Random Acts of Tragedy  

 

 

Blair hummed along to the music as Les Miserables' "Master of the House" pumped the speakers of the rented Pontiac. Thanks to a poorly planned bank robbery, his Volvo was in the shop for body repairs. Simon had agreed to have the department pick up the tab for the repairs, since the damage to Blair's car occured because Jim decided to use his poor little Volvo for a high-speed chase. Simon had also been uncharacteristically gracious by agreeing to have the department reimburse him for the expense of a rental car while his vehicle was in the shop.

He smiled to himself as he sank back into the seat of the almost-new, sparkling white Pontiac. Okay, so it wasn't a Lexus and, no, he hadn't abused Simon's generosity. This was the only car the rental agency had left, which was fine with him. Of course, there were other rental agencies in the area, but none so close to his mechanic. He could drop off the rental car when the repairs to his Volvo were completed, and walk two blocks to pick up his car. No need to bumb a ride off of Jim.

"...everybody loves a landlord... everybody's bosom friend... I'll do whatever pleases, JESUS but I bleed 'em in the end!" Blair sang happily, his curls bouncing chaotically as he swung his head back and forth to the rhythm of the song.

He gazed out at the long stretch of road ahead of him. Aaah. He loved these little drives, out away from the city. He didn't dare test his luck too often on long drives with his old Volvo, but, now that he had the rental car, he figured he had the perfect opportunity to try that little natural foods store just outside of Cascade.... the one Professor Ihler had mentioned to him. He glanced at the paper bag in the passenger seat, smiling at his victory. He'd purchased two boxes of herbal tea... ones he'd been driving himself crazy trying to find back in Cascade. He would have stocked up more, but each box cost him $10, and he didn't really have a lot of extra money to spend on tea. He'd also manage to score himself some Babaganook, which he couldn't wait to have Jim try. Okay, so the sentinel wasn't too fond of using his sensitive taste buds to test out new foods, but, geez, it just wasn't healthy for a person to eat burgers and hotdogs every day. The guy had to expand his horizons.

Humming happily to the music, he glanced down at his speedometer. Sixty miles an hour. The speedlimit on the long country road was sixty five miles an hour, so he pressed the pedal a fraction harder, grinning as the car accelerated smoothly. Sixty three miles an hour. Okay, that was enough. He fought the urge to go faster... seventy... maybe eighty miles an hour... After all, what were the odds of him getting a ticket way out here. Still, he wasn't about to chance it. First, he didn't have the money to risk and, second, Jim would jump down his throat.

The road curved up ahead, so he eased the pressure on the accelerator, slowing the car to fifty miles an hour. As he made the turn, he pressed down gently on the accelerator again... He remembered the lecture from his undergrad physics professor on the force of friction between the tire of a car and the road. Force equals mass times acceleration... so, if you accelerated going around a curve, the force of friction between your tires and the road would be greater... but, in physics didn't acceleration refer to both increases and decreases in speed? So, if he just slowed down, would that have the same affect on the force of friction?

He shrugged, then shook his head as he finished the turn. He was an anthropologist, damnit, not a physicist. Heck, that one lesson was the only thing he'd carried away from the cla--

The sun glinted off a blur of metal in front of him, and his foot automatically shot to the break. His tires screeched, but the car's momentum was too great, and the white Pontiac slammed front-first into the tiny Nissan Sentra at fifty-five miles an hour. The last sensations that reached his conscious mind as the Pontiac flipped over was the ear-shattering screech of metal against metal and an explosion of whiteness slamming into him.


Jim looked at the clock on the wall inside the bullpen of Major Crimes and cursed silently under his breath. The door to his Captain's office opened, and the large, dark man stepped into the bullpen.

"Still no word from Sandburg, Jim," Captain Simon Banks asked.

Jim shook his head. "No. Damn kid, when I get my hands on him... well, he'd better have a damn good excuse."

Simon chuckled. "C'mon, he probably just got detained by some... err... young lady."

Jim allowed himself a small smile. "Maybe I should get him fixed."

Simon roared with laughter. "You think that'll make him more manageable?"

Jim shrugged. "It worked for my friend's Lab."

Simon slapped Jim on the back and jabbed his head toward the door. "C'mon, why don't you and I get some dinner. He'll call, or you can chew him out later when he comes sauntering home."

Jim spared another glance at the clock, even though only a minute had passed since he'd last looked at it. 7:00 pm. Sandburg had been due to meet him at the station almost two hours ago. Jim had called Blair's office, then the loft, then his cell phone, all without success. He knew Blair had intended to drive out to that health food store outside the city limits, but he'd assured Jim the trip would take him an hour, maybe an hour and a half, at most. That had been about four hours ago.

Brown walked into the bullpen, and walked directly over to Jim's desk. "Hey, Jim" he began, glancing at Simon nervously.

"Yeah, Brown?"

The larger detective swallowed. "Uh... didn't Sandburg rent a white Pontiac?"

Jim felt the room grow cold. "Uh-huh."

"And... um..." Brown glanced down at the floor. "Didn't I hear him mention something yesterday about wanting to try that little store off of FM 2312?"

Oh God. Jim nodded. "Yes, he headed off there a few hours ago." He clenched his fists. "Why?"

Brown swallowed, glancing back and forth between Jim and Captain Banks. "Uh, I just heard over the police scanners... well.. there's been a pretty bad accident on that road... involving a white Pontiac and a brown Nissan." He took a deep breath. "There's several fatalities."

Fatalities... God, no...

"I'll drive!" Simon put a hand on Jim's shoulder and steered the dazed man out of the bullpen.


Jim saw the pulsing sirens in the distance miles before normal eyes would have sensed them. His heart jumped to his throat as he zoomed into the mangled mess of white and brown metal in the distance. His heart nearly stopped when he saw the dark red wetness splattered on and around the crumpled metal.

A few minutes later, Simon screeched to a halt, cursing as Jim flung himself out of the car even before it came to a complete stop. His heart pounded fiercely in his chest as his eyes found the heart-wrenching site of a bloodied tangle of brown curls peeking out of the lump of broken glass and metal amidst a dozen police and EMT uniforms.

He lunged forward, pushing his way past the human barrier surrounding the scene. He vaguely heard Simon's voice bellowing behind him, but he didn't focus on the words. His entire being was honed into the bloody, crumpled figure trapped in the horrendous metallic monster in front of him.

He knelt down, his knee resting in a pool of blood. The two EMTs next to Blair paused momentarily to give him space. Jim saw the full horror of the scene. Blair rested upside down in the crumpled, overturned Pontiac, fastened in his seat by the thick seat belt, the deflated remnants of the airbag hanging limply in front of him. The dashboard rested at an absurd angle on his legs, pinning his chest against the back of the seat. The windshield in front of him was non-existent, the glass laying in sparkling, vicious pieces around him.

His face looked like a horrendous labyrinth of cuts and scrapes, blood, both dried and wet, dirtied his hair, face, and neck. Jim couldn't see the rest of Blair's body, but, from the pool of blood collecting on the pavement below, and the steady onslaught of red drops slamming into the blacktop, he figured Blair sported more injuries to his lower extremities.

Jim spared a brief glance around the rest of the scene. The brown Nissan rested in a crumpled, barely distinguishable mass underneath the hood of the Pontiac. He saw two black body bags being hauled into one of the ambulance. The bloody remnants of a person rested crushed behind the Nissan's steering wheel. Jim blinked. An EMT carried the tiny figure of a bloody, limp baby in her arms.

A whimpered moan pierced his eardrums and he whipped his head back around to his Guide. "Blair?"

Blair turned his head toward Jim, obviously seeking out the source of the sound. He released another low moan.

Jim placed a hand on Blair's wet forehead, lowering the dial on his sense of smell to combat the overpowering stench of blood. The warm wetness seeped into his fingertips as he brushed a few strands of hair out of Blair's face.

"Hey, Chief, It's Jim."

Blair's eyes fluttered open and, for a moment, they rested unfocuses on Jim's face. Then Blair arched his neck and shoulders and clamped his eyes shut, releasing a strangled, agonized wail.

"Okay, let's move folks!"

Jim slid his hand down to Blair's shoulder and squeezed gently, not wanting to hurt his friend any further, but needing to comfort the agonies that wracked his partner's battered body.

"It's okay, Blair. Just hang on... we'll get you out of here," Jim soothed.

He felt a firm hand on his shoulder. "Detective, you need to move back."

Jim allowed himself to be pulled backwards, his outstretched arm drifting slowly to his side as strong arms guided him away from the twisted vehicle. Blair's tormented whimpers continued to assault his ears, and he clamped his eyes shut as a force on his shoulder pushed him gently down into a sitting position against a firm leather bucket seat.

"Jim....." A single whispered plea.

Jim's eyes shot open and he sprung out of the car.

"JIM!" Simon's arms grabbed him by the shoulders, holding him back. "Let them work! They need to get him out of there as fast as possible. You'll only hinder them, Jim.... C'mon, buddy, come on...." Simon pushed Jim firmly back into the car.

The Captain's words pierced the fog of Jim's brain, and he allowed himself to be guided back to the car. Blair needed help... they needed to get him to the hospital. He needed to let them work. He needed to let them cut Blair out of the car. Then he could see Blair... make sure he was okay... let him know he was okay.... Please be okay...


Jim sat on the small, uncomfortable chair, his shoulders hunched over as he rested his forehead against the rail of Blair's hospital bed. He held Blair's right hand in his own, listening to the soft, steady sounds of his guide's breathing and the rhythmic beating of his heart, echoed by the high-pitched beeps of the heartmonitor.

He sat that way for a while... minutes... hours... he didn't know. All he knew were the sounds... the breathing and the heartbeat. Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump.

....and then he only knew the heartbeat....

An indeterminate amount of time later, he became aware of another sensation... pressure on his shoulder, shaking his body.

A deep, urgent voice. "Jim? Jim, snap out of it... Jim!"

He blinked, and raised his head. Simon breathed a sigh of relief behind him.

"Thank God... How long have you been like this?"

Jim turned to look up into the worried face of his Captain. He shrugged his shoulders.

Simon rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. "I'm sorry Jim. I should never have left you here alone."

Jim looked back at the still figure of his partner, taking in the bandaged face, pale complexion, and the rigid outline of a leg cast beneath the sheet.

"I told you to go, Simon. There's a lot of paperwork... phone calls... " his voice trailed off. How do you tell someone her entire family died in a car accident?

Jim heard the clump of saliva slither down Simon's throat. "How are you going to tell him?"

Jim shrugged, closing his eyes. "It wasn't his fault."

"I know, Jim," he said, putting a hand on the detective's shoulder. "Sandburg had the right of way. As best we can figure, the woman ran the stop sign... didn't even slow down... from the skid marks, forensics estimates her velocity at the time of the crash to be around fifty miles per hour, which means she hadn't stopped at the intersection. Nobody was wearing their seatbelts... except the driver and Sandburg... he couldn't have stopped... Hell, that's just a bad intersection all around. Lots of shrubbery, a bend in the road, an intersection... this was waiting to happen."

Jim nodded. "Jesus, how do I tell him, Simon?" He opened his eyes to glance back at the man, his blue eyes shimmering with wetness. "How do I tell him that four people  -- including two children and an infant -- died in that crash? How do I tell him that? He's going to blame himself." He turned back to look at Blair. "It will kill him."

Simon increased the pressure on Jim's shoulder. "As sorry as I feel for these people, I can't help but wonder... who keeps a six month old baby in an unsecured car seat in the backseat with two unbuckled children? It's a damn shame... that's all... this would have turned out differently if they'd had their seatbelts on... the children would have survived, most likely. That's what the EMTs said. They could have survived...might have even walked away... " his voice cracked and he removed his hand from Jim's shoulder.

"No point in that now, Sir. With four people dead, there's going to be a lot of local press on this, especially," he swallowed, "with the children.... Has the driver regained consciousness yet?"

Simon shook his head.

"Have you contacted the mothers?"

Simon sighed. "That's where I went."

Jim closed his eyes. "Oh. Right."

"I contacted the mother of the little girl. Detective Marlo informed the mother of the other children. The man was her husband and the woman her sister."

"They were babysitting the little girl, right?"

"Yeah."

"I can't imagine," Jim muttered, dropping his head back onto the railing. He took a deep breath and turned to look back at Simon, taking in the deep lines etched in his face, and the red rim around his eyes. "You okay, Sir?"

Simon's eyes closed for a fraction of a second. When they opened, they were wet. "Yeah, Jim. I'm okay... I hate giving people bad news."

Jim nodded, then rose out of the chair, placing a hand on Simon's shoulder. "I should have gone with you. I'm sorry."

Simon managed a small smile and shook his head. "You wouldn't have been any good, Jim. You were needed here," he indicated Sandburg with a jerk of his chin, "in case he woke up."

Jim turned back to face Blair, placing his hands on the rail. "I don't want him to know... not right away."

"How are you going to protect him from that, Jim? It'll be all over the place... the television, the newspapers... hell, they're talking about it in the hospital," Simon asked.

Jim shrugged. "I'll protect him... I've already instructed the hospital staff to keep out all reporters and avoid discussing the accident around him.... just til he gets better. He needs a chance to heal."

"He got out of this pretty lucky, physically anyway. I spoke with the doctor... she said he should be out of here in about a day or so."

Jim nodded. "No permanent damage. Thank god. Not physically, anyway."

The door to the room opened and Joel Taggart peeked his head in. "Can I come in?"

Jim forced a smile and nodded. "Of course, Joel."

Joel stepped into the room, quietly shutting the door behind him. "How's he doing?"

"Pretty good. A broken leg, some cuts on his face, two fractured ribs... nothing that won't heal," Jim informed him.

Joel nodded, stepping over to Blair's bedside. He gazed thoughtfully at the young man for several quiet seconds, then asked, "Has he woken up yet?"

Jim shook his head. "No, not yet."

"Poor kid, this'll kill him," Joel muttered. He looked back at Jim, his gaze steady. "You make sure he knows we're all here for him... all the guys down at the station. You tell him this wasn't his fault... I know the kid, he... he...."

"Thanks, Joel, I will," Jim replied, his voice gentle. "It means a lot."

Joel nodded. "Well, I'll leave you alone now... do you, uh... do you need anything? Can I bring you some clothes from the loft?"

"That's okay, Joel," Simon said. "I already took care of it."

Jim looked at Simon, his eyebrows raised.

Simon pointed to the floor at the foot of the bed. Jim followed the line of his finger to a small blue duffel bag a few feet away.

"I didn't see you bring that in," he mumbled. Had he zoned out? He must have. He hadn't even heard Simon enter the room. "Thanks."

"No problem. There's a change of clothes in there, a toothbrush and soap, a comb... and a few other essentials. I even brought some music and a small, portable cd player. I didn't know what you wanted, so I grabbed a few CD's off the shelf." He glanced at Sandburg. "He might like to listen to some of those jungle tunes of his," he said, cracking a smile.

One side of Jim's mouth lifted in a half-hearted smile. "Thanks."

"Well, then, I'll be going," Joel said. "I'll let the guys know he's gonna be okay."

"Thanks, Joel," Jim said.

Joel nodded and headed out of the room.


Eight hours later...

Jim's subconscious registered the sudden quick flutter of Blair's heart a millisecond before it registered on the machine. His eyes shot open and he straightened in his chair, nearly falling out.

"Chief?"

The small, pale figure before him moaned. The bandaged head turned a fraction of an inch toward the sound of his voice.

"Blair? It's okay, buddy, you're in a hospital."

Delicate eyelids opened to reveal glazed, blue eyes.

"Hey, there, Chief. Nice to see you decided to join the living," Jim said, forcing a broad smile on his face.

The blue eyes shifted toward Jim. Jim saw the pupils dialate and then constrict. The eyelids fluttered closed briefly, then opened again.

Blair opened his mouth, releasing an almost silent croak.

"Just a second, I'll get you some water."

Jim rose from the chair and headed into the bathroom. He emerged a few seconds later with a cup filled with water and a straw. He placed the straw between Blair's lips and brushed a stray curl away from his friend's eye.

Blair took a few sips of the water, and Jim pulled the glass away. "That's all for now, Blair."

Blair swallowed. "Thanks," he rasped.

"No problem," Jim said as he sat the cup down on the table next to the bed.

"Wha' happened," Blair mumbled.

Jim swallowed, settling back down into the chair. "You were in a car accident."

Blair crinkled his bandaged brow. "Volvo..?"

"You were in a rented car. Your Volvo's in the shop."

Blair closed his eyes. "Hit.... what?"

Jim reached out and took Blair's hand in his own. "That's not important right now. The rental car was covered with insurance. You don't need to worry about anything but getting better."

Blair swallowed, his brow furrowed and he opened his eyes, gazing up at Jim with tired, confused eyes. "A car? Brown?"

Jim clenched his jaw. "Just go back to sleep Blair."

Blair shook his head, "Other car? Anyone... hurt?"

"You're on a lot of pain medication right now, Blair. You need to rest," Jim said, squeezing Blair's hand gently. "I'll be right here."

Blair's eyes fluttered closed. "Hurts."

"I know, Chief. It'll get better."



 
 The next afternoon....

Jim eased his groggy, bandaged partner into the wheelchair. Sleepy blue eyes flashed up at him.

"Thanks," Blair mumbled.

Jim slung the duffel bag over one shoulder and balanced the crutches over the other as he pushed the wheelchair out of the hospital room. "You've got a nice cozy bed at home with your name on it, Chief."

"Mmmm-hmmmm," Blair moaned, his eyes drifting shut as his head lulled forward.

They got all the way to ground floor unimpeded. However, as Jim stepped out of the elevator onto the first floor, a small group of camera-toting, pencil waving zealots descended upon him.

"Excuse me, Detective Ellison, is that Blair Sandburg," one lady asked, pushing her way to the front of the crowd.

"Mr. Sandburg, how do you feel about the death of the Wilson family," another asked.

Blair's eyes fluttered opened and he raised his head, his brow furrowed. "Huh?" His voice sounded heavy and slurred.

"OUT OF MY WAY!" Jim pushed the wheelchair through the crowd of reporters, almost running toward the front doors of the hospital.

"Mr. Sandburg, have you spoken with the mother of the deceased children," a female voice called out from behind.

Jim didn't look back, instead, he clenched his jaw and hurried his pace as the reporters trotted behind. Simon met him at the hospital entrance, taking a final puff on his cigar before tossing it into the trash can on the curb. When he saw the chaotic spectacle, he ran passed Jim and Blair, waving his badge in front of the mass of reporters.

"Back off people," he bellowed. "The kid's just been released. He's barely conscious, give it a rest. The next person to utter a word will be assured that their organization will get absolutely no cooperation from my department in the future... on any matter." He glared at the crowd, then added. "And I seem to remember there being a few unpaid parking tickets from some of you...." He turned his gaze to one of the angry, flustered faces peering at him -- a middle aged man with glasses and a mustache. With what he hoped was an intimidating gesture, he peered at the man. Let's not forget your son's penchant for driving under the influence, Mr. Carter. The man quickly turned his gaze away from Simon.

The crowd seemed to quiet and, reluctantly, the reporters began to disperse... probably more due to the fact that they realized Sandburg was virtually unconscious than because of his threats. He spared a glance over his shoulder and noticed that Jim had managed to cover the few yards to his truck. He turned his back to the reporters and sprang into a jog toward his best detective. When he reached the duo, he sighed and eyed the groggy anthropologist critically, an almost fatherly glint in his eye.

"He's really out for the count, isn't he," Simon commented as he took the crutches from Jim.

"They've still got him pretty dosed with pain killers, Simon," Jim informed him. "He should be out for a good twelve hours or so still." Jim spared a glance back at the dispersing crowd of reporters, his jaw muscles tight.

"Haaaay, Sim'n," Blair's soft voice muttered. His head lolled to the side, but he didn't seem to have the strength to raise it.

The corner of Simon's mouth twitched upward. "Hello, Sandburg. Take it easy, you hear?"

"Mmmnn-hmmm," came the almost imperceptible reply.

Jim smiled. "Well, I guess I'd better get this bundle of energy home."

Simon chuckled. "Yeah, it's almost weird seeing him so subdued."

"... heard that," Blair groaned.

Jim patted his guide on the shoulder. "Go to sleep, Sandburg."

His guide obeyed without further comment. With a wistful smile, Jim realized this would probably be the only time he'd witness such a phenomenon.

Simon walked with Jim to the truck and helped lift Sandburg's limp, mumbling form into the passenger seat. Both men took great care not to jostle Blair's damaged ribs. With a tired smile, Jim told Simon to go home.

Simon nodded. "I don't want to see your face at the station until next week, Detective." With a nod toward Sandburg, he added, "Take care of the little guy." Simon tossed the crutches into the back of the truck before turning to leave.

Jim nodded as he fastened the seatbelt over Sandburg's chest and lap. "Thank you, Sir."


Jim parked the truck and looked over at the sleeping form of his friend. With pursed lips, he debated how to best transport his guide to the third floor of the building. He didn't relish the prospect of carrying Sandburg up to the loft, so he hoped he could rouse the young man enough to get him to his feet.

He reached over and gently shook Blair's shoulder. "C'mon, Chief. We're home."

Blair moaned, his head rocking to the side.

Jim gave Blair another easy shake. "Wake up, Blair."

Blair's eyes fluttered opened and he raised his head, turning his bleary gaze to Jim. "Hmmm?"

Jim yanked the keys out of the ignition as he opened his door and got out of the truck. He stuffed the keys into the front pocket of his jeans and jogged over to the passenger side to open Blair's door. Mindful of his partner's injuries, he reached over and unfastened the seat belt. Blair shifted in an apparent attempt to swing his legs out of the truck, but he started to topple sideways. Jim caught him and, with a self-sacrificing sigh, put one arm under Blair's shoulders and the other under his legs as he lifted him out of the truck.

"I don't even want to know what the neighbors would think if they saw this," Jim muttered with a glance up at the windows. He didn't see any spying eyes and, satisfied, he kicked the passenger door closed. Smiling, he thought, This'll probably solidify Mr. Johnson's suspicions about Blair and me....

Jim carried Sandburg to the elevator and stopped in front of the double doors as he lowered Blair's legs to the floor. He propped his semi-conscious partner against the wall, keeping one arm around Blair's waist, as he punched the elevator button.

"Mmmmiiiister ha th'house," Blair muttered.

Jim gave his partner a quizzical glance. "What was that, Chief?"

Blair only mumbled incoherently in response. Jim shook his head. "I'm going to have to ask the doctor exactly what they gave you."

The elevator dinged as the doors slid open. Jim guided Blair through the door as the drowsy man made an attempt to coordinate his immobilized leg in a pathetic effort to walk. Jim only grunted in amusement as the elevator door slid closed behind them.

A few seconds later, the elevator let them off at the third floor. Jim retrieved the keys from his pocket and, keeping his arm around Blair, opened the front door of his loft. That accomplished, he tossed the keys into the basket, scooped Blair off his feet, and carried him into the ground-floor bedroom.

Gingerly, Jim laid Blair onto the bed and removed the shoe from his right foot. His other foot was covered with a sock that extended over the hard leg cast. Jim decided to leave the socks on to keep his partner's feet warm. He dashed into the living room and grabbed the quilt hanging on the back of the couch. As Blair was laying on top of his covers, he didn't want the young man to get cold during the evening. He tucked the thick quilt around Blair's body and, with a sentimental shake of his head, turned and walked into the living room.



 
 Jim woke with a start, his heart pounding. He blinked, using his sentinel vision to cut through the darkness in his room. Quickly, he sat up, scanning his surroundings with his two critical senses. Nothing looked out of place. With a tilt of his head, he honed in on the sound of Sandburg's breathing below. A sharp, ragged gasp reached his ears, followed by a whimper. He bolted out of bed, taking the stairs two at a time as he headed for Blair's room.

His slid to a halt at the foot of his friend's bed. Blair lay curled on his side, his eyes open but vacant, staring blankly at the wall. Jim knelt in front of Blair, putting a hand on his guide's shoulder.

"Sandburg?"

Blair blinked, then looked up at Jim, his brow furrowing. Jim's chest tightened as he saw the horror fill his partner's eyes.

Jim swallowed. "Blair? Are you alright? What is it?"

Blair took a deep breath. "What did she mean, Jim?"

Goddamnit! Jim resisted the urge to grind his molars. He didn't want Blair to see the rage inside of him. He'd hoped the young man had been too out of it earlier to hear the reporter's questions, but, apparently, their words had registered in Blair's mind.

"What did who mean," Jim asked, though he knew exactly who Blair meant.

Blair's eyes shimmered with the beginnings of tears. "The reporter. She said something about people dying... chi--" his voice cracked, and he swallowed, clenching his eyes shut. "Children," he whispered.

Jim closed his eyes briefly, and, when he opened them, he saw Blair staring at him with wide, tearful eyes.

"Jim?"

Jim leaned back from his crouched position, falling with a soft thump onto his rear. He sighed, and forced himself to meet Blair's pleading gaze. "Okay, Chief," he began. "This is going to be hard."

Blair's face paled, but his gaze remained steady. "What?"

"First, the accident wasn't your fault. There was another car involved. It ran a stop sign. You had the right of way. From your position, you couldn't have seen it even if it had been stopped at the intersection."

Blair stopped breathing, but Jim continued. He couldn't stop now, not with Blair peering at him with those pleading blue eyes.

"There were five people in the car. A father and two children, his sister-in-law, and the young daughter of a friend. No one in the car had their seatbelts on... except the driver." He paused, reaching out to grab Blair's shoulder. "The only one who survived was the driver, and she's still in critical condition in the ICU."

Blair gazed at him, not breathing, not moving. He remained that way for several seconds, then, suddenly, Jim felt the tremors under his hand where he gripped Blair's shoulder. The tremors turned more violent, until Blair's entire body was shaking. His breath exploded from his lungs, and he threw himself off the bed, careening in an awkward, uncoordinated dash toward the bathroom.

Jim sprung into action, grabbing Blair's shoulders as he stumbled toward the toilet, his cast slamming into the doorjam on his way through. Blair hunched over the porcelain, his arms wrapped protectively around his ribs, as he heaved dryly through violent sobs. Jim pulled the tangled mass of curls out of Blair's face, keeping his other hand around the younger man's shoulders.

"Easy, Chief. It's okay. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have told you. I'm sorry. It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have stopped it. You couldn't have changed what happened," he soothed, barely cognizant of the words spewing from his mouth.

Blair fell backwards into Jim, shaking uncontrollably. "I...." another sob erupted from his throat, "I... killed.... four people!"

Jim's arms wrapped protectively around Blair. "No. No. No. Blair, God, you can't believe that. Listen to me," his grip tightened, causing a minor gasp from Blair. Jim winced, immediately relaxing his hold on his friend. "I'm sorry, Chief. I didn't mean to hurt you, but you've got to listen to me. This was NOT your fault. There is absolutely no way you could have stopped in time. You were well within the speed limit. You had the right of way. You couldn't have seen them approaching the intersection. They ran that stop sign. They left those kids unbuckled in the backseat."

Another violent, deep sob wracked Blair's body. "God...."

Jim felt his own eyes grow hot. You had to mention the children again, Ellison, didn't you? Jim rested his chin on the top of Blair's head as he gently rocked the young man back and forth, whispering soft, hollow reassurances.


An obnoxious shrill penetrated the fog surrounding Jim's senses, and he released a low moan as he opened his eyes. Bright light pierced his pupils and he winced. Quickly, he turned down the dial for his vision and blinked a few times, trying to clear the sleep away from his vision. When he realized he was on the couch and the shrill was actually the ringing of the phone, he sprang up and yanked the receiver off the hook.

"Ellison," he grumbled.

"Oh? Sorry to wake you Jim. You okay?"

"What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

Jim groaned, and raised a hand to rub his eyes. "What is it, Simon?"

"Jim, are you sitting down?"

The question brought Jim fully awake, and he straightened, his stomach clenched in a knot. "What is it?"

"Ms. Wilson regained consciousness early this morning. We were able to question her briefly, and she's claiming that she was travelling opposite of Sandburg on the road. She said that Sandburg was in the wrong lane and, as soon as she realized that, she swerved the car.... "

"WHAT?" Jim's knuckles turned white as he gripped the receiver.

"I know, I know Jim. Forensics says her story doesn't fit the facts. Her skid marks indicate that she was coming from the other direction, perpendicular to Sandburg. Don't worry, the clincher is that they also found some light skid marks a few feet behind the stop sign, as though she saw the sign at the last minute and made a brief attempt to stop."

Jim sighed. "Why didn't you tell me that before, at the hospital?"

"Sorry, Jim, I didn't think it was that important. Now that she's trying to pin this on Sandburg, it's a vital piece of information."

"God, Simon, this is unreal."

"I know, Jim. I'm sorry. How's the kid."

Jim took a deep breath. "I'm not sure, Sir. He had a rough night last night." He clenched his jaw. "I told him what happened... "

"What? But Jim--"

"He heard the reporters at the hospital. He asked me about it last night. I... I couldn't lie to him, Simon. You should have seen the look in his eyes...." his voice trailed off and he closed his eyes. "He didn't take it well." That's an understatement, he thought.

"Damn," Simon cursed. "And this'll just kick him when he's down."

Jim nodded absently. "Yes, Sir. I'm sure the media will be all too eager to jump on the bandwagon... boost their ratings. Regardless of the facts, three children are dead. The media might try turning this into a battle of right and wrong, half the viewers will blame Ms. Wilson, and half will blame Sandburg."

Simon sighed. "I don't know what we can do, Jim."

Jim clenched his free hand into a fist. "Have a talk with Ms. Wilson, Sir. You know Sandburg, he won't... he can't handle people blaming him for what happened. He already blames himself. I don't even know if he remembers the accident clearly. This could seed his mind with doubt... enough to...."

"Enough to kill him," Simon finished. "I know. I'll get on the phone. See what I can do."

You do that, Sir. I'll do my own thing. "Thank you, Captain," he said, his voice flat.

Jim hung up the phone and turned to start breakfast, nearly jumping out of his skin when he saw Sandburg standing in the doorway of his bedroom, dressed in boxers and a t-shirt.. He shook his head, wondering why he hadn't heard his guide rise. Must not be 100%  awake yet, he thought. He met Blair's droopy, confused gaze and forced a smile, wondering just how much of the phone conversation the young man had overheard.

"Hey, Chief, how are you feeling this morning?"

Blair shrugged, then shuffled into the kitchen, scraping his cast against the wooden floor as he limped forward. For a moment, he looked lost, as if he'd forgotten why he'd walked into the kitchen in the first place and, hence, had no idea what to do next. Finally, he plopped himself down at the kitchen table and folded his arms in front of him, burying his head in his arms. A tiny gasp escaped his lips, and Jim shot his partner a concerned glance, realizing that Blair's position could not have been comfortable on his damaged ribs.

"You want some breakfast," Jim asked.

Blair shrugged, not bothering to raise his head. Jim frowned, suppressing a deep sigh. He felt as though the world were crumbling around him. His friend, his guide was in pain, and there seemed to be nothing Jim could do for him. He didn't know how to help Sandburg overcome the feelings of guilt and remorse over the accident. He could tell the young man a thousand times that it hadn't been his fault, but that wouldn't help. Sandburg would blame himself... WAS blaming himself. He had indirectly caused the death of four people. He hadn't been responsible.. the driver of the other car was directly responsible for the accident, but Blair had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blair had been driving the other vehicle that plowed into the Nissan. Jim clenched his jaw, imagining his partner's tormented rationale. If Blair hadn't chosen that day and time to pick up his natural concotions, the family would still be alive. It didn't matter that such "logic" was absurd. It didn't matter that Blair had every right to be on the road, that he had had the right of way, that he could never have stopped in time... Blair would only focus on the fact that four people had died because his car had plowed into theirs.

Jim felt a tightness in his gut as he gazed at the despondant figure of his partner. "Blair," he began, his voice soft, "how can I help?"

Several seconds passed before Blair responded. "You can't," he whispered. "No one can."

"Are you in pain? You're due for another pill. I'll get it," Jim said, turning to retrieve the bottle from the cabinet.

"No."

Jim froze, closing his eyes briefly. "Blair," he said, taking a deep breath. "I'm going to make an appointment for you with a psychologist."

Blair remained silent, his breathing shallow and ragged.

Jim felt his anger start to rise, and he quickly tried to clamp it down. What was it with this kid? He had enough guilt for every man, woman, and psycho in Cascade. Did he really have such a low sense of self-worth that he felt the need to blame himself whenever the opportunity presented itself. Jesus Christ, it had been an accident. Surely the kid must realize that he had done nothing wrong? Even if he didn't remember the accident in vivid detail, Jim had told him what happened. Didn't he trust the word of his Blessed Protector?

"I'll see if I can get you in tomorrow or the next day," Jim commented.

No response.

Jim's anger flared into rage, and he slammed his hands down on the table. "Damnit, Sandburg!"

Blair jumped, nearly toppling out of the chair before Jim's arm shot out to grab his arm. The detective kept a firm grip on Sandburg's arm.

"Listen to me, Chief," he said, shaking the young man a bit harder than he'd intended. "You'd better cut it out right now. None of this is your fault. Yes, people died and, yes, it was a terrible thing. God knows, I was there. I saw it. I watched them cut you out of that car. I watched them cart away the body bags--"

Blair flinched, but Jim continued mercilessly, relentlessly. "I saw the blood all over the pavement. The twisted metal. The limp, lifeless body of that baby." Good God, Ellison, stop it right now, he told himself, a part of his mind witnessing his tirade with detached horror; but he couldn't stop. His emotions were out and open, and they had control of his mouth. "I saw it all, and I'm telling you, Blair, as bad as it was, it wasn't your fault. You were the victim. She ran the stop sign. She let those kids go unbuckled. She's to blame, not you. She killed those people, not you. You hear me, Sandburg? DO YOU HEAR ME?!!"

Blair looked up at Jim, his jaw open and his face white with horror. Tiny tremors wracked his body, and, slowly he rose from the chair. He clamped his mouth shut and, with sudden fierceness, yanked out of Jim's tight grasp. He winced and brought a hand to his ribs before stumbling back to his room.

Jim's knees betrayed him and sank into the now-vacant chair. Resting his head in his hands, he closed his eyes. God, man, what have you done? He tuned his ears to Blair, shuffling and grunting in the bedroom. He heard a drawer open, fabric rustling, the ragged grate of a zipper opening -- and his heart froze. What the hell is he doing?

Jim rose from the chair and headed to Blair's room. He leaned his shoulder against the doorjam and fixed disbelieving eyes on the worn, overstuffed backpack on the bed. Blair stood over the backpack, now dressed in sweatpants, leaning on one of his crutches, as Jim took a few cautious steps into the room.

"What are you doing?"

Blair scooped the backpack off the bed and swung it over his shoulder, releasing a stifled whimper from the sudden motion. "I'm going to my office," he stated, not bothering to look at Jim.

Jim sighed. "Oh really? And just how do you intend to get there?"

Blair turned, his face a sea of confusion. He creased his brow and glanced down at the floor. "Uh... "

"Your car's still in the shop, you know."

Blair's gaze shot up as he fixed angry eyes on the man in front of him. "I'll manage."

Jim's eyebrows shot up. "Oh really? What, are you going to take a cab? You had exactly two dollars in your wallet when they pulled you out of that car -- spent all your money on that herbal stuff, I gather? You don't even have enough for the bus, and you're certainly not going to walk. So just how do you intend to get there."

Now Blair's eyes were blazing. "I'm calling a friend," he shot back, throwing the crutch against the wall as he wobbled past Jim.

"Not using my phone, your not," Jim said. There was no way he was going to let the kid out of the loft. Blair was in no condition to go prancing around town.

"Fuck you," Blair snapped, then unlocked the front door and slammed it behind him as he exited the loft.

Jim stood, stunned, in the doorway of Blair's bedroom, his eyes fixed on the front door. He could never remember Blair ever using those words before. What the hell just happened? What was I thinking? How did I manage to let this escalate? Why didn't I just keep my mouth shut?

With a determined growl, he headed for the front door. Opening it, he looked down the hall to the elevator, but saw no sign of Blair. Well, he couldn't have gotten very far. He opened his ears and listened, hearing the soft hum of the elevator as it descended toward the ground floor. He slammed the door shut and dashed to the stairs, taking them two at a time. He exploded onto the first floor, panting hard, and stumbled to the elevator doors. He looked up at the numbers above the double doors just as the number "1" triangle lit up. Jim leaned back against the wall and folded his arms in front of his chest, forcing himself to take regular, steady breaths. He wanted to look calm and casual when the elevator doors opened to deposit Blair.

With a ding, the doors opened and Blair took a step forward, gasping when he spotted Jim. His surprise lasted only a second, giving way to anger as the young man narrowed his eyes and took a step into the hallway.

"Blair," Jim started, "I'm sorry." Time to swallow your pride, Ellison. "Please don't go, Chief. We need to talk about this. You're not thinking clearly right now." He immediately realized that had been the wrong thing to say as Blair clenched his jaw and turned away from Jim as if to begin his retreat down the hall. Jim reached out a put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "I didn't mean it like that, Chief. Please just listen to me for a second."

He heard Blair take a deep breath as the man turned pained eyes toward him. Jim swallowed, encouraged by the small gesture. "I almost lost you, Sandburg. I... don't ever want to go through that again. You've become such a fixture in my life, and, I... uh..." he looked away briefly, uncomfortable with his own display of emotion. "I've grown to depend on you." He forced himself to meet Blair's gaze. "I don't know how I'd manage without you, and, well, I guess this whole thing just hit me harder than I thought. I see you hurting like this, and I go into Blessed Protector Psycho mode... only I don't know how to protect you from your own guilt." He spread his hands out in a gesture of supplication. "Help me out here, Chief." Time for the heavy artillery. "I need you."

Blair's expression softened and he turned the rest of the way toward Jim. "Sorry, Jim... I didn't realize... I guess I didn't stop to think how this was affecting you."

Jim put both hands on Blair's shoulder and put on his most reassuring smile. "What affects you, affects me, Blair. You know that, don't you?"

Slowly, Blair nodded.

"Good," Jim said with a satisfied nod. "Now, will you come back upstairs with me?"

Blair lowered his head, his face red. "Yes."

"Alright then," Jim said as he slipped a hand around Blair's shoulder. "Let's go." He steered his injured friend into the elevator and pushed the third floor button. As the doors closed, he added, "Will you let me make that appointment for you?"

"With the therapist," Blair asked softly.

"Yes. If you want, I'll go with you... I mean, we can do it together. If you'd rather do it alone, that's fine, too. It's up to you, Chief."

Blair finally met Jim's gaze. "And if I don't want to go at all?"

Jim clenched his jaw. "It's your choice, but I'm asking you to go."

Blair held his breath as he peered into Jim's steady gaze. "Okay," he sighed. "I'll go."

Jim smiled. "Thanks, Chief. Do you want me with you, or do you want to speak with the therapist alone?"

"Uh... I think I'd like to go it alone, Jim."


Once back upstairs, Jim got Blair situated comfortably on the couch. He rested his immobilized leg on the coffee table as Jim stuffed a pillow behind him and handed over the TV remote control.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair mumbled, flicking on the television. "You can hit the shower now."

"You need anything before I go," Jim asked.

Blair shook his head. "No, man, I'm fine." He waved one hand in the air as his other worked the channel changer on the remote control. "Go, go man."

Jim disappeared into the bathroom as Blair continued to scan the channels. Finally, he settled on a Pinky and the Brain re-run. A few minutes into the bizarre cartoon, the phone rang. Absently, Blair reached out and grabbed the cordless receiver laying on the coffee table.

"Hello?"

"May I speak with Blair Sandburg, please?"

"Speaking," he said, hitting the mute button on the remote.

"Great. Mr. Sandburg, my name is Jenny McCallister with KBTX Channel 5 news. I'd like to get your reaction to Ms. Wilson's allegations."

Blair's stomach clenched into a knot. "Uh... What allegations?"

"Oh, you haven't heard? She claims that she was in the opposing lane and that you were in her lane when you collided with her vehicle."

Suddenly, the room spun, forcing Blair to close his eyes. What was she talking about? Jim had said the accident wasn't his fault? The other driver had ran a stop sign.... isn't that what happened? Blair tried to recall the moments before the accident. Master of the House had been playing on the tape deck. The road stretched into seeming eternity ahead of him, quiet and clear. He rounded a corner... and then... and then....

"Mr. Sandburg?"

He opened his eyes. "Huh?"

"Mr. Sandburg, can you tell me what happened?"

Blair swallowed, feeling a touch of bile in his throat. "No," he gasped. "No, I can't really remember, but I was in my lane. I'm sure of that." Why was he even talking to her? "Uh... I have to go now."

"No, wait, Mr. Sandburg, please. Just a few more questions."

"I have to go now," he said, his voice cracking.

"Mr. Sandburg--"

His thumb pressed the disconnect button as he dropped the phone back onto the table. His chest felt tight, and he suddenly found it difficult to breath. He was vaguely aware of a soft, high-pitched squeek, followed by a sudden quiet as the background noise caused by the shower ceased. Blair closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch. He tried to get his breathing under control. He failed. What was happening? How did his life all of a sudden become a living hell? All because he'd wanted to pick up a few things from the store... tea... that damn tea. Four people had died because he wanted some stupid, obscure herbal tea.

The bathroom door opened and Jim rushed into the living room, a towel wrapped loosely around his waist. "What's wrong, Chief?"

Blair opened his eyes, but kept his gaze fixed on the animated mouse hanging from a hot air balloon on the screen in front of him. He forced himself to take three deep breaths before daring to speak.

"What happened, Jim?"

Jim walked over the couch, stopping to stand directly behind Blair. "That's what I'm asking you to tell me, Chief."

"No," the young man said, shaking his head. "I mean, what happened with the accident? Really? Just tell me the truth, man."

Several seconds of heavy silence hung in the air. Finally, Jim placed a hand on the back of the couch, inches from Blair's shoulder, and said, "I did tell you the truth, Blair. The woman ran a stop sign, flying into the intersection just as your car rounded the corner."

Blair swallowed, his gaze capture by the bright, shifting images flying across the screen. "How do you know?"

"First, from the position of the cars and the angle and intensity of the skid marks. Second, more skid marks matching the Nissan's tires were found a few feet behind the stop sign, indicating that the woman probably saw the stop sign at the last minute and made a brief, futile attempt to stop."

Blair flicked off the television, but kept his gaze on the dark screen. "A reporter called." And said I killed those people.

"Son of a bitch. What did he say?"

"She. She said the driver said it was my fault... that I was in the wrong lane." He finally turned his head to look up at Jim, his eyes wide and glassy. "I can't really remember it very well. I'm pretty sure I was in the right lane, Jim, but if I can't remember it, how can I be sure it wasn't my fault? How can I... How am I supposed to function if I'm not sure? Four people died, Jim. Four people! Three of them children...and a baby. Jesus, I was driving the car that slammed into them. How am I supposed to convince myself that it wasn't my fault when the other woman says it was?" He rose to his feet, reaching out to steady himself on the arm of the couch. He stared at Jim, searching the Sentinel's eyes for a hint of truth... or maybe for a hint of deception. Had Jim lied to him, trying to spare his oh-so delicate psyche?

Jim lowered his head briefly, raising one hand to rub his brow. "Chief, she's saying that to protect herself. C'mon, you should know that. She's responsible for the death of four people, including three children.... three children not her own. She's in a serious situation. She can be charged with criminal negligence, reckless driving, or even manslaughter. She can also be sued by the mothers of the deceased children. Don't you think she'd try to shift the blame to you?" He raised his gaze to look directly into Blair's eyes. "Of course she would! She's hurt, in pain, probably feeling very alone and scared. I'm sure they've got her on a shit-load of pain killers. She's obviously coherent enough to make up this story, but she's afraid and desperate and she's doing the only thing she can to protect herself. Don't start believing her, Chief. Don't doubt yourself.... and, if you can't believe in yourself, right now, well, then, believe in me. Trust me. I'm not lying to you, Chief, I give you my word. Trust me," he repeated. "Believe me."

Blair felt the intensity of Jim's plea as though he'd been punched in the gut. The emotion in those blue eyes made him suddenly uneasy, SO not normal for the usually cool, almost-stoic detective. Try as he might, Blair couldn't hold that gaze. He looked away.

"Okay, Jim," he said. "I believe you. I'm sorry." He forced himself to look back at his friend. "I didn't mean to sound like I was accusing you of lying." But that's exactly what I did, didn't I? And I knew what I was doing.

Jim shrugged. "That's all I need to hear, Chief." He paused to take a deep breath. "I know this is hard on you, but I'll be right here with you every step of the way. You hear that?"

Blair smiled, though the action felt hollow and superficial. "Yeah, I hear that. Thanks."


"I'll be back in one hour, Chief," Jim said as he walked Blair to the office door of Dr. Nancy Carrows.

Blair nodded. "Okay, thanks Jim."

With a nod, Jim turned and walked out of the small reception area as Blair took a seat next to the closed door that boasted an elegant nameplate in the center: Dr. Nancy Carrows, PhD.

The young receptionist behind the counter smiled at Blair and said, "She should be out any minute now, Sir. Would you like some coffee?"

Blair shook his head, tapping his heal nervously on the thin blue carpet. "No thank you."

He nearly jumped when the door opened and a female voice called his name. He rose out of his chair and faced the middle-aged blonde woman staring at him through small round glasses. Blair extended his hand, and the psychologist grapsed it firmly in her own.

"Nice to meet you," she asked, gesturing for him to follow her into the office. "How are you today?"

"Fine, thanks," he mumbled.

She indicated a plush blue arm chair next to her desk. "Please have a seat, Mr. Sandburg," she instructed, settling into the seat behind the desk.

Blair crumpled into the chair, suddenly feeling very ill.

"So, why are you here?"

He attempted to swallow the lump in his throat, but it remained stubbornly in place. "Uh... " He shrugged, forcing air into his lungs. "I don't really know. My partner suggested this."

"Detective James Ellison?"

He raised an eyebrow and nodded.

"Yes, I spoke with him on the phone. He told me that you were in a car accident. Can you tell me what happened?"

"I... I was on my way to this natural food store on the outskirts of the city." He paused, then shook his head. "No.. actually, I was on my way home from the store. I was listening to music. There was a curve in the road, but it looked really clear up ahead. I don't remember how fast I was going, but I don't think it was that fast. I remember a flash of something brown. That's all. I woke up in the hospital." He shrugged. "That's all I remember."

Dr. Carrows pursed her lips and leaned forward. "And people died," she stated.

Blair swallowed, focusing his entire being on a piece of loose cotton on his khaki pants. "Yes," he said quietly. "Three children and an adult. The driver was injured badly. She's still in the hospital."

"How does that make you feel?"

Blair clenched his jaw. How does it make me feel? What is it with you psychologists? You need a degree to ask me how it makes me feel to know I killed almost an entire family? How the hell do you think it makes me feel? I'm on top of the world. I mean, most people don't accomplish a whole hell of a lot in their lifetimes, but me, hell... I sure did make an impact, didn't I? Yep.... got some serious kharma thing going on now.

Rather than voice his turbulent thoughts, Blair simply shrugged, picking at the loose strand of cotton absently.

"Who was at fault for the accident," she asked.

Again, Blair shrugged.

"Do you remember enough of the accident to make such a determination?"

"I don't know," he whispered. "I don't think so."

"Do you think it was your fault?"

Finally, Blair looked up at her, his eyes angry. "I don't know! I already told you that. I don't remember. Jim says it wasn't my fault, the other driver says it was. Jim wasn't there, she was. I can't really remember what happened, so who the hell am I supposed to believe?"

She lowered her voice a notch. "What about the evidence?"

"Evidence?"

She nodded. "Yes. Skid marks, the angle of the cars, that kind of evidence. I'll be straight with you. Detective Ellison told me that the evidence implicates the other driver as being at fault. However, it sounds like that doesn't convince you."

Blair shook his head. "I want to believe what they tell me, but I can't help thinking.... I just have this doubt, and it grows stronger every day. I don't know how to deal with it."

Dr. Carrows smiled. "Well, that's a start. You know, it's perfectly normal to feel the way you do. If you didn't have those feelings, well, then I'd be really worried."

Blair closed his eyes briefly and sank back into the chair. "So what am I supposed to do? This isn't like being creative on your tax returns or accidentally hitting a deer on the road. I killed four people."

"You keep saying that."

Blair wanted to scream. "I keep saying what? That I killed four people? I did! Whether or not I was technically to blame for the accident, my car hit theirs. If I hadn't been there, they'd still be alive. So, you see doctor, I'm not saying I deliberately killed four people, or that it was even my fault... I'm just saying that four people are dead because I was at a certain place at a certain time. You know, What a Wonderful Life kind of stuff. If Blair Sandburg had never been born, four people would still be alive... those kids... I mean, they didn't even have a chance to live. That baby... you know, any one of them could have grown up and found the cure for cancer, or something. But, because I was there, on that road... because I existed there at that time... " his voice trailed off and he clenched his fists, slipping them under his legs to hide the tension. His reasoning sounded absurd even to his own ears, so he could only imagine how it sounded to Dr. Carrow's professional ear. Well, Jim, don't bother picking me up... I'll just be heading to the little white room now.

"Okay. Well, let me ask you a question, then. What if it hadn't been you on that road? What if Jim had been driving instead? Would you blame him for the accident, if what they say is true... if the other driver ran the stop sign and Jim had hit her car.... would you blame him?"

He took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled slowly. "Jim wouldn't have hit the other car."

Dr. Carrow raised her eyebrows, looking genuinely surprised. "Oh? Why do you say that? He's human isn't he? If he had been driving, according to what I've been told, there's no way he, or anyone, could have stopped the car in time."

"If you say so," he muttered.

He certainly couldn't tell her about Jim's sentinel abilities. Jim would have seen or heard the car ahead of time. He would not have plowed into it at fifty or sixty miles an hour.

"It's not what I say. It's what Detective Ellison says. Do you disbelieve him?"

Do I disbelieve him? No... yes... no... I don't know what or who to believe. I really, really want to believe Jim, but there's a small part of my mind that thinks he's just telling me what I want to hear. Even if it's true, that doesn't make it all better. Four people are still dead. Why I can't just trust Jim and get passed this, I don't know. I want to. I hate the way he looks at me... with pity in his eyes. Like I'm some loathful, spineless, helpless creature that needs to be fed, dressed, tucked in, and watched twenty-four hours a day. The cast is just the icing on the cake... makes me look even more pathetic... poor little crippled boy. So it's temporary. Yeah, I'll heal. Outside anyway. But inside I'm a wreck. Weak. Pathetic. Not like Jim at all. He must be really disappointed in me...

"Mr. Sandburg?"

He inhaled sharply, her voice shaking him from his internal, self-loathing sermon. "Huh? Sorry? Do I disbelieve Jim?" He shrugged. "I don't know. The evidence supports what he says, but, still, I wonder if he's just telling me what he thinks I need to hear. I trust him... I do... but... " He swallowed. Why can't I even form a complete, coherent sentence?

"But what," she prompted. "Do you think he's deliberately misleading you? Lying to you."

Blair shook his head. "No. I guess not. Jim wouldn't lie to me." Certainly not for this... not just to spare my feelings. No, Jim's not that kind of guy. He believes in people taking responsibility for their actions....

"So, what do you believe? In your heart? Do you believe you were at fault? Or do you believe that, no matter what, you couldn't have prevented the accident?"

Bliar chewed the inside of his cheek. "I guess... I guess I believe it wasn't me. I wasn't speeding. I was in my lane. I didn't have a stop sign... but, then again, I want to believe that."

"And you think that maybe your desire to absolve yourself clouds your memory of the actual event?"

He nodded. Yep. Right on the nose, doc.

"Okay, well that could feasibly happen, but your desire for absolution has no bearing on the physical evidence... and that evidence also absolves you. So, you have the physical evidence, Jim's word, and your own memories all telling you that the accident wasn't your fault. Yet you still seem determined to blame yourself. Somehow, I don't think it really matters whose fault it was, you'll feel guilty regardless. Am I right?"

"You're the doctor."

She sighed quietly. "You've been traumatized by the death of four people... three of them children. You're as much of a victim as they are," she stated. "What do you think about that? Do you view yourself as a victim?"

He closed his eyes. He didn't have the energy to continue with the conversation. He was tired of trying to sort through his thoughts and emotions in search of the truth. She couldn't find the truth... the truth was out there on that road, etched in blood.

"Isn't our hour up yet," he asked, forcing a small smile to soften his words.

She returned his smile. "No such luck. We still have twenty minutes left."

Great. Just Great. "So what was the last question again?"

"Regarding the accident, do you view yourself as a victim?"

"I don't know." Gee, I sound like a broken record. I don't know. I don't know.... How many more times do I have to say it? If I knew, I wouldn't be here.

"Okay. Let's shift subjects. You were injured in that accident. I see you have a broken leg... anything else?"

"Fractured ribs. A few cuts and scrapes... those are pretty much healed, though."

"Are you in pain?"

"What? You mean right now?"

She smiled. "Generally. Are you in pain now? Or most of the day? Are you on pain medication?"

"Yes. They have me on pain killers. Most of the day I'm okay.... as long as I don't jostle my ribs too much. My leg aches a lot."

"Chronic physical pain often leads to depression. Those pain killers can also start to affect your mental and emotional state. Do you think it's possible that the feelings you're experiencing are partially the result of your physical condition?"

"I suppose so," he muttered, glancing back down at that stray thread of cotton on his pant leg.

"I want you to keep that in mind until our next session. I'd like to keep seeing you, and, hopefully, as your body starts to heal, you might find you start to see things a bit differently. These therapy sessions will hopefully start to make a whole lot more sense to you."

He smiled at her last comment. "You read minds to?"

She chuckled. "You don't exactly seem too thrilled to be here, Mr. Sandburg, and that's actually pretty normal. However, you do need someone to talk to, and I hope you'll continue. Can we schedule another session... same time next week?"

Blair nodded. "Okay. I can do that."

She rose from her desk, and Blair eased himself onto his feet and followed her to the door. Walking was awkward, but he couldn't really use his crutches with two fractured ribs. Why the hell had they even sent him home with them? Probably because his ribs would heal faster than his leg. Eventually he would probably be able to use the crutches.


Jim met Blair at the front door of the large office building that housed Dr. Carrows' office. "So how'd it go, Chief?"

"Okay." He walked passed Jim and headed toward the truck across the street. Jim fell into step next to him.

"I wish you'd go easy on your leg and ribs. Why not use a wheelchair?"

Blair narrowed his eyes as he looked at Jim.  "Yeah. That'd work."

"Huh?"

Blair shrugged. "Nevermind."

"Okay," Jim said. He didn't like the clipped answers from his usually talkative partner, but now wasn't the time to push the issue.

"Wanna catch some dinner?"

"No, I prefer my food already dead."

Jim cracked a smile. "Smartass." At least his partner was making an attempt at humor. "I'm hungry, and I don't really feel like cooking. You can pick the restaurant."

Blair reached the truch and leaned against the passenger door, glancing up at Jim. "Okay. Something light, I guess. Maybe that diner on Crescent Boulevard?"

Jim shrugged as he unlocked Blair's door. "Okay." He hesitated a moment as Blair reached up to grab hold of the roof. "Need some help, Chief?"

"No, I can manage. Thanks."

Jim waited until Blair got himself situated comfortably in the seat, then closed the door. He trotted around the front of the truck and hopped into the driver's seat. The two men rode in silence, Jim keeping his gaze on the road in front of him while Blair studied the blurred images that flew passed his window.


Blair finished grading the last essay of his Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion class and tossed the blue book on top of the large pile at the corner of his desk. With a sigh, he carefully bent down and grabbed his backpack. He rose from the chair and, with clenched teeth, swung the backpack over his shoulder. He'd only packed one book and a notepad, along with his cell phone and a few odds and ends, so the backpack didn't really weight all that much. Still, his injured ribs protested the action. Jim had lectured him for a good ten minutes this morning as Blair left for the university with his backpack in tow.

"Chief, how the hell do you expect to heal properly if you start lugging things around? You're supposed to be taking it easy," the sentinel had said.

Blair gritted his teeth and tried to explain to Jim that he had a job, you know, one that paid money. He'd already missed too much time at the university, and he couldn't afford to miss anymore. It wouldn't kill him to carry the backpack. It wasn't even all that heavy. Jim hadn't seemed all that convinced, but, surprisingly, he did drop the issue.

Blair glanced at his watch as he headed out the door. 5:32 pm. Jim should already be waiting outside in the truck. Blair's Volvo was due out of the shop in two days, so at least then he'd have his own transportation. He swallowed. Could he really get behind the wheel of a car.... ever again?

As he exited the building, he paused for a moment to inhale the crisp, refreshing air of the early spring evening. He looked around and spotted Jim's truck parked at the curb a few yards away. He waved his hand in the air, and saw Jim mimic his action through the rear window. He inhaled another deep breath of the cool air and wobbled off toward the car.

"Excuse me?"

He turned around to see a middle-aged woman with brown hair and large, droopy eyes that emphasized the dark bags beneath them. The whites of her eyes were rimmed with red, as though she'd been crying.

"Are you Professor Sandburg," she asked.

"I'm Blair Sandburg. Not a professor, just a teaching assistant."

Her lower lip began to quiver and she stiffened visibly. "I'm Dana Wilson--"

Blair's heart skipped a beat.

"Do you know who I am?"

How could I not? Blair nodded. "I'm so sorry about... your loss."

Her eyes glistened with new tears as she held his gaze, her eyes angry... accusing... or was that just his imagination?

"You should be," she gasped.

He took a step back. Nope, definitely not his imagination.

"I...I don't know what to say... I'm sorry--"

"You killed my babies, my husband," her voice cracked, " and now you're getting your cop friends to cover for you. How could you? How could you try to blame my sister... she's hanging on by a thread and you... you... What kind of monster are you?" Tears streamed down her face, but she kept her dark, angry eyes fixed on his.

Blair stumbled backwards, reeling from her words. The ground shifted beneath him and he felt himself falling backwards. He felt a sudden pressure on his right arm, and something strong and unyielding stopped his descent. He tilted his head back to see James Ellison peering down at him with anxious blue eyes.

"Easy, Chief," Jim said as he gave Blair a gentle push to his feet.

Blair closed his eyes, trying to ease the dizzying sense of motion buzzing through his head, and he reached out blindly to grab Jim's shoulder for support.

"Mrs. Wilson," Jim began, stepping in between Blair and the distraught woman. "You have my deepest sympathies." He reached up and patted the hand on his shoulder. "I realize how upset you must be, but Sandburg's not to blame here."

"The hell he isn't! Look at him. At first I thought he taught here, but, lord, he's just a student. Thinks he can speed down a highway, music blaring, probably high on pot... spoiled brat who thinks he can get away with murder because he's got friends on the force... Isn't that how it is? And you--"

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" His outburst caused both Blair and Mrs. Wilson to jump simultaneously. He took a deep breath, his jaw muscles taught. "I'm sorry you lost your husband and children, but the facts are that those kids weren't buckled in their seats and your sister ran a stop sign. There's only one person to blame for this tragedy, and it's not Sandburg."

"Jim...." Blair began softly. "Stop. Please."

Jim ignored his partner's plea and kept his firey eyes on Mrs. Wilson. "You're way out of line here, lady. Your sister is guilty of reckless driving and manslaughter, and she's the one trying to shift the blame. The facts speak for themselves." He whirled around, grabbing Blair's arm with one hand as he snatched the backpack off the young man's shoulder.

"C'mon, Chief," he ordered, pulling his guide toward the truck.

Blair hopped frantically behind Jim, trying to keep up with the older man's angry pace. The hurried motion sent hot slivers of pain through his ribs, and he gasped, clutching his side with his free arm. Jim stopped suddenly, his back rigid. He turned around and looked at Blair, his eyes filled with an emotion vaguely resembling horror. A muscle spasm pulled Blair forward, and he leaned against Jim as he clutched his side, panting heavily.

"God, Chief, I'm sorry," he said, his voice strained with emotion. "I... Are you alright? Breath... don't fight it... I didn't mean to hurt you."

Blair clenched his teeth, willing the pain to subside. After a few seconds, he was able to stand upright. "S'okay," he said, looking up at the sentinel. "I'm.... alright."

Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulder and, with exquisite care, guided him toward the truck.


Jim fell to his knees, his ears ringing and his head throbbing. His eyes stared vacantly at the black body resting on the pavement next to the mangled white Pontiac. An expressionless EMT in a blue uniform stood over the bag. He reached down, and Jim followed his hand... down.... down... to the zipper. The man's stubby fingers grabbed the metallic clasp and yanked upward. Jim's sight remained tethered to the man's fingers as they pulled the zipper closed... his hand passing briefly over Blair's white, bloodied face. Just as the bag covered his guide's face, ash-white eyelids opened to reveal ghostly blue eyes. Jim's heart stopped momentarily as the vacant eyes of his former partner stared, unblinking, into the very core of his being.

"I'm sorry." Blair's voice, whisper soft, echoed through his skull. Jim blinked. The bag sealed shut over Blair's face, covering those vacant, accusing eyes.

"No. Please, no. I'm so sorry."

Jim raised his hands to his head, covering his ears in a vain attempt to block out the sound of his now-deceased partner.

"I should have died! I'M SORRY! SORRY!"

Jim's eyes shot open, piercing through the thick darkness surrounding him to reveal the familiar confines of his bedroom.

"No, please... Jim... JIM!"

Jim sprang out of the bed and flew down the stairs, dressed only in a pair of flannel boxers. He ran into Sandburg's bedroom and slid onto his knees next to the bed. Sandburg lay huddled in the corner of his bed, his back pressed against the wall. Long curls obscured his face, and Jim reached out to tuck the loose strands behind his roommate's ear.

"Blair?" He placed a hand on Sandburg's shoulder. Blair immediately reached out with both arms, grasping Jim's hand as if his life depended on it.

"Jim?" Blair's eyes remained closed, but his grip on Jim's hand grew even tighter. "Please don't... I didn't mean it.... I'm so sorry... so sorry!"

Jim shook his partner gently. "Hey, Chief. Wake up. It's just a dream."

Blair erupted into gasping sobs. "I'M.... SORRY.... God.... ME... Should have... been me..... I'm sorry... "

"BLAIR!" Ellison shook his partner harder.

"Don't hate me... please Jim!"

Hate? How could he hate Blair? What the hell could Blair possibly think he'd done to make Jim hate him? 'Should have been me?' What the hell was that? Did Blair feel guilty for surviving?

Jim raised himself onto the bed and gently pulled Blair's shoulder's away from the wall. Blair remained tense, huddled stiffly in a near-fetal position, his bandaged ribs and immobilized leg preventing him from completing the position. Jim leaned against the headboard and pulled Blair against his chest. He wrapped strong arms around Blair's trembling form, and rested his chin on top of his friend's head. Blair's grip slipped off of Jim's hand, sliding up to the larger man's bicep.

"Sorry... so sorry..." Blair mumbled between muffled sobs.

"Shh.... Chief, it's okay. Wake up. Come on, Blair. It's not your fault. Wake up."

Blair's sobs quieted, and Jim felt the tension ease out of the younger man's body.

"That's it. Everything's okay, Chief. I'm right here. Time to wake up."

Blair's breathing slowed, slipping into a steady rhythm that Jim recognized as signalling the end of his friend's nightmare. That was the good news. The bad news was that Blair was now sound asleep.... on him. A small smile found it's way to his lips, despite the physical discomfort he felt at being pinned between Blair and the headboard. He found himself faced with a dilemna: try to slip out from under Sandburg and risk waking the young man, or remain where he was and spend an uncomfortable night trying to figure out how to explain the situation to Sandburg in the morning.

His smile grew wider at that last thought. His partner would no doubt turn several shades of red once he realized he'd used Jim's chest as a pillow for a good portion of the night. Jim shifted, trying gently to push Blair off of him. Sandburg moaned, then slipped his arms around Jim's waist as he snuggled his head against the detective's chest.

Okay, so he really does think I'm his pillow, he mused, his smile firmly planted. Well, Ellison, you got yourself into this... With a resigned sigh, he eased himself up an inch and slid the pillow out from under him. He leaned forward just enough to bring one arm around and tuck the pillow between his back and the headboard. With a yawn, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Within a few minutes, he was snoring peacefully, his arms wrapped gently around the warm bundle huddled against his chest.


Blair felt a vague sense of light tickle his eyelids. His pillow felt hard, pinching the ear he rested against it. With a yawn, he turned his head and prodded the pillow, trying to shift the filling to a more comfortable position. It was then that he realized that the pillow was totally unyielding... and when the pillow grunted he opened his eyes and sprang back, rolling unceremoniously off the edge of the bed. He landed with a thump and an exclamation, one hand going to his angry ribs.

"Hey, Chief, you okay?"

Blair squinted up at Jim as the older man peered down at him with a slight smile on his lips. "What are you doing in my bed, man?"

Jim shrugged, grabbing Blair's arm and hauling him up. He deposited the young man carefully on the edge of the bed, then rose to his feet and raised his arms above his head, stretching the kinks out of his back. "Well, you know... it's been a long time since Caroline's been around--"

"JIM!" Blair's face turned bright red, and his jaw dropped open.

Jim chuckled heartily, patting his friend on the shoulder. "I'm just kidding, Chief. I came in here last night to see what all the commotion was. Seems you were having a nightmare. I tried to wake you up, but you seemed pretty determined to stay asleep... I guess those pain killers really knock you out. Anyway, I ended up getting pinned against the headboard in one of your vice-like grips," he said, rubbing his stomach and wincing in mock-pain.

Blair felt his face grow hot and he lowered his head, glancing down at Jim's flannel boxers. "You couldn't have put some jeans on first?"

Jim raised his eyebrows and examined his partner's bedtime attire critically. "You've got on enough for both of us, Chief. It's spring, for crying out loud, don't you think sweats and t-shirt are a bit much?"

Blair forced a smile on his face. "Hey, not everyone has your insane tolerance to cold."

Jim grinned and headed out to the kitchen. "Breakfast in fifteen, Chief."

Blair nodded. "Yes, honey."

Blair headed to the bathroom and carefully slipped out of his clothes. He started the water running in the bathtub, making sure the water was comfortably warm, and grabbed a sponge from beneath the sink. He really hated these morning ablution ceremonies. God, he just wanted a shower. Sure, he could wrap his cast in cellophane, or something, and unbandage his ribs, but then he might still end up getting water in his cast and Jim would have to wrap his ribs again. It just wasn't worth the trouble.

Twenty minutes later he'd cleaned himself up and even managed to wash his hair. He pulled on his sweats, wrapped a towel around his hair, and headed out to the kitchen. The tempting smell of eggs and biscuits made his mouth water, and he hobbled over to the kitchen table with a grin.

"Wow, man. Going way out, I see," he commented, glancing at the steaming biscuits on the counter.

Jim grinned, his whole face lighting up. He grabbed the bowl of biscuits off the table and, with a slight bow, set them on the table in front of Blair. "Bon Appetite."

Alarm bells rang in Blair's head. His partner seemed to be in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood. Not that the big guy didn't joke around every once in awhile, but he seemed downright giddy this morning.... that was usually his own department. He narrowed his eyes and gazed at Jim suspiciously.

"Uh... you wanna tell me what all this is about? What exactly happened last night?"

Jim set a plate in front of Blair and slid a pile of scrambled eggs out of the pan and onto Blair's dish. He then proceeded to produce his own plate of eggs and sat down opposite of Blair on the table.

"Just what I told you, Chief," he said, grabbing a muffin from the bowl in the center of the table.

"Right," Blair said, nodding, "I had a nightmare. What did I do? Did I say anything? I don't remember even dreaming last night."

Jim met his partner's gaze, keeping the silly smile plastered across his face. He shrugged. "Like I can decipher the jibberish you spew forth when you're awake. Now you want me to start trying to figure out what you mumble in your sleep."

Blair looked slightly abashed, but recovered quickly, taking a bite of his eggs. Jim's smile faultered and his eyes grew more serious.

"Listen, Chief," he said, getting up from the table and grabbing two glasses from the strainer. "I was only joking about that jibberish stuff." He opened the refrigerator and grabbed the orange juice. "I'm not sure what your dream was about last night, but it didn't sound good." He filled the two glasses and returned the juice to the 'fridge. He placed one of the glasses in front of Blair and took a sip from the other, sitting back down at the table. "I was able to pick out a few words here and there. You said some pretty... disturbing things."

Blair took a large gulp of his juice, eyeing Jim over the rim of his cup. "Like what," he asked, setting the glass back down on the table.

Jim's blue eyes peered into Blair's own. "You said you were sorry... That you should have died... and you begged me not to hate you."

Blair's stomach clenched into a knot and he felt the blood drain from his face. God no, he hadn't....

"I don't hate you, Chief. I sure as hell hope you know that. There's nothing you've done that would make me upset with you... and, as for the accident, I've already told you a thousand times that wasn't your fault." A flash of anger touched his eyes. "And I'm glad you're alive. I don't ever want to hear you wishing you died in that crash...." He lowered his gaze briefly. "Where would I be right now if you had?"

Oh just kill me right now. Blair swallowed. He hadn't ever meant for Jim to discover his inner turmoil. Sure, the sentinel knew he blamed himself for the crash, but he hadn't known that Blair was really afraid of Jim hating him... hating him for being so spineless and weak, an emotional wreck... hating him for realizing that Blair really did wish he'd died that day. At least then he never would have had to look into Mrs. Wilson's tormented, accusing eyes.... What a coward you are, Blair Sandburg.

"Chief? Did you hear me?"

Blair blinked, forcing himself to nod.

"Can you do something for me?"

Blair nodded again, not trusting his voice.

"Can you tell me why you think I'd hate you?"

Blair's mouth went dry, making it difficult for him to speak. Still, he opened his mouth and made an attempt. "It was just a dream, Jim," he whispered.

"Uh-huh," Jim cocked his head skeptically. "I'm sure. Now tell me the truth."

Blair ducked his head down, studiously examining his eggs as he pushed them around his plate with the fork.

"Blair?"

He took a deep breath, keeping his eyes focused on his plate. "Okay," he mumbled.

After a few seconds of silence, Jim prompted, "Okay... so tell me."

"I... uh... well...."

Jim sighed. "Blair, I'm not going to hate you. No matter what you say, it won't change my opinion of you. I just want you to be honest with me, here."

Blair nodded. "I'm... pathetic. A coward. Weak. Not like you." He inhaled another deep breath. There, he'd said it.

"Weak? Pathetic? A coward? Gee, that's not the Blair Sandburg I know. That's definitely not the Blair Sandburg who pushed me underneath a garbage truck, nearly getting himself plastered onto the pavement in the process. That's also not the Blair Sandburg who foolishly jumped out of a plane over Peru even though he was scared of heights and had never even touched a parachute before. That's not the guy who disarmed a bomb on an oil rig because he couldn't jump ship and leave the crew to die. So, Chief, you wanna tell me exactly how you're weak and pathetic? How all these grand acts of bravery make you a coward?"

In spite of himself, Blair felt a smile touch his lips. "Well... if you put it that way...." his voice trailed off, and he glanced up at Jim, who continued to gaze at him critically.

"I'm only reciting facts, Chief," Jim stated.

Blair shrugged. "Okay, so maybe I've done things without thinking... and sometimes they look like courage when, in fact, they're really acts of stupidity. If I'd thought long enough before doing any of those things, I probably wouldn't have done them."

"That's the definition of courage, Chief. In all those cases, there wasn't time to think. You acted on instinct... and your instinct put the lives of others before your own."

Blair blushed. Somehow, Jim had a way of making him seem almost... noble. "But look at me now. Here I have all this time to do nothing but think, and I can't seem to pull myself together. I know how you hate self-loathing whiners, and that's exactly what I am right now. To make matters worst, I want to feel sorry for myself. I don't know how not to." He paused to catch his breath. "I know everyone... well almost everyone... keeps telling me that the accident wasn't my fault. I try to tell myself that, but I just don't know how to deal with knowing that four people died because I was behind the wheel of a car. I don't know how to put it behind me." He lowered his voice to an almost imperceptible whisper. "I don't know how to stop hurting."

Jim rose from his chair and took a few steps around the table. He stopped and kneeled in front of Blair, placing a hand on the young man's shoulder. "I know how hard this is on you, Chief, but I don't ever want you to think that you have to bottle it all up inside. I'm here for you, and I have no intention of going anywhere soon, so take all the time you need. I know I come off as this insensitive, ego-centric macho type most of the time... and it seems to keep most of the guys down at the station in line," he smiled briefly, increasing his grip on Blair's shoulder, "but I hope you think enough of me to let me help you. You're not like me, Chief--" Blair winced visibly at that comment, and Jim continued quickly. "You're different, in a good way. If it wasn't for your differences, I wouldn't be here right now. You're younger, smarter, and more compassionate than I am. You make people like you -- people like me who never used to let anyone get close. You put yourself on the line every day to help me with these senses. If you were like me, hell, we'd probably have killed one another a long time ago." He took a deep breath, giving Blair a gentle shake. "You've made me a better person and a better cop, Chief. Don't ever forget that. I want you around. Actually, I need you around. Every single day you're right there, backing me up, helping me... keeping me anchored, sane, and alive. Won't you let me return the favor?"

Blair had a hard time believing his ears. Here was Jim Ellison, tough, cold ex-military cop on his knee in front him, baring his soul to one new-age grad student. Still, looking into those intense blue eyes, Blair found himself believing the man.

Slowly, he nodded. "Okay, Jim. I told you, but I don't know where to go from here."

Jim patted his shoulder and stood up. "Well, for starters, you have a 10:00 appointment with the doctor for the follow-up."

Blair grimaced. "You're a real riot, man, but I don't feel much like being poked and prodded this morning. I'm fine. I don't need a follow-up."

"Hmm-hmmm," Jim muttered. "Finish your eggs, Chief, then get dressed." He smiled. "And wear clean underwear."

Blair shot him a deadly look, then smiled. Funny how the conversation could be sappy and serious one moment and light-hearted the next. Why did people feel the need to end a serious, sappy conversation with humor? Of course, he'd taken enough psyche courses to know why, but sometimes he was surprised to find himself looking at his own behavior from the outside... studying himself as though he were both observer and subject at once. With a sigh, he rose from the table and wobbled into the bedroom.

"I've had enough doctors to last me several lifetimes," he mumbled as he closed the door behind him. He knew Jim heard him, and he figured the man was smiling.


Blair sat bare-chested on the examination table, his shirt strung over the arm of the chair a few feet away from the bed. The doctor pressed the cold stethoscope against Blair's chest, instructed him to breathe deeply, and then shifted the instrument over theBlair's heart.

"Sounds good," he stated, removing the stethoscope and hanging it around his neck.

"I could have told you that," Blair retorted.

Jim grunted, standing in the corner with his arms crossed over his chest. "Feel free to smack him anytime, Doc. I'll close my eyes."

The older, speckled-haired man smiled warmly and pulled a tongue depressor out of his pocket, tearing it out of the packaging. He waived it at the bandaged, sulking anthropologist menacingly. "I may just take the detective up on that offer, young man. Believe me, you don't want to know all the things I can do with this little stick of wood."

Blair's eyes widened and he raised his hands defensively in front of him, barely suppressing a chuckle. "Whoa, there Dr. Jekyll, I'll cooperate... no need to get ugly."

With a satisfied nod, the doctor lowered the tongue depressor to Blair's mouth. "Okay, now open wide."

"Aaaah....." Blair opened his mouth, sticking his tongue out a little farther than necessary. The doctor pressed down on Blair's tongue and peered into his mouth with a penlight.

Jim sighed. "I'm going to go find the restroom and a vending machine. Think you can handle the kid on your own, doc?"

"I'll call Bruno, the orderly, in here if the squirt gives me trouble."

Blair's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "You actually have an orderly named Bruno? What, was that, like, a requirement for the position? You only interview people named Bruno, Bubba, or Goliath?"

The doctor chuckled. "You must be fine, Mr. Sandburg. Anyone with your exuberance can't possibly be ill."

Jim grumbled something under his breath just before he left the room. Blair was fairly certain he'd just been insulted, but, since he didn't have sentinel hearing, he could only guess as to the nature of the put-down. Blair watched Jim disappear down the hall, then turned to the doctor.

"Uh... Doctor Healing?"

"Yeah?"

Blair shook his head. "I guess you didn't have much choice of professions with a name like that."

The doctor smiled. "Well, my med school applications and resumes always got noticed, at least."

Blair returned the doctor's smile, then glanced into the hallway outside. There was no sign of Jim. He was pretty sure the man would be out of Sentinel range by now, if Blair kept his voice low, that was.

"Uh, Doctor?"

"Yes, Mr. Sandburg," the man said, grabbing blair's chart to jot down a few notes.

"Do you know how Ms. Wilson is doing?" He kept his voice barely above a whisper.

The pen in the doctor's hand froze in mid-stroke. He clipped the pen to the chart, using almost absurd care in securing it to the clipboard. He raised his head slowly and looked at Blair, his face suddenly serious. "Yes," he said, his voice low. "Yes, I... uh..."

Blair's face paled. "What? Is she going to make it? I heard she regained consciousness." More than heard, actually.... heard what she said... felt the words like a pain in my chest....

Doctor Healing nodded solemnly. "Yes, she did, for a brief time." He fixed steady, compassionate eyes on Blair. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, she passed away a few hours ago."

Blair felt as though he'd just been punched in the stomach. "But...." His throat constricted, cutting off the words. But... she can't die. She's the only one who survived. She woke up long enough to say it was my fault, then she died. Her dying words... my fault.... and now I can add another person to the death toll.

Doctor Healing patted his shoulder, his touch feather-light. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair just nodded, looking away from the Doctor's sympathetic gaze. "What...? I mean, how did it... happen?"

"Her liver failed. Then she went into cardiac arrest. We used all all the tools at our disposal to revive her, but, despite our best efforts...."

Sandburg raised his hand to silence the doctor. "...you failed. I know the speech, Doctor." He lowered his gaze to the floor. "Thanks for telling me."

"I am really sorry, Mr. Sandburg. I know this isn't the kind of news you needed to hear right now."

"It's okay. It wasn't totally unexpected, I suppose. I just kind of hoped that... well... you know, Mrs. Wilson lost most of her family that day. I was hoping she wouldn't lose her sister, too," Blair explained, trying to keep his voice steady.

Doctor Healing gave Blair another light pat on the shoulder, then turned his attention back to the chart. He grabbed the pen and wrote a few more notes on the chart.

Quietly, he cleared his throat. "Uh... well, like I said, you seem to be healing well. I want you to cut back on your pain killers. Try taking one every 6 hours instead of two. Okay?"

Blair nodded. "I'm already at that."

"Oh. I see. Okay, well then use your judgment. Take what you think you need, but no more than one every 6 hours."

"Okay."

"So what's the verdict?"

Both men looked up to see Jim enter the room, carrying a cup of coffee and taking the last bite of a pastry. Both doctor and patient wore somber expressions, and Jim's smile immediately melted.

"What's wrong? Blair, are you--?"

"Oh, Mr. Sandburg is fine, Detective, don't worry," the doctor quickly assured him. "I've just given him a clean bill of health. He still needs to take it easy with his ribs and, in a few days, he can try out the crutches."

Jim sighed, his face reflecting his relief. "Good... So why do you two look like somebody just.... oh no....."

Blair swallowed, nodding slowly. "She passed away this morning, Jim," he said, his voice cracking as he completed the sentence.

Jim set the coffee down on the table. "God, Chief, I'm sorry."

Blair shrugged. "S'okay." What's one more, he almost said, but caught himself in time. Yeah, what's one more death on my conscience? After awhile, a person loses count.


"You wanna talk about it?"

Jim looked over at Blair, who sat in the passenger seat of the truck, gazing out the window.

The anthropologist glanced at him. "Not really, but then you'll just give me another speech about how I should let you help."

Jim clenched his jaw. "Sorry, I brought it--"

"I'm sorry, Jim," Blair blurted. "I didn't mean that to sound the way it did. I really do appreciate the concern."

Jim's expression softened. "No problem, Chief, but if you do want to talk about... I'm here, you know. I don't want you bottling this up inside."

"I'm not. I have an unbottling appointment once a week, remember," he said, a strained smile on his lips.

"Okay."

Blair watched the trees zoom passed his window. "I am sorry, Jim."

Jim furrowed his brow. "For what?"

"For... you know... taking up so much of your time and being such a burden."

"Stop right there, Chief. What did I tell you this morning? You help me, I help you. That's what a partnership is all about. You have never been a burden, Sandburg.... a pain in the ass sometimes, but never a burden."

Blair looked back at Jim, warmed by the teasing smile on the sentinel's face. "Thanks," he said.

"So, I really would appreciate it if you'd tell me what you're thinking right now... about Ms. Wilson's death, that is."

Blair rested his forehead against the window. "This is going to sound really selfish."

"Well, it's about time."

"What do you mean?"

Jim glanced over at his young partner. "Chief, you're one of the most selfless people I know. Even when you're supposedly looking out for your best interest, you end up putting other people's needs ahead of your own. I was beginning to wonder what planet you were from."

Blair tried to smile, but he just didn't have the energy to fake it. "You have a strange way of giving a person a compliment."

Jim chuckled. "So, you gonna tell me, or what? What are these selfish thoughts of yours."

Blair held his breath for a few seconds, willing his emotions under control. He wanted to make sure he could speak in a calm, steady voice. Finally, he released the breath and looked at Jim.

"Okay, but if what I say makes you want to toss me out of the truck, promise me you'll forget I ever said it."

Jim smiled. "Deal, Chief, but that won't happen. You can trust me... don't you know that by now."

"I trust you, Jim."

"Then spill it."

He took another deep breath. "Okay, well, when I heard she died.... my first thought was that her she used some of her last words to... well... that she said the accident was my fault. Now that she's dead, she can't take that back. I can't ask her about it, her family can't ask her about it, and Simon can't ask her about it. A dead woman's last words... well, people tend to take those things kinda seriously." He closed his eyes. "And, there's one more thing...."

"Go on."

"Well, Mrs. Wilson lost her family. I was just kind of hoping that she wouldn't lose her sister too. I don't know, maybe I was holding onto that... that if at least one person survived the crash...." He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I was just grasping at straws for my sanity."

Jim was silent for several seconds. When he stopped the truck at a redlight, he turned to look at the forlorn figure of his partner. "Thanks, Chief. I know that was hard for you. I wish I could say or do something to make this situation right, but I can't. All I can do is tell you that none of this is your fault. The fact that it's eating you up just shows how much you care. You have a great deal of humanity in you, Sandburg. I know sometimes I tell you to 'check it at the door', but, really, it's one of the things I respect about you. You have compassion. You walk step-by-step with me through crime scenes and around dead bodies, and still you manage to keep hold of your compassion.... your empathy. It's why you're so valuable to me as a guide and a friend.... and you know I don't say this kind of thing all that often, so don't let it go to your head, now."

Blair finally found the will to smile, and some it even reached his eyes. "You mean that?"

"Yeah, your head is big enough as it is."

Blair scrunched his nose. "Funny. Ever hear about the pot that called the kettle black?"

Jim raised an eyebrow. "I don't recall." When Blair's smile widened, he reflected the expression. "Let me buy you lunch?"

A car horn blared behind him, and he jumped.

"Green light, man," Blair informed him, pointing to the intersection.

Jim pushed the accelerator. "So, what about lunch?"

"Okay. But since you're so eager for me to develop this selfish streak, I get to pick the place."

Jim laughed. "Oh, I see... I pay and you pick the place.... I think I might have created a monster."

"You know what they say, man, be careful what you wish for...."

Jim glanced over at Blair, his expression vaguely reflective. "Oh, I've already got that, Chief..... I've already got that."

 

The End