Jim hoisted Blairís backpack higher on his shoulder, then smiled at the ambulance attendant as he gripped the handles of the wheelchair. "Thanks," he said. "I can take it from here."
"You sure you donít need a hand? He doesnít look too steady there," the attendant said, pointing his chin toward Blair, who lolled in the chair, struggling to keep himself upright.
Jim shook his head. "Weíll be fine. Thanks for the ride."
The attendant shrugged and cracked his gum. "Itís what they pay me for. Take it easy."
Jim reached a hand forward and squeezed Blairís shoulder. "You okay there, Chief?" He smiled as a hand was raised from Blairís lap and a shaky thumbs-up took shape. "All right. Letís go meet the gang."
He pushed the wheelchair slowly toward the sliding doors of the rehab center, his sight dialed up to take in any miniscule bump that could cause Blair to lose his already-precarious balance.
Jim had wanted to bring Blair here in his own vehicle, hoping to retain some small measure of control over their lives. The doctors, however, had vetoed the idea, maintaining that Blair was not yet strong enough to sit upright for the half-hour trip out to the center. Jim had conceded to their better judgement, guilt at considering his own feelings first washing over him. Blair had insisted, even in the ambulance, on sitting up next to Jim on the bench, decisively piling his bags onto the gurney, his determined face daring anyone to do something about it. Only Jimís tight grip around his waist had kept him from falling flat on his face.
"Pretty nice place, huh, Chief?" Jim said conversationally as they neared the entrance doors. He had heard Blairís heart rate increase exponentially the closer they came to the center, and he was desperate now to put the young man at ease.
It was indeed an attractive place. Jim let his gaze wander over the wide expanses of green lawns, their edges framed with brightly colored flowering shrubs. Just beyond the rehab building was a tennis court, and beyond that, judging from the chlorine that tickled his nose and caused him to sneeze, the hydrotherapy rooms.
"Dial it down," his guide slurred from the wheelchair, and Jim grinned widely.
"Always on duty, huh, Chief?"
"DonÖ' forÖget it," Blair answered, cheerfully enough, and Jim allowed himself to relax just a little.
The detective pushed the chair through the sliding doors and up to the reception desk. A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman was seated in front of a computer monitor, typing industriously. As the two men approached, she looked up from her work and smiled. "May I help you?"
"Iím Jim Ellison." The detective laid a hand on Blairís shoulder. "This is Blair Sandburg. Heís, I mean, BlairÖ"
"Iíll take it from here, Marion." A strong voice came from along the corridor, and Jim looked up to see a robust, middle-aged woman dressed in a uniform of white tunic and slacks striding toward them. As she came closer, she stuck out a hand and shook Jimís warmly. "Detective Ellison. Iím Harriet Jones, the nurse in charge of Blairís floor. Itís a pleasure to meet you."
Crouching, she looked at Blair, then repeated her welcoming gesture to him. "You must be Blair. My, youíre a handsome one. Iíll have all the staff fighting over you."
Jim grinned as Blair blushed hotly. "Itís the same wherever we go," he said dryly.
"Right then." The nurse straightened and reached out a hand for Blairís backpack and suitcase. "Why donít you leave Blairís bags here with Marian, and Iíll get an orderly to bring his things to his room shortly. Itís rest time right now, and I donít want to disturb the patients. Iíll take your friend to his room and get him settled in. Why donít you come back around 3 this afternoon?"
"I thought I could stay with him for a while," Jim answered, his hand tightening unconsciously on his partnerís shoulder.
The nurse shook her head and reached for the handles of the wheelchair. "Mark, thatís Blairís roommate, had a very grueling session in the pool this morning. Iím sure you wouldnít want to disturb his rest." Her eyes seemed to glitter menacingly, and Jim felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
Harriet took advantage of Jimís hesitation and pushed off down the corridor. "Good. Weíll see you in a couple of hours."
"Wait a minute." Jim dropped Blairís bags to the floor and hurried after the rapidly disappearing duo. He reached out an arm and snagged her shoulder, turning her to look at him. "You didnít tell me what room number."
Jim nodded, filing the information away, then stepped quickly in front of the wheelchair before she could take off again. "Blair? You okay with this?"
Blair paused a moment as though considering the question. "Go," he finally whispered. "Iím 'kay." He nodded, emphasizing his determination, then reached out a shaky hand and squeezed Jimís weakly. "DonÖ' forgetÖ come back, Ďkay?"
Jim shook his head and ruffled Blairís hair. "Iíll see you in a bit."
He stood then and walked back to the reception desk, his hands fisted tightly at his side. "Iím not going anywhere, lady," he muttered as he strode out the front door.
Whistling to himself, Jim headed toward a sunny bench and sat himself down. Then he cast out his sensory net, relaxing only when he had Blairís heartbeat firmly pinned down. Making himself comfortable, he settled in for a couple of hours of eavesdropping.
Blair attempted to clumsily unpack his belongings as he balanced precariously in the wheelchair. An impatient look from Nurse Jones as his bathroom bag slipped from his still-numb fingers and clattered to the floor had him reddening with embarrassment. Quickly, he glanced over at the slumbering form in the next bed, but the other man slept on.
Nurse Jones picked up the small bag from the floor and set it on the bedside cabinet. "Tell you what," she said, her voice kindly enough. "Why donít I get you started on your physical therapy, and then Mark can get his rest. By the time weíre done itíll be visiting hours, and your friend will be here."
Blair smiled, nodded, and allowed the nurse to push him from the room. By the time they reached their destination, he was drooping with exhaustion from the long trip. He tensed as the orderly accompanying them pushed open the double swing doors and Harriet pushed his chair into the enormous room.
Jim startled awake at the shout, and then recoiled from the thundering sound of Blairís racing heartbeat in his ears. He staggered to his feet, berating himself loudly for having lowered his guard. Quickly, he strode back through the entrance doors of the rehab center, increasing his pace as Blair choked out his name.
"Whereís Blair?" Jim asked of the startled woman at the reception desk. It was not the same one as before and Jim cursed. Then he turned away, hurrying along the corridor, focusing only on his partnerís racing heartbeat, oblivious to those he pushed aside in his rush.
His search took him out a rear door and through a long hallway that appeared to connect the buildings. Jimís heart sank as he zeroed in on his terrified partner and he recognized the unmistakable smell of chlorine. Blairís voice echoed shatteringly against his eardrums as Jim sped the rest of the way through the seemingly unending hallway.
"No! Canít. Don't makeÖ No!"
Jim could hear the voice of the nurse theyíd met earlier, her words soothing, but her tone edged with impatience. "Come now, Blair. Don't be so foolish. The doctor ordered hydrotherapy and the sooner we start, the sooner you'll be well. Itís only water."
"Get your hands off of him," Jim shouted as he pushed open the doors to the poolroom. He took in the scene in front of him at a glance. The nurse from earlier stood at Blairís side, one skinny arm clasped in her meaty fist. A man dressed in swim-shorts stood knee-deep on the steps that led into the pool, his mouth open in surprise at the intrusion.
The two burly orderlies holding a shaking, white-faced, boxer-clad Sandburg in their grasp looked up at the sentinelís enraged roar, and did just what he demanded. Jim watched in horror as his partner teetered at the edge of the pool for just a moment, then fell into the water, sinking almost immediately to the bottom.
Jim dived in after Blair without conscious thought, angling himself downward to grasp a frantically waving arm. Getting a tight grip on Blairís wrist, he pulled the sputtering man to the surface. Blair still struggled in Jimís grip, despite the detectiveís efforts to reassure him.
"Sandburg! It's okay, buddy. I've got you."
Twice, Blair flailed away from him in his fear, his breath becoming more panicked by the second. Finally, Jim managed to hug him close to his chest.
"That's it, Chief. Settle down." Jim got Blair onto his back, one hand hooked under his chin, and began to swim back toward the side of the pool. He looked up as a hugely muscled forearm was stuck in front of his nose.
"Let me help you with him," the orderly said.
Jim hesitated a moment, then acquiesced and allowed the men to pull Blairís shivering body from the water. He clambered out himself and hurried quickly to Blairís side, nodding gratefully as a large warm towel was pushed into his hands. He wrapped it firmly around Blairís body, then enfolded the disoriented man in a comforting embrace.
"What on earth are you doing?' the nurse sputtered in outrage. "This area is off-limits to everyone except staff and patients."
Jim tuned her out, concentrating on the distressing sounds of Sandburg coughing and gagging. He dialed up his hearing again and listened to Blair's lungs, relieved to hear no sounds of fluid. He patted Blair firmly on the back as he spluttered. "You're okay, Chief. You're okay."
Don'tÖ makeÖplease," Blair whispered. " Not poolÖ" He pulled away slightly from Jim's grasp and looked up, his red-rimmed eyes wide. "Jim! TellÖNot pool."
"Shh," Jim soothed, feeling Blairís heartbeat finally begin to settle. "Itís all right. You donít have to go in there." Once he was sure that Blair had calmed, Jim hoisted his partner into his arms and turned toward the nurse. "Show me to Blairís room, and then I want to speak to whoever's in charge."
Nurse Jones set her jaw. "Doctor Morris ordered hydrotherapy to begin this afternoon. Iím only following orders."
"Blair drowned a few weeks ago," Jim said, lowering his voice in deference to his still-quaking partner. "Tell the doctor I want to talk to him."
The two glared at each other in a standoff. Then Nurse Jones sighed and pointed to the wheelchair. "Put him in the wheelchair and Iíll show you to his room."
Jim shook his head. "Iíll carry him back and help him get dressed."
The nurse nodded and led the little entourage from the hydrotherapy room. Jim deposited Blair on the bed in his room, acknowledging the other occupant with a terse nod. The other man smiled back, and then reached out a trembling arm to the bar that hung suspended in front of him. He shook his long hair from his face, and swore softly as it spun away from his grasping fingers, and reached for it again.
"Here." Jim crossed the room and grabbed hold of the rampant bar, holding it steady until the man in the bed could grasp hold and pull himself up.
Jim shook his head. "No problem. Can I help you with anything else?"
"No. Iím fine. Thanks."
Jim forced a smile to his lips that eased the tension in his jaw. "Sure. I, um, betterÖ" He motioned over his shoulder to where Blair lay on the other bed, shivering despite being swathed in a large towel, his eyes still somewhat glassy.
The young man nodded and sat back, watching with undisguised interest.
Mark Cameron looked on curiously as the tall man gently sat the smaller one up on the bed and stripped the towel from his shoulders before bundling the shivering form, clad only in a pair of swim shorts, under the bedclothes. Then he turned and rummaged through the suitcase balanced on the chair, pulling sweats and thick socks from within.
"What?" The large man looked up and glanced at him quickly before his gaze flickered back to the man in the bed. "Oh, yeah. Heíll be okay. He took an unscheduled dip in the pool. Kind of freaked him out."
Mark watched as he leaned over the other man once more, cupping the shivering manís chin in a large but seemingly gentle hand. "Blair? You back with me, Chief?"
The smaller man, Blair, slowly blinked his eyes and looked around the room, then fixed his gaze upon the big man. "Jim?" The voice was slightly slurred, but the other man, Jim, smiled widely at the words.
"How you doing? How about we dry you off and get some warm clothes on you?"
Blair seemed to stiffen, then his entire body folded in upon itself and Jim caught him up in a tight hug. "No pool, 'kay, Jim?"
Jim shook his head. "No pool, Chief. I promise."
Mark and Jim both looked up as Nurse Jones knocked at the open door. "Dr. Morris will see you now, detective."
"Give me a minute or two to dry him off and Iíll be with you," Jim answered, turning his attention back to Blair.
The nurse took a step into the room. "Why donít you let me do that?" she suggested as she pulled several towels from a closet by the door. "The doctor is a busy man."
"That okay with you, Chief?"
Blair nodded, though he seemed to eye the nurse apprehensively, Mark thought. "Iíll keep an eye on him," he offered.
Jim smiled at him. "Thanks. Iíll be back shortly."
Mark lowered himself back onto his pillows with some difficulty and watched as Nurse Jones proceeded to dry and dress the other man with a gentleness that belied her bulk.
"So, Harry, whoís on tonight?" he asked, grinning as his words got the expected reaction and the nurse turned to spear him with a mock glare.
"How many times have I told you itís Harriet, not Harry?" the nurse scolded. "Melissaís on tonight," she relented. She smiled as the young manís eyes lit up in delight.
"Hmmph," she muttered, turning back to her other charge. Gently, she stroked a hand across Blairís forehead, smoothing the still-damp hair from his face. "Howís that, sweetie? Better?" Blair nodded but did not speak, his eyes studiously avoiding hers. "Iím sorry, Blair," Harriet continued. "I didnít know about your drowning. I was just following doctorís orders."
Blair nodded again, a soft sob hiccuping from his throat. "'S'kay."
Harriet smiled. "Now, if youíre feeling better, let me introduce you to your roommate."
Mark waved a loose wrist. "Hey, man. That was quite an entrance you made. Whoís the super-hero?"
Blair looked over at him, a smile tugging lopsidedly at his lips. "íTective Ellíson," he slurred, his eyelids beginning to droop. "Jim. Partner." He brought one hand up and patted his chest with a concentrated effort. "Blair."
"Youíre a cop?" Mark said. "Thatís cool, man. I got nothing against cops."
Blair shook his head. "No, Jimís cop. Iím a anthÖanthÖ" He sighed heavily and frowned. "I teach."
Mark nodded. "Mark Cameron, muscular dystrophy. Whatís your problem?"
Blair waved the question away as his eyes closed and his voice trailed off. "Canít say it."
"Thatís cool," Mark said. He settled back in the bed and watched the other man sleep, wishing he had someone like Jim to watch out for him, and counting the hours till luscious Nurse Melissa came on duty.
To Chapter Eight