"How's the headache, Jim?" Blair asked as the two men stood in the elevator, heading for the loft.
"Better." Jim reached up to rub absently at his temple. "After I dialed my hearing down, most of the pain went away. I'm just tired, I guess."
"I hear ya, man." The soft ping signaled they had arrived, and as soon as the doors opened, the two friends left the elevator and walked the short distance to their door.
"Mind if I get the shower first? I'm ready to hit the sack." Jim stuck his key into the lock to open the door.
Blair laughed. " 'Hit the sack'? Man, I haven't heard that in awhile."
Jim turned the knob and opened the door. "Sandburg," he growled, "are you trying to tell me some..."
He was interrupted as a hand reached out from inside the loft and clamped down hard on his shoulder. The cool metal of a gun pressed against his neck.. Jim froze in surprise.
"Welcome home, Ellison." Jim cringed when he recognized the voice as belonging to Troy Erikson. The hand on his shoulder clenched into a fist, bunching in the material of his jacket. He was pulled roughly forward into the loft and shoved around, then released. Another neanderthal look alike, Erikson's youngest brother, Wallace, had Blair by the arm and jerked the young man into the kitchen.
Ellison ground his teeth together, and felt the tension in his jaw reawaken the pain that had been slowly fading in his head.
"What do you want, Erikson? You know this is stupid, breaking into a policeman's home like this."
Erikson stood facing Jim calmly, unemotionally, just like last week at his older brother's trial. When the guilty verdict had been read, his face had remained stonily impassive. The sentence for his brother, Richard, was the death penalty because he had been on trial for first degree murder. The only motive Troy could possibly have now was revenge, and that realization made Jim fervently wish he'd never turned his hearing down, headache or no.
"You're a detective, Ellison. Surely you've figured out what I want." Erikson shifted his eyes to a third man standing in front of the door. "Lance, explain it to him."
Lance took a step toward Jim and the detective automatically shifted into a defensive stance, following his opponent with his eyes, but keeping part of his attention on Erikson. The man circled around and Jim turned to continue facing him.
"Jim! Look out!" Blair's shout warned Jim of an attack from behind, but he'd already sensed it coming. Making a quick decision, he met Lance's attack head on, hoping to dispense with him and then be free to handle Erikson. He ducked under Lance's fist as it swung toward his jaw, and plowed his shoulder into the man's chest, pushing hard. Lance braced a foot behind him and held firm against Jim's advance. Jim's momentum finally toppled their balance, and Lance began falling backwards. The man went down slower that Jim had anticipated. Just as he swung around to meet Erikson, the hard metal of a gun barrel contacted violently with his cheek. Numbing pain slashed through his sinuses as he felt the skin split above his cheekbone. Seconds later, he became aware of a hard, flat surface pressed against the side of his face, and he realized he was on the floor. An irritating buzz filled his head and he couldn't seem to find the damn pain dial. Where had he put that thing? Last time he remembered seeing it was . . .
"Jim!" The urgent sound in his Guide's voice brought the present back with a rush. He pressed his hands against the floor, preparing to push himself up, when hands were hooked under his arms and accomplished the task for him. Dizziness rushed in, spinning his world. Unwillingly he leaned against the man at his side, looking for support in the tumbling room. He was shoved away, as if his touch was repulsive. Through blurry vision, he saw the thick vertical beam in the kitchen and reached for it, holding on tightly.
"God, Jim, are you all righ -- ?" The sentence was interrupted with a grunt as Erikson backhanded Blair across the face.
"I told you to shut up, runt," he warned.
White-hot anger erupted in Jim's chest and cleared the dizziness from his vision. Unaware of the growl rumbling in his throat, he pushed away from the beam and rushed forward to grab Erikson. Next to Blair, Wallace moved quickly, blocking Jim's attack and pulling the angry man to the floor. Weakened by the blow to his head, Jim struggled for an advantage over the man pinning him down. Lance reached down from the other side and Jim was virtually helpless against the two men. Distracted by the actions of the men in front of him, Erikson was taken by surprise when Blair tackled him from behind. The young man grabbed the larger man around the throat with both arms and held on tight. With his arms stretched above him, Blair's ribs were left vulnerable. Erikson drove his elbow hard into Blair's side. The kid grunted in pain, and curled over a little, but hung on, determined to help his Sentinel. Undeterred, Erikson jabbed his elbow again into Blair's ribs, and was satisfied to feel the arms loosen from around his neck. Blair dropped to his knees, arms wrapped protectively around his torso. He lifted his head in time to watch Erikson as his body swung gracefully around in a roundhouse kick. The heel of the man's foot caught him in a stinging blow across his ear, and knocked him to the floor, where he lay, too stunned to move.
Jim yelled from the floor. "Leave him alone, Erikson! I'm the one who put your brother in prison, so take it out on me!" In a surprisingly quick move, he slipped from under the men pinning him down and stood up, only to be grabbed again by Lance.
"Wallace, help him," Erikson ordered. The man on the floor stood up and grabbed Jim's other arm, effectively trapping him. "Have I discovered your Achilles' heel, Detective?" Erikson backed over to Blair, keeping his eyes and his gun trained on Jim. "Hold him good, boys. I'm about to experiment a little."
Reaching down, the criminal wrapped thick, stubby fingers around Blair's arm and pulled the hurting young man to his feet. Moaning, Blair doubled over, pressing both hands to his side. Erikson laughed, placing one hand absently on Blair's back. "Guess he's hurt, Ellison. Think he needs your help?"
Suddenly, Blair straightened up and swung his fist around, punching the hateful man in the nose. Taking advantage of the distraction, he shoved Erikson away, sending him to the floor, and rushed toward Jim. As if they had meet earlier and planned their moves, Blair tackled Lance, while Jim jerked his arm out of Wallace's grip, overbalancing the other man. He punched his fist hard into the enemy's face, driving forward with a momentum supplied by his earlier frustration. Following with a scooping hit to the man's stomach, Wallace went down, hardly knowing what had hit him.
In his corner, Blair was able to get only one good hit on Lance. The other man was much bigger and stronger than the police observer, and he rolled with the glancing blow to his jaw. Recovering quickly, he grabbed hold of the front of Blair's jacket and punched the smaller man in the stomach.
It had to be the stomach. Blair thought, as he took another punch. Pain was joined by more pain until he felt as if his insides were on fire. Nearly unconscious with agony, he was hardly aware as he was hit across the face, and fell to his back on the floor. Struggling to keep his eyes open, though he couldn't move to defend himself, he watched as a blurry Jim brought his forearm down on the back of an equally blurry Wallace, and knocked the man out. Jim knelt next to him.
"Blair? Lie still, buddy, I'm calling an ambulance." Blair watched in horror as Erikson loomed up behind his friend. He wanted to yell out, to warn the Sentinel, but the abused stomach muscles would not allow him to draw sufficient breath.
Too late, his movements sluggish from the blow he had received earlier, Jim sensed Erikson's presence. The outlaw brought the butt of his gun down on the back of Jim's head. Jim jerked back in response, then melted to the floor. Erikson stood tall, towering over Blair.
"Well, 'buddy', looks like it's just you and me." The only word for Erikson's smile was evil. His lips stretched back to reveal yellow, stained teeth as he leaned over to laugh into Blair's face. "Let's give Ellison a surprise to wake up to, shall we?" Taking a fist full of Blair's jacket, he pulled the young man to his feet. Reaching up, Blair wrapped both hands around the fist entangled in the front of his jacket, needing the support to stand. He could do no more than concentrate on taking small, shallow breaths and listen to Erikson as the man described ways to kill him.
Erikson brought his gun up and pressed the end to Blair's temple. "We both know you're going to die tonight, but the question is: How? What would cause Ellison more mental anguish? Waking up to see his partner's brains splattered on his walls?" The gun was cocked, and Blair shut his eyes, expecting the sound to be his last. He swallowed hard, and thought of Jim. The weapon left his temple, and Blair opened his eyes, needing to see what Erikson would do next. The evil man worked the barrel of the gun between their bodies, twisting it hard into Blair's chest. "How about to the heart, Blair? Would that suit your romantic side better? You gave your heart to give the great detective Ellison a little more time to regroup?"
"You're insane, man." Blair looked straight into the eyes of the killer. He knew no amount of obfuscation or quick talking would get him out of this situation, but he was determined to show the other man how repulsive he found him to be. Even if it meant a quicker death, it was better than dying with Erikson thinking he had scared Blair into submission. "You are one sick bastard. No wonder your brother ended up the way he did, if all he had for a role model was you."
Shock turned Erikson's face pale, then anger colored it red. He pulled the gun from between them and jabbed it viciously into Blair's stomach. The young man grunted with pain, but clinched his teeth down on the cry that wanted to escape. "No, I think we'll go with the gut shot. That way, I can watch you suffer. That okay with you, Blair?" Erikson pushed the barrel of the weapon deeper into the kid's abdomen, biting his lower lip with the effort to cause his victim more pain. "And Ellison will get a nice surprise when he wakes up. Almost makes me wish I could hang around, just to see his face."
"Why wait?" At the sound of Jim's voice, Erikson let go of Blair, allowing him to stumble backwards, and began to twist around to face the detective. Blair watched as the criminal's body jerked with the impact of the first bullet from Jim's gun. Eyes wide with pain, and the horror of the death he felt reaching out to him, Erikson's finger squeezed the trigger of his gun. The young observer felt an immediate pressure in his side, and his body automatically folded around it. He collapsed to the floor. Erikson's body jerked again with the impact of a second bullet. Blood sprayed out from the wound and showered him with a baptism of death as he fell to the floor.
"Blair!" Jim left the body where it was, taking note of the other two unconscious men without stopping, and moved to kneel beside his roommate. "Chief? Hang on, I'm calling for backup." He placed a gentle hand on Blair's forehead, and pulled his cell phone out with the other hand. Speaking quickly, he requested both police backup, and an ambulance, then put the phone down. "Still with me?" Jim smoothed his palm softly across the injured young man's brow, ignoring his own throbbing cheek. God, there was blood everywhere. Blair was unconscious, and Jim reached out a trembling hand to press his fingers against his friend's throat, too shaken to focus his hearing on his Guide's heartbeat. The pulse was there, and Jim sighed in relief. Something about the way Blair lay, limp and unresponsive, drove a sliver of fear deep inside the Sentinel's heart. Even the gentle rise and fall of his chest brought no reassurance.
Jim carefully opened his friend's jacket, then, taking the hem of Blair's shirt, he lifted the blood soaked garment up to the young man's chest. For an instant, Jim closed his eyes and groaned at the sight of the hole torn in Blair's side. Opening his eyes, he pushed his despair aside and placed the heel of his hand over the wound, applying pressure. As expected, the increase in pain woke his patient up. Blair moaned.
"Easy, buddy, just take it easy and lie still. Help's on the way."
"Jim?" The name came out on the end of another groan, and only the Sentinel's sensitive ears could have recognized it. "God . . . it hurts." Blair brought one knee up, restless with pain, searching for some position that would alleviate some of his discomfort.
"Don't move, you'll only make it worse." Through the sensorial feel of his palm, Jim knew the blood had slowed it's flowing from the wound, but hadn't stopped. He pressed harder.
Blair cried out, jerking his head back with the shout. Both hands reached up to clasp Jim's wrist and pulled weakly against the cause of his pain. "Stop! God, man, just make it stop." Finding strength when he should have been too weak to move, Blair twisted under Jim, hoping to escape the pressure.
"Sandburg! Be still, dammit! I'm trying to stop the bleeding." Ashamed of his anger, Jim placed his other hand on the side of Blair's face. The young man stopped struggling, and lay still, panting hard. "I know it hurts like hell, partner, but you gotta let me help you here, all right?"
Blair blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision enough to look up at his Blessed Protector. What was he doing? Jim was just trying to take care of him, for crying out loud, and here he was, messing things up again.
"Sorry, Jim. It just hurts, man." He slid both hands up Jim's arm, holding on as much as his weakness would allow. "Getting shot sucks, big time."
"I hear ya." Jim grinned, feeling some of the tension drain out of his body. He sobered as a thought came, unbidden, to his mind. "This is something you should never had to go through. I'm sorry. It was my fault Erikson shot you. I had to get in my Dirty Harry line, and didn't take him down fast enough."
Blair was stunned. "No, man, if it hadn't been for you, he would have shot me point blank, and there's no way I could have survived that!"
Jim shook his head, unwilling to believe in his innocence where Blair was concerned. As he saw it, being a Blessed Protector for his Guide was a very serious and precious job, and there was no room for error or defeat.
"Jim, don't do this to me, man." Blair's voice was weak, but he fought to say the words, feeling a need to reassure his Sentinel. "If I can live everyday with the knowledge that I barely know what I'm doing as your Guide . . ." he paused to take a breath, ignoring the pain that action caused in his side, "scared to death that I'll do something wrong, and you'll get hurt, maybe even killed . . ." he took another breath, determined to say the words, "then the least you can do is accept the fact that even though you'll always get me out of trouble, sometimes, it will be by the skin of our teeth, yours and mine included!" Completely winded, Blair coughed, his body fighting for air. Keeping the heel of his hand pressed hard to Blair's wound, Jim slipped his other hand under the struggling man's neck and lifted him up a little.
"Okay, Blair, you win. Just breathe, okay? Anymore run on sentences like that, and you'll be too far gone for even your Blessed Protector to help. You okay there?"
Blair lay back and smiled up at Jim. He was in agony, but ecstasy. He was alive, Jim was alive, and he figured he could live with whatever pain he felt right now, as long as his Sentinel was there to help him through it. Working up enough breath to talk, he mumbled, "Yeah, I'll be all right. Are you okay now?" Finding strength somewhere, he reached out with one hand and placed it on his friend's knee. The other hand was still wrapped, firmly as he could manage, around Jim's arm.
Jim smiled at his friend's concern. "Right as rain, partner."
"You're just full of old sayings tonight, aren't you?" Blair knew better than to laugh, but happiness swelled up in him, and he had to admit something was true about 'laughter being the best medicine'. He felt better already.
"Just leave out the 'old', and you're right again, Sandburg."
The two men waited quietly for help to arrive, their respective aches and pains dulled by the comfort of their friendship. Sensing movement from the criminals, Jim left his friend long enough to handcuff Lance's right hand to Wallace's left, then used his spare cuffs to link their other hands around so they embraced the beam in the kitchen.
By the time the ambulance finally arrived, Blair had slipped into unconsciousness. His breathing and heartbeat were steady, so Jim was concerned, but not worried. He watched over the paramedics, making sure they handled his Guide with tenderness. The cut over his cheek was cleaned and bandaged at the scene, then he went about delegating his authority by putting other men in charge of the cleanup.
Less than 30 minutes after Blair's ambulance left, Jim followed it to the hospital. His partner was in surgery, and would remain there for the next two hours. Weary beyond belief, he made his way to the waiting area, and sat down, bending forward to drop his heavy head in his hands. Sometime during the surgery, someone, probably Simon, put a cup of coffee in his hand, and he drank it, unaware of what he was doing. The motions came naturally, and the caffeine helped him wake up.
At 2:45 am, a doctor emerged from the operating room to give Jim an update on his partner. The doctor was satisfied with the surgery, and said Blair would fully recover in time. The bullet had nicked his spleen, and lodged in the surrounding tissues. The organ did not have to be removed, and the damage had been repaired. All Blair had to do now has heal and take it easy for awhile. Jim had no qualms about the first requirements, but he had serious doubts about his frenetic friend taking it easy for more than a few days. Blair's natural exuberant personality made it hard for him to sit still for long. But he would this time, even if his Blessed Protector had to tie him down!
Entering quietly into Blair's room, Jim moved to the bed. His friend lay sleeping, heartbeat monitored, and breathing aided by a thin oxygen tube curved around his face. Thick bandages were wrapped around his torso, and Jim brushed his fingertips lightly over the padding, thinking back to the moment when Blair had been shot. A deep sigh caught in his throat as he choked on the idea that one day, he might not be fast enough to save his friend. That way of thinking would only lead him to madness, so he shook off the morbid thoughts, and dragged a chair over to sit by his friend's side.
He knew it would be awhile until Blair woke up, so he made himself comfortable, slipping an extra pillow behind his head and leaning back. As exhausted as he was, sleep evaded him, making him more frustrated by the minute. Sitting up, he looked over at his friend. Blair's curls lay strewn on his pillow, creating a mahogany halo around his head. His skin was pale, almost translucent in the glaring florescent lighting of the hospital. If the Sentinel concentrated, he could make out the individual pores in the young man's skin. He could loose himself in the details that embodied his Guide. Acting on instinct, Jim reached up to curl his hand around Blair's smaller one, lying limp on the bed. He rubbed his thumb over his friend's knuckles, skin moving like stretched silk under his touch. The motion calmed him, and he leaned his head back into the pillow. He was unaware of the moment when he slipped into sleep. A smile teased his mouth, as he felt the fingers of his Guide tighten around his fingers, even in sleep.