(and with special thoughts of Julie, Risa, Eve, Emma, Gerry, and all my beloved Listsibs)
Blair Sandburg scrawled a "93" in green ink on the last essay and, with a sigh, tossed the blue book on top of the stack of exams. He smiled as he leaned back in his chair, yawning and giving into a nice, long stretch. He was looking forward to a relaxing weekend with Jim. They planned on doing a little golfing Saturday, then staying home Sunday and just watching the game while pigging out. Blair decided he'd relax his health-conscious eating habits for the weekend and indulge in some of the fattier edibles Jim was sure to purchase.
A knock at his door pulled his thoughts back to the present, and he let his chair tilt back to its normal position. He saw Simon through the glass in his door and, with a smile, waved the captain inside.
The door opened slowly, and Simon stepped in, closing it softly behind him. Blair stiffened when he saw the grim look on the older man's face and the suspicious redness at the edges of his eyes.
*Oh no.* He swallowed, his heart suddenly in his throat, and gripped the arms of his chair. "What's wrong? He's alive, right? Please, oh God, Simon just tell me Jim's alive."
The lines in Simon's face deepened suddenly, and he took a deep breath. He opened his mouth to speak, but tears sprung in his eyes and a choked sob sprung from his throat. Unable say the words, he simply shook his head.
"No." Blair felt the world tilt, and, for a moment, he thought he was toppling on to the floor. Then everything snapped back into place again, and he realized he'd never moved.
In three long strides, Simon was at his side. He crouched to one knee and placed a hand on Blair's arm. "I'm sorry."
Blair shook his head, his jaw set tight as he studied the pain etched in Simon's face. "No.... No. No. No." He closed his eyes, feeling tears well behind his lids. *No, this is a dream. It has to be. Just wake up. Open your eyes and wake up."
He opened his eyes, but the nightmare remained. The grief in Simon's normally strong face broke Blair's resolve. Sudden anger shot him to his feet. "No!" His arm swooped over his desk, sending the phone and the stack of exams crashing to the floor.
Simon stood, grabbing Sandburg's arm. "Blair --'
"NO!" He jerked out of the grip, rage giving him strength, and backed away until the wall stopped his retreat. Simon's image swam as tears filled his eyes. "Please, oh God, please..." His knees buckled, and he slid to the floor, burying his face in his hands to cover his sobs.
He felt the warmth of strong arms around his shoulders and found himself leaning into the embrace, but at the last moment he jerked back, raising his tear-streaked face to look at the Captain. "How?" The effort it took to keep his voice steady nearly drained whatever energy he had left to draw from. "Was it fast?" He held his breath, shaking from the strain of holding back his grief as he waited for the answer.
*God, oh God, please say he didn't suffer.*
Simon closed his eyes. "It was... uh... relatively fast. There was a high speed chase along the back roads. Shots were fired. The gas tank on Jim's truck was punctured, and it leaked. From what we can tell, the spilled gasoline erupted and caught up with the truck. It... It exploded." His voice trembled, and he took a deep breath, opening his eyes to look at Blair. "The truck went over a cliff into the ocean."
Blair stiffened. "Did you find --?"
Simon placed a firm hand on Blair's shoulder. "No, we haven't found his body yet. But... Oh God, Sandburg, I'm sorry. We found his jacket -- charred and torn. They think maybe sharks got his body."
Blair's eyes widened, tears spilling onto his cheeks. "No... No, he would've seen the fire when it first started, heard it... smelled it... He would've jumped, Simon. With his senses, no way..."
"He would have made it out in time. He..."
"The officers behind him said the truck didn't even swerve before the flames overtook it. Blair..."
"No. No, Simon. He..."
"He could've zoned."
Blair closed his eyes and fell against Simon's chest, sobbing. "No. No. No...."
Simon steered the sedan onto Prospect Avenue and glanced over at the young man. Blair hadn't said a word during the short trip from Rainier to the loft. He just sat hunched in his seat, his blank gaze focused on some amorphous point outside.
Shell-shocked. That's how the kid looked.
With a deep, steadying breath, Simon turned off the engine and opened his car door. Blair gave no sign that he even realized the car had stopped.
Unlatching his seat belt, Simon slid out of the sedan, closed his door, and walked slowly to the passenger side. He closed his eyes briefly and sent a silent prayer above. *God, please let us both get through this.* Then he opened Sandburg's door.
Sandburg raised large, sad eyes to him, but gave no other response.
Simon reached in and popped the seat belt. "Come on, kid."
Blair's gaze shifted past Simon to the familiar building he called home. His red, puffy eyes welled with renewed tears.
Simon's throat tightened. God, Blair looked so lost. He cleared his throat and knelt in front of the young man. "Do you want to stay at my place tonight?'
Blair shook his head and slid out of the car, rising slowly to his feet. "No. Thanks."
With a nod, Simon closed the door and placed a light hand on Sandburg's back, guiding him toward the front doors.
The elevator doors opened, and the two men stepped onto the third floor. Blair shuffled slowly toward the loft. He stopped at the door, closing his eyes as he slid his hand into his jacket pocket to retrieve his keys.
*Keep it together." He remained acutely aware of Simon standing just behind him, but the older man had kept his silence on the way up. All Blair wanted to do now was retain his control long enough to get rid of Simon. He knew the captain was hurting as well, but right now he just wanted to be alone so he could break down without an audience.
Withdrawing his hand, he tried to fit the key in the lock, but the tremors in his hand made it almost impossible for him to make the fit. Simon's large, dark hand closed over his own as the other one slid the keys from his grip.
Blair lowered his head, biting his bottom lip to keep control. The door swung inward, and he hurried inside, hanging his jacket on the hook and studiously avoiding the captain's gaze.
He turned his back to Simon and walked toward the balcony windows. "Please, sir.... I'd like to be alone right now." He stopped in front of the glass and wrapped his arms around himself, holding his breath as he waited for Simon's response.
The captain sighed wearily. "Okay, son. But I'll be back first thing tomorrow morning to check on you."
"I don't need checking up on--"
Simon ignored him. "And if you need anything before then, just call my home number or my cell phone. I'll leave it on all night."
Blair closed his eyes. "Okay. Thanks."
He heard Simon's footsteps echo a retreat toward the door, then pause. "Blair?"
He swallowed hard before finding his voice. "Yeah, Simon?"
"You going to be okay until tomorrow?"
Blair opened his eyes, hugging himself tighter. He knew what Simon was getting at, and the older man's perception both touched and surprised him. "I'll be fine, Simon. I promise."
"Okay then. See you tomorrow, son."
The door clicked closed, and Blair glanced over his shoulder to make sure the captain was really gone. Behind him lay an empty, quiet loft. The grief rose from his chest, and he released it, falling to his knees and leaning against the cold glass, his shuddering sobs disturbing the silence.
A low, steady ache in his head urged him awake. He opened his eyes, blinking to clear his vision. Wherever he was, it was dim and quiet. He blinked again, shrugging off the last vestiges of sleep, and realized he was laying on his side, his cheek pressed against a cold, hard floor. His eyes felt puffy, and his pain in his head increased a notch.
*What happened?* With a groan, he rolled onto his back. Yellow pipes criss-crossed the high ceiling.
He was at home, he realized, turning his head and taking in the shadowy furniture in the living room. But what was he doing laying on the floor? He raised his head and squinted at the glowing numbers of the VCR's clock. 8:32 p.m.
Blair's brow furrowed and he sat up. Where was Jim? The detective should have been home well over an hour....
The memory hit him suddenly, stealing his breath and bringing instant tears to his already-exhausted eyes.
*No, God, no.* He leaned forward, covering his face with his hands, and tried to get a handle on the sudden, overpowering grief. How was he *ever* going to learn to deal with Jim's death? He'd lived well over twenty years without even knowing someone named James Ellison existed, but now, after three painfully short years, he couldn't imagine living without Jim.
So what now? All he had was a lonely, empty loft and an incomplete dissertation that suddenly didn't even seem worth finishing, anymore. The only Sentinel -- the only true friend -- he had ever found was dead.
So now what the hell was he supposed to do? Get on with his life? Pack up Jim's things? Notify his family? God, had Simon notified William and Stephen?
No, no, no. He shook his head, the tears spilling to his cheeks. This couldn't happen. Jim couldn't be dead. He couldn't do it if Jim was dead. Whatever God existed could *not* be so cruel as to give him someone as precious as Jim Ellison and then snatch him away.
//'No, we haven't found his body....'//
Blair's head snapped up, his eyes glinting with hope. It *wasn't* over yet. Jim was a survivor, damnit. Blair wouldn't -- couldn't -- believe Jim was dead. Not until he saw his lifeless body. He closed his eyes, banishing that image from his brain, and pushed himself to his feet.
If Jim was alive, he was hurt. He needed help. Now. Straightening, Blair headed to his room, his mind already composing the list of items he would need to take with him.
The full moon gave him enough light to see by even without the bright flashlight. Blair shifted his backpack on his shoulders as he stumbled over the dirt road, the beam bobbing chaotically ahead. He wore three layers of shirts, long johns, and a wool jacket, but still the cold penetrated, making him shiver.
The chill of the night only spurred him to move faster. If Jim were still alive, he was somewhere out there -- freezing.
Blair knew his task would be harder than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, but he had to try. Simon had told him during the ride to the loft *where* Jim's truck had gone over. They'd managed to cart the wrecked vehicle away, but the evidence of the impact had not been so easily removed. Oil patches marred the sand, visible only when Blair's beam had danced over the inky black spots from the cliff twenty feet above.
But, of course, there was no sign of Jim. The search parties had already been over the area thoroughly. Blair didn't intend to duplicate their efforts, but he knew they had conducted the search with an eye toward finding a corpse.
He was looking for a living, possibly mobile, man. If Jim had gone over and survived both the explosion and the crash, then he'd be hurt. If they hadn't found his body, and he *were* still alive, that meant he'd wandered off, probably confused and disoriented.
He continued forward, going on the premise that Jim had bailed out of the truck before the explosion. There'd been only one cop car behind Jim -- a couple of hundred feet behind. So if Jim *had* bailed, the officers may not have seen him.
But it still didn't make much sense. Unless...
His chest tightened, his mind picturing the scene. Fire had carved a path along the road, probably blocking the cop car. Jim had bailed just before the explosion. The criminals had escaped.
But what if they'd taken Jim with them? Blair sighed, and rubbed his free hand over his face. That still didn't make much sense. Why would the crooks bother to stop and pick up Jim? And if they *did* bother to stop, it would likely have been only to make sure the detective was dead.
His stomach churned, and he pushed that thought aside. No. No. No. Jim was *alive.* He had to be. Tears sprung once again to his eyes, and he let them fall freely. His vision blurred, and he stumbled, falling face-first to the dirt, the flashlight jarred from his grip.
He closed his eyes and curled inward, grabbing two small fistfuls of hard soil, the obvious hopelessness of the situation washed over him, bringing with it a pain so intense and physical that he cried out, one arm crossing over his chest as though it could ease the agony.
What the hell was he doing out here searching for a dead man? He hadn't told Simon of his plans. He hadn't even driven himself because his Volvo was still at the university. Instead, he'd taken a cab, ignoring the odd look from the driver when he'd told the man his destination was literally in the middle of nowhere. The guy had been reluctant at first, until Blair emptied his wallet as incentive.
But what could he hope to find? His rational mind had to admit that Jim was most likely dead, and even if he wasn't, how did Blair have any hope of finding him? He didn't have heightened senses. If a whole search team hadn't found Jim, what chance did a lone, cold, shivering, anthropologist have?
He had, at least, brought his cell phone along with the first aid supplies in his backpack. He could call Simon and get a ride home. Of course, Simon would probably freak and read him the riot act for being so stupid. Either that, or take pity on him and treat him like an incompetent.
Neither prospect appealed to him at the moment.
He closed his eyes and rolled to his back, the pack pillowed beneath him. He gazed up at the dark, starless sky. A few ominous clouds floated lazily toward the moon, threatening rain. The wind chilled his wet cheeks, but he was beyond caring. He had nothing left besides the cold, hollow ache in his chest.
*Goddamn you, Jim, for doing this to me!*
He closed his eyes tight, regretting the hateful thought. He wasn't really mad at Jim. He'd taken enough psych classes to realize the person he really hated was himself. He hadn't *been* there for Jim, and, because of that, the Sentinel had zoned and....
NO! He grabbed the flashlight and shot to his feet. "NO!" His scream sailed with the night breeze, and he wondered if Jim really was still out there and, if so, had he heard the cry?
It couldn't hurt to try. "JIM!" He resumed his trek forward. "JIM, CAN YOU HEAR ME?! JIM!"
A thunder clap echoed sharply through the night, and the clouds released their burden. Icy rain pelted Blair, the drops bouncing hard on the dirt road, turning the surface to mud. Within moments, the water penetrated his shoes, then his jacket, finally soaking through his long johns.
He stopped, the flashlight falling from his hand, and stood with his arms limp at his sides. He tilted his head back and opened his mouth, letting the rainwater snake down his throat. He was freezing, but he didn't care....
Because the rain meant he now had no chance of finding Jim. He could barely see through the storm, and he certainly couldn't hear anything. And the water was soaking the flashlight, wetting the circuitry inside. The beam faltered and, after a few seconds, finally died, leaving Blair reveling in the darkness.
The cold beat down on him, and he dropped to his knees, swinging his backpack off his shoulders. With shaking hands, he rifled through the pack until he found the phone. He hit the POWER button and the face lit up, but only for a second. It flashed a LOW BATTERY alert, then went dark.
He stared at the device, his face slack with resignation. This must be a punishment for something. Maybe the cosmos was catching up with him for something he'd done in a previous life. Or maybe he'd pissed off some deity during one of his treks through an ancient holy ground.
He must have done *something.* Why else would all this be happening? Why else would his best friend have been taken away? Why else would it start to rain, and why the *hell* else would his damn cell phone be dead?
"Fuck it." He rose to his feet and hurled the cell phone over the cliff. "Fuck it all!" His foot shot out, sending the backpack following, then, with a bitter laugh, he turned around and headed back toward the city.
Three hours later, Blair finally made it to a small gas station. Wet and shivering, his hair plastered to his head, he stepped into the phone solitary phone booth at the edge of the tiny lot. He could no longer feel his fingers, but he managed to page through the courtesy telephone book to find a cab company. With trembling fingers, he dialed the number, thankful that he still had his wallet tucked safely in his back pocket. But, since he'd given all his cash to the last driver, he'd have to find a taxi service that took VISA.
The rain slapping against his face brought him to awareness. His head pounded, and his back and ankle ached. A coldness soaked through his clothes, making him shiver. He opened his eyes to darkness, but his vision sluggishly compensated.
Dark clouds drifted over head, He was outside. He turned his head slowly to the right and saw a cluster of trees a few feet away. Where exactly was he, and what had happened?
He lay there for several minutes, too hurt and tired to move, but his brain worked on solving the puzzle of his predicament. After several more minutes, a hazy memory coalesced. He'd been chasing another car... There had been a fire...
He remembered jumping from the truck and landing hard on the unpaved road. Flames licked at him, singing his jeans and shirt and nearly scorching his cheeks. He *thought* he'd managed to get to his feet, but he couldn't remember for sure. He just had an image in his mind of stumbling through the bush, then falling.
He struggled to sit up, and pain flared in his back, stealing his breath. He dropped back to the ground, panting hard and wondering just how badly he'd been hurt.
He lay there until the pain subsided, then gathered enough strength in his right arm to search himself for a cell phone. He groaned when he didn't find the device.
Taking a deep breath, he tried again to raise his upper body. His back protested angrily, but this time he was prepared for the pain and clenched his teeth against it. He succeeded, but the pain forced a low cry from his throat and left him breathless.
The yellow taxi pulled next to the phone booth, and Blair hurriedly slid the door open and rushed outside, nearly jumping in the backseat of the cab. He hadn't dried off much while waiting in the booth, but he didn't need to get even *more* wet.
The cabbie glanced at him in the rearview mirror. "Where do you want to go?"
Blair hugged himself, his teeth chattering, but he managed to force coherent speech from his mouth. "C-Cascade. 852 P-Prospect Avenue."
A hint of dawn touched the darkened sky as Jim stumbled into the phone booth. His knees weak, he leaned against the glass and grabbed the receiver, punching in his home number, though is coordination was so shaky that he couldn't be sure he'd gotten it right.
He listened to the ringing. On the fourth, the line connected. His own familiar voice drifted from the earpiece. "You've reached Ellison and Sandburg...."
Jim closed his eyes and sagged harder against the glass. The throbbing in his head made it difficult to focus, but he struggled to remember Simon's home number.
Simon groaned and opened his eyes.
He winced at the annoying sound, sleep fogging his brain.
Realization dawned on him, and he sat up suddenly, remembering that he'd told Blair to call if he needed anything. "Banks here."
Silence greeted him.
Finally, a soft, shaky voice answered. "Captain..."
Simon tensed, unable to make out the faint word, but recognizing the sound of trouble. "Who is this?"
Simon nearly dropped the phone, his breath catching in his chest. "Jim? Jim, is that really you? Speak up!"
"Captain, it's me. I'm at a gas station."
"Oh dear God." Simon closed his eyes, recognizing the familiar voice of his friend. "Where are you?"
"Okay, keep the line open, I'll get a trace. Just hang on, Jim. I'll have help there right away. Okay?"
"Stay with me!"
Blair nearly fell on his face as the loft door swung inward, pushed by his weight. He held himself up by leaning on the door itself, then kicked it closed and careened toward the couch. He fell over the arm of the sofa to land heavily on the cushions, his cheek pressed against the small throw pillow.
A distant part of his conscious mind realized he was getting the couch soaked. Jim would be mad... even dead Jim would be mad. Maybe he'd come back from the other side just to yell about the house rules.
A chuckle rose in Blair's chest, but he didn't have the strength to give voice to it. Then, just as quickly, the would-be laughter turned to tears, but he was already so wet he didn't even feel them fall.
Screams disturbed the night, creating a symphony of wails that grew deeper and louder with each passing second. Jim opened his eyes to an assault of blue and red lights. Wincing, he tried to form an image of the "vision dial" in his head, but the throbbing in his skull interfered with his focus.
He decided to just close his eyes and return to a world of blessed darkness. A squeak drummed against his ears, causing his headache to flare in retaliation. He groaned, wanting nothing more than for the pain to stop.
The deep voice sounded loud in his ear, and he winced again, keeping his eyes closed to avoid another sensory barrage.
"Sorry." The familiar, deep voice dropped to a whisper. and a gentle pressure touched his shoulder. "The EMTs are here. Everything's going to be fine."
Jim risked opening his eyes a fraction and squinted at the dark figure looming over him. "S-Simon?" He licked his lips. God, his throat was *dry.* If he could get his hands on a nice, tall glass of ice water, he'd be in heaven.
The Captain smiled at him. "How are you feeling?"
Jim closed his eyes again. "Like shit."
Simon chuckled. "You look like it.... I'm gonna step back now and let the paramedics in here."
Jim opened his eyes slightly wider this time, letting his gaze drift lazily over the scene. Two blue-and-white squad cars parked at angles on either side of the booth. A large, white ambulance sat directly in front of him with two blue-clad men preparing equipment from the open doors at the rear of the vehicle.
He spotted Simon's sedan to the right, and a group of uniforms hovered near the car, talking to an old man with a beard, but Jim didn't recognize the civilian.
There was one notable face he didn't see. "Sandburg?"
"At home. I tried to call him en route on my cell phone, but the answering machine picked up."
Jim looked back at Simon, noting the deep lines in the Captain's forehead. "You look worried, sir." He tried to get enough saliva in his mouth to swallow, but he didn't seem to have any moisture in his mouth to spare. "He okay?"
Simon frowned and stepped back as the paramedics slid past him. He held Jim's gaze, though, and shook his head. "I don't know. We all thought you were dead. I *told* him you were dead. He took it pretty hard."
That simple explanation spoke volumes. Jim closed his eyes, trying to imagine the moment Simon told Blair. He remembered Sandburg's reaction to losing Janet and Roy, friends he hadn't seen in a long time. But he and Blair were much closer, even if neither one of them had come right out and said the words. They had a friendship and a partnership, and no man should have something like that ripped so suddenly from him.
And he knew that better than anyone. That day at the fountain when he'd pulled Blair's lifeless body from the water was worse than anything he could imagine. Remarkably, even worse than losing his men in Peru.
Jim took a deep breath, ignoring the strange hands probing his body and the cold instrument against his chest. "Go check on him, Simon. Find him. Please."
Simon hit a stationary block of traffic on his way to the loft. The jam was unusual this early in the morning, but he'd stepped out of his car to get a better view of the mess ahead and was able to make out road crews removing a fallen tree from the road ahead.
"Great." He slumped in his seat. At least Cascade General was in a different direction, so the ambulance should have little trouble, he hoped, getting Ellison to the hospital.
If he thought it would do any good, he'd turn on his lights and siren, but the road was so packed there was no where for any of the cars to move. Everyone was just as stuck as he was, and he couldn't even back out because the traffic extended nearly a block behind him.
Frustration gnawed at him, and he glanced at his dashboard clock. 6:40 a.m. Every second that ticked by with Blair thinking Jim was dead was a second too long. Simon snatched his cell phone from his jacket and dialed the loft. Two rings later, the answering machine answered.
At the beep, he left his message. "Sandburg? Blair, are you there? It's Simon. Pick up if you're there.... Okay, look, I hate doing this over the phone, but it's better than waiting.... Jim's alive. He called from a gas station pay phone. He's a little banged up, but he's going to be okay. The ambulance took him to Cascade General. I'm on my way to you now, but I'm stuck in traffic. *Please* call me on my cell phone the moment you get this message."
With a weary sigh, he ended the connection, then decided to call Blair's office. He didn't think the kid would be there this early, especially given his current state of mind and the fact that he didn't have his car, but it was worth a shot. He didn't know the number off-hand, so he dialed information and, thankfully, the automated system allowed him to search by last name. He selected "S.' Sandburg came up first, and he punched in the selection. A moment later, he listened to the rings. On the third, it picked up.
"Hello, you've reached Blair Sandburg, Department of Anthropology at Rainier University. Please leave me a message, and I promise to get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks!"
"Damn!" At the beep, he left another message. "Blair, this is Simon. We found Jim. He's alive and at Cascade General. He's going to be all right. You hear me? Jim is alive and going to be fine. Call my cell phone when and if you get this message."
Jim sat on the edge of a gurney in the middle of the bustling ER, the curtain open, as he buttoned his tattered and dirtied shirt.
"Well, Detective, you're a lucky man. For someone who jumped out of a speeding truck, you seem relatively unscathed. Your road burns might just be be the worst of it, but go easy on your right shoulder for a couple of weeks. The inflammation suggests you may have dislocated it, but, if so, it popped back in. Now we'll get you up to radiology."
Jim nodded, hopping off the edge of the ER table. Pain flared in his back, but he had much better control of his mental pain dials and managed to control the discomfort. "Thanks, Doc." He casually inspected the bandages on both his forearms. A similar set covered most of his legs. "I feel a lot better now. Headaches even gone. He glanced at the clock on the wall. The morning was getting late. "Can I make a phone call first?"
"Okay, but you shouldn't be hopping off the table like that. You need to *rest* for the next few days. Those bruises on your back are pretty deep. They'll hurt for a few days."
"Damn!" Simon pounded the steering wheel, his engine off. He glanced again at the clock. 7:33 a.m. He wasn't going anywhere for a long time, it looked like. Coming to a decision, he grabbed his cell phone and dialed Brown's desk, not really expecting the Detective to be there. As expected, he got the man's voice mail.
He didn't feel like playing phone tag with people. The only person he knew to be available was Taggart. The Detective had called him on the cell phone, apparently working late at the station when the information about Jim had been forwarded to dispatch. He'd been informed by the dispatcher, Sally, and promptly took off toward Cascade General. He'd called Simon from the hospital to give an update on Jim's condition.
Jim was going to be fine. "Thank God." Simon closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He'd give it ten more minutes. If traffic didn't start to move, he'd call dispatch and have them send a uniform to the loft.
Jim dialed the loft from the phone at the nurse's station. On the third ring, the line picked up. There was a thud, then a groan and some shuffling noises followed by several wet, rattling coughs.
Jim tensed. Blair sounded *awful.* "Chief? It's me, Jim. I--"
Another round of coughing interrupted him.
"Yeah, buddy, I--"
"I'm sorry." More coughing. Blair's breathing sounded strained. "I tried, Jim. Couldn't find you."
"What?" Jim rubbed at his back. The doc had given him a shot, but the pain persisted. "Blair, are you okay? Did Simon make it there? Did he tell you what happened?"
Blair coughed some more, but Jim thought he heard sobs mixed in. "Sorry.... Tried... Too dark. Cold. Why'd you do it, Jim?" His words began to slur as his voice faded. "What am I gonna do now?"
Jim's gut twisted. He *really* didn't like the way Blair sounded. The kid was obviously very sick. Why wasn't Simon there yet? "Blair, listen to me. I'm coming home now. Just stay there. I'm on my way. I'll call you back from a cell phone, if I can, so keep the line free."
"No. No. No. Please don't leave me, Jim. I'm sorry I didn't find you."
More coughing. "Don't feel so good."
"Sandburg, I'm on my way."
"Is it nice where you are? Did you see the jungle? I did..."
Jim closed his eyes, wishing he could get through to his partner. "Blair, I'm not leaving you. I'm alive. You hear me? I'm at the hospital, but I'm on my way to the loft right now."
"Blair?" He strained his hearing, but he only picked up the sound of Blair's too-fast heart beat accompanied by the worrisome rattle of his lungs.
The crowd of cars began to inch forward, and Simon started his engine. He was only a minute away from calling for a uniform, something he'd rather not do. Sandburg deserved to have that kind of emotional news delivered by a friend, not a stranger.
Taggart parked the sedan in front of the building and threw a worried glance at Jim. "You sure you should be out of the hospital? I would have been more than happy to come here and check on him myself."
Jim offered a tired smile. He *really* needed a bed, but first he had to see for himself what shape his partner was in. "I know, Joel, but I'd rather do this myself."
The rest of his reply was cut off when another sedan pulled into a parking spot a few spaces ahead. Joel squinted through his windshield. "Is that Simon?'
Jim focused his vision through several car windows to see his Captain seated behind the wheel in the vehicle several yards ahead. "Yep. Looks like it. I wonder what delayed him."
All three men exited the cars at the same time, and Simon spotted Taggart first, waving to him. As he jogged toward the former Bomb Squad captain, he saw Jim, and his face registered his surprise.
"Ellison, what are you doing here?"
Jim tried NOT to look like he was leaning against the car. "Checking on Sandburg. I called, but he didn't sound so good."
"He answered?" Simon's eyes drifted up to the third floor windows. "I must have called him three times, but I only got the answering machine."
Jim pushed off the car and headed into the building with his two friends right behind. "He sounded sick."
The three men rode the elevator to the third floor, and Jim leaned against the wall to relieve some of the pressure on his back. The pain killers had helped a little, but he still ached. The medicine had also amplified his fatigue, and he wondered if he'd even be able to stay on his feet by the time the old elevator came to a halt.
Finally, the lift deposited stopped and the doors slid open. Jim pushed off the wall and staggered toward the hall, bumping slightly into Joel on his way out. The older man caught him, wrapping a hand around his arm, and steered him toward the loft.
"You sure you should be out of the hospital?"
Jim nodded, straightening and pulling himself out of Joel's grip. "I'll be fine. Just a bit tired, that's all."
He cocked his head as he approached the apartment door. Inside, he heard the loud rattling of Sandburg's lungs, accompanied by a faint wheezing. Hurrying his pace, his hand moved to his pocket, but he suddenly realized he didn't have his keys.
"Here." Simon slid his spare key into the loft. "Now you know why you gave this to me."
"Thanks." Jim pushed ahead of the two men, anxious to see Blair.
He didn't have far to look. The young man was curled on his side on the couch. Footprints caked in dirt soiled the wood floor, trailing from the door to the sofa, and patches of dirt marred the light fabric of the sofa.
Simon cursed under his breath. Jim hurried forward and dropped to his knees next to Blair, wincing as his back protested the movement.
"Chief." He rested his hand lightly on Blair's arm, frowning when he realized the young man's clothes were damp and cold. Underneath the damp chill, that Jim could feel the alarming heat of a raging fever. Blair was shivering violently, his arms wrapped around his torso in an attempt to find a meager hint of warmth.
A hitch interrupted the rattle of Blair's breathing, and he groaned, curling into a tighter ball.
Simon moved away from the couch. "Damn, I knew I shouldn't have left him alone. I'm sorry, Jim. I'll get some blankets."
Jim shook his head. "He's burning up, sir, and his lungs sound pretty bad. We need to get him to the hospital." He looked up at the captain, seeing the dawning realization in the older man's eyes. "It's only been a few months, Simon. His lungs are still vulnerable." His throat tightened on that last word and he dropped his gaze back to his partner. "Blair." He gave Sandburg a gentle shake. "Hey, buddy, wake up."
Another cough rattled from Blair's chest, and his eyelids lifted a fraction, revealing a slit of dark blue.
Jim gave him another shake. "Blair, look at me. Come on, Chief, wake up. We've gotta get you to the hospital."
Blair came further awake, his eyes opening slowly as they drifted toward Jim's face. His expression remained blank for several seconds, then his forehead crinkled and another small coughing fit shook him.
Jim slid his arm beneath his friend's shoulder and urged him into a sitting position. Blair yielded easily, his eyes never leaving Jim's face. The scrutiny began to worry Jim.
"Chief? You okay?"
Blair swallowed, his face flushed with fever and his eyes bloodshot. His gaze drifted up the stairs to Jim's bedroom, hovering there for a few seconds before sliding back to Jim's face.
Jim wasn't quite sure what to make of Blair's uncharacteristic silence, but from the dull, glazed look in the young man's eyes, he suspected Sandburg wasn't all there.
"Come on, buddy." Jim urged his friend off the couch, pulling him by his arm to his feet. He suppressed a gasp as his back protested, but he evidently didn't hide it as well as he'd hoped because Simon hurried to help, sliding in to grab Blair's other arm as Joel opened the door.
Jim managed to coax his partner a few steps forward when Blair's knees sagged, but the two men were prepared and tightened their grip as they each swung one of Sandburg's arms across their shoulders and carried him out of the loft.
The biting scent of antiseptic tickled his nose, and he coughed. His lungs exploded with pain, and he gasped, his eyes springing open with instant tears. The agonizing coughs continued for several seconds until he managed to get control, and, relieved, he sagged back against his mattress.
He felt like he had a block of cement on his chest, and the air seemed as thick as molasses as he struggled to draw it into his lungs. He tried to ignore the pain and focused instead on his surroundings. His eyes scanned the white room, taking in the empty bed on the far wall and finally settling on the machines to the right of his own bed.
An empty chair next to the rows of machines, and he figured Jim had probably been using it. Where was the Sentinel now? The bathroom? Home?
*Oh God.* Memory assaulted him, stealing the precious air from his battered lungs and forcing a sob from his throat.
*Jim. Jim. Jim.* He closed his eyes, spilling tears on to his cheeks. His friend was dead. Killed in the line of duty. Part of him always knew it could happen, but another part of him never believed it would.
The pain in his chest turned to sudden, intense pressure, and his grief turned to panic when he realized he couldn't breathe.
Jim's head snapped up at the sound of alarms going off nearby. A moment of disorientation creased his brow. He looked around, realizing he was in a tiny bathroom, but not the one in the loft.
The hospital... Blair! Damn, he'd fallen asleep on the toilet. He shot to his feet and pulled up his pants, yanking up the zipper as he stumbled toward his friend's room.
He arrived to see a cluster of white-jacketed men and women gathered around the bed. He couldn't see Blair, but he could make out the strained, raspy gasps for air coming from his partner.
Half an hour later, the medical team filed out of Blair's room. The doctor stopped momentarily to tell Jim he could visit for another ten minutes only. With a nod, Jim hurried into the room, his gaze falling to the still figure on the bed.
He was happy to see that Sandburg was still breathing on his own. From the episode he'd just witnessed, he'd feared they'd have to put Blair on a respirator. The pneumonia had certainly done a number on his vulnerable lungs.
There were so many things about that Alex experience Jim wished he could change. So many damn things...
Again, Blair opened his eyes to an empty, lonely room. He was still in the hospital, and his gaze fell to the empty chair next to his bed. His eyes stung, but he pushed back the tears.
God, he missed Jim.
Now he had no one. Naomi was hardly ever around, but Jim always had been. He didn't know how to go back to the solitary grad student life he'd had before Jim -- a life filled with many acquaintances but no real friends.
A low creak pulled his attention to the door, and he saw a gray-haired man dressed in a white lab jacket enter. The older man smiled at him and stopped at the edge of the mattress.
"Hello, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Doctor Fenton. How are you feeling?"
That was a loaded question. Blair decided to obfuscate. "Fine. I'm fine."
"Do you remember how you got here?"
"No. I remember being out in the rain and getting soaked. I made it back home, but I have no idea who brought me here."
"Your friends found you and brought you here. I sent the last one home a couple of hours ago."
"Oh." Blair closed his eyes, wondering what Simon must be thinking after finding him zonked out in wet, dirty clothes on the sofa.
"You've got pneumonia, but it's responded to the antibiotics and seems to be clearing up just fine."
Blair opened his eyes again and managed a weak smile. "So I can get out of here?"
"Maybe another day or so."
"No. I mean, can I leave now?"
Surprise flickered over the doctor's face. "Uh, no, Mr. Sandburg, you're not in any condition..."
"Yeah, yeah." He sat up, suppressing the cough that threatened to erupt from his chest. "Look, Doctor Fenton, I'm not a very good person to be around right now. I'd rather just go home and spend some time by myself. Now, if you'll give me whatever pills you need to give me, I'll be on my way. If not, I'll still be on my way. You can't keep me here against my will. We both know that."
The doctor shifted uncomfortably. "You're not being reasonable..."
"I know. I don't care." He lowered the bed rail and slid off the mattress. His legs wobbled unsteadily, but he leaned against the bed for support. God, he felt tired...
"Where are my clothes? I'm checking myself out of here."
A loud, obnoxious noise jerked Jim from his slumber, and, blindly, he fumbled for the cordless on the night stand next to his bed. His fingers wrapped around the receiver and he brought it to his ear.
"Mr. Ellison, this is Doctor Fenton at Cascade General --"
Jim jack-knifed out of bed. "What happened?" Doctors never made *good* phone calls at -- he glanced at the alarm clock -- 3:30 in the morning.
"Uh... Well, Mr. Sandburg checked himself out."
"What?!" He plopped back onto the edge of his bed. "What are you talking about?"
"He woke up less than an hour ago and insisted on leaving. I stressed to him the importance of him staying here, but he wouldn't listen. He said he needed to be alone. I wrote him a prescription for antibiotics, but I'm afraid that's all I could do."
*Shit.* "How long ago did he leave?"
"About ten minutes ago. It took us that long to get his paperwork and prescription in order. I did my best to keep him here..."
"Why did you call me sooner, damnit?"
"Because I was busy trying to talk some sense into him. He said he was going home, anyway, so he should be there soon, I imagine."
Sure enough, Jim heard the squeak of the elevator. "How'd he leave. In what?"
"A taxi. His wallet was in his pants here."
"Okay, Doc, thanks. I think I here him now." He hung up the phone and trotted down the steps just as Blair's key jiggled in the lock.
A second later, the door swung inward. Blair staggered inside, his cotton red shirt soiled, half-buttoned, and hanging untucked from his pants. He tossed his keys blindly into the basket, miraculously, hitting the target. The living room was shrouded in darkness, but Jim's sensitive vision cut through it easily.
Sandburg gasped and jumped back, hitting the door and inadvertently slamming it closed. Jim's hearing picked up the frantic pounding of the young man's heart.
*Damn.* He'd forgotten that Blair still thought he was dead. *Way to give the kid a heart attack, Ellison.*
Quickly, Jim stooped and switched on the table lamp. Soft light filled the room. Blair remained plastered against the door, breathing hard, his eyes wide as he stared at Jim.
"Hey, Chief." Jim offered a small smile. "Welcome home."
Blair didn't move. Jim walked toward him slowly.
"Sandburg, I know this is a shock, but... well, as you can see, I'm alive. I'm okay. You want to move away from the door now, buddy?"
Blair's eyes narrowed with a mixture of hope and disbelief. "Jim?" The question was whispered.
Blair took a step forward. "You're... You're alive?"
He sagged, but Jim caught him.
"Oh God, Jim, you're alive. Thank God, you're alive."
Jim smiled softly, wrapping his arms around his trembling friend. "Yeah, Chief, I'm alive."
He watched Blair sleep. The young man had exhausted himself both physically and emotionally after the revelation, but he'd refused to be driven back to the hospital. His breathing was still distressed, however, and the emotional ride had drained his body's reserves. He'd fallen asleep on the couch after listening to Jim's story about his near-death experience and asking a hundred questions to reassure himself that the ordeal hadn't caused any serious damage. Then, with a few probing questions of his own, Jim had managed to find out how Blair had come down with pneumonia. The image of his young partner searching alone in the night for him hit him square in the chest.
Jim gently draped the afghan over his sleeping partner, then pressed the back of his fingers lightly to Blair's forehead to gauge the young man's temperature. He felt a slight fever, but it wasn't high enough to merit serious concern.
Making as little noise as he could, he moved away from Blair and grabbed the phone, dialing the hospital. He asked to speak with Doctor Fenton and was relieved to find out the man was still on duty.
"Doctor Fenton here."
"Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg's partner. I'm calling to let you know he made it here. I've got some questions."
"Can you bring him in?"
"He doesn't want to go back, and I can't talk him into it right now. I checked his temperature, and he has a slight fever. About 101. He's not coughing much -- only occasionally -- but his breathing sounds strained with a slight wheeze. Do you think he'll be okay here for the night? I'm pretty sure I can talk him into going back tomorrow after he's had a good night's sleep and, hopefully, come to his senses."
The doctor sighed. "That should be fine. Just try to get him back here as early as possible tomorrow. I think it would be best for us to keep a close eye on the infection in his lungs. The oral antibiotics I sent him home with might not be as effective as the treatment we could give him here."
"Okay. First thing tomorrow. We'll be there."
"Really?" A thick, soft voice whispered from the sofa.
Jim turned and grinned. "Yes really."
Blair peeked his head over the back of the couch, his eyes watery from sleep. "With what car? Your truck is no more and my Volvo is still at the university."
Jim frowned. He'd forgotten about the lack of transportation, but that was easily remedied. "Well, we'll either take a cab, or call on Simon for a ride."
Blair yawned and sank back to the cushions. "If I'm better tomorrow, I won't go. I'd rather stay here with you."
"You did say you left the hospital rather abruptly, didn't you?"
"Yes, after I talked to you, but you don't remember that, you said."
"Nope. A complete blank." Another yawn. "So I'll make you a deal. I'll go to the hospital tomorrow, but only if you come with me *and* get checked out yourself."
Jim considered the proposition. He had nothing else to do tomorrow, anyway, since he wasn't cleared for duty yet. "Deal."
Blair reached one hand over the back of the sofa and pulled himself into a sitting position, his gaze locking with Jim's. "That was easy."
"I was planning on being there with you, anyway."
Blair's eyes teared suddenly, and he quickly averted his eyes, then dropped back to the cushions. "I really thought you were dead, man."
"I didn't think you'd ever be there for me again." He sniffled. "Guess I've gotten used to having you around."
Jim found himself smiling. "I know. Guess I kind of feel the same way about you."
"Don't mention it, Chief. And I mean that." He strolled toward his bedroom stairs. "Now go to sleep, Junior."