EVOLUTION OF FRIENDSHIP part 5

Comfort Zone

By

Annie

For Dawn C. and Julie

DISCLAIMER: Not mine. I just let them have more fun. No money made (as if) and no copyright infringement intended (as if I would. Who, me? Nah.)

FEEDBACK : Annie

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is an epilogue to "Cypher". Thank you to everyone who has been so wonderfully encouraging and supportive about this series and my writing in general, especially my listsibs at Sentinelangst. Thank you as always to Tate for alpha reading this and giving me her honest opinions and special thanks to Lyn who does the hard work of being my beta and maintaining my page. This story is especially for my friend, Julie, ( aka Milford) who has been there for me through some very tough times, and for my dear little mate, Optus and is a special giftfic for our listmom, Dawn, who never fails to encourage us writers. Happy Anniversary SA. Thanks for everything, guys. Thank you to Ari and Lyn for the last minute beta. It's the beta reader who makes this stuff look halfway good.

 

 

Ellison looked down at the body he’d just fired five bullets into. The serial killer’s eyes were open, the glassy stare looking into eternity. There’d be no more friends for David Lash.

The cop’s body felt bruised all over, courtesy of a fall through four levels of the abandoned warehouse. His mind was still reeling with all the what-ifs that could have resulted in Sandburg being Lash’s next victim.

What if Jim hadn’t smelled the duck waste in the water sample from Susan Fraiser’s bathtub? What if they’d picked the wrong duckpond? Or if they hadn’t made the connection at all?

He shook himself firmly, understanding that all the 'what ifs' in the world weren’t going change a thing. All that mattered right now was that Lash was dead; that there’d be no more victims.

Thinking of victims, his mind flashed to his partner, chained up in Lash’s lair. Jim holstered his backup weapon, his other gun having been lost when he fell through a broken step in Lash’s den of horrors. Casting a final look at the dead man, he made his way wearily back to where he’d last seen Sandburg.

He took a couple of wrong turns before thinking to focus his hearing and find the kid that way. Blair’s breathing was rapid, his heart thundering away in counterpoint. Sandburg must’ve been terrified when he saw Lash and Ellison disappear from view. He’d have no way of knowing who was coming back to the room where he was being held prisoner.

With that in mind, Jim called his partner’s name before he got into the room. "Sandburg! It’s me. It’s Jim."

Blair was struggling ineffectually against the chains, trying weakly to free himself. He turned his head as Jim reached him, his eyes wide with fear, the pupils black and dilated. Jim had no idea what injuries Blair had received in his struggle with Lash at the loft, but the sheer amount of wreckage told the cop that Blair probably hadn’t come off unscathed. There was also the Chloral Hydrate that was Lash's signature drug of choice. He’d been pouring some down Blair’s throat when Jim had crashed in on them but there was no telling whether he’d dosed Blair more than once to keep him docile and compliant.

Jim tried to calm the young man before looking for a way to free him from the restraints. He placed one hand on Blair’s cheek, cupping it so he could look into his partner's eyes and make sure Blair understood that he was safe now, that there was no need to hurt himself further. "Chief, listen to me." He waited a heartbeat till Blair nodded jerkily then continued, his thumb stroking reassuringly across the cold skin. "I’m going to get you out of here, but I need you to let me do all the work. I don’t want to hurt you any more than you already are…"

But Blair was moving again now, his head thrashing back and forth in Jim’s hand. His bound hands came up towards his chest, nudging at the yellow scarf still knotted around his neck. With a muttered oath, Jim finally realized what the problem was and pulled the gag up over Blair’s head, throwing it to one side. God, it reeked with the sickly sweet smell of the drug. At least that meant Blair had probably managed to spit some of it out.

Jim looked around for a way to free his partner from the heavy chains holding him captive. With a brief squeeze of Blair's shoulder, he moved over to a rickety bench that sat along one wall. A key ring lay on top of the table, several keys attached to it. Scooping it up, he went back quickly to Blair and fitted the first key into the padlock. Heaving a sigh of relief as it opened, he tossed the lock aside and finally managed to unravel the complex pattern of chains around Blair's body.

The moment he realized he was free, Blair pushed himself upright in the chair and fell forward into Jim's arms.

The detective took his weight, going down to his knees and taking Blair with him, his own arms under Blair's and supporting his back. Then he stopped as his partner leaned into him, head on Jim's chest, his shoulders shuddering and fists opening and closing spasmodically on Jim's vest.

"It's okay, Chief," Ellison whispered, holding the terrified young man as tightly as he could without injuring him further. Almost without realizing it, he rocked slightly backward and forward as Blair tried to burrow even further into the safety of his embrace.

Jim could hear the rasping sobs from a throat that was dry and strained from screaming defiance at Lash, and from being gagged. Hot moisture trickled down his arm where Blair hid his face and he knew his partner was crying. So he kept up the rocking till he heard footsteps thundering down the stairs and then he turned and called a warning about the broken step.

"jim."

It was the first time Blair had spoken and Jim held a hand up to halt Banks and the paramedics.

"It's just Simon and the medics, Chief. It's okay," he whispered, one hand rubbing circles over Blair's shivering back.

"Don't wan'..." Blair took a gasping, shaking breath. "Can't see me like this, please."

His words were slurred and slow but Jim understood. "Just give us a minute, sir," he called. "Lash is dead, down in the basement," he added, relieved when his captain didn't push but instead, turned and gave quiet instructions to the men with him.

Jim turned back to Blair. "Chief, listen to me," he said softly. "You need to go to the hospital and get checked out, okay?"

Blair looked up at him, his eyes blinking lazily as if he was having trouble holding them open. "Stupid," he murmured.

"No, Chief, you weren't stupid. You did everything right. You hear me - everything. I heard you, how you kept him off-balance. You did great, buddy," Jim said firmly, one hand coming up to hold Blair's chin in a firm but gentle grip, so he could look into the drowsy eyes. "Okay?"

"Yeah," Blair whispered. Then his eyes rolled up and he slumped forward into the Sentinel's arms.

"Get those medics in here now," Jim yelled. Moments later, he was being pulled away as Blair was put onto a gurney and the medics began checking him out.

Jim looked around and saw Banks standing beside him, the captain's face grim as they watched the medics working over Blair's unconscious form. They inserted an IV and took Blair's vitals before readying him for transport.

Jim glanced questioningly at his Captain as the gurney was carried past them up the steps.

"Go," Banks said, patting his shoulder. "You're gonna be on administrative leave for a few days because of the shooting, anyway."

Jim didn't need to be told twice. With a grateful smile at his boss, he took off after the medics and climbed into the ambulance, taking a seat where he'd be out of the way but still able to see his partner.

Blair didn't wake during the journey to the hospital and once he was taken into an ER cubicle, Jim was forced to remain in the waiting room.

He slumped down in a chair, suddenly enormously tired, his body reminding him now of his own injuries sustained in the fall. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he leaned back in the chair and rested his head against the wall, his eyes closing.

He stretched his hearing out, searching for that one particular heartbeat he had grown to know so well, in such a short time. So much had happened in the few months since he and Blair had met. Too many of the new experiences Blair had come up against since that fateful first meeting were things Jim wished fervently he'd been able to protect his partner from. Taking down a serial bomber and facing off with Kincaid and The Sunrise Patriots had to have been frightening enough for the gentle young anthropologist. Jim wondered if perhaps Lash just might be the straw that broke the camel's back. Perhaps, Blair would decide he wanted to go back to the halls of academia and leave the Sentinel to fend for himself in the wilds of Cascade. Deep down though, Jim knew he wouldn't. Blair had far too much courage and integrity to do that. He and Jim had an agreement and even without the bonus of getting to use Ellison for his thesis subject, the cop instinctively understood that, for Sandburg, it went far deeper than that. He only hoped he could live up to his own unspoken end of the bargain - keeping Sandburg safe. Or failing that, at least being there to pull him out of the fire like he had tonight.

Jim sighed and pushed his hearing further, digging his nails into the palm of one hand to keep from zoning. There were too many heartbeats and voices and at first he despaired of finding what he'd been searching for. Then suddenly, it was there, and in the time it took for Blair's heartbeat to go from slow and steady to spiking into overdrive, the Sentinel was on his feet and sprinting down the corridor, homing in on the right cubicle and bursting through the curtains.

Anger flared as he skidded to a halt, taking in the scene in front of him.

Blair was awake but obviously still disorientated, judging by the way his eyes were skittering around the room, as if trying to make full sense of his surroundings. He was muttering almost incoherently and it took Jim a moment to understand the words.

"D… don't tie m…me down, please. Don't!"

Sandburg was squirming back up the gurney, his feet curling beneath him and holding both arms to his chest. Two orderlies had hold of a foot and hand each and were trying to pull them out straight, obviously intent on securing the limbs to the soft restraints hanging from the rails of the bed.

"What the hell do you think you're doing to him?" Ellison roared.

There was a momentarily lull in the cacophony within the small space and then a nurse was in front of Jim, small hands pushing against his broad chest. "Sir, you'll have to wait outside," she said firmly, pulling her diminutive frame up to her full 5 feet height.

Jim looked down at her and took her wrists in his hands, then firmly but gently, he moved her to one side and strode over to stand protectively at Blair's side. Reaching out, he pulled his friend to him, forcing the orderlies to release their grip as he did so. "It's okay, Chief. Nobody's gonna tie you down. I'm going to stay with you to make sure of it." He glared at the people around him, identifying the attending doctor by the stethoscope around his neck. "For God's sake! Didn't you people read the medics' notes? He was kidnapped and chained up in a chair by a serial killer tonight. He's not violent. He's confused from the drugs he was given and maybe by a concussion." Leaning toward the doctor, Ellison enunciated very carefully, so there could be no misunderstanding his meaning. "You will not restrain him in any way. I *will* be staying with him while you check him out and *if* you decide it is safe to do so, I will take him home with me tonight and keep an eye on him there. Are we perfectly clear on this, Doctor… Jason?" he finished, glancing at the man's nametag.

Unconsciously, the Sentinel had kept up a soothing rhythmic stroking on Blair's back and now the young man lay docilely against him, his eyes at half-mast, looking for all the world as if he was about to fall asleep.

The doctor looked at his now quiet patient and smiled at Jim. "Perfectly, Detective. All right, people, I think you can all go find something else to do now. Thank you for your help, but it would seem that the detective here has everything under control. I'm sorry, Detective, but he was quite combative when he came around. I hadn't had time to do more than glance over the notes when he woke up and began fighting us. We were just trying to ensure he didn't hurt himself any more."

Jim rubbed his other hand over the curly head resting against him and nodded his understanding and acceptance of the doctor's explanation. Then, once everyone but the doctor had left, he pushed Blair carefully back to rest on the pillow, smiling a little as Blair reached out for him in a panic. "It's okay, buddy. I'm not going anywhere. Just let the doc check you out and then I'll take you home, okay?" He took Blair's hand and held it firmly in his while the doctor continued with his interrupted examination.

~oOo~

"Jim?"

Ellison looked over at the doorway to the cubicle and saw his Captain peering around the curtain. "I'll be with you in a minute, sir," he said. Bending down so his face was in Blair's line of sight, he pasted a reassuring smile on his face and spoke to the young man softly. "Hey, Chief?" He waited till Blair opened his eyes then went on, "Simon's here. I'm just going to go out in the hall and fill him in on how you are, then I'll come back and we'll go home. How does that sound?"

"Good, Jim. Sounds good," Blair mumbled tiredly around a yawn. He was still pale and the Sentinel could see the lines of pain around the dark-circled eyes that bespoke a painful headache, but the doctor had pronounced him only mildly concussed and said the drug would gradually wear off in 12 -24 hours or so.

"Okay, try to sleep a bit while I'm gone," Jim said as he straightened up and left the cubicle, finding Simon pacing up and down the hallway outside.

"How's the kid?" Banks asked immediately.

"Not too bad, all things considered," Jim replied, smiling inwardly at the captain's obvious concern for Sandburg's welfare. "He's got a mild concussion from when Lash thumped his head into the floor of the loft and knocked him out. Hell of a lump on his head from it, too."

Banks winced in sympathy. He'd figured out for himself that Lash had to have used more force than just Chloral Hydrate to take Sandburg out. For one thing, although Blair and Lash were similar heights, Sandburg was stockier and for another, Banks had heard from his own son about just how tough Blair Sandburg was. "What about the drug Lash gave him?" he asked, knowing that a concussion and a sedative didn't mix.

"He was still pretty out of it when they got him here, but he's calmed down now. Knows what's going on," Jim said, the smile on his face betraying his relief. "The doc says I can take him home in a little while. They're just waiting for the x-ray and toxicology results to come back. Providing they're clear, they'll release him to my care."

"Good. I'm glad he's okay, Jim." Banks studied his detective closely. Ellison looked so different than he had in Carolyn's lab that day. Then, he'd been driven, forceful, demanding she risk contaminating the water specimen they had from Susan Fraiser's bath tub. Now, he seemed relaxed, as if the moment he'd found Sandburg, all the tension of the past day had dropped away. Simon was seeing huge changes in his best detective. He liked what he saw. He clapped a hand on Ellison's shoulder. "Bring the kid in tomorrow to give a statement, if he's up to it, Jim. If he's not, I'll send Rafe out to take it at home. Tell him he did a good job, okay?"

"Will do, sir," Jim said, smiling.

"Dammit, I just can't believe how tough he is, you know?" Simon said, shaking his head as he turned to leave. "Guess I might have been wrong about him, after all."

"I'd say so, sir," Jim murmured. Then he headed back into the cubicle to collect his partner.

~oOo~

Blair looked exhausted, Ellison thought as he watched his partner pick desultorily at the breakfast in front of him. It wasn't surprising, really, considering how little sleep he'd been getting in the week since Jim had brought him home from the hospital.

True to the doctor's predictions, Blair had slept straight through the first night and much of the next day. They'd gone into the station at around 3PM so Blair could give his statement. Just remembering what he'd read in that document of Blair's experience with Lash, gave Jim chills. He'd come horrifyingly close to losing his partner that night. But he hadn't, and so he shook himself and concentrated on eating his own breakfast, while still keeping a watchful eye on Blair.

"Not hungry?" he asked, trying to keep his tone light. Although he realized Blair probably knew that Jim had been aware of his nightmares, he felt it would serve no useful purpose to push his knowledge of them in Sandburg's face. Blair was an adult, after all, and a guy to boot, with all the constraints society placed on the male of the species to be strong and tough things out.

Jim had no doubt at all that Blair was attempting to do just that. However, the fact that he was failing miserably was apparent in the pallor of his skin, his lack of appetite and the dark circles around his eyes. The eyes that were normally so expressive now looked flat, almost emotionless, as if all Sandburg's joy in life was being leached out of him by the ghost of David Lash.

"Sorry, man," Blair replied listlessly. "It smells great. I'm just not that hungry." He looked over to the clock on the microwave and groaned. "I have to go, Jim. I'll come down to the station around 2, okay?"

"Sure, buddy. Want me to come pick you up?" Jim offered, though he already knew the answer.

True to form, Blair replied, "No, that's okay. The Volvo's running all right at the moment. I'll make it." He flashed a quick grin at Ellison and for a moment the Blair Sandburg Jim was beginning to know and love shone through. He walked slowly to the front door, bending wearily to pick up his backpack, as if it contained all the cares of the world. Flapping a lethargic hand over his shoulder in a semblance of a wave, he opened the door and was gone.

Independence and his own mistaken belief that he was being less than strong, were what kept Blair from asking for help with the demons Lash had left him with. Ellison knew that, could even understand it. He knew he would probably react the same way. But he'd heard the racing pulse rate and hitching breathing that told him Sandburg was having a nightmare, every night since he'd brought Blair home. At first, he'd waited to see if Blair would wake himself up, sure he'd be embarrassed if he knew the Sentinel had heard his distress. Eventually, he had woken up, of course, and then Jim had been an unwilling witness to his partner's misery as he overheard Blair castigate himself for his weakness and his inability to fall back asleep.

Jim had usually stayed awake himself, listening as Blair went out to the kitchen and made himself tea. Then Blair would move to lie on the couch under the afghan and fall asleep there for the few short hours that were left before daylight woke him again.

For that reason, if nothing else, Ellison was almost as exhausted as his partner was. The difference was that the cop was more experienced than Blair in dealing with situations like this and he wasn't the one who'd come home with a concussion and an almost overdose of a sedative at the hands of a serial killer. No, that distinction was wholly Blair's.

Ellison thought back to when he'd dreamed of Blair dying after Danny Choi had been killed. Subconsciously, he'd known then that he was supposed to protect Sandburg. Not only in the physical sense. There was a deep instinct within him that told him he had to protect Blair's sprit as well, make sure it remained whole and unencumbered. They were close friends now, closer than Jim had let anybody get in his entire life, but there was something else Jim didn't think he could bring himself to admit even to Blair. It was that Ellison needed Sandburg, needed him in his life, needed to know his partner was unharmed, both emotionally and physically. He wondered briefly what his father and his co-workers would make of that if they knew. The cold as ice ex-Ranger turned detective admitting that his life would be somehow incomplete without the presence of the long-haired neo-hippie who'd waltzed into Jim's home and heart and taken root there.

Jim moved around the kitchen, clearing away the morning's detritus. As he did, he made up his mind.

No matter how independent Sandburg thought he had to be, he wasn't going to go through this alone for even one more night. No, if the dreams came again tonight, Jim decided, he'd be there to help his partner keep the demons at bay.

~oOo~

Jim watched as Blair tried unsuccessfully to keep himself awake.

They had finished dinner, Blair surprising Jim with his rapid offer to wash up afterwards. Jim agreed, though he recognised it for what it was - a way to stay active, thereby keeping his needy body from the sleep it craved and Sandburg dreaded.

Jim was desultorily watching some nameless action movie on TV by the time Sandburg finished up and came over to fall onto the couch.

"You look tired," Jim observed casually. "Why don't you go to bed?"

"Nah, I'm okay," Blair answered, a little too quickly. "Too wound up to sleep right now, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jim said, feigning interest in the movie as Blair shot him a suspicious look. "You'd tell me if something was bothering you, right?" Jim asked, not taking his eyes from the television.

"Like what?" Blair asked, sounding defensive.

"I don't know. Anything," Jim replied, watching his partner out of the corner of his eye.

"Sure," Blair said glibly.

"Good. Well, I'm exhausted. Think I'll hit the sack," Jim said, rising to his feet and patting Sandburg gently on the back. "You going to bed, too?"

"Not tired, yet. I told you that," Blair said abruptly. "I'll keep the sound down and I won't type on the computer, okay?"

"Okay," Jim responded mildly. "Goodnight, Chief. Sleep well." He headed up the stairs, his keen hearing not missing Blair's whispered rejoinder to his parting words.

"yeah, right. sleep well. just sleep would be great, right now, man."

Jim watched as Blair slumped down sideways on the couch, pulling his shoe-less feet up under him and wrapping the afghan around his body. Then, he continued on up to his bedroom, vowing to keep a Sentinel ear out for his partner once more.

~oOo~

The murmured words broke slowly through the wall that separated sleep and consciousness. The sounds grew louder and by the time Ellison recognized them as the opening scenes of Blair's nightmare, he was already on his feet, stumbling in half-awake haste for his robe.

The muttered cries had escalated to full-scale shouts as he reached the top of the stairs and he hurried his footsteps, hardly able to bear the sheer desperation in the voice that was calling his name, hopelessly, over and over.

"Jim! Please find me! Jim! Please find me!"

The words had taken on the rhythm of a mantra as Jim reached the bottom of the stairs. He stopped suddenly, all his doubts coming back, wondering if this was really what Blair would want him to do. Then, casting all his ingrained expectations of manly behavior ruthlessly aside, he moved forward and sank down on the arm of the couch, next to Blair's head.

Blair pushed himself up from the pillows with a gasp, his eyes flying open and darting around the room. After a minute or so, he calmed slightly, seeming to fall in upon himself, slumping forward as he took several deep breaths.

It was obvious he hadn't noticed Jim at his side yet and the Sentinel cleared his throat quietly, hoping he wouldn't startle his friend further. Despite his best intentions, Blair jumped, one hand going to his mouth as if to hold back any sound he might make. His still-frightened eyes found those of his partner and Jim could literally see the fear and tension seeping from his body to be replaced with abject relief.

"Hey, Chief," Jim said gently, reaching out a hand to pull the younger man against his side. "Wanna talk about it?"

After a moment's hesitation, Blair nodded, releasing a sigh as he relaxed against the Sentinel's body and began talking. "I thought I could handle it myself, you know? I mean, a guy my age having nightmares? I felt like a complete wuss, man. I kept thinking all I had to do was get a grip, put it in the past. Tell myself, it happened but it's over now. So get over it, Sandburg. Pull yourself together, man. But, no matter how hard I tried, the dreams came back. And whenever they did, I'd wind up shaking and shivering like some spineless goober, hoping all the time you didn't hear me falling apart. But you did, didn't you?"

Jim nodded wordlessly, tightening his hold around Blair's shoulders.

"Thanks. For being here tonight… and that night, too." Blair shuddered involuntarily. "You know how I felt when I saw you fall through that floor with Lash? Hopeless. Like my only hope of getting out of there was gone…"

Jim listened, his hand rubbing unconsciously over his friend's shoulder as the words and feelings finally spilled out.

The healing had begun.

The End

June 13th, 2004