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 winced 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. Sometimes I think you're the most important part. My guide. The shaman of the great city. 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. "Thanks. 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."
"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."
"I do, or do I have to kick your butt out of here like I did before?"
Jim stood and looked down at his friend. "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."
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. I might finally get to finish reading that new Tom Clancy book you bought me for my birthday."
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."
Neither man spoke much on the drive home. Blair asked Jim to roll down the passenger side window before they left and Jim obliged, after securing a jacket around his partner's shoulders. Blair opened his mouth as though to protest his roommate's mother-hen instincts, then sighed and turned his attention to the scenery speeding by and the fresh air streaming in through the window.
Jim concentrated on finally having Blair back at his side and tried to keep his attention on the road and not continuously monitor the young man. It was an ingrained response, however, and every now and then, Blair's heartbeat would fill his hearing, drowning out even the jazz beat coming from the radio. It was as though they'd never been apart, Jim marveled. Just as the sound of Blair's heart swelled to a crescendo in his ears, a warm, firm hand would touch Jim's forearm, squeezing lightly and he'd pull back from the almost-zone.
Blair turned slightly in his seat and smiled at him and Jim's answering grin made his cheeks ache. It was good to be going home.
By the time they parked outside the apartment and made their way upstairs in the elevator, Blair looked exhausted. He leaned heavily against the wall of the car and splayed his feet out widely in front of him to keep his balance.
Once inside, Jim made tea and watched Blair stroll slowly around the loft, reacquainting himself with his surroundings.
"Is this new?" Blair asked, picking up a hand-painted earthenware vase filled with a dried flower arrangement.
"No, well, not really. That one was from Sam, Kate, Mary and Deb." Jim's forehead creased into a frown as he thought. "They all work at the university library. I brought it into the hospital for you, but you were still pretty out of it." He carried the teacups to the table and set them down. "Most of the flowers died already, and there were some plants I put out on the balcony, but I haven't been home much to water them."
Blair nodded in understanding as he slipped into a chair and propped his cane beside him. "That's okay. I'll check them out tomorrow. See if I can resurrect any of them."
Jim blew a tendril of steam from his tea and gestured toward Blair's room. "I kept all the gift cards. They're in a box on your desk. I thought you'd like to go through them yourself. Write thank you notes or something."
Blair smiled. "Thanks. It'll help to pass the time until I'm up to going back to school." He sipped at his tea and let his gaze wander around the room. He knew he should be showing more excitement, more happiness at least at being home, but he felt instead vaguely uncomfortable and nervous, as though half-expecting something awful to happen.
He shivered violently, one arm spasming outward and knocking his cane to the floor. Jim was at his side in a heartbeat, one arm wrapping around Blair's shoulders as he steadied the wobbly young man.
"Shit! Are you all right, Chief?"
Blair leaned unashamedly into the welcome warmth of Jim's support. He nodded. "Just tired, man. Really tired."
"Let's get you to bed then." With Jim's hand under his elbow, Blair managed to get to his feet. He felt suddenly shaky, the numbness in his hands and feet amplified as he took a step and stumbled, reaching out in panic for Jim, who pressed him against his side. "It's all right. I've got you."
He was too weary, too weak to feel embarrassed as Jim swept him up into his arms and carried him into his room. Leaning down, Jim deposited him gently on the bed, then set about unbuttoning his shirt. Blair's hands came up to tangle with Jim's.
"It's okay, man. I got it."
Jim straightened and studied him for a moment, hands on hips, then nodded. "You sure you feel all right? Maybe you should have stayed in the hospital a little longer. Do you want me to phone…?"
"Jim, I'm fine," Blair insisted, though he wasn't as convinced as he sounded. His hands felt tingly now, and his chest seemed a little tight. He reined in his apprehension and forced a smile onto his face. "Really. Just tired."
Jim's hovering stance relaxed and he smiled back. "Okay. Whisper if you need anything. If you need to go to the bathroom, or you want to get up, call me." He waggled a stern finger. "Doctor's orders till you've got more mobility and strength in your legs."
Blair nodded, then lay down and toed off his shoes. Feeling sleep already creeping up, he aborted the attempt to remove anything else and sank into his pillows with a sigh.
To Chapter Twelve