He woke to darkness and a feeling of total disorientation. His heart skipped a beat, then settled as the memories of coming home floated back into his fuzzy mind. Though he knew he must have been asleep for sometime, he still felt drowsy and confused, something worrying at the back of his mind. There was something pressing against his chest, making it difficult to breathe, and he had to take deeper and deeper breaths just to pull in enough air.
Flailing out his still-tingling hands, he yelped as one hit the edge of his bedside table and sent sharp pain shooting up his arm. Feeling vaguely relieved that he could feel the pain, he pushed down on the mattress and tried to lever himself upright, hoping that it might ease his breathing, but his elbows locked briefly, then gave beneath his wildly trembling weight, sending him bouncing back to the mattress.
Beginning to panic in earnest now, Blair rolled his body sideways and managed to flop out of bed, wincing as his hip and head impacted the floor with a dull thud. "Jim!"
He wasn't sure if he'd even given the word enough air to make a sound, but was relieved to see his door pushed open and Jim step into the room.
"Shit! Blair! What happened?"
Jim was kneeling beside him, gathering him up to lay him on the bed, hovering over him, running sensitive fingers along his body. Despite the relief Blair felt at seeing him, he felt suffocated by Jim's close proximity and pushed feebly against his chest. "Don't," he gasped. "Can't breathe."
"Oh, God." Jim's face drained of color, but he stepped back anyway, his hands held wide as though in supplication.
The moment Jim stepped back, Blair felt suddenly bereft, cut adrift, and he reached out and grabbed hold of Jim's hand with one of his own. "Don't know what's wrong," he wheezed, unintentional tears squeezing out from beneath his tightly closed lids. "Don't leave me, please."
Jim moved closer then and sat on the bed, pulling Blair into a comforting embrace. "It's okay, Chief. I'm not going anywhere."
Blair tried to relax into Jim's arms but his body felt rock-hard with tension, his muscles beginning to cramp from their enforced rigidity. A sharp, hot pain lanced through his chest and he groaned at the agony of it.
"Jesus, Blair, what's going on here?"
Jim's voice was close to his ear, his breath hot on Blair's neck as he cupped the young man's sweaty skull and pressed it into the crook of his shoulder. Blair fought to concentrate on the sensation and on the familiar sound of Jim's voice as black spots crowded his vision. "You're wound tighter than a spring here, Sandburg, and your heart's pounding like you just ran a marathon."
Jim was rocking him now, and Blair focused on it, letting the rhythm soothe him until his chest tightened again and he gasped for breath.
"Can't breathe," Blair moaned, his fingers digging tightly into Jim's shoulders in his fear. "Take me back to the hospital."
"Wait a minute. I think I know what's happening here. Let me try one thing first, okay?"
Blair was already shaking his head, pushing away again from Jim's hold and struggling to get to his feet. There wasn't enough air in the room. He needed to get out.
"Blair! Blair!" Jim's voice was loud and commanding, the grip of his fingers curling around Blair's hand painful enough to capture his attention. "Look at me."
Blair gritted his teeth against the rising and rapidly spiraling panic that was bubbling from his chest and fixed his eyes on Jim's face.
"Good, that's good," Jim praised. "I want to try something first. Just for a couple of minutes. All right?"
Against his better judgement, Blair nodded. "Hurry."
Jim's free hand reached out and pulled a bookstore paper bag from Blair's desk. Grasping it around the open edge, he fitted it over Blair's mouth and nose, cupping the back of his head with one hand when Blair tried to pull away. "No. No. It's okay. You're okay. Just breathe, buddy. That's it."
Blair nodded and continued to gasp into the bag, his wide, frightened eyes never leaving Jim's face. After several minutes, he could feel the pressure in his chest ease, his muscles loosening and an overwhelming exhaustion overtaking him. As he sagged forward, Jim's arm's caught him, pushing him forward so that he slumped against Jim's chest. A broad, warm hand drew soothing circles over his back, and he could feel himself drifting toward sleep.
Jim sat, trying to remain still as Blair's breathing became deeper and even, his heartbeat slowing to a more restful rhythm and his body becoming limp. Occasionally, he startled, his head moving back, eyes opening wide to stare at Jim, drifting closed as Jim smiled and reassured him. "Go to sleep. It's all right. I'm still here."
When he thought Blair was deeply asleep, he lay him back down on the bed and stood, arching his back to relieve the ache. Pulling up the covers, he rested a hand on Blair's chest for a moment, reassured that the panic attack had resolved, then left the room. This time, he left the door open.
Blair woke slowly, his face pressed into an unpleasant wet spot of drool. His head felt stuffed with cotton, and his eyes were gritty and puffy. The muted sound of a radio indicated Jim was already up. He concentrated on untangling the bedclothes from his body and managed to roll onto his back.
Staring at the ceiling, his face heated as the memory of the night before came back. He'd had a panic attack; even now he could feel the telltale ache in his chest muscles and the faint throbbing in his head. Over what? The memory of Melissa's attack at the Rehabilitation Center was still fresh in his mind, but he could recall no nightmare last night. He was finally at home, where he had yearned to be for a couple of months…
He groaned as he remembered Jim's voice soothing him to sleep, the detective's strong arms enfolding him in a comforting embrace as he sobbed his distress.
Blair looked around his room, faintly lit with daylight. Guilt and self-pity weighed like a rock in his chest. Jim had been prepared to take on an awful lot for Blair, but there was no way he'd want to deal with an emotional cripple. What sort of guide, what sort of backup could he be if he was going to wimp out every five minutes?
"Chief? You awake in there?"
Jim's cheery voice pulled Blair from his dark thoughts and he cleared his throat before answering. "Yeah."
He pasted a smile on his face as Jim walked into his room. "You want to eat first or shower?"
"Coffee?" Blair ventured.
"Strong and hot, just how you like it. Let's get you upright."
Blair allowed Jim to pull him into a sitting position, knowing his muscles were still half-asleep until he got moving in the mornings. He pushed his legs over the side of the bed and dressed in old sweats with a minimum of help. "Could you…" He pointed to his unlaced shoes and Jim knelt obligingly and tied them up.
Grasping hold of Jim's strong forearm, Blair levered himself upright, waiting a moment for the expected head-rush to settle before taking hold of his cane and walking slowly out to the dining room.
The delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee and eggs and bacon evaporated his earlier concerns, and Blair lowered himself into a seat at the table, suddenly ravenous.
Jim held out a basket of muffins. "Blueberry."
Blair took one, hesitated, then helped himself to a second as Jim grinned and poured the coffee. "You want a straw with this, Chief?"
Blair thought about it. Truthfully, the coffee tasted awful sucked up through a plastic straw, but he didn't think his hands were strong enough yet to hold the cup. "I should probably use a straw," he said finally.
"Tell you what." Jim sat down in a seat opposite and picked up his own cup. "I could do it for you."
"You know, hold the cup for you. You tell me when you want a drink. It's gotta taste awful through a straw, even without sentinel tastebuds."
Blair idly broke his muffin into pieces on his plate as he mulled over how to bring up the previous night's event. "Jim? I'm sorry about last night. It was stupid."
Jim put down the newspaper he'd been reading and looked at Blair. "What was stupid?"
"Me going crazy like that. I don't know what that was all about. I guess I got a little scared. I mean, at the hospital if something happened, there were doctors and nurses right there." His eyes grew wide as he rushed to explain. "Not that I don't trust you to be able to help me. I do. I just…" He sighed mournfully. "You probably think I don't want to be here, but I do." He pushed his plate away with a sigh. "I won't blame you if you want me to leave. You don't have time to be dealing with my shit."
Jim leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Did you have time to deal with mine?"
Blair looked at him, confused. "I don't…What do you mean?"
"All those nights on stakeout with me after teaching all day. How about following me around crime scenes for hours, coaching me with my senses, making sure I didn't zone, or spending the time talking to my doctors when I got shot so they knew about my drug sensitivities?"
"Well, yeah, but that was different."
"I chose to do that. It was my idea in the first place, and I was getting something out of it in return."
"I don't know where you're going with this, Jim," Blair stammered.
Jim threw his napkin onto the table and moved around to sit next to Blair. "Do you remember telling me after we went to Peru to find Simon and Daryl that it was all about friendship?"
"Sure, and it still is."
You think that friendship only goes one way, Darwin?"
"No! I just don't want to be a burden on you."
"I can handle it, Sandburg." Jim laid a large hand over Blair's. "We can handle it. Capiche?"
Jim snorted as Blair stumbled over the unwieldy word. He held up Blair's cup. "Coffee?"
If Jim had thought that life would instantly return to normal once Blair was home, he was in for a shock. Despite the information they'd been given by the doctor, reading the recommendations on paper was far different from actually putting a rehabilitation program into place, especially when they now had to factor in Jim's work hours.
Jim asked Simon for a long weekend off so he and Blair could go through each step of the program and organize a daily plan. He ignored Blair alluding to his anal-retentive qualities when he insisted on a back-up for every contingency. He phoned an old friend who ran a gym and booked Blair in for daily strengthening sessions in the late morning, deciding that either he or someone from the station could pick him up and join him at the loft for lunch. Knowing Blair's popularity at Major Crime, he knew he'd have no shortage of volunteers.
Blair found it highly amusing that Jim had now become the vitamin police, scanning every can and package of food for its nutrient content. Jim had to admit that he felt better himself, since his own diet improved as he encouraged Blair to eat. He kept his precious Wonderburgers for those long nights on stakeout and swore his temporary partner, Conner, to secrecy.
Blair was also seeing a speech therapist, though his vocal skills had returned to almost their pre-illness quality. Jim was surprisingly relieved. Though Blair's constant chatter had been known in the past to grate on him, a silent Sandburg was not a normal phenomenon, and was now the measure by which Jim gauged his partner's moods and well-being.
Jim had also broached the idea of someone staying with Blair while he was at work. Not surprisingly, Blair had vetoed the idea vociferously, and they managed a compromise where Jim would get Blair up and showered in the morning, then settled either in front of the TV or at his laptop. He'd phone Blair when he arrived at work to make sure he was all right and see if there was anything he needed Jim to pick up.
The first couple of days had been rather silent, and Jim had become concerned enough to phone Blair's doctor from work and ask for advice. He mentioned the panic attack the first night home, and Doctor Parry reassured him immediately.
"It really is a common occurrence when someone's been hospitalized for some time, Jim. They become reliant on others to do a lot for them while they're recuperating. There's the fear of a relapse, and in the case of an illness where breathing or the heart is concerned, there's the very real fear that the next time they may not make it to the hospital on time, and if they'd stayed there, they'd be safe."
"What's the chance of a relapse?"
"It's very remote. His symptoms may become amplified from time to time due to fatigue, if he pushes himself too hard, doesn't eat well, or doesn't get enough sleep. Over time, the severity of the symptoms will dissipate, as will the chance of them recurring. I'm quite sure that he'll never have a relapse so severe that he'll stop breathing again. All you can do is reassure him that he's going through a normal recovery, find out what's exacerbating the symptoms, correct it if you can, and most of all, don't let him dwell on it."
"Easier said than done."
"Keep him occupied," Parry suggested. "Keep his mind busy, and try to remember that being discharged from hospital doesn't mean he's completely well yet. He's certainly well enough to no longer need constant supervision but he's still recovering. If you're at all concerned, give me a call or bring him by the ER."
"Thanks, doc. I appreciate your help." Jim hung up the phone and thought for a moment. Standing up, he picked up his coffee cup and walked into Simon's office.
Blair was bored. He'd been home for three days now, and he had already run out of things to do. He moped around the apartment, picking up books and leafing desultorily through them, aimlessly channel-surfing, or cooking up bizarre recipes that Naomi emailed him for his health.
He tried to work on his dissertation, but the stuff with Alex was still too fresh in his mind, and whenever he got out the tapes where he talked about getting Jim and Alex together, he could feel another panic attack creep up on him.
Someone had taken over his classes at school until he was well enough to go back, and he was grateful for the reprieve, knowing he was still not strong enough to return for a full day, but desperate for something constructive to do.
He'd given up phoning people for a chat, often feeling he was keeping them away from more important things. The guys from Major Crime had promised to come over on Friday night for a poker night, but that was three days away.
Depressed, Blair tossed the day-old newspaper on the coffee table and slumped onto the couch. Jim wouldn't even let him go downstairs alone and pick up the paper. He'd promised to bring it home with him.
He looked up in surprise as the front door opened and Jim walked in. "What are you doing home already?" He pulled himself upright. "Did something happen?"
"What? I can't have an early night without getting the third degree?" Jim walked over to the dining table and deposited a pile of folders on it before walking through to the kitchen and pulling a beer from the refrigerator.
"Sure you can. I was just worried." Blair indicated the folders. "What's all this? Homework?"
"You could say that." Jim opened the refrigerator and perused the contents. "Damn, I should have gone shopping on the way home."
"You should have phoned me," Blair said. "I could have gone to the market."
"I don't think you're up to that yet, Chief. At least not on your own…"
"Jesus, Jim, I'm not a cripple. I can do stuff on my own, you know?" Blair was struggling back to his feet, humiliated when the soft cushions would not allow him the resistance he needed to lever himself up. He allowed Jim to approach and pull him up, then shook his hand off impatiently. "Thanks." He limped toward his room, ignoring the walking stick that Jim held out to him.
"Sandburg, wait a minute."
Realizing he was acting like a sulky child, Blair stopped and turned around, his face flushed with anger and shame. "Sorry, all right?"
"No, it's not all right." Jim moved closer and put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I know you're frustrated and bored with all of this. I also know you're not ready to get back to full-time work yet. I'm sorry that I always seem to be treating you like a kid. How about we both go shopping tomorrow afternoon? We can have lunch somewhere before I go back to work."
Blair smiled. "Sounds like a plan. What about tonight? The cupboards are really bare, man."
Jim eyed him contemplatively for a moment. "I guess a pizza once in a while wouldn't hurt."
Blair's blue eyes twinkled with mirth. "I knew the health kick wouldn't last. Make it a veggie special, and we can pretend it's healthy."
"Deal." Jim headed for the stairs. "You make the phone call while I get changed."
"Okay." As he turned toward the kitchen to find the pizzeria's phone number, the files on the table caught Blair's attention again. "What's with the files? Simon got you working from home as well now?"
"Not me, Darwin. You."
Jim's head appeared at the top of the stairs. "They're old cases, still open. Simon thought that maybe you could take a look at them from a fresh perspective. Maybe you'll pick up something nobody else did."
"Jim, I'm an anthropologist."
"Exactly. You observe things, people. My senses are my skill, observing is yours. You want to hurry up and order that pizza, Chief? I'm starving here."
"Yeah, okay." Blair made the call then wandered back to the table and sat down. Fumbling with his glasses, he finally got them on, and pulled the top-most folder toward him.
To Chapter Thirteen