer."
"Cigars! God, no wonder my mouth feels like I've just made out with an exhaust pipe." Blair scrubbed his hands over his face, still unaware of the detective's talented artwork.
"Hey, Chief," Jim smiled playfully, before reaching for the door handle. "You've kinda got something on the end of your nose there." He pulled open the door. "You might wanna take care of it before you come back out."
Could this morning possibly get any worse? Images of greeting Steven at the door with something green and disgusting hanging from his nose flashed through Sandburg's mind. He grabbed a tissue, readying himself to take care of the offending unpleasantness. Looking into the mirror, he jumped back with a sudden start. Blinking, momentarily dazed, it took him a few seconds to make the connection between the face staring back at him and the ever increasing smirks emanating from the other side of the room. Still not quite believing that he'd managed to get himself so plastered that he'd been totally oblivious to what was happening around him, he thinned his gaze and mustered up the most dangerous glare he was capable of. "I will get you back, you know," he stated, very calmly.
Ignoring the belly-deep laughter now coming from the detective, Blair plucked the washcloth from the side of the tub. "I don't care how long it takes, or even how much it costs," he called out, as Jim disappeared from the room, "but you can be assured, I will get you back." He started to rub at the black and white mess that covered his face. "And when I do, it will be long and it will be painful."
As Blair's world did a slight tilt, he grabbed the side of the sink with both hands. "If I manage to live that long."
"So, I thought we might go out and grab some breakfast?" Steven's suggestion hung in the air, as Sandburg wandered out of the bathroom. Two pair of eyes tracked the younger man as he made his way wordlessly back toward his bedroom. Most of the face paint had now been removed, leaving Blair's complexion tainted a ghastly shade of grey.
"Hold that thought," Jim replied. The joke from the night before suddenly didn't seem all that funny in the light of day.
Moving quietly into Blair's room, Jim took in the sight of his bedraggled partner. Sitting hunched on the futon with his elbows on his knees, Sandburg had his face buried in his hands.
"Hey, Chief," Ellison said gently. "Why don't you get out of those pants before you do yourself permanent damage?" He plucked a pair of boxers from a pile of clean laundry that sat by the side of Blair's bed. "I don't really want to be known as the guy who was responsible for the Sandburg lineage ending with this generation."
Dull blue eyes that were in a world of misery looked up and Ellison felt the first pangs of guilt gnawing at the pit of his stomach.
"Man, I don't think I ever remember feeling this bad." He swallowed hard. "I didn't think it would be possible, but I actually feel worse now than I did when I woke up."
Thoughts of reminding the kid that he had no one else to blame but himself for his current condition never entered the detective's mind. Reaching down, he gently ruffled Blair's hair. "Maybe some lemonade or a sports drink might help settle your stomach."
Before Blair could decide whether the suggestion was a good one, or whether it was just boding trouble, Jim had disappeared out the door. The sound of lowered voices could be heard, followed by the rattling of bottles as Ellison rummaged through the old refrigerator.
"Steven, I think I might have to take a rain-check on breakfast." Jim's head re-emerged from the fridge, a bottle of Gatorade in his hand.
Disappointment, along with a look of something that Jim couldn't quite put his finger on, graced Steven's face.
"Look, I know it's just a hangover," Ellison started, "but Sandburg's pretty miserable in there and I just wouldn't feel right leaving him home alone." By way of reparation, he added. "Hey, why don't we arrange to meet one morning next week?"
"Well, actually, Jim, the reason I asked you to breakfast this morning was to invite you to come fishing with me next weekend."
"Fishing?" Jim asked in surprise. The idea of getting reacquainted with Steven wasn't one he was necessarily opposed to, but neither was it something he'd had the chance to ponder at any great length. He figured that they'd both want to ease gently into rebuilding their relationship. Take things slowly. Sharing a quick bite to eat was one thing, but spending an entire weekend in the company of a brother with whom, in the past, he'd had some pretty major issues, was an entirely different kettle of fish.
"When did you take up fishing?" Jim asked, trying to deflect Steven's question from the issue at hand. "You always hated going camping when we were kids."
"I still do, but we wouldn't actually be going camping. The company has recently redeveloped the Old Mill Resort up by Lake Todd, and although it's not ready to be opened up to the public yet, the model suite is up and running, so I figured I'd use it for the long weekend."
"Look Steven, I appreciate the gesture, I really do, but I've already kinda promised Blair that we'd head off to the mountains next weekend." Jim's statement wasn't a lie, exactly. He was going to ask Sandburg if he wanted to go hiking sometime over the long weekend, he just hadn't got around to it yet.
"Does Blair fish?"
"If you can call standing in the water with a stupid-looking spear in your hand fishing, yeah, then I guess you could say he fishes." Snatching a glass from the drainer, Jim headed back toward Blair's room.
"Well then, ask him to come along," Steven suggested, following close behind. The enthusiasm which he injected into his voice masked not only the disappointment he felt at the possibility of Sandburg tagging along, but also hid his disquiet at having another person involved in what he'd hoped would essentially remain family business. Although Blair's presence complicated matters, Steven felt himself being pushed into a corner. Jim's reaction to his invitation certainly hadn't been a great deal of eagerness; in any other circumstance he would have backed off, but not this time. He couldn't. There was too much at stake. "The villa's big enough to accommodate all of us," he added.
Taking a seat on the edge of Blair's bed, Jim was fully aware of his brother's presence hovering in the doorway, waiting for an answer. This is moving way too fast, he thought, gently shaking the still form of his partner. Aiming to give himself a few more minutes to formulate a believable excuse, he turned his full attention toward Blair. "Chief, you think you might be able to manage a mouthful or two? It might make you feel a little more human."
With his eyes remaining closed, Blair simply shook his head.
"How about I leave it on the bedside table, then?" He patted Blair's shoulder before pulling the blanket up to cover Sandburg's robe covered torso. Unconsciously, his hand strayed to rest upon the younger man's forehead as Blair drifted off to sleep.
Automatic as the move may have been, it was an action that didn't go unnoticed by Steven Ellison.
A feeling of envy stirred deep within Jim's brother, as his umbrage grew against a man he barely knew. He recognised that it was unreasonable and he had no right to feel like that, but he couldn't help it, for he also had a strong inkling that, if push came to shove, his role as Jim's brother would come off as secondary to whatever role it was that Blair played in his brother's life. Steven Ellison felt like he'd just been replaced.
Pushing down the resentment, he focused on the matter at hand. Getting Jim to agree to go with him next weekend was at the forefront of his agenda. Swallowing his pride, Steven asked again. "So, you'll ask him then?"
Jim glanced up at his brother, not knowing what to say. He couldn't just come out and admit that he didn't want to go. Not with Steven standing there looking so anxious about the answer. Against his better judgment, he conceded to the request. "Yeah, I'll ask him." He knew that it wouldn't take much to persuade Sandburg to come along. After all, the kid was the original 'nosey parker', and he couldn't see Blair passing up the opportunity to learn more about the Ellison family tree. "Not today, though, I'll wait 'till he's feeling a little more like himself."
With a last, quick sensory check of Sandburg's condition, Jim got to his feet. "How 'bout I whip us up some eggs?" he suggested, ushering Steven from the room. He was already starting to sense the beginnings of the claustrophobic feeling he used to get when he spent too much time around his family. The quicker he did his duty as host, the quicker he could get rid of his brother and concentrate on the most important thing he had to do today -- taking care of his partner.
"So, Jim, tell me again just why I had to tag along with you this weekend?" Blair asked, taking the rare opportunity to soak up the sun streaming in through the passenger seat window of the truck.
"Because you owe me."
"Owe you for what?"
"For spending the first weekend I've had off in a month taking care of your hungover butt."
Sandburg shuddered. The memories of last weekend's activities were still very fresh in his mind and he had no particular desire to revisit them any time soon. "Thanks for that," he mumbled quietly. "And believe me, man, I've learned my lessons about the evil of drink. Not another drop shall pass my lips."
"Famous last words," Ellison huffed. "So you're trying to tell me that you have no intention of indulging in the couple of six-packs I brought along?"
Blair simply smiled and snuggled further down into his jacket, enjoying the sensation of the sun's rays on his face.
"Hey," Jim asked, "are you concentrating on exactly where it is we're supposed to be turning off, or are we going to end up at the Canadian border before you decide we might be lost?"
"Yes, I'm concentrating," Blair mimicked sarcastically, without opening his eyes. "We have to take the next turn on the left... Thompson's Road."
"Sandburg, we passed Thompson's Road about a mile back."
Blair shot up, swivelling around in his seat. "We did?" He shook open the map. "Um, well then I guess we need to take the next turnoff on the right." He looked sheepishly at Jim. "Back the other way."
Ellison pulled over into the dirt and swung the truck around. "Lewis and Clark you ain't, Sandburg," he muttered, pulling back out onto the highway.
"You still haven't answered my question, Jim."
"What question would that be, Chief?"
Blair sighed, knowing that Jim had no intention of making this easy. "The question of why you didn't want to spend the weekend alone with your brother."
Ellison's gaze remained focused on the road.
"Look, Jim, I heard what you said about the stuff that went on between you two when you were kids, and I understand. I totally do. But don't you think it might be time to give the guy a break? I mean it looks to me as if he's really trying here, man."
Successfully finding the correct turnoff, Ellison guided the truck off the main highway and onto a lightly paved road. "I am giving the guy a break. I'm here, aren't I?"
"Yeah, you're here. But the question still remains. Why am I here?"
"Blair, look, I'm sorry if you being here has put you out in any way, okay? I just was hoping that maybe you'd be happy to come along." He pulled the truck to a stop and eyed Sandburg. "Offer some support, maybe."
Feeling like a bit of a heel, Sandburg reached out and touched Jim's arm. "Support for what?"
Ellison shifted his gaze from Blair's concerned eyes, embarrassed that, even after all these years, he was still at the mercy of his feelings.
"Jim?" Sandburg prodded.
Ellison tightened his grip on the steering wheel, not quite believing that he was about to tell Blair something he'd never told anyone. "Sandburg, do you have any idea what it's like to walk into a room and find that you can't breathe? To continually be aware that at any given moment the walls could close in around you, and when they do, you know there's no way to escape?" He shut his eyes briefly. "That's what my life in my family was like, Chief."
"Jim, everything you just described is a learned condition. And the most important thing about learned conditions is their ability to be unlearned." Unclasping his seatbelt, Sandburg moved closer. "Look, just because you felt this way fifteen odd years ago, doesn't mean you still will. The whole dynamics of your family has changed, man. You're no longer subject to the will of your father's moods or the competitive nature of your brother. Circumstances, people... they all change and so do the feelings that go along with them." Sandburg gave Ellison's arm a squeeze. "Trust me on this, Jim."
Ellison took a deep breath before shifting the truck back into gear. "And if you're wrong?"
"If I'm wrong, then I'll be stuck to your side like glue this weekend." He gave a slight chuckle. "And besides, it's only gonna be Steven up there. It's not as if the whole Ellison clan is descending on Lake Todd. And if he gets too much for you to handle you can always do a Dirty Harry and shoot the guy." He waggled his eyebrows. "I'll help you bury the body."
Jim sniggered at Sandburg's suggestion. "Might not be a bad idea, Chief."
The sound of tyres crunching on the gravel chips that formed the temporary driveway alerted Steven Ellison to his brother's arrival. With a deep breath, he gathered his resolve and hastily made his way out onto the deck. "Hey, guys, glad you could make it," he welcomed with exaggerated enthusiasm. Bounding down the stairs, he slapped Jim heartily on the back before reaching for the nearest duffle bag. "Here, let me give you a hand." The light, easygoing tone Steven injected purposely into his voice did little to stop the overwhelming feeling of apprehension that had been steadily growing all morning. He knew he was taking a risk and he knew the odds were against him. But he also knew that if he didn't grab this opportunity and place the bet while he still had the chance, then the price for his procrastination could very well be disastrous.
With a furtive glance toward the second-story window, he hustled his guests up the stairs.
"Steven, this place is fantastic!" Blair exclaimed, stopping midway to admire the view down to the lake. "When do you expect to have it up and running?"
"If the redevelopment stays on schedule, we should be looking at around January next year."
"Hey, I see you left parts of the old mill intact." Blair pointed to a cluster of old buildings that were situated a few yards up from the water's edge.
"It was part of the negotiations with the previous owners," Steven began. "The company agreed to keep the historical essence of the place alive, and at the moment we're in the process of restoring some of the old structures."
Sandburg raised his eyebrows. "A development company with a soul?"
"Well, actually Blair, this whole resort has been built to be as ecologically friendly as possible." Steven gestured them toward the deck in an effort to get them moving again. "We've worked very closely with the local council and the EPA to ensure..."
"You invite someone else to stay this weekend?" Jim asked, abruptly interrupting the conversation.
If it was a physical possibility for a man's heart to shoot out of his chest and leap into his throat, Steven was certain that at any moment he'd be choking on his. With a deep breath and a forceful hand to the small of Blair's back, he gave his brother's partner a light shove in an effort to get them inside the house before the proverbial shit hit the fan.
But his endeavour came too late.
Before the last leg of Steven's covert mission could be completed, a tall, broad-shouldered figure moved out onto the deck. "Steven, did I hear a car pull up?"
With one Ellison behind him propelling him forward and another Ellison coming to an abrupt stop on the stair above, Blair suddenly found himself firmly wedged between the two brothers. Smacking Jim lightly on the shoulder, he was about to register his complaint when his partner's startled exclamation stopped him in his tracks.
"Dad?" Sandburg blurted, his eyes wide with surprise. Wriggling out from between the Ellison sandwich, Sandburg squinted against the sun to get a good look at Jim's dad. "Um, maybe I should just go wait in the truck, man."
"What happened to the glue, Chief?" Ellison muttered.
Before Sandburg had a chance to respond, a rough hand latched on to his arm and dragged him up a step. "Hey, man, watch the merchandise," he complained, shaking himself out of Jim's grip.
With the observer now out of the way, there was nothing preventing Steven from receiving the full force of the darkened expressions being thrown his way. Averting his eyes as the 'Ellison' trademark glare bore down upon him from above, thoughts of hightailing down the stairs and disappearing into the surrounding forest seriously crossed his mind.
But, refusing to be browbeaten by the intimidating tactics that he'd grown to know so well over the years, he manoeuvred quickly around Sandburg. With no intention of explaining his motives to either Jim or his father just quite yet, he shouldered past his brother. "Yep, good ol' Dad!" With a quick slap to his brother's back, he took the last remaining steps two at a time, ignoring his father and dumping the bag he was carrying inside the door. "Coffee's hot if anyone cares to join me."
"Geez man, will you relax?" Sandburg hissed. "Your gonna break more than your teeth if you keep that up."
Releasing his fingers from the bridge of his nose, Jim stopped pacing and turned to confront his brother. "Steven, you wanna tell me what the hell it is you're playing at?" He could feel his father's eyes on his back, but hadn't as yet worked up the courage to turn around and meet them one on one.
"I'm sure we'd all like to know the answer to that, son."
The tone was neutral, the inference to the title of 'son' ambiguous, and Blair looked on with curiosity at the expression that spread across Jim's face.
In an effort to cut through the tension, the grad student moved swiftly across the room. "Um, Mr. Ellison... Blair Sandburg." He thrust his hand toward the older man, the name of Benedict Arnold surreptitiously sneaking into his mind. A little surprised when Jim's dad accepted his hand without hesitation, he commented, "So what brings you up here?"
"This does," Steven tossed a file onto the coffee table. "Blair, I don't mean to be rude, but I'd prefer to discuss the contents of this file privately, if you don't mind."
"Oh hey, sure man." He held up his hands, "Understand completely... family stuff." Backing away, Blair shot Jim a quick look. "I'll just leave you Ellisons alone to discuss whatever it is that Ellisons discuss!"
Before he could make his escape, Jim's hand shot out and grabbed him by his shirttails. "Whatever it is you need to talk about, Steven, it can be done in front of Sandburg." He pushed Blair in the direction of the sofa, "Sit, glue boy."
"Steven, what's going on?" William asked, unable to draw his attention away from the file.
"Open it, dad," Steven instructed.
After a brief moment of hesitation, William reached down and began to thumb through the file. "My god, son, where did you get this?" he exclaimed. Scared blue eyes were turned Steven's way. "Who else knows you have this?" Advancing quickly, he took his youngest son by the shoulders, shaking him fiercely. "Who else knows, Steven?" he shouted.
"Hey, hey, hey, ENOUGH!" Jim barked, pulling his father's hands off his brother's shoulders. The detective's alter ego as beleaguered son quickly took a back seat as 'cop' reactions sprang to the fore. Meeting his father's eyes for the first time in over fifteen years, Jim narrowed his gaze. "What's in that file, Dad?" he asked, reaching down to take a look for himself.
"No!" William yelled, snatching if off the table. "This has nothing to do with you."
"Nothing to do with me, or nothing to do with the police?" Jim asked, his voice heavy with suspicion.
"Nothing that need concerns you." William stated in a low, dangerous voice. He pinned Jim with the same intense stare that was glaring at him. "The contents of that file are private and are none of your business."
Love begets love, hate begets hate and Ellison begets Ellison. Blair looked from father to son and from son to father as two sets of pale blue eyes blazed with intensity. How can two men who appear to be so strikingly different, be so hauntingly similar? he pondered. Pride, stubbornness, anger and hate, they were all there, churning violent waters and drowning father and son in a sea of tumultuous emotion. But, like a life raft that had been set adrift on the distant horizon, Blair could see something else in one pair of eyes that was not present in the other. Love. Despite everything, William Ellison still loved his son. Of that, Blair had no doubt. "Jim," he said quietly, "back off with the Joe Friday routine, okay, man? The guy's your dad. It wouldn't hurt to cut him some slack."
Stay out of it, Chief. It was only a look, but it carried with it a warning that left no room for misinterpretation or discussion. "What's in that file, Steven?" the detective demanded.
"Evidence," Steven replied. "Evidence that proves that Pat Reynolds wasn't the only one involved in skimming money off the top of company projects. It's all there, Jim. Dates, amounts, and... names." The last word was spoken so quietly that a part of him wished that it wouldn't be heard.
"Steven, no," William whispered.
"I'm trying really hard to believe that you're not involved in this, Dad, but... but the figures, they don't lie."
"They do if you make them, son." Turning his back on everyone in the room, William moved to stare out the window, struggling with the decision he was about to make. "About six months ago," he sighed, "I started to have some suspicions about under-the-table dealings by a few of the board members, but there was nothing I could really substantiate, at least not until this project started." William turned around to face his boys. "That's when I discovered what was really going on."
"Discovered what?" Jim asked
"Pete Winslow wasn't just foreman on the racetrack renovations, Jimmy. Before that he was in charge down here, and when he discovered inconsistencies in what was actually being built in comparison to the architectural and engineering specifications, he came to see me about it," William said regretfully. "Somehow they found out and they killed him."
"So why didn't they come after you as well?" Jim asked. "Why aren't you a concrete pillar alongside of him?"
Although expecting some hostility to come his way from his eldest boy, William wasn't prepared for the blase, indifferent attitude Jim appeared to have for his life. With a shocked expression, he answered quietly. "Because I still control the major share of the company. If they kill me, then those shares automatically go to both you and your brother."
"So they're blackmailing you to stay silent?" Steven asked.
"Blackmailing you with what?" Jim questioned, his tone making it clear that he was nothing more than a detective on the case. "It must be something pretty important if you're willing to overlook a man's death."
With defeated, downcast eyes, William moved silently across the room. Uncovering a small safe concealed in the wall, he fumbled with the lock until finding the right combination. Withdrawing the contents he returned, and handed an envelope to Jim. "More important than you'll ever know," he said.
"Why didn't you come to me with this the minute they threatened you?" Jim questioned coldly. "Aside from the fact that I'm a cop, didn't you ever consider that I had the right to know that my life's in danger?" He looked at his brother. "That we both had a right?" Jim once again flicked through a pile of black and white photographs that were scattered on the table surface. Photos, some dating back months, stared back at him. Shots of Steven and of himself, but of even more concern to the detective was the fact that Blair was featured in more than one of the images. Every time Sandburg had stepped outside the front door in his company, the kid had potentially put his life in jeopardy.
"I couldn't take that risk, Jimmy. You don't know the players involved in this."
Jim raised his eyebrows, giving consideration to his father's statement. "Who else knows that we're up here this weekend?" he asked.
"No one," Steven answered for both of them. "Well, aside from my secretary, but she's been with the company a long time, Jim, and totally trustworthy."
"No one's trustworthy when there's money involved, Steven," Jim retaliated. "Chief, there's no cell reception this far up. Get on the land line and put a call into Simon and let him know what's going on, will you?"
"Where are you going?" Sandburg asked.
"Just gonna take a quick look around."
"You don't think someone else is up here, do you, Jim?"
"Doesn't hurt to play it safe." Ushering Sandburg in the direction of the phone, Jim moved away from his father and brother and opened his hearing up little by little. The sounds of the forest were first to filter though and he patiently sorted and analysed each and every one in an effort to detect anything that was out of the norm.
"Come on, come on," Sandburg ground out impatiently. "I can't believe that all the lines in a police department the size of Cascade can be busy," he complained. "Man, you should talk to Simon about getting the Mayor to install some extra lines."
Jim held up his hand, effectively silencing Blair. "Did you hear that?"
"Yeah, Jim, crystal," Sandburg replied sarcastically.
With frightening speed, Ellison lunged toward his partner. "Everybody, move, NOW!" he shouted. But the warning came too late. The countdown was over; there was no more time. The bomb exploded without prejudice, destruction and death its only goal.
Dust. It was the first thing that registered as Blair balanced on the edge of consciousness, a heavy, smothering blanket of fine, white dust that lingered in the air and took his breath away.
A hot, searing, almost intolerable pain was the second thing.
But before he could move, before he could shift away and relieve the intense, stabbing sensation that radiated from his right shoulder, a strong hand stilled his action. A voice, which kept fading in and out like a radio that couldn't find a stable signal, nudged at his consciousness. He tried to follow it and take hold in the hope that it would lead him out of the unrelieved darkness that encapsulated his world, but it was just out of his grasp. Always, just beyond his reach.
"Jim," he cried out, not even sure if his desperate plea was real or simply part of the nightmare he found himself ensnared within. Jim, where are you, man? You have to help me see you. It's dark, Jim... too dark.
"Blair, you have to keep still. Do you understand me? It's imperative that you don't move."
The voice. He knew that voice -- didn't he? It carried with it the same distinct tenor that he'd grown so accustomed to over the years, but it sounded off, somehow, out of sync; not right.
"Blair. It's Steven. Can you hear me?"
"Jim?" Blair slurred as he fought a desperate fight against the restraints that kept him bound.
"No, Blair. It's not Jim, it's Steven."
With a sudden, violent tug, Blair forced himself to re-enter the conscious world. His head jerked up, slamming back into the solid structure behind him. Pins and needles rushed up his legs and stabbed without mercy into his hip, as his body tried to circulate blood through limbs that had been numbed by the hard, cold, concrete floor beneath them.
Pushing through the last of the fog, Blair ignored the pain that seem to spike from every inch of his body and he forced his eyelids to open. "Steven," he rasped, struggling to focus on the face in front of him. "Where's Jim?"
Aware that Sandburg was still not quite coherent, Steven cupped the injured man's face with both hands and tried to keep Blair's attention fully trained on him until he could explain his predicament. "Jim's unconscious at the moment, Blair," he started. "But he's gonna be okay." Glancing toward the prone figure of his brother, lying in the rubble just a few feet away from them, he asserted firmly. "He'll be fine, he just needs some time, that's all." Averting his eyes, Steven tried in vain to quash his own fears at what the thin trickle of blood that snaked its way from Jim's inner ear down to his jaw could mean.
"...have to help him," Blair breathed heavily against Steven's forearm. The memories and the realisation of what had taken place came back to him in a sweeping flood. The stance, the expression, the intense concentration, they all pointed to one thing. Jim's senses had been wide open at the time of the explosion. "Oh God," he moaned as his confused state of mind cleared, allowing him to evaluate what the information actually meant.
"No!" Steven yelled, as Sandburg made a sudden, unexpected move.
The younger Ellison's reactions were quick and decisive. Slamming one hand into Blair's chest, he grabbed Sandburg's chin with the other, forcing his brother's partner to look at him. "Blair, you can't move." He intensified his grip on the solid jaw now clamped within his grasp. At this point Steven knew he had no choice other than to be totally honest and open. For Blair's own sake, Sandburg needed to know just how potentially dangerous his injury was.
"Blair," he said, gently, but firmly. "I know this might be hard to take in right at the moment, but you have a steel rod pinning you to the concrete slab behind you. It's gone right through your shoulder. If you move, you could very well bleed to death." He moved his hand to the back of Blair's neck and squeezed softly. "Do you understand me, Blair? You have to stay as still as you possibly can."
Steven's eyes drifted across the gory, bloodied mess that was the young man's shoulder. It didn't appear to be bleeding any worse than when he'd first checked the horrific injury, but he was certain that the steel concrete fastener was the only thing keeping the bleeding at bay. Although he didn't know a lot about first aid, he was fairly sure that if the rod was removed or disturbed to any great extent, then Blair would most likely be in serious trouble. Right now the kid was holding his own, and 'right now' was all he had to go on until he could figure out a way to raise the alarm.
A muffled groan shifted Steven's attention momentarily away from Blair.
Turning his attention back toward Sandburg, Steven once again stressed the importance of remaining completely still. "Blair, I'm going to leave you for a few minutes to go and check on my dad, but in the meantime, you have to stay as still as you can. Okay?"
Receiving a silent nod, all Steven could do now was hope that Blair had regained enough of his faculties to fully comprehend the seriousness of his situation. He patted the young man's cheek, looking for any understanding in the pain-wracked blue eyes. "I'll be right back," he said, not able to keep the uncertainty out of his voice.
Blair took a succession of small, shallow breaths as Steven moved away. He had to get the pain under control and he had to do it quickly. Enough light was filtering in from outside to enable him to visually locate Jim, and for him to clearly see the blood seeping from the sentinel's ear. If Jim's hearing had been wide open at the time of the blast, then god only knew what complications he could suffer. At the very least, Blair suspected a perforated eardrum, but the consequences of sound waves magnified to the level that Jim was capable of had him deeply worried. He had an overwhelming feeling that Jim wasn't simply unconscious. The sentinel was in a zone. The intense, almost instinctive feeling that had formed in the pit of his gut made him certain of that.
Drawing his eyes away from Jim's still figure, Blair steeled himself to look at his own injury. His shirt had been partly undone and pushed far enough down that it gave him a clear view of the wound. The rod had passed through the centre of his shoulder, missing his clavicle by barely half an inch. He bit back the bile forming in the back of his throat as he took in the sight of the ragged exit wound and the bloodied pulp of discarded flesh that had been pushed out by the force of the rod's penetration. Closing his eyes for a split second, he told himself to get a grip. Steven was right. He was pinned and ultimately he was trapped. Even if he were able to gather both the momentum and strength to propel his body forward, the shape of the rod would make it nearly impossible for him to pull himself free. Splayed open and flat, the jagged edges of the tip might well pass back through muscle and flesh, but there was no way it would move back through the solid bone of his shoulder blade. Not without help and certainly not with him remaining conscious.
"I'm sorry, Jim. So very sorry," he whispered as he fought against the flicking grey that marred his vision. He knew in his heart that Jim was in deep and it would take more than his voice to guide him back. He needed to touch, to feel, to give the sentinel the sensation of skin on skin. He needed to let Jim know that he wasn't alone, that he didn't have to do this by himself. The sentinel needed to know that his guide, his companion, and his friend had not forsaken him.
A single, hot tear of frustration and pain tracked its way down Blair's cheek, and he whispered hoarsely. "You have to hang on, Jim. Just promise me that you'll hang on until I can reach you."
As the flickering in front of his eyes increased, turning slowly into a solid mass of dull, lifeless grey, Blair gave up the battle. Once again he was lost in perpetual darkness.
"Stevie?" William Ellison voice was weak as he reached blindly for his son's hand. "Are you okay, son? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, Dad. Just fine," Steven assured gently. Stripping off his over-shirt, he pressed it against this father's forehead. The head wound appeared to be superficial but, nevertheless, it still bled profusely.
"Oh god," William grated out. "This was all my fault... all my fault," he repeated in a voice that held a mixture of confusion and utter disbelief.
The sound of the explosion still played loudly in his head, as did the shout of warning from his oldest son. A warning that came just seconds before the lodge was ripped apart.
"Steven, where's Jim?" William's heart rate quickened as he failed to locate Jim in the destruction that surrounded them. "Where's you brother, son? Where's Jimmy?"
"Dad, Dad, just calm down," Steven soothed. "Jim's alive. He's unconscious, but he's alive."
"Steven, this is all my fault."
"Dad, no. No it's not. You were just doing what you thought was right." Positioning his hands under his father's armpits, Steven readied himself to lift his father's torso off the broken rubble. Although there was some truth in his father's words, now was not the time to think like this. The man, who appeared to look somehow older than Steven could ever recall, needed his support, not his condemnation. "Dad, you think you can sit up?"
William nodded. With Steven's aid, he managed to make it to an upright position. He sagged back against the wall, gritting his teeth against the sudden pain that flared from his ankle. "My ankle," he panted. "I think it might be broken."
Running his hands down the length of his father's leg, Steven confirmed his father's suspicions. Knowing that he had nothing suitable to support his father's injury, Steven scrubbed his hand over his face in frustration. Even if he did manage to find something in the rubble that might do the job, he still had no real idea about how to brace it anyway. The fact was that he had no idea how to effectively treat any of the injuries around him.
Glancing toward the now limp body of the young man on the other side of the room, Steven couldn't help taking another look at the steel rod that held Sandburg pinned. The structure around them was unstable and it didn't take a degree in engineering for him to figure out that it was only a matter of time before the building would continue its slide down the side of the hill. He needed to find a way out and he needed to do it quickly.
Drawing his eyes away, Steven readied himself to face the possibility that Blair just might not make it. If he did manage to find a way out, then he would be taking his father and his brother with him, even if meant dragging Jim's unconscious body all the way. "I'm sorry, kid," he apologised, with a truly heavy heart. "But family comes first. I have no other choice."
"Dad," Steven said, turning back to his father. "I'm going to scout around and see if I can find some way out of here." Spotting a bottle of water poking out from beneath a sheet of broken plywood just a few feet from where they were, he retrieved it, snapping the seal on the lid, and offered it to his father.
"Where's the young man... you're brother's friend?" William breathed heavily, before taking a swig from the bottle.
"He's hurt, Dad. Badly. I can't move him. Not without killing him, anyway." Dabbing away a trickle of blood that threatened to spill into his father's eye, Steven struggled to justify his decision. "There's nothing else I can do for him. His only chance will be if I find a way to get us out of here and go for help."
"Help me up," William ordered.
"Dad, I really think you should stay put."
"Steven, your brother's hurt." He latched on to his youngest son's forearm, stalling any further argument. He'd forsaken his boy once before. It was a mistake he had no intention of repeating.
"How long has he been like this?" William Ellison asked as he painfully manoeuvred himself to sit by his son's side.
"It's been about an hour, I guess." Steven squatted down beside the pair. "I tried to rouse him, and at one stage his eyes opened, but he was blank. Like nobody was home."
William's face darkened.
"It was the same look. The same as when we were kids," Steven said, quietly.
Stripping off his jacket, William laid it over Jim's torso. He fussed with the edges, making sure his son's arms were tucked under the material, before his hand came to rest on the back of Jim's head. "Go, Stevie," he said softly. "Find a way out, son."
Steven locked eyes with his father, seeing something that was not often associated with the pale, blue orbs. His father was scared. Squeezing the older man's shoulder, he got to his feet. "I'll be back soon, Dad. I promise."
Nodding a silent affirmation, William Ellison watched the son he cherished move into the dark, shadowed remains of his broken dream, a dream that he'd stubbornly put before the life of his family.
With a guilt-laden heart, William turned back to his other boy... a boy he'd never gotten to see grow into the man lying before him. "I'm sorry I didn't love you as much as I should have," he whispered brokenly. "I'm sorry that we made you so different."
"He can't hear you, son," William Ellison soothed patiently. Pouring more of the bottled water onto his handkerchief, he sponged the pale, clammy brow of the injured young man he barely knew.
Having located an opening in the fallen ceiling panels, Steven had managed to clamber up into the roof cavity and make his way out. The problem was that the climb was nearly vertical, leaving the option of taking anyone else with him non-negotiable. All William could do now was wait for Steven's return and hope that Jim's head wound would not be complicated by the condition that had afflicted his eldest boy since he was a child.
Re-wetting the cloth, William once again did his best to tend to his son's friend, whose agitation seemed to be growing steadily since regaining consciousness.
"No," Blair cried out weakly as he batted away William's caring hand. "You're not listening to me. Why won't you listen to me?"
"Son, I am listening." He'd tried over and over to make Blair understand that Jim had a head wound and that there was nothing else that could be done until help arrived. "Jim's unconscious, Blair," he said again.
"No," Sandburg ground out. "He's not, he's zoned." On the verge of losing what was left of his self-control, he banged his head back against the vertical slab that held him trapped. "And you should know that! You're his father, for Christ sakes! How can you know so little about him? How can you not know what's really wrong with him?" he shouted.
"Blair," William said, trying hard not to take offence at the outburst or inference that he'd failed in his duty as a father. "I'm fully aware of Jim's affliction. Don't you think I did everything I could to find some way to help him... to find a cure?" He glanced over at his son. "Problem was that there was nothing physically wrong with Jim. It was all in his head, son." He turned back to Sandburg. "I hoped... I'd thought, given time, he'd grow out of it. Apparently I was wrong."
"Mr. Ellison, please!" Blair tried again, knowing he was running short of time. With every passing minute he could feel his body becoming weaker. The pain that had been so intense when he woke was not much more than a dull ache now, and he was finding it more and more difficult to keep his thoughts coherent. He knew he was going into shock and knew this would be his last chance to make Jim's father understand.
Blair dug deep. Gathering up the last of his strength and the very last of his resolve, he fought to make his mind think. To construct and deliver an argument that William Ellison would have to listen to.
But he needn't have bothered. The sentinel was doing the arguing for him.
"His eyes are open," Blair stated with an almost eerie calmness.
Before the older man had the chance to react to his statement, Sandburg reached out and fisted William's shirt, preventing him from moving. His eyes, which moments before were clouded and dull, bored into Jim's father with renewed intensity.
"If he comes out of it like this, he will suffer permanent damage."
"Damage from what?" William asked, confused. "What is it that you think you know about my son that I don't?"
"I know his levels are too high." Sandburg unclenched his fist, letting it drop like a dead weight to the ground. "Mr. Ellison, I know it's hard, but you have to trust me. I can help him. Please, let me help your son." Blair's voice finally broke. "If you care about him half as much as I do, then you'll bring him over to me."
Paternal instincts that William thought had been buried since the day his son walked out of his life, returned with a vengeance. Wordlessly, he struggled to his feet. For reasons he couldn't explain, he found himself putting the welfare of his boy in the hands of a stranger.
With a heart that was heavy with the burden of his own failings, William hobbled the short distance to where Jim lay. Ignoring his own pain, he dragged his son, inch-by-inch, toward a man who appeared to hold nothing in his hands but the interests and wellbeing of his child. A child he'd forsaken so many years before.
Holding his breath until William crossed the last inch of harrowing ground, Blair reached out with a trembling hand. "You're gonna be okay now, Jim," he blurted, unable to prevent his emotions from breaking his voice. Barely able to control the shaking that racked his body, he trailed his fingers down the length of the sentinel's grimy, bloodstained cheek. "You're safe now, big guy... it's safe to come on home."
"Jim... Jimmy, can you hear me?" Using the aid of the lax hand that was held tightly within his grasp, William Ellison strummed Blair's fingers across his son's face and neck, while his own hand rubbed the strong muscles of his son's bare chest. "Your friend, Blair... he said it's safe. You can come on back, son. Please come on back to us. He needs you. We all need you."
Following the motions and instructions given to him, William kept up his torrent of somewhat meaningless words. He'd listened to the phrases, 'levels' and 'dials', with no real understanding of the context they represented. But despite his lack of understanding, he recognised that, with every passing minute, Jim was edging closer to consciousness. There had been a point, about ten minutes ago, where he thought the breakthrough would come. But Blair had stalled. Although he was bursting with anxiety, William had refrained from voicing his opinion. For once in his life he remained silent. "He's not ready yet," the young man had told him and he had no other choice but to believe.
But now it was up to him. The responsibility had fallen upon his shoulders when Blair could no longer continue. With tear-stained eyes, the young man begged him not to forsake his son. With a last plea, before his eyes rolled back, Blair passed the duty of 'guide' to him. And, even though the term was just as elusive as every other one that had been spoken, he'd given his promise and it was one he solemnly swore to keep.
"Blair?" Jim murmured weakly.
William quickened the pace with which Blair's fingers caressed his son's face. "Jimmy, it's dad. Can you hear me, son?"
"BOMB!" Jim shouted. He suddenly surged upward, sending his father sprawling back into the dirt.
Even though his ankle screamed with pain, William regained his composure quickly and caught Jim's body before it toppled back down to the ground.
"Breathe son, just breathe," he comforted as he clutched Jim's heavily panting body close to his chest. "Your friend, Blair, said that when you woke you'd need to concentrate on regaining your balance." He rubbed Jim's back, trying to settle the thumping heart that pounded against his own. "He thinks that your eardrum has been perforated and said that you'd need to turn that level way down. Your other ear's not bleeding, Jimmy. He said to concentrate on swapping sides." William tightened his arms. "Do you have any idea at all what he's talking about, son?"
Jim nodded against his father chest. He visualised the dial to his right ear, turning it down to zero, while slowly inching his hearing up to a normal level in the left. As the nausea passed, his only thought was why his father had been the one to relay this information.
"God, Blair!" he said, pushing out of his father's arms. Breaking away, he found his answer.
"Hey, Chief, come on buddy, stop being a stubborn ass here, okay?" Brushing his partner's lank, gritty hair away from his bruised and battered face, Jim carefully lifted Blair's head and pressed his fingers against his neck. "Chief, come on, you know patience is not my strong suit."
Breathing out a slow, indignant huff, Blair came around, little by little. "You don't say," he slurred, finding it difficult to articulate his words. Feeling as though he was once again being swallowed by a tunnel of darkness, Sandburg struggled to push himself toward full consciousness. "'Bout time you joined the party, man."
"Yeah, well, couldn't let you get away with having all the fun." Carefully leaning Blair's head back so it rested against the vertical concrete pylon, Jim turned his attention to his partner's shoulder and grimaced. "Hate to admit it, Chief, but you've outdone yourself on this one. Can't you ever do anything by halves, Junior?"
"So, what, you telling me I've actually beat you at something?" The corners of Sandburg's mouth twitched up in a slight smile. "What's my prize?"
"No prize yet, rookie," Jim stated, positioning himself so he could clearly see the entry point of the rod. "This is just a flesh wound, Junior." Digging into the front pocket of his partner's jeans, Ellison pulled out Blair's pocket-knife. "Did I ever tell you about the time when I was held captive in the Balinese jungle, Chief?" With as much care as he could, he cut Sandburg's shirt completely away from the rod. "The torture I was subjected to for three days straight was nearly unbearable."
"Don't think a brunette with a pair of cuffs and a whip counts here, big guy." Blair turned his head slightly, trying to focus on William. "That was only a joke, Dad." Reaching out, he sought William's hand. "You did alright."
William captured Blair's hand. "So did you, son, so did you."
Flashing his father a hostile look, Jim began to probe the rest of his partner's body. Blair's shoulder wound could accurately be described as black and white. It was horrific and potentially life threatening, but the very instrument that had caused the damage was also the instrument that was keeping his partner alive. While the rod remained in place, the bleeding was under control.
Pressing his fingers against Blair's belly, and aided by his sensitive touch, Jim probed gently, feeling for any indication of internal bleeding. "Where's Steven?" he asked his father bluntly.
"He found a way out." William nodded toward what used to be the kitchen. "He's gone to get help."
"How long ago?" Jim asked as he continued his examination down past his partner's hips and pelvis.
"It must be close on an hour and a half... two, maybe."
"Stop, Jim, stop!" Blair cried out in pain. Letting go of William, he pushed the sentinel's hand roughly away from his body. "Oh god, that hurts!"
"Chief, what hurts?" Jim asked gently. Keeping his eyes firmly focused on Blair's face, he replaced his hand and carefully snapped open the buttons on Sandburg's jeans."
"Not sure." Blair closed his eyes and pushed his head back into the wall. "All I know is it hurts, man, real bad."
"Alright, buddy, just try and relax. Nice and easy does it." He opened the front of Blair's jeans and slid his hand carefully under the band of his partner's boxer shorts. "Did I ever tell you about the time I was held captive in the Australian outback, Junior?"
"What, by a blonde in crocodile skin bikinis?" Blair breathed heavily as Jim's fingers pressed down on the junction of his groin and his hipbone. "Did anyone ever tell you you're full of shit, Ellison?" he ground out, his voice cracking with pain.
Jim smiled, trying to let his expression mask what he'd found. Blair's hip was dislocated, he was certain of that. Whether or not it was actually fractured, he couldn't tell. "You, my little guppy, are the only one who's ever been stupid enough to tell me that." Sliding his hand out, Ellison continued his examination down Sandburg's legs. "And lived to talk about it, that is."
"Jim?" William asked, honestly worried for the young man he'd become surprisingly attached to. "He will be alright, won't he?" William stumbled. "Once your brother brings back help, he will be okay?"
Shooting his father an acrimonious look, Jim hissed, "No thanks to you, Pops." Paying no heed to the wounded look his outburst had caused, Jim continued, "And really great job with the concern, by the way. It's just a pity some of it didn't surface before you nearly got us all killed," he spat.
"Jim... Jimmy... I..." William stuttered, unsure how to respond to a son who heralded so much hatred toward him.
"...'nough, Jim," Blair forced out. "Man, that's not fair and you know it." Biting down on his bottom lip, Blair breathed heavily through his nose. The probing hands of the sentinel, gentle as they had been, were akin to waking a slumbering giant. Pain levels, which his body had been successful in maintaining, rose up and coursed through him like water surging up a blowhole. "Please, man, don't do this... not now."
"Hey, hey," Jim soothed. Capturing Blair's face within his hands, he strummed his thumbs across ashen features. Although regretting immediately the toll his words had taken on his partner, he felt no remorse for the effect they'd had on his father. But, for Blair's sake, the subject, for the time being, was now closed. Leaning in, Jim rested his forehead against Blair's. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'll play nice. I promise."
Feeling some of the tension drain from Blair's ridged body, Jim sat silently for a few minutes, contemplating his next move. "You able to tell me how Steven got out of here?" he asked his father, pointedly.
"That way," William indicated the direction with a shaky hand. "He found a way out through the kitchen." Looking around for something to help give him leverage to his feet, William offered, "I'll show you."
"I'll manage," Jim replied flatly. Aware of the hard, indifferent look etched onto his face, Jim softened his expression and turned his attention back toward Blair. "Chief, you think you'll be okay for a few minutes while I go take a look around?"
Sandburg nodded. "I'll just be hanging out over here." Trying desperately, but knowing there was no way he could hide anything from the sentinel, his voice broke. "Guess this will be the first time that you've told me to stay put and I actually do."
With his own fear mirrored and staring back at him from within the depths of his best friend's eyes, Jim snaked his hand to grasp the back of Sandburg's neck. "You are going to be fine," he grated out, his voice laced with an air of stubborn authority. Refusing point blank to succumb to the sickening feeling of absolute terror that cramped his gut and threatened to paralyse him completely, Jim squeezed hard on the tense muscles beneath his touch. "You understand me, Chief," he ordered. "You will be fine."
"Sounds suspiciously like an order there, big guy."
"You better believe it, Junior, and one I expect you to follow to the letter."
"Go," Blair said, softly. "Promise I'll stay in the truck."
"Smart ass," Jim husked.
Feeling as though a dark cloud hovered just over their heads, waiting for an opportune moment to lash down upon them, Jim tentatively loosened his grip. "I'm gonna hold you to that promise, short stuff," he said. Without bothering to acknowledge his father, he reluctantly broke their connection and eased himself upward. Waving off the vertigo that accompanied the action, he closed his eyes momentarily, waiting for the feeling to abate.
"Jim?" William questioned. His boy's unsteady stance was obvious and he was no longer able to keep his parental instinct in check. In a futile attempt to somehow renew the bond he once shared with his son, William reached out, only to have his offering battered away by a body language that spoke loud and clear.
"Keep an eye on him," Jim called over his shoulder, as he moved away and began to clamber over the broken, upturned remains of the living room.
"He'll come around." Blair lightly touched Jim's father's hand. "It might take some time, and god only knows he can be as stubborn as all hell, but trust me, if you persist long enough, he eventually comes 'round."
"You certain of that?" Even though the months had turned to years and the years to decades, his eldest boy was never far from his mind. "Hate," William stated, bluntly. "That's all I see when I look into his eyes." Reaching for his jacket and shaking it out, he covered Blair's exposed torso. "Except when he looks at you." Smiling briefly at the look of confusion on the young man's face, William elaborated. "He looks at you how he used to look at me." Distant, almost surreal recollections lured William back to another place, another time. "Before..." he said vaguely, his mind filling with snapshots of a past that seemed so long ago that even his memories were faded. Raising his downcast eyes, he looked at Blair. "You're his family now, son, not me."
"Mr. Ellison," Blair rasped weakly. "'s' not true." He swallowed hard. "You're his father. Nothing can change that."
"Rest," William soothed. He released Sandburg's hand and tucked it under the jacket. "You need to save your strength, son." Shifting around to lean back against the same concrete column that supported Sandburg's back, he encouraged Blair to rest against his shoulder. Calming words that lulled the injured young man into a light, fitful sleep did little to stop his own demons from lingering. With a heavy heart William realised that, although he may have brought two sons into this world, he was a father to only one.
The brand new Ford F350 screeched to a sliding halt, sending stone chips flying into the air as the heavy-duty tyres gripped the loose gravel surface. "Holy shit," swore the startled driver. "You say you climbed out of there! That place is flatter than my ex-wife's chest," he added, wide eyed with amazement. Turning to the stranger, who was hastily exiting the cab, he asked, "How many others did you say are stuck under that?"
"My father and my brother." Steven Ellison slammed the truck door shut. "The roof trusses on the left side of the building more or less held after the blast. They're trapped in a cavity on the second floor." He looked directly at the burly, blond-headed man. "My brother's friend's down there as well. I don't know how long he's got. He's hurt pretty bad."
"You have any idea what caused the explosion?"
"Buildup of gas is my best bet," Steven lied.
Ben Worthington raised his eyebrows. He had been a builder for a good many years and had strong doubts that a gas explosion would have caused this much damage.
"You think you can find your way back in?" Already out of the cab and kneeling on the ground at the back of the truck, Ben's younger brother was rummaging through a knapsack, taking a quick inventory of the rudimentary medical supplies in the kit he'd put together before they'd left to go camping. Graduating top of his class, the energetic and affable young man had just secured a position within the paramedic unit of the Cascade Fire Department. Although, to date, he'd not had a great deal of hands-on experience, Josh Worthington still had confidence in his ability to assess and stabilise any injuries he might encounter until help arrived. Snapping the clasp shut, he got to his feet and shouldered the pack. "Let's go," he said, slapping Steven lightly on the shoulder.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ben barked. Closing ground quickly, he confronted his younger brother, using his height and his considerable frame to block the kid's path. "Hold up a minute there, cowboy. There's no way you're going into that building. The whole damn thing's likely to start sliding down that hill any minute now."
"Ben," Josh replied, calmly, but firmly. "This is my job, and I am going in there." He sidestepped his brother, only to have a large, meaty hand grip his bicep.
"It might be your job, pup, but you're still mighty wet behind the ears." Ben loosened his grip slightly. "Let's just wait until the big boys arrive, okay?"
Taking a deep breath, Josh covered Ben's hand with his own. He loved his brother with all his heart and soul and would forever be in his debt for the sacrifices Ben had made to keep them together after their mother had died. But he also needed to make his brother realise, however hard it was, that he was a grown man now and it was time to let go, time to loosen the reins and give them both the freedom to get on with living their own lives.
"Ben, there are three people who, by all accounts, are still alive down there. I can't and I won't just sit by and let those lives be lost. You have to trust me to do the job I've been trained to do."
"I do trust you, Josh," Ben replied, not for one minute doubting his brother's ability to do the job. "It's that building I don't trust."
Giving up college in order to come back home and look after his little brother, Ben Worthington had spent the better part of his late teens and early twenties employed by a local construction firm. Not content to remain a labourer for the rest of his life, he'd convinced his employer to sponsor him through an apprenticeship and worked his balls off, not only to support them both, but also to finally earn a building license of his own.
"Look," Ben said, letting go of Josh's arm. "Just stay here and let me take a poke around first." Moving to the back of the truck, he yanked open the tailgate, and snapped open the lock on his toolbox. "If it looks like it might hold, or there's a way I can stabilise part of the structure, then we'll discuss what to do next, okay?" he said, fishing around for his flashlight.
"Josh?" Ben quickly lifted his head when his brother didn't answer. "Damn you," he hissed. As fast as he could, he gathered a few tools and hightailed it after his brother. "I swear to god, one day you will learn the meaning of 'stay by the truck'!"
Huddled on all fours, Jim breathed hard through another bout of crippling nausea. Grimacing in pain, he tried once again to get a handle on senses that were all over the place. He'd managed to stabilise his balance, but with only a modicum of success. Knowing that it was unusual for a perforated eardrum to cause this degree of vertigo, he put the acerbated symptoms down to the fact that, like his hearing, his balance was very much attuned to the whim of his sentinel abilities. Concentrating again on the advice given to him secondhand by his father, he tried once more to counteract the effect by nullifying the hearing in his right ear completely and attempting to raise it significantly in the other. Problem was that at the moment, all he managed to do was cancel out everything but very dull, muffled background noise. "You're nothing but a walking liability, Ellison," he ground out in anger. His best friend was hanging from a wall trussed up like a trophy kill and all he was good for was cowering in the dirt, vomiting like some deadbeat drunk after a three-day bender.
Feeling nothing but a repugnant disdain at his inability to control his own body, Ellison zeroed in on the repellent emotion, using the anger that came with it to his advantage. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he desperately sought to find the dials that Blair talked about so often.
A muted sound escaped from his own lips, barely registering as he shot up onto his knees, dislodging the touch of a foreign hand upon his back.
"Whoa, there." A gasp of air escaped Josh Worthington's lungs as the injured man toppled into him with the full force of his weight. He reached down, his fingers automatically feeling for a pulse. "Just relax," he comforted gently. "Help's on the way."
"That's enough," the sentinel snapped at the young, inexperienced paramedic. He forcefully pushed the fresh-faced kid's probing hands away from Blair. "Apart from the obvious injury to his shoulder, he has abrasions and contusions running down the right side of his body. His hip is dislocated, possibly fractured, and as far as I can tell he's not suffering from any internal bleeding."
"Thanks for the diagnosis," Josh Worthington replied. "You a doctor?"
"I'm a cop," Ellison stated. "A cop with enough medical training to know what's wrong with my partner and enough knowledge to know that you can't do anything for him with that medical kit you've got with you."
"Perhaps not, but it won't stop me from trying."
Jim scrubbed a weary hand down the length of his face. "Look, kid, I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to help and I appreciate it, I really do, but until the big boys arrive, there's really nothing you can do."
Josh flashed Ellison an enigmatic smile. "You don't happen to know a guy by the name of Ben Worthington, do you?" With his hand finding its way back to Blair's pulse point, he turned his attention toward Jim and the thin trickle of blood running down his cheek. "How's the head?" he asked. "And the hearing, for that matter?"
Tilting his head, Jim endeavoured once again to make out what the kid was saying. "It's fine," he finally ground out. "Both are fine."
"Make him define the word 'fine'," Blair interjected, jerking his head up from his chest. "Bet you he gives you the bullshit version."
"Fine is defined as doing a hell of a lot better than you, Junior."
"Told you," Blair slurred, trying to focus on Josh. "Bullshit version."
"Guess we have something in common then," Josh replied. "I grew up with a big brother who's full of the stuff." He squeezed Blair's hand. "You going to be okay while I do the rounds?"
"I'll be fine," Blair answered quietly. "Just fine!"
"Guarantee you, Joshua, as soon as we get outta here in one piece I'm gonna kick your backside from now 'til the end of November." Squatting down and mindful of not letting himself be overhead, Ben Worthington lowered his voice and hissed, "I thought I told you to stay outside until I'd had a chance to see if this place would hold."
"You did," Josh replied, putting no more credence in his brother's order than he did in the threat. Continuing his examination of the man he'd estimated to be in his early sixties, he asked, "Sir, does anything else hurt besides your ankle?"
"Stop fussing with me," William bit back in a tone that was usually reserved for boardroom negotiations. "That young man is hurt... do something," he ordered.
"I am doing something," Josh stated calmly. Blair was no doubt the most seriously injured of the group, but he also knew there was not much else he could do except try and keep the man as comfortable as he could until help arrived. The cop was right. The medical kit he had with him wasn't equipped to deal with the degree of injuries that Blair Sandburg had sustained. Although in mild shock, the victim's vitals were surprisingly strong and, as long as the bleeding could be contained, there was a very good chance that he could be evacuated successfully, once the right people and the right equipment arrived.
Turning his attention back toward William Ellison, Josh noted the grey, waxy pallor of the older man's skin. "Sir, do you have a history of heart problems?" he asked
Steven, who had been hovering nervously on the fringe of the scene, spurred into action and moved quickly over to Blair. Ignoring Jim's questioning expression, he carefully lifted the jacket, which was still draped over Sandburg, and dug around in the inside pocket. "He's taking these," he said, shoving a bottle of pills into the young paramedic's hand.
Studying the label, Josh rose to his feet. "Try and keep him calm," he instructed. "I need to have a few words with my brother."
Watching his footing, Josh carefully made his way across to where Ben was now inspecting the last of the few remaining support beams. "Well?" he asked.
"How long do we have before the walls come tumbling down?"
Shining his light across the main beam that still held a section of the ceiling in place, Ben turned around. "There's no way I can tell. This place could hold for days, or it could give way at any minute. The sooner we get these people outta here, the better."
Scrubbing his hand down his lightly stubbled cheek, Josh paused to gather his thoughts. "I'll start prepping Mr. Ellison's ankle and inform the other two of the plan."
"What about the other guy?"
Josh gave a quick glance in Blair's direction. "He'll have to wait until help arrives. If we move him off that rod right now, he'll bleed to death." Glancing at his watch, the young paramedic muttered. "How long does it take to get help up here, anyway?"
"That's your department, kid, not mine, so don't ask me." Ben flicked off the flashlight. "How we gonna get the old guy out of here? The climb in wasn't exactly what I'd call a pleasurable romp in the hay. I doubt he'll make it on that ankle."
"You think you can jerry-rig something to pull him up with?"
Mentally going over the gear that was in the truck, Ben nodded, sure he'd be able to put something together that would work. "This wasn't exactly how I figured our quiet weekend of fishing would start, cowboy."
Josh huffed, "Mine either, brother... mine either."
"Hey." With barely enough energy left to lift his head from Jim's shoulder, Blair paused to try and construct his thoughts into intelligible words. "You ready to try this again?"
"Sshh, Chief. No more guide stuff, okay?" Jim replied. "Just rest." Sitting shoulder to shoulder, Jim had remained by Blair's side while the evacuation of his father took place. The two men that Steven had brought back with him seemed more than capable of handling the situation and, with his balance still off kilter, he figured he'd be more of a hindrance than a help.
Reaching over, Jim cupped Sandburg's cheek and encouraged Blair to settle as best he could against him. With Sandburg's stubborn persistence, combined with the fact that he always found it easier to control his senses when Blair was close, he found he was now able to decipher sounds that were just a notch above a whisper. But now, enough was enough. Blair was exhausted and hurting and it was time to put a stop to it. "This can wait for another time, Darwin."
"No." Blair weakly shook his head in disagreement. "You think I'm gonna spend the rest of my life shouting at a Sentinel who's as deaf as a door post and lurches from side to side like a sailor on shore leave, then you got another think coming, bucko," he wheezed.
Ellison smirked. "Nice display of empathy for the disabled you got happening here, Chief," he teased gently. "And Bucko? You been watching Pirates of the Penzance behind my back again?"
"'course," Blair struggled to lift his head. "You didn't really believe that spiel I gave you about my spandex pants being for a costume party did you?" His eyes hooded briefly. "The very model of a modern Major General, that's me, man." Turning his head slightly so he could focus on the sentinel's face, he lifted an arm that felt weighted and clumsy. Touching Jim's bloodstained cheek, he slowly tracked the red line back to its source. "But you'll never get to hear the pure genius of my operatic tenor, if you don't work with me here." Letting his hand drop into Jim's lap, he pleaded. "Please, Jim... try."
"Okay, Chief, okay," Ellison whispered. He picked up Blair's hand, engulfing it within his own. Picturing a set of old kitchen scales, as previously instructed to do, he closed his eyes and rested his head against the concrete behind him. "Moving the weights across, slowly, one by one," he began.
As the sentinel concentrated and breathed through the familiar routine, his world slowly began to fill with sound. And no sound was more gratifying or important than the slow, steady beat of his guide's heart.
"Dad get out okay?"
"Yeah," Steven nodded. "Josh is bringing the harness back down."
"Steven," Jim began. "I want you to go tell him to stay up top. Blair can't be moved until fully equipped EMTs arrive, and there's nothing else the kid can do down here that I can't handle." Supporting Sandburg's head with his hand, Jim carefully shifted Blair's weight back to rest against the wall.
"It's okay, Chief," he comforted, stroking the cold forehead. "I'm not going far."
Easing himself to his feet, Jim cautiously tested his balance. "You should get out of here as well. There's no telling how long that beam will hold up."
"Jim, I want you to come with me," Steven blurted. He glanced over at Sandburg, who once again appeared to be incoherent. "There's nothing more you can do for him. The paramedics will be here soon. I think you should leave Blair to them."
Jim shot his brother an incredulous look. "I'm not leaving him behind, Steven."
The younger Ellison mirrored his brother's expression. From the little he knew about Blair, he gathered that the kid was important to Jim, but he still couldn't bring himself to believe that Sandburg was more important than the deep set bonds of family ties. Unable to keep his thoughts to himself any longer, Steven confronted his brother. "What, so it's fine for me to leave my brother behind, but not okay for you to leave Blair?" he shot back.
"That's entirely different," Jim answered.
"You bet it is." Steven grabbed hold of his brother's arm in a firm grip. "I'm risking my life for family, whereas you're willing to throw yours away for a roommate." As his anger rose, Steven levelled his brother with a glare that had long been a trademark of the Ellison family. "You'd do that, Jim? Give up your life just so you can be here to hold his hand as he dies?"
Realising what he'd just said, Steven's eyes darted automatically past his brother's shoulder and over to Sandburg. "Oh, god, Blair, I'm sorry. I didn't mean... Jim... I'm so sorry."
The detective twirled around. The trip hammer speed of Sandburg's heartbeat and the shattered look on his face left no question that the kid had understood clearly what had been said. Wrenching his arm out of his brother's hold, Jim fought to contain his mounting rage. "Get out of here, Steven," he spat.
"Jim... I didn't mean that. I... I just wanted to get through to you how important family is."
"Don't you think I know that!" he shouted. "Family is the very reason I'm staying." Turning his back on his brother, Jim waved him away. "Go, Steven. Go take care of your family."
Ignoring any further attempts by Steven to try and placate him or offer an apology, Jim crouched down to Sandburg's level and waited until the heavy footsteps of his brother took the man out of the building and, hopefully, out of his life. Palming Blair's face, he asked softly, "You doing okay?"
"Your brother's right, you know," Blair whispered.
"My brother's an idiot, Chief."
"No, Steven was right. You should go. There's nothing else you can do for me. Go, man, please go while you still can."
"Chief, did I ever tell you about the time..."
"No, Jim, stop!" Blair cried out. "I don't understand why you're doing this." He pushed the sentinel roughly away. "I don't want you here, Ellison. Can't you get that through your thick skull? I don't need you to hold my hand while I die!"
"Enough, Sandburg!" Jim shouted, immediately back in Blair's space. "I am not leaving you and that's final." He grabbed Blair's face. "You are not going to die. You understand me? You are not going to die."
"How can you possibly say that?" Sandburg shouted back. "Who granted you divine power, Jim?"
"You did, you stupid ass." Ellison leaned in and pressed his forehead hard against Blair's. "You did," he said again, unable to stop his voice from cracking. "The minute you weaselled your way into my life and became my family, you gave me the right." He pulled back, not caring about the tears tracking unabashed down his cheeks. "Don't you do this to me, Blair. Don't you dare take this road because you think it'll be easier on me." Leaning back down, he placed his lips on Sandburg's sweaty, clammy forehead. "I'm not gonna give up on you, kid, so don't you give the hell up on me."
Sandburg's voice quavered. "I'm scared, Jim."
"I know, Chief, I know, but we're gonna make it. You just have to trust me that we're both going to make it."
Blair chuckled wetly, trying desperately to hold it together. "That's what I love about you, man," he sniffed. "Never say die."
"Yeah, that's me, buddy. Regular James Bond."
"'cept without the cool car."
"Hey, don't you knock the truck, Junior. It's a far cry from that rusted tin can you call 'wheels'." His voice ragged and broken, Jim struggled to quash the growing and very real possibility that he could, in fact, lose the only person who had managed to break through his barriers and fill the stark, empty confines of his heart. "You do know that I love you, don't you, Chief?" he rasped. "You're the only family I have."
"I know you do," Blair whispered. He pulled back, scared to death of confronting not only his own fear, but also the dread he knew he'd find etched on the sentinel's face. "But you also have family who love you as well, man," he said, in a voice rugged with emotion. "You just need to open your eyes, my brother." Lifting a shaky hand, Blair placed his open palm on the sentinel's chest. "And your heart."
"Easy, easy does it," Josh instructed as they lowered William Ellison carefully to the ground. Ben had rigged up a harness using the same safety equipment he kept on hand for precarious roofing jobs. Attaching it to the winch on the front of the truck via a steel cable, they'd managed to pull William slowly up and out of the wreckage. Satisfied that the injured man was stable, Josh left Ben to unhook the cable and moved quickly across to where Steven was emerging from a hole in the roof. "Where's your brother?" he asked.
"He's staying put." Steven replied. "He said you should do the same. He can handle Sandburg's injuries until the EMTs arrive."
"Smart man," Ben interjected. "No point in putting any more lives at risk if the guy reckons he can handle it." His statement was aimed clearly at dissuading his brother from going back into the building.
"Ben, you think you can get back on the horn and light a fire under those guys to get the hell up here now?"
Ben nodded cautiously. "You'll stay put," he half questioned, half ordered.
"Yeah, yeah," Josh muttered. Waiting until his brother moved toward the truck, he grabbed Steven by the elbow. With a slight push, he encouraged him to start moving toward his father. "You should go keep your dad company. He's worried sick about your brother and Blair. Some reassurance from you might help him stay calm."
"You're going back down, aren't you?"
Josh nodded. "Comes with the uniform, I'm afraid." Feeling a small measure of sympathy for the 911 operator on the receiving end of Ben's less than diplomatic style, Josh took advantage of the opportunity. "We'll get them out," he reassured, before steadying himself to drop down through the roof.
As he lowered himself carefully into the cavity, Josh pondered briefly about what lay in store for him once his very large and extremely overprotective brother got his hands on him. "Maybe being crushed to death won't be so bad after all," he muttered.
"I don't give a fuck that you say you're doing the best you can!" Ben Worthington shouted into the receiver. "Obviously your best needs to be drastically improved." Keeping his finger firmly pressed on the button, Ben gave the operator no chance to respond. "Just in case you missed a few of the details the first time round, I'll explain them to you again. I have two men, one seriously injured, who are trapped under a pile of rubble that would make even Fred Flintstone shit his pants and you give me some bullshit about a forty-minute response time. Get them up here and get them up here NOW."
A loud, sickening crack in the background had Ben Worthington spinning around with a move that would have earned a standing ovation from Anna Pavlova herself. "Oh fuck," he swore as the colour drained from his face. "Josh!" he shouted, frantically scanning the area for a brother who was no longer standing where he'd left him.
The handset dropped, bouncing off the door and clattering onto the steel kickboard as the builder took off and sprinted to the hillside faster than a track star on steroids. "Josh!" he shouted again, his boots kicking up dust as he skidded to a stop on the edge of the rubble. "Where is he?" he yelled, menacingly confronting Steven. "Where's my brother?"
The realisation set in quickly. It was etched all over Steven Ellison's face. Josh had gone back down.
Surveying the hillside, Ben's experienced eye quickly located evidence of new slippage. It was only minimal and appeared to affect the side of the building that was unoccupied, but if it continued its slide down the hill, then the overall effects would be nothing short of devastating.
"This ends now!" Ben ground out through clenched teeth. A quick scan of the area had the strongly-built man locating exactly what he needed. "You, come with me," he ordered, jabbing a finger in Steven's direction. With a forceful pull he yanked an internal door from the building ruins and dragged it over toward his truck, letting it fall to the ground with a thud. The door had barely enough time to settle in the dust before Ben was back with a hammer and a spike. Smashing metal against metal, he forced the spike through the timber panelling, working it until the hole was large enough for what he needed. Scrambling to his feet he pulled a cargo net from the back of the pickup, along with a staple gun and several tie-downs. "I want you to staple the net to the door and then attach the end of the cable securely through the hole I've made. Once you've done that," he ordered, reaching for a pair of bolt cutters, "I want you to secure the tie-downs in the net and lower the door through the roof, same way as we did with the harness. Think you can handle that?"
"It'll be there," Steven replied, already shooting the staple gun into the wood.
Ben knew his plan was a makeshift one, but he could see no other choice. The few remaining load bearing beams were starting to strain under the weight of the building and, once they gave way, there would be nothing left to stop the structure from completing its slide down the hill.
Disappearing into the same hole that had swallowed his brother, Ben prayed that he could just keep Josh alive long enough so as he could have the pleasure of killing the stubborn little twit himself.
"Oh god, Jim, make it stop!" Blair cried out as pain ripped through his body. "Please make it stop!"
"Get it under him now!" Ellison yelled. The shifting of the timbers and the movement on the far side of the structure had had a tremor effect, causing shockwaves to rumble through the floor. As a result, the concrete slab behind Blair had shifted, propelling the rod upward and forcing Sandburg's body to go up with it. With his arms around Blair's waist, Jim desperately supported his partner's weight, while Josh frantically pushed anything he could find underneath Blair to raise his height.
"You hang in there, Chief." Ellison ordered. The sickly smell of fresh blood permeated the sentinel's nostrils and soaked through his shirt, staining his chest a bright, crimson red. "Don't you give up on me now," he said, feeling the erratic beat of Blair's heart against his own. "Fight this, Chief. Damn it, FIGHT!" he yelled.
"Okay, got it, he's up." Clambering over Sandburg's legs, Josh pushed Ellison back, giving himself room to work on Blair's shoulder. The shift in the rod's position had unsealed the wound and Blair was now bleeding profusely. Probing a thick layer of muscle with his fingers, Josh pushed his thumb firmly into the indention of Sandburg's shoulder, forcing the artery to press hard up against the collarbone. "This won't stem the flow for long."
"I know, I know." Darting his hand up, Ellison roughly examined the rough, jagged end of the metal rod, feeling sick at the damage the serrated end would cause as it ripped its way back through Blair's body.
"We have no other choice, Jim. He'll bleed to death if we don't get him out of here now."
"Chief." His guide's laboured breathing rasped upon the sentinel's damaged eardrum like sandpaper against a blackboard. "This is gonna hurt like hell, buddy."
"Do it, Jim, just do it," Blair cried out in a strangled, breathless wheeze. Cold sweat and salted tears streamed down his face, the pain so agonizingly intense that he'd do anything just to make it stop.
"Give me some room," Ben barked, as he barrelled down upon the two men. Having lowered himself once again through the opening in the ceiling, he'd dropped to the floor just minutes after the slippage occurred. The urgency of strained voices and the frantic movement on the other side of the room had him on the move as soon as his feet hit solid ground. "Damn it," he ground out, realising that his plan wasn't going to work. The shift had forced Sandburg's body flat up against the slab, leaving no room for his bolt cutters to get a grip on anything other than skin and flesh.
"The front," Jim barked. "See if you can sheer off the front of the rod. If you can then we can pull him off, clean."
"I need more length." The distance between the protruding rod and Blair's body was not enough for the bolter cutters to get a firm hold. "You need to push him back further into the wall."
"I got this side," Josh instructed. Using his free hand, the paramedic firmly pushed the outer side of Sandburg's shoulder back against the slab.
Shifting his whole body weight against Sandburg's chest, Jim tried futilely to ignore the pain-filled gasps that escaped Blair's blue-tinged lips. Pushing down hard with both his hands and his body, he forced Blair as far back as humanly possible.
"I got it!" Ben shouted. The muscles in his arms bulged as the builder clamped down hard on the handles of the bolt cutter. "Snap, you bastard, snap." His voice was strained as he forced the razor-sharp pinchers together.
"Harder!" Ellison shouted. "Put some fucking weight behind it."
Shooting the cop a filthy look, the builder widened his stance, channelling the whole weight of his upper body down his arms. His muscles trembled and quavered, but he refused to give up. With a final determined grunt, a metallic ping sounded throughout the room and the pressure on the bolt cutters released suddenly, causing Ben to stumble forward. "That enough weight for you?" he snapped, breathlessly.
Scrambling off Blair's body, Jim's hand shot up to check his partner's pulse. Sandburg was breathing in short, sharp gasps now and his eyes were glazed and unfocused. "Come on, Chief. Don't do this partner, we're nearly there." Slapping Sandburg's cheek to try and stimulate a response, Ellison's panic level shot through the roof as Blair's eyes started to roll back.
"He's in shock," Josh stated, his voice remaining calm and professional. "Ben, squeeze your hands in as far as you can behind his back and get ready to push when I tell you to." Laying a light hand on Jim's shoulder, he asked, "You up for this?"
Jim didn't even bother answering the paramedic's question. Without hesitation, he placed his knees on either side of Blair's hips. Pressing his pelvis against Blair's stomach, he leaned in and gathered Sandburg's upper body tightly to his chest. "We do this on three," he instructed.
Josh nodded, his thumb slowly releasing the pressure on Blair's artery. "Jim, when you pull back, make sure you take him with you in a straight line. The rod needs to follow the same path on exit as it did on entry." Removing his hand completely, Josh placed his hands on either side of the wound. "This needs to come out in one fluid move, so you need to push and pull with everything you've got." Certain that both his brother and Jim understood, Josh braced himself. "Okay, ready. One, two... three!"
Three sets of hands pulled, pushed and guided Blair's limp and unresponsive body along the length of the rod, never once breaking momentum until the concrete fastener slid its way back through muscle and bone, finally setting its prisoner free.
"Pressure, now!" Jim shouted, keeping Blair's body elevated as Josh secured a pressure bandage tightly in place.
A quick check of Blair's vitals told the paramedic that there wasn't much time to waste. "Give me your belt," he said to his brother. Sliding it around Blair's thighs, he pulled it tight, forcing Blair's legs together, immobilising them as best he could. "He's ready to go," he said urgently. "You alright to lift him, Jim?"
"Wahoo!" Ben shouted, just as Ellison began to move into position to take the weight of Blair's upper body. "I didn't think your brother had it in him!" he yelled over his shoulder. Unperturbed by the fallen rubble, Ben bounded across the debris. Unsnapping the cable, he hoisted the door awkwardly under his arm and hastily made his way back. "Not a bad job for a guy who looks like his mother still washes his dirty jocks." He smiled at his brother. "You reckon this might come in handy, pup?"
"Ben, you never cease to amaze me," Josh answered in astonishment.
"Yeah, well, I do a pretty good job of amazing myself at times." Bending down, Ben helped guide Sandburg's legs carefully into the cargo net. "Hey, sorry 'bout that crack I made about your brother," he apologised, shooting Jim a quick look.
"Say what you like about him," Jim replied, as he worked in unison with Josh. "He's no brother of mine." Securing the tie-downs around Blair's torso and legs, Jim laid his hand on Blair's cold forehead. "Nearly there, Junior," he soothed. "Pain's nearly over."
"He can't feel a thing, Jim," Josh assured.
"Yeah, I know... but I can," Ellison replied softly.
Taken back by the raw, naked vulnerability burning from the depths of the cop's pale blue eyes, it suddenly dawned on Josh Worthington that the relationship between the two men was based on more than just friendship. The look reflected in Jim Ellison's eyes was one that he'd seen many times, shining from his own brother's eyes. Brothers, he confirmed in a silent affirmation.
"Well, would you look at that!" Turning back around, Ben reached down and took a firm hold of Ellison's wrist and helped hoist the cop to safety. "Leave home for a couple of hours and the riffraff move in." A little stunned to have emerged out of the roof to find Emergency Services personnel scattered all over the place, Ben drawled sarcastically, "Guess my diplomatic skills do work after all."
Feeling the builder's large, steady hand on his back, Jim closed his eyes briefly, swaying slightly as another round of nausea hit. "Where's Blair?" he breathed out.
"He's already on his way down the mountain, Jim." Josh had stayed close by Blair's side, doing everything he could to minimise further risk to his patient as the stretcher made its precarious ascent toward the surface. "Come on," he urged taking hold of Ellison's arm. "You need to be checked out."
"I'm fine." Ellison moved away from the younger man's grasp, "Where's my father?"
"He's in the ambulance with your brother. They're just waiting on one more passenger."
"Tell them to hold up for a minute. This won't take long" Although desperate to be by Blair's side, Jim knew that the area needed to be secured. It was a crime scene now and nobody was to have access to any part of the building until he could contact Simon, who would get a forensic team up here.
"Hey, where are you going?" Josh shouted after the retreating cop.
"Just tell them to wait," Ellison called over his shoulder. Ignoring the pain in this head, which was now pounding worse than Sandburg being let loose on a set of bongos, Jim loped toward the local police. "Sheriff," he called out, withdrawing his badge from his pocket. "We need to talk!"
Jim held out his hand, knowing that words alone could never express his gratitude toward the two men standing in front of him. "All I can say is thanks, guys. You saved my partner's life, and for that I'll always be in your debt."
"Well, I do have a couple of traffic fines that I could use some help with," Ben quipped, before heartily shaking Ellison's hand. "You take care of that partner of yours. He seems like he could be a lot of work."
"You don't know the half of it," Jim smiled. "Josh," he said, warmly grasping the young paramedic's hand, "Thank you. I owe more to you than you'll ever know."
"You owe it to your brother as well, Jim," Josh replied quietly. He couldn't help but notice the dejected form of Steven Ellison as he sat by his father's side in the back of the waiting ambulance. "Don't forget, if it wasn't for him, you might not have been found for days."
Still holding on and refusing to let go of his anger, Jim simply nodded. "Don't be strangers," he said, releasing his grip. "There's always a cold one in the fridge if you ever happen to be in the neighbourhood."
With one last look over the scene that very nearly changed his life forever, Jim climbed into the back of the waiting ambulance, turning his attention immediately toward his father. "Places, names, financial records. I want access to them all," he demanded, without an ounce of compassion in his voice. "If you... if either of you," he corrected, staring straight at his brother, "withhold any information pertinent to this investigation, I can guarantee you that I'll have you up on charges so fast it'll make your heads spin." Taking a seat on the far end of the adjacent stretcher, the detective squared his jaw. "I'm listening," he stated.
As the ambulance doors closed and sped away in a trail of dust, Ben flung his arm around his brother's shoulders. "Now there goes a happy family if ever I saw one," he said, shaking his head. Without warning, he reached up and laid a sizeable whack to the back of Josh's head.
"Hey, what was that for?" Josh asked, indignantly.
"For not staying put when I told you to stay put." With Josh secured firmly under his wing, Ben guided his little brother toward the truck. "Don't you ever listen to anything I say?" he began. "I can't believe that you would..."
Rolling his eyes, Josh did his best to drown out his brother words. This is going to be one very long weekend, he mused.
Simon shook his head, letting out a long-suffering sigh before making his way across the hospital cafeteria toward his detective. It had been just over five days since Sandburg had been wheeled through the emergency room doors; five long, harrowing days of worry and stress. Intubated and transfused twice in route, the kid had spent a total of nine hours in surgery as surgeons battled not only to save his life, but also to repair extensive muscle and bone damage. Although further reconstructive surgery was in the cards, the most important thing at this point was that Blair had finally turned the corner and had taken the first steps along the road to recovery.
Feeling confident that his favourite observer was finally out of the woods, Simon now focused his concern on the condition and health of his most stubborn and willful detective. Refusing to be admitted for his own injuries, Jim had been back at work the minute Blair was out of danger. Like a dog with a bone, Ellison had growled and snapped at anyone who dared to get in the way of his investigation. With the evidence and information provided to him by his father, the detective had become relentless in his mindset, working backbreaking hours until he'd gathered enough evidence to bring a solid case, not only against several board members of the Ellison Corporation, but also city engineers and inspectors who, like the directors, were on the payroll of one the city's newest and fastest growing conglomerates.
"I really shouldn't be offering you any more of this stuff," Banks quipped, placing a cup of coffee in front of Jim. "If the vampires in here tapped your veins for blood, all they'd get is black with one sugar."
"Any news?" Ellison asked, reaching for the coffee.
"DA's jumping around like a kid with her first pony." Banks smiled. "You did good work, Jim. This case is air tight."
Ellison shrugged, before scrubbing a weary hand over his face. "What about the old man? What's she got in store for him?"
"Nothing," Banks answered. "Your dad's lawyers have cut a deal and there'll be no charges brought against him. He's agreed to testify, and the fact that he was being blackmailed has all been taken into consideration." Simon savoured his own coffee. "But I guess you'd already know that if you'd been to see him. Funny," he said. "You'd think if a guy's father was only one floor up from where this particular guy's best friend is holed up... well, you'd think that guy might just find a few spare minutes to pay him a visit."
Jim got to his feet, too tired to get into this conversation. "I'm going up to see Sandburg, you coming?"
"Yeah. I'll be by later. I have a few things I need to go over with your dad first. Perhaps you'd like to join me?"
"Sorry, schedule's all booked up," Jim stated, tossing his coffee cup in the trash. "But I'm sure you'll have a most enthralling visit."
"You know, I really don't know how Sandburg manages to put up with you," Banks muttered to the retreating back of his detective.
"Heard that," Ellison called out.
"Good, you were meant to," Banks fired back.
"Hey, man, what are you doing back here? You look dead on your feet." Sandburg reached for Jim's hand as Ellison moved toward the bed. "Go home, Jim, and get some sleep, please."
"I will," Ellison promised. "Just wanted to come by and say goodnight." He squeezed Blair's hand. "How're you feeling?"
Heavily bandaged and propped up on pillows, with an endless array of tubes running in and out of his body, Blair gave a wry smile. "Never better. It's amazing to think that life can be sustained by the aid of a plastic tube. Nourishment, oxygen and peeing, all without having to move, does life get any better?"
Jim laughed. It was good to see a sparkle back in his partner's eyes.
Blair patted the bed, encouraging Jim to sit. "Your dad was in here earlier."
"Yeah?" Jim responded flatly.
"Yeah, and he's a pretty dejected man."
"Don't know why he should be, Chief. The case is going to trial and the DA's not pressing charges against him, so in my book, the old man should be feeling on top of the world."
"Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his eldest son hates him."
Ellison sighed. He'd just gotten Simon off his back about his father, the last thing he needed was to be raked over the same coals by Sandburg. "Look Blair, what do you expect me to feel? The guy hasn't given me the time of day in over fifteen years and then the moment he does pop back into my life, his actions nearly damn well get us killed. I'm sorry, but I'm having trouble seeing the fatherly love."
"You know, Jim," Blair said gently. "For someone who possesses such incredible eyesight, you really don't see very far."
Sandburg knew that if it wasn't for the fact he was lying flat on his back, he'd be feeling the full blast of the Ellison furnace right about now. But under the circumstances, he had an advantage and he decided to run with it. "I didn't say that to hurt you, Jim, I said it because I care about you." In an effort to try and break through the wall of stubborn pride that Ellison had built around himself, Blair continued, "He knows that he's made mistakes, big mistakes, but you have to know, Jim, that even through the worst of times, he never stopped loving you."
"Right," Jim drawled sarcastically. "So looking your twelve-year-old son in the eye and telling him to stop acting like a freak because he's an embarrassment to the family, is called love?"
"He's not a perfect man, Jim, and he's not proud of his actions. He was dealt a set of cards in life that he didn't know to play, so instead he let them all fall to the ground in the hope that someone else would pick them up."
Ellison rubbed his forehead, trying to forestall the tension headache he could feel building. "Nice analogy, Chief, except for one major problem. There was nobody else around to pick them up."
Not wanting to alienate his best friend or make him feel like he was taking William Ellison's side, Blair laced their fingers together, hoping to convey to the other man just how very deeply he did care about him. "Look, man, the way I see it, you have two choices here. You can hold on to all that hate and anger... carry it around with you until the day your old man dies and convince yourself he deserved every minute of it, or you can open up your heart just a little and begin to forgive him."
Met with stony silence, Blair drew out his own set of cards, playing his last ace in the deck. "He hasn't asked, you know. Even though he's gotta be as curious as a damn cat, not once has he asked me to break my confidence to you."
"That's because he's not interested," Jim answered coldly. "He didn't want to know then, just like he doesn't want to know now."
"Or perhaps he knows how much he hurt his son in the past and is waiting for you to decide whether or not you want to take those first steps back toward home."
Ellison took a deep sigh, suddenly feeling utterly empty and defeated. "God, Blair," he whispered heavily. "Do you have any idea of what you're asking me to do? Can't you see how long and how broken that road is?"
Blair shook Jim's hand, encouraging the detective to make eye contact. "What if I came along? Help you jump over a few of the cracks." He smiled warmly. "I make a hell of a travel guide, man."
Jim laughed, trying hard to pull himself together. "That you do, Junior," he agreed. "That you do."
Moving over slightly, in an effort to not only take some of the pressure off this hip, but make a bit of room, Blair patted the mattress. "Dirty Harry's playing in five, Detective. How about a front row seat?"
Knowing that, even in the best of health, Sandburg could never seem to stay awake for more than ten minutes into the classic cop show, Ellison decided that it couldn't do any harm to wait it out. Settling down on the bed, he carefully nudged Blair's arm. "You don't happen to have a beer, do you?"
Sandburg laughed. "Oh yeah, sure man. They're in the fridge."
"Great, I'll take one!"
Ten minutes later and right on schedule, Ellison felt the heavy weight of his partner's head against his shoulder. Easing gently off the bed, he rearranged the pillows and smoothed out the covers.
Although his life may have been rocked with personal ups and down, Jim knew deep down that he did have a reason to count his blessings and that blessing came from the man lying in front of him.
Trailing his hand softly down the side of Blair's face, he whispered. "See you tomorrow, Chief."
"Hey come on, where's that smile?" Blair teased as he limped heavily toward the front door of the Ellison family home. Sandburg had been released from the hospital a little over a week ago and Jim's dad had invited them both over for lunch, an offer Blair had gladly grabbed with both hands.
"You should be at home resting," Jim complained as he helped Blair manoeuvre the last of the front stairs. Although Blair was progressing well, he was still in a lot of pain and tired easily. By Ellison's reckoning, the visit to his father's was premature, on more than one level. Although both he and William had sat down and taken the first steps toward reconciliation, there was still a long way to go before Jim considered that the journey back home would be complete.
"Come on man, would you hurry up! No way I'm gonna miss out on a home-cooked meal just because you're lagging behind." He slapped Jim playfully on the arm. "No offence, big guy, but there's only so many ways you can eat chili and spaghetti."
Before Jim had the chance to respond to his partner's attack on his culinary skills, the front door opened. "Jim, Blair," William welcomed with a warm, genuine smile. "Please come on in." With the aid of his crutches, he moved out of the way, making room for his guests to enter. "You're looking well, Blair," he stated.
"Must be all that home cooking he's getting," Jim quipped, giving his partner a quick wink, before shaking his father's hand. "How's the ankle, dad?"
"It's coming along. I should be in a walking cast by the end of the week." His father gestured toward the living room. "Please come in and sit down and I'll get you a drink while we wait for Steven."
The hairs on the back of Jim's neck prickled instantly and his jaw took on the appearance of being set in granite.
"Um, Jim," Blair blurted out quickly. "I did mention that, right?" He glanced over at William, hoping his expression would convey to the older man that he needed a few minutes alone with his son. "I could have sworn I mentioned that your brother was coming. Must be the drugs... affects the memory."
"I'll just go and check on how Sally's doing with lunch," William stated, making a timely and hasty exit from the room.
"Sandburg," Jim drew out. "I swear the moment you're back to a hundred percent I'm going to break every bone in your conniving little body." He started pacing the living room. "How can you possibly even want to be in the same room as that guy? He signed your death warrant, for Christ's sake," Jim hissed, trying to keep his voice low enough so it wouldn't be heard in the kitchen.
"I'm putting it down to extenuating circumstances," Blair replied uneasily. "And besides that, Steven's already apologised and I've accepted it."
"You accepted it!" Jim yelled, no longer able to keep his voice in check. "How the hell could you do that?"
"Because he meant it!" Sandburg yelled back. "Don't you realise how hard this has been on him? How do you think he feels, Jim? Not only is he struggling with the guilt that it was his fault we were all at the lodge that weekend, but he's also dealing with the fact that he had to make a choice. He felt he had to choose between the life of his family and the life of a stranger." Blair moved into Ellison's personal space. "What would you have done, Jim? What would you have done if you had been forced to choose?"
"I would have chosen you, and you know that!" The statement was firm and made without a moment's hesitation.
"Exactly." Blair placed his hand on Jim's arm. "And can't you see, that's exactly what your brother did. He chose the ones he loved the most." Seeing the figure of Steven Ellison coming up the path, Sandburg squeezed Jim's arm. "He's here."
"I know," Jim replied, feeling frustrated and angry, but at the same time somewhat confused and numb.
"Go, Jim," Blair encouraged. "Go open the door for your brother."
An afternoon which started off smothered by a heavy air of tension and conflict, mellowed considerably as the hours passed by. You're good, Chief, I'll give you that, Ellison mused to himself.
Purposely dominating the conversation with tales of his life and his expeditions abroad, Blair had successfully managed to keep the discussion away from Jim, something Ellison knew he'd have to remember to thank the kid for when they got home.
"Oh, damn, I'm so sorry," Blair apologised profusely, bringing Jim out of his ruminations. A glass of water had slipped from his hand, spilling its contents all over the tablecloth.
Grabbing a napkin, Jim began to mop up most of the mess, while turning a discerning eye toward his partner. "You okay?" he asked. Blair did look a little pale and it didn't take sentinel sight to see the tremors starting to affect his partner's movements.
"Perhaps you'd be more comfortable in the den," William suggested, his concern for the young man reflected in his eyes.
"Dad, look, maybe we should just go."
"What about dessert?" Sandburg protested, trying to bide some time. There was no way he was going to admit it, but perhaps Jim had been right about the outing being premature. He'd felt okay for the most part, but sitting in one place for such a long time was playing havoc with his hip and the pain, which started out as just a niggle, was now starting to make him feel nauseous. "I might just use the bathroom, if you don't mind."
As Blair left the table and moved shakily down the hall, Jim's worry meter spiked. "Dad, would it be alright if Blair lay down in the spare room for a while?"
"Of, course, of course," William said, reaching for his crutches.
"Dad, you stay," Steven stated. "I'll go turn the bed down."
"The downstairs one," William instructed, as Steven moved from the table.
Grabbing a bottle of pills from his jacket pocket, Jim was hot on his partner's heels. "You alright in there?" he asked, knocking on the door.
"I don't think so," Blair panted, trying in vain not to let the nausea get the better of him.
Without needing to know anything more, Jim barged through the door. "What's wrong?" he asked, seeing his partner hunched over the sink.
"My hip, and my leg."
Moving up behind Blair, Ellison placed his hand on the front of Sandburg's hipbone, feeling the muscles spasm and twitch around the hip joint. "Just relax, Chief, just relax," he soothed, pressing his fingers down and trying to work some of the tension out of the worst affected areas. Concentrating on Sandburg's hip with one hand, his other kneaded the back of Blair's thigh.
"You know, Jim," Blair ground out, trying desperately to focus his thoughts away from the stabbing pain shooting through his body, "this would feel a whole lot better if you where a Swedish masseur by the name of Heidi."
"I bet it would, Romeo," Ellison replied, digging his fingers into the junction right next to Blair's groin. "But you're just gonna have to be content with a good looking beefed up guy by the name of Jim."
In too much pain now to even respond, Blair concentrated on only two things; staying upright and not puking his guts out in William Ellison's bathroom.
"Okay, Chief, enough's enough." Briefly rubbing Sandburg's back, Jim shook out two pills and filled a glass from the sink. "Pills, then naptime, Junior."
Knowing there was nothing else he could do to effectively relieve Blair's pain other than wait until the tablets kicked in, Jim took over responsibility for most of Blair's weight, guiding them out of the bathroom and into the room down the hall.
"Try and relax, Blair. Ride it out, it won't be long now," he reassured. Lowing Sandburg to the bed and adjusting a pillow beneath the injured arm, Jim pulled off the kid's shoes and took a seat on the mattress. There were no words he could offer to help Sandburg through his pain; the best and only thing he could do was offer the reassurance of his presence. So, with his hand rubbing up and down length of Blair's thigh, Ellison sat quietly, monitoring every respiration and every heartbeat, until finally the short, sharp gasps of pain evened out and the more consistent, steady breathing of sleep filled his ears.
"You really do care about him, don't you?" Standing, not quite prepared to breach the threshold of the room, Steven lingered in the doorway, uncertain as to whether he should be there or not. "I know you're probably not ready to hear this Jim, but I really am truly sorry about what happened up at the lodge." He shoved his hands deep into his pockets in an effort to keep them still. "I knew that you and Blair shared a friendship, but I just assumed that, because we where family, because we were brothers, that the bond between us would always be stronger than that friendship."
"Steven," Jim sighed, a part of him deeply resenting his brother's intrusion. "If you're standing there asking me to choose between you as my brother and Blair as my friend, then don't, because I can guarantee you that you're not going to like the answer you'll get."
"I know," Steven replied. "But it doesn't mean that I can't try. Am I being foolish, Jim?" he asked. "Or is there still a chance for us?"
Ellison pulled himself off the mattress, thinking how much easier and straightforward his life would be if he simply rejected the olive branch being offered. Rid himself of his brother and his family and go back to the way things were. No one to crowd or complicate his life except for those he chose to do so.
But a part of Jim Ellison also knew that if he didn't take this chance and at least try to rebuild his relationship with Steven, then he'd be forever walking down a road that had no end. Relenting, he turned his eyes on his brother. "If you're willing to be a brother who can accept Sandburg, without competition, then I can't see a reason why we can't give this one more try."
"I'd like that," Steven said quietly.
"Alright, then." Shaking out the quilt, Ellison covered his partner's body, his hand lingering on Blair's brow for a moment. "How 'bout we get out of here and let him get some rest," he finally said.
Before drawing his brother from the room, Ellison cast one last look over the sleeping man. Although he'd make an effort to renew his relationship with Steven, his heart knew, without question, that there was only one man who he truly loved enough to call a brother.
"Sleep well, Chief."
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