Therapy for the Soul

Part Two

The following week was filled with activity, once Blair was moved from the ICU to a regular room. Progress was still agonizingly slow and Blair's frustration was obvious. He'd always been a hyperactive individual; now the simple task of moving on his own was often beyond him and his moods swung from high to low in the blink of an eye.

Jim became his partner's personal cheering squad, offering a constant barrage of praise and light-hearted banter, even when all he wanted to do was go out into the street and scream his frustrations to the heavens.

The biggest milestone had been seeing Blair breathing on his own again. Only now, seeing Blair sitting strapped into a wheelchair, unfettered by tubes and monitors, did Jim acknowledge how truly frightened he'd been in the early days of Sandburg's illness. Finally, he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Bree, the physical therapist, told Jim that Blair wanted to begin feeding himself. There were two parts of Blair's care that he seemed to find particularly embarrassing, being fed and being bathed.

Jim had been able to assist for the most part with Blair's care by asking the nurses to hold off on his bath until Jim arrived in the afternoon to visit. His partner seemed to feel less uncomfortable with Jim tending his most personal needs, and as it took the strain off the already over-taxed staff, they were more than willing to agree. Jim was more than willing to help, though there were times when his libido got the better of him, images of holding Blair, naked, in his arms would ambush him suddenly. Jim told his erection to take a hike and took to wearing long sweaters.

Blair still wasn't up to much more speaking than verbalizing his most basic needs, and even that was a struggle that frustrated them both, with Sandburg's face screwing up as he tried to make his words understood and Jim biting his tongue, fighting the desire to speak for him.

A silent Sandburg didn't sit right. Used to Blair's endless chatter, Jim filled the room with music, mostly CD's that Blair liked and Jim could tolerate. The soft regular rhythms of drums and the soothing tones of gentle flutes, even the haunting didgeridoos of Aboriginal earth music, were a familiar and comforting sound.

The night before, Jim had promised Blair that he'd come in to help him eat his dinner. A vital arrest had blown that to hell, and Jim phoned the hospital to explain that he'd be late. Knowing the staff had to work to a tight schedule, he asked them to go ahead with feeding Blair.

He arrived to find a nurse paging Sandburg's doctor. Hurriedly she explained that the evening meal had not gone well after Blair had spilled a bowl of pudding on his lap. When she returned with a second helping, he'd thrown it at the wall, rapidly followed by anything else within reach that he could use as a missile.

Jim asked her to hold off on calling the doctor and walked quickly to Sandburg's room. Dialing up his hearing, he could hear Blair's pounding heart and ragged breathing, overlaid with his newly regained voice hurling slurred epithets at every deity known to man, and a few that Jim didn't know existed.

As he put his hand on the door to push it open, Blair went silent for a moment and Jim had the eerie thought that Sandburg knew he was there. Then the sound of muttered imprecations reached his ears, his own name receiving its fair share of attention.

"Said I better… Not… never better. Liar, Jim." A sob, then a sad plea. "Where you, Jim? Nee' you."

His heightened sense of smell detected the tang of tears overlaid by the stench of urine.

His concern increasing ten-fold, Jim pushed open the door and beheld a sight that caused his heart to clench painfully.

Blair lay in the middle of the bed, his pajamas soiled with spatters of food, and his hair a disheveled, sticky mess that hid his face. At Jim's entrance, he turned a wobbly, sorrowful face toward the door.

"Shorry," he sobbed from a still-slack mouth, spittle oozing down his chin to mix with the pudding encrusted there.

Jim was at his side in a second, lifting the thin body into his arms, uncaring of the urine that dampened his jeans. "That's okay, Chief. Let's get you cleaned up."

Later, with Blair bathed and settled back in bed, a thousand apologies still falling from his lips, Jim sat beside his friend and broached the subject he'd been dreading.

"In a day or two, the doctor thinks you'll be strong enough to go to a rehab center for a while." As Blair's eyes frowned at him, Jim lifted a finger. "I know. I told the doctor I could take care of you at home but this is non-negotiable, apparently. If I want to get you back to working with me at the PD, we have to go this route."

It was probably an unfair tactic, Jim thought briefly, but Blair's major concern throughout his illness had been his unwarranted fear that he was letting his Sentinel down. He watched Blair closely for his reaction. Finally, Blair simply nodded.

"No arguments?"

Blair blinked twice for no. The simple sign language had been established early in Blair's recovery and was still a useful tool whenever he was too tired to concentrate on his speech. He cleared his throat a little, his gaze raking over the far wall and the sunny painting adorning it. "Need… talk."

Jim reached out and clasped Blair's hand, stroking it in the rhythm that gave both men some comfort. "Sure, what's on your mind?"

"You… and me."

Jim felt his face heat, despite the thrill of elation his heart gave. "Us?"

Blair nodded. "Hard… to… say but…after all… this." His free hand rose up and performed a wave over the room where he'd been confined for so long. "I love you… Jim. S'okay… if you don'…need you… to know."

Jim smiled and leaned forward to look deeply into Blair's beautiful eyes. "I love you too, Chief, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you before now."

Blair's mouth creased into a delighted if crooked smile. "Yeah?"

Jim pressed a chaste kiss to Blair's lips, feeling a warmth suffuse him, tension leaving his body for the first time in what seemed months. He sat back and grinned at his partner. "Yeah."

Blair frowned then and gave an almost silent huff of what sounded like resignation. "So, rehab center…."

Jim leaned forward and clicked off the light over Blair's bed, enveloping the room in darkness. "It won't be for long," he vowed. "And I promise I'll be there every step of the way."

~o0o~

"Well, well. Awake again?" Jim pushed the door to Blair’s room open and walked quickly to the bedside. He pasted a cheerful smile on his face as Blair’s head flopped over to look at him, drowsy blue eyes crinkling in pleasure, leaning down to kiss Blair, delighting all over again that he was finally able to do that. The long sweaters had been thrown back into the closet. It gave Blair a thrill to know that, even weak and far from his best, he still turned Jim on.

"You’re looking good, Chief. How are you feeling?"

A shaky hand was raised fractionally off the bed as Blair’s brow creased with concentration, then he waggled his forefinger back and forth before dropping it back to the bed.

"So-so. Well, that’s an improvement on yesterday, when you were lousy." Jim made a thumbs-down gesture.

Blair’s mouth turned up in a lop-sided attempt at a smile. The detective reached for a tissue to wipe away the drool that seemed to constantly dribble from Blair’s mouth, leaving his skin chafed and sore-looking.

"You ready to blow this Popsicle stand day after tomorrow?" Jim asked as he pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed.

Blair’s forehead wrinkled with effort again, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "H- Ho…?" he mumbled.

Jim shook his head. "No, not home. Remember, we talked about the rehab center the other night?"

He tried to swallow past the lump in his throat as Blair’s face scrunched up and tears began to course down his cheeks. The doctor had told him that Blair’s emotions would run close to the surface for a while. The stress of his illness and his frustrations as he struggled to recover would leave him fragile and moody. His advice had been to simply go with the flow.

Jim reached out now and wiped the tears from Blair’s cheeks with his thumb. "Come on now. We’ve been through this a dozen times. You need to go and stay at The Pines for a few weeks. Just until you get your strength back. All right?"

Blair blinked once, the effort expended communicating with Jim leaving him drained. Jim nodded. "All right. Has Simon been in today?" Blair blinked twice, his eyes beginning to drift shut.

"No? That’s good," Jim continued. "You should have heard him going off at Thomson from Vice last night. Seems the Vice fellas really screwed up a crime scene, walked all over it with their size 12 shoes, and our esteemed captain was not impressed. Bernie on the front desk tells me they could hear him down there."

Jim was talking to himself by now, but he continued to chat, regaling the sleeping man beside him with stories of his friends and his life outside the hospital room.

~o0o~

 

Simon Banks dished up a fragrant bowl of stir-fry chicken and cashews, and snagged an ice-cold beer from the fridge before heading to the living room and the basketball game on TV. Daryl was spending the night with a friend and the captain was looking forward to a night at home, feet on the couch, game on the tube…

As he raised the beer bottle to his lips, a loud rapping sounded at the front door and he almost chipped a tooth when he jumped. Cursing softly, Simon laid plate and beer on the coffee table and muted the sound on the television before heading for the front door. Jim Ellison stood at the entrance, one hand raised as though to knock again.

Simon took one look at the detective’s stricken face and panicked. "Jim? What’s happened? Is it Sandburg? Why didn’t you call?"

Jim shook his head. "No. It’s not Sandburg. Well, it is." Jim blew out a breath. "He kicked me out, Simon."

"What? What do you mean he kicked you out?" Simon reached forward and drew Jim into the entrance hall. "Get in here, Jim. It’s freezing out there. God, you look like shit. You want some dinner? Good. Sit down, I’ll get you a beer."

He steered the detective toward the living room as he talked and pushed him down onto the couch before Jim had a chance to react. Then he hurried into the kitchen, dishing up another serving of stir-fry and pulling a second beer from the fridge. Heading back into the living room, he saw Jim had remained where he’d placed him and was staring into space. "Jim? Here. Get some food into you."

Jim looked up at him, his eyes haunted. "Thanks." He took the plate and utensils and began to push the food around the plate as Simon placed the beer on the table in front of him and headed back to his own dinner.

"So. What’s going on?" Simon asked around a mouthful of chicken. "Start at the beginning."

Jim laid down the fork and spoke. "Doctor Parry said they’d move Blair to the rehab center tomorrow. He’s coming along really well. His pneumonia has settled and he’s able to use his hands a lot better to feed himself. He won’t be walking for a while and you have to listen really carefully to figure out what he’s saying, but he’s doing well."

"And?"

"He’s been getting really upset about going to the center. He wants to go home."

"That’s understandable, Jim. You just have to convince him that it’s for his own good."

Jim nodded. "I know. Finally tonight he agreed to go. Then he told me to get out and not come back until it’s time to leave for The Pines tomorrow."

"Did he say why?"

"He said I looked like shit and that he didn’t need a babysitter 24/7. Especially one who looked like he was going to pass out any minute. Said he didn’t think he had the strength right now to pick me up off the floor. Wise-ass."

Simon cocked an eyebrow and Jim shrugged. "Not in so many words, mind you but I got the drift."

The captain tried not to laugh, but he was relieved to think that Sandburg must truly be on the road to recovery if the two men were bickering. "You’ve got to admit he’s got a point. I already gave you my opinion on how you look, and you’re no good to the kid if you’re lying in the next bed."

Jim groaned and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I know that. It’s just… I went home to the loft. Thought I’d have a shower, order in a pizza, watch the game." He leaned forward and put his plate on the coffee table, then stood and began to pace. "It’s so quiet there, Simon. It always used to be quiet, before Sandburg moved in. I thought I liked it that way. I don’t. I hate it. I can hear myself think, and all I can think about is seeing him lying there, fighting to breathe, to move."

He took a deep, measured breath then continued. Finally, he stopped and looked directly at the captain. "Since Blair’s been awake and is recovering, we’ve been doing some talking. About Alex and about me kicking him out of the loft." Jim took a deep breath before he spoke again. "Blair told me he’s in love with me, Simon." Simon’s mouth dropped open in shock, but before he could think of anything to say, Jim lifted a hand to silence him. "The great thing about that is that I feel exactly the same way about him."

He allowed a small, shy smile to filter through the worry on his face. "When all this shit is over, we’re going to try and make a life together."

Simon nodded slowly. "I see. You realize it could just be the stress, the fear of losing someone that’s become very close to you. I mean you two have been pretty much joined at the hip for over three years now."

Jim nodded. "I know, Simon but it’s not that. We love each other. I don’t know if it’s a sentinel thing or not," he grinned at Simon’s grimace. "I just know that it is."

"Then that’s all that matters," Simon said. "You’ve picked a tough road to travel, both of you. I’m no stranger to prejudice, on and off the force. You have any problems at the station, you come see me, understand?"

Jim nodded. "Thanks. We haven’t even looked that far ahead, about coming out or anything. I just want Blair to get better first, then we’ll worry about the rest of it."

Simon stood then and picked up Jim’s plate, pressing it back into his hands and motioning toward the couch. "I’m glad you came by. Daryl’s away and I’ve got to admit that I’m not used to a silent house myself. Get that food in you and I’ll turn on the game."

By half time in the game, Jim was asleep, his stomach full and a half-empty beer bottle drooping precariously from one lax hand. Simon rescued it before the cold contents could spill and wake his slumbering friend and managed to push Jim until he rested full-length on the couch. He draped a soft blanket over the detective’s prone form.

"If you think I’m carrying you upstairs to bed, you’ve got another think coming," the captain whispered gruffly. He rested a large hand on the sleeping man’s head as though in benediction. "Get some rest, my friend."

~o0o~

Blair stared at the hospital ceiling and concentrated on blowing a sigh of bored irritation out of his mouth. Though he was tired after a longer than usual therapy session, he seemed too wired to sleep. He’d managed to control a spoon in his hand today and feed himself an almost entire bowl of soup.

Even after he had begun to shake from exhaustion and his therapist wanted to call a halt to the session, Blair had stubbornly insisted on continuing. His effort had been rewarded when Jim had come into the gym, wondering what was holding him up and Blair had shyly, proudly, demonstrated his new skill.

He felt tears burn the backs of his eyes as he thought now of the wide grin of elation on his partner’s face and the warmth of Jim’s strong arms as he’d pulled him into a gentle hug. Pulling back weakly in mock embarrassment, Blair had been shocked by the deep lines of exhaustion that framed Jim’s eyes, the ghostly pallor that dusted his cheeks. Not listening to Jim’s arguments, he had vociferously stuttered his demand that Jim go home to rest.

Now, lying here in the darkness, feeling the discomfort of a dry throat and seeing the call button left on the far side of the bedside cabinet by an unthinking nurse, Blair wished desperately for his partner’s reassuring presence, for the gentle touch that demonstrated Jim's love for him.

He wasn't sure what time it was, but the nurse had already been around with the morning medication, and the faint light he could see around the edge of the blind on the window indicated early morning. Outside his room, he could hear the rapid footsteps of the nurses as they went about their duties. He debated calling out, then cast it aside. The staff always seemed so busy, he hated asking them for help.

Finally, brow creasing and lips pursed with effort, he managed to snake out a shaky arm and snag the tumbler of water from the rollaway table in front of him. He held his breath as his hand trembled wildly, several splashes of water overflowing from the cup on its rocky journey to his mouth. Just as he managed to lift his still wobbly head and bend his wrist so that cup and mouth met, his forearm spasmed violently, shooting a red-hot pain up through his shoulder and his hand clenched, dumping the contents of the tumbler over his chest.

Choking back a garbled curse, Blair flung his trembling arm wide, tossing the cup as far as he could. He lay in the wet bed, shivering from the cold water that soaked his thin hospital gown and seeped into his flesh, hot tears of rage and shame coursing down his cheeks.

~o0o~

Jim arrived at the hospital early the next day despite Simon’s best efforts to delay him. He knew that Blair had asked him not to come in until ten, but he also knew the younger man was extremely nervous about his shift to the rehab center. So, for that matter, was Jim, but now that he and Blair had confessed their mutual feelings for each other, Jim just wanted this final stage of Blair’s recovery to begin. The sooner Blair was back on his feet, literally, the sooner they could go home together.

Blair lay flat on his back in the bed, his face averted from the door. As he walked into the room, Jim’s foot connected with something that skittered across the floor and hit the wall with a thump. Looking down, Jim saw it was a plastic tumbler. Blair did not stir at the sound and Jim became worried. Stepping closer, he called to his partner.

"Blair? You all right?" Jim could see that Blair’s eyes were open, but he did not react to his voice. Really concerned now, Jim placed a hand on Blair’s shoulder, startled when the other man gave a shuddering sob and attempted to curl into himself. His still-weak muscles would not allow him to do so, and Jim easily rolled the lax body over so that Blair faced him, cupping his lolling head carefully as he did so. Crouching slightly, so that he was at eye level, Jim regarded Blair closely.

"Blair? What’s wrong? Do you hurt somewhere?"

Blair looked exhausted. His eyes were lined with red and the lids were swollen, framed with dark circles. Slowly, he blinked twice. Jim frowned and then reached out to gently pat Blair’s shoulder. The hospital gown under his hand was wet and the skin beneath it was icy. "How’d you get wet, Chief?"

Blair averted his gaze again but Jim remembered the tumbler on the floor and the pieces suddenly fit together. "You tried to get yourself a drink, huh?"

Blair sighed and blinked once.

"Why didn’t you call for the nurse?" Jim asked.

"Tried," Blair slurred. "Can’ rea..."

"Can't reach?" Jim looked over at the bedside cabinet and spotted the call button. "I’m sorry, buddy." He rummaged in the overnight bag he’d brought in. "I should have stayed with you last night."

"No," Blair answered angrily. "Can’t." The small effort at speech drained him and he closed his eyes.

Jim watched his partner sadly for a moment. "I’ve got some clothes here for you. Why don’t you let me help you get changed, and then I’ll go track down some juice and breakfast."

Blair simply nodded, and Jim swallowed past the lump that threatened to choke him and pulled out the change of clothes. He busied himself with the mundane task of dressing Blair.

Finally, pulling one of Blair’s favorite flannel shirts over the young man’s shoulders, Jim spoke up. "I’ll bet you’re glad to be back in civvies, huh, Chief? Those drafty hospital gowns do nothing for your modesty, though I have to admit I don’t mind the view myself." He grinned widely, cuffing Blair’s jaw lightly. "The guys at the precinct were glad to hear you’re moving out of here too. They’ve already got the roster drawn up as to who’s visiting when. I told them to take it slowly at first, we don’t want…"

"No."

"No? No, what?"

Blair found the strength to shake his head and pull it away from Jim’s hold. "No… not come."

"Not come? You mean you don’t want the guys to come visit you?" Blair blinked once. "They’re your friends, Chief. They’ve been worried about you. It was all I could do to stop them coming here to see you."

"No," Blair insisted. "Not like this." Then he was crying, soft, gulping sobs of sorrow and Jim finally understood and pulled him into a hug. "It’s all right," he soothed. "I’ll put them off for a little longer until you’re feeling stronger. Okay?"

He felt Blair’s head nod against his chest and he sat a moment longer, gently rocking the distraught man in his arms

~o0o~

Jim hoisted Blair’s backpack higher on his shoulder, then smiled at the ambulance attendant as he gripped the handles of the wheelchair. "Thanks," he said. "I can take it from here."

"You sure you don’t need a hand? He doesn’t look too steady there," the attendant said, pointing his chin toward Blair, who lolled in the chair, struggling to keep himself upright.

Jim shook his head. "We’ll be fine. Thanks for the ride."

The attendant shrugged and cracked his gum. "It’s what they pay me for. Take it easy."

Jim reached a hand forward and squeezed Blair’s shoulder. "You okay there, Chief?" He smiled as a hand was raised from Blair’s lap and a shaky thumbs-up took shape. "All right. Let’s go meet the gang."

He pushed the wheelchair slowly toward the sliding doors of the rehab center, his sight dialed up to take in any miniscule bump that could cause Blair to lose his already-precarious balance.

Jim had wanted to bring Blair here in his own vehicle, hoping to retain some small measure of control over their lives. The doctors, however, had vetoed the idea, maintaining that Blair was not yet strong enough to sit upright for the half-hour trip out to the center. Jim had conceded to their better judgement, guilt at considering his own feelings first washing over him. Blair had insisted, even in the ambulance, on sitting up next to Jim on the bench, decisively piling his bags onto the gurney, his determined face daring anyone to do something about it. Only Jim’s tight grip around his waist had kept him from falling flat on his face.

"Pretty nice place, huh, Chief?" Jim said conversationally as they neared the entrance doors. He had heard Blair’s heart rate increase exponentially the closer they came to the center, and he was desperate now to put the young man at ease.

It was indeed an attractive place. Jim let his gaze wander over the wide expanses of green lawns, their edges framed with brightly colored flowering shrubs. Just beyond the rehab building was a tennis court, and beyond that, judging from the chlorine that tickled his nose and caused him to sneeze, the hydrotherapy rooms.

"Dial it down," his guide slurred from the wheelchair, and Jim grinned widely.

"Always on duty, huh, Chief?"

"Don…' for…get it," Blair answered, cheerfully enough, and Jim allowed himself to relax just a little.

The detective pushed the chair through the sliding doors and up to the reception desk. A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman was seated in front of a computer monitor, typing industriously. As the two men approached, she looked up from her work and smiled. "May I help you?"

"I’m Jim Ellison." The detective laid a hand on Blair’s shoulder. "This is Blair Sandburg. He’s, I mean, Blair…"

"I’ll take it from here, Marion." A strong voice came from along the corridor, and Jim looked up to see a robust, middle-aged woman dressed in a uniform of white tunic and slacks striding toward them. As she came closer, she stuck out a hand and shook Jim’s warmly. "Detective Ellison. I’m Harriet Jones, the nurse in charge of Blair’s floor. It’s a pleasure to meet you."

Crouching, she looked at Blair, then repeated her welcoming gesture to him. "You must be Blair. My, you’re a handsome one. I’ll have all the staff fighting over you."

Jim grinned as Blair blushed hotly. "It’s the same wherever we go," he said dryly.

"Right then." The nurse straightened and reached out a hand for Blair’s backpack and suitcase. "Why don’t you leave Blair’s bags here with Marian, and I’ll get an orderly to bring his things to his room shortly. It’s rest time right now, and I don’t want to disturb the patients. I’ll take your friend to his room and get him settled in. Why don’t you come back around 3 this afternoon?"

"I thought I could stay with him for a while," Jim answered, his hand tightening unconsciously on his partner’s shoulder.

The nurse shook her head and reached for the handles of the wheelchair. "Mark, that’s Blair’s roommate, had a very grueling session in the pool this morning. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to disturb his rest." Her eyes seemed to glitter menacingly, and Jim felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

Harriet took advantage of Jim’s hesitation and pushed off down the corridor. "Good. We’ll see you in a couple of hours."

"Wait a minute." Jim dropped Blair’s bags to the floor and hurried after the rapidly disappearing duo. He reached out an arm and snagged her shoulder, turning her to look at him. "You didn’t tell me what room number."

"Room 245."

Jim nodded, filing the information away, then stepped quickly in front of the wheelchair before she could take off again. "Blair? You okay with this?"

Blair paused a moment as though considering the question. "Go," he finally whispered. "I’m 'kay." He nodded, emphasizing his determination, then reached out a shaky hand and squeezed Jim’s weakly. "Don…' forget… come back, ‘kay?"

Jim shook his head and ruffled Blair’s hair. "I’ll see you in a bit."

He stood then and walked back to the reception desk, his hands fisted tightly at his side. "I’m not going anywhere, lady," he muttered as he strode out the front door.

Whistling to himself, Jim headed toward a sunny bench and sat himself down. Then he cast out his sensory net, relaxing only when he had Blair’s heartbeat firmly pinned down. Making himself comfortable, he settled in for a couple of hours of eavesdropping.

~o0o~

"No!"

Jim startled awake at the shout, and then recoiled from the thundering sound of Blair’s racing heartbeat in his ears. He staggered to his feet, berating himself loudly for having lowered his guard. Quickly, he strode back through the entrance doors of the rehab center, increasing his pace as Blair choked out his name.

"Where’s Blair?" Jim asked of the startled woman at the reception desk. It was not the same one as before and Jim cursed. Then he turned away, hurrying along the corridor, focusing only on his partner’s racing heartbeat, oblivious to those he pushed aside in his rush.

His search took him out a rear door and through a long hallway that appeared to connect the buildings. Jim’s heart sank as he zeroed in on his terrified partner and he recognized the unmistakable smell of chlorine. Blair’s voice echoed shatteringly against his eardrums as Jim sped the rest of the way through the seemingly unending hallway.

"No! Can’t. Don't make… No!"

Jim could hear the voice of the nurse they’d met earlier, her words soothing, but her tone edged with impatience. "Come now, Blair. Don't be so foolish. The doctor ordered hydrotherapy and the sooner we start, the sooner you'll be well. It’s only water."

"Get your hands off of him," Jim shouted as he pushed open the doors to the poolroom. He took in the scene in front of him at a glance. The nurse from earlier stood at Blair’s side, one skinny arm clasped in her meaty fist. A man dressed in swim-shorts stood knee-deep on the steps that led into the pool, his mouth open in surprise at the intrusion.

The two burly orderlies holding a shaking, white-faced, boxer-clad Sandburg in their grasp looked up at the sentinel’s enraged roar, and did just what he demanded. Jim watched in horror as his partner teetered at the edge of the pool for just a moment, then fell into the water, sinking almost immediately to the bottom.

Jim dived in after Blair without conscious thought, angling himself downward to grasp a frantically waving arm. Getting a tight grip on Blair’s wrist, he pulled the sputtering man to the surface. Blair still struggled in Jim’s grip, despite the detective’s efforts to reassure him.

"Sandburg! It's okay, buddy. I've got you."

Twice, Blair flailed away from him in his fear, his breath becoming more panicked by the second. Finally, Jim managed to hug him close to his chest.

"That's it, Chief. Settle down." Jim got Blair onto his back, one hand hooked under his chin, and began to swim back toward the side of the pool. He looked up as a hugely muscled forearm was stuck in front of his nose.

"Let me help you with him," the orderly said.

Jim hesitated a moment, then acquiesced and allowed the men to pull Blair’s shivering body from the water. He clambered out himself and hurried quickly to Blair’s side, nodding gratefully as a large warm towel was pushed into his hands. He wrapped it firmly around Blair’s body, then enfolded the disoriented man in a comforting embrace.

"What on earth are you doing?' the nurse sputtered in outrage. "This area is off-limits to everyone except staff and patients."

Jim tuned her out, concentrating on the distressing sounds of Sandburg coughing and gagging. He dialed up his hearing again and listened to Blair's lungs, relieved to hear no sounds of fluid. He patted Blair firmly on the back as he spluttered. "You're okay, Chief. You're okay."

Don't… make…please," Blair whispered. " Not pool…" He pulled away slightly from Jim's grasp and looked up, his red-rimmed eyes wide. "Jim! Tell…Not pool."

"Shh," Jim soothed, feeling Blair’s heartbeat finally begin to settle. "It’s all right. You don’t have to go in there." Once he was sure that Blair had calmed, Jim hoisted his partner into his arms and turned toward the nurse. "Show me to Blair’s room, and then I want to speak to whoever's in charge."

Nurse Jones set her jaw. "Doctor Morris ordered hydrotherapy to begin this afternoon. I’m only following orders."

"Blair drowned a few weeks ago," Jim said, lowering his voice in deference to his still-quaking partner. "Tell the doctor I want to talk to him."

The two glared at each other in a standoff. Then Nurse Jones sighed and pointed to the wheelchair. "Put him in the wheelchair and I’ll show you to his room."

Jim shook his head. "I’ll carry him back and help him get dressed."

The nurse nodded and led the little entourage from the hydrotherapy room. Jim deposited Blair on the bed in his room, acknowledging the other occupant with a terse nod. The other man smiled back, and then reached out a trembling arm to the bar that hung suspended in front of him. He shook his long hair from his face, and swore softly as it spun away from his grasping fingers, and reached for it again.

"Here." Jim crossed the room and grabbed hold of the rampant bar, holding it steady until the man in the bed could grasp hold and pull himself up.

"Thanks."

Jim shook his head. "No problem. Can I help you with anything else?"

"No. I’m fine. Thanks."

Jim forced a smile to his lips that eased the tension in his jaw. "Sure. I, um, better…" He motioned over his shoulder to where Blair lay on the other bed, shivering despite being swathed in a large towel, his eyes still somewhat glassy.

The young man nodded and sat back, watching with undisguised interest.

 

~o0o~

Mark Cameron looked on curiously as the tall man gently sat the smaller one up on the bed and stripped the towel from his shoulders before bundling the shivering form, clad only in a pair of swim shorts, under the bedclothes. Then he turned and rummaged through the suitcase balanced on the chair, pulling sweats and thick socks from within.

"He okay?"

"What?" The large man looked up and glanced at him quickly before his gaze flickered back to the man in the bed. "Oh, yeah. He’ll be okay. He took an unscheduled dip in the pool. Kind of freaked him out."

Mark watched as he leaned over the other man once more, cupping the shivering man’s chin in a large but seemingly gentle hand. "Blair? You back with me, Chief?"

The smaller man, Blair, slowly blinked his eyes and looked around the room, then fixed his gaze upon the big man. "Jim?" The voice was slightly slurred, but the other man, Jim, smiled widely at the words.

"How you doing? How about we dry you off and get some warm clothes on you?"

Blair seemed to stiffen, then his entire body folded in upon itself and Jim caught him up in a tight hug. "No pool, 'kay, Jim?"

Jim shook his head. "No pool, Chief. I promise."

Mark and Jim both looked up as Nurse Jones knocked at the open door. "Dr. Morris will see you now, detective."

"Give me a minute or two to dry him off and I’ll be with you," Jim answered, turning his attention back to Blair.

The nurse took a step into the room. "Why don’t you let me do that?" she suggested as she pulled several towels from a closet by the door. "The doctor is a busy man."

"That okay with you, Chief?"

Blair nodded, though he seemed to eye the nurse apprehensively, Mark thought. "I’ll keep an eye on him," he offered.

Jim smiled at him. "Thanks. I’ll be back shortly."

Mark lowered himself back onto his pillows with some difficulty and watched as Nurse Jones proceeded to dry and dress the other man with a gentleness that belied her bulk.

"So, Harry, who’s on tonight?" he asked, grinning as his words got the expected reaction and the nurse turned to spear him with a mock glare.

"How many times have I told you it’s Harriet, not Harry?" the nurse scolded. "Melissa’s on tonight," she relented. She smiled as the young man’s eyes lit up in delight.

"Cool."

"Hmmph," she muttered, turning back to her other charge. Gently, she stroked a hand across Blair’s forehead, smoothing the still-damp hair from his face. "How’s that, sweetie? Better?" Blair nodded but did not speak, his eyes studiously avoiding hers. "I’m sorry, Blair," Harriet continued. "I didn’t know about your drowning. I was just following doctor’s orders."

Blair nodded again, a soft sob hiccuping from his throat. "'S'kay."

Harriet smiled. "Now, if you’re feeling better, let me introduce you to your roommate."

Mark waved a loose wrist. "Hey, man. That was quite an entrance you made. Who’s the super-hero?"

Blair looked over at him, a smile tugging lopsidedly at his lips. "’Tective Ell’son," he slurred, his eyelids beginning to droop. "Jim. Partner." He brought one hand up and patted his chest with a concentrated effort. "Blair."

"You’re a cop?" Mark said. "That’s cool, man. I got nothing against cops."

Blair shook his head. "No, Jim’s cop. I’m a anth…anth…" He sighed heavily and frowned. "I teach."

Mark nodded. "Mark Cameron, muscular dystrophy. What’s your problem?"

Blair waved the question away as his eyes closed and his voice trailed off. "Can’t say it."

"That’s cool," Mark said. He settled back in the bed and watched the other man sleep, wishing he had someone like Jim to watch out for him, and counting the hours till luscious Nurse Melissa came on duty.

~o0o~

It had been an exhausting week since Blair's arrival at The Pines. Jim had spoken to the doctor, who had apologized profusely for his oversight regarding the hydrotherapy, and agreed that Blair could have all his physical therapy in the gym. Blair still felt a little embarrassed over freaking out the way he had, but he still became dry-mouthed at the very thought of the pool.

He was slowly becoming stronger and regaining more control of his hands. The day before, he had typed out a letter to his mother, and had felt as pleased a five-year old when Jim had praised his efforts and promised to mail it to her. He still had difficulty cutting up his food, and his words slurred a little when he was tired.

Jim was visiting as often as he could, though he’d been handling a difficult case at work for the past week, and his visiting hours had been limited to a quick visit before work and a longer one after dinner. Then he would stay and chat until Blair fell asleep, cheerfully regaling Blair and Mark, and often an enamored nurse or therapist, with stories from the precinct and the apartment building.

Blair missed him though, missed his closeness and touching and embraces. He yearned for the day when his hands were no longer half-numb and he could lift them and stroke across Jim’s broad chest. He longed to explore Jim’s warm mouth properly with his own. They’d sneaked a few furtive cuddles and clumsy gropes, feeling like a couple of teenagers making out for the first time, but there was always someone nearby. Blair wanted to be at home, alone with Jim.

He often arrived laden with goodies for Blair, gifts from his friends from both the precinct and the University. The detective had broached the subject of others visiting but Blair remained stubborn, insisting that he needed more time.

Finally, this morning, seeing the weariness that hunched Jim’s shoulders when he’d come to visit straight from a stakeout, Blair had relented. He agreed that Simon could come to visit, and that he’d think about seeing the others in a few days. Then he repeated his performance of a few weeks before and threw Jim out, ordering him not to return until the following evening.

~o0o~

Blair sat in his wheelchair in the gym and regarded his latest nemesis with a jaundiced eye.

"Come on now, Blair. Just one more try and I promise we'll stop."

Blair forced his heavy head up from where it had drooped toward his chest and eyed the physical therapist with undisguised skepticism. "How do I know you're tell… truth," he panted, frowning as his weariness caused his tongue to stumble over the words.

Mandy grinned at him, twin dimples appearing in her cheeks. "Now Blair, would I lie to you?" When he still hesitated, she sighed and stepped closer, squatting down in front of the wheelchair to look at him. "I know you're scared of falling, but I promise you I won't let that happen. I'll be right here in front of you the whole way. The minute I think you can't support your weight, I'll take over."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Little thing like you?"

Mandy chucked him on the chin. "Don't let the size fool you, sport. I'm stronger than I look. How about it?"

Blair puffed out a breath and nodded, inordinately pleased to see the wide smile that lit up Mandy's pretty face. Taking as tight a grip as he could on the arms of his chair, and with Mandy pulling on his upper arms, he hauled himself upright.

The room did a slow roll and he felt himself go hot, then cold. "Oh, God," he murmured. "Think I'm gonna be sick."

"No, you're not. It's just nerves and the fact you've been chair-bound for too long. Take a couple of slow deep breaths."

Blair complied and felt his upset stomach begin to settle. Leaving one hand on Mandy's shoulder for support, he stretched out for the horizontal bar with the other. His knees buckled slightly at the sudden weight as Mandy placed his other hand on the bar, but true to her word, she reacted in a split second, grasping him around the waist and hauling him up against her small frame. Slowly, Blair pushed up and locked his knees, then took a shaky step forward.

By the time he reached the end of the bars, he was dripping with perspiration, his shaky arms barely holding him up. His left foot refused to lift as he swung it through and he stumbled, a frightened cry torn from his throat as he felt himself topple forward.

"It's okay. I've got you." His fall was halted as Mandy grasped him under the arms, allowing his head and upper body to drop against her as he heaved great gasps of air. Carefully, she lowered them both to the floor, kneeling beside him as he fought to catch his breath.

Grinning madly, she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his sweaty cheek. "My hero."

~o0o~

"Hey, Blair!"

Blair looked up and smiled as he laboriously pushed his wheelchair through the doorway of the TV room.

"How did it go, man?" Mark asked from his corner of the room, where he sat and hogged the remote.

"Not bad." Blair shrugged nonchalantly. "I walked four steps… before I went down flat on my ass."

"All right!" Mark crowed, slapping the other man’s hand in a weak high five. "Way to go."

Blair grinned sheepishly and leaned forward to whisper quietly in his new friend’s ear. "I hear Melissa’s drawn our floor tonight. Feel up to a little party?"

Mark dropped his voice accordingly. "You bet. What have you got in mind?"

"Let’s call in a pizza?" Blair suggested.

"Sure," Mark agreed willingly, then frowned. "Oh, hey, I’ve used up all my allowance for this week."

"That’s okay," Blair answered, feeling generous after his supreme effort in the gym. "I can float you a loan." He clumsily shifted himself from the wheelchair to the couch, waving away help from the well-meaning orderly. "I got it, Frank. I got it."

"You’re lucky, you know," Mark said when they were finally alone.

"What do you mean?" Blair asked. "This is lucky?" He indicated his painfully thin body with a hand that still shook.

"Hey, I know what you’re talking about," Mark replied, waving a hand over his own emaciated shape. ""What do you mean?" Blair asked. "This is lucky?" He indicated his painfully thin body with a hand that still shook when he got tired.

"Hey, I know what you’re talking about," Mark replied, waving a hand over his own emaciated shape. "No, I mean to have Jim. You really love him, huh?"

Blair blushed a little at Mark’s statement. "Is it that obvious?" he whispered. "I mean, we’ve been trying to be discreet."

"It’s not as though I’ve got much to do all day but watch everyone else," Mark answered.

"If it bothers you, man…"

"It doesn’t bother me, Blair," Mark interrupted. "I think it’s great. I just wish someone felt the same way about me as you guys feel about each other."

"You've got a family, haven't you?"

"Not so you'd notice." Mark stared at the TV screen. "My parents dumped me here when I was sixteen so I wouldn’t embarrass them. My dad’s head honcho of a big computer firm. They entertain a lot. It wouldn’t do for anyone to see their crippled son. They haven’t visited me in over four months," he said softly. "They send me an allowance." He laughed. "Enough to buy anything I want. Except out of here."

"What about friends?" Blair asked.

"They kind of dropped by the wayside when I got too weak to go out and have fun."

"I’m sorry."

"It’s okay, man. Anyway, I shouldn’t be raining on your parade. Four steps, huh? That’s cool."

The two sat in silence for some time before a voice startled them both. "Hey, Mark. Hey, Blair. Anything good on the TV?"

Both men turned and graced the pretty young nurse in the doorway with delighted smiles. "Hey, Mel," Mark said. "You up for pizza and a game of cards? Blair’s buying."

~o0o~

Blair shifted slightly in the bed as a chill passed over him. He fumbled for the bedclothes and tried to pull them back over his chest. When the covers resisted his efforts, he opened drowsy eyes. "W'a’ss wron'?"

A dark blurred shaped hovered over Blair’s bed. "Shh, Blair. You’ll wake Mark. I just need your arm."

So it was a nurse, Blair thought fuzzily. "What for?" Blair felt his arm pulled from under the warmth of the blankets, and then the nurse was tapping at his elbow.

"Doctor wants you to have a sedative. He says you haven’t been sleeping too well."

Blair shook his head. "No, I…Ow!" He jumped at the prick of the needle on the inside of his arm and shuddered as cold liquid snaked up his arm. "I didn’t…I don’t…" He broke off as he cracked a huge yawn. Suddenly, a delicious lassitude overtook him, and he descended into a deep and dream-filled slumber.

~o0o~

Jim jumped from his vehicle and hurried along the path toward the rehab center. He fumbled awkwardly with the electronic car lock on the key. He’d been forced to use a rental car when he crashed his own that afternoon chasing a suspect. He almost dropped the laptop that balanced precariously on top of the textbooks in his arms.

Blair had been asking for some work to do now that his coordination was finally beginning to improve. He’d turned his nose up at Jim’s first half-joking suggestion that the detective bring in his paperwork, and asked Jim to pick up books and computer discs that he arranged to borrow from a friend at the university about the cultural history of Mexico. Both men knew that he could not work on his dissertation here at the hospital. The subject was too sensitive and the chance of information leaking out too great.

A last minute tip-off by a snitch had meant the arrest of a gunrunner that Major Crimes had been tracking for months. It had been a collar too good to give up, and now Jim was late. He tipped his wrist over, almost capsizing his load once more, and groaned. Only a half-hour of visiting time left. Maybe he could cajole Nurse Jones into letting him have some extra time. He wondered if Blair and Mark had left the last box of chocolates intact. It would do nicely as bribery.

He nodded at the nurse sitting at the desk as he made his way to his partner’s room. Pushing open the door with his foot, he made it inside without losing his load and placed it gratefully on Blair’s empty bed. "Hey, Chief. Sorry, I’m late. Cappy called in a last minute tip-off and we managed to catch Bobby O’Hara with his hands full."

He stood at the side of the bed, panting slightly from his headlong dash, and regarded his partner. Blair sat in his wheelchair by the window. He did not turn around at Jim’s words. In fact, he didn’t acknowledge him at all. "Blair? I said I was sorry. I know I should have called."

Blair turned the chair then, and raised sad, reddened eyes to Jim. "Mark’s dead," he whispered.

Jim moved quickly to his friend’s side and crouched down next to the chair. "Oh, God, Blair. I’m sorry. When did this happen?"

"I woke up this morning and he was dead in his bed." He looked again at Jim. "We ate pizza last night and played cards."

Jim reached out and squeezed Blair’s hand. His flesh was icy to the touch, and looking at his friend more closely, the detective could see that Blair’s skin had an unhealthy gray tinge to it. "How long have you been sitting here?" he asked gently. "Come on, let’s get you into bed and get you warmed up. Then we’ll talk."

Blair pulled his hands from Jim’s grasp with surprising strength, something that would have cheered Jim under other circumstances. "I don’t want to stay here, Jim. I want to go home."

"You know you can’t go home yet," Jim said gently. "Come on. Get into bed."

"No!" Blair shouted. He pushed on the wheels of the chair so that it rolled back toward the wall. "I want to go home."

"You’re not strong enough yet," Jim countered. "You only just learning to feed yourself again and speak. You’re not walking yet. The doctor said it’s going to be at least another week, Blair. You know that."

"I don’t care," Blair said, setting his jaw. "I can look after myself."

"Look, I know you’re upset about Mark, but I can’t take you home. I’m sorry Mark died but he had a chronic, debilitating illness. You knew there was a chance that this could happen. Maybe pneumonia…"

Blair shook his head. "He was fine," he said angrily. "We ate pizza. Something happened."

"What?"

"I don’t know. I woke up. There was a nurse here."

"When you found Mark?"

Blair shook his head impatiently. "Last night. During the night." His face seemed to crumple for a moment, then he shook himself and pushed the wheelchair back toward Jim. "Please don’t leave me here, Jim. I’ll die too."

"Don’t be silly," Jim answered, then immediately regretted the words. Looking around, he found a spare rug draped over the end of Blair’s bed. Grabbing it, he moved forward and laid it around Blair’s shivering shoulders. "You’re in shock, Sandburg. That’s understandable after what you’ve been through."

"I’ll look after myself," Blair continued. "I promise. You won’t need to do anything for me. You could send for my mom."

"You can’t go home yet," Jim said, becoming exasperated. "Why don’t I see if I can find Dr. Morris? See if he can give you something to help you sleep."

"No!" Blair screeched. Reaching up, he flung the blanket from his shoulders and surged up out of the wheelchair. Taken by surprise, Jim barely had time to catch him before they both tumbled to the floor.

"Shit! Blair, are you okay?"

Blair writhed his way out of Jim’s protective hold and crawled back to the wheelchair. He dragged himself up into the seat, slapping away Jim’s hands as he reached to help. "Get out," he ordered. "I don’t need your help."

Jim took a step back from the infuriated man. "Blair…"

Blair turned blazing eyes on him from the sanctuary of his chair. "You heard me," he hissed. "Get out. You said you loved me. If you really loved me, you’d take me home, away from here. You know all that stuff I spouted at you before? That it’s all about friendship? Well, it was a crock of shit. It’s about give and take, man. Simple as that. An exchange of information. Nothing more."

Spittle sprayed from his mouth as he stumbled over the hateful words. Jim’s face grew as pale as Blair's own. "You kicked me out before. Now, you can finally get rid of me and not have to feel guilty about it."

Jim’s mouth dropped open at the accusation. "I don’t want to get rid of you. I love you. You’re my friend. My partner. My guide."

"Crippled guide," Blair spat. "No good to anyone. Go on, leave. Don’t worry, Jim. Your secret’s safe with me."

Jim stood silently for a moment, then turned on his heel and left the room.

~o0o~

Blair sank back weakly into the chair as the anger that had held him in its grip suddenly dissipated, leaving him feeling drained and exhausted. He watched as the door to his room swung slowly shut, leaving him alone.

Alone.

He looked toward Mark’s bed. No, he corrected. Not Mark’s bed. Mark was dead. Just like he had been, in the fountain. Mark was dead, but he wasn’t. He should have died in the fountain, but Jim wouldn’t let him.

Jim.

He jumped as a gust of wind caused branches from a tree to tap loudly against the window, and he shivered at the sight of the rain as it drizzled down the glass. The words he’d hurled at Jim came back now to scorn him, and he dragged himself up out of the chair as panic threatened to overwhelm him. What if he was too late?

~o0o~

Jim headed to his truck at a run, not stopping until he climbed into the cab and shut the door. He sat, breathing heavily and staring silently through the front windshield as the first drops of winter’s rain began to spatter against the glass.

Blair’s angry words reverberated in his head. Surely Blair didn’t really think that he wanted to get rid of him. He was just upset over Mark’s death. Wasn’t he? The detective knew that he couldn’t take Blair home yet. He was beginning to build up more strength, but he still needed to be watched 24 hours a day, and he still required intensive physical and occupational therapy.

"Shit!"

Jim slammed his fist against the steering wheel, oblivious to the pain it caused. He couldn’t take Blair home, but he wouldn’t abandon him here either. He'd done that before and it had gotten Blair killed. Now they were finally on the road back, not only to Blair's recovery, but also in reestablishing their friendship.

It had taken some time for Jim to prove to Blair that he wouldn't let him down again, and almost as long for Jim to realize that Blair had not brought upon himself any of the misery he'd suffered. He was a long way from being able to forgive himself for those same transgressions, but the fact that Blair had not rejected him reassured him that the partnership was not lost. Now it was up to him to take the first step and prove that they were still in this together. Blair could rant and rave all he wanted, but Jim Ellison wasn’t going anywhere.

Climbing out of the car, the detective bent his head against the wind and rain that lashed him and headed back toward the rehab center at a run. He stopped just inside the entrance doors to shake the water from his hair and jacket, and to calm his nerves.

"Jim!"

He startled as his name was called and looked in the direction the voice hailed from. A wide smile spread across his face at the sight he beheld. Blair stood… STOOD… in the hallway, one hand gripping tightly to the metal bar that ran the length of the corridor, his body shaking perilously.

"Blair?"

Jim strode toward the other man, his face feeling as though it was going to split wide open from the grin that adorned it. He slowed a little as he reached Blair and then stood hands on hips, feeling a little unsure of his reception.

He waved a hand toward Blair’s wobbly stance. "Well, this is new," he said around the lump in his throat.

"I wanted to surprise you before…" Blair broke off and his voice quavered slightly. He cleared his throat and finally looked at his partner from a face still pale, but resolute. "I’m sorry about what I said. It was unfair. I love you. You know that, don't you?"

"I know. Apology accepted, if you’ll accept mine."

Blair smiled. "Could you do something for me?"

"Sure."

The anthropologist motioned toward his room with one hand. "Could you get my wheelchair? I’m kinda stuck here, man."

Jim burst out laughing and hurried to retrieve the chair.

~o0o~

The two men sat opposite each other in the cafeteria, and Jim looked on as Blair brought a glass of juice to his mouth with a shaky hand. Small droplets sloshed over the sides and dripped onto the tabletop, but Jim held off from offering his help. He'd wait for Blair to ask. Jim drained his coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. "So," he began. "What makes you suspicious of Mark’s death?"

Blair almost hit the man seated at the next table as he waved his arms wide. Smiling apologetically, he went on. "I don’t know, Jim. It’s just that he was healthy. He was fine when we went to bed. There’s something in my memory about that nurse last night. It just won’t come."

"Don’t push it, Chief. You’ll get it."

"Are they going to do an autopsy?"

"I don’t know. Look, it’s getting late. Why don’t I get you back to your room? It’s too late now to look into this. I’ll see what I can turn up in the morning."

Blair's faced paled a little. "I don't know if I can…"

"Are you worried about sleeping in that room?"

Blair shook his head and fiddled with the napkin dispenser. "I'm scared," he finally said in a whisper so low, that Jim had to dial up his hearing. "I don't think I'm strong enough yet to fight anyone off."

Jim reached out a hand and took Blair's. "I'm not going to let anything like that happen to you. I won't leave you unprotected again." When Blair didn't respond, Jim squeezed his hand. "I know I have no right to ask you to trust me after everything that's happened lately, but do you think you can?"

This time Blair nodded, and Jim smiled with relief. "Okay. Let's get you back to bed before Nurse Jones sends out a search party."

"Mark was a nice kid, Jim. He was only 22, and he’d already had to suffer an awful lot in his life. I just can’t bear to think that someone could have murdered him."

"Let’s not jump the gun here," Jim stated. "There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation." He grabbed hold of the wheelchair’s handles and steered Blair back to his room. Once he had helped Blair to the bathroom and then into bed, he turned and pulled the chair closer before seating himself.

Blair eyed him curiously. "What are you doing?"

Jim shrugged. "I’m not tired right now," he answered. "Thought I’d just hang out here for a while."

"Thanks."

"Go to sleep, Sandburg." Jim reached out a hand and began to stroke across Blair’s forehead, relaxing only when he felt the fine lines of worry begin to smooth out under his touch.

~o0o~

Jim woke with the first rays of the sun as it shone directly onto his face like a beacon in the night. He straightened in the chair and tried to suppress a groan at the stiffness that made his entire body feel as though it was in a vice. Blair moved slightly in the bed as Jim stood up and worked at getting some of the knots loosened in his back and neck. Soon, blue eyes opened and gazed drowsily up at the detective.

"Morning," Blair mumbled. He yawned and stretched, then glanced at the clock on the wall. "Six AM? Did you stay here all night?"

Jim shrugged a little sheepishly. "Guess I nodded off."

"God, you must feel like a pretzel."

"You wouldn’t know," Jim answered sardonically. "Why is it, do you suppose, that you always get the comfy hospital beds and I get the chairs?"

"Got me, man," Blair answered around another yawn. "You duck better than me?" He struggled to push himself upright in the bed, finally giving up and stretching out a slightly wobbly arm. "You want to give me a hand here? My muscles always seem to be at their weakest first thing in the morning."

"Which is why you’re headed for the gym straight after breakfast," another voice cut in. "Good morning, Jim. Good morning, Blair," Melissa said as she entered the room.

"Good morning," both men chorused. Then Jim turned to Blair. "Are you going to be all right here for a few hours on your own?"

"Sure."

"I’m going to go home and take a shower, then head over to the station to have a look at those things we were talking about last night."

Blair look puzzled for a moment, then his eyes lit up in understanding. "Oh. Okay. Keep in touch, all right?"

"Will do." Jim gathered up his jacket.

"I won’t be alone, anyway. I’ve got Melissa." Blair turned his most dazzling smile on the young nurse. "Right?"

Melissa nodded and smiled sweetly, twin dimples appearing in her cheeks. "You bet," she answered. "For as long as you want me. I’m working a double shift today. Kathy called in sick."

Jim shook his head as Blair continued to flirt with Melissa, knowing that Blair’s performance was for show only and perhaps to encourage a little jealousy in a certain sentinel. "Later, Chief." He paused at the door and blew a kiss to his lover, gratified to see the huge smile and faint flush of embarrassment that graced Blair's face at the gesture.

He headed home first, stopping briefly at a local bakery to pick up muffins for breakfast. Then he stepped into the shower and worked the kinks out of his sore back under the steaming water while the coffee brewed.

Not having Blair at home meant Jim could take as long as he wanted in the shower and he did so, reveling in the hot massage over his skin, and wishing, not for the first time, that Blair was here with him, their hands soaping each other. He tried not to think about what had occurred the night before, but his mind kept drifting back to it, his ears still hearing Blair’s angry words.

It wasn’t the first time that Blair had doubted his place at Jim’s side. A year or so before, when Jim had felt the specter of burnout looming, he’d requested a week off and headed off to fish. Alone.

The holiday had not gone well, with Simon and Blair following him to his hideaway, and then all of them stumbling on a scheme by a group of ex-military men to rob a train headed for the mint. Blair had been poisoned, along with most of the townspeople of Clayton Falls and it had taken him several days to recover. What Jim didn’t think they’d ever get past, though, was the hurt that Blair felt when he mistakenly believed that Jim wanted to get away from him.

In a sense, that was precisely what Jim had needed, but it was so much more than that. His job, his senses, Blair pushing at him to do more tests, extend himself more, everything had closed in upon him until he thought the person he was would disappear.

He understood too, that Blair’s motives were not selfish ones. Not only was he gathering information for his thesis, but also guiding Jim, teaching him new ways to use his heightened senses and finding ways around the ever-present threat of zone-outs and sudden, inexplicable, and often bizarre side effects.

Which led the detective straight back to where he had been before - guilty as charged. He had used Blair’s knowledge whenever and however it suited him, and then, when he felt his trust had been betrayed, he discarded him like yesterday’s newspaper. He had not allowed Blair a chance to explain his behavior. Indeed, he had not considered any reason for Blair’s behavior, other than utter stupidity or greed.

Shaking his head now as he stepped from the shower and dried himself off, Jim knew he couldn't have been farther off the mark. Greed was not a word in the Sandburg vocabulary. The anthropologist had made a mistake in not telling Jim about Alex, and he had readily admitted his error long before Jim could voice his own guilt. He certainly did not deserve to be abandoned and drowned in a germ-infested fountain for his omission. It was not a sin, Jim thought, but a well-meaning attempt by a guide to protect his sentinel and friend, and also, Jim knew now, an act of love.

He pushed his dark thoughts away as he headed back down the stairs to his car. The only way he could think to absolve his own guilt was to prove to Blair now that he was not alone in his fight back to health. He knew, though, that Blair’s recovery relied heavily on his mental state. If Blair’s peace of mind hinged on discovering the story behind Mark Cameron’s death, then Jim would shift heaven and earth to uncover it.

~o0o~

As soon as he arrived at the station, Jim went straight to his desk and picked up the phone. He made his first call to the director of the rehabilitation center. It was essentially a wasted call. There was little the director could tell him. There was the matter of patient confidentiality, and Jim’s threats of a subpoena did not move the man.

//I sympathize with you, detective. Until such time as a subpoena is forthcoming, I can’t really tell you anything. You might talk to his parents.//

Jim leaned back in his chair. "Will there be an autopsy?"

//The parents chose to waive an autopsy. Mr. Cameron’s body was released to his parents immediately. I believe he was privately cremated yesterday.//

"Who was on duty the night Mark Cameron died?" Jim waited as he heard the rustling of paper in the background.

//Nurses Jones and Malone, and two orderlies to assist with lifting. John Davies and Frank Perry. There is also always a doctor on call. Dr. Scott responded to the page regarding Mr. Cameron’s death. The death certificate assigned heart failure as the cause.//

"He was just a young man," Jim said, trying to blink away the images of Blair’s lifeless body overlaid on Mark’s.

//He suffered from Becker’s muscular dystrophy, detective. It’s not an uncommon outcome.//

"His roommate, Blair Sandburg, says that a nurse came into the room at some time during the night."

//Very likely. The nurses are required to do regular checks during the night. Some patients need to be turned, others may need assistance to go to the bathroom.//

Finally, after jotting down a few details about Mark’s family, Jim hung up the phone. Feeling somewhat defeated, he knocked on Simon’s office door and entered. The captain was absorbed in the report on his desk and did not immediately look up.

"Sit down, Jim. I’ll be with you in just a minute."

Jim nodded and sat in the seat opposite. Finally, Simon signed the report and looked up. "How’s Sandburg doing, Jim? I was thinking about going out to see him tonight. Daryl’s been asking to visit, but I’ll run it by the kid first."

"He’s not so good, Simon," Jim sighed. "His roommate died yesterday. Blair found him and it affected him pretty badly."

"I can imagine," Simon said. "So, what can I do?"

Jim allowed a ghost of a smile to touch his lips at Simon’s offer. For all his bluster about how Blair annoyed the heck out of him, Simon had been just as shocked by Blair's illness as Jim had been. "Sandburg seems to think there’s something suspicious about Mark Cameron’s death."

"Does he have reason to be suspicious?"

"I don’t know. Cameron was 22. He suffered from a disease called Becker’s muscular dystrophy. Cause of death was attributed to heart failure. According to the director at the center, it’s a common outcome of the disorder."

"But?"

Jim sighed and shifted forward in his seat. "Blair was pretty hysterical when I got there last night. He seemed frightened of something, but he didn’t seem to know what. He kept saying if I left him there, he’d die too."

"That’s crazy," the captain snorted.

"That’s what I said, just before he kicked me out," Jim replied wryly. "He calmed down eventually, but he's pretty insistent that Mark's death was suspicious. I promised to look into it for him. Just to set his mind at ease. He won’t be ready to leave there for at least another two weeks, and I don’t want him scared out of his mind for all that time."

Simon nodded thoughtfully. "What can I do to help?"

"Can you get someone to go talk to Mark’s parents? They had his body cremated almost immediately. Maybe they wanted him off their hands. Blair said that Mark told him that his parents considered him an embarrassment."

Simon shook his head sadly. "Poor kid. What else?"

"I want to run a check on the people who were on duty that night, then I’m going to head back to the center to see Blair."

"Okay," Simon said. "I’ll send Conner and Rafe out to talk with the parents. I’ll tell them to let you know what they get."

Jim nodded then stood. "Thanks, Simon. I’ll tell Blair you’ll be out to see him later today."

~o0o~

Jim looked up from his computer screen as Henri Brown walked into the bullpen. "Hey, H," he greeted the burly detective. "You free for a while?"

"Sure, Jim. What you got?"

Shrugging as he stood and pulled his jacket from the hook on the wall, Jim clapped Henri on the shoulder. "Maybe nothing. Come on, I’ll fill you in on the way."

Henri gave his chocolate bar a mournful look, then stuffed it into his jacket pocket before hurrying to catch up with the other man. He waited until they were on their way before he spoke. "So, how’s Hairboy doing, Jim?"

"He’s getting better. It’s going to take a while, but he’s getting stronger everyday."

"You know, Rafe and I, and the others would sure like to go visit him," Henri said slowly.

Jim sighed and glanced at the other detective. "Yeah. Give him a little more time, H. He’ll come round. He’s just nervous about anyone seeing him like this."

"I know," Henri answered. "You tell him we said hey, all right?"

Jim smiled widely. "I will."

"Okay." Henri got back to the business at hand. "Where are we going?"

"Blair's roommate died yesterday."

"Oh, man, that's too bad." Henri shook his head sadly. "Got the kid a little spooked, huh?"

"Something like that. Blair thinks that Mark may have been murdered."

"Hairboy's been hanging with cops for too long," Henri snorted. He sobered quickly. "Kid's usually right on the money where people are concerned though, so who’s this dude we’re going to see?"

"His name is Frank Perry, and he’s an orderly at the rehab center. I ran computer checks on all the staff on duty the night Mark Cameron died. Perry got a red flag. He’s been arrested for assault and drug possession. All small time stuff, but if Cameron’s parents wanted Mark out of the way, Perry would be a logical choice."

Jim pulled the vehicle to a halt outside a nondescript apartment building. "This is the address we have for him. He’s in Apartment 204."

Henri nodded and opened the passenger door. "Let’s go see the man."

The detectives climbed the stairs to the second floor. Jim held out a restraining hand to Henri as the other detective went to knock at the door. "Give me a minute," he whispered, ignoring Henri’s puzzled look. Concentrating carefully, and mentally crossing his fingers against a zone-out, Jim extended his hearing into the apartment. Two heartbeats. He held up two fingers to signify the fact to Henri, then nodded.

Henri rapped sharply at the door, then waited until a woman’s voice answered.

"Who is it?"

"Cascade Police Department, ma’am," Henri replied. "We’d like to speak with Frank Perry."

"He’s not here," the woman replied immediately.

Jim’s ears picked up the sound of a window being raised and the clatter of feet hitting metal. "Shit! He’s on the fire escape." He wheeled and headed for the stairs, pulling his gun from its holster as he ran. "Get in there," he called to Henri. "Break the door down if you have to, and call for backup."

Henri nodded silently and put his considerable bulk against the door. Jim threw himself off the last few steps of the staircase, gritting his teeth as his ankle twisted slightly under him. He kept his hearing focused outside and could hear the lumbering steps of someone descending the fire escape, their breath rasping loudly.

Jim ran out the entrance door and sped toward the alley at the side of the building, slowing down as he reached the corner, then risked a look around the edge.

A large man was making his way down the final few steps of the fire escape, his face red and sweating from the exertion. Jim turned the corner slowly and steadied his gun in both hands before aiming it at the fleeing man. "Stay right where you are, Perry. Cascade PD."

"Oh, man," Perry wheezed. "I ain’t done nothin’"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, right. How about you get down from there and we’ll go talk about it at the station?"

"Did that bitch upstairs turn me in?" Perry asked, not moving from the last landing.

Jim shook his head. "We just want you to come down to the station and answer some questions about the night Mark Cameron died."

Jim heard Perry’s heart rate increase. "I don’t know anything about that. He was already dead when I…"

"When you what?" Jim asked, moving closer. He reached behind to find his cuffs.

The man looked away from him. "Nothing. Just nothing."

Jim closed in on the other man. He was aware of Henri leaning out of the apartment window above him, a struggling woman held easily under one beefy arm. "Jim? You okay? Backup’s on the way."

"I’m fine, H," Jim called back. "You want to bring your lady friend down here?"

"Sure thing." Henri and the woman disappeared from sight and Jim turned his attention back to Perry. "Why don’t you come down from there, nice and slow?"

Perry shook his head. "I can do nice and slow, man, but I don’t think I can step that far down to the ground. The ramp is stuck."

Jim sighed, and after a moment’s hesitation, re-holstered his weapon. "All right. You keep your hands out from your sides."

Perry nodded and held both arms out as Jim approached. Reaching up, Jim grasped hold of one fat hand and began to pull the man toward him. When he was close enough, he placed his other hand under Perry’s armpit. "Okay, just reach right down with your foot."

The man did as he was told and finally, Jim had him standing somewhat shakily beside him. Suddenly, a flash of red-hot pain slashed across Jim’s bicep, and his handcuffs dropped from his numb fingers. As Perry turned to run toward the mouth of the alley, Jim threw himself bodily at the fleeing man, sending them both tumbling to the ground.

Perry grunted as his huge bulk hit the ground hard and the knife in his fist skittered away. Jim disentangled himself from the other man and staggered to his feet, one hand grasping his heavily bleeding arm. Then he dropped down, placing a knee in the small of Perry’s back, and pulled the man’s arms around behind him. Grasping both huge wrists with some difficulty, he looked up as a pair of handcuffs was held out in front of him.

Henri stood looking down at him, a worried frown on his face as he took in Jim’s bloody sleeve. "You all right, man?"

Jim gritted his teeth as he snapped the cuffs around Perry’s wrists. "Yeah, I’m fine. Where’s the woman?"

Henri hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Uniforms pulled up just as I came out. They’re taking her in."

"All right." Jim got to his feet, then reached down to haul the big man to his feet. "All right, Mr. Perry. Let’s go have a little talk."

Perry stared resolutely ahead, saying nothing.

~o0o~

Jim stared at the big man sitting opposite him and sighed. He rubbed absently at his heavily bandaged upper arm and attempted, once more in vain, to dial down the pain. He stood and began to pace. "Come on, Frank, help me out here. I don’t want you to go to prison for something you didn’t do."

Perry set his jaw and shook his head. Jim moved around the table and leaned over so that his mouth was near Perry’s ear. "Somebody pay you to do something to Mark Cameron?"

"No!" Perry shouted. "He was already dead when I went in there."

Jim allowed himself a small smile of relief. They’d been going at this for two hours now, and Perry was finally beginning to make a few slips.

"So, you were in the room."

Frank nodded. "I had to help load the body onto the gurney. Then Nurse Harry asked me to pack up his things." Finally, Perry looked at Jim. "They were just sitting on the cupboard, man. Computer games, CD’s. I figured they wouldn’t miss a few, and the other guy, Blair was so out of it, all he was seeing was the insides of his eyelids."

"What do you mean Blair was out of it?"

Perry shrugged. "I don’t know. Just sitting there, staring at the wall all glassy-eyed. Looked like he was on some heavy-duty stuff. Maybe it was just the shock of finding the guy dead."

Jim’s heart clenched at the mental picture the words evoked, then Perry spoke again. "Look, I didn’t kill the kid. I liked him. He was cool. He floated me a loan a few times. It was just a few games and CD’s, man. I figured they were no good to him any more. I’ve done some bad shit in my time, Detective, but I never killed nobody."

Jim rubbed again at his arm and Perry spoke up, his tone defensive. "Hey, I was scared, all right? You were telling me you wanted to talk to me about a killing."

"Yeah, right," Jim said tiredly. "Who else went into Mark’s room that night?"

"Pretty much everyone," Perry answered. "Melissa was in there playing cards with the boys until about eleven." His eyes narrowed. "There was talk around, you know?"

"What about?"

Perry shrugged. "Just talk, about people dying too soon." His mouth clamped shut then, and none of Jim's threats or enticements would induce him to explain further.

A half-hour later, when it was clear that he would get no more information from Frank Perry, Jim turned him over to booking and headed to the breakroom for some much-needed coffee.

The wound in his arm throbbed unrelentingly and was still sluggishly oozing blood but it was the pain more than anything that concerned him. It faded in and out, one minute just a barely there throbbing, the next a sharp, agonizing flare of sensation that sizzled down his arm and shattered his concentration.

He took a moment to center himself and tried to picture the dials that Blair had fashioned for him in his mind’s eye, but they kept fading to nothing. He found an almost empty bottle of ibuprofen in the back of the first aid box and threw three down his throat.

Jim looked up as Simon came into the room. The captain eyed the detective critically, taking in his disheveled appearance and wan complexion. "You all right?"

"I’ll be fine," Jim answered. "I just can’t seem to control the dials the way Blair taught me. They’re all over the place."

He nodded at Simon’s worried expression. "I’ll be fine," he reiterated. "There’s something going on in that rehab center, Simon."

"Get yourself cleaned up a little," Simon said, waving a hand at Jim’s dusty pants and sweater. "There’s a lady waiting to see you." Jim raised an eyebrow in question. "Nurse Harriet Jones, and she’s refusing to talk to anyone except you."

~o0o~

"Shit!" Blair collapsed face-first onto the exercise mat and weakly beat his fist against it.

"That’s okay," Mandy said, rubbing his back gently. "You’ve done an awful lot today, Blair."

"It’s not enough," Blair panted. "The day before yesterday, I walked four steps. Then I walked even further from my room out to the corridor last night. Today, I can hardly even stand up on my own." He blushed a little at her surprised look. "Sorry, guess I should have told you about last night."

"As long as you had someone with you, it’s all right," Mandy answered.

"Yeah, of course," Blair obfuscated without a moment’s guilt. "Jim was with me."

"Look, Blair, you have to give yourself a break here," Mandy said as she helped him sit up. "You had a long session the day before yesterday and then probably overdid it by walking around with your friend. Not to mention the stress you’ve been through finding Mark. It’ll come. You’re doing really well."

"It’s not fast enough," Blair replied as he pulled himself up into his wheelchair. "I have to get well so I can help Jim out. I’m his partner, his backup." He sighed. "It’s complicated. God, I hate this."

Mandy patted his arm and smiled as Melissa entered the gym. "Here comes your escort. Cut yourself some slack, okay, Blair?"

Blair nodded and waved a hand in farewell. He didn’t speak on the way back to the room.

"Everything all right, Blair?" Melissa asked as she parked the wheelchair at right angles to the bed.

"Fine." He looked at her then. "I’m sorry. I’m just not in a great mood right now."

"Do you want to talk about it? Tell you what, why don’t I go make us both a cup of tea and we’ll talk?"

"Not right now, okay? I'm not good company."

Melissa nodded and patted his hand then walked to the door. Seeing the sad look on her face, Blair relented. "Actually, if you're sure you've got the time, it'd be nice to have someone to talk to."

It only took a few minutes for Melissa to return with two steaming mugs of tea. Blair had managed to get himself up onto the bed by the time she returned. Somehow, his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask a petite young girl to haul him around. "I added some honey to yours," Melissa said, placing the cups on the rollaway table. "Figured you could do with some sweetening right now."

"Thanks," Blair answered, beginning to feel his black mood dissipate already. Melissa sat and sipped her tea. "So," she said. "Talk to me, Blair. What’s going on in that cute head of yours?"

Blair managed a quick smile at the compliment, then sighed as he shakily picked up his teacup and drank. "Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to get better. It’s like one step forward and ten backward. Then finding Mark…"

Melissa took his hand in hers. "You’re just a little depressed right now because of Mark. Finding him like that was a shock. It takes a while to get over something like that."

"No, it’s more than that," he replied. "Jim and I had a fight last night. I accused him of wanting to get rid of me."

"Do you really believe that?"

"No, of course not. Jim loves me and I love him."

Melissa looked a little surprise at that and Blair hurried on, wondering if perhaps he'd said too much. He felt lousy: utterly boneless with fatigue and his legs and head were competing to see which hurt the most. "We're best friends," he explained. At Melissa's smile, he went on, "He did kick me out once before, though it was for an entirely different reason and it wasn’t his fault. I just kept remembering how awful it was thinking that the loft wasn’t my home any more, and the person I thought was my best friend didn’t want me around anymore." Blair stopped and yawned widely. "But that’s all over now. We sorted it out. I just hope he can forgive me for what I said last night."

"Poor Blair," Melissa said, patting his hand. "Looks like you could do with a nap."

"I am kind of tired."

Melissa took the empty teacup from his hand and set it on the table then helped him to lay down. She pulled the bedclothes up, then picked up the cups and walked to the door. "Get some rest, Blair," she whispered as she turned off the light. "Things will look much better when you wake up."

~o0o~

Nurse Harriet Jones was sitting quietly at Jim’s desk concentrating on her knitting when Jim finally entered the bullpen. She looked up as he approached, then wound her yarn into a ball and wrapped it in a cloth before stowing it in the voluminous bag at her feet.

"Nurse Jones, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting," Jim said as he sat down at the desk.

Harriet smiled at him kindly. "Quite all right, detective. I imagine you’re a very busy man." She pointed at the bandage on his arm. "That looks nasty. I trust you've had your tetanus updated."

"It's fine. Just a scratch." Jim pulled his notepad and pen toward him. "What can I do to help you?"

Harriet Jones wasn’t one for beating around the bush. "I know who murdered young Mark Cameron," she stated, her voice brimming with confidence.

Jim looked up sharply at her words. "You do? Who?"

"Melissa," Harriet answered. "Melissa Malone."

"The other nurse who was on duty the night Mark died," Jim commented. "Did you see her do it?"

"I didn’t have to," Harriet replied, and Jim’s heart sank. "I know all about her."

"Unless you have some proof, Nurse Jones, you can’t go around accusing people of murder."

"I’ve been watching her for quite some time, Detective. We’ve had a number of suspicious deaths at the center since Melissa came. I’ve worked there for thirty years, and until she came, we had one death a year at the most."

"What makes you think Melissa had anything to do with these deaths?"

"It bothered me," Harriet answered, "that all of the patients who died had been relatively well until Melissa came, then suddenly they were dropping like flies, if you’ll pardon the expression. Granted, most of them had chronic illnesses for which there was no cure, but they certainly weren't expected to die from their conditions."

Jim nodded, allowing his mind to wander, wondering if Nurse Jones was a murder mystery afficianado who'd seen one too many Miss Marple's. Her next words snapped him back to the present.

"She’s done it before, you know."

"What?"

Harriet nodded knowledgeably. "I’m a bit of an amateur sleuth, in my spare time, Detective. I was suspicious of the fact that these patients always died when Melissa was on duty and none of them were ever ill at the time. I have an old nursing colleague who works at the same center that Melissa did before she came to The Pines. It was a retirement home. Melissa was asked to leave when a number of the patients there began to die suddenly."

Jim felt his mouth go dry. "Why didn’t you go to the authorities with this information?"

"I did," Harriet protested. "The Director said since I had no proof, there was nothing they could do, and if they accused her without proof, they could face a lawsuit they couldn’t afford. Personally, I just think they didn’t want the publicity. He told me that if I didn’t keep quiet, I’d be out of a job."

"Why are you coming forward now?"

"Mark was like a son to me, Detective. I never married, never had family of my own. I never needed to. My family was at The Pines. I know she killed him."

"You were on duty that night as well," Simon said, and Jim looked up in surprise, not having heard the captain’s approach.

"I’ve been volunteering to work the same shifts as she does. I was hoping to catch he or at least get some kind of evidence. The night poor Mark died, a patient in another room had a seizure. Melissa and I were the only staff on besides the orderlies. I didn’t get back there until after Blair had found Mark’s body. It was only then that it all made sense. The patient I was with almost died that night, but he’d never suffered from seizures before."

Jim looked up at the captain. "Let me do a record search. It can’t hurt to see what comes up."

"Do it," Simon said. Bending down to Harriet, he took her hand. "Miss Jones, you’ve been a great help to us. If you’ll wait here, I’ll find an officer to give you a ride home."

Harriet nodded and smiled. "Thank you, Captain. You will let me know when you’ve arrested her, won’t you?"

"If we arrest her, yes, indeed," Simon said, helping her to her feet. "We’ll be in touch for a more complete statement."

Jim waited until Harriet had been escorted from the bullpen before he stood and faced Simon. "Captain, I think I should get out to the center. Melissa Malone was looking after Blair today."

"It doesn’t sound like Blair fits the profile of her victims, Jim, if she is a killer. Blair's illness isn't a chronic or incurable condition, and he's getting better. Besides, surely she wouldn’t try anything in broad daylight."

Jim said nothing, merely stared his captain down, the nerve in his jaw twitching madly. Simon waved a hand. "Go. Take Brown and Taggert with you. As soon as the records come through, I’ll phone you. Whatever we get, invite her to come in for a chat anyway."

"Thanks," Jim said as he turned on his heel and headed out the door at a run. "Brown, Joel, you’re with me."

The three detectives were just driving through the gates of The Pines when Simon’s call came through. "Looks like Harriet might have been on the right track, Jim."

"What have you got, Simon?"

"Eight years ago, there were some suspicions over a mentally disabled child who died in Melissa Malone’s care. The child had previously been well, and his condition was not considered life threatening. Malone was sixteen at the time, and it was the opinion of the psychologist who saw her then that she suffered from a borderline personality disorder. I couldn't find any reports regarding suspicious deaths at the retirement home Nurse Jones mentioned."

"They could have covered it up, not wanting the publicity," Joel said. "It’s happened before."

Jim nodded. "That's what Nurse Jones thought. All right, Simon. We’re at the center now. I’ll be in touch." Jim closed his phone and leapt from the car before Henri had even pulled it to a halt. "Joel, you want to watch the front entrance? H, take the back." Not waiting for their acknowledgement, Jim headed for the doors.

~o0o~

Melissa slipped back into Blair’s room the moment she had convinced Mary Casey to take her lunch break early. Blair was still sleeping deeply and the nurse was grateful for that. The poor thing had already suffered so much, it would be so much better, she thought, if he slept through all the unpleasantness and then woke up on the other side.

She knew she was taking a chance. She'd never performed her charitable tasks in broad daylight before, but Blair couldn't wait for salvation and she didn't think she could either. The risk she was taking of discovery thrilled her somewhat, and she smiled. Her reward would be great for such bravery.

She hoped that Blair would accept his journey with gratitude, unlike Mark. Mark had fought wildly. He had been remarkably strong despite his terrible disabilities. Melissa had been glad that she’d thought of giving Blair a sedative that night so that he slept through the entire thing.

Well, almost. He’d woken at one point. Melissa had been pressing the pillow onto Mark’s face and his struggles were finally slowing, when she became aware that she was being watched. Blair had rolled onto his side, bleary blue eyes gazing at her.

"Go back to sleep, Blair," Melissa had crooned as she placed the pillow back under Mark's head. "It’s not morning yet."

Now, she crossed the room swiftly and gazed down at the drugged man, his forehead creased in a frown. "Poor Blair," she whispered as she stroked gentle fingers across his brow. "Mark was sad, too. It was better for him to go to God. Now, it’s your turn. You’re giving up, I can tell. It’s all too much, isn’t it, Blair?"

She reached for the pillow on the empty bed and began to lower it to Blair’s face. Sleepy blue eyes opened to look at her. "…lissa? What’s wron'?"

"Nothing’s wrong, Blair. Everything will be better soon," the nurse assured him. As Blair’s eyes closed once more, she brought the pillow from behind her back and this time pushed it swiftly down onto his face.

Blair arched up almost immediately, his hands coming up to claw at the pillow. His heels dug into the mattress as he struggled to gain a purchase to shake the suffocating thing from his face. Melissa held on and pushed as much of her body weight as she could onto the struggling man. "Why are you fighting me, Blair?" she panted. "You know it’s what you want."

~o0o~

Jim extended his hearing on his race through the hospital corridors. He ducked around nurses and shook off the hands of an orderly who tried to waylay him. Reaching the stairs, he took them two at a time and put on an extra burst of speed as Melissa’s voice came to him.

//Why are you fighting me, Blair? You know it’s what you want.//

In the background, Jim could hear the frantic sounds of struggle, a glass smashing to the ground, then the movements horrifyingly slowing, Blair's gasping breaths ceasing as he approached Blair’s door.

Without breaking stride, Jim barreled through the door and threw himself at the woman who was bent over his partner’s still form. As Jim pulled at her arms, Melissa turned into a wildcat, flailing out with both hands to tear at his face. He dragged her from the bedside, shocked to see that Blair’s arms hung limp over the sides of the bed, and his lips were tinged with blue.

Even as he pulled her away, Melissa fought like someone possessed, trying desperately to get back to Blair’s side, snarling angry epithets, her eyes narrowed and rimmed with red. Finally, Jim bunched up a fist and delivered a sharp blow to her jaw. She collapsed without a sound and he lowered her to the floor, then hurried to Blair’s side.

In his panic, his hearing wavered in and out, and he lifted shaking fingers to Blair’s neck to feel for a pulse. It was still there, feeble and slow but a quick appraisal of Blair’s chest showed that he was not breathing.

Jim wrenched the pillow from under Blair’s head and tossed it to the floor. Just as he was about to lower his mouth to Blair’s, the door burst open to reveal the stunned faces of Henri and Joel. Jim granted them only a split second of attention. "Get a doctor in here. He’s not breathing." He jerked his chin at the unconscious woman on the floor. "Take care of her."

Joel nodded, his eyes wide with shock and hurried from the room. Jim pushed Blair’s mouth open with his thumb and bent to breathe in the first puff of air. "Come on, Chief," he whispered as he watched Blair’s chest rise and fall. "Breathe, damn it!"

He’d managed three breaths into a silent and still Blair before the door opened once more, and the room was suddenly full of white-coated personnel. He was pushed aside and initially fought back, until a firm hand on his arm stopped him. "Come on, Jim," Joel said, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. "Let them do their job."

Jim nodded and turned his attention to Melissa, who was now conscious and being helped from the floor. Suddenly, she lunged once more at Blair. "No," she screamed, as her hands hit out at the doctors engaged in the struggle for Blair's life. "You don’t understand. He wants to go."

Henri hurriedly pulled the distraught woman from the room and Jim turned back in time to see Blair take a shuddering breath. His legs felt suddenly weak, and he staggered to the bedside as one of the doctors fixed an oxygen mask over Blair's face and gave Jim a nod. "I think he'll be all right, Detective, but we'll move him into the high dependency unit for a while to keep an eye on him."

Blair’s swollen, red-rimmed eyes opened and shut slowly a few times. Then his eyes filled with tears as he gave a choking sob and reached for Jim’s hand.

"Hey, it’s all right now. I’m here," Jim soothed.

"She killed him," Blair croaked miserably through the oxygen mask covering his mouth. "I woke up and saw her. I thought I was dreaming."

"It’s over, Chief. It’s over." Jim sank down gratefully into the chair that someone pushed under him and smiled at his partner. "It’s over."

~o0o~

Jim shifted in the uncomfortable plastic armchair, wincing as it creaked beneath his weight. He stole a look around the darkened ward, but the two patients in the beds opposite Blair's slept on.

"So, here we are again, Chief," Jim whispered softly as he stroked a thumb absently over the back of Blair's hand. "And I don't like it any more than I did before. At least this time I know you're going to be all right."

A small sigh puffed from Blair's lips as one hand reached up to pull in agitation at the oxygen mask that still covered his mouth. Jim waylaid the hand once more and set it down across Blair's chest. "Leave it on, Sandburg. It's helping you."

Blair grimaced but nodded. "Where…" He broke off, wincing, his hand going now to clutch at his throat and Jim grimaced with him as his enhanced sight picked out the scratches and bruising on Blair's throat where Melissa had fought to press the pillow to his face.

"Here." Leaning forward, Jim pulled the mask down for a moment, then cupped a hand under Blair's neck and lifted his head, holding a cup of water to his lips with the other.

Blair took several careful sips before pushing the cup away and nodding his thanks. "Where am I?" he asked again.

"High dependency unit. Just overnight."

Blair's eyes closed drowsily as he spoke. "I don't remember getting here."

"The doctor gave you a sedative. You were pretty shaken up."

Blair lifted both hands now and waved them in front of his face, as his forehead creased into a frown. "My eyes are blurry and my hands and feet are tingly again." His voice had dropped to a whisper when he spoke again. "Is it back?"

"No. Your body's had a shock, and it's just going to take a few days to get back on track."

"So I have to stay longer?"

Finally Jim was able to smile. "I spoke to the doctor and he said you can still come home next week as planned…if you want to." Jim leaned back in the armchair and fiddled with the torn edge on the armrest. "Sandburg, we never got to talk properly about what happened with Alex, about what I did."

"I told you it was a primal thing, another sentinel impinging on your territory, threatening your tribe. It was a natural reaction."

"You're a part of that tribe. I think you're the most important part. My guide. The shaman of the great city. The man I love. My reaction to you being threatened was to throw you out of your home and leave you unprotected."

"You made a mistake. You thought she was after you, and I think she was, at first. You were the only one capable of tracking her down through the connection you shared, but I don't think she'd figured me into that equation." Blair grinned, looking rather proud of that. "She thought I was just some nerdy professor. It was only at the end that she realized that you and I also had a connection, a bond."

He waved his finger between Jim and himself. "I think it was after you and Megan got her at the warehouse that she decided to kill me, because she wanted to take away the one thing she couldn't have."

Blair pushed himself up further on the pillows, smiling as Jim stood and slid one arm behind his shoulders, his other hand under his armpit, lifting him higher, then bent to press a kiss to Blair's forehead. Blair lifted his head at the warm touch of Jim's lips, and sighed as Jim took the invitation, their mouths joining, then opening a little to explore. "Nice," he said, sounding smug and satisfied." His brows drew together in a frown. "Where were we? Oh, right." Laying his head on the plumped up pillows, he continued. "See, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't help her the way I help you. No matter how hard she or I tried, I don't think it was ever going to work. Because I'm linked to you. So, if she killed me she not only got her revenge, but she might have hoped that breaking the bond we shared might strengthen your bond to her."

"It almost did," Jim answered glumly.

"You fought it and won, and the love we share, well, I think that's more powerful than any bond we have as sentinel and guide."

"What if it happens again? What if there are more sentinels out there?"

"Well, for a start, maybe they'll be good guys, like you, but if not, we're prepared now, Jim. We know what to expect and we know what to do."

"Like listening when your partner wants to talk to you."

"You've got to admit it's a good start."

"It's a great start." Jim smiled as Blair yawned mightily. "Get some sleep, Chief. I'm not going anywhere."

"Go home. I don't want you sitting there just watching me sleep."

"I don't mind." Jim twirled a strand of Blair's hair around one finger, tugged it gently then skated the edge of his hand down Blair's cheek. "It gives me time to think about what we're going to do when I get you home."

Blair's eyes twinkled. "Like what?"

"Shift your things upstairs, for a start. You can use your old room for an office."

"Sounds like a plan. But I still want you to go home. I want you energetic when I get out of here or do I have to kick your butt out like I did before?"

Jim stood and looked down at his lover. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

Blair nodded sleepily. "I'll be fine."

Finally satisfied, Jim nodded and touched Blair's shoulder. "Okay. I'll see you in the morning." He took the opportunity of one more lingering kiss before leaving the room.

~o0o~

Blair pushed himself upright on the bed and looked up as the door to his room was pushed open and Jim poked his head inside. "Hey there, Chief. You all packed and ready to go?"

"Are you kidding?" Blair griped good-naturedly as he carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. "I packed at 6 AM. I didn’t think you were ever going to get here."

"Doctor Morris said you couldn’t leave until after ten AM," Jim answered. He walked into the room and lifted Blair’s suitcase, wincing slightly as he did. Quickly, he shifted it to his other hand, but Blair was too fast for him.

"Your arm still bothering you?"

Jim began to shake his head, then sighed and nodded. "Just a little. It’s only a scratch."

Blair thought for a moment. "We’ll have to work on those dials a little more. Reinforce the imagery. Did Simon give you the week off?"

Jim grinned. "Yep. One week of sleeping in, watching TV." He wrapped careful arms around Blair and pressed a kiss to his lips. "Making love."

"Good."

Jim smiled in satisfaction. "Yeah, it is, isn’t it?"

"Plenty of time to work on the dials then."

Jim groaned. "Let’s go home."

Blair grinned. "It has a nice ring to it – home."

Jim reached out and ruffled Blair’s hair. "It does, indeed."

Jim moved to stand at Blair's side as the anthropologist slid slowly off the bed. Blair waited a moment to calm his shaky nerves, then reached for the cane that Jim held out to him. "Thanks."

Together, the two men slowly made their way out the door Blair feeling more confident the nearer they came to the exit. Nurse Harriet Jones looked up at their approach and smiled. Bending to her ever-present knitting bag, she retrieved something from its depths, then rounded the desk to meet them. "Well, Blair. On your way home at last." Blair smiled and nodded. "We’re going to miss you, you know, though I’m sure you’ll be glad to see the back of me."

"Not at all," Blair answered truthfully. "I’ve got to admit, Harry, I can’t wait to get home but I’m going to miss you. Will you stay in touch? Maybe come over to the loft for dinner?"

"I’d like that." She held up the item that she’d pulled from her bag. "I would like you to have this," she said, pushing a sweater knitted in a rich shade of russet into Blair’s hands. "I was knitting it for Mark. I think he’d like you to have it."

Blair stroked the soft wool, then impulsively leaned forward and kissed Harriet’s rosy cheek. "Thank you."

Harriet turned her attention to Jim as she brushed a tear from her eye. "Thank you, detective, for catching Melissa. I know it won’t bring Mark back, but at least she can’t hurt anyone else."

Jim shook her hand. "We couldn’t have done it without your help, Miss Jones."

Blair gave her another hug, then the two friends made their way toward the doors. "Blair?" Harriet called and he turned, overbalancing a little as he did so, and smiling his gratitude as Jim’s strong arm steadied him. "Don’t think you got away with that one."

Blair was puzzled and a little concerned that he'd unwittingly offended the kindly nurse. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"

Nurse Jones smiled. "It’s Harriet, not Harry." She chuckled as Blair blushed and Jim dug his partner gently in the ribs.

Blair waited until Jim had him settled in the car and had climbed in behind the wheel before he spoke. "Do you want to invite the guys over for a poker game in a couple of days?"

"I think they’d like that, Chief," Jim answered as he started the car. "They’ve missed you."

Blair leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes, a small smile playing at his lips. "I’ve missed them too." He reached a hand out to close over Jim’s. "Most of all, though. I’ve missed you."

To Part 3