The sterile environment of the hospital seemed surreal, oddly calming after the earlier fiasco at the University. Jim sat silently in one of the hard chairs in the waiting area, listening half-heartedly as Blair animatedly talked with the TA lying in the hospital bed in room 303. After the mess with Alex a few hours ago, all Jim wanted was to let his mind wander a bit -- and wander it did as he absently picked up on the sound of Blair's voice floating his way.

Deciding that he was eavesdropping, Jim turned down his hearing, giving Blair his privacy, and closed his eyes. He'd just sit quietly and wait for Sandburg. He felt a headache nagging at the base of his skull, and he was more than content to sit quietly for a bit and attempt to decompress from the day's activities. He wanted to remove himself from the things that had happened, if he could. All he wanted to do was forget Alex even existed, but he knew that was something he would never be able to do, no matter how far down in his psyche he repressed her memory.

Alex would be haunting him for the rest of his days.

~~~~~&~~~~  

"So you're sure you're going to be all right? I mean… you had me worried there for a minute."  Blair shifted nervously from foot to foot in the small room, too agitated to sit in a chair or to stand still.

"I'll be fine, Blair. Stop worrying! The doc said I could be out of here in a day or two. They're mostly keeping me here for observation." The redhead smiled as she attempted to shift into a more comfortable position.

Blair immediately reached for the pillow, fluffing it and readjusting it behind her, being careful not to jostle her injured arm, which hung in a sling against her ribs. "Good, I--I'm glad to hear that. I know how scary everything got earlier and I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am for getting you hurt. For letting Alex Barnes get anywhere near you…" Blair's voice trailed off as Denise raised her hand, exasperation written clearly across her face.

"Easy, Blair. This wasn't your fault. It was that wacko's fault. She hurt me, not you. Don't be an idiot by beating yourself up over this. We're cool, I promise." Denise softened her words with a smile, and Blair relaxed a bit.

"Good. I can't help but feel guilty…" Chuckling softly at Denise's vexed sigh, Blair held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. I understand. I just wanted to know… well… I figured, after all that happened today, you might want to sign on with another professor, which I would totally understand if you did."

A soft chuckle escaped the figure in the bed. "Trying to get rid of me are you, Mr. Sandburg? Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm not going anywhere. I can tell working for you will be nothing short of exciting, and I admit I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie. So, sorry, I'm not getting off the wild ride just yet. You'll just have to keep putting up with me."

Blair laughed softly and nodded. He understood all too well. Her words as brought back a not-so-distant memory of him trying to explain the exact same feeling to one bull-headed detective. He'd matured since, then, however, and no longer viewed near-death experiences as something akin to a carnival ride.

"Okay, gotcha loud and clear. You're not going anywhere. Which, by the way, I must admit is just fine by me."

Denise laughed again, her tone teasing. "Good, 'cause that's the way it's going to be. Glad to see we agree."  

"Don't be too glad. Wait 'til you see the stack of work I'll have waiting for you once you get out of here."

The issue settled, the two continued joking for a few more minutes. Blair knew Jim was still waiting, so he made his apologies. Bidding Denise goodbye, the anthropologist left, leaving her to rest, and went out to meet his patient partner.  

~~~~&~~~~

The ride home from the hospital was quiet and rather tense. All the forced joviality Blair had displayed while talking with his TA had evaporated immediately upon getting into the truck, leaving a pensive and introspective version of the man in its wake. Jim still hadn't been able to pry much out of Blair since they'd left Cascade General, other than a few short sentences here and there. Normally, Jim would have been all for the "checking the emotions at the door" tactic, but he couldn't take that route this time.

He wasn't going to ignore what had transpired, letting things build and build until both he and Blair became unhinged. No, hindsight was 20/20, and he was going to use the past to make the future better. No more fear-based responses -- wasn't that the line from a chapter in Blair's dissertation? The phrase had at one time, not so very long ago, seemed threatening to Jim's psyche. Well, threatening or not, it seemed appropriate in this situation; everyone involved had been operating on fear -- masking it with anger -- and allowing the deep-seated emotion to govern his or her actions. Well, not anymore.

Come hell or high water, he and Blair Sandburg were going to have a very serious chat once they got home. 

~~~~&~~~~

Jim watched silently as Blair went through the front door and headed straight for the kitchen. Once there, the younger man began foraging through the refrigerator, apparently having developed a ravenous appetite all of a sudden. Sighing softly, Jim shut the door to the loft and locked it. He walked slowly toward his friend.

"Hey, Jim. What do you want for dinner, man? Not much here to choose from. Tell you what, tonight dinner's on me. Let's just get something delivered. Sound good to you?" Blair's disembodied voice floated up from within the refrigerator as he continued poking at jars and containers, searching for food.

For a moment, Jim considered letting things go. After all, it was obvious Sandburg didn't want to discuss what had happened. And what right did he, 'king of the great clam-up,' have to force Blair to talk? Regardless, he had to try. "Blair…" Jim spoke softly, wanting to keep things low-key, if possible.

Blair, as usual, read the sentinel's mind. "Ah, Jim. I... I don't really think we need to get into this right now," the younger man responded hoarsely as he moved away from the refrigerator, slamming its door shut. Walking to the counter, Blair placed his hands on the smooth surface, letting his head drop. "I mean… what would be the point? It's over. She's back in the loony bin. Case closed."

Jim swallowed deeply, knowing how hard and painful this was going to be for them both. But seeing Blair in the process of attempting to drown Alex had frightened him badly. The experience had been too much like déjà vu for Jim, bringing back haunting visions of Blair's near-death. A sickly scene flashed across his inner eye -- pulling Blair's waterlogged body out of the foul fountain, the ashy pallor of the younger man's skin, the deathly blue tint to his lips. The body that had housed Blair's soul had lain so still, a silent and broken testament to a shattered friendship.

Shaking himself out of the morbid memories, Jim's resolve strengthened. No, never again. They would talk about this now!

"I'm sorry to be selfish in this matter, Chief, but we need to talk. Right here, right now," Jim curtly stated as he walked around the tense young man and headed into the living room, sitting down on the sofa. Closing his eyes in a vain attempt to ease his growing headache, he leaned back into the soft cushions, and waited patiently for his friend to follow his lead.

Blair sighed deeply, shoulders drooping, and gave in to his partner's wishes. Sitting down himself, he ran a weary hand over his face. Jim was right -- it was better to handle this conversation now than to let things fester.

"Okay, man, shoot. What do you want to talk about? No, wait. Let me answer that for you. You want to know how I could possibly come close to killing Alex, is that it?" Blair abruptly got up from the couch and nervously began pacing the floor of the living room.

"Well, Chief, that would be a start." The harsh words slipped out before Jim could stop them. He sighed as he watched Blair tense up even more. One of these days the two of them would learn to stop dancing on eggshells.

"Okay, sure, I'll tell you why. Maybe because she killed me, man! Maybe because she tried to kill Denise! Maybe because… because…" Blair paused, his face flushed with anger as he turned to face his friend. He looked Jim straight in the eye, blue on blue, his glare's intensity almost overwhelming Jim.

"Maybe because she put a wedge between us, Jim. A wedge I helped put into place, thanks to my own stupidity. Maybe it's because ever since I met her, your trust in me has dwindled more and more. The mess with the diss was just the icing on the cake. Another reminder of a long, long list of screw-ups by yours truly, Blair Sandburg!"

Jim watched the wretched display of raw emotion on Sandburg's face and realized it mirrored the turmoil within himself. Alex had done this. She had ripped open a wound that had barely begun to heal, wreaking havoc with their lives once again. Jim hated her for that. Hell, he more than hated her, he despised her.

For a split second, the briefest of moments, Jim had contemplated helping Blair drown the woman. All sense and sensibility had left him and, for that moment, he had wanted his senses wide open, to be able to feel Alex die. To know the exact moment when her life left her, when her body became nothing more than an empty shell. To do to her what she had done to Blair….

Fortunately, he had squashed that feeling and carried on. Which, he knew, was exactly what Sandburg had had to do. Now they were both dealing with the aftermath, and it wasn't pretty. The cop knew all the cards needed to be laid out on the table once and for all. The air between them needed to be cleared, so that the two men could move forward in their partnership -- their friendship -- learning to trust one another unequivocally.

When he spoke again, Jim was shocked to hear the open emotion in his voice. "Chief, you need to understand something. And for once, I want you just to listen. Not to talk, not to interrupt, just simply to listen."

Blair nodded stiffly and crossed his arms, waiting impatiently for the other man to continue.

"I know that both of us have had some issues lately. That it's gotten harder to simply trust each other without reservation. And I realize how much of that was my fault, and I want to apologize to you. No, hear me out, Blair." Jim raised a hand to halt Blair's protests.

"I should have given you a chance to explain about things about Alex and the dissertation. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions, assuming the worst. I tend to do that, assume things. It's a nasty habit I'm trying to break."

Jim relaxed a little as Blair smiled softly at the half-hearted joke; so far, so good.  

"Anyway, I wanted you to know, to understand completely, that I do trust you. I trust you with my life and my sanity. You have no reason to fear that I'll turn on you. I've made mistakes, I know, but I hope you realize that you can trust me."

Blair's eyes hovered on some indistinguishable spot on the floor, his face a blank mask, but he nodded his head.

Jim rose slowly from the couch and took a few steps closer to Blair. "Just so you know, I wanted to help you back there, Chief. I wanted to throw my badge away and help you push her under the water. I felt that desire and I wanted to give in badly. And I know there was probably a part of you that wanted to see her die. What else could you expect of yourself in that situation, Blair? I mean, the woman who almost succeeded in ending your life came back! What normal, sane person wouldn't want revenge? I know I did!"

The younger man shook his head slightly, the slight tremble in his shoulders the only visible sign of the turmoil brewing within. His voice was soft, cracking under the weight of the emotional strain he was under. "I... I wasn't thinking of revenge, Jim. Well, maybe a little, but not really. Basically, I just wasn't thinking. I mean, it was like I was right back in the day, being held under the water, feeling all those same emotions as if it were really happening all over again. And then when I saw Denise go down, I just lost it." He swallowed hard. "God, I almost killed her, Jim. I'm no better than she is, than most of the criminals out there. I really wanted to, man. I almost did…." Blair's voice trailed off as he ran shaking hands over his face.

Jim reached out, grabbing Blair by the shoulders, forcing the younger man to look him in the eye, to listen to him.

"You are human. And as a member of the human race, you are subject to feelings. But what makes you and me different from the criminals we hunt down, is the fact that we overcame those feelings, however powerful they were. A part of you may have wanted to kill her, but you didn't. Only you had the power in that moment to make that choice, and you chose to let her live. You are not a murderer or a criminal. You are a victim suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who wanted to end the pain. You didn't screw up, Chief. You handled yourself just fine out there today. Better than most cops I know would have, myself included."

Blair closed his eyes, swallowing deeply. When he spoke, the words were choked with emotion. "T-thanks, man. That means more… more than you know. I… I needed to hear that...." Before he could finish, Jim reached out and drew the young man into a bone-crushing hug.

"I know, Chief. I know." Jim pulled slightly away. "Tell you what, why don't you take a load off and let me worry about dinner tonight? I think that's the least I could do after the day you've had."

Blair headed to the couch without protesting, "You mean after the day we've both had, don't you? But hey, I'm not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Just as long as it's remotely edible."  Sitting down, he ducked, just barely avoiding being hit by a flying pillow.

"Cute, Chief. Keep it up and you'll be on dish detail." Jim chuckled as he headed off to tackle the prospect of what to fix for dinner. Maybe Sandburg was right; take-out was definitely the way to go.

He smiled gently as a whispered, "Thanks, Jim," followed him into the kitchen.

~~~~~&~~~~

Blair settled down on the couch, leaning back and attempting to relax as he listened to Jim puttering around the kitchen. He prayed Jim was right. He never wanted to feel this way again, to hold another's fragile life in his hands and know the power to take that life away. He hoped this was post-traumatic stress syndrome, or some other psychological condition that could, at least in part, excuse his behavior at the fountain. Anything at all, just as long as he wasn't turning into a cold-blooded killer.

Blair reached for the remote to the TV, not wanting to follow the dark path his thoughts were threatening to take him down. Turning the television on, he started flicking through channels, watching the endless parade of mindless drivel until he came across Channel Eight. The news was on. He felt a pang deep within his chest as a picture of Alex Barnes appeared to the right of the reporter.

Almost of its own volition, his thumb moved and pressed the volume button. He wanted to hear this, to hear how this particular facet of his life was going to be sensationalized by the media. The reporter's voice filled the room, his diction clear and precise as he mechanically recounted the day's earlier pandemonium.  

"The top story in the news tonight...

"Alex Barnes has been caught. The public breathed a collective sigh of relief as the notorious felon was handcuffed and taken away in police custody from Rainier University earlier today. Barnes has been charged with assaulting a young woman on campus and with the attempted kidnapping of Blair Sandburg, the anthropologist who cited her as a 'Sentinel' and was recently cleared of fraud charges by both Rainier university and the federal government."

~~~~&~~~~  

"... and was recently cleared of fraud charges by both Rainier University and the federal government. Apparently, Barnes had some sort of vendetta against Mr. Sandburg, and things played out violently when she sought him out on campus grounds..."

Across town, in room 629, in the locked psych ward of Cascade General, a lone woman lay restrained securely to her bed. An eerie light filtered across the barren, sterile room, casting surreal imagery across the walls.

The reporter on the television, whose voice was filtering in from the common area of the psych ward, was nothing more than an antagonist. He was mocking her with his silky tone of voice, reading her life story as if it were fiction rather than truth. He was tearing her character to shreds, painting her as a monster instead of a martyr. Angrily she pulled at the bonds, ignoring the piercing pain as the straps dug into her wrists. Pain meant nothing anymore. She now had permanent residence set up here in hell.

How? How in the world did I fail again? It should have been such an easy task. Take Sandburg and make him help her find peace. Yet again, things had fallen apart. Her zeal had cost her! When would she learn?  

Again, Alex pulled against her restraints, anger welling up within her like a consuming fire. It wasn't fair! The light from the hall seemed to glow brightly, stinging her eyes as her fractured senses began to spike out of control. Not fair, not fair, not fair!!! 

The bonds against her skin began to chafe, tearing away at her already fragile control. What the heck was in these restraints, poison? They wanted to kill her! That's what this was, they wanted her dead! Jim Ellison wanted her dead! He'd sooner she die than get her hands on his precious guide!

"Are you poisoning me now??" Her scream echoed off the four walls of the room, grating against her hearing like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why, why won't they listen? Why wouldn't Blair help? She only wanted peace. Blissful and wonderful, her treasured peace. A state of calm where her senses no longer betrayed her, where she could function normally. And she was not going to get that here. Not in this place, not in this horrid pit!

"LET ME OUT!" Her manic screams tore through her mind, her hearing spiking. She had to get out, the bonds were cutting her, the sheets setting her skin on fire. And that humming, where was that humming coming from? Torture! That's what it was, torture! 

Her mind seemed to leave her as she lay writhing on the bed, whimpering as sights and sounds pummeled her senses, showing no mercy in their ruthless assault. Was there no one to take away her pain?

"Easy there, quiet now!" A gentle yet commanding voice sifted through the red haze of her mind, stealing away some of the intense agony. A feather-light touch brushed across her sweaty brow, and a moment later she felt a prick of white-hot pain in her arm. Feeling something rushing through her veins, she moaned her defeat, knowing she was headed into drugged out oblivion.

"That's it, sweetie. Just go with the flow and let the liquid peace calm you. You'll feel all better real soon." The gentle voice spoke, as the gentle caress was resumed on her face, soothing her as the drug filtered through her battered system.

The voice began to fade as the drug pulled her deeper and she did not resist. She had had enough pain in this wretched life…

All she wanted was peace.


The End

E-mail the authors:
MaBrown: mabrown412@yahoo.com
Brate: brate01@hotmail.com
Gemini: gemini_ts@hotmail.com

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