Learning Curve

By Lyn

EMAIL: Lyn

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, but one can dream…

SUMMARY: Part Six of the Life is a Bridge Series. Some people just don't 'get' Jim and Blair's partnership. Set immediately following Night Train.

Many thanks to Annie for the beta, and especially the plot bunny when my muse went into hiding.

"Damn!" Blair groaned. He tried to swallow past the dryness in his throat and felt like he'd downed several razor blades. Reaching out, he scrabbled for the alarm clock on his bedside table, staring at the illuminated face blearily. "Shit! I'm late!" His voice came out in a hoarse whisper and he rolled over, clamping his pillow over his head in a vain attempt to muffle the pounding in his head. "I so don't need this."

And he certainly didn't need Jim Ellison and his smug 'I told you so' over breakfast - providing he could even force anything solid down without choking to death.

He'd told Jim, and even convinced himself that there was no way he'd catch Jim's cold, not with some daily doses of Niktabi root… and some positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, he was already run down with trying to be in two places at once, not to mention working two jobs, plus being sneezed on and coughed over by his thesis subject, and either the Niktabi root wasn't up to its usual medicinal standard or his positive outlook had taken a hike.

He forced himself to get up, and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, willing away the head spin that attacked the second he was vertical. He ached in joints he didn't know he had. Even his skin hurt.

Suck it up, he told himself sternly. If you don't want Jim on your case, insisting you stay home, and shoving Tylenol and cough medicine down your throat, you'll go out there now and act like you're A-1.

He headed straight into the bathroom, giving Jim a perfunctory wave on the way through.

"Don't be in there too long, Chief," Jim said, waving a spatula over the eggs cooking in the pan, "or you'll be having break room coffee for breakfast. I'm leaving for the station in half an hour."

Blair gave him a thumbs up and closed the bathroom door, wondering how long he could go without having to actually speak to Jim in a voice that sounded rather like Darth Vader's.

"I'm your father, Luke," he said in a wheezy imitation of the masked one as he turned on the faucets, then stepped under the hot water with a sigh of bliss. This was all he needed. A few minutes in the shower and he'd feel human again…

…Or not.

The shower had helped ease his aching joints and cleared his head a little, but he could still feel the inexorable march of the virus through his body as he toweled himself dry. No way to get around it, he decided as he headed for his bedroom to get dressed. All he needed to do was convince Jim that the Niktabi was already kicking in and he'd be fine in a day or so, and in the meantime, he didn't need Jim acting all mother hen on him. After all, Jim had still gotten on that train to do his job.

He wished he hadn't thought of that. It just reminded him of how little he really knew about helping Jim with his hyperactive senses. It seemed every job they took on was an exercise in showing him just how little he knew and how much he still had to learn, which of course led to the biggie. Just how long would Jim let him tag along if he couldn't fulfil his end of the bargain?

The quid pro quo agreement was turning out to be far more weighted in Blair's favor than Jim's, he thought. There wasn't exactly a manual he could pull out and read for clues. Even Burton's writings didn't go into much detail about how a sentinel's partner actually helped. While he liked to think he was coming up with some pretty good ideas on the fly, when stuff like Jim's reaction to the Nyquil came out of left field, it just seemed to highlight how clueless he really was.

With an aggrieved sigh, he strode out of his room, trying to put as much purpose in his steps as he could manage, all the while thinking just how inviting his rumpled bed looked. He sat down at the dining table, reaching quickly for his glass of orange juice as a coughing fit ambushed him. His eyes watered at the unexpected sting of the acid on his raw throat but he persevered, swallowing until he felt the persistent tickle recede.

Jim eyed him critically. "Looking a little rough there, Chief," he said as he set a plate of eggs and bacon in front of Blair.

Blair waved his concern away. "I'm fine. Just a little cold. No biggie."

"That Nik-whatever stuff not working?" Jim asked with a barely hidden grin.

"It's working fine," Blair rasped. "I'm just a little tired, and the Niktabi root is taking a while to get into my system."

Jim didn't bother to hide his smile this time and Blair groaned mentally.

"Maybe you should try some real medicine," Jim said, hoeing into his own breakfast.

"Yeah, right," Blair replied. "Look what it did to you."

"Need I remind you, Sandburg, that you're not a sentinel?"

Blair rolled his eyes then sighed and leaned back in his chair, glaring mutinously at the breakfast he knew he wouldn't be able to taste, let alone swallow. "I don't have a problem with taking meds, Jim, when it's necessary. I just don't see the reason for putting chemicals in your body when something natural will work just as well."

Jim waved a fork at him as Blair sneezed. "Not working."

"It will," Blair said peevishly. "Just needs a couple days."

Jim finished off his food, drained his coffee and stood, carrying his plate to the sink. "Why don't you stay home today and get some rest. Not much happening at the station. Just reports, couple of interviews on the bank heist from the other day."

Blair shook his head. He stood and carried his plate into the kitchen. "I'm fine, man. Besides, if I sit around here doing nothing, I'll just feel worse."

Jim waved a finger at him. "You end up spreading your germs through Major Crime and Simon will not be happy."

Blair snorted. "Like you haven't already." He handed his plate to Jim. "Let me just get my backpack and I'm good to go."

~o0o~

Simon glanced down at the file on his desk then looked up at the sullen man standing across from him. "I'm sorry, Detective Collins -"

"Mike," the other man said.

"Right. Mike. Look, when your application came in, there was a vacancy here in Major Crime, but since then you've been on sick leave and the opening is no longer available."

"I was told Jim Ellison needed a partner," Collins said.

"Jim prefers to work solo," Simon said.

"And you let him call the shots… sir?"

"Ellison's one of Cascade's best detectives," Simon replied with barely restrained anger, "and how my men work is up to me, Detective."

"Yes, sir." Collins looked suitably chastised. "But isn't he working with that observer now? Sandburg?"

"Yes, he is, but it's a temporary ride along, and it has nothing to do with the fact there's no vacancy here for you to fill at the moment." Simon closed the folder on the desk. "As soon as another opening comes up, you'll be top of the pile. You come highly recommended, Detective Collins. It's a shame your injury took you out when it did."

"Ellison still needs a partner though, doesn't he?" Collins asked, his face eager. "I mean, I've heard he's the best there is, and I'm happy to learn from the best. And this Sandburg, he's not a cop, after all. He could still finish his ride along with me and Jim."

Simon shook his head. "I'm sorry, Detective. As I said, as soon as there's an opening, you'll be the first to know."

~o0o~

"I'm telling you, Sandburg," Jim said as they entered the bullpen. "You as much as sniff in Simon's direction and he's gonna be sending in the CDC."

Blair blew his nose noisily, grimaced and tossed the tissue into the wastebasket by Jim's desk. "What's the difference? You were in here last week, spreading your germs around."

"I'm indispensable," Jim replied, digging Blair gently in the ribs.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. Remind me of that next time Simon's computer goes down… or yours, for that matter."

"Good to see you two decided to come in," Simon said from his open door. He stepped back to allow a tall, grim looking man exit the office. "Thanks for stopping by, Mike. I'll be in touch." Mike gave a terse nod of his head and strode past Jim and Blair, giving both men a quick glance. "I need to have a word with you," Simon continued. "The coffee can wait, Sandburg," he added as Blair made a beeline for the break room. "I'd like to speak with both of you."

Blair grinned and turned back, trailing behind Jim into Simon's office.

Jim hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "That's Mike Collins from Narcotics, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Simon headed over to the coffee pot and poured three cups of fragrant brew, setting two of the cups in front of Jim and Blair. "Bad timing. He put in for a transfer to Major Crime a year ago. The transfer came through a couple of days before he got shot on the job. He was laid off for two months, and in the meantime, you met Sandburg."

Blair grinned but Jim frowned. "I told you I didn't need a partner, sir," Jim said. He gave Blair an apologetic smile. "I'm talking about before I met you, Chief."

Blair shrugged. "No problem, man. When I know now what you were dealing with, I shudder to think of you working alone."

"It worked out for the best," Jim said. "Most of the time, and my senses didn't come back online until the Switchman case anyway. So, what happens with Collins?"

"He goes back to Narcotics for now," Simon replied. "He's not a happy man. He was pretty fired up about partnering you, and he wasn't too happy to know that despite Sandburg not being on the job, the partnership is taken."

"Is he a good cop?" Blair asked.

"One of the best in Narcotics," Jim said. "He's got a couple of citations."

Blair shrugged. "If you need him here, I guess he could still work with Jim, provided he doesn't mind me tagging along… and we'd have to be careful about the sentinel stuff."

"It's a moot point, Sandburg," Simon said. "Bringing Collins in to partner Jim only reminds the brass that you're still here. You were given a three month observer pass and you've been here five months. I've managed to keep you under the radar for now. No reason to go waving the flag."

"Besides, it would be too hard to keep the sentinel stuff under wraps, Chief," Jim added. "We've had some close calls already. No need to risk Collins finding out and spreading the word."

Blair nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. "Okay. Works for me." He pushed back his chair and stood, leaving his untouched coffee on the table. "Is that all, Simon?"

"Yes, that's it, Sandburg."

Blair gestured toward the door. "I'll be at your desk, Jim. I'll get started on the witness list for the bank heist."

Jim studied him a moment, then nodded. "Thanks, Sandburg. I'll get Simon up to speed and then we'll head out."

Simon waited until Blair left before speaking. "I thought he'd be thrilled to know he's still your partner."

Jim shrugged. "He's a little under the weather. Caught my cold, and the Niktabi root he swore heals all ills isn't working. And you know Sandburg, probably feeling guilty that Collins is missing a Major Crime slot because of him. I'll talk to him." Jim took a sip of his coffee and leaned back in his chair. "Collins will get another shot, won't he?"

Simon nodded. "I've promised him he's top of the list. As much as I like Sandburg - and if you tell him that, I will shoot you - and I know he's doing a hell of a job keeping your senses under control, him hooking up with you couldn't have come at a worse time."

"Why's that?" Jim asked.

"The heads of all departments are being pushed to handle finances more carefully, and to explain every change in their departments. Cross all the T's and dot all the I's. Everything in triplicate and then some. If someone upstairs notices Sandburg's ride along has been renewed again, questions are likely to be asked." Simon picked up a cigar and rolled it in his fingers. "You got any idea how long you might need Sandburg with you?"

"How long is a piece of string?" Jim replied. He sighed. "Every time we think we've got the sentinel stuff figured out, something comes out of left field and bites me on the ass."

"Like the Nyquil."

"Exactly. Frankly, Simon, I'm thinking that me needing Blair is gonna take a whole lot longer than him needing me to write his dissertation."

"Are you talking about a permanent partnership?" Simon asked, a frown creasing his forehead. "If that's the case, Jim, we need to think seriously about getting the kid into the Academy and getting him a badge."

Jim snorted. "Don't plan on me being around to back you up when you tell him that." He leaned forward, his face serious again. "Frankly, I think he'd make a hell of a cop, but there's no way he'd go for it. He as much as told me that from the start."

Simon steepled his fingers on the table and studied Jim resolutely. "Then I hope Sandburg can give you a speed course in dealing with your senses. If push comes to shove where Sandburg's concerned, there's no way I can justify his continued presence in the department, not without letting the brass know about your abilities."

Jim stood, placing his coffee cup on the table with a small thunk. "They're not my 'abilities', Simon! Hell, if I had my way, I'd get rid of them in a heartbeat. More trouble than they're damn well worth more often than not." He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Let's just keep it to ourselves for now. I don't need anyone here thinking I'm some kind of damn superhero, and besides, we might be able to keep Sandburg under the wire for as long as we need. If we can't, I'll discuss it with Blair then. He could still help me when I'm off duty."

"He couldn't do that now?" Simon asked.

"Not if you still want me on the streets," Jim replied. "Down the track a little, I hope so."

Simon nodded. "All right. We'll leave it at that for now. Keep me up to speed on the bank heists. Oh, and Detective Richards in Narcotics has that report for you regarding the meth labs in downtown Cascade. Seems there's a new street gang started up, hoping to take up where the Deuces and the 357s left off. Captain Martin from Narcotics and I want these guys closed down pronto, Jim. We don't need a repeat of the last time, and I hope like hell there's no dirty cops involved this time."

"I'll get on it, Captain, and thanks."

"For what?"

"Doing your best to keep Sandburg on board."

Simon waved Jim's thanks away. "If it means I get the best out of you, it's worth it, but remember, no promises."

~o0o~

Jim glanced over at Blair who sat, staring morosely at the book in front of him. "You feeling okay, Sandburg?" he asked. "It's pretty slow here this afternoon unless we catch a break on the meth lab case. You can head home if you want."

Blair straightened in his seat, letting loose a sneeze and then a series of hoarse coughs. "I'm fine," he replied. "Just can't remember the last time it was this quiet here."

Jim rolled his eyes. "I'm grateful for a little quiet time. Doesn't happen nearly enough." He saved the final witness interview he'd typed up and leaned back in his seat, stretching out the kinks in his back. "Tell you what, why don't you head down to Narcotics and pick up the info on the latest meth lab from Detective Richards?"

Blair gazed at him, a small twinkle in his reddened eyes. "What's in it for me?"

"You sound like Daryl!" Jim exclaimed. When Blair just continued to stare at him, he groaned and nodded. "Okay, already, I'll buy dinner on the way home."

"Thai?" Blair asked hopefully.

"I was thinking pizza or Wonderburger," Jim groused. "It'll be cheaper and quicker."

"But the spices in the red curry will clear my sinuses," Blair informed him, "then you won't have to listen to me snoring all night."

"You snore even when you don't have a cold, " Jim protested. Blair crossed his arms over his chest and waited. Jim capitulated as he'd already intended to do. Sometimes these little verbal sparring matches livened up a slow day. "All right, already," he said, holding up both hands in defeat. "Thai, it is, but you phone the order through before we leave."

"Deal," Blair said. He stood and headed for the door. "John Richards, right?"

"You got it." Jim turned his attention to the next task on his list.

~o0o~

Clutching the report in his hand, Blair swerved around a group of detectives just entering the Narcotics bullpen and headed for the exit. He noticed Mike Collins seated at the desk closest to the door, typing furiously on his computer. Taking a deep breath, Blair paused beside the man. "Detective Collins?"

Collins looked up then dropped his attention back quickly to his work. "What do you want, Sandburg? You got a problem, you need to speak to the captain."

"No problem," Blair said. He held up the folder in his hand. "Got what I need. " When Collins ignored him, he started to walk off then resolutely turned back. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry you missed out on the position in Major Crime."

Collins glared at him. "Is that right? Well, thanks for that."

"Jim says you're a great cop, and I'm sure the next time there's a slot available, you'll be the first person they consider." Blair closed his eyes, feeling suddenly foolish. He held up the folder again. "I'd better get this back to Jim."

"Is that one of your side jobs, Sandburg?" Collins asked, getting to his feet.

"I'm sorry. What?" Blair was acutely aware of the silence in the room and knew everyone there was focused on the conversation.

"You consulting with Banks now? Telling him who deserves a post in Major Crime?"

"What? No! I just meant… I wanted to say…" Blair took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Forget it, okay? Excuse me." Blair turned to leave but Collins took a couple of steps forward. "You know what irks me the most about you, Sandburg?" he said. "You come trotting along at Ellison's heels one day, and the next you're playing supercop." Blair opened his mouth to protest but before he could say anything, Collins forged ahead. "And let me give you a little bit of free advice. I know your ride along was for three months, and you've been here five. If the men upstairs do the math, there might be more than one post going vacant in Major Crime."

The silence in the bullpen was deafening but before Blair could protest, a deep voice, not unlike Simon's, boomed from the captain's office. "Collins, you done on that report?"

Collins stared at Blair a moment longer, a small smile twitching his lips. "Yes, sir," he said, his attention still on Blair.

"Good," Captain Martin said. "Sandburg, you got what you need?"

Blair nodded. "Yes, sir."

"All right. Come on then, people, let's get back to work."

~o0o~

Jim inhaled the delicious aroma of Thai that wafted through the cab. Thai had been a great idea. Much better than a stodgy, half-cold Wonderburger, though he was never going to tell Sandburg that. He glanced over at his silent partner, who sat gazing out at the passing scenery. Blair hadn't said a word since he'd picked up the file from Richards in Narcotics. A sudden thought came to mind. "How's the cold?" he asked conversationally. "The Thai Red Curry opening up your sinuses."

Blair looked over at him and gave him a smile though it seemed strained. "I can feel it working already," he said.

"You run into Collins down in Narcotics?"

That got a sharp reaction. "Nothing I can't handle!" Blair snapped. He sighed. "Sorry, man. He's pissed off and I can't blame him."

Jim shrugged. "Happens on the force all the time. Just bad luck he caught a bullet when he did. Nothing to do with you being here."

"That's not what he thinks," Blair said morosely.

"Look, Sandburg, the thing is, if my senses hadn't come back online, and I hadn't met you, I would have refused to take Collins on as a partner anyway."

Blair gazed at him thoughtfully. "Could you do that?"

"Probably not," Jim admitted, "but Simon knew me well enough by then not to push it. All I'm saying is don't take on blame that's not yours to bear."

"Still -" Jim's radio crackled to life, cutting off whatever Blair had been about to say.

"All units in the vicinity of Sable and Clark. Meth lab explosion. Code One."

Jim checked his mirror then wrenched on the steering wheel, sending Blair slamming against the passenger door with a startled yelp. Jim checked him out with a quick glance and seeing he was unhurt, laid rubber.

~o0o~

The street was a chaotic mess of police cars, emergency vehicles, and milling, curious onlookers. The howling of sirens intermingled raucously with the shouts of rescue personnel and the cries of the injured.

Jim pulled up behind a squad car and climbed out of the truck, heading at a run toward the dilapidated house, that was already engulfed in flames, black smoke spewing from the roof. Blair followed close behind. Jim acknowledged the detective who stood guard at the edge of the overgrown driveway with a terse nod. "Mike, this looks like a mess."

Mike Collins shook his head. "Fucking idiots! Two dead, one critical, and it's lucky they didn't take out half the street. We're just waiting on the all clear from Fire and Rescue."

Jim barely heard the last part of Collins' comment. He'd focused in on the house, on a faint sound of distress. Extending his hearing, he heard the rapid hammering of a heart, accompanied by choking coughs. Not pausing to explain, he took off toward the ruins at a run, ignoring Collins' surprised shout behind him.

"Jim! Wait!" He heard Blair's protest but didn't stop.

"You stay here!" Collins ordered.

"No way, man. He needs me with him," Blair argued.

Jim pushed his focus back to the burning house, trusting Collins to keep Blair out of danger.

"Jim!" A hand grasped at his arm and he shook it off, bursting through the collapsed doorway of the house and immediately doubling up, coughing on the foul fumes.

"What is it?" Blair's question was lost in a hacking cough.

"Get out, Sandburg," Jim wheezed. "There's someone still in here."

Blair shook his head and pulled his sweater off over his head, tying one sleeve around his mouth and nose. He coughed again, his eyes already reddening and watering. "Not without you," he said with a gasp. "You might need me."

Any argument Jim might have wanted to use was aborted by the sound of crashing timber. Turning back, he headed further into the house, aware of Blair's hand clutching the back of his shirt.

A figure lay curled on its side by the open hatch of the crawlspace. The fumes had obviously overcome him before he could escape. Jim ran forward and grabbed the man up, ignoring his pained cry as the abrupt movement no doubt jarred his injuries. There was no time for assessment. Jim ducked and pulled Blair into his side as a part of the flaming ceiling fell, narrowly missing them both.

Blair steadied the injured man's legs until Jim had him secure in a fireman's carry then as one they turned for the exit… to be greeted by a wall of flame.

"Crawlspace," Jim croaked. "Hurry." He barely kept his feet as a coughing fit assaulted him. Blair leaned in close. "Try to dial it all down, man, he wheezed.

"Easy -" Jim choked and gagged, wiping at his burning mouth with his free hand. The smell and taste of chemicals coated his nostrils and tongue. "Easy for you to say," he finally got out. "Need my sight up. Don't know how dark it is down there."

"Sight only then," Blair said. He waved Jim forward. "You go first and I'll hand him down to you." A small explosion rocked the foundations and Blair pushed at Jim. "Now!"

~o0o~

Aided by his enhanced sight, it didn't take Jim long to crawl beneath the house, dragging the injured man behind him. The way out was blocked by rotting boards that easily gave under Jim's powerful kicks. "Hey, under here!" he shouted as he pushed his aching body forward into daylight. Hands were there, reaching for him and the man he'd rescued. He felt himself pulled up, his arms wrapped around the shoulders of others. He turned to one side, squinting and attempting to wipe at his streaming eyes.

Mike Collins nodded at him "We got you, Jim. Take it easy."

"Where's Sandburg? He was right behind me." Jim pulled away from the support and staggered back toward the house, dropping to his knees at the broken out edge of the crawlspace. "Sandburg!"

There was no answer and Jim didn't waste time, extending his hearing for sounds of life. Hands grabbed at him as he began to push himself back under the house.

"You can't go back in there!" Collins shouted over the cacophony of sound. "Place is coming down!"

Jim pulled his arm free. "My partner's still in there. I'm not leaving him behind."

"I'm coming with you," Collins said, his tone leaving no room for argument. Jim gave him a quick nod and pushed himself into the crawlspace. Blair lay sprawled on his stomach, coughing harshly, just a few feet from freedom.

Jim reached for him, grabbing one arm, seeing Collins pull Blair's other arm over his shoulder. Together the two men began backing out, dragging Blair's half-conscious body with them.

~o0o~

Blair tried to bat away the oxygen mask being placed over his face, certain it was stifling his breathing more than it was helping.

A large hand closed over his, stilling his movements. "Leave it on, Chief. Give it a minute to work."

Blair gave in and nodded, trying to fight the sensation of suffocation. He drew in a deep breath and coughed harshly, attempting to curl into a ball as pain sheared through his ribs and stomach.

"Easy, easy," Jim said. He pulled Blair upright, supporting his shoulders while he coughed and then drew in a whooping gasp of air. Blair sagged forward, his head dropping down as he struggled to catch his breath. "Here." The oxygen mask was lifted and a plastic cup held to his mouth. "Just swill it around and spit it out," Jim cautioned. "The chemicals in your mouth might make you sick if you swallow it."

Blair did so, grimacing as the blessedly cool fresh water rapidly took on a foul taste. He gagged and spat the offending liquid into the empty cup Jim held out to him.

"Better?"

"Yeah, thanks." With Jim's help, Blair leaned back on the gurney and looked around. He was inside an ambulance though he had no memory of getting there. "How's the guy you found?" he rasped.

Jim glanced away for a moment then looked down at him. "They couldn't resuscitate him."

"God, I'm sorry, Jim."

Jim's expression hardened. "Nothing to be sorry for, Sandburg. He knew the risks he was taking messing with that crap."

"Still," Blair said, "he was a human being."

"Ellison's right," another voice said and Blair looked past Jim to see Collins standing outside the open doors of the ambulance. "He knew the risks, just like I'm assuming you did, heading into that house."

Blair shrugged. "I couldn't let him go in there without me. I'm sorry, I can't explain it any better now than I could earlier today."

Collins smiled at him. "It's what partners do, right? Nothing to explain."

Blair grinned back. "Yeah, you got it, Mike." A not too hard whack to his head had him grimacing then glaring at Jim. "Ow! What was that for?"

"For not listening to your partner, Sandburg! You pull a crazy stunt like that again and you'll be doing all my paperwork for a month."

"Kinda the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it, Ellison?" Collins put in, giving Blair a wink. He raised a hand in farewell. "Gotta go. Wrap up this mess."

"See you round, Mike, and thanks," Jim said. He looked back at Blair. "Collins helped me get you out."

"Yeah?" Blair nodded and settled back, closing his eyes, savoring the feel of cool, fresh oxygen wafting into his lungs. "He's an okay guy."

"Yes, he is. Get some rest, Sandburg. I'll be back in a while."

"I don't have to go to the hospital, do I?"

"Wouldn't wish that on the nurses, Chief. No, the paramedics said you're good to go in about half an hour."

"Dinner'll be cold," Blair said.

Jim shrugged. "Tastes better reheated." Blair pulled a face at that. "Sandburg?" Blair opened his eyes. "Thanks for backing me up in there."

"It's in my job description."

"So is paperwork for a month if you do it again," Jim reminded him.

Blair feigned nonchalance. "I do most of it now, Jim. You're gonna have to come up with something better than that."

END

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