"Stay here!" Jim's voice was strained and tense as he turned to look at me over his shoulder.
We were both exhausted. We'd been staking out this warehouse, waiting for the drug smugglers to make their move for the past three nights in a row. Finally, just when we'd thought they'd given up and closed down their base of operations, they'd shown up.
I shook my head. "Wait for the backup, Jim. Simon should be only a few minutes away."
He gave me an exasperated look. "I'm just going to get closer so when backup arrives, I'll be right on top of them. I'm the cop, Sandburg, remember?"
"All right," I agreed softly, though my gut clenched anxiously at the thought of him going out there. "But let me come with you. You need someone to watch your back."
"Stay here!" He ground the words out between clenched teeth. "I don't need to be watching to make sure you're okay as well as trying to keep my eyes on them. Wait here for Simon and the others."
"Fine." My tone matched his for terseness. "Just… keep your head down, will you?" I bit down on my lip before I could tell him that I couldn't stand it if he got in the way of a bullet, that I didn't want to lose him, now more than ever before… I shook my head, clearing it of the thoughts that didn't belong here now, in this place, at this time.
He moved out, bent almost double, crouched down on his shanks to stay below the lights flooding the warehouse. Suddenly, he stopped, and his head bent to one side in a pose I'd come to recognize.
"Jim!" I whispered as loud as I dared. "Are you okay, man? What's happening?"
He didn't reply and I felt my heart lurch as I saw a man step out from behind him, a gun pointed unwaveringly at Jim's head.
"Shit!" I stood as stealthily as I could and moved toward them, hoping I could get the jump on the man before he fired.
There was a resounding clatter as my hip knocked against something and then the man with the gun was spinning around, his weapon up and aiming at where I stood.
"Sandburg! Get down!"
I threw myself desperately to one side, skidding across the concrete. As I hit the ground, I saw the perp swing back to Jim, and then there was a flash from the end of the gun barrel and Jim went down in a heap.
I made it to my feet in seconds, barrelling across the floor and tackling the gunman low around his hips. He grunted with surprise and I heard the gun hit the floor and go spinning. His elbow lashed back and caught me in the ribs, and I grunted, air whooshing out of me. Before I could retaliate, I felt a hand bunch in the back of my jacket and I was hauled upright and set on my feet.
"Settle down, Sandburg," a familiar voice said in my ear. "Where's Jim?"
I looked up into Simon's welcome face, and then down to where the perp was being handcuffed by an angry-looking Henri Brown. The warehouse was suddenly full of noise as police cars pulled in, sirens wailing, and the other drug runners were rounded up.
Simon gave my shoulder a shake. "You okay?" he asked, sounding worried.
"Oh God, Jim!" Memory returned in a rush and I raced to where I could see Jim slumped on the ground, a pool of blood already forming around his head.
"Get an ambulance here!" I heard Simon yell as I sank to my knees next to my partner.
Jim was unconscious, the side of his face covered in blood.
I reached out with a shaky hand and felt for a pulse, almost falling in a heap as I felt it beneath my fingertips. "Hang on, Jim," I murmured, taking one still hand in mine. "You'll be okay. I don't want to lose you now, man. Just hang on, okay?"
Moments later, I was being pulled aside and I stood in silence and watched the paramedics ready Jim for transport.
Simon wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "He'll be okay," he said surely. "Head wounds always bleed a lot."
"God, Simon, I should have done what he said. He told me to stay put. If he-"
"That's enough!" Simon said firmly, turning me around and walking me outside. "Rafe's going to get you to the hospital and you can see how he is before you fall on your sword, Sandburg, okay? I need to stay here and oversee the scene. I'll come by the hospital in a while, alright?"
I nodded numbly and let myself be ushered into Jim's truck. 'I can't lose you,' my mind whispered over and over all the way to the hospital. If Rafe spoke to me on the way, I didn't hear a word, my mind too focused on Jim.
"Name?" The bored-looking nurse gazed up from the computer screen at me. She tapped her fingers impatiently on the window ledge between us as I tried to get my thoughts into coherent order.
I had been waiting for over two hours before I'd finally decided to just front up to the desk and ask what I needed to know. Rafe had been called back to the PD to help with processing the evidence. It was flu season and every man was needed on board. He'd apologized to me profusely as he left, making me promise to call the MCU the minute I knew how Jim was.
"Right. Sorry. Um. Ellison. James Ellison."
I found myself using Jim's formal name as if that would help her find where he'd been taken faster.
She nodded at me then looked back down at her screen. "Okay, Mr. Ellison, who are you looking for?"
I shook my head urgently. "No. I'm looking for Detective James Ellison. I'm Blair Sandburg. I'm… I'm his partner."
I saw her mind cataloguing that response away disbelievingly. I didn't blame her. I mean I don't exactly look like anyone's idea of a Major Crime detective's partner. But right then, her opinion of me could've mattered less. I just wanted to find Jim, find out if he was okay, find out that my stupid, completely idiotic action hadn't killed the best friend I'd ever had in my life, the man I wanted more than anything else to be much more than a friend to.
"I'm here, Sandburg."
I jumped and turned around, almost falling in the process and looked up, relieved, into Jim's face.
"Jim, thank God, are you okay? Should you be walking around-"
He held a hand up. "I'm fine." He pointed to a bandage across his forehead, its edges stained with blood. "A few stitches and a mild concussion, that's all. The bullet just creased me."
I watched, feeling stunned with relief, as he swiveled and headed for the ER doors then ran to catch up. "If you've got a concussion, shouldn't you be staying overnight for observation?" I asked as I managed to get ahead of him and push open the door and hold it for him to go through.
"I guess if the doctor thought I needed to, I'd still be in there," he replied shortly, walking across to where the truck was parked in a police only zone.
"Okay." I pulled the truck keys from my pocket and got the passenger door open, noticing how he winced as he climbed inside, then I went around to the driver's side door and let myself in. "We should call Simon, let him know you're okay-" I began.
"They let me use a phone in the ER, Sandburg. I brought him up to speed."
"Oh, okay, good then." I started the truck and pulled carefully out onto the street and headed for home.
He barely spoke all the way there and every time I snuck a sideways peek at him, his eyes were half-closed.
By the time we got to the loft and went inside, my nerves were jangling so hard, I felt like I'd downed fifty cups of Simon's special high-caff coffee.
I watched as he sank down on the sofa, noticing the way his eyes were pinched in pain at what had to be the mother of all headaches, then walked across and stood in front of him. "Jim, look, I'm sorry about what I did tonight. I know it was a dumb mistake. I should have just stayed where you told me but-"
His eyes opened and he looked at me coldly, no hint of forgiveness in his face. "Just forget it, Sandburg. I really don't feel up to discussing it with you right now." If his eyes were cold, his voice was glacial and I followed my instincts and changed the subject.
"Can I get you something? Tea, pain pills, something to eat?" I offered, feeling that odd, hollow feeling in my chest that I got whenever I knew he was pissed off with me.
He closed his eyes again. "Silence would be good, Sandburg," he said.
"Okay." I stood for a moment and just watched him then as his eyes opened again, I found somewhere else to be.
Morning came much too quickly for me. I'd been up every two hours waking Jim for his neuro checks; checks he hadn't appreciated, though the most he'd done was groan every time I'd shaken his shoulder and asked the routine questions. By four AM I'd been pretty sure his brain had survived any real damage and I'd stumbled back downstairs, and then found myself, exhausted as I was, unable to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, I'd lain awake castigating myself a million ways from Sunday for doing something that had seemingly put such a fracture in our relationship, and in the promise of the relationship I'd always hoped it would become.
When the alarm beeped, I hurried out of bed and climbed the stairs again, then stood next to Jim's bed, looking down at him as he slept. God, I loved him. I didn't want to, had tried not to, but it had crept up on me without me even really noticing.
As he stirred, turning onto his back and mumbling incomprehensibly, I left. He was angry with me already. I didn't need to give him any more ammunition for aggravation.
It was an hour or so later when I heard him walking down the stairs. I looked up and gave him a welcoming smile. "Bacon and eggs," I said brightly, waving the spatula at the sizzling pan in front of me.
Jim grunted something that I took to be a greeting then went into the bathroom and closed the door.
Okay then, he was obviously still not happy with me. I mean, I wasn't expecting him to pull me into his arms and tell me all was forgiven, though I'd fantasized about it more than once, but a simple thanks for taking care of me and for cooking breakfast would have been nice.
By the time I had breakfast served up and on the table, Jim was leaving the bathroom, a towel slung low around his hips. His face still looked pale, his eyes bruised-looking, and I watched as he trudged stiffly back upstairs to get dressed.
A couple of minutes later, he was back, dressed in sweats. He sat down at the table and started to eat.
"So, Jim, you feeling any better?" I asked as I picked up a forkful of food and followed his example.
"I'm fine," he said shortly, around a mouthful.
"Good." I absently pushed the food around my plate as I racked my brain for something to say, some way to tell him how sorry I was that he'd been hurt because of me.
"Look, either eat or leave the table, will you, Sandburg?" he growled. "The noise you're making is really getting to me."
"Sorry." I stood and picked up my plate, took it over to the sink and scraped the food into the disposal, then rinsed the plate and stacked it in the dishwasher.
Jim sighed heavily behind me. "I'm sorry," he said. "Blair, please, just grab some more breakfast and come sit down and eat. I didn't mean to go off at you like that."
I swallowed hard, forcing back the emotion that welled in my eyes at the conciliatory tone in his voice. "It's okay, Jim. Guess I'm just not very hungry after all." I pinched the bridge of my nose with my fingers, then turned and gave him the brightest smile I could dredge up. "Man, is that the time? You'll be okay on your own for a while, right? I've got some paperwork to catch up on at the uni. Simon said he'd call over around ten-"
"I don't need a babysitter," Jim said flatly, and I mourned the loss of the kindness that had been in his voice a moment before.
"He just wants to see how you are," I replied. "He couldn't get to the hospital before you were discharged and-"
Jim held up a hand, palm out, his universal signal for telling me to shut up. I did. "I'll be fine," he said after a moment. "Go to school."
"Okay. I'll be home around four."
"See you then."
For the first time in the years I'd been living at the loft, I dreaded going home. On one hand I wanted to sit Jim down and demand we talk this out between us, get rid of the tension that was simmering around us; on the other I worried he'd just explode at me again and tell me to get out. In the end, I took the coward's way out - I just didn't go home. I called Simon, told him I'd been kept back unexpectedly at the University and asked him to check that Jim was okay.
Simon's response was that he'd been fine when he'd been there around lunchtime.
"Oh, good. Look… um, could you give him a call for me, tell him I've been held up?" I asked.
"You're calling me, Sandburg, so you've obviously got a phone. Why can't you call him yourself?" I could almost see the wheels turning in Simon's head. "Is Ellison being a prick about what happened last night?"
"No!" I blurted out, then said, "Well, yeah, kind of, but he has reason to be. I still can't believe that I knocked that shelf when I tried to follow him and sent those cans crashing down. If it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have got hit."
"Why did you?" Simon asked.
"What? Why did I follow him?"
"No, why did you knock the shelf and cause all that noise?"
"Oh, for crying - It was an accident, Simon. I didn't do it on purpose -" I stopped, suddenly realizing what he was getting at. "Thanks. I just wish I could convince Jim too."
"Blair, is there something going on between you and Jim? More than the Sentinel thing or the partner thing, I mean?" Simon's voice sounded hesitant and I wanted to say 'I wish!' but I didn't. I just said, "No," and left it at that.
"All right, I'll call him. Don't work too hard," Simon said as he rung off.
I looked at my cleared desk and shook my head. "Not much chance of that," I muttered.
"Hey, Jim, how you doing?"
I stepped back as Simon pushed past me through the open door and into the loft. "Didn't you already do your 'checking up on Ellison' thing?" I asked, not very graciously, as I closed the door behind him.
Simon stopped in the living room and turned to face me. "I thought I had," he replied, a small smile tilting his lips, "but Blair asked me to call by and let you know he was caught up at the University and wouldn't be home till later." He paused, the smile leaving his face. "Actually he asked me just to call you, but seeing as he called me, which meant he had access to a telephone but didn't want to use it to call you, itgave me the notion I should swing by and tell you in person. So… what's going on, Jim?"
I walked past him into the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out two beers, handing one off to him.
"You supposed to be drinking alcohol?" he asked, taking his and twisting off the cap.
I shrugged. "I feel fine. One won't hurt."
"Jim, what the hell's going on with you and Blair?"
"I don't know. I've been snapping at him ever since this happened." My fingers grazed the bandage above my eye. "I just… I don't get why he did it, Simon. I told him to stay where he was. We'd already called for backup. But no. He barrels up from behind that table as soon as I'm in the open, knocks against the shelf, brings the cans down and the next thing I know, I'm waking up in the ER with an elephant-sized headache. The first thing I asked-"
"I didn't have to be there, Jim," Simon said, sitting down on the couch. "The first thing you asked was where was Blair, was he okay?" He gave me a grin that told me he'd been this route with us too many times before.
I slumped down into the armchair across from him. "What the hell was he thinking? I told him to stay put-"
"Which he usually does," Simon observed quietly.
"How many times have you told Sandburg to stay in the truck and he hasn't done it?" Simon asked.
"I don't know." I rubbed a hand through my hair and tried to remember. "Never, I guess. Until last night."
"What's changed?" Simon was gazing steadily at me, his beer seemingly forgotten in his hand.
"I don't know," I replied, frustration biting at me. "Maybe he's decided he's been around me long enough to take chances-"
"Or maybe he cares more than he used to," Simon interrupted. "I'm not saying he didn't care before, but maybe his feelings are different now."
"Different how?" I asked, trying for casual. "Blair's been my best friend for a while now. I'd like to think I'm his."
Simon slammed his beer bottle down on the table, the echo of glass hitting wood making my headache pound to new life. "Sorry," he murmured as I winced. "Jim, Blair loves you, and I think you care about him a lot more than you want to admit. I don't think you're angry because he almost got you killed. I think you're upset because he could have been."
I closed my eyes against the thought of that possibility happening again, then opened them and looked at my friend. "I think you're right," I said finally. "The only problem is I've probably all but driven him away with the way I've been acting-"
"Blair wouldn't leave," Simon interrupted. "He has too much integrity for that. He's the kind of guy who sticks with people through thick and thin, no matter how badly they treat him."
"You think a lot of him," I said, straightening in my seat.
Simon nodded. "Yes, I do. He's been an asset to the department almost from the moment he walked in the door, he's got guts and he knows how to handle you." He grinned. "What's not to like? I know he's made mistakes, but I can't think of anyone who'd be a better partner or Guide for you than Blair."
"Or lover?" I asked hesitantly, still unsure how he'd take that.
"Do you love him?"
"Yeah." I nodded, a little surprised at his equanimity. "I do, have for a while. Just wanted to wait till I knew he felt the same before I acted on it."
"I think he's showed you that already, Jim." Simon stood up, drained the last of his beer and walked across to drop the bottle in the trash. "He thinks you're mad at him for getting you hurt last night, Jim. I think you should go talk to him, set his mind at ease."
In a moment, I'd decided he was right. I stood up, went over and grabbed my jacket from the hook. "Can you drop me off?"
I locked the door behind me and followed Simon into the elevator. "I have to admit I'm scared as hell about doing this," I said as we bumped to a halt on the ground floor.
Simon stepped out and placed an arm around my shoulders as I matched his step. "Haven't you heard? Love isn't meant to be easy, Jim." He laughed. "But I'm told it can be a lot of fun if it's done right." He grinned at my stunned look. "Jesus, Jim, I've seen this coming for a year or more. I'm just surprised it's taken you two so long to realize what you feel for each other. Love's love," he said, "no matter its shape or form or sexuality." He unlocked the car and ushered me into the passenger seat. "It'll be okay," he said, patting my shoulder. "Give Sandburg some credit for the forgiving guy he is."
"It's me I can't forgive," I said softly.
Simon climbed into the driver's seat and started the car. "Doesn't matter," he replied surely. "You and Blair will work it out."
"How can you be so sure?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. I just am."
I knocked on the door to his office and waited till he opened it. His face went pale and I mentally berated myself for being the cause of that and for the nervousness I saw in his eyes. "Sorry to bother you," I said as he stepped aside and let me pass. "We need to talk."
He followed me in, and stood, resting back against his desk. I could see the slight tremors in his hands as he brushed his hair back from his face. "I've been trying to talk to you ever since it happened," he said, his tone somewhat accusing.
"I know. I'm sorry. Look," I took a step forward and reached out a hand, giving his shoulder a squeeze, "I know you didn't intend to knock the shelf. I guess I've just been unsettled by the fact that for the first time since you've been working with me, you didn't stay where I told you to."
"I thought you'd zoned. I just had to get to you. I couldn't bear the thought that you were out there, exposed like that-"
"I know," I interrupted softly as I turned my hand, letting my fingers become a caress beneath his jaw. "Why this time, though? We've been in bad situations before but you've always done what I told you to do."
His breathing hitched as my fingers traced the bone of his jawline. "You've been talking to Simon," he said.
"Forget Simon for now. Talk to me." I leant forward, moving my hand, letting it trace across that full lower lip that I'd wanted to kiss forever.
His tongue came out and licked at his lip and I pulled my hand away and cupped his cheek, moving even closer till I was all but pressed up against him.
"I didn't want anything to happen to you before either," he said quietly, his eyes fixed on mine. "But now, it's more-" He stopped.
"More unthinkable that we lose each other," I finished for him.
He nodded slowly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to fall in love with you. All I could think of was getting to you, knowing that if they shot you, I'd lose everything that makes my life worthwhile."
"Oh, Blair." I bent forward and kissed him, just a soft brush of my mouth against his, then pulled away a little. "Don't you know that's how I felt too? Hearing the noise, turning, and seeing you out in the open like that."
"You mean you…?" Blair smiled and then his hands came up around my shoulders and he pulled me back against him. "God, I don't believe this. You love me."
I nodded and kissed him again, deeply this time and felt him respond, opening his mouth against mine.
After a long moment, he pushed me back. "We have got to learn to talk more," he said, and I laughed as I saw his eyes were bright with happiness and his skin was flushed with obvious arousal.
"Anytime you want, Chief," I said as I pulled him close again. "Let's go home. I've got this terrific bed I want you to test out with me. Then we can talk as much as you want."