A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

BY: Lyn

FEEDBACK TO: townsend297@ozemail.com.au

AUTHOR'S WEBSITE: http://brothersinarms.tvheaven.com

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel belong to Di Meo, Bilson and Petfly. This fanfic was written for my own and others' enjoyment. No money has been paid and no copyright infringement is intended.

CATEGORY: Tag for Murder 101.

RATING: PG.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Don't choke on the smarm!

For Sineag, J and Casey - good friends when your back's against the wall.

Pain knifed through Blair's chest on his less than elegant entry into the water. Icy water closed over his head like a shroud as he sank into the ocean's depths, and Blair felt paralyzing panic grip him. He struggled to stay calm, ruthlessly pushing away his memories of drowning, and kicked strongly until he broke the surface, then sucked in a breath gratefully. The iron band that seemed to have wrapped around his chest relaxed somewhat and he swam quickly toward Brad Ventriss.

He wrapped a hand firmly around the struggling young man's chest and dragged him back against him. He knew he should simply wait for Jim or Simon to get to them, but the expanse of water suddenly seemed vast and desolate, and Ventriss' scowling face too menacing. He taunted the younger man, his anger and relief surging to the fore. "Hey! If you noticed, I'm not in class today! I hope you don't file a grievance!"

Brad suddenly squirmed in his grasp, twisting his body and sending a fist into Blair's already bruised chest. Blair gasped in both surprise and pain, as the blow, even slowed by the water, seemed to concertina his ribs and force precious air from his lungs. He felt himself sink under the water, grimacing when salty water filled his nose and mouth. Reaching forward, he wrapped both arms around the student and held on, but wasn't fast enough to duck a second wayward blow that struck him in the temple. Something warm dribbled down his cheek, and he knew Ventriss had re-opened the cut above his eye.

Brad's struggles weakened quickly. The chill of the water and the weight of their clothes were beginning to put a strain on both men. Brad's face was white, his lips a dusky blue and Blair suspected he looked no better. He could feel the adrenaline rush from the chopper ride and his leap into the water already beginning to fade. "J…Just set…settle down, m… man, and we'll b…both b…be warm in no time."

Ventriss smirked at him. "The thing that would warm me up most, Teach, is watching you drown." Blair noticed though, that the fight seemed to have drained out of him and his teeth chattered as he spoke.

Blair's legs were beginning to grow numb and his shivering increased. The cut above his eye stung from the salt water and a quick inspection with the fingers of his free hand confirmed the gash was bleeding again. He kept up a gentle kicking motion with his feet while he scanned the horizon for a sign of rescue.

Finally Blair heard the sound of an outboard motor approaching and he sagged in relief when Jim's familiar shape appeared, steering the boat Ventriss and his girlfriend had attempted to escape in. He felt enormously weary and his lungs were beginning to heave with the effort to breathe.

He gave Brad a push toward the boat, and waited until Simon had hauled the student aboard by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck, before swimming a couple of strokes to reach the side. The boat however appeared to be moving away from him and his clumsy, frozen arms seemed to be making no headway in getting him nearer.

"Sandburg! Will you hurry up? It's freezing out here."

Blair nodded at Jim's impatient tone, splashing one hand on the surface of the water in acknowledgement. He kicked out again, a little more desperately this time, when the boat looked as though it was drifting even further away.

He tasted salt and gagged as his head sank beneath the water. A sharp pain shredded through his chest and Blair gasped, unintentionally drawing more water into his lungs. His chest muscles seized and he flailed frantically to get his head up again, but had the terrifying sensation that he wasn't sure anymore which way was up.

*Oh God, he was drowning again. *

"Sandburg!"

Jim's voice sounded muted beneath the water though Blair could detect the panic that tinged the detective's tone. As frightened and disoriented as he was, it gave him some small measure of peace to know that Jim cared after all. After the angry, abrupt way they'd been sniping at each other for the past few days, it was a small comfort.

Something heavy smacked the water beside him, then strong hands grasped him under his arms and he felt himself traveling upwards on a sudden surge of power. Choking, spewing sea-water from between frozen lips, Blair took in Jim's concerned face, before his heavy eyelids would no longer stay open and he gave into the darkness.

~o0o~

Jim's relief at finding Sandburg unharmed was obliterated the moment he saw Blair's feeble attempts at swimming toward the boat. He hadn't realized at first that Blair had even gone after Ventriss. After taking control of the escape boat, Jim had headed back to where he pulled Brad overboard. On the way, he met up with Simon on a police launch. The other officers had taken the girl into custody and Simon had climbed aboard to help Jim with Ventriss.

"Where's Sandburg?" Simon asked, accepting Jim's helping hand onto the deck.

Jim made his way back to the steering wheel. "In the chopper."

He was surprised to see two heads bobbing about in the water and recognized Blair's unruly curls immediately. His partner looked pale, and blood trickled down the side of his face from the re-opened cut above his eye. Blair's lips were blue and he was shivering violently.

Blair pushed Brad toward the boat as they approached and something in the grad student's gaze caused Jim's concern to rise a notch. Blair looked scared. His eyes were wide open, his jaw clenched tightly. Jim and Simon hauled Ventriss into the boat, then turned to watch Sandburg's agonizingly slow approach.

"Sandburg! Will you hurry up?" Jim called, with an unintentional note of impatience. "It's freezing out here."

He saw Blair nod and slap the water in acknowledgement of his call, but there was something off about Blair's movements. They were slow and unwieldy, almost aimless, as though he'd lost all coordination. When Blair's head dropped beneath the surface of the water, Jim realized just how exhausted his partner was. Leaving Simon to secure Ventriss, Jim dived over the side of the boat with a shout.

He had no time to dial down his sense of touch and the water was cold enough to cause him to suck in a breath. He angled his body downward, finding Blair's limp body almost immediately. Blair was semi-conscious, making a half-hearted attempt to help. Jim wrapped an arm around his partner's heaving chest and towed him toward the boat. Sandburg was coughing and vomiting water, his eyes half-open, not appearing cognizant of his surroundings. As they reached the boat, and Simon got a grip on Blair's jacket, pulling him over the edge, Blair went limp.

Jim climbed in, and went immediately to his partner's side. Pressing cold fingers against Blair's throat, he recoiled at the icy chill of his flesh. Opening up his hearing, he grew more worried at the slow rate of Blair's heartbeat and the ominous wet sound of his breathing.

Simon found a blanket stashed somewhere and draped it quickly over Blair's huddled body. The captain rested a hand lightly on Jim's shoulder. "Ventriss is cuffed. You take care of Sandburg. I'll get us back to shore and radio for an ambulance to be standing by."

Jim nodded, but his attention was solely on Blair. He tucked the blanket tightly around his partner's unconscious form, dialing down his sense of touch as the chill of the wind bit through his own soaking clothes. "He's hypothermic."

"I didn't think he was in the water that long," Simon shouted over the roar of the motor.

"He took a beating yesterday, remember? I knew he was feeling lousy. Though after the way I treated him, he kept insisting he was fine. I should have had him checked out at the hospital."

"He'll be fine. Just a little cold."

Jim shook his head. "He took in some water, Simon. I can hear it in his lungs. After the drowning…"

Simon looked aghast. "We'll be there in a couple of minutes, Jim. Try to get him warmed up."

Jim stripped off Blair's shoes and socks, and rubbed the grad student's hands and feet vigorously. He took off his own jacket and draped it over the blanket, then sat and pulled Blair into his lap, curling around the limp body to try to keep as much spray and wind off him as possible.

Brad was handcuffed to the boat rail, scrunching himself into a shivering ball. Jim debated whether he should look for another blanket for the student, but Brad's acidic comments had him changing his mind.

"Isn't that sweet?" Ventriss smirked. "The queer teacher and his boyfriend."

Jim shot him an icy glare. "Shut up, Ventriss, or I'll toss you back in the water and let you swim to shore." Not sparing Brad a second glance, he turned his attention back to Blair, and silently begged the younger man to wake up.

Two paramedics were waiting when they docked the boat. Jim stood aside to allow the medics to examine Blair and ready him for transport to the hospital. An oxygen mask was placed over Blair's face and an IV inserted into a vein. Loading the inert body onto a gurney on the dock, one of the paramedics looked over at Jim. "You riding in with us, Detective?"

Jim didn't need a second invitation. Keeping pace with the stretcher, he climbed into the ambulance and sat on the bench staring at Blair's white features. He sucked in a breath when the paramedic cut open Blair's shirts and pants and removed them before wrapping him in several emergency blankets. The entire left side of Sandburg's ribcage was peppered with black and purple bruises. Jim could see the discolored skin was tense and swollen.

The paramedic let out a low whistle. "He took a hell of a beating." He looked quickly at Jim. "He didn't get this jumping into the water."

Jim shook his head, hesitantly reaching out to enclose Blair's cold, limp hand in his. "He got beaten up yesterday."

"He go to Cascade General to get checked out? They should have all the information there."

Jim shook his head. "He, uh, didn't go to the hospital. You're right, he should have. I thought he was okay." He shook his head vehemently. "No. I didn't even consider it."

The paramedic studied him carefully for a moment, then reached behind him as the ambulance lurched and started on its way to the hospital. He held a blanket out to Jim. "Here. You look pretty cold yourself."

Jim nodded his thanks and settled back onto the bench, one hand tightly gripping the edges of the blanket around his shoulders, the other finding its way back to Blair's.

~o0o~

Jim turned and walked into the waiting room while Blair was wheeled into a nearby trauma room. He sat, concentrating his hearing on the activity in the room, his worry increasing at the concerned tone of the doctor's voice.

"Jim?" Simon stood in front of him, his forehead furrowed in a frown.

Jim shook off the vestiges of an almost zone and stood. "I haven't heard anything yet, but I can tell the doctor's worried." He slapped a fist into his open palm. "This is my fault, sir. I was too impatient with him. Told him I didn't have time to sort out his school problems. Even when some guy tried to crack his head open with a baseball bat, I told him to cool off his love life. I didn't bother to follow it up, tell him to make a statement, nothing."

"You had a lot going on," Simon reasoned. "Blair's been around long enough to know how to make a charge against someone to the proper authorities. And you don't have the corner on anger here, Jim, the kid's been steaming pretty well himself for a few days. Any idea what that's all about?"

Jim rubbed his forehead and crossed over to wait outside the trauma room door. "No, but it started when all this crap with Ventriss went down. It's not like Sandburg to get so bent out of shape though. I call him the voice of reason." Jim shook his head in exasperation. "I still should have taken the time to get him checked out. I made fun of him in front of a witness, for God's sake! What the hell is wrong with me?"

"The bane of every good cop, Jim; stress, not enough sleep, seeing way too much of the ugly side of life every day." Simon placed a hand on Jim's arm as the door opened and the doctor stepped out. "Let's hear what the doctor has to say, and then you can apologize and make your peace with the kid." He turned to the dark-haired young physician. "Doctor? I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD, and this is Detective Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg's partner. How's he doing?"

The doctor shook both their hands. "I'm Doctor Bob Kelly. Mr. Sandburg's condition is serious at this time. The worst of his injuries is a punctured lung. He… "

"What?" Jim was stunned. "How did that happen?"

The doctor gave Jim a measuring look. "I can't be sure, Detective, and Mr. Sandburg is in no condition to tell us. Now, if I could continue?"

"Sorry. Go on."

"Right. He has severe bruising of his ribcage and chest wall. The paramedics tell me he was a victim of a beating yesterday?"

Jim nodded, his mouth going dry.

"It could have occurred then, but I doubt he would have been running around and jumping out of helicopters with a punctured lung." He looked faintly discomfited at the thought. "My guess is he sustained a cracked or broken rib in the beating and the jump into the water drove the fractured rib into his lung. We need to insert a chest tube and treat him prophylactically for any opportune infection. His lungs are no doubt more susceptible since his near-drowning some weeks ago. He was bordering on hypothermia when he came in, but he's pinking up nicely now."

"Anything else?" Simon asked.

Jim shot the captain a dark look, not certain he wanted to know the answer.

"Mr. Sandburg is rather disoriented and combative. I noticed the gash on his forehead and his black eye. Have you noticed any unusual behavior since the beating?"

"Doctor, Sandburg puts a whole new spin on the word unusual," Simon replied, shaking his head. "Though he's been more short-tempered than usual the last few days."

"He had a right to be," Jim added. "One of his student's threatened him, and has been arrested on a murder charge, but I admit I thought he was over-reacting to Ventriss at first."

"It's obvious he's exhausted," the doctor continued. "And not just from the past couple of days. Traipsing around Mexico mere days after almost drowning is not what I consider taking it easy, which is what he was told to do when he discharged himself last month."

"He what?" Jim's eyes widened. Another Sandburg obfuscation uncovered.

"Anyway, I'm hesitant to sedate him if he does have a head injury, but if he doesn't calm down, I may have no choice. If I do that, I'll place him on a ventilator for a day or two, in case his respiration becomes depressed. Is there any chance he might settle down for one of you?"

Simon looked at Jim. "Go. I'll wait for you here."

Jim hesitated. "Maybe you should talk to him, sir. I mean, I doubt I'm top of his hit parade right now."

Simon shook his head. "He's your partner, Jim, and we both know if anyone can settle down Sandburg, it's you."

Jim nodded, took a deep breath and opened the trauma room door.

~o0o~

He was back in the alley, and Jim was nowhere in sight.

Hands grabbed him from behind, opening his body to the first gut punch. He wanted to sag in on himself, but his attackers wouldn't allow him the comfort. He was pulled upright again, a blow to his ribs stole all coherent thought and he was only vaguely aware of the angry shouting erupting above him. A blow to his face sent him spinning out of his attacker's grip. He hit the ground hard on a shoulder and hip, a kick to his chest rolling him away to lay in a ball of misery as he struggled to breathe. From the corner of his eye, a baseball bat appeared and came swinging down at his head.

His chest ached deep inside, and he squirmed, trying to shift away from the discomfort that dogged his every struggling breath. Hands held his arms wide, preventing him from curling around the pain. Muted voices floated over his head, but he couldn't hold on to the words or make sense of them. A large hand cupped his chin.

"Blair? You with us, Chief?"

Blair cracked open heavy eyelids and tried to focus on the blurry image in front of him. The hand shifted, and stroked across his brow, soothing him. "Jim?" His voice sounded hoarse and he swallowed dryly.

Jim looked away. "Can he have some water?"

Another voice answered. "Not for a while yet. We don't want him to aspirate."

Blair moaned at the unfairness of it all. He wasn't aware he'd drifted away again until fingers tapped insistently at his cheek.

"Blair?" Jim again. "They need to put a tube in your chest, so you can breathe better, but you need to stop fighting the doctors."

Blair thought he nodded. "Stay," he whispered.

"Right here. You hang onto me. All right?"

Blair squeezed the hand that held his, though he felt so weak he was unsure if Jim felt it. Coldness washed his skin and he flinched, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Just some disinfectant, Blair," an unknown voice said. "Now, a couple of pricks to numb the skin."

Blair endured the discomfort silently, Jim's sure touch reassuring him. Then he felt something dig into his chest, suctioning the breath from his lungs and causing his body to arch up in agony. He yelled, struggling to get away. "Jim!"

"Blair! It's okay. I'm here. I'm right here."

The pain was gone, as suddenly as it had appeared, and Blair realized he could finally breathe without constraint. He felt exhausted, sweat dribbled uncomfortably down his face, making the cut above his eye sting. A cool cloth wiped over his cheeks, bringing relief. Warm air puffed reassuringly into his nose from a tube wrapped around his head. Hands gripped his arms and legs gently, shifting him up onto plump pillows, and a hand brushed the hair back from his brow. He knew that touch. Wearily, he opened his eyes, and managed a weak smile for his partner. "What happened?"

Jim looked as tired as Blair felt. "You have a punctured lung. Doctor put a chest tube in."

"It hurt. I thought I was being beaten up again."

"I know. You're going to be fine, but you need to stay quiet and let the tube do its job."

Blair gave a self-deprecating snort. "Me, quiet? That would be a first."

"Yeah, and we're gonna have a talk about discharging yourself AMA when you're feeling better, too."

"Oh." Blair let his eyelids close. He was incredibly tired. The other voices faded, a door opened and swished closed, and silence descended on the room.

"Blair?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm sorry for not getting you checked out yesterday."

Blair forced his eyelids open again and watched Jim pick at the blanket with his hand. "I'm a big boy, Jim. If I thought I was hurt that bad, I should have said something."

"I didn't give you much of a chance."

"No, you didn't." Blair thought a moment. "Have I pissed you off majorly or something? Is that why you've been so angry with me?"

Jim's hand stole back to clasp his own. "No. I guess we're both still recovering from Alex and Mexico, but that's no excuse for how I've been treating you. All I can say is I'm sorry for that, and for not backing you up the way I should have over the Ventriss case."

"You were right on that though. There was nothing we could do until we implicated him in Chung's murder."

"I introduce you to everyone as my partner," Jim began, leaning forward. "Now, if you were my real partner on the force, I would have supported you through this. Instead I dismissed everything you said, and almost wasn't there to back you up when those guys were beating up on you. And then to top it off, I made fun of you while you were injured, and assumed it had something to do with your love life."

"Apology accepted," Blair said. "With one proviso."

"What's that?"

"I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character. Observing people is what I do, after all. Next time I tell you someone's a bad guy, don't blow me off. At least listen to what I've got to say first."

Jim finally smiled. "You got it, Chief."

"One other thing?" Blair asked hesitantly.

"Sure."

"Every time I go to sleep I keep flashing back on those guys, that baseball bat… " Jim's hand squeezed his firmly. "Could you stay awhile, wake me up if I dream?"

"I'll go let Simon know I'm spending the night."

"Simon's here?"

"He was worried about you."

Blair's mouth turned up in a tired smile. "He's a good guy. So are you." His eyes closed again, Jim's calming presence anchoring him to the present while his mind took comfort in healing sleep.

"I don't feel like such a good guy right now," he heard Jim whisper.

"I told you, I'm a very good judge of character."

~o0o~

Blair walked slowly into the bullpen, one hand rubbing at the persistent itch from his chest incision. "What the heck did they use for a chest tube?" he mumbled in aggravation. "A garden hose?" He kept his voice low knowing his partner had already picked up on his arrival when he'd entered the lobby downstairs.

In the week since he'd been discharged from hospital, Jim had hovered over him, strongly reminiscent of a mother hen with her chick. Blair had begun to think his leg muscles were going to atrophy from their enforced non-use.

Jim looked up at his approach and Blair withstood the careful appraisal. Finally the detective smiled and nodded. "Hey, hey, your face is looking better. How's your head?"

Blair considered his reply carefully. "Well, my head realizes that just 'cause you're right, doesn't mean you always get what you want. You can't get mad at anybody. You just got to play the game better than they do." He gave Jim a toothy grin. "How's that sound, Wally?"

"Well, that's pretty neat, Beav."

Blair nodded. "Yeah."

"School was good?"

"The principal and I worked things out." Blair left it at that. The truth was Chancellor Edwards had reluctantly re-appointed Blair to his teaching position following some heavy persuasion, but Blair had no wish for her to be brow-beaten by a pissed off sentinel in Blessed Protector overdrive.

Jim kept up their silly game. "Hey, that's pretty keen, Beav. Well, Dad called. Said we've got a body down at Miller's Pond." He stood. "We got to go meet up with Eddie and Lumpy." Reaching out, he lightly tapped Blair on the chin, then pulled his jacket from the hook behind him.

Blair returned Jim's playful blow with a little more force. "Is it just you and me again, Wally?"

"You betcha." Jim walked away from Blair and headed out the door.

Blair hurried to catch up, trying not to wince. If Jim suspected he wasn't fully one hundred percent, he'd have him back on the couch for another year. "Where are you going?"

Jim wrapped an arm about Blair's shoulders. "You know our suspect is Gus the fisherman... "

"I'm developing a real phobia about water, man," Blair muttered darkly.

FIN

January 17th 2003

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