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Friendly Fire

Shellie Williams

Tension squeezed Blair's throat closed, blocking the air that wanted in. His pulse jumped then began beating hard, drumming loud enough to fill his head and drown out the city's clash. He held still as stone and listened for his partner's voice. Come on, talk to me -- give me a sign here. The silent request brought no response from around the corner. He curled his fingers into tight fists.

He and Jim had been two blocks away from the loft after a long day at work when a call had crackled over the radio. Static pushed through the air, invading their peaceful ride. Two lousy blocks away from home -- two blocks that might as well have been two hundred, as Jim grabbed the mic and acknowledged the call.

Dispatch answered, and Jim braked hard and yanked the wheel to the left. The truck fishtailed, turning in the direction opposite from the loft. "Hang on!"

Blair did as he was told, grimacing as blood drained from his fingers where he'd attached them to the dash. The truck rocked to the left as they sped around a corner and bounced when it straightened as if touching down for a landing.

A few rushed seconds later they'd arrived, and in the flurry of activity, they discovered the armed suspect had fled the scene. Ignored in the confusion, they followed the trail when Jim detected a scent of gunpowder.

The smell led them to a dark passageway between a long line of brick buildings. Dusk swirled away, allowing the black stain of night to intercede. Details in the alley were hidden from Blair's normal sight. Cul-de-sacs sunk black, door-shaped rectangles into the walls and irregular corners jutted out here and there to create a maze of hiding places and dangerous areas of ambush.

A raised hand accompanied Jim's terse command of "Stay here." He gripped both hands around the butt of his gun and slipped around the corner, quiet as a shadow.

Blair waited, counting seconds in his head. The rush of adrenaline stretched each minute into an hour. Ignoring Jimís instructions, he eased forward to look around the corner.

A streetlight's harsh glow saturated the alley but was unable to reach into the darkness hiding Blair. The instant he cleared the wall he knew he'd be exposed until the next shadow cloaked him. He swallowed hard through the dryness sucking at his throat.

Abruptly, terror shredded his fear. Jim stood maybe five yards away, his gun raised. His loose jacket pulled tight across the back of broad shoulders while shadows scooped rich black drapes in the lower half of his coat. He appeared to be aiming into the shadows, head tilting gently as if sighting down the weapon's barrel. He didn't move.

A shadow shifted and separated from the surrounding darkness to Blair's left and moved toward Jim. The overhead brightness revealed a man's form, probably the criminal they'd been chasing. He stepped directly into Blair's view, his back to him, eclipsing Jim from his sight.

Blair's skin tingled with danger. He stepped forward to warn Jim. Glass crackled under foot and he froze. The sound must have pierced through the zone paralyzing the Sentinel. Jim whirled around. Blair caught a glimpse of registered surprise on the older man's face just as a shot rang out; the explosive sound punched a hole in the stillness, siphoning away the molasses that pulled at their movements.

Blair's limbs convulsed, parroting the criminal in front of him. He looked down at himself in confusion. A red circle appeared on the side of his denim shirt just above his belt. The small spot grew, feeding on the blue color and turning it purple.

Oh god . . . I've been shot -- again.

For a suspended moment he stood swaying, then collapsed as suddenly as if a baseball bat had smashed him behind the knees. The ground swelled and moved closer as he folded over, but arms caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. Jim's voice, sounding husky and strained, mumbled in his ears, but the red fog swirling through his mind cushioned the words and they bounced around unheard in his head. The arms holding him tightened and the muffled sound of Jimís voice undulated in waves around him.

Darkness moved in and claimed his sight, but he could still feel the way Jim held him. He could feel gentleness despite the hard muscles that flexed against his arm. Trembling fingers brushed tender across his face.

The cold numbness in his side melted away and a flame burst into life in its stead. A groan escaped the trap of his throat and vibrated harshly through tense muscles as it rumbled out of his mouth. The guttural sound shocked him. Jimís arms cinched tighter, but nothing could keep away the oblivion that called to him. Blair surrendered to darkness.

<><><>

Yellow eyes separated from the darkness and glowed at him. Jim froze, his gun aimed unerringly down the alley where he thought the perpetrator had fled. Blackness darker than the filth that surrounded him moved and he held still, mesmerized by the graceful beauty of the cat when the creature bounded from its perch and landed soundlessly on the pavement.

A tiny sound disturbed the zone and Jim whirled around, his mind instantly on alert. A man stood right in front of him, too close. The shape and stance of the stranger registered as different from his partner, and the dark shape of a gun in his hand rushed through Jim's system like a klaxon. He barely had a moment to aim for the man's arm as he squeezed the gun's trigger, hoping to disarm him first. The bullet blasted through the silence as it passed through the man's arm, and at the same moment Jim glimpsed Blair, standing just behind the criminal.

NO!

The young man's body twitched and he looked down at himself with a look of such innocent surprise, it nearly broke Jim's heart. My god, I shot him.

Frustration clawed at his sanity when the criminal lunged for his gun. They struggled for control over the weapon. I don't have time for this, jerk. Too panicked and in fear for his partner's life to worry about protocol, Jim pulled one hand free and rammed his fist into the guy's abdomen. With a grunt, the man let go. Jim hastily secured his gun. He kicked the other weapon far into the alley's shadows before leaping over the prisoner and running to Blair.

"Chief!"

Blair had fallen to his knees, one hand clutched like a claw to his side. Jim caught him just before he keeled over. He pressed close and wrapped his arms tight around him, as if he could keep death at bay with his body. Warmth tickled his side and he pulled back slightly. His shirt was already saturated with Blair's blood. The material clung to his skin in a dark mass.

"Dammit! Hang on, just hang on." Fumbling one handed for his cell phone, he opened it with his chin and pulled the antenna free with his teeth. His brain felt thick with unbearable fear and his tongue stumbled as he requested an ambulance and backup. He glanced up to see his prisoner writhing in the filthy street, moaning loudly with one hand clamped around his bleeding wound. Anger came to his rescue and beat the fear down, fueling the need to shout at the man. "Don't move, you son of a bitch, or the next bullet will put you down for good!"

Blair flinched against him. Jim ignored the criminal as he turned back to his injured partner. He cradled Blair closer, using the press of his body to staunch the blood flow. Sirens started in the distance and relief eased away some of his fear.

Self-accusation ran through his mind. Unwillingly he recalled every vivid detail of the shooting. Enhanced sight enabled him to see the explosion in the criminal's arm as the bullet passed through, the instant puff of torn fabric in Blair's shirt and a tiny spray of blood as he flinched with the projectile's impact. Jim tightened his arms reflectively with the replay of memories.

Tension that kept Blair stiff in his arms suddenly released. Jim checked his heartbeat in alarm. A pulse vibrated against his eardrums. He sighed gustily when he realized the young man had passed out. The ambulance and backup arrived. Jim placed his partner in the EMT's care, his movements stiff with worry.

<><><>

Sandburg lay still as death on the hospital bed. Jim stood and arched his back, stretching muscles that felt tight as if they'd melted together into one solid band around his body. Guilt cloaked him in dark despair and he scrubbed at his face, then stood by the bed and studied his partner.

The door whispered open on cushioned hinges when Simon stepped into the room. He nodded a greeting and walked to stand next to Jim. Hands on his hips to hold back his long overcoat, his eyes roamed over Blair. "How's he doing?"

"Good. Doctor says he'll be able to go home soon. Bullet just caused some minor muscle damage on its way through."

"That's good news."

"Yeah." Jim watched Blair's peaceful face. Dirty brick walls and trash-covered ground appeared in his mind and he shook his head to rid himself of the grisly memory. As if his movements disturbed the patient, Blair opened his eyes. Blue confusion blinked behind lash heavy lids. Guilt surged through Jim at the picture of vulnerability laying before him. He'd sat and argued with himself while Blair was in surgery, convincing himself Blair would not hold the accidental shooting against him. But when he found himself faced with an actual conversation, he suddenly couldn't find the courage that seemed so abundant in the waiting room.

Afraid of the accusation he thought he'd find in those eyes, he turned and left the room.

His spine stiff with strain, he strode quickly down the corridor until he came to a wide turn in the hall. The corner space was empty and quiet, muted walls decorated with huge windows that opened to a view of the hospital grounds. Carefully manicured lawns and landscaped flowerbeds created a soothing quilt of organized color. He leaned on the windowsill and pressed his forehead to the thick glass, oblivious to the beautiful weather and grounds before him. Unexpected anger pushed through the tight knot of guilt choking him, rising in a bubble of fear through his throat.

"Jim." Simon's quiet voice startled him but he didn't turn around, incapable of keeping the dark emotion his spirit harbored from showing. He needed a moment.

"He doesn't blame you."

"I know." Buoyed by his apparent control, Jimís confidence reached out a shaky hand and turned him around to face Simon. "I didn't expect him to."

"Then why did you leave?" Simon's dark face twisted with confusion.

Confidence took a back seat to anger again with the question. Jim turned back around to rest on the windowsill. "Because -- because I'm angry, but not at him."

"Why are you angry?"

The familiar clenching of his jaw rolled the muscles in his face. "I shot him, Simon." The quiet confession drew his captain closer. Simon signed, then leaned his hip against the wall next to Jim and crossed his arms. Jim continued, "This is going to be hard to get past. I'm a sentinel, for god's sake, I should have been able to tell where Blair was at all times."

"You zoned--"

"Dammit!" Jimís explosion died as soon as it hissed between his teeth and he wilted against the window's frame. "Zone or not, I should have known."

"So this isn't about anger at all, it's about self-pity and guilt." Simon huffed and shook his head when Jim looked at him sharply. "You beat all, Ellison. You measure everyone, including yourself, by such high standards. Why don't you cut yourself some slack here?"

"An inch to the left and I'd have ripped his guts out, sir. He'd be dead."

"And an inch to the right and we'd be laughing over a couple of beers right now! Christ!" Simon straightened and paced out from the wall, his frustration evident in the tight position of his shoulders. He turned to face Jim, nostrils flared as he gathered steam for another round of arguments, then abruptly slumped, and his face grew slack with acceptance. "Ah, hell, I'm wasting my time spitting into the wind here. This is Sandburg's job, he'll have to be the one to convince you he's half alive and not half dead."

Jimís head jerked up and he locked a hard stare on his captain. "There's a difference?"

Simon grunted. "Go talk to him. Convince him you're glad that bullet wasn't two inches to the left."

Jimís eyes widened in shocked surprise. "Of course I'm glad it wasn't!"

"The way you ran out of that room just now planted some pretty serious doubts." Jim looked down the corridor toward Blair's room, then returned his gaze to Simon. "I'll be back later tonight. We'll talk then." Without waiting for an argument, Simon left.

After a moment, Jim returned to Blair's room.

Sandburg's eyes were closed. Jim felt a guilty twinge of relief, as if he'd been granted a pardon, but the young man's eyes opened when he walked over to the bed.

"Hey. Wondered where you went."

The quiet voice pulled at him. Despite himself he concentrated automatically, allowing his sensitive hearing to tunnel and hone in on his friend's familiar tone. "Yeah, sorry. Just had to step out for a minute. How're you feeling?"

"OK."

Anger tried to ambush him, rushing in past his defenses, but he clamped down hard on the emotional surge and turned away, hiding his face from view. He studied the wall, acutely aware of Blair's gaze on him. "The doctor said you wouldn't need to stay more than a couple of nights."

"What's your problem?" The unexpected directness tricked him into looking up and Blair's eyes trapped him, held him. "What happened? Did your senses go wild on you?"

Jim shook his head, his slack jaw swaying with the movement. Two quick strides brought him to a nearby chair and he sat down. Leaning forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, he took a deep breath and dove in. "I zoned."

"On what?"

"A cat."

"Cat? What, you mean like your spirit guide?"

"No, I mean just a cat -- the common household variety. He was black, and his yellow eyes caught what little light there was in the alley and refleccted back to me. They almost glowed."

"That's what you zoned on?"

"Yeah."

"So, when I stepped on that glass--"

"It brought me out of the zone just in time to keep Townsend from killing me."

"Townsend -- that's the guy we were after?"

"Yeah." He paused and rubbed his forehead, then pressed two fingers against his temple. "I was disoriented, dizzy, and I didn't make sure you were safe before I took him down."

"I'm not dead."

He stood up quickly, his hands held before him. "I shot you. I've never been the cause of 'friendly fire' before."

"Not so friendly from this end." Blair's joke fell flat in the tension charged room and he rolled his head on the pillow. "I don't know what to tell you, Jim. I'm alive. Everyone makes mistakes."

"I made one that almost cost you your life, Sandburg."

"Yeah, well, quit acting like you wished it'd been the other way around. You shot me. Hell, I've done some stupid things in my life, too. That's the way it goes."

"This is more than just stupid. I should have aimed for his chest. At least then the bullet would have stayed in him instead of passing through to you."

"He wasn't a killer, you didn't need to use excessive force. You did the right thing; I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Yeah, that too." Jim ducked his head and moved back to his chair. "I've been thinking about that. Maybe you're in the wrong place altogether."

Blair twisted around on his bed, grunting a little as he patted the covers with his hands. "Where is it, dammit?"

Jim stood up and moved closer. "What is it? What are you looking for?"

"The remote control thing for this bed. If we're going to have an argument, I want to at least sit up."

"We're not having an argument."

"Oh yeah?" Blair stopped his search and turned to face him. The unbridled emotion in his expression surprised Jim. "If you think for one minute I'm just going to sit here and let you talk me into quitting, you got another thing coming, damn it!"

"Calm down and listen to me." He moved to the side of the bed and sat. "It's not you, all right? It's me. Last night I came face to face with something I've never experienced before. I shot my partner. It was like -- like a horrible wake-up call. I don't want to have to go through that again."

"Would you listen to yourself? This is that fear-based response I was telling you about. Any normal cop, hell, any normal human being would go through incredible fear with what we went through last night. And it's not going to change. Any time we're in that kind of situation and something goes wrong, you'll have to deal with it all over again."

"I'm not sure that's something I can live with."

"Dammit!" Blair's face blossomed red. He sat up straighter and held his IV cord up to keep from getting it tangled. "How do you think I feel every time we go into a dangerous situation? I'm worried that we haven't done enough tests, that we haven't practiced enough, or that you'll zone when we least expect it. I'm just as scared as you are!"

"You can't deny the fact that you'd be safer if you weren't with me," Jim countered. "You'll live, this time, with a nice scar to show the ladies and garner sympathy with and no doubt add more names to your little black book, but next time . . . next time, you may not be so lucky." The very real image of Blair lying dead at his feet sent renewed shudders through his body.

"So I'm supposed to give up what I want to do just because you're afraid you won't be able to handle it if something goes wrong?" Blair crossed his arms and shook his head emphatically. "No way, man. You're just going to have to learn to live with it."

"But can you?" The quiet question held the power of Blair's earlier tirade and the young man slumped back against the mattress. "You're the one I'm worried about--"

"No. Don't try and put this on me." Blair held his head up, but didn't attempt to sit up again. "This is all about you, Jim. If you decide to kick me out as your partner, there's nothing I can do about it. Hell, now that I know you don't want me, you wouldn't be able to pay me to stay." He dropped his head to his pillow and closed his eyes. Weariness stole youth from his face and drew lines around his mouth.

"Blair--"

"Could you go now? I'm tired, I need to rest."

Although he knew Blair couldn't see him, Jim nodded anyway. "I'll be back later." When he didn't receive an answer, he quietly opened the door and left the room.

<><><>

Arguments rang through his head, first with his voice, then with Blair's. Did he have a tight enough rein on his senses to handle being out in the field alone? His pride bristled and his spine cracked when he stood straighter. Hell, he'd survived fine without a partner for years, he'd just have to learn to do it again. There was no denying that Blair had helped him, certainly pulled him from the edge of the precipice he'd been hanging over. Memories of the numerous tests they'd suffered through and the proof provided in the field bolstered his confidence. It wasn't like he wanted Blair to leave -- he could continue working at the station, helping him with paperwork. His heart squeezed as he imagined the expression on Blair's face. Hurt, disappointment, betrayal. Expressive eyes that shot through the pretense right into his soul stung Jim as surely as if he were facing his partner.

Music piped through the elevator's speakers intruded irritatingly on his musings. The doors opened and without glancing up to make sure he was on the right floor, he slipped out with the small crowd and found himself in Emergency. Before he could turn around and correct the mistake, the elevator closed and left him stranded. The stairwell had to be right around here somewhere, maybe this way. He threaded between bodies, automatically dialing his senses back when the noise of the ER swelled. One voice lifted itself above the others, a rope of distress lassoing Jim's attention.

A gurney came speeding down the wide corridor, a doctor and several nurses guiding it expertly toward one of the many curtained off rooms. A man about Jim's age ran in step beside it, his face a mask of strain. The person on the gurney was hidden beneath sheets and bulky machinery. Wires and tubes webbing to the patient further camouflaged him from view.

Voices rose as the swishing curtain swallowed the gurney. A nurse pressed urgently against the man, holding him back, but it was clear she was losing the battle. He craned his neck to look over her shoulder but his pleas were directed at her: "He's my brother, I've got to be with him! You don't understand, he's--"

Sympathy and a strange understanding pierced Jim's heart. He saw the nurse glance at a nearby uniformed officer. She raised her eyebrows at him and he moved to help. Jim hurried to intervene, confused with why he was doing it. With practiced ease he flipped open his wallet and flashed his badge. "I'll handle this." The uniform backed off.

He grasped the man's upper arm and pulled him firmly away from the nurse. "Sir, you need to let them help your brother." With a relieved sigh, the nurse turned and followed the gurney. Jim felt the man's tension in the muscles that flexed in his grip. He squeezed harder and was rewarded with the man's attention turning to him. "They can help him, let them do their job."

With a loud sigh, the man nodded. He allowed Jim to pull him through the room, his feet dragging against the shiny linoleum. Jim guided him to a chair in a relatively quiet corner, then backtracked to a coffee machine and hastily slipped coins into the slot for the drink. He glanced over his shoulder once to check on the man. He sat slump-shouldered against the wall, head down, hands held loosely in his lap. The only sign of his previous agitation sat in the heavy folds in his forehead.

Time formed a curious bubble in hospitals. It slowed to a crawl, holding still the hands of clocks, shutting out sunlight and starlight behind mundane walls. It was always a surprise to step out of the hospital and find a clear sky, or black midnight. Oh, is that what time it is? I didn't realize it was so late. Jim's internal clock told him it was late, and that he had things to do before bringing Blair home, arrangements to make. But for some reason his steps didn't hurry when he returned to the man, and he didn't glance at his watch to judge how many minutes he should spend talking. The jumbled thoughts inside him grew quiet as he eased into the chair.

The man took the offered coffee and whispered his thanks. "He's my brother." He lifted the styrofoam cup toward the waiting room where the gurney had disappeared, then settled it back to his knee and shook his head with a disquieting air. "Stupid accident."

"I'm sure he'll be all right." The familiar cliche came easily and Jim winced when he said it.

The man sighed, lifting his shoulders. "I hope." He glanced up again and his voice grew soft and kind. "He didn't want to be treated special because of his handicap."

Jim waited for a qualifier, but none came.

"No matter how much you want to protect someone, you can't always keep him safe." He downed his coffee in one gulp and crushed the cup in his hand. "And you know what? As much as I want to blame myself, he'll never blame me." His head turned and he looked at Jim. Moisture sparkled in the corners of his eyes despite the shadows that cloaked the quiet corner. "As long as he's okay we'll get through this, because he's strong enough for both of us."

"Mr. Hensley?"

Their heads snapped to the nurse standing a few feet away.

"Your brother wants to see you." Her reassuring smile sent them both to their feet. She held out her arm, an invitation to join her. The man rushed forward a step, then turned to Jim.

"Thanks for -- well, thanks."

Jim smiled. "Anytime." He watched them leave and stood there, his hands on his hips, waiting for the puzzle in his head to fall into place. As long as he's okay we'll get through this, because he's strong enough for the both of us. All right then. He left the waiting area to find the stairs.

<><><>

Pushing open the door to Blair's room, Jim swept in like a winter wind. Blair's head rolled on the pillow toward him. The lamp over his bed cast a bluish white light in the room, leaching all color from his skin. Anger still sat in trenched lines around his mouth, and Jim saw him tense, as if readying for a fight.

Jim started talking as if the intervening minutes had never happened, continuing the argument he already had going in his head. "All right, but you remember I'm the one with the badge and more importantly the gun. If you won't stay in the truck, for god's sake, at least stay behind me!"

Taking advantage of the shocked surprise on his friend's face, Jim whirled and left, letting the door whisper shut behind him. He stood for a second in the hall, listening to the silence behind him. A speechless Blair. Priceless. He grinned, then walked away.

The End

Shellie




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