Rating: R, for a bit of language.
Summary: This is a short sequel to my other story, "Heat, Life"; while it isn't absolutely necessary to have read that one first, it does help fill in the blanks,so to speak, as far as the subject of this fic.
Disclaimer: I do not own Pet Fly Productions, the show "The Sentinel" or its characters; I'm merely enjoying playing with them a bit. No copyright infringement intended.
He won't admit it, but I know Blair's still suffering, still in constant, unremitting pain from the two bullets that psychotic asshole 'Achilles' pumped into his head a month ago. And I can never decide what makes me angrier--the fact that I almost lost my partner and best friend that hellish day, or the fact that I'm less than useless to him when he's in pain like he is right now.
"I'm fine, Jim--give it a rest," Blair murmurs with weary patience as he brushes by me on his way to the bathroom; and as if anticipating my automatic protest, he reaches up in passing and gives my shoulder the briefest of reassuring squeezes to emphasize his words. "Really, man, you've got to stop...hovering...over me like this. If I wasn't okay, the doctors never would have released me from the hospital, now, would they?"
"What do they know?" I grumble as I watch Blair shuffle down the short hallway to the bathroom, errant tendrils of long hair radiating from his head in a wild halo of unkempt curls. "Bunch of quacks, letting a man who was shot in the head go toddling home barely two weeks after the fact, sending him off like he'd only scraped his knee..." I'm gearing up for a good, long rant now, only to find myself cut off in mid-tirade by my room mate's uplifted hand, his silent imperative for me to zip it accompanied by the wry twist of his lips as he flashes me a fleeting half-smile.
"They knew enough to save my life, Jim," he tosses back over his shoulder, his tone gently admonishing and underscored by the lightest frisson of amused indulgence for my snarkiness. "I think we can cut them just a little slack for that, you know?"
"Well, if you want to get technical about it--" I grunt, and Blair chuffs a brief snort of laughter as he moves with too-studied casualness toward the open bathroom doorway. Damn him and his mute stoicism, I grouse morosely to myself; he has to know that I'm scanning every move he makes, cataloguing each and every breath he takes, reading in his heartbeat, respirations, and body language every nuance of the near-debilitating pain raging inside his skull right at this moment...but he insists on carrying on as if he hasn't a care in the world. I can feel my own head beginning to throb in silent empathy with the discomfort I'm able to sense radiating from his stubbornly uncomplaining body, and it's all I can do to hold myself back from scooping him up like an invalid child and rushing him right back to his bed and the bottle of painkillers Dr. Oerback prescribed for him on his release from the hospital.
"I mean it, Jim; back OFF," Blair growls suddenly, and the look he turns on me from the bathroom doorway is enough to make me bite down hard on my tongue to restrain my vehement insistence that he display at least a smidgen of common sense by returning post-haste to his bed. "Yes, I have a frigging headache, a BAD headache, as you damned well know," he continues brusquely and then adds with quietly intense dignity: "And I just want--I mean, I would appreciate it if you'd keep your senses to yourself for once and let me deal with it in my own way. Please," he ends gruffly, and I choke back the new words of disgruntled protest that try to force their way up my throat as Blair's warning glare softens into reluctant sympathy for my frustration.
"It's just going to take awhile before these headaches leave for good, Jim," he murmurs cajolingly, his pain-darkened eyes holding mine as he musters up a small smile to combat the scowl of displeasure curling my own mouth. "And I can handle this; I refuse to let what happened in that parking lot take away any more time from my life, you know? I've got things to do, places to be, people to annoy--" he lilts teasingly, and I can't help the reluctant softening of my own gaze as it rests helplessly on his pale but determined face.
"You need more rest, Chief," I protest lamely, scrutinizing the violet-hued shadows under his eyes with the automatic thoroughness my naturally acute vision permits me. "I know you tossed and turned for most of the night; I could hear you--"
"Yeah, well...I'm just sorry I kept YOU up, man," Blair mutters ruefully. "I'll try to stay awake more quietly next time." He directs another wry smile my way, but I'm done with this casual downplaying of something that deserves more serious attention. Dammit, he can't just keep blowing off these bad headaches like this, acting like it's no big deal when it's obvious that every line of his body is taut with suppressed pain. You don't have to be a sentinel to sense it, either. And I know I'm driving him nuts with my uncharacteristic mother-henning, but I just can't bring myself to explain to him--to come right out and admit to his face--just how deeply his recent, close brush with death has shaken me. He's looking at me now with careful concern, his weary blue gaze sharpening with sudden alertness as he studies my face for signs of any problems I might be having with my senses.
So much easier for him to attribute my whacked-out behavior this morning to sentinel stress rather than the genuine emotions of worry and affection churning within me now. And this isn't supposed to be about ME, anyway, drat his hide.
"I'm fine, Sandburg," I growl at him in response to his scrutiny, my irate scowl letting him know that his weak attempt at diverting me from my main argument is not going to work. "Right now the amount of sleep--or lack thereof--that I got last night is NOT the issue here," I mutter, struggling to suppress the rising note of frustration in my voice. "The way I see it, the only relevant issue on the table is the stubborn refusal of a certain police detective's room mate to take his meds when he knows good and damned well that he NEEDS them; and furthermore, for the past two days this aforementioned room mate has also entertained the ridiculous and highly irritating notion of dragging himself out of this loft to show up at Rainier when he has no business being ANYWHERE but in his own nice, warm bed, recuperating from being SERIOUSLY wounded! Are you hearing me, Blair? Are you GETTING this, cause something tells me that somehow the gravity of the situation just isn't registering with you."
Blair's mouth has fallen open with almost comic disbelief at my tirade, and though some small, chagrined part of me is almost as stunned as he is by my vehemence, I find that I'm not quite done yet. As Blair's lips work futiley in a soundless attempt to launch some indignant rebuttal, I watch myself wagging an admonitory finger in his face and somewhat dazedly hear myself bite out: "Oh, and here's a nifty little word you might have heard before--RELAPSE. Does that one ring a bell, or do I need to read the definition to you out of the dictionary?"
"Whoa, man--just...hold on for a second," Blair finally manages to grit out,the pain in his head temporarily displaced by the more pressing dilemma of his best friend's apparent descent into madness. "In the first place, I believe I HAVE heard the word 'relapse' before, and no, I don't need you to read the definition to me," he murmurs with forced patience, his hands curling reflexively at his sides as he struggles to suppress his rising irritation with me.
"And here's a word that YOU might be familiar with--no, make that two words, Jim," he continues with quiet fervor. "CHILL and OUT. Chill out, my friend--capiche? Geez, Jim, you cannot seriously expect me to lie in bed all day like some fading wallflower or whatever the hell the expression is, not when I have shitloads of work at Rainier to catch up on; not to mention the fact that you could use my help at work now that you're off suspension...especially with the condition you're in right now. Come on, Jim, just BREATHE, here," he urges carefully as I cross my arms over my chest and glare at him. The expression in his eyes is a beguiling mix of humor, affection, and weary exasperation, and I think to myself somewhat guiltily, he doesn't need this; I'm just adding to his stress. Way to go, Ellison.
"And try, please TRY, to relax just a LITTLE bit? I'm gonna be fine, man, really," Blair is murmuring soothingly, and I find myself blinking down at him rather foolishly as he steps up to me just long enough to give one of my stubbornly crossed arms a gentle squeeze. "I'm just...uh...just gonna go and grab a shower now. I promise I'll hurry, then you can give me a ride to the university, okay? I'm really sorry to inconvenience you like this, but the doc said no driving for me for at least another month. You know, gotta give it time for these stupid dizzy spells to fade out..." His apologetic muttering dies away at the look on my face, and he sighs heavily and flings his arms up in resignation as I draw myself to my full, hopefully IMPOSING height and clench my fists at my sides in renewed anger.
"That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about, Sandburg," I begin, my voice rough with the force of my aggravation with my stubborn, impossible guide. "You're still having DIZZY SPELLS, for Christ's sake! Not to mention the killer headaches, the black spots in your vision, the occasional ringing in your left ear and how your voice slurs and your coordination goes wonky on your right side when you're too tired... and you KNOW working at the university all day and reading so much is just gonna make those headaches worse--"
"Dammit, Jim, will you STOP?" There's real anger in Blair's voice now as he cuts into my rant, and as I sputter to a halt he shrugs abruptly and turns away from me, flinging annoyed words back over his shoulder. "Fine; if you don't want to give me a lift, I'll call one of my friends from Rainier to swing by and get me," he announces, as if I haven't just pointed out to him all the completely legitimate reasons why he should NOT go in to work today.
I mean, sure, always before I've been right there in agreement with him where the whole returning-to-normal/getting-right-back-on-the-horse-that-threw-you thing is concerned; but this time I REALLY don't think he should be rushing his recovery with such single-minded, pig-headed determination. All I need--all HE needs, I correct myself quickly--is for something really bad to happen to him, all because he just had to jump right back into the thick of his always hectic life instead of EASING back in slowly and carefully. But I can tell by the stiff, angry set of his spine as he gingerly makes his way into the bathroom and slams the door behind him that right now he is in no mood to listen to reason, and I sigh with a mixture of frustration for his stubborness and self-disgust for my own clumsy, inept handling of this whole issue with Blair's health.
Dammit, Chief, I didn't mean to antagonize you, I apologize tiredly inside my head as I find myself walking up to the defiantly closed bathroom door, my right hand moving seemingly without volition to rest very quietly against its unyielding surface. And I'm not trying to run your life or tell you what to do--
Oh, yes you are, a snarky voice erupts mockingly inside my mind, and with a vicious inward hiss I silently order the annoying intruder to go away.You're losing it, Ellison, the voice insists snidely, and I find myself biting down hard on my bottom lip to keep from objecting aloud to that particular sentiment. So, okay--maybe I WAS trying to tell him what to do; but it was only for his own good, I argue stubbornly with my unwelcome inner voice as my hearing ventures easily through the wood of the door to pick up the sounds of Blair laying out everything he'll need for his shower. I can also catch quite clearly his angrily muttered diatribe against 'nutball, overly protective sentinel assholes,' and as Blair begins rather laboriously to undress himself, I realize with a guilty start that I'm standing out here eavesdropping on my partner like some weirdo voyeur.
My cheeks flaming, I hastily withdraw to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of unwanted coffee, brooding darkly over the events of the past few weeks and struggling to bring at least a minimal level of objectivity to the disturbing melange of memories and images crowding my mind. I can't understand why I'm having such a tough time with this, why the very idea of turning Blair loose to resume all of his old activities is being met with dread on my part rather than with the appropriate emotions of pride and relief. Sandburg has made a remarkably rapid recovery, all things considered, and I know I should be encouraging in every way possible his determination to return to his normal routine, to pick up the somewhat tattered but basically intact threads of his life and continue on full speed ahead. So why do I still get this cold, nasty surge of fear deep in my gut each time he steps outside the door of the loft on his own and is out of my sight for any length of time? Blair is right--I guess I AM acting like some crazed, overprotective maniac--but I just don't know how to turn it OFF.
Sighing, I set the mug of cooling coffee down onto the countertop in front of me with more force than necessary, frown lines pulling at the skin of my forehead as the dull throbbing in my head escalates into a fullblown stress headache. Great, just great, that's all I need today, I think dourly to myself as I head upstairs to finish dressing for work. As if I haven't been juggling one giant migraine already for the past week, trying to free my severely chewed ass from the merciless teeth of more professional review boards than I can count. Funny, how certain anal-retentive agencies seem to have such a problem with one lone man taking matters into his own hands and stealing others' thunder, I muse sardonically to myself as I trudge up the last few steps to my bedroom; I knew I'd fucked myself over royally the second I took that walk down the alley to confront Achilles on his own turf, knew I was completely screwing every contingency plan the SWAT leader had in place for taking out the psycho who'd cold-bloodedly mown down a parking lot full of innocent victims, Blair included. I knew that there was going to be hell to pay for my actions.
But none of that mattered to me at the time; I KNEW I could end that sick bastard's terror spree much faster than any SWAT team could do it, and with much less danger of any more lives being lost in the process. I'm not bragging, just speaking the truth; I somehow understood on an instinctive level that day that my senses would help me do what was necessary so that I could get to Blair as quickly as possible, while there was still a chance to save his life. I suppose I MIGHT have endangered others besides myself by walking up to Cascade's latest self-proclaimed berserker and taking him out with one well-placed shot; but to my way of thinking, it was just a job that needed doing, and I was the best man to do it at the time. No one--NO ONE--was going to keep me from my guide, not when I could hear and smell and see his life trickling out onto the hot asphalt of the parking lot.
So yes, it was worth it, more than worth it, I conclude grimly now as I snare my shoes and sit on the side of my bed to slip them on; an equitable trade-off of a seeming eternity of sitting before a disciplinary board in exchange for my partner's life. I knew I could accept whatever punishment the board meted out to me, buffered as I was by the sweet knowledge that Blair had survived Achilles' brutal rampage partly because I'd acted without hesitation and had taken that shot without flinching or second-guessing my own actions. I had expected little leniency from the board, knowing full well that I'd violated a shitload of regs and procedures and had pretty much done what I was accused of doing, which was taking that sick, murdering bastard on as if I was answering some personal vendetta against him. And it WAS personal, extremely personal. Achilles made it so the instant he stood over my best friend and pumped two bullets into his head.
Of course Simon had done what he could to try and pull my nuts out of the fire; he'd been pretty damned furious with me, himself, but as my captain (and my friend) he'd gone to bat for me before both the review and disciplinary boards. And the personal affadavits of Blair's attending physician and the physicians in charge of the other two survivors of the massacre stating their joint opinion that each victim would most likely have died if treatment had been delayed even five more minutes had gone a little way toward softening the board's understandable ire with me for taking matters into my own hands. But my failure to consult beforehand with the leader of the tactical team in charge of the whole operation in order to obtain his permission to proceed with my actions could and would not be taken lightly, and it would not have surprised me in the least to find myself stripped of my badge and my detective rank and fired forthwith. At the very least I'd expected a lengthy suspension and was very surprised with the board's final decision, which was amazingly lenient under the circumstances. I'd received only two weeks' unpaid suspension and a formal letter of reprimand in my permanent file, with the added proviso that I attend several counseling sessions with a police psychologist to work out my 'issues' with following orders and respecting the chain of command. I suspect another reason the entire disciplinary 'book' hadn't been thrown at me was all the newspaper and media coverage the whole mess had stirred up; for at least a week I was touted as a 'hero' or some such nonsense, and as the Chief of Police had stated rather acidly, it just doesn't pay to string up a city's self-proclaimed champion and run the risk of rousing the ire of the populace.
"Uh, Jim...you still here, man?" Blair's hesitant voice downstairs pulls me abruptly from my abstracted musings, and I haul myself up from my bed and absently smooth the wrinkles in the duvet before moving to the head of the stairs. I must be slipping--I didn't even hear the water in the shower shut off, I think wryly to myself as I call down for Blair to get a move on if he still wants a lift to Rainier. I still don't think he has any business going back to work already, but he's a grown man and there's not much I can do short of tying him to his bed, I grouse silently to myself.
"Are you sure you don't mind dropping me off?" Blair asks as I hustle down the stairs to meet him in the middle of the loft. "I could still call someone--"
"I don't mind," I cut in, automatically tuning in to the rhythm of Blair's heartbeat as he stands before me in nothing but a towel, its knotted corners fastened loosely at his hip. And as I take in the weary patience evident in every line of his too-thin body, something inside me shatters and breaks, and it's as if blessed sanity suddenly comes rushing back in to light up all the dark, feral corners of my mind. God, I think in self-disgust; what have I done to my best friend? I only wanted to keep him safe, to reassure myself that he really was going to be okay; but somewhere along the line I went completely around the bend.
"Look, Chief, I want to apologize," I begin sincerely, feeling the heat of a low flush rising on my face as Blair gapes at me with almost comic blankness. "I mean, I don't really know why I suddenly went all primal and primitive on your ass this morning; you didn't deserve that. And you're right, you better than anyone know your own body and its limits; you'd know and hopefully LISTEN to its signals if you weren't ready to go back to work.Though you DO have a tendency to run yourself ragged, " I growl warningly.
"Okay, who are you and what have you done with the real Jim Ellison?" Blair snorts, but I'm gratified to see his sharply inquisitive gaze soften into bemused affection as he studies me with unabashed frankness. "You know, Jim, I was going over the whole situation in the shower, and I think I have a pretty good theory as to why you've been a bit...overly zealous...with the whole 'blessed protector' thing. I mean, you had all this--this ADRENALINE--coursing through your system after rescuing me from that nutjob, and for a long time afterward I was in no fit state to help you deal with the fallout from that and with all the stress of being with me during those first days in ICU. I'm sure all your senses were so raw and over-stimulated just from the hospital environment, not to mention having to appear before those review and disciplinary boards with no one there to help you focus and get a handle on all the shit that was coming at you from every side...in fact, now that I think about it, it's a wonder you didn't fall into a complete and total zone-out just from all the stress you were under! Add to that the strain of being suspended and having to share close quarters these past two weeks with my cranky, useless self, and it's no wonder that things went a little wonky in Ellisonville. Your basic need to keep your guide safe in a crisis just got stuck in a permanent 'on' position from all the stress, and you couldn't turn it back off again. But we can fix it; just getting you back to work and back into your routine is going to help tremendously, and now that I'm better I can take up my 'official' guide duties again. And there must be some kind of exercises or meditations we can come up with to counterbalance all this negative, heavy energy we've both been wallowing in..."
Blair's pain-shadowed eyes have taken on that bright, animated glow that I've so sorely missed over the past few weeks, the glow that says he's completely captivated and engaged by whatever it is that's percolating in his beautifully busy mind; and I'm so caught up in the simple pleasure of seeing him like this again that it's difficult to focus on the actual content of his words as he plunges enthusiastically into a somewhat meandering conjecture concerning the possible effects on a sentinel of the subliminal biochemicals his guide might give off in the event of illness or injury to the aforementioned guide. I hadn't realized just how dark and drab his--'aura' for lack of a better word--had become since he was wounded, and now I'm struck dumb by a sense of indescribable awe and wonder as my eyes drink in the gradual, hazily transparent appearance of some sort of...ENERGY...dancing around Blair's head as he jabbers at me a mile a minute.
"So if you really think about it, it makes perfect sense," he's muttering almost feverishly as I drag my fascinated gaze from the luminescent ripples of energy I can literally SEE shimmering around him now and refocus my attention on what he's saying; in the midst of his scholarly zeal he's completely oblivious to the fact that he's standing before me naked save for the towel sagging loosely around his hips, and my vision easily discerns each and every goosebump rising on his bare skin. Heedless of the early morning chill, Sandburg's gaze is earnest on mine as he awaits my response to his latest theory concerning yet one more newfound link in the mysterious connection between sentinel and guide.
I swallow back the clueless "HUH?" that strives to be my instinctive response to everything he's just said and try to paste a cool smile of comprehension on my face; but the time lag between Blair's last comment and my return from La-la Land is just too great, and an expression of mingled amusement and exasperation crosses my roommate's pale face as he lifts an accusing finger and lightly jabs me with it in the center of my chest.
"Have you heard a single word I've said, Jim?" he demands, and I merely smile a slow, no doubt ridiculously goofy smile at him as I reach out to lightly pinch a riotously curly strand of his dark auburn hair between my thumb and index finger. His hair feels amazing, simply amazing, warm and resiliant and silky, and it wraps itself around the tip of my thumb like a live thing as I continue to grin down at him like an idiot.
"Jim?" he repeats, a portion of his amusement slipping over into concern; and with some reluctance I force myself to release my hold on his hair as I raise one eyebrow and gesture at his current state of undress.
"I heard enough, Chief," I reply, my voice emerging on a strangely gentle note as I jerk my head in the direction of his bedroom. "And while I can't say that I even begin to understand everything you've just laid on me, I believe I got the gist of it. And I think you just might be on to something, buddy, I mean that. But if we don't get a move on, we're both going to be late getting to where we need to be this morning, and I do NOT need Simon on my ass my first week back at work. So unless you want to show up at Rainier in nothing but a towel and a smile, I'm thinking maybe you should go ahead and get dressed and we can continue this conversation on the ride over."
"Oh, yeah...heh, sorry about that, Big Guy; I sort of forgot where I was for a minute there," Blair grins, and even though his eyes are still shadowed by pain and residual fatigue, they are also filled now with something I was afraid I'd never see again--genuine enthusiasm and a renewed interest in the always fascinating business of being Blair Sandburg, anthropologist-cum-guide extraordinaire. For a brief instant my mind is assailed by a stark image of Blair lying like a silent shadow in that ICU bed, his body bristling with tubes and monitor leads as he struggled for his very life; and something dark and sharp and almost unbearably painful gouges at my chest as I recall the first time his eyes opened after his surgery with any real awareness in their depths, his drug-hazed vision fighting to focus on my face as he rasped one word to me with terrible uncertainty quavering in his voice: "A--live?" And then again, tacking my name on in quiet desperation.
Yes, I'd told him, my voice breaking as I closed my warm hands over his cold, curled fingers and squeezed gently but firmly, heedless of the tears blurring my own desperate gaze as I gave him what he needed to start the long journey back. Yes, Chief, you're alive. Very much so, I whispered into his waiting ear. And finally he'd believed; finally the look of bottomless loss and horror in blue eyes made swollen and slitted from post-surgical cranial swelling had faded into profound relief, and he'd managed to slide one thumb weakly over the sensitive skin of my palm, that one, featherlight touch almost undoing me completely as he slipped back into exhausted oblivion.
God, I almost lost him, I think to myself now as he turns and heads for his room, his movements still overly careful and indicative of a headache but now imbued with an ineffable new energy as well, one that warms me to the depths of my soul. God, what if he'd died; what if I didn't have him here now, what if I never again had the incomparable joy and comfort of hearing his heart beating so strong and regular as it's doing now as he busies himself with finding something clean to wear in the confused jumble of his closet? Suddenly a surge of fierce protectiveness blazes all the way from my brain down through my spine, and I have to bite down hard on the inside of my cheek to keep myself from rushing headlong into his room and crushing his still-frail body to my chest in a fit of indescribable emotion.
Down, boy, down! I fiercely command the dark, feral shadow that still paces restlessly along the perimeter of my spirit; the threat is gone, your guide is safe now. Everything is okay; Blair is okay. And that means WE'RE okay, big fella. Some part of me wonders about myself, carrying on a silent conversation like this with what almost seems like my alter ego; but as I draw in a deep, calming breath and move to the kitchen to make Blair a mug of hot tea for the road, I could swear that the inky, sinuous shape of a black jaguar keeps pace with me every step of the way, red tongue lolling in an attitude of feline approval. And close on its heels is the shadowy but no less satisfied outline of a wolf, its somewhat bedraggled coat becoming increasingly vibrant and luxuriant as I observe it. Yes, everything really is going to be all right, I think, and a wide grin stretches my lips as Blair emerges from his room, wrestling his wild halo of hair into a stretchy hair tie of some sort and muttering to himself that he KNOWS he left that test booklet somewhere around here...His head still hurts, I can sense that;and I can see that he's listing to the right the tiniest bit as he struggles with his temporarily skewed sense of balance. But he's okay, he really is; and suddenly the day looks so much brighter than I ever could have imagined it upon first opening my eyes earlier this morn.
"Ready to roll, partner?" I call out, and as he grabs his beloved backpack from its hook by the door, he aims an endearingly distracted grin my way and raps out a pert "Ready, Jim" in reply. And as we jostle our way out into the hallway, knees and elbows battling for supremacy in the race to be first out the door, I reach up surreptitiously to straighten the collar of his jacket and simultaneously check his temp through the featherlight brush of my finger along the back of his neck. So, okay, I haven't COMPLETELY emerged from 'blessed protector' mode, I think wryly as Blair darts a brief, knowing smirk my way and then turns back to give my shoulder an impulsive squeeze, his blue eyes alight with such simple, easy affection that it takes my breath away. But what does he expect; he IS my guide, after all, and this is one sentinel who is determined to keep his own personal shaman around and healthy for a long time to come.