The neurologist spent fifteen minutes with Blair and Jim, explaining Spinal/Neurogenic Shock and declaring that it was only a short-lived phenomenon that usually wore off anytime between one day and six weeks. An extended period of time was unlikely but not out of the question; however positive thought and intensive physiotherapy should alleviate any long-term problems.
She explained that the spinal shock arose due to prolonged trauma on his spine, a suggestion corroborated by Blair as he recalled the unceasing pressure he had felt through the back of the driver's seat. The low blood pressure all supported other medical evidence.
It was extremely improbable that it would be a permanent condition, but as a doctor, she apologized that she could not offer guarantees.
Sandburg remained silent through her explanations and Jim knew he was biting back a host of questions. Glancing at his friend he inquired as to a further consultation when they had both had time to absorb the information.
"Not a problem. If I call back tomorrow morning then you have time to think of any questions you might have, but in the meantime I shall recommend that you are visited by a physiotherapist so you can begin an exercise regime. It will be painful to begin with if you are having muscle constrictions in your spine, but that's not surprising if you were effectively in the same position for four days. You also have to consider that you are doubtlessly contending with a whiplash injury - and those are always underestimated."
Ellison thanked her on behalf of himself and a mute Sandburg. His friend was choosing not to talk much on account of his voice strain, and he was also taking time to accept the new information.
"Temporary, Sandburg," Jim reminded him as he resumed his seat. "That's the word of the week for you to remember. 'Temporary', okay?"
"Yeah man, whatever." The cracked tone didn't disguise the renewed despair. Every muscle in his body seemed to be protesting - but he wished that at the very least something in his legs would complain. That way he would have proof that they hadn't disappeared. He was embarrassed to think that the catheter and the naso-gastric tube were removing some of his dignity because he had no control of either of those necessary functions something still niggled in the back of his mind.
Oh. That was it. He hoped Ellison hadn't notice him blush as he recalled what it was that was lurking in his memory. He could have truly used the catheter while he was stuck. There had been more than one time when he had "Arial Narrow"; color:black; oh please tell him Jim hadn't been there when they'd found him.
There was a time in the past when he could have admitted his feelings of humiliation to the Sentinel, but it didn't feel quite right this time.
"Uh, Chief. You want me to go down to the shop and get you some stuff to read? I can always read to you if you like?" He had said it light-heartedly, but the offer was genuine. He also knew that Sandburg needed some time alone right now.
"Sure Jim. Sounds good." At least he didn't have to do more than speak above a hushed whisper with him.
Ellison had been gone for a while when a new visitor arrived.
"Mr Blair Sandburg?" The newcomer was dressed in a blouse and skirt and didn't look much like a member of the medical community. "My name is Karen Stromm." She acknowledged the prone position of her prey and bent over the bed so he had a face to associate with the name. "I work as an Insurance Liaison Officer with the hospital, I work primarily with Blue Cross." She moved away from the bed and Blair could hear the flutter of paper being sorted. As soon as she mentioned the insurance company he felt a stab in his gut, not taking too long to add two and two together.
"When you were admitted your, uh, partner, ...is that a live-in partner?"
"Detective," Blair forced out the word. Any other circumstance and he would have found the comment highly amusing, however he knew with dreaded certainty why she was here.
"Sorry. Your partner, Mr Ellison, filled out the insurance forms and he supplied a Blue Cross policy number. Before I go any further, do you have any other medical policies?"
The strangled negative ripped out of his throat. Could she please get this over and done with so, he could leave?
"I've made some enquiries and this was a policy that was paid for by Rainier University as part of your yearly bursary as a Teaching Assistant. I understand from them that your contract was terminated nearly two weeks ago, which automatically made the policy null and void." She looked up from the forms in her hand - she could be tough-skinned when she needed to be, but there was something vindictive in having to discuss financial matters with a man who could barely speak, was laid flat on his bed and was surrounded by monitors and tubes. She had noticed the increase in the pulse rate but it was an essential part of her job that the matter was discussed sooner rather than later. Especially considering the weekend began in the morning and issues had to be dealt with before the close of day. "I'm sorry, Mr Sandburg. The Blue Cross is unable to process the claim for your treatment."
She paused as the monitors settled.
"Are you sure you have no other policies?"
A second negative.
"Do you have any security to provide as collateral towards your continued treatment, or do you have a guarantor who is prepared to offer the same?" She had had a very interesting discussion with an administrative assistant at the University who had been unnecessarily rude, and caused Stromm to pull rank, and fax over a company demand for further details. She knew the reason for the dismissal and if she had met him in other circumstances, she might question whether or not he was capable of such fraud, but in light of those circumstances she had to further question whether or not a fraud against the insurance company could have been attempted. She knew that was not true. He had been unconscious, and his partner would not have realized that the policy was no longer valid.
"I see you are not a resident in this State. Have you ever been resident in this State or do you have relatives from here?"
A third negative.
"Shame, we might have managed to claim from the social fund." She pondered over the forms in front of her. "Mr Sandburg, do you understand what I've been saying to you?"
Blair knew exactly what she had been saying and he did not know what he should do. He had been here for two days already, and that alone would cost more than the money he would get back from the car. Not to mention the consults, the paramedics, the equipment used on him in both the ER and in ICU, the drugs, the monitors around him. The same monitors that were betraying his blood pressure and heart rate to this stranger.
He managed a croaked: "I understand."
There was an awkward silence broken by the constant bleeping of a machine threatening to set off alarms if the patient grew much more distressed. He needed more water to stop the scratchy feeling in his throat but he would have to do without.
"How long do I have before I have to leave?"
She didn't catch his words so he was forced to repeat them. The second time hurting his heart more than his throat.
"It's an issue we need to discuss with your doctor, Mr Sandburg. Obviously if you can't physically move then there is no question of the hospital simply kicking you out, but we need to consider transferring you to a facility that can offer Aid or some form of public or social funding." The final knife thrust was coming. "But at some point we will need to discuss the remuneration towards the hospital for the treatment received."
The bleeping on the machine became erratic and Stromm knew that this was more than her client was able to process at this point in time. The conversation had been mandatory and an integral and accepted part of hospital life. "There is just one last thing, Mr Sandburg. I need some form of signature negating your claim against the void policy. Are you left or right-handed?"
Blair couldn't grasp the pen she shoved into his hand; his grip had been minimal since he had woken the previous day. Apparently it was all related to the weakened muscles. Nevertheless he had to accept the support of his hand and arm that she offered, while holding up the form for him to sign. He didn't care that he wasn't wearing his glasses and the script was blurry; this was a foreseen event that Jim must never know anything about. His pride would not allow it. The signature was little more than an indiscernible scrawl, but was acceptable to avoid any charges of mis-claiming. It would take the insurance company off his back and only leave the hospital bills.
He didn't know what to do or how to think. There was too much confusion in his head as it was. The exact sequence of events leading up to his admittance to the hospital was still hazy, and he was reasonably sure the doctors hadn't told him everything, or why would he be in ICU having been intubated?
Yes, he had been running away from his situation in Cascade but he was an adult and had chosen a path that led away from all he had known. Yes, emotion played a great deal in the decision but he was a man who valued emotion, and trust, and friendship. Jim had helped him so much in the past - they had an even relationship; Jim had provided board and lodging while Blair plied him with more and more tests to help control the occasionally out-of-whack Sentinel abilities. It had been a two-way street. He had given up a lot of free time to help Jim with paperwork and computer input, but Jim had devoted equal time back to their friendship.
But he was also aware of the thinking he had been doing both before and after the accident.
He could not put upon Jim any longer, and this final situation was simply bringing home to him how little he actually had in life. The doctors believed the lower body paralysis to be short-lived, but they offered no guarantees. What if they were wrong? What was Blair meant to do in the interim? How was he to earn a living? Where was he to live? He had lost his car and with that he had lost his last material possession of any worth. The money from his sold laptop was in his wallet but his student loan officer would soon be chasing him for the next installment.
Like Naomi, he had never placed great trust in the importance of material possessions, but at the end of the day, being an owner of something often helped to pay the bills. He couldn't even do that right now. The hospital bill would be more than he could ever afford and he needed to leave. They could come to some arrangement perhaps where he could pay it back over time - but that would surely only be on the proviso that he incurred no further costs in the mean time.
Once again the rational part of Blair's mind was over-ruled by a not necessarily impetuous, but highly emotional part.
All he knew was that having been freed from his car, he now found himself trapped in a different prison. He had to get out.
Desperation over-rode hurt and Blair forced every ounce of strength into his pain-wracked upper body. He could do this. He didn't need anybody; he didn't have to be beholden to anyone.
The strain on the muscles launched his heart rate through the roof and the gasps of stabbing pain hurtled through his body. He had to get out; he had to leave. He could compel his obstinate limbs to move; with enough momentum he could sit upright and if he was able to do that, he could get to a wheelchair. The tearing agony seared through his frame as the alarms sounded on the screens behind him; the pounding in his head convulsing him forwards as he collapsed bodily onto the floor.
Jim had heard the wail of the protesting monitors as he walked back along the corridor. He had been delayed when he bumped into Nathan Harrison in the lobby, the S&R Officer having arrived with Sandburg's possessions rescued from the trunk of the car before the vehicle was hauled up from the valley floor. "Total write off, especially after the extrication damage." Harrison had grinned. "They do love to cut that metal up as much as they can; no point in having all that expensive equipment and still have fiddle around in small corners." His expression had grown more somber. "So how is the kid holding up?" Ellison had spent time filling in the medic, and relaying his gratitude for the service. Digging his card from his wallet, he wrote the telephone number for the loft on the reverse: "If you're ever in Washington...
"Sure thing, son. I may just take you up on that offer."
The detective had thanked him further, shaken hands, retrieved the book and various other purchases and made his way back to the ICU. Ellison had run down the corridor on hearing the blaring machines, not caring that he snagged the recently healed wound on his leg against a cart on the way. He hobbled further to hear an incoherent Blair babbling something about having to leave and not wanting anyone to touch him. "What the hell "Arial Narrow"; color:black;" Jim burst into the room and saw two orderlies restraining the feebly battling anthropologist. Dr Fenstein stood off to one side as a nurse re-connected the plethora of wires and tubes. "We'll have to reinsert a catheter," she was informing those around her, "and the needle's come out of the vein." Blair's whimpered pleas were being ignored as the oxygen was replaced under his nose and around his ears.
"Don't want..." The rasped begs went unnoticed as the medical staff did everything the Hippocratic oath decreed and fussed around to make their patient comfortable once more. Blair caught at the oxygen tube in a jerked movement as the cardiac monitors declared his heart rate once again unstable. Jim watched in horror as his friend tried everything in his weakened state to hinder the work of the staff. He turned on the attending physician who was scribbling furiously and dictating orders: "Okay, allowing for the situation, I think we need to give him 10ccs of valium."
"No. No drugs. He doesn't need drugs." Ellison blasted, unsure of from where his frustration was originating. "I can handle this." He looked across at the half-closed eyes and pale face of his friend. "I just need to know what set this off." He moved forward, using the bed as a lever. Blair's heart rate was erratic and Jim heard the word "arrhythmia" as something else was administered into the freshly inserted IV line.
He knew the younger man could be strong-willed, obstinate and pig-headed and wished that, just for once, he would shelve those feelings long enough for those who knew better, to take care of him. "I'm sorry," he muttered to the doctor now standing at his shoulder.
"If I took every comment personally I would have had to have quit a long time ago."
"But what's happening?" Jim didn't understand why Blair had seemed fine when he left him and was now in a state of panic.
"He was found out of bed and on the floor. No," the doctor held up a gentle hand to prevent interruption, "We're not sure how he managed it. The orderlies got him back into the bed but Mr Sandburg's been refusing our help."
"Why?" Jim's calf was throbbing and he was growing concerned by the continued beeped alarms of the cardiac machines.
"Are you aware that his medical insurance is invalid?" The voice was calm but the comment was not received in the same vein.
"Invalid? How?" He really had to work on increasing his one-word sentences. "I mean, he's with the Blue Cross paid for by "Arial Narrow"; color:black; Oh. Oh, I see." Light dawned and Ellison's stomach lurched. "Does he know?"
Fenstein nodded in affirmation.
"How do we handle this?" The detective had never been in this situation before and did not know protocol.
"Medically, he remains unaffected," Fenstein assured. "We will be looking to transfer him to a State hospital as soon as he's fit to travel, but it's against medical ethics and human decency not to treat him."
Ellison felt some measure of relief, but began to understand Blair's reactions. The cardiac monitors were looking more hopeful as the medication eased into his system but he was still far from calm. The nurse pulled away from the bed, the NG-tube resecured, the oxygen back in place, and the pads firmly attached to the patient's chest. Blair's eyes were still fractionally open indicating his semi-consciousness. "Chief?" Ellison had heard the faint hitching in his friend's breathing and cocked his ear to listen closer. Not totally cognizant of his surroundings, Sandburg's subconscious threw his mindset into confusion once more, creating the onset of a panic attack.
"It's out. It's over. There's no going back." Jim's patronizing voice was unmistakable. "Your research is done, Chief, why don't you just let it go?"
"Chief, don't try to talk."
"Chief, I don't want you to say anything right now."
"Ssh. No words, c'mon Chief, just try and relax."
Relax? How could he relax? He shouldn't be here. Jim didn't want him here. Chancellor Edwards had made it abundantly clear that his life as a respected academic was over.
"Can you say the words 'back rent'?"
Money. There was some issue involving money. Oh man, did his head ever hurt
"Sandburg, you need to breathe slower."
There was a pressure on his chest and a lancing pain ripping up through his lungs and tearing into his throat. Something about money or lack thereof. He owed Jim money. No, yes, no... that wasn't it. Yes he owed Jim money but that would be taken care of as soon as he spoke to Mark; he and Karen would get him on a expedition and then he could write at least one paper from it and receive some form of stipend in return; he could pay Jim back soon.
Something was being forced against his mouth and it really hurt to breathe, his throat was constricting with each intake of breath and it felt like someone had connected a bolt through his sternum and was tightening the relevant nut on the end reaching out through his spine. Money was a problem and he could not figure out why it was foremost in his mind.
With a mind shattering speed all the events of the preceding ten days catapulted through Blair's pulsating head and he recalled in crystal clarity why money was a problem. He couldn't afford to be here.
His bloodshot eyes flew open and took in the vision of a disheveled Jim Ellison perched on the edge of the bed, holding a brown paper bag against Sandburg's mouth and nose; a bored-looking nurse checking blood pressure and a tired doctor filling out a chart attached to the end of the bed.
"Breathe more slowly, Chief, you're having a panic attack." Blair couldn't see Jim's mouth moving but the words were drowned in a roaring in his ears. The room was swaying without his permission and was blurrier than he remembered. The pain in his chest seemed to be subsiding but it was difficult to remember which direction was which, when it came to breathing. He remembered Cassie trying to explain a full-on asthma attack to him once, and although he sympathized he had never been able to empathize. Not that this was asthma. What the hell was Jim saying to him? Why couldn't he . wait a minute. He couldn't be here.
Weak, flailing arms desperately tried to bat away Jim's firm grip on the bag. "Whoa, hold up there Chief." Ellison repositioned the bag and put his other hand around the back of Sandburg's head for extra support. "This is no time for heroics."
The panic and fear in Blair's eyes rescinded marginally as his breathing improved and Jim was able to slowly lower the crumpled bag. "Now," he began, easing Sandburg's head back to the pillow. "Care to tell me what that was all about?"
The panic attack had wiped the last of his energy and coupled with the valium in his system, Blair had quickly succumbed to sleep and had only fully revived within the last few hours when he was moved from the ICU onto an observation ward. Still lying prone in the bed, he felt ridiculous over his behavior the previous day but only in terms of pulling on already strained muscles and adding to the already phenomenal hospital bill he knew he would be receiving. He was a little angry that Dr Fenstein had told Jim about the insurance situation without consulting him, but the doctor had returned that, as Jim held Blair's medical power attorney then the point was moot.
Emotionally, he was becoming more and more fraught as his conversation with Ellison progressed. He was grateful that he was no longer strapped to the betraying tones of the cardiac monitor, although knowing that he was contending with Sentinel hearing, it wasnt much comfort.
"You did what, Jim?" Blair really hoped that he had misheard the older man.
"I said, like I told you last night, that you have nothing to worry about financially." Ellison had thought that removing the burden would be welcomed, but he had figured without Sandburg's hostile reaction.
"Jim?" The growl sounded even more effective with the remnants of the husky croak he was slowly losing.
"Now you sound like Simon!" More than anything else, Jim was desperate to retrieve some of the banter he and Sandburg had shared in the past. Blair looked so much better than he had the afternoon before; the color was definitely returning to his face and although he was forced to lie horizontally for at least the next few days, he was gaining the majority of the feeling back in his upper body. Unfortunately that also meant he felt every twinge and spasm his muscles produced; it had been decided to lower the level of medication as it was clearly too high a dosage and causing too much disorientation. Blair had concurred when it had been suggested, although Ellison suspected Sandburg was still counting dollar signs in his head.
"I tried to explain last night, but you were pretty out of it when I came back upstairs," Ellison rubbed his left calf, trying to ignore where he'd caught it. "I went down to the administration offices and they're quite happy to defer any question of payments until you are transferred to Cascade General. It seems that they can probably reclaim any monies owed from them." That wasn't entirely what had transpired, but Jim was not prepared to let Blair know that he had offered to act as a personal guarantor for any and all outstanding debts if Cascade were unprepared to offer remuneration. If the worst came to the worst, he could re-mortgage the loft, or failing that, he was fairly sure the relationship with his father had been boosted by the incident with Aaron Foster. Maybe not to the extent he might offer financial backing, but it might be worth a shot.
"Jim you had no right to do that without talking to me first; I'm quite capable of managing my own affairs." Blair grimaced as he shifted himself to a more comfortable position. "I mean, I appreciate the thought but I can manage."
"Chief, I'm sorry. I thought "
"You thought wrong." There was uneasy silence as Blair fought against resurfacing memories. He recalled his self-recrimination while stuck in his car, never certain when or if he would be rescued, and reconciling past events with current; past thought processes with their outcomes - not least his decision to leave Cascade resulting in him lying here at the mercy of others.
"Jim - you said 'transferred to Cascade Generaal'."
"That's right." He hadn't missed the uneasiness in Blair's voice.
"Jim." Blair bit his lip in uncertainty. "I left for a reason. I don't want to go back to Cascade."
"I know." Jim said succinctly. "What I'm suggesting is that you allow yourself to be transferred back to Cascade General - wait, hear me out. Allow yourself to be transferred back, let them arrange return of finances with this hospital, get yourself fixed up and properly rested, and then you can move on. No one needs to know you're even back in the same zip code." That was nothing at all like what he had in mind, but Blair needed careful handling. When the need arose, he could play-act just as well as his academic partner.
"We need to talk, Jim." Blair's voice was even quieter than before.
"Yes we do," Ellison agreed resting the newspaper back on the bed. He didn't enjoy crosswords as a rule, but Blair had shown a spark of interest at the idea of some mental stimulation when he had suggested it earlier. "But I don't think you're ready for the kind of talk we need."
"Oh?" Sandburg winced as he tried to turn his head towards his friend. "I think now's as good a time as any, man. After all, I'm a captive audience." He tried to raise an eyebrow at his own poor joke but they both knew it was a half-hearted effort. "Tell me what I'm not able to handle right now and I'll tell you if I agree." Blair's jaw tightened at the anger that was beginning to surge inside, though he was unsure what was causing the sudden sense of fury. Did it stem from the feeling of helplessness that was dogging his emotions? Was it borne of exhaustion, and the desire to simply be left alone; the same desire that had caused him to leave Cascade in the first place?
"Sandburg." Jim heaved a sigh and looked intently at the challenging blue eyes of the former observer. "We do need to talk, and we are going to talk."
"But only when you have the strength to fight back in the way that only you know how."
"Procrastinator." Blair was not deterred. "Okay, I'll start."
"Why did you think I would intentionally betray your trust?" The blue eyes were piercing deep into Ellison's soul.
"Not now, Chief."
"I admit you said that I was better than any police officer, and I appreciate that, but why did you assume that I wanted to join the force itself?"
"Why have we never sat down and fully discussed what happened with Alex Barnes?" Blair swallowed, having startled himself with that question and wondered where it had come from?
"Sandburg. Stop." The tone was edgy and usually Blair would have taken it as a cue to cease and desist, but not this time. It was almost as though every thought he had accumulated over the past week was forcing itself out in one go. What he could not understand himself was why all the venom he had previously aimed at himself was now being redirected at the man who had clearly set aside everything else in his life to come and find him.
"I may have debunked my own work, but the story still got out there, and people will always question whether or not you are a sentinel, so how can you say that you forgive me so easily?"
"Chief. Stop. Now."
"If I chose to leave Cascade why couldn't you have respected my decision?"
Jim was off the bed and glaring out of the window.
"If I've got financial problems why can't you treat me as an adult enough to realize that if I got myself into a situation, then I'm competent enough to ask if I need help getting out of it?"
The crack in Blair's voice not only signified the end of his vocal reserve, but the cessation of the outburst.
Sandburg was nearly as startled as Ellison at some of his questions. Although the one question he hadn't asked, he needed time and space on his own to deal with - what about the long-term effects of Spinal Shock? He didn't have the willpower to deal with that himself yet, and had felt he had lost the bonded relationship with Jim to be able to share. Had his onslaught of questions been unfair? Would he blame Jim if he about-faced and walked out on him? Is that what he wanted Jim to do? Wasn't that one of the reasons he had been heading towards the Carolinas?
He studied the strong back; the back belonging to the man who had given him a home. The man who had traveled to South Dakota to encourage him on the road to recovery. The man whose career he had ruined.
Silence reigned once again.
Jim had been half right earlier - yes the discussion would take place, but not when he felt Blair was ready for it; Ellison needed to wait until he had some answers to the same questions that had been haunting his own mind. The tough part about watching someone you care about get physically hurt the way Sandburg had been, was that while you suffered every moment of their struggle, they were usually completely unaware of the more life-threatening moments. Jim was too tired to face questions just now. He needed to obfuscate in true Sandburgian fashion.
Opening his mouth to produce some random excuse, the most obvious thought struck him. If they were to safeguard any tentative trust remaining between them, then honesty was surely the only way forwards.
"Chief?" He swallowed the lump that had arisen in his throat. "Blair?" Ellison turned and sat back on the chair facing the bed. "I can't answer any of your questions at the moment because I can't give you truthful enough answers." He scrubbed his hands over his face. "I'm tired, and I'm still reeling from many of the events which have happened in the last ...I don't know, month?"
Sandburg stared at him.
"You're not the one who's not able to handle this at the moment. It's me. I spent five days wondering whether or not I'd ever see you again, and another three wondering if you were going to live. I can't argue with you. Not at the moment; not while you're here like this." Jim scrunched the edge of the newspaper in his grip. "But we will talk, and we will be totally honest with each other. Just like we used to be." The newspaper was suffering from the attention but Ellison had no further words. Eye contact was made and broken.
The left hand of an emotional anthropologist slipped in to rescue the shredded paper. "I can do honest, Jim."
There was silence for a few moments before a small voice uttered: "And I think I've worked out the clue for 7 across."
Blair suffered over the next few days. He would have been quite prepared to lie flat on his back and wait for his back muscles to quit their protestations so he could concentrate his efforts of keeping as much muscle-tone in his legs as possible. Unfortunately for him the medical staff had a wildly differing opinion.
"I swear her third cousin is related to the Marquis de Sade," he grumbled to the smiling Ellison. His Monday afternoon physical session with the petite but strong Caity Hastings had been grueling, as she encouraged his weakened back and arm muscles back into motion and forced a low impact schedule onto his lower body. "It's all very well them telling me to rest, but the last time I checked the dictionary, it had a different definition to Boadicea out there."
Jim was cutting the label off a pair of sweatpants he had purchased in the local shopping mall. He tried very hard to hide the smirk but ducked instinctively when he felt the swoosh of air of a paper cup heading his direction. "It's not funny, Jim. I hurt when she's been." Blair's left hand gesticulated in punctuation. "Twice a day for the last two and a half days, and she's already said she'll be back by 9 am tomorrow. And I have more exercises to do tonight."
"You want out of here, Chief?" Ellison raised an eyebrow as he threw the pants towards his friend. "You heard what Dr Fenstein said just now, 'No travel until you are able to sit unaided'."
Blair muttered profanities against the world in general as he snagged the pants towards him. "I'll pay you back for these Jim. My wallet's in that drawer."
Jim's hands stilled as he bundled the bag into the disposal. Sandburg had refused further discussion about the payment of hospital care, and had appeared nonchalant to the nursing staff regarding issues of medication and treatment. An outsider would have been fooled by his behavior, taking it as acceptance that the situation would be remedied in due course - four years with his friend made Ellison more skeptical. He instilled a blank expression on his face as he turned.
"Want me to help you into those?"
Blair held the dark blue material in his hand. "You haven't said how much they cost."
"Sandburg, they cost less than $10 from Target." The blank expression quickly transformed into one of exasperation. "At least let me have bought them for you as a 'get well soon' present. Can I at least do that?" He had been as patient as he could since his friend regained consciousness, but his temper was becoming somewhat frayed. Being instructed by Blair and medical staff alike to go and rest was one thing, but when you were over 1500 miles from home and reliant on public transport to avoid the extra cost of a hire vehicle, then leisure pursuits were limited. Jim hadn't had a decent night's sleep in over a week and was fractious. What he couldn't afford to do at this juncture was to let it ruin the tenuous trust that he and Sandburg were building. He would do better to find an excuse to leave for half an hour and find a quiet place to sit, perhaps have a coffee. He should have taken that time when he trekked to the mall, but he had spent the majority of the time placing telephone calls back to Cascade.
Simon refused to discuss work, claiming that Jim had enough else on his mind. The call with his father had been distinctly uncomfortable and Jim chose not to reflect on that until he had had some decent sleep. The insurance company were sympathetic but generally unhelpful. The administration at Cascade General were reluctant to talk about any matters without direct consent from Mr Sandburg, although they confirmed that there was a hospital bed waiting for him when the patient was fit enough to travel.
"Can I?" Ellison asked again, noting the white knuckles of Sandburg's hands around the garment. Strangely his thoughts were grateful at the strength Blair now showed to be able to grasp without exhibiting signs of pain.
Sandburg grunted in response and mumbled something which sounded like, "I s'pose."
"So do you want help getting into them? You've been moaning about the lack of dignity in that hospital gown since you were awake enough to notice."
The blue eyes were staring back at him again. Ellison could not work out what he had said wrong this time. It was time for that sharp exit towards peace, quiet and caffeine.
"Okay, I'll tell you what." He grabbed his coat from the nearby chair. "I'm thirsty so I'm going to go down and grab something to drink. Do you want me to bring you back something? Something non-acidic?"
"No thanks, man. I'm good."
Blair watched Jim leave the room and regretted seeing the slouch in his friend's shoulders. He didn't mean to keep pushing him away but it seemed that every time he tried to say something positive, it turned into negativity the moment it hit his mouth. He wanted to discuss the money situation - it niggled him during every waking moment. Something in his pride refused to let him talk about it. He wanted to talk about going back to Cascade, albeit until he was sufficiently recovered and could move on. Something in his psyche refused to let him talk about it. He wanted to confide in someone about the fears he had over the lack of sensation in his legs, the long term ramifications, his future in the academic world, his future outside the academic world ... but no matter how hard he tried, Blair couldn't do it.
He held the sweatpants in his hand and thought about how much more comfortable they would be than the scratchy gown he was currently wearing. He considered the practicalities of maneuvering himself into them and a pang of uncertainty crept through him. No longer attached to an IV drip but allowed light fluids and soft food, he was still catheterized and had a nasogastric-tube fed through his nose into his stomach to collect all substances settling there. The doctors were talking of removing it in the morning, at which point he would have to wear incontinency pads until he regained sensation in the appropriate parts. He hoped Jim wasn't aware of that detail. He was embarrassed and humiliated to even think about it.
It was one of the key reasons he had wanted some sweatpants so that it would be less obvious.
He looked across at the rescued duffel bag that was sitting on the floor by the wall. The majority of the contents had become damp from condensation whilst in the trunk of his damaged car, and only a few of his clothes had been salvageable. Jim had taken those back to the motel for washing and brought one of his own t-shirts as a replacement. Blair could manage a t-shirt, but the pants were a greater concern. He had the strength in his upper body to manipulate his lower limbs now without the easing muscles protesting too greatly, but it was awkward.
Blair realized and accepted that over the next few days, possibly longer, he was going to continue to need help. While he was in the hospital he could ask the nursing staff for assistance - this was fine because as soon as he left here, he had no intention of returning to South Dakota, thereby lessening his chances of having to see any of them again.
Caity/Boadicea had been specific in her directions to him that afternoon about the importance of the exercise regime she had set up with him. No matter how quickly he regained the feeling in his lower limbs there was going to be an adjustment period. Already it had been eight days since he last stood or even moved his legs, so regardless of exercise there would be some difficulties in walking straight away. It was imperative that he maintained the muscle tone, so rebuilding the strength in his upper body would allow him greater mobility in the short term, but also assist whoever was helping him with his physical therapy.
Caity seemed to assume that he would have assistance when he was released from hospital and with reluctance; Blair had to acknowledge that Jim would not have matters any other way.
The dark blue sweatpants were still in his hand and the t-shirt was still on the chair.
Swallowing his pride Blair made a heart-wrenching decision, and waited nervously for Jim's return.
Henri would have called him a wuss. Rafe would have laughed at him.
Detective James Ellison didn't care.
When he re-entered Sandburg's room on the fourth floor, there was a lump in his throat and he felt his eyes mist over when his friend built up the courage to ask for his help in getting dressed.
He knew that Blair had been fighting himself over this, and although he was prepared for the medical staff to change various tubes and monitor quantities in and out of his body, allowing Ellison to help him had seemed demeaning and degrading. It had clearly taken a great battle of willpower to ask for this small measure of help.
Sometimes Sandburg could be too damned independent for his own good.
On the Wednesday afternoon, Blair Sandburg, anthropologist, former TA at Rainier University, Cascade, WA, was transferred into a wheelchair and began the arduous journey back to the place he had once considered home.
The medical staff were there to wish him well and Dr Ben Fenstein met them in the lobby.
"Go easy on him, Blair." Fenstein had winked and ruffled the straggly hair, causing a squawk of distress from his former patient and a squawk of mirth from Ellison. "Let me know how you get on. You have my email address."
"'Kay, will do." The sleepy half-smile hid the trepidation Blair felt at leaving the comfort of a hospital system where he had grown to feel safer; and the fear he was facing at his return to Cascade. It wasn't so much the physical journey ahead but the emotional hurdles he would have to overcome at the other end. If he had been feeling healthier he would have realized that the majority of these hurdles had become self-inflicted where he had worked small molehills into the Rocky Mountains.
Blair had been given a sedative by the hospital before leaving, and Jim was armed with a list of further medications which could be administered over the course of their trip should it prove necessary. The hope was that the sedative would take full effect when they arrived at the small airfield and Sandburg would be conscious but unmindful of any bumps they were certain to encounter during the different methods of transportation.
He had a full range of movement in his upper body now and only the occasional twinge if he exerted himself or twisted in an awkward direction. His lower body was still completely unresponsive but he had been assured that this was still only a temporary setback, and with positive thinking and continued therapy, he should be fine.
The world was taking on a rosy glow in Sandburg's mind as the ambulance pulled away from the hospital entrance. His thoughts were becoming a little distorted but he didn't care. Jim had mentioned something about Simon calling in yet another favor and that was how they were getting back to Washington. He didn't think that the favor would involve an ambulance driving them all the way across a few States but Jim was in charge, so that was okay. He'd just wait and see what happened. It was a shame about his car. He'd loved that old car.
His eyes slowly closed, as he was lulled to sleep by the motion of the ambulance.
A second ambulance was waiting at the airfield at the end of the flight, and the paramedics immediately checked over Sandburg's vitals. Ellison had assured them that the journey had passed without incident, but as their patient was barely conscious they wanted to be certain.
It had already been established that Blair would stay at Cascade General overnight initially and the doctors would reassess him in the morning. If nothing else they needed to monitor how he had coped with the flight as well as evaluate the patient for themselves. Sandburg was giggly by the time he was brought into the hospital and Ellison raised an eyebrow when one of his first comments was to one of the attending nurses.
It wasn't the most impersonal comment he could have made.
Jim rolled his eyes when the nurse threw him a questioning look, and he comforted with, "Just hope he's well enough to leave tomorrow."
Although pumped full of tranquilizing drugs, it was the first time his friend had exhibited some of the spirit that had been missing for so long. For the first time in nearly two weeks Ellison felt some of the pressure slipping out of his shoulders and the tension fading from his overly clenched limbs.
He knew the battle had only just begun, but just sometimes, it was battles that made friendships stronger than they were before.
Blair was disappointed when Joel Taggert walked through the hospital door on the Friday morning.
"Are you ready to leave then, Sandburg?" he asked airily, pointedly disregarding Sandburg's confusion, and playing the situation as though their last conversation had been the day before and not two weeks ago.
"Where's um, ...where's," he frowned. Surely Jim would have been here if he could. "Er, hi Joel." He was glad Trudi had helped him dress already, although with nurses like that particular brunette, he wouldn't mind staying another few days.
"Jim got caught up," he apologized, noticing the weathered duffel bag on the chair. "This yours?"
Blair's breathing sped up. "Um, I really..." What? He didn't feel comfortable with Joel? He didn't want him to know pertinent details about his follow-up medical care? He didn't feel confident with leaving the hospital? He was scared? Blair gulped, awash with turbulent emotions.
He was almost sure he could have admitted the nervousness to Jim, but Joel?
"It's okay, Blair," Taggert assured him gently, sitting down on the bed to place a comforting hand on the younger man's arm and consciously ignoring the flinched movement away from him - Jim had warned him that the younger man would be edgy. "I'm only your taxi service. I have strict instructions to get you back to the loft, into bed... what?"
"You want to get me into bed?"
Blair could not remember the last time he had laughed. Laughing hurt, it really hurt, every muscle in his back protested at the unfamiliar gesture, but he could not have cared less. Man, it felt good to laugh.
Joel stared at him, gnawing his thumb in consternation. The comment wasn't that funny. Was this an extreme end of the seesaw emotions they were going to help him through? All he had to do was get Blair out of the hospital and back to the apartment while Jim concluded his meeting with the Chief of Police. Ellison hadn't wanted to relegate the task in light of the circumstances, but the meeting could well last all day.
Joel leant forward and gave Blair a light punch on the arm. "Come on you, time we got you home." Again he ignored the flinched reaction, and put it down to the close contact. The door opened to admit a tall, bulky doctor carrying a sheath of papers.
"Excited to be going home, Mr Sandburg?" The question was rhetorical as the doctor launched into a multitude of instructions to accompany each prescription order. "It's crucial that you call either your designated therapist or outpatient physician the moment you feel any unusual sensations. Now, are you sure you understand about - "
"Uh, YES!" Blair squeaked in interruption, eyebrows raised and a warning finger halting further words. "Yes, sorry," he coughed. "Yes I fully understand about the..." He screwed up his face, hoping that the doctor would get the gist.
Taggert was perplexed but let it ride. Sometimes the grad student was too weird.
"These are your release papers, and these your prescriptions." The documents changed hands. "Do you have your physical therapy and counseling schedule? Good. Well then, Mr Sandburg. Good luck." The doctor shook hands and left.
It seemed so abrupt and final. Blair stared at the closed door until it reopened with his favorite nurse pushing a wheelchair.
"Hi Blair," she smiled, watching his face glow with the return beam. "This is for your use until you can walk. Can you swing yourself into it for me?" Joel stepped back and felt himself flush when he saw his friend strive to accomplish the task. In spite of Ellison's words, this part of his injury had not sunk home. He was embarrassed when Blair looked up and saw the worried eyes. "I did it, Joel," he triumphed. "I can go cause trouble now! Chicks just love a wounded warrior." The wicked gleam in his eye was indisputable.
Taggert was speechless as he caught up the duffel bag and watched Sandburg wheel himself through the door.
Getting Blair into his car had not been problematic, but the convalescent was fighting exhaustion when they arrived at the loft. He had kept his eyes shut for the duration of the trip, and Joel didn't know if that was from tiredness or wanting to shut out the world of Cascade.
The captain removed the battered bag from the trunk and leveled the chair with the passenger door. "What can I do to help?"
Blair's face was wan and drawn but he plastered on a true Sandburg smile and reached for the arms of the chair. "Stand back and hope I don't fall on my face?"
Joel's snoring was the first sound Jim heard as he slotted his key in the door lock. He grinned, letting himself into the loft and quietly putting away his keys and jacket. He stole over to the couch and flicked the sleeping captain on the cheek. The reaction was amusing as arms and legs floundered before the larger man righted himself and straightened his tie. "I'm awake, I'm awake," he protested, knowing he'd been caught.
"How is he?" Jim asked, heading towards the smaller room. Taggert followed him.
"Wiped." He tucked in his shirt as Ellison crept into Sandburg's room. "There wasn't any argument when I brought him up, and he was out cold before I even got the key in the door."
Jim gazed down at the slumbering figure, grateful that he finally had his guide back where Jim, if not Blair, felt he belonged.
"How did it go today?" Taggert asked, referring back to the meeting.
Ellison shrugged. "Waste of time. Bureaucratic nonsense." The detective eased up the blanket and tucked it underneath the stubbled chin. "How long have you been back?"
"About," Joel checked his watch, "Two hours."
"You got the list of meds? Did you get the prescriptions filled? Is there a specific schedule? What time did he last take anything?"
"Whoa, whoa. Easy there, Jimbo." Taggert patted the anxious man on the back and steered him towards the kitchen area. "I've got everything right here." He indicated the plethora of bottles and packets adorning the counter. "The timings are all on this sheet, and the hospital have left these phone numbers for any emergencies." The tension drop was palpable.
"Thanks." Jim managed a smile. "Beer?" Taggert accepted the offer and hung around patiently while Ellison meticulously read each medical container several times and made notes. He paused before he examined the contents of the last bag.
"You got everything?" Joel asked as he took a final swig of his beer.
Ellison nodded as Taggert made ready to depart. He waited until the other man had left before pulling out the contents of the final bag. "Now I just have to get Sandburg to agree to my helping him."
"I'm fine, Jim, I told you."
"Chief, I dont want to have to do this any more than you do." The words came out badly and Jim regretted them.
"Fine, then don't." Blair was almost at shouting point, but lacked the energy. He was sitting up in bed with Ellison standing next to him, the latter holding a glass of water and various pills. It wasn't either of those two objects that had triggered the disagreement. Sandburg had been out of the hospital for over three hours and there was a matter that needed to be dealt with.
"Chief, I'm sorry. Let's deal with that in a moment, just take these first." He held out the water and tablets, and waited while the white capsules were tossed back. Jim took the glass back to the kitchen, selected various items from the bags on the counter, and placed them on the small shelf in the bathroom. Catching a glimpse of his haggard face in the mirror, he reflected that the meeting had exhausted him more than he'd realized and he was too tired to fight. Nevertheless, Blair was in no fit state to be left unsupervised in the bathroom.
Sandburg's jaw was set firm and he was already negotiating the wheelchair and propping his limp legs onto the footplates. He was still fully clothed, as Joel had only removed his shoes before tucking him up in the bed.
"You can't do this on your own," Jim stated, knowing that this was one quarrel he had to win.
"I'll leave the door unlocked," Blair darted back, navigating the confines of his small bedroom. "Are you going to move out of my way?"
Ellison's conscience yelled 'no' at him, but he stepped aside as the wheelchair brushed past his legs. He dialed down his sense of smell knowing that they were both already too late. His spine tingled with empathized feelings of embarrassment and decided that he really was too tired to deal with an irate Sandburg. He should wait until Blair came to him. Shouldn't he?
The bathroom door was nudged closed and Ellison sat on the edge of the futon bed and waited. He fought with himself over whether to leave his sense of hearing dialed up or down, and eventually felt less guilty at leaving it dialed higher. It was important that he hear any call for help.
He tried to tune out the angered cursing and resisted knocking on the door. The rustle of packets being opened sounded promising, but the profanities increased as the first of the items was dropped on the floor. The actions were becoming more pronounced and there was a muffled shout as another item landed on the tiled floor. Jim hadn't realized how hard he was gripping the side of the bed as his hearing created the scene in his mind.
He had to wait.
The sound of a hand thudding down on the sink made him balk, and as another dull sound signified more products hitting the floor there was a sharp cry of despair.
Hating himself, Jim still knew he had to wait. If he gritted his teeth much harder, he would give himself a nasty headache, but he had to have patience. Something he didn't usually have in abundance at the best of times. God, he was tired.
The sounds in the bathroom ceased, and the quiet unnerved the listener. Blair's breathing showed frustration but he was still conscious.
The next sound the Sentinel heard crushed his soul and crumpled his resolve. He couldn't wait to be summoned.
He rose from the bed and headed towards the small, heart-rending sound of his friend whimpering.
Jim knocked softly on the door to warn of his presence before he entered the bathroom. Blair was seated on the toilet with the lid up and his sweatpants part way down his thighs. The wheelchair was shoved to one side and the majority of the packets were on the floor, with some in a disorderly mess in the sink. Ellison didn't care about the disarray, all he saw were the red-rimmed eyes, the stream of tears and the man who needed to be held.
He threw his arms around the smaller man and slowly rocked him as the whimpering continued. Ellison tuned out everything else entirely and focused on the frenetic heartbeat and the shuddering sobs. He gently rubbed his hands along Blair's back, making soothing sounds and offering solace.
Finally he felt his guide pulling away. "Do you want me to leave?"
His answer was a tugging, as Blair's nose dug back into his shoulder.
"Okay, I'll stay."
Ellison toed the wheelchair towards him so he could give his knees a respite and sit. Blair's breathing evened and Jim pushed the strands of dark hair out of his face. He ripped off some toilet paper and offered it over, wanting to wash away the salty lines himself, but refraining.
It was many more minutes before Blair was ready to speak. The tissue was quickly shredded by nervous fingers and the bloodshot eyes remained lowered.
"I can't do it myself, Jim."
Ellison gripped his friend's shoulders, willing him to continue.
"I'm more embarrassed than I've ever been in my life, to say that." His top lip was chewed aggressively. "I don' t want to be back here, I don't want to be a burden on you, and I don't want to be like this." He waved his hand aimlessly in the air, shredded tissue fluttering to the floor.
"Chief, this is going to..."
"To change, yes I know, Jim. The key word is 'temporary'." Blair mimicked previous conversations. "That still doesn't change how I feel right now." He sniffed and ran the back of his hand across his nose. Taking a few deep breaths he closed his eyes.
"I must smell awful."
Ellison's Sentinel abilities may have appeared crippling when they came back online, in the days before he met Sandburg, but he had never been in Blair's situation of having so much out of his control. Blair didn't need to voice his feelings over the loss of dignity, that much was obvious. What must be more distressing was the loss of choice. For the time being, he was very reliant on the will and help of other people, and, for someone so independently minded, that must be a terrible torment of the soul.
"I was a medic once. I've treated field wounds and helped people in difficult situations." Jim kept his voice as low as possible. "Would you let me help you?"
"I..." Blair's voice was nearly a wail as his pride once more submitted. "I don't have any choice."
Jim knew this was not meant to sound ungrateful and simply held Blair in his arms once again.
When the younger man was ready, Jim carefully eased off the t-shirt and sweatpants, before lifting him up to remove his underpants and soiled incontinency pad. The tensed muscles accompanied every action, but Jim was trying to be as gentle as he could and keeping up a running commentary, ensuring his dials remained as low as possible. "Do you want me to run a bath?"
The nod was silent, as Jim stood to place the plug and turn on the faucets.
"I need to clean you up a bit while it's running, is that okay?" The straggled head was still down and the nod was again silent. The increased heart rate was a clear indication of his distress.
Jim did what needed to be done as swiftly and gently as possible, and then lifted Blair into the tub.
"Oh man, this is good." The guarded sigh of contentment barely covered the humiliation Blair felt.
Ellison held out a sponge. "Do you want to do this part?" The shuddering was slight but Sentinel senses felt it.
"Would you...? Um, that is..."
How could a man so full of words and lengthy answers be so lost for coherent sentences? Jim felt guilty that maybe some of this had been his fault. If he had paid more attention during that time after the press conference, perhaps he would have seen how Blair was truly feeling under his typical veneer of exuberance. He should have realized over their time as a partnership that his friend was willing to sacrifice his life, in every meaning of the word, for others, more specifically, for him. Had he been more aware in the past, then this might never have happened. Jim might have seen that attending the Academy was not a realistic option; after declaring himself a fraud, Blair lacked all personal credibility in the eyes of the public and who would want that person investigating a crime? Rather than deciding Blair's options for him, would it not be better if they sat down together and thrashed out various ideas and came up with something mutually beneficial? Why did it have to be mutual? Did Jim really feel that Blair owed him something? The man had sacrificed his life's work to preserve Ellison's career; isn't that also why he left Cascade so that the media would leave the detective alone to resume his life? Was bringing Blair back here the most sensible option and had he actually considered the younger man's feelings? Hadn't he, once more, made a decision without consulting the very person who it affected?
Jim's hand had been idly rubbing the sponge over Blair's back and losing himself in thought.
He was brought back by the familiar soft tones of his Guide.
"I was daydreaming," he smiled. "Not zoning."
"Felt like a zone to me!" Sandburg nearly managed one of his mischievous grins, but it slipped when reality kicked back in. He looked down at his ignominious legs and marveled again that they were floating with the water level. It felt stranger not to sense them now that he was in the bath, than it did when he was in bed or in the wheelchair.
The bubbles popped away as the soap mixed with the suds. Jim had just finished washing down his guide's legs when he smelt the distinctive odor of something other than bath oil and soap. He hoped that Blair wouldn't notice and that he could have him out of the bath and into a warm, dry towel - but luck was against him.
Blair had been watching his Sentinel's careful ministrations and caught the furtive glance. He looked down and saw the mix of yellow staining the bath water.
It was the final indignity and, knowing that Jim had seen or at least sensed it, Blair pushed him violently away. Caught off guard, Jim lost his hold on Sandburg and fell backwards.
"Get off me, I can do this myself." Blair grabbed the edges of the bath but the sudden jarred movements caused his muscles to protest vehemently and he gasped, losing his grip.
Ellison leapt back forwards and caught a hand underneath Blair's back. He yanked a towel off the rail and bunched it underneath Blair's head, regardless of the water level. "Lie still for a minute," he ordered as he pulled out the plug and fetched down the showerhead. He ran the shower and rinsed off his friend.
As he finished, Blair quietly said: "It happened in my car, too."
The simplistic sentence offered Ellison hope. Sandburg didn't have to share that information with him.
"I couldn't get out and I couldn't find anything to use, so I had to do it in the car, in my pants." The blue eyes stared at the bathroom ceiling. "It was filthy. I hated myself for it."
The water gone, Ellison angled Blair's shoulders and tucked one towel around his body and another over his hair.
"I didn't want to be rescued when that happened, because I didn't want anyone to find me like that."
Jim flexed his arms and lifted Blair out of the bath, sitting him on the closed toilet seat to dry him off. He was listening to the honesty, and remaining silent about having been there. He concentrated on getting his ward dried and into clean clothes.
"I didn't even know it had happened the second time. I couldn't feel my legs by then. I just looked down and I was wet. Again."
Jim had been sorting a fresh pad when he stopped.
"I wish I could have found you sooner, Chief," he intoned. "I wish none of this had happened."
Blair caught the fatigue and worn look on Jim's face and bit his tongue - he knew that taking out his frustrations on his friend wasn't fair, but couldn't help it.
He patiently allowed Jim to fit him with disposable underwear and a night pad before raising his arms for the t-shirt to be dropped over his head. His back was aching now and he was suddenly extremely tired.
Sentinel and Guide yawned in unison and found the coincidence amusing.
"C'mon, Chief." Jim didn't bother with the chair but swooped up his shaman and deposited him gently on his bed. "Food, then sleep. We'll talk more in the morning." Incoherent grumbling followed him around the kitchen as Jim quickly microwaved some soup. The events of the day had stripped away his own appetite and Blair was still only allowed soft food.
He poured the soup into two bowls, set them on trays and whisked them back into the small room. Blair had fallen into a light sleep in the interim, but Ellison was determined to make him eat.
They sat in an uneasy silence while they ate, knowing that there were a vast number of questions they each had to ask the other at some point. Finishing the soup, Blair yawned again as Ellison caught the sliding tray.
"Sleep, Chief. That's an order."
Jim waited until Sandburg was asleep before tackling the dishes and the bathroom. He wheeled the chair back into the small bedroom and left a fresh glass of water on the side table.
He stood for a moment and absorbed the sight of a comfortably sleeping Sandburg. He tried to override the haunting image of that first moment he saw the medics treating Blair's unconscious form in the wrecked Volvo. He never wanted to revisit those feelings of uncertainty and fear.
He adjusted the blankets and smiled at Sandburg's sleepy rambled mutterings.
Stretching his back, Ellison caught his own shower before heading up the stairs to bed. It was only seven o'clock, but the day had been too long, and full of too many nasty surprises. He hadn't expected the Chief of Police to reopen a number of his investigations and verify the authenticity of his reports.
Assurances that it was merely a formality in the light of Blair's news conference and was merely to assuage the circling crows of Defense Attorneys didn't pacify him - it was an antagonistic state of affairs that Ellison didn't need.