Saturday's gray, rain-filled skies matched Ellison's mood when he awoke. He had been woken by the alarm clock and was annoyed with himself that he hadn't canceled it the night before - it was the weekend, and for once he didn't have to go in. Still, he reminded himself, Sandburg had his P.T. session at 9am and it would take them that long to get ready.
He had helped Blair bathe the night before, and they were still fighting the issues of modesty and independence. Ellison tore off the eye mask and thumped his hand down against the mattress. It had been a little over three weeks since the Emergency Services were using hydraulic equipment to haul a hypothermic Sandburg out of his car, a little over two since he had been brought back to the loft. The return of sensation to Blair's lower limbs had been a massive turning point but in spite of reiterations by the medical staff when the spinal shock was first diagnosed, neither of them had realized how slowly the healing process would continue to crawl. As the last seventy-two hours had proved, return of sensation did not equate to Blair being able to walk on the same day. That would take many more weeks of intensive therapy, exercises and perseverance.
Blair was tired and so was Ellison. He was tired of Blair's continual sniping at him when he was only trying to help, and of pushing him away when it came to tasks he still couldn't manage effectively on his own. Ellison knew Blair was fed up with having to accept help and compromising his liberty, and he knew that Sandburg had spent many restless nights contemplating his predicament, but he had made a promise not to intervene in that respect, and short of joining the academy, the detective hadn't produced any viable alternatives for his friend if he could be persuaded to remain in Cascade. Blair would always be welcome at the loft but he would need employment, and a reason to be here. Being the Sentinel's Guide wasn't justification enough.
For the first time, Jim began to truly understand just why Blair had left in the first place.
He heard movement downstairs and knew he only had a short time to grab his own shower and begin breakfast. Blair was adamant that he was able to dress himself and perform his morning ablutions without assistance, but the Protector part of Ellison could not stand idly by while he did so.
Blair was making his slow, laborious way out of his bedroom when Jim reached the bottom of the stairs. "Morning," he greeted as he watched the walker get jammed forwards before Blair dragged his recalcitrant legs to follow, before flopping down into the waiting wheelchair. Setting it outside the room had been Sandburg's target to himself.
"Hey." The mop of hair was straggling over his face as Blair wheeled himself to the bathroom.
"You need a..."
Jim's words were cut short by Blair's head snapping up and fixing him with a stern stare.
"Okay, okay." Ellison held up his hands in submission. "I know, I'm sorry. If you need help you'll ask for it."
Blair continued to stare at his roommate and an unfathomable expression crossed his face before he looked away and resumed his short journey.
Ellison watched the figure disappearing into the bathroom, and it wasn't until he heard the sound of the toilet seat being raised that he reached for the coffee machine. Until a few weeks ago, the very idea of listening in to someone while they were in the bathroom was a repulsive thought, now it was merely a necessity. He filled the machine and set out two mugs, then explored the refrigerator for breakfast materials. "What do you want for breakfast this morning, Chief?"
The grunt from the other room translated as "not hungry" but Ellison pulled out some eggs and started on an omelet regardless. "What about lunch? I'm free today, so you want me to take you out for lunch?"
The mussed head appeared first as Sandburg finished in the bathroom. "It's Saturday, Jim," he began. "I don't have to go to the hospital today."
"Huh?" Ellison spun around. "You have a daily P.T. schedule. You went last weekend."
"That was before I got the sensation back," Blair continued, as he wheeled back towards his room. "It's a lighter hospital schedule now, so long as I exercise at home." The futon creaked as he transferred back onto it. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm going back to bed for a few hours."
Jim frowned. What was Sandburg not telling him?
"Chief?" Jim walked into the bedroom, watching the younger man pull the blanket back up over himself. "What's wrong?"
Blair snuggled down into the blanket and shifted over to face the wall. "Nothing's 'wrong' Jim, I'm just tired and want another few hours of sleep." His eyes remained open as he felt the bed dip.
"I don't accept that, Chief. You haven't been yourself since Thursday evening, and I'm concerned." Jim's tone was placatory.
Blair had spent most of the night gazing into the dark, trying to come to terms with some decisions, and he didn't have the strength for another confrontation, especially after Sunday's altercation. "I said, I am fine." The gritted teeth refuted that comment but he didn't care. He pulled the blanket up tighter around his neck and hoped Jim would go away. He needed sleep.
He scorned the irony of having wanted Jim to rescue him, and now wanting to be left alone. Or had he simply come full circle?
"Right." The mattress sprung back up when Ellison stood. He had had enough now. "I'm going to have a shower, get dressed and make breakfast. You can sleep."
Blair closed his eyes against the roughly spoken words and listened to Jim going about his business. He would need Jim to help him with the exercises later; but at least today he could cite a good excuse. He would need to think of equally as efficient excuses for the days to come. If he could just sleep for a while longer it would give him the energy he needed and give both of them some time to cool off.
It took until Ellison was washing the breakfast dishes before he heard the gentle snoring from the bedroom. It had only taken the duration of his shower for him to calm down again, but when he checked on his obstinate partner his hearing picked up the quickened heartbeat and left him to rest.
He idly channel-hopped until he heard the mail arrive, and slipped on his shoes to go downstairs to collect it. It contained the usual junk mail flyers, a telephone bill and a white, clear-windowed envelope addressed to himself. Taking the stairs back up to the apartment Ellison retrieved the contents and found himself reading a finalized invoice from Cascade General. Reading it closer it listed the various treatments, procedures and therapy sessions relating to a Mr Blair Sandburg: which ones were to be picked up by the State, and which required payment. This was the copy issued to the guarantor, a first copy having been issued to the patient the previous day.
Ellison dropped down onto the final step and read the pages more closely. There had to be some mistake. It listed the last physical therapy session as having been on the Thursday and the last counseling session as being a first and only one last Monday. What had happened to yesterday's? There was also a note asking that the wheelchair and walker be returned as soon as the patient was able, seeing as he had signed himself out. AMA.
Snatching up the sheets Ellison stormed into the loft, smashing the door back on its hinges. His neck muscles standing out as he bawled at Sandburg to get up. His right hand slammed the apartment door shut, and he stormed into the small room.
"What the fuck is this?" He demanded, gripping Blair's shoulder and shoving the paper in his face. "After everything we've been through, and everything I've done for you, you go and fuck it all up?"
Blair had been jerked awake by the noise of the apartment door, but now he was lying with his hands up defensively, legitimately afraid that his roommate was going to strike him. "Wha...? I don't know what you're talking about, Jim." He wrestled the blankets to crawl into the corner, away from the glowering form hovering above him.
"This." Jim shook the sheets at Sandburg's confused face. "This. Proof of your total idiocy." Ellison's face was almost purple with rage. "How could...? Oh, I give up with you." He smacked his hand down on the bed, flinging the invoices into Blair's startled face.
The heading on the tops of the sheets caught the prone man's eye and with a dreaded certainty recognized that these were duplicates of the invoice he had pocketed the day before. How was that possible that these were addressed to James Ellison? Unless...
"You did it, didn't you?" The cold, empty feeling inside his soul returned with gusto, "I told you that I would handle it, and you had to go and get yourself involved in something which was of no concern to you." Blair held the invoice loosely in his hand and double-checked his facts before he continued. "I told you that it was for me to arrange and you were to keep out of affairs that were to do with me, and me alone. I thought I trusted you."
"Me? You thought you could trust me?" Ellison blurted, punching his fist into the desk in mad frustration. "That's rich coming from you."
"You what? No, I'm not going to back down this time. You fuck off out of here with no thought to how anyone else felt; you damn-near ruin my career on the way; you turn away from every friend you ever made; you are so unbelievably stupid that you don't even check whether or not your insurance is valid before setting off on a lone trip to the middle of nowhere without telling anyone where you're going, or why; you come back here and then proceed to throw your life away by refusing treatment." Ellison found himself shouting so loudly his voice was ripping.
"Yeah Jim, like I intentionally threw away my own career because my flower-power mother wanted what was best for her son, but then couldn't stick around long enough after she'd done the damage. Like I intentionally drove off the side of a road and tried to kill myself that way." Blair was fighting to sit upright but there was a sharp pain spiking through his back from his awkward maneuvers. "Maybe it would have been easier for everybody if I had died back at the goddamn fountain, then none of this would have happened."
Jim whipped his head around but Sandburg had only just started.
"Yes, that would have made things so much easier. No one there to give you tests every few days, no one to hypothesize over some stupid theory that no one in his right mind would listen to; no one to ruin your career instead of their own; no one for you to have to come chasing half way across the country to find. No one for you have to bathe and clean the shit off their ass because they were too fucking stupid to leave a note because they couldn't cope with a mess they had caused. No repercussions or feelings of obligations. No one to take advantage of your generosity. Just think, you would have had three years of someone so eager to help you get your senses online that they died for you. "
"That's not fair and you know it."
Ellison was in front of Sandburg and fighting not to grab the man by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. "If we're getting into that, then tell me why you've been living here virtually free of charge, and why I was prepared to have you ride along with me for those three years when all you were really doing was making it up and flying by the seat of your pants? Why was I having to spend time watching your back instead of being able to concentrate 100% on what I was supposed to be doing?"
"What, zoning? Yeah I could just imagine you giving it 100% and getting your head blown off because you were too intent on following the sound of someone's breathing to notice they had come up behind you and were now holding a gun to your head, set to kill you. Speaking of killing people," Blair pushed his legs out in front of him and made to grab his jeans. "Explain to me again why you were on the beach kissing the woman who you knew full well had killed me?"
"We've gone over that, Sandburg." Ellison fists were so tightly clenched there was blood appearing in the palms of his hands. "It was you who devised the theory."
"Tell me again." He had the jeans over his left leg. "Tell me again because I'm stupid Jim. I'm so stupid. I'm an idiot. I only devoted several years of my life to something I passionately believed in, to writing my dissertation so I could get my doctorate, to wanting to help you, not because of you being a Sentinel but because of who you are." With an exerted effort the jeans slid over his right leg and he was able to yank the top up and fasten the zipper. "I started off wanting this for my dissertation but I wound up wanting to help you. I saw what the media had done to you and how you didn't trust me any more so I did the only thing I could think of to rectify the situation." He pulled on a sweater. "While I was stuck in the car, all I could think about was getting out of there, and everything I could do - and not too many of those plans involved Cascade, Jim. I'd already destroyed your life; I knew that, well I've got news for you, man. In case you hadn't noticed, it destroyed mine too."
"You finished now?" Ellison was still fuming. He stepped out of the way so Sandburg could reach over for his socks. "You finished playing 'self-pity boy'?"
"How dare you?"
"I dare very easily, Sandburg." This was long overdue. "I have done nothing but try and help you over the last month, and not once have I sat back and thought 'what's in it for me'? I have been trying to help the person who, in spite of everything, I once thought of as my friend. The person who would take a bullet for me, and the person who was drowned because something in my genes refused to let me see someone for who they really were. The entire Major Crimes Unit put their lives on hold to come and find you - and did it never occur to you, that the three people who flew out to South Dakota had all been shot in the two weeks before, and should not have been spending every waking moment looking for someone who's too immature to sit down and discuss problems, but who thinks that the only solution is to run away? And do you know what, Sandburg?" There was a malicious glint in Ellison's eyes. "That looks to me like that's exactly what you're trying to do right now. Again. You're right. It's what you're very good at."
Blair had finished putting on his socks and had been struggling to stand, leaning heavily on the walker.
"Oh yeah, Chief." Ellison indicated to the metal frame. "And the hospital want that back too."
All the strength left Blair's arms when he heard those words.
It was the ultimate realization that he really was on his own.
He couldn't stand on his own two feet either physically or metaphorically. He had no money. He owed money. He owned nothing. He had no career. He had nowhere to go.
If the last ten minutes were any indication, he had just successfully evicted himself as well.
Not even the traumatic emotions of the press conference equated to the great loss he felt now. It was as though someone had sucked out his very existence and the earth was pulling him down.
He sank back onto the bed and looked up at Ellison's irate face.
"I need some time, Jim. But I can't leave the loft to give myself the space."
"You're asking me to leave my own home?"
"Just... just for a few minutes. Just so I can gather my thoughts."
"Or your possessions, if your track record's anything to go by. Where are you going to run to this time? Same place you were going to run to on Sunday? Where was that, by the way?"
A snort was his only verbal answer as Jim crashed his way out of the room, stopping only to gather his coat as he slammed back out of the loft.
Blair sat on the futon completely lost. His hands lay in his lap as he gazed around the room.
Never had he seen Jim that mad, not even last weekend, and all that anger was being concentrated towards him. It had frightened him more than he cared to admit.
Jim was right - he had run away before, and to leave now would be to run away again. But what other choices were there?
He just didn't know.
He had spent so much of the last month analyzing everything that had occurred in the last four years, and in particular the events of the last twenty-nine days. He had run the thoughts around in circles until he ran back over himself. And on the whole, he hadn't gotten anywhere.
The anger had been eradicated.
Feelings of desperation, loss and helplessness fought for control within him as he crumpled in on himself.
He had brought all of this down on himself.
Blair lay motionless for nearly half an hour, with absolutely nothing running through his mind. He had nothing left to think about.
The phone rang, the answer phone picked up and the caller declined to leave a message.
He didn't care.
After a while, the cramping in his spine brought him upright. The glass at the foot of his bed was empty so he would need to get water from the kitchen; his medication was on the side counter in there, too. It would take time to get there, but he could manage that.
He summoned the strength to his arms and willed his muscles to stop aching until he could take something, even if it was western medicine.
It hurt to lever himself back into the chair, his muscles informing him that they had been seriously overworked in the last few days. Blair was relieved when he reached the sink. The glasses were up in the cupboard, which shouldn't be a problem, so he leaned forward, braced his arms against the counter and fetched down one of the tumblers. As he brought his hand back down he didn't see Jim's coffee mug until it was too late.
He had overstretched to reach the cupboard and couldn't control his downward momentum as the glass slipped from his right hand, catching the mug on the way to the floor. The two items of crockery smashed on the wooden surface and Blair turned to look at the mess. He didn't get his angle back towards the chair properly, and misjudged, following the glass and mug in their downward plummet to the floor.
Ellison had heard the sound of smashing from the sidewalk but had mistakenly thought it to be Sandburg exhibiting temper. Having walked around the block repeatedly he had calmed himself down and was feeling huge remorse over his words, but now he didn't know whether or not he wanted to walk back into a place that still housed anger.
They couldn't keep on exploding at one another like this.
He turned and was ready to walk away again when his hearing shut down totally. The cars became silent, as did the conversation of the two people overtaking him.
Jim fisted his hands against his ears and knitted his brows in confusion. Was this Incacha's way of punishing him for his spiteful words to his Guide? It was like someone had plunged him into a pit of nothingness.
Suddenly, a single sound broke through the barrier and for the second time, Jim heard the plaintiff and unmistakable sound of a wolf howling.
Unlike before, this time he knew exactly what it meant, and careened past the people in the street, tearing up the flights of stairs and back into the loft. He smelt the spilt blood before he saw the wounds themselves.
Next to the sink, Blair lay on the floor cradling bleeding hands to his chest.
"Jesus, Sandburg." Jim's voice was soft as he slid to the ground beside him.
The glazed eyes worried the Sentinel and he wondered if this was how he looked when he zoned.
"Blair?" Jim gently lifted his friend's head and shoulders and supported them in his arms.
Gradually a response came. "I'm sorry about your mug, Jim."
All the frustrations died as he clasped the younger man to his chest. "It was only a mug, it doesn't matter."
"Yeah, I know."
The words hung in the air.
"My hands hurt."
"We'll get them cleaned up."
Jim lightly touched the cuts on the hands, feeling some of the glass embedded in the palms.
"My back aches too. I only wanted to get some water and my meds."
Jim stopped the gentle rocking and watched his roommate's face. The eyes were still slightly glazed as though he wasn't quite with him. "You want me to get you some water?"
"I can do it myself." Blair slowly made eye contact and his face tore with the agony of emotions. The feelings churning inside finally overwhelmed him and a keening wail erupted from his throat, his eyes opening the floodgate to all the tears that had been building.
"Oh Blair." Jim's ignored the shattered pieces and splatters of red and wrapped his closest friend into his embrace, unable to prevent his own cascade of tears as the two friends clung to each other, finally expressing in unfettered emotion what they had failed to do in words.
As Blair's sobs dwindled to hiccoughs Jim became more aware of the injured hands and the trickling blood, and loosened his grip. It was another ten minutes before the younger man spoke.
"About your shirt." The muffled voice sounded vaguely playful, and Ellison felt a wave of relief rush over him. Perhaps they hadn't totally destroyed their friendship. But then again, Sandburg was excellent at sidestepping issues in a flurry of diversions.
"You know how they always talk about making someone's shirt wet from their tears?"
"It's not just the tears that make it wet." Blair sniffed and looked up. "I need a tissue."
As the two of them sat up and Ellison reached into his pockets for a handkerchief, the detective felt the need to deal with the argument rather than assume it was over and forgotten. "About the things I said..."
Blair sniffed again, and conceded that this was not something he could avoid or gloss over with trivial comments. "Only if you forgive me for the things I said?"
"They needed saying, Chief - what I said, what you said, it all needed saying."
"Just not the way we did it, huh?"
"Jim, like you said last week, there are still some things that need to be sorted out."
"Yeah, I know that. But first we need to get you back to the hospital to get those hands treated properly." He noticed Blair stiffen. "We can get this on the State."
"Okay." His voice was small.
"When we get home we are going to have a rational discussion about finance, career and your continuation of therapy. Okay?"
"Okay." His voice was even smaller as he allowed Jim to loosely wrap his bleeding hands and carry him down to the truck for yet another emergency hospital visit.
X-rays, tweezers, local anesthetic, painkillers, antiseptic, gauze and light bandaging later, and Blair Sandburg sat on the apartment couch facing Jim Ellison. The older man had a pad of paper on his lap and had scribbled down one or two headings.
"You make it look so official," Blair attempted some light mockery to disguise his foreboding.
"I think it's time we reviewed some serious concerns and focused clearly." Jim didn't look up while he made a few further notes. "Okay, you first."
"Me?" The bandaged hands fluttered upwards. "Why me?" It was another classic stab at diversion that Ellison ignored.
"You first," he reiterated and stared closely at Sandburg's worried face.
"Um..." He was trapped. There was no question of shying away and he had to override all outstanding issues of wanting to deal with everything on his own. He needed to hash out the problems so he squared his jaw and went for the jugular.
"I haven't got any." That was concise and summed up the situation.
"And I don't know what to do about it."
Once the subject had been thrown into the ring and broached for the first time, Blair found that it wasn't as hard to discuss it as he had feared.
Jim had switched off his cell phone and moved the answer machine to silent. Their frank discussion was more important than any phone call he could receive. It was time the world gave them a break.
Blair admitted to having received the insurance check and having signed it back over to the hospital. He also admitted to clearing out the rest of his bank account. It took more courage to admit to including the money Jim had given him for lunch yesterday but if Ellison was going to judge him he didn't show it.
"I have nothing, Jim."
"That's not true, but we'll get back to that." Ellison compared the list in front of him with the hospital invoice. While the outstanding sum was substantial it was not an insurmountable problem, especially if he resumed the conversation with his father. Over the next hour Blair listened in uncomfortable silence while Jim outlined a number of plans, including the re-mortgage of the loft, of an intervention by his father and of the cashing in of one of his own policies. He could see the unspoken challenges in Blair's eyes but they remained unsaid. Ellison continually added that the anthropologist would always have a roof over his head should he choose, and no matter how he felt, he would always have friends. Financially he may not have anything at that time, but he must never consider himself as having nothing, or of being on his own. He acknowledged and respected Blair's feelings, although unable to empathize he could understand the anger and frustration he must be experiencing and the desire to handle the whole situation on his own. He must appreciate that Jim was offering anything he could in return for the friendship and support Blair had shown him over the years, and must realize that he would do the same for any friend. Not to belittle their bond, because there were some things he would not have done for, say, Simon - this raised an eyebrow - but because he could help, please, would Blair let him?
"No." Ellison was firm as Blair finally grappled his way out of speechlessness. "Let me guess, you want to say 'Jim, I can't let you do this.' Am I close?"
The tousled head nodded mutely; stunned by the words his baffled ears had been digesting.
"Answer me one question then, Blair." The use of his first name halted any interruptions. "If our roles were reversed, in what way would you act differently?"
Sandburg shook with concealed emotion, his face drained of all color. Forced to look down at his wrapped hands in acquiescence a single tear dampened the white gauze, giving Jim his answer.
He's sleeping, Simon." Jim broke one of his own house rules and balanced his feet up on the table. "It took some persuasion but we've established quite a few important things this afternoon." The voice the other end continued. "Yeah, I phoned the hospital and he's starting back with the P.T. in the morning." He pushed aside the pad of paper. "Uh-huh, yeah I can come in for a few hours after I've dropped him off. Kinski out again, I take it?"
It was a reprieve to be able to discuss something as day-to-day as a convicted criminal's early release. He kept half an ear open to listen for any changes in Sandburg's heart rate, and relaxed into his Captain's second topic of conversation which was his planned fishing trip with Daryl.
On Monday afternoon, Jim left the Police Department on his way over to collect Blair from the hospital. He had received a call on his cell to say that his therapist had finished the session early due to the discomfort from his damaged hands, so Ellison excused himself for an hour. The trauma caused by the smashed porcelain and glass slicing into his hands meant that Sandburg was heavily reliant on him again, unable to put pressure on the injuries and propel himself in the wheelchair.
Jim was almost at the truck when he was mobbed by a bevy of reporters.
"Detective Ellison," shrieked the first. "What is your opinion on your former partner's attempted suicide?" The flash bulbs blinded his unprepared vision as the clamor assaulted his hearing. "Why is he back in Cascade?" "How long has he been here?" "Do you forgive the way he lied about you for his own reward?" "Does his suicide attempt come as a surprise to you?" "Did you hope that he would succeed?"
The shocked detective couldn't believe what he was hearing. Suicide? Where the hell had that rumor originated? He pushed the intruders aside and clawed his way into the truck, revving the engine hard to clear his route. Punching in Simon's number, the equally as surprised man accepted the demand for an explanation and promised to call him back shortly with an answer.
Meanwhile, Ellison battled the afternoon traffic across town to rescue his partner. If he was being bombarded by reporters at the PD then there was a chance they also knew that Blair was at the hospital.
Sandburg was sitting under a tree near the entrance, alone. He waved a bandaged hand and smiled in greeting. In spite of his current limited use of hands, his legs were responding well and he had successfully managed his first few steps unaided. He was desperate to show his progress to Jim later on that evening, and could barely contain his excitement.
"You'll never guess what, Jim," he blurted, raising his arms for Ellison to lift him into the passenger seat. He eased the seatbelt across with his wrists, but allowed the catch to be fastened for him. He waited until the chair had been folded into the rear of the truck and his chauffeur was behind the wheel before he divulged. "I've got something to show you later, man."
"Sandburg, we..." The ringing of the cell phone butted in "Ellison." Blair didn't bother to listen in, too excited at his accomplishment. "Oh shit. How?" Jim glanced at his lively friend and watched the excitement dissipate. "What can we do? Uh-huh. So, can you send a unit over to the loft?" The perpetual frown was sufficient to ruin Sandburg's good spirits but he waited until the call was complete.
"What's happened, Jim?"
Ellison chewed his lip. "It seems the Cascade Gazette have run an invented story." They so didn't need this. "There's a fictitious headline story, which the media have picked up and are wanting to run with."
How bad could it be? "About?"
"You, Chief." Ellison couldn't believe the timing of it all. "They've created a damn pathetic story, saying that you..." He took a deep breath. "They've written that you attempted suicide on Saturday in a guilt trip over the dissertation."
The strangled cry was enough.
Ellison wasted no time and jammed the truck into gear, heading straight towards the relative safety of their apartment. He trusted the police units to have cleared away any reporters hawking around the area. Simon would meet them there and was bringing the department lawyer with him.
There was no way Sandburg was going to face this particular media fiasco by himself. If anything, he was going to witness his largest victory over tabloid journalism.
Callum Hanover was dressed in an Armani suit, crisply pressed, and it complemented his slicked back hair and stiff, no-nonsense manner. Blair felt quite intimidated by his presence, not least because the elevator was out again and their meeting outside the apartment door had been less than dignified.
Jim didn't look too confident either, which was out of character.
Stretched out in front of them on the coffee table were copies of the paper responsible, and it made them cringe to read the large bold headline print: Disgraced Academic Fraud Attempts Suicide.
It had taken Simon several anxious minutes to calm down his incensed detective and persuade him to stop pacing a hole in the floor. He was impressed by the resilience Sandburg was showing, studiously reading the newspaper article then settling back on the couch and waiting for the reactions of others.
"They got my age right," he offered when Ellison eventually sat next to him.
"Chief, don't." The response was terse and it made Blair physically recoil. Simon shot a harsh look in Ellison's direction, knowing full well what had transpired on the Saturday. The latter rubbed his hand across his mouth, exhaled loudly and patted Sandburg on the arm. "I'm sorry. What I meant was, you don't have to pretend."
"Jim, I lost the right not to have lies splashed over the newspapers when I declared my work to be a fraud."
"Sandburg." Ellison all but growled at him.
"So where do we go from here?" Simon began the ball rolling, quick to remove the focus.
"It's unlikely the paper will reveal their source, using first amendment privileges." Hanover's business-like tone brokered no argument from the group. "What we have to establish clearly from the outset, is what grounds they would have had for printing the story in the first place. Although some tabloids are prepared to go to press with very little information or confirmation of source, the Gazette has not usually been known to be so rash."
Simon's hand rested on Blair's shoulder in unspoken support while they listened to the lawyer.
"It could be that somebody saw you at the hospital on Saturday and recognized you. If someone saw you brought in covered in blood and it was stemming from unspecific injuries but looked to be in the region of your wrists, then it wouldn't be too hard for them to add two plus two and arrive at five."
"But it was his hands that were cut, not his wrists." Jim's frown had become a permanent fixture.
"Was that obvious when he first arrived?"
"Well no, because they were wrapped in hand towels."
"So." Hanover made copious notes at this point and Simon took the break to fill the kettle and pull out some mugs. "So, mis-information about the nature of the injury. Not too hard to prove. Which leaves previous history and the likelihood of a suicide attempt itself." Ellison noted Blair's increased heart rate and placed a staying hand on his thigh. "Is this something you have ever either attempted or considered in the past?"
"Why...?" The bewildered question floundered.
"No, he hasn't," Jim provided, not giving his friend a chance to finish. "I can vouch for that." The heart rate remained high in anticipation and he smelt the first beads of perspiration. Yes, Jim had heard his words in a moment of desperation on Tuesday, but he didn't know of the other times the thought had crossed his mind.
The brown, bespectacled eyes of the lawyer observed his new client for a few moments before accepting the answer.
"Leaving us with the media catastrophe related to your fraudulent dissertation."
The hand on Blair's thigh tightened, which he correctly took as a sign to be careful of his response.
Questions and answers continued until the light faded in the sky, and Hanover was convinced they had a winnable case.
"Unfortunately, the retraction won't be anywhere near as eye-catching as their initial headline, but in the meantime no other media source will mention the story and I will get a restraining order preventing further access to either you Mr Sandburg, you, Detective Ellison, or the Police Department." Hanover retrieved his briefcase and clicked the lid shut.
"I can't afford..." Blair all but stammered the words.
"You're lucky Mr Sandburg," the lawyer stood with a smile. "I may work for the Police Department, but I can't stand irresponsible tabloid journalism, so this can be a no-win-no-fee case. And besides," he slipped on his suit jacket and straightened his tie. "I love a good argument."
Neither Jim nor Blair managed any words until the door closed behind the two departing men. The stunned pair remained seated on the couch.
"A decent lawyer? With a conscience?" Blair whispered incredulously. "The white rabbit's going to jump through the window any moment, man."
The newspapers were bundled into a pile at the edge of the table. "I don't feel as badly as I thought I would, you know Jim." Blair wiggled his toes and gingerly shifted his feet to a more comfortable position. "If you hadn't spent so long yelling at me on Saturday, I might have taken it personally."
"Chief?" Ellison smacked his friend upside the head. "You're weird."
The recovery progress was slow but steady. Over the next few weeks, Blair ventured further than the route between the hospital and the loft. He accepted offers of meals out; evenings with friends; short excursions to the harbor and the park.
His most dreaded visit was to Cascade Police Department. He waited until he was able to walk with crutches, and the braces were minimal and able to be disguised under his trousers. Nevertheless he was still shaking when Jim pulled up in the garage.
"You sure you want to do this, Chief?"
"Something about laying ghosts to rest, Jim."
His welcome had been, for the most part, exuberant. Reluctant participants and those with longer memories remained aloof, but on the whole Blair was relieved to feel, almost, one of the team again. It was a self-enforced isolation, one that he knew he would eventually overcome.
The purpose of the visit had been two-fold. One for emotional reasons; to thank all those who had participated in the search for him and supported him regardless, during his years as an 'observer'. The second was to talk to Simon and the Personnel Department in an official capacity.
The academy was not an option he would pursue, and Jim was growing to accept that, but there was one potential idea that needed to be explored.
Callum Hanover remained optimistic about Blair's case against the Gazette and had been impressed by the young man's fortitude. Sandburg didn't know whether to be disappointed or relieved that the identity of the source remained protected, but it did nothing to increase his trust towards others. The printed retraction had indeed been small, but the media hounds backed off when the words 'lawsuit' were thrown into the ring. It would take several months before any money would be forthcoming, but the sum Hanover was aiming at was substantial.
The issue of money remained a bone of contention; Jim was paying installments directly to the hospital while Blair painstakingly catalogued each transaction. Sandburg didn't feel quite as guilty knowing that he would one day be able to pay Jim back every penny, and he had promised the man as much.
As Blair himself proclaimed on the day he was officially released from the Physical Therapy program, four months after joining - the highs had remained as high but at least the lows didn't send him running for cover. On his last day with his favorite two therapists, having not even asked for their phone numbers, Blair had looked around the room at the other occupants. So many of them were struggling to move limbs that were no longer responsive, or were people battling degenerative illness.
He had been so lucky.
He had made an excellent recovery, but with warnings not to over-exert himself for many months to come. He was supported by a multitude of friends. He had a bright-looking future.
Kelso's contacts further south, and their efforts in sifting through Blair's copious research notes had begun to pay dividends. The University of Oklahoma offered Graduate Programs specializing in socio-cultural anthropology, and Professor Hayden Waters was considering offering him a place as a Teaching Assistant. It was accepted that Sandburg's work on Sentinels had never been designed to be published, and had been an exploratory sideline. Waters himself had been interested in Burton's monograph and encouraged the student to bring it with him to the interview.
With the physical aspect of Blair's recovery almost complete, Hanover handling legal issues, the counseling sessions over and various members of the Major Crimes Unit often visiting in the evenings, there was one side of the situation which had never truly been dealt with.
The very issue of Sentinel and Guide.
One Thursday afternoon, a letter with the logo characters OU arrived, addressed to Mr Blair Sandburg.
Jim was watching the game when Blair bounced back into the apartment with the University letter in hand. He had only flown back two days beforehand and had paced away his nervousness and excitement since then, much to Ellison's chagrin.
"I don't know, I haven't opened it yet."
Ellison was torn with mixed emotions. It pained him to watch the envelope being eagerly ripped open - his overriding sentiment was for this to be what Blair wanted, but a small selfish part of him wanted it to be a rejection. He wanted his friend to stay.
Jim cheated by reading the opening words from where he sat; a futile gesture given the look of exhilaration in his Guide with the words: "We are pleased to..."
He would miss him.
"No, Jim, you heard what Simon said." Blair roughly pushed his errant hair out of his face. "No matter how many favors he is owed, there is no way he can consider offering me a consultancy job without a doctorate. This is what I want to do. This is what I have always wanted to do. Let me go and do it."
Ellison was at a loss. He had to concur that in spite of everything they had been through, in his heart of hearts, he had accepted that Blair would never be content if he had to attend the academy, nor would he settle unless he had at least made a second attempt at his doctorate. There was a startling air of truth about the words he had spoken: the number of times the issue of changing his thesis topic had arisen and the research which was sitting dormant on his computer discs, could all contribute to a quicker resolution when he finally and irrevocably transferred his subject to 'The Closed Environment of the Police Society.' It would have credence; he acknowledged that. Blair was right; Connor was right; Simon was right. He hated being the only one who was wrong. If Sandburg moved away and followed his academic dream then by the time he returned, sufficient water should have passed under the bridge for the media to consider him yesterday's news and of no further interest.
Without the anthropologist around, the press would forget that Ellison plus Sandburg equaled Sentinel plus Guide. He knew that Blair had been spending a great deal of time coaching Connor in the finer points of managing a wayward Sentinel; but he had to confess that he had been coping with his senses far more independently in recent months and the zone-outs had been few and far between.
"There's something I still don't understand, Chief." Jim's question had been gnawing inside of him for months but an appropriate time had never presented itself. "Right from when Naomi arrived, back when we were trying to catch Zeller, you have wanted to deal with everything yourself. You wanted to handle the Sid Graham situation on your own, you made the decision to leave on your own, you wanted to rectify the money situation on your own. I would have helped, why didn't you let me?"
Blair had been expecting this question for nearly as long as Jim had been thinking it, and he still wasn't entirely sure of his answer.
"I've been independent for much of my life, I guess, and used to handling things for myself."
"But you've been here," he waved a hand to signal the loft, "For years. I thought we had some kind of trust."
"We have." Blair reviewed his acceptance letter. "I felt that the offer from Sid Graham was an abuse of your trust because I had promised that you would be the first to read my thesis, and you know I always keep my promises."
"Sometimes promises are broken."
"No, Jim. I always keep my promises, you know that." Blair folded the letter back into the envelope. "For me it was an abuse of your trust," he reiterated, "and you were as angry as I expected you to be. Maybe there was something in that period of time that reminded me that I used to make all my own decisions, without having someone I could trust to discuss them with. Outside of Mom that is." In spite of everything, he still trusted his mother. "Everything that happened with the media, with Chancellor Edwards, with the thesis - it all centered around you and Major Crimes. I felt I had betrayed you."
Jim tried to interrupt but his objection was stayed.
"You asked how I felt. I'm not saying whether or not I was right; I'm saying that that is how I felt at the time."
Blair needed coffee. There had been so much soul baring over the last few months and he required more caffeine to be this honest. He filled the machine and stood next to it while it brewed. "As for the money," he told the coffee machine. "I was embarrassed."
Jim moved through the kitchen and put his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Even when I lived at the warehouse, I was surviving. Okay, not very well, but I was surviving. I wasn't dependent on anybody and I was meeting my payments. When you let me move in here, my overheads were less and I was finally able to buy new clothes, service the car, afford takeouts occasionally. You always told me that I wasn't taking advantage of you because I was helping you with your senses, and when I turned down the expedition to Borneo we talked about how it had become friendship. But then when the thesis fiasco happened, something inside my head told me that I'd destroyed the friendship; I knew I wasn't helping any more and I had become part of the problem."
The grip tightened. Ellison was not going to tell him he was wrong - maybe Blair had come to learn that for himself.
The coffee machine finished but Blair only stared at the black substance.
"I do realize now that I was wrong, but there was so much going through my head. When I came back here I found it difficult to ask you for help because I wanted to prove that I could do something right, and I didn't want to hurt you again."
Jim reached over and picked up the pot, pouring the coffee into a mug from the drainer. He handed over the drink, one hand still clasped against the younger man's shoulder.
"It hurt me more that you wouldn't let me help, and I felt that you didn't trust me."
"I know that now, and I'm sorry."
"Thank you sharing that with me." Jim smiled down at Sandburg. "But no more apologies, okay?"
"Okay." Blair beamed, and was thankful that he had such a good friend. "So it's alright if I go to Oklahoma?"
"Chief, it's what you want to do. I'm not going to stop you." Jim would not stand in the way of his doctorate, no matter how much he wanted him to stay. "But only if you promise."
"You always tell me that you never break a promise, and that if you promise someone something then you will always honor that promise."
"That's right, Jim. I do." Blair looked Ellison straight in the eye. "In which case I'm going to make two promises." He took a deep breath but maintained the eye contact. "I promise that the moment I receive my doctorate I will accept Simon's offer, and return to Cascade, and yes, I'll return to the loft if you're not already married and surrounded by dribbling, screaming brats." Ellison smiled but didn't interrupt. "And my second promise is that I will repay you for everything that you have done for me. If Hanover's estimate is right, then the libel case will more than compensate you for the money you've lost."
Once again there was silence between the two friends as Ellison digested the words. For over a minute neither person moved until Jim reached out and pulled Blair into a hug, whispering in his ear. "Forget the second one, but I'm holding you to the first one."
For the second time Blair jammed the last of his shirts into his duffel bag; this one a going-away present from Jim; and experienced deja-vu at the nerves and apprehension tunneling through his gut. There was an air of finality once more, but this one was bringing down the curtain on one section of his life while he was aware and welcoming of the new stage that was beginning.
Blair took a final glimpse around his small room - the place that had been home. "Yeaah. You?"
"C'mon." Ellison snatched the duffel bag from Sandburg's hand and threw his sweater at him. "Don't want to miss the plane. What sort of impression would that give your new dissertation supervisor if you can't even arrive at the other end on time?"
He caught up the second of the two bags and Blair checked over the packaging of the box of texts that was being shipped out later.
"Jim?" Blair stopped at the doorway to the loft. "This is yours." Shaking fingers held out the key to apartment 307.
Ellison looked down at the key and shook his head. "No, Chief." He swallowed. "I gave it to you; it's yours."
Not for the first time, Blair felt a stabbing in his heart at the overwhelming selflessness of his friend. He nodded slowly and carefully placed it back on his key ring. "I'm gonna miss you, man."
"Yeah." Why had that lump appeared in his throat yet again? He had never been this emotional before meeting a certain bouncy anthropologist. "Me too."
Prowling through the undergrowth, highly refined senses on alert, ears lying flat against the skull, the hunter in full stealth mode. In the distance lay the temple, the ultimate goal. Between the panther's lean shape and the stepped shrine lay the barbed thorns of hatred, thrown into his path as a deterrent. The dark creature prepared to vault, launching itself high into the air to clear the tortuous trail. It's flanks stretched in flight, its claws reaching out to soften the landing.
Distant baying accompanied the pounce, the inimitable howl of a wolf.
The panther landed and surveyed the terrain. The leap had accomplished everything.
Eleven months later:
Jim was absolutely exhausted from far too many idiots getting in his way, both during the high speed chase first thing that morning down to the man who refused to move out of his way in the shopping aisle when he had called to pick up a few essentials.
He could do with calling Sandburg again tonight to ask him about a glitch he had been having with his hearing - not that he couldn't have covered it in the two-hour conversation they had had at the weekend, but he just enjoyed their bizarre and wildly diverse chats. A few weeks before, Jim had flown down to Oklahoma for the first time. Blair had invited him to share in the victorious settlement of the libel case, and Jim had also been rewarded to see how comfortable Blair was in his new surroundings. He hoped that his friend wasn't too content, that he would never want to return to Cascade when his studies were complete. He had inquired as to their progress and was met with the usual obfuscation.
There was nothing unusual with that.
Ellison grinned with the memory as he snagged his jacket up onto one of the hooks in the loft, threw his keys into the basket, and thumbed through the mail he had collected. A long, brown envelope with a wolf motif stamped onto the top left corner grabbed his attention and he let the other pieces of mail drop unattended onto the counter.
The posting date was two days before and stamp-marked Oklahoma.
With an unprecedented eagerness, Jim tore open the envelope and pulled out the large sheet of paper enclosed. He scanned the double-sided type, an air of puzzlement taking in the meticulously calculated and logged sums: it was all in Sandburg's unmistakable scribble and catalogued each expense incurred, as far as Ellison could make out, from the moment his friend had left the apartment without notice until the day Jim had driven him to the airport.
There was also a short section at the bottom entitled "Back Rent" followed by an exclamation point. The grand total at the rear of the second sheet tallied with a neatly printed check stapled to the top.
Ellison's jaw went slack.
Sometimes Sandburg could still whip the carpet from under him.
He nearly failed to notice the small business card with the words: Dr Blair Sandburg, PhD, Department of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma.
Flipping over the card Ellison's heart leapt when he read the words:
"I always keep my promises."
He was jerked out of his reveries by a sound behind him - that of a key turning in the lock.
Sometimes promises were broken, but Blair had kept both promises.
He was home.