"I'm telling you, Casey, this is driving me crazy." Blair straightened up from his bowed position over the exercise ball and gratefully accepted the trainer's hand. He slumped down onto a nearby bench and wiped a shaky hand over his sweaty brow.
The gym instructor sat next to him and shook his head at Blair's offer of a bottle of water. "No, thanks. Look, Blair, you're coming along in leaps and bounds. You're doing stuff today that you couldn't even attempt a week ago."
"You sound like Jim," Blair said grumpily. He pulled a towel from his bag and began to wipe himself down.
Casey shrugged. "I'm Jim's friend. We've both been where you are now, albeit for different reasons. When I took that punch from Davis, I didn't think I'd ever walk again, let alone be running a gym. And your partner? I've lost count of the number of times he's limped here with some injury or another. You've got to persevere."
"I know that, but I've got obligations, deadlines, a social life!" He elbowed Casey in the ribs none too gently at the other man's snort of laughter. "I'm serious here. Well, maybe not about the social life, but look, I come in here, work out for an hour, then I go home and I'm so exhausted I can't see straight. I'm thinking that I have to reorganize my priorities a little."
"In what way?" Casey held out a hand to help Blair to his feet.
Blair shook his head. "I'm not sure yet," he replied as he limped slowly toward the showers. "There's got to be some way that I can work out and get my strength back quickly so I can get back out on the street with Jim, and still have the energy to write my dissertation, maybe get back to teaching a few classes. God knows I could use the money. This place doesn't come cheap. No offence."
"None taken," Casey called out. "Just remember, Blair, there are no shortcuts." He turned as someone called his name. "Blair, you wait for me, okay? I'll be there in five minutes."
Blair waved a dismissive hand. "Yeah, yeah."
"I mean it, Sandburg. You get in that shower before I'm there, and Jim is going to kick your butt and then mine."
Blair pushed open the door to the shower room and walked slowly over to the bench. He lowered himself carefully, and busied himself pulling fresh clothes and toiletries from his gym bag.
"Mr. Sandburg? Blair?"
Blair looked up to see a well-built young man standing by the door. "Hi. Can I help you?"
The young man shook his head. "I might be able to help you, though."
"Do you mind if I sit down?" He indicated the bench.
"No, I don't mind."
The man nodded his thanks and lowered himself to sit beside Blair. "I overheard you talking to Casey. I've suffered from a similar problem, and I think I can help you out."
"$150!" Blair's eyes bulged in shock. "Oh, man, I don't know. That's a lot of money."
Mike Jones shrugged. "Compared to sitting on your butt and not being able to live your life? I think it's a cheap price to pay."
"Are you sure they're legal?" Blair eyed the small jar nervously and shook it.
"Check at your local pharmacy, man. You can buy them over the counter."
"Why should I buy them from you, then? I don't have a whole lot of money."
Mike shrugged and held out his hand for the bottle. Blair hesitated, his fingers tightening around the plastic vial. "Look," Mike said finally, "Suit yourself. I've got plenty of people who want to buy these."
"I'm just careful about what I put in my body, that's all. I mostly practice holistic medicine."
"That's why I only take these. Do you know what sort of crap pharmaceutical companies are putting in their products these days? This stuff is pure, natural."
Blair had a memory of Jim, his senses whacked out and wildly erratic after he'd taken a commercial cold medicine. "Why do you take them?"
"I suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalitis. I've tried everything." Mike chuckled. "Some really weird stuff too, like ice baths. Anyway, nothing works. I'm a medical student. The physical and mental demands of medicine are tough enough without feeling so tired you want to sleep for twenty hours a day."
"Couldn't you just defer your studies until you get better? Rainier's been pretty understanding about my absences."
"I know of people who've had ME for ten years and are still no better than when they first contracted it. I don't have ten years to wait." Mike shifted impatiently on his feet and glanced at his watch. "So, you want them or not? I've got to get going."
He held out his hand again, and after a slight hesitation, Blair pocketed the pills and pulled out his wallet. "Guess Jim'll wait another couple of weeks for rent. I'm so far behind now, it doesn't matter."
"Come on, mate. Why don't you drop the knife - carefully? There's more police on the way. You're not doing yourself any favors here."
Jim's gaze flickered briefly from the man standing in front of him to Megan Conner. The perp's stance was tense and unyielding, his face shiny with sweat, and his pupils dilated and struggling to focus. The Australian inspector stood with firm resolve etched on her face, her gun steadied in both hands, the barrel aimed unwaveringly at the strung-out thief.
They'd been returning to the station after another unsuccessful stakeout, and all Jim had wanted to do was go home to bed. As they'd turned onto 4th Street in Chinatown, a man had come running out of the small restaurant a few blocks away.
Not bothering to look where he was going, he'd run straight across the road in front of them. Jim slammed on the brakes just in time to bring the vehicle to a jolting halt, though the man had collided noisily with the front bumper of the truck and bounced back to the ground. As he staggered back to his feet and took off again, Jim's enhanced sight caught the unmistakable glint of steel clenched in his hand.
Throwing the truck into gear, Jim barked an order to Conner to call for backup then added a request for an ambulance as he saw a small Chinese man stagger from the restaurant clutching his arm, a dark shadow of blood evident on his white sleeve.
By the time Conner finished the call and ran up to join him, Jim had the man boxed in at the end of an alley. Jim held his position as the knife swung menacingly toward him. In the distance, he could hear the sound of sirens. All his senses seemed to be on full alert, adrenaline honing their edge, and he knew he should probably dial them back, but the dial seemed to be stubbornly stuck, and a concerted effort would mean taking his attention from the armed man in front of them.
A car horn blared shatteringly against Jim's eardrums and he staggered, almost going down to his knees as he clamped his hands desperately to his ears. From the corner of his eye, he saw the perp slash out at Conner and heard her grunt in pain, her weapon clattering to the asphalt.
As Jim surged back up to his feet, the man charged him, one outflung fist smashing into his mouth, knocking him onto his butt. His attacker took off like a frightened rabbit back toward the street. Jim regained his footing almost instantly, grimacing at the bitter taste of blood in his mouth, and took a step toward his downed partner. "Conner?"
"I'm okay." Megan's voice was tight with pain and edged with anger. "Go. I'm fine."
Jim needed no further encouragement. He pounded back toward the mouth of the alley, the man's retreating footsteps echoing toward him. His foot skidded out from beneath him suddenly, and Jim cursed as he found himself on his hands and knees in a pool of stagnant, greasy water.
Ruthlessly wrenching down the dial for smell as he fought not to gag on the stench of rotting refuse, he climbed back to his feet, ignoring the sting of grazed palms and knees, and took off again. Rounding the corner onto Main Street, Jim became aware that the running footsteps had stopped. Cautiously, he tried to filter through the ringing in his ears, focusing instead on the street sounds around him, attempting to pinpoint the location of the thief.
Blair's voice whispered to him, his guide's voice low and calm in his mind. 'Sift through the noises. Discard what you don't need.'
There. Just beyond him, hidden in the shadows of the next block of shops. Jim could hear the man's strained breathing and pounding heart. Stepping up carefully, he saw the perp was facing away from him, his attention on the flashing lights of the police car parked at the curb a few yards away.
Jim tapped the man on the shoulder and stepped back quickly, leveling his weapon at the thief's head. "Let's try this again. Drop the knife - carefully."
By the time he handed the cuffed man off to the uniforms and made his way back to the alley, Conner was seated in the back of an ambulance next to an ashen-faced Chinese man. She looked pale, but smiled wanly as he climbed into the rig.
"How you doing, Conner?"
Megan stroked a finger over the white gauze that wrapped around her upper arm. "Just a scratch. I take it you got him?"
"Think I can get a claim in for my jacket?"
Jim gestured ruefully at his torn and stained trousers. "Let me know if you do. I'm gonna need a new pair of pants."
Blair looked up from his laptop as the apartment door opened and Jim walked in. The anthropologist glanced at the clock, surprised at the lateness of the hour. He couldn't remember when he'd last been able to stay awake this long. The thought cheered him immensely. Finally, he was seeing some improvement.
"Hey, Jim. How was work?" Blair's voice trailed away as Jim merely grunted at him and limped toward the bathroom. Blair's mouth dropped open at his partner's bedraggled appearance. The detective's shirt and pants were filthy, stained with dirt and something undistinguishable that Blair would rather not think about. One sleeve was partially torn from the shoulder of his shirt, and the knees of his pants were stained with blood.
Blair pulled himself up from the couch, then waited a moment until he was sure of his balance before following Jim. He made it to the bathroom just as the door shut. He hovered for a second uncertainly, then smiled as the door opened to reveal Jim's bruised face.
"Bad day, Sandburg," Jim said tiredly, wincing as the split in his lip opened up and oozed blood. "Long story." At Blair's worried frown, he sighed. "I'm fine. It's late. How come you're not in bed already?"
"Got caught up in some really interesting research about Australian Aborigines and their tracking abilities," Blair answered. "I'm not even tired."
"That's great, Chief. Don't overdo it, huh? I'm gonna take a shower."
By the time Jim emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist, Blair had the first aid kit set up next to a grilled cheese sandwich and a steaming bowl of vegetable soup. The anthropologist pulled out a chair and pointed to it. "Have a seat, man."
Jim did as he was asked, but protested at the same time. "I'm okay. Just grazed my hands and knees a little."
Blair silenced him with one hand, and handed him a sweater with the other. "Leave your pants off until I fix your knees." As Jim opened his mouth again, Blair pointed to the sandwich. "Don't talk, eat. Let me look after you for a change."
Jim growled in exasperation, then smiled guiltily as his stomach grumbled. Finally, he gave up the fight and reached for the sandwich. Blair grinned and lifted one of Jim's legs onto his lap. "So, Detective Ellison. How was your day?"
Blair's head jerked up from where it had drooped onto his chest as he finally succumbed to sleep. He stretched extravagantly and yawned, looking around the room in some confusion as he tried to get his bearings. 'Oh, living room. Right.'
He'd fallen asleep on the couch after bandaging up Jim's injuries and sending the weary detective up to bed. He'd still felt a little wired from his study, and probably to some degree from the pill he'd taken when he'd first got home from the gym.
Blair shook the lingering drowsiness from his head and stood up carefully. He could hear Jim moving around upstairs, so he made his way into the kitchen to make coffee and start breakfast. Since his fall just over a week before, Jim had been getting up a half-hour earlier than normal to help Blair with his shower before going to work.
It was another thing Blair added to his guilt list and it made him more determined than ever to push his recovery. It would have not mattered as much if Blair had been helping Jim out with his senses in return, but these days he was reduced to doing a few simple tests and exercises, if and when he could find the energy and Jim could spare the time.
The full coffeepot slipped suddenly as his hands refused to take the extra weight. It crashed onto the sink, showering him with water and tearing him abruptly from his thoughts. "Shit!"
"Sandburg? You okay?" Jim's voice came from the top of the stairs, and Blair could hear him padding quickly down.
The anthropologist shuffled back a little from the sink and pulled his soaking shirt away from his skin. "I'm fine," he assured the detective. "I don't think I'll need a shower this morning, though."
"Here, let me get that." Jim's strong hands pushed Blair's out of the way and set the pot on the hotplate.
Blair felt irrational anger flash fire through his veins. "I'm not a cripple," he ground out.
"I know that," Jim replied. He looked flustered as he cast about looking for something to mop up the water. "I'm sorry. I was just trying to help."
Blair took a slow, shaky breath and accepted the dishcloth that Jim held out to him. "I'm the one who should be sorry," he said, swabbing at his shirt. "That was uncalled for. I'll go take a shower." He held up a silencing hand when Jim opened his mouth. "I'll call you when I'm ready to get in."
Blair showered and dressed with some help from Jim. Fiddly things such as buttons and shoelaces were still beyond the capability of his clumsy, partly numb fingers. By the time he emerged from his bedroom, Jim had served up breakfast and was pouring coffee.
"So, Chief, what have you got planned for today?"
Blair smiled, and was relieved to see an answering grin grace Jim's face, indicating their earlier disagreement was forgiven. He felt guilty and rather surprised by his earlier outburst. "I'm heading over to the university this morning. Can I get a ride with you?"
He was under doctor's orders not to drive until they could be sure that the collapse of the previous week would not occur again.
"What about your workout?"
"I could get a cab there once I'm done at the university…"
Jim waved the suggestion away as he stood and carried his empty plate to the kitchen. "I've got a couple hours of paperwork to get done. How about I swing by after and pick you up? We can grab an early lunch first."
"Sounds like a plan." He helped Jim clear the table, then packed his backpack while Jim finished the dishes.
"Okay," Jim said as he dried the frying pan and replaced it on the ceiling hook. "What time do you think you'll be finished?"
"I'm not sure," Blair answered as they walked to the front door. "Why don't I phone you when I'm done? If you can't get there right away, I can always visit with Scott or Kathy for a while.
Jim smiled and clapped the other man on the back. "All right. That'll work."
While Jim busied himself getting their jackets and taking hold of Blair's backpack, Blair extricated a caffeine pill from his pocket and dry swallowed it.
To Chapter Sixteen