"Blair!" Blair's leaden eyelids slowly opened as Naomi's familiar voice rang out. Jim watched from his chair at the bedside as Sandburg's brow creased in concentration and he managed to push his head to the side and then allowed his chin to drop onto his chest so he could see Naomi as she swept through the door. Jim stood and moved away from the bed, stifling a sneeze as he did so.
"Oh, Jim. Your allergies. I'm sorry, I forgot."
Jim waved away her apology with one hand as he fished in his pocket with the other, pulling a handkerchief out a moment later, just in time to catch another sneeze.
"I figured they wouldn't let me burn any sage in here, so the least I could do was dab on a little cleansing scent."
"M-Ma." The one word was dragged out with agonizing effort, but Naomi beamed and hurried forward to enfold Blair in her arms. Finally, when Jim thought Blair would suffocate from the crush of her embrace, he managed to push one arm weakly against her shoulder. Naomi took the hint and lowered him back to the bed, taking care to cradle his still wobbly head.
"I couldn't believe it when Doctor Parry called to say you were awake. I mean, after the poisons they gave you, I'm amazed you survived."
"Wha?" Blair's eyes flickered from Naomi's to Jim's, and Jim wondered if his decision not to mention Naomi's previous visit had been wise. As Sandburg's face clouded over in confusion, and his frustration at being unable to give it voice became obvious, Jim interrupted the reunion.
"Naomi. It's good to see you. How long are you planning on staying?" He forced out his offer. "You can stay in Blair's room at the loft while you're in town, if you want." Please don't want. He felt his face heat at his uncharitable thought. Naomi could be a royal pain in the butt sometimes, but she was Sandburg's mother.
"Oh, I can't stay." Naomi dismissed Jim with a wave of her hand before seating herself at Blair's side. "As soon as I heard the news that Blair was recovering, I phoned Perry. You remember Perry, don't you, sweetie?"
Before Blair could make the effort to nod or shake his head, she went on. "Perry owns a little island off the coast of Australia. He runs a meditation and holistic center there. He suggested that I could probably use some healing right now to get over the trauma of Blair's illness. I'm leaving this afternoon, so I wanted to come and spend some time with my son before I go." She turned dazzling green eyes on Jim. "You don't mind letting me have Blair to myself for a few hours, do you, Jim?"
Jim had already backed away to stand by the door. He debated telling her exactly how he felt about her breezing in and out of his partner's life. Sandburg's pale, confused face, with the corners of his mouth turning up lopsidedly as he basked in his mother's attention stopped Jim in his tracks.
"Actually, I'm glad you're here. Simon needs me to go over some arrest reports at the precinct." He smiled at Blair. "Do you mind if I take off for a couple of hours, Chief?"
Blair waved a shaky hand. "Go."
Jim gave him a snappy salute and left. Once in the car on his way to the station, he gave full vocal vent to his thoughts on Naomi Sandburg's idea of parenting. "I don't believe you, Naomi," he ranted. "One minute you're demanding to make life and death decisions for your son, the next moment you're flitting out of the country while he's still recovering."
He calmed himself with the thought that Sandburg at least had appeared accepting of his mother's decision to leave.
The following week was filled with activity, once Blair was moved from the ICU to a regular room. Progress was still agonizingly slow and Blair's frustration was obvious. He'd always been a hyperactive individual; now the simple task of moving on his own was often beyond him and his moods swung from high to low in the blink of an eye.
Jim became his partner's personal cheering squad, offering a constant barrage of praise and light-hearted banter, even when all he wanted to do was go out into the street and scream his frustrations to the heavens.
The biggest milestone had been seeing Blair breathing on his own again. Only now, seeing Blair sitting strapped into a wheelchair, unfettered by tubes and monitors, did Jim acknowledge how truly frightened he'd been in the early days of Sandburg's illness. Finally, he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Bree, the physical therapist, told Jim that Blair wanted to begin feeding himself. There were two parts of Blair's care that he seemed to find particularly embarrassing, being fed and being bathed.
Jim had been able to assist for the most part with Blair's care by asking the nurses to hold off on his bath until Jim arrived in the afternoon to visit. His partner seemed to feel less uncomfortable with Jim tending his most personal needs, and as it took the strain off the already over-taxed staff, they were more than willing to agree.
He still wasn't up to much more speaking than verbalizing his most basic needs, and even that was a struggle that frustrated them both, with Sandburg's face screwing up as he tried to make his words understood and Jim biting his tongue, fighting the desire to speak for him.
A silent Sandburg didn't sit right. Used to Blair's endless chatter, Jim filled the room with music, mostly CD's that Blair liked and Jim could tolerate. The soft regular rhythms of drums and the soothing tones of gentle flutes, even the haunting didgeridoos of Aboriginal earth music, were a familiar and comforting sound.
The night before, Jim had promised Blair that he'd come in for the feeding therapy session. A vital arrest had blown that to hell, and Jim phoned the hospital to explain that he'd be late. Knowing the staff had to work to a tight schedule, he asked them to go ahead with feeding Blair.
He arrived to find a nurse paging Sandburg's doctor. Hurriedly she explained that the evening meal had not gone well after Blair had spilled a bowl of pudding on his lap. When she returned with a second helping, he'd thrown it at the wall, rapidly followed by anything else within reach that he could use as a missile.
Jim asked her to hold off on calling the doctor and walked quickly to Sandburg's room. Dialing up his hearing, he could hear Blair's pounding heart and ragged breathing, overlaid with his newly regained voice hurling slurred epithets at every deity known to man, and a few that Jim didn't know existed.
As he put his hand on the door to push it open, Blair went silent for a moment and Jim had the eerie thought that Sandburg knew he was there. Then the sound of muttered imprecations reached his ears, his own name receiving its fair share of attention.
"Said I betterÖ NotÖ never better. Liar, Jim." A sob, then a sad plea. "Where you, Jim? Nee' you."
His heightened sense of smell detected the tang of tears overlaid by the stench of urine.
His concern increasing ten-fold, Jim pushed open the door and beheld a sight that caused his heart to clench painfully.
Blair lay in the middle of the bed, his pajamas soiled with spatters of food, and his hair a disheveled, sticky mess that hid his face. At Jim's entrance, he turned a wobbly, sorrowful face toward the door.
"Shorry," he sobbed from a still-slack mouth, spittle oozing down his chin to mix with the pudding encrusted there.
Jim was at his side in a second, lifting the thin body into his arms, uncaring of the urine that dampened his jeans. "That's okay, Chief. Let's get you cleaned up."
Later, with Blair bathed and settled back in bed, a thousand apologies still falling from his lips, Jim sat beside his friend and broached the subject he'd been dreading.
"In a day or two, the doctor thinks you'll be strong enough to go to a rehab center for a while." As Blair's eyes frowned at him, Jim lifted a finger. "I know. I told the doctor I could take care of you at home but this is non-negotiable, apparently. If I want to get you back to working with me at the PD, we have to go this route."
It was probably an unfair tactic, Jim thought briefly, but Blair's major concern throughout his illness had been his unwarranted fear that he was letting his Sentinel down. He watched Blair closely for his reaction. Finally, Blair simply nodded.
Blair blinked twice for no. The simple sign language had been established early in Blair's recovery and was still a useful tool whenever he was too tired to concentrate on his speech.
Jim leaned forward and clicked off the light over Blair's bed, enveloping the room in darkness. "It won't be for long," he vowed. "And I promise I'll be there every step of the way."
"Well, well. Awake again?" Jim pushed the door to Blairís room open and walked quickly to the bedside. He pasted a cheerful smile on his face as Blairís head flopped over to look at him, drowsy blue eyes crinkling in pleasure.
"Youíre looking good, Chief. How are you feeling?"
A shaky hand was raised fractionally off the bed as Blairís brow creased with concentration, then he waggled his forefinger back and forth before dropping it back to the bed.
"So-so. Well, thatís an improvement on yesterday, when you were lousy." Jim made a thumbs-down gesture.
Blairís mouth turned up in a lop-sided attempt at a smile. The detective reached for a tissue to wipe away the drool that seemed to constantly dribble from Blairís mouth, leaving his skin chafed and sore-looking.
"You ready to blow this Popsicle stand day after tomorrow?" Jim asked as he pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed.
Blairís forehead wrinkled with effort again, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "H- HoÖ?" he mumbled.
Jim shook his head. "No, not home. Remember, we talked about the rehab center the other night?"
He tried to swallow past the lump in his throat as Blairís face scrunched up and tears began to course down his cheeks. The doctor had told him that Blairís emotions would run close to the surface for a while. The stress of his illness and his frustrations as he struggled to recover would leave him fragile and moody. His advice had been to simply go with the flow.
Jim reached out now and wiped the tears from Blairís cheeks with his thumb. "Come on now. Weíve been through this a dozen times. You need to go and stay at The Pines for a few weeks. Just until you get your strength back. All right?"
Blair blinked once, the effort expended communicating with Jim leaving him drained. Jim nodded. "All right. Has Simon been in today?" Blair blinked twice, his eyes beginning to drift shut.
"No? Thatís good," Jim continued. "You should have heard him going off at Thomson from Vice last night. Seems the Vice fellas really screwed up a crime scene, walked all over it with their size 12 shoes, and our esteemed captain was not impressed. Bernie on the front desk tells me they could hear him down there."
Jim was talking to himself by now, but he continued to chat, regaling the sleeping man beside him with stories of his friends and his life outside the hospital room.
Simon Banks dished up a fragrant bowl of stir-fry chicken and cashews, and snagged an ice-cold beer from the fridge before heading to the living room and the basketball game on TV. Daryl was spending the night with a friend and the captain was looking forward to a night at home, feet on the couch, game on the tubeÖ
As he raised the beer bottle to his lips, a loud rapping sounded at the front door and he almost chipped a tooth when he jumped. Cursing softly, Simon laid plate and beer on the coffee table and muted the sound on the television before heading for the front door. Jim Ellison stood at the entrance, one hand raised as though to knock again.
Simon took one look at the detectiveís stricken face and panicked. "Jim? Whatís happened? Is it Sandburg? Why didnít you call?"
Jim shook his head. "No. Itís not Sandburg. Well, it is." Jim blew out a breath. "He kicked me out, Simon."
"What? What do you mean he kicked you out?" Simon reached forward and drew Jim into the entrance hall. "Get in here, Jim. Itís freezing out there. God, you look like shit. You want some dinner? Good. Sit down, Iíll get you a beer."
He steered the detective toward the living room as he talked and pushed him down onto the couch before Jim had a chance to react. Then he hurried into the kitchen, dishing up another serving of stir-fry and pulling a second beer from the fridge. Heading back into the living room, he saw Jim had remained where heíd placed him and was staring into space. "Jim? Here. Get some food into you."
Jim looked up at him, his eyes haunted. "Thanks." He took the plate and utensils and began to push the food around the plate as Simon placed the beer on the table in front of him and headed back to his own dinner.
"So. Whatís going on?" Simon asked around a mouthful of chicken. "Start at the beginning."
Jim laid down the fork and spoke. "Doctor Parry said theyíd move Blair to the rehab center tomorrow. Heís coming along really well. His pneumonia has settled and heís able to use his hands a lot better to feed himself. He wonít be walking for a while and you have to listen really carefully to figure out what heís saying, but heís doing well."
"Heís been getting really upset about going to the center. He wants to go home."
"Thatís understandable, Jim. You just have to convince him that itís for his own good."
Jim nodded. "I know. Finally tonight he agreed to go. Then he told me to get out and not come back until itís time to leave for The Pines tomorrow."
"Did he say why?"
"He said I looked like shit and that he didnít need a babysitter 24/7. Especially one who looked like he was going to pass out any minute. Said he didnít think he had the strength right now to pick me up off the floor. Wise-ass."
Simon cocked an eyebrow and Jim shrugged. "Not in so many words, mind you but I got the drift."
The captain tried not to laugh, but he was relieved to think that Sandburg must truly be on the road to recovery if the two men were bickering. "Youíve got to admit heís got a point. I already gave you my opinion on how you look, and youíre no good to the kid if youíre lying in the next bed."
Jim groaned and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I know that. Itís justÖ I went home to the loft. Thought Iíd have a shower, order in a pizza, watch the game." He leaned forward and put his plate on the coffee table, then stood and began to pace. "Itís so quiet there, Simon. It always used to be quiet, before Sandburg moved in. I thought I liked it that way. I donít. I hate it. I can hear myself think, and all I can think about is seeing him lying there, fighting to breathe, to move."
Simon stood then and picked up Jimís plate, pressing it back into his hands and motioning toward the couch. "Iím glad you came by. Darylís away and Iíve got to admit that Iím not used to a silent house myself. Get that food in you and Iíll turn on the game."
By half time in the game, Jim was asleep, his stomach full and a half-empty beer bottle drooping precariously from one lax hand. Simon rescued it before the cold contents could spill and wake his slumbering friend and managed to push Jim until he rested full-length on the couch. He draped a soft blanket over the detectiveís prone form.
"If you think Iím carrying you upstairs to bed, youíve got another think coming," the captain whispered gruffly. He rested a large hand on the sleeping manís head as though in benediction. "Get some rest, my friend."
Blair stared at the hospital ceiling and concentrated on blowing a sigh of bored irritation out of his mouth. Though he was tired after a longer than usual therapy session, he seemed too wired to sleep. Heíd managed to control a spoon in his hand today and feed himself an almost entire bowl of soup.
Even after he had begun to shake from exhaustion and his therapist wanted to call a halt to the session, Blair had stubbornly insisted on continuing. His effort had been rewarded when Jim had come into the gym, wondering what was holding him up and Blair had shyly, proudly, demonstrated his new skill.
He felt tears burn the backs of his eyes as he thought now of the wide grin of elation on his partnerís face and the warmth of Jimís strong arms as heíd pulled him into a gentle hug. Pulling back weakly in mock embarrassment, Blair had been shocked by the deep lines of exhaustion that framed Jimís eyes, the ghostly pallor that dusted his cheeks. Not listening to Jimís arguments, he had vociferously stuttered his demand that Jim go home to rest.
Now, lying here in the darkness, feeling the discomfort of a dry throat and seeing the call button left on the far side of the bedside cabinet by an unthinking nurse, Blair wished desperately for his partnerís reassuring presence.
He wasn't sure what time it was, but the nurse had already been around with the morning medication, and the faint light he could see around the edge of the blind on the window indicated early morning. Outside his room, he could hear the rapid footsteps of the nurses as they went about their duties. He debated calling out, then cast it aside. The staff always seemed so busy, he hated asking them for help.
Finally, brow creasing and lips pursed with effort, he managed to snake out a shaky arm and snag the tumbler of water from the rollaway table in front of him. He held his breath as his hand trembled wildly, several splashes of water overflowing from the cup on its rocky journey to his mouth. Just as he managed to lift his still wobbly head and bend his wrist so that cup and mouth met, his forearm spasmed violently, shooting a red-hot pain up through his shoulder and his hand clenched, dumping the contents of the tumbler over his chest.
Choking back a garbled curse, Blair flung his trembling arm wide, tossing the cup as far as he could. He lay in the wet bed, shivering from the cold water that soaked his thin hospital gown and seeped into his flesh, hot tears of rage and shame coursing down his cheeks.
Jim arrived at the hospital early the next day despite Simonís best efforts to delay him. He knew that Blair had asked him not to come in until ten, but he also knew the younger man was extremely nervous about his shift to the rehab center. So, for that matter, was Jim.
Blair lay flat on his back in the bed, his face averted from the door. As he walked into the room, Jimís foot connected with something that skittered across the floor and hit the wall with a thump. Looking down, Jim saw it was a plastic tumbler. Blair did not stir at the sound and Jim became worried. Stepping closer, he called to his partner.
"Blair? You all right?" Jim could see that Blairís eyes were open, but he did not react to his voice. Really concerned now, Jim placed a hand on Blairís shoulder, startled when the other man gave a shuddering sob and attempted to curl into himself. His still-weak muscles would not allow him to do so, and Jim easily rolled the lax body over so that Blair faced him, cupping his lolling head carefully as he did so. Crouching slightly, so that he was at eye level, Jim regarded Blair closely.
"Blair? Whatís wrong? Do you hurt somewhere?"
Blair looked exhausted. His eyes were lined with red and the lids were swollen, framed with dark circles. Slowly, he blinked twice. Jim frowned and then reached out to gently pat Blairís shoulder. The hospital gown under his hand was wet and the skin beneath it was icy. "Howíd you get wet, Chief?"
Blair averted his gaze again but Jim remembered the tumbler on the floor and the pieces suddenly fit together. "You tried to get yourself a drink, huh?"
Blair sighed and blinked once.
"Why didnít you call for the nurse?" Jim asked.
"Tried," Blair slurred. "Caní rea..."
"Can't reach?" Jim looked over at the bedside cabinet and spotted the call button. "Iím sorry, buddy." He rummaged in the overnight bag heíd brought in. "I should have stayed with you last night."
"No," Blair answered angrily. "Canít." The small effort at speech drained him and he closed his eyes.
Jim watched his partner sadly for a moment. "Iíve got some clothes here for you. Why donít you let me help you get changed, and then Iíll go track down some juice and breakfast."
Blair simply nodded, and Jim swallowed past the lump that threatened to choke him and pulled out the change of clothes. He busied himself with the mundane task of dressing Blair.
Finally, pulling one of Blairís favorite flannel shirts over the young manís shoulders, Jim spoke up. "Iíll bet youíre glad to be back in civvies, huh, Chief? Those drafty hospital gowns do nothing for your modesty." He grinned widely, cuffing Blairís jaw lightly. "The guys at the precinct were glad to hear youíre moving out of here too. Theyíve already got the roster drawn up as to whoís visiting when. I told them to take it slowly at first, we donít wantÖ"
"No? No, what?"
Blair found the strength to shake his head and pull it away from Jimís hold. "NoÖ not come."
"Not come? You mean you donít want the guys to come visit you?" Blair blinked once. "Theyíre your friends, Chief. Theyíve been worried about you. It was all I could do to stop them coming here to see you."
"No," Blair insisted. "Not like this." Then he was crying, soft, gulping sobs of sorrow and Jim finally understood and pulled him into a hug. "Itís all right," he soothed. "Iíll put them off for a little longer until youíre feeling stronger. Okay?"
He felt Blairís head nod against his chest and he sat a moment longer, gently rocking the distraught man in his arms.
To Chapter Seven