This is for Paulette, who not only wrote 300(!) letters for this story in the gen auction, but who was also kind enough to beta for me and to offer ideas. Paulette asked for an "explain Blair" story. I added more plot and weirdness, and she came up with a brilliant theory about that, too. I only wish I could have incorporated everything she came up with. Thanks, Paulette.
Thanks also to Sue, Kandy, and Vickie, three excellent betas, two of whom were subjected to the unfortunate first draft. Brave women, all.
The usual disclaimer: Not mine, never will be. Apparently, not Pet Fly's, either. No money involved.
Rated PG, for language.
written December, 1998 - May, 1999
Susan L. Williams
Hospitals were all the same. The sharp antiseptic that couldn't quite cover the smell of death and illness, the chill that permeated the air, the fluorescent lighting that only accentuated the bleak coldness of the atmosphere. Even here at Sargent Memorial, a private hospital for the wealthy, it was no different. God, he hated hospitals.
Blair followed Jim through the corridors, the sentinel's feet silent on the spotless linoleum. Blair's own workboots could barely be heard, though he was sure they were loud to Jim's ears. He walked a half step behind the detective, as he usually did when they were on a case. But this wasn't a case; he only wished it were.
Jim strode ahead, counting on him to catch up. Seconds later, he saw the reason for Jim's sudden speed: Room 320 was just ahead. The door was closed; Jim pushed through without knocking. Blair caught it before it shut in his face and sidled through. He stopped just inside the room. Sometimes, it was better to stick to his job title and just observe.
The furnishings were nicer than any hospital room he'd ever seen. Real wood cabinets and table, cushioned armchairs, heavy drapes on the windows, a single bed with a quilted coverlet that matched the drapes. As comfortable as they looked, the chairs were empty. William Ellison stood at the head of the bed, watching Jim approach. He looked tired, and older than he had when Blair last saw him. Jim's brother Steven lay in the bed, his blandly handsome face relaxed in unconsciousness or sleep, Blair couldn't tell which. Jim probably knew, but he wouldn't ask. Not now, anyway.
Even from the door, Blair could see the bruises darkening Steven's face. Butterfly bandages held a cut on his forehead closed. He'd been lucky. The bullet had passed through his torso just below the ribs without hitting anything vital. Still, he'd be in a lot of pain when he woke up.
Jim gazed down at his younger brother, an expression on his face that Blair couldn't interpret. It wasn't exactly anger, or precisely grief, or completely guilt, but some strange, sad combination of the three.
"The doctors think he'll make a complete recovery," William said, his voice low so not to wake Steven.
Jim nodded. "How did it happen?"
"He was mugged."
"On Water Street."
Jim frowned. "What was he doing on the docks?"
William pointedly looked past Jim, but didn't quite look at Blair. "Do you think this is something we should be discussing in front of a stranger?"
"Blair's my partner," Jim said simply.
"I understand that you work with him, Jimmy, but this is a family matter."
"Dad...." The jaw twitched, but Jim managed to get himself under control. "We're talking about a crime, not a social blunder. I asked Blair to come with me."
"To your brother's bedside?"
"Jim, it's okay." Blair opened the door. "I can wait outside."
"You stay right where you are, Chief." Jim turned back to his father. "Blair's my partner. He stays, or we both go. It's your choice."
The alarm on the elder Ellison's face made Blair want to sink through the floor. This was not good. Jim and his father had enough stress right now without fighting over him. Okay, Blair, you're supposed to be smart. Think of a way to make two conflicting Ellisons happy. Yeah, right. How was he supposed to leave and stay at the same time?
Blair moved away from the door, toward the table and chairs on the other side of the room. "Why don't I just wait over here?"
Father and son watched him cross the room and sit down. Neither said a word. When they turned their attention back to Steven, Blair assumed he'd done the right thing. They conversed quietly, and Blair caught a word here and there, but he didn't try to listen. He didn't have to, Jim would fill him in later. He occupied his time scribbling in his latest notebook, outlining the paper he was writing on the similarities between underworld and academic societies. Jim had laughed at the idea, but in certain departments at Rainier, there wasn't that much difference between a dean and a don.
"Chief, come here for a minute, will you?"
Jim had moved to the other side of the bed. Blair took his place at the sentinel's side. He cast a single glance at William Ellison, saw the displeasure in the older man's gaze, and looked away again. "What's up, Jim?"
"Do you see anything on Steven's face?"
Blair studied the still features closely, knowing he wouldn't see whatever it was Jim was looking at. Sometimes, he wished Jim would get it through his head that no one else could sense the things that he could. "Cuts and bruises. You see something else?"
"Right here." Jim pointed at a darkening bruise on Steven's left cheek. "You don't see that?"
"See what, Jim?"
"An impression. It looks like some kind of animal, but I can't quite make it out."
"Try feeling it."
Jim didn't question him; he didn't even hesitate, and Blair wondered if this display of trust was for William's benefit. Another thing he wouldn't ask. Not now, probably not ever. Jim laid one finger lightly on the bruise, stroking over it as though he were caressing his brother's cheek. His eyes were focused on the wall, or in his own head, seeing what his finger touched.
"What do you feel, Jim?" Blair prodded.
"It feels like...I think it's some kind of cat. A lion. Or a tiger."
"Or a bear, oh my," Blair murmured, too low for any but Jim to hear.
"Just doing my job, Jim. Gotta keep you from zoning."
"With bad jokes?"
"Whatever works, man."
Jim cuffed the back of his head lightly, never cracking a smile. Blair breathed easier. At least Jim wasn't too upset to function.
"So, it's a cat, huh? How was it made?"
"Probably a ring," Jim said absently, his fingers mapping the rest of Steven's face.
"Whoever it was must have hit him pretty hard."
"I'd say so."
"Why would a mugger beat him up and then shoot him?"
"Who knows why anyone does anything, Chief? Maybe Steven did something to piss the guy off. Maybe the jerk just didn't like his face."
"Maybe. It just seems like overkill." He winced at his unfortunate word choice. "Sorry."
Jim ignored him, used to those times when his tongue ran away with his brain. The sentinel concentrated on his brother, looking for anything else that might give them a clue who had done this. Not exactly a brotherly reaction, maybe, but one that Jim couldn't help.
"Do you have to do that now?" William demanded.
"Yeah," Blair answered. "He does. If he waits, he might miss something."
"Excuse me, Mr...?"
"Sandburg. Blair. You probably don't remember, but we met when--"
"I remember. I don't mean to be rude, Mr. Sandburg, but I was talking to my son."
Jim looked up from his inspection. "Don't start, Dad."
"Jimmy, he doesn't belong here."
"Fine." Jim straightened up and moved away from the bed. "Let's go, Chief."
Jim paused at the door. "Have someone notify me when he wakes up."
Jaw set, back stiffly erect, Jim left the room. Casting a final, rueful glance at
William Ellison, Blair followed.
Jim exited the hospital with Blair right behind him, the smaller man taking two quick steps for every one of his. The pressure in his teeth warned him, and he tried to relax his jaw, but every time he did, he thought of his father and his teeth ground together again. He climbed into the truck and slammed the door, barely waiting for Blair to get in before he drove off.
Why did he have to be such a bastard? Steven was lying there, beaten and shot, and all he could think about was his precious family name. Did he think being mugged was something to be ashamed of? That Blair was going to go out and tell everyone he knew what had happened, as if it were some kind of juicy gossip? And calling Blair a stranger! Blair was not a stranger. Blair was his friend, his partner. His partner. In many ways--hell, in all ways--he was closer to Blair than to either his father or Steven. But his father assumed that Blair was just a co-worker--or something less, knowing him--and had no right even to be there, much less to hear what was going on. And Blair: Blair was ready to go along with him, to just let himself be thrown out, as though his presence wasn't important, wasn't absolutely necessary. What the hell was the matter with him? He was sitting there now, just sitting there, hands in his lap, not saying a word, giving him those concerned glances once in a while when he thought he could get away with it. Was he insulted by the way the great William Ellison had treated him? Was he mad? No, of course not. He understood. He was forever understanding things, even things that should make him furious. Jim could count the number of times Blair had been angry--really angry--on the fingers of one hand. Well, he should be angry now, damn it. He should be cursing Jim, his father, and all his ancestors back to the first primitive throwback. But he just sat there.
"Jim, it's okay."
"Stop saying that, Sandburg. It's not okay. He treated you like dirt."
"He was upset. His son's in the hospital."
"I know that. Don't you think I know that? But it's no excuse."
"Jim, come on, man, try to look at it from his point of view. As far as he knows, I'm just some guy you work with."
"Are you saying I should tell him about the sentinel-thing, your part in it?"
"No, I'm not saying that. All I'm saying is, to your father, I'm a stranger and he doesn't want strangers hanging around Steven's hospital room. Come to think of it, though, it might help if you told him."
"No." Of all the stupid suggestions. It was just like Sandburg. The kid seemed to think that, if only the right words were said, everyone would get along. Sometimes, his naivete was incredible. And incredibly annoying. "It's none of his business."
"It's up to you, man. I just think, if he were my father--"
"He's not your father, Sandburg, he's mine. I'm the one who had to live with him for eighteen years, not you, so don't go making excuses for him. I'll decide what I tell him."
Blair held up his hands. "Okay, okay. Do what you want, Jim. Just don't bite my head off about it because I am not in the mood for that paternal shit right now."
"What would you know about anything paternal, Sandburg?"
"Nice, Jim," Sandburg snapped. "Just because I never had a father doesn't mean I don't know what they're like."
"Yeah, it does. You've got this sweet little image in your head of this ideal daddy with his little boy, and you think that's how it is. Well, it isn't."
"I know that, Jim."
"I don't think you do."
One hand sliced the air. "Stop right there, man! I am not going to do this. I am not going to be your punching bag tonight, Ellison, I'm too tired. You can take out your frustrations someplace else."
Jim stared at the man beside him. "Is that what I'm doing?"
"Yeah, that's what you're doing. That's what you always do. I don't mind, usually. I mean, I can take it and I know you don't mean it, but it's four o'clock in the morning and I have a paper due in five hours and--"
"Why didn't you say so?"
"What?" Tirade interrupted, Blair stared owlishly, not processing.
"Why didn't you say you had a paper to write?"
He shrugged. "You needed me."
Jim bowed his head to the steering wheel, eyes closed. 'You needed me.' That was all Blair had to hear, or to think, and he just dropped everything. "Chief?"
"I'm a bastard."
"Don't go there, Sandburg. I'm trying to apologize."
"Keep trying, Jim."
He turned his head and opened one eye to look at his partner. "That's it?"
"Well, yeah." Blair's gaze shifted out past the windshield. "There is one thing, Jim."
A quick grin. "The light's green."
Blair surged out of sleep, heart pounding. What the--? Oh. The phone. And by the sound of it, Jim was in the shower. Blair stumbled out of bed, flung open the French doors, and lunged for the phone before the machine could pick up, stubbing his toe on the couch in the process.
"Shit! Ow, ow, ow, hello?"
Silence for a moment. Then, "I'm sorry. I must have dialed the wrong number."
"...Yes. Is this...Mr. Sandburg?"
"You're working early today?"
"No, we don't go in until later. I just got out of... Um, Jim's in the shower. Hold on, I'll get him."
"No. Don't do that. Just--tell him that Steven's awake."
"Are you sure you--"
He hung up. Blair glared accusingly at the receiver before putting it down. Great, Sandburg. Maybe for an encore, you can make crank calls to the Chief of Police, get Jim in deep with all the authority figures in his life. Jim was going to kill him.
"Who was that, Chief?" Jim called from the bathroom, opening the door to let steam escape.
"You weren't listening?"
"Would I be asking if I had?"
Maybe he'd get out of this alive after all. "It was your father. Steven's awake."
"I'm gonna head over there in fifteen, Sandburg. Will you be ready?"
"Sure." An hour's sleep, wet hair, no breakfast. No problem. "Um, Jim?"
"Does your father know we're roommates?"
"Don't think so. It never came up."
"He does now."
Jim stuck his head out the door, razor poised in one hand. He didn't say anything. Just waited.
"I, um, sort of let it slip."
"It's not a secret, Sandburg."
"I know, it's just--he didn't seem exactly happy about it."
Jim shrugged. "He's never been happy about anything else I've done, why should my living arrangements be any different?"
"Not a big deal, Sandburg."
Jim finished shaving and left the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. "All yours, Chief."
Fifteen minutes later, Blair emerged from his room clean, shaved, dressed, and dripping water from the ends of his hair. Jim already had his jacket on.
"Let's go, Chief."
"Yeah." He took a deep breath. "Jim, do you really need me to go with you?"
Jim's face went still. Never a good sign. "Sandburg, if this has anything to do with what we just talked about--"
"Jim, I'm just asking. I'll go if you want me to, but I have to get that paper in by nine."
"Oh. Right. No problem, Chief, you go on to school. Why don't I meet you for lunch?"
"Great. See you later, Jim."
"Yeah." Jim paused in the door. "That 'classic' of yours gonna make it?"
"The Volvo's running great, Jim."
"Okay, then. See you."
Jim shut the door behind him. Damn, he'd hated doing that. Jim obviously wanted him along, for moral support if nothing else. The fact that Jim would never in a million years admit that made it easier to get around him, but it made Blair feel ten times worse. He hadn't lied, he did need to get that paper in. It just wasn't his only reason for begging off. Jim needed to see his father and brother alone, without his roommate/partner/guide/whatever tagging along. And, okay, there was also some cowardice involved. It might have gone right past Jim, but he knew exactly what William Ellison was going to think about the living arrangements and he just wasn't up to facing that right now. Once he'd had some sleep, he could stand up to anything the elder Ellison might throw at him, but not now, not without losing his temper, and he didn't want to do that with Jim's father. Not if he could help it, anyway.
So, okay, it was not quite 7 AM. He'd drive to Rainier, drop off his paper--Early! Dr.
Mariades would faint--beat it back here and sleep for a few hours before he met Jim for
lunch. By then, his hair would even be dry. Now that was a plan. Provided
his conscience would go along with it.
The hospital looked the same in daylight as in darkness. A little less haunted, maybe, less redolent of the thousands who had died here over the years. Jim smiled slightly. Blair would love that image. In half a second flat, Sandburg the scientist would be all over him with questions about whether or not he could actually sense the presence of departed souls. He couldn't. At least, he didn't think he could. But he did not want to do any tests to find out. So he wouldn't mention it to Blair, and he'd have a little peace in exchange for the oppressiveness he always felt in these places. And he wouldn't question whether that was a sentinel thing or just a human thing. As Blair would say, hospitals sucked.
All was quiet in Steven's room. There were no monitors beeping, no IV's dripping, no voices talking, just breathing, and two heartbeats he wouldn't have recognized before last night. Steven turned to look at him when he walked through the door; their father was asleep in one of the chairs next to the bed.
"Hey, Jim," his brother said softly.
"Steven," he returned. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone bashed me with a telephone pole, then shoved it through my body." He smiled, but lines of pain bracketed his eyes and mouth.
"You look it."
Jim regarded his brother. Younger, smaller--dumber, he'd always said, but he hadn't meant it. Steven had always been a smart kid, not as athletic as Jim, but no wimp, either. No football, but he'd played baseball and basketball. When Jim left, he'd just been getting into track and field. He was a runner. Like Blair. Of course, Blair had never lived anywhere long enough to get involved in any organized sports, even if Naomi would have let him, which he doubted. He couldn't see the original flower child wanting her son to take part in "ritualized competitive brutality" or whatever she would have called it. That hadn't stopped Blair from playing, when he could. The kid had a hell of a fastball and was pretty good in a pick-up game.
"Jim? You with me?"
"Yeah. You were damn lucky, Steven."
"What the hell were you doing down there?"
Their father jerked awake. "What? Steven?"
"Right here, Dad."
Steven laid a hand on his arm, and he calmed down, his heart resuming its normal rate. He looked around blearily, spotted Jim, and the anxious look he seemed to wear whenever he was in his older son's presence came over his face.
Steven glanced from one to the other. "Take him home, will you, Jim? He's been here all night."
He set his jaw. "I'm staying."
"Dad, I'm going to be here for a couple more days. You can't stay here the whole time. Go home and get some rest. Please." Steven squeezed his father's arm, whispering, "It's not your fault."
"All right." Their father stood slowly, his age evident in the careful precision of his movements. "But I can drive myself."
Steven looked to Jim, a pleading glance he couldn't ignore. "I'll take you, Dad. You've been up all night. If you get into an accident, with Steven already in here, I'll never live it down at the station." He turned his attention to Steven. "Someone from Robbery will be by to take your statement."
Alarmed. "You reported it?"
"The hospital. They had to, Steven, you were shot. It's the law."
"Oh. Right. Then you won't be working the case?"
"Not officially. It doesn't qualify as a major crime."
"I'll keep my eyes and ears open."
Steven nodded. "Okay. Great."
Behind him, his father's heart rate soared. "You coming, Jimmy?"
Jim studied him, seeing nothing on his face but weariness. "Yeah. Sure. I'll stop by later, Steven."
Jim walked beside his father, slowing his stride to match the older man's, resisting the unreasoning urge to offer physical support. It wasn't needed, he knew that, but he was still having trouble reconciling the man beside him with his memories of his father. William Ellison had never been a jock type--he'd worked with his head, not his hands--but now he seemed thin, almost fragile. Not at all the strong, cold, demanding man Jim remembered. Had age given him wisdom, as Sandburg claimed? Or was it just fear of being alone that made him desperate to make peace with his sons? Should that matter? Did it matter?
The ride to his father's house passed in silence. It still looked the same; the same as it had last spring; the same as it had thirty years ago. His father pulled up on the door handle, and hesitated.
"Can you come in for a while? Sally will have coffee on."
Jim sniffed the air. Coffee. And coffeecake. He hadn't tasted Sally's coffeecake since he was a kid. He shut off the truck. "If you want. Sure."
In minutes, they were ensconced in the living room with plates of coffeecake and mugs of coffee. The coffeecake was still warm, and just as good as Jim remembered. His mother hadn't been much of a cook, but Sally was the best. His mother hadn't done much of anything that he remembered. She'd been prone to incapacitating migraines. One of his strongest memories of her was lying in her darkened room with a damp cloth across her eyes.
His father finished his cake and stared at the crumbs on the plate.
"Jimmy," he began, "when I called this morning...."
He looked up, but Jim wouldn't give him any help. He knew where this was leading.
"Your...uh...your partner answered."
Jim nodded. "Blair's also my roommate."
"I see." He cleared his throat. "What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means we share the apartment, Dad."
"That's all? You're not...?"
"Not what, Dad?"
"Dammit, Jimmy, you know what I'm trying to say."
"No, Dad." Jim fixed his eyes on his father, his voice as cold as he could make it. "I don't know."
"Are you--Is he--Do you--" He gripped the coffee mug so hard Jim thought it would break. "Are you gay?"
Jim sipped his coffee. "No."
"Thank God." His father set plate and mug down on the table with shaking hands. "Jimmy, do you know what it looks like, you living with him?"
"I know exactly what it looks like, Dad. It looks like Blair's my roommate."
"Jimmy, he's so much younger than you, so, so--hippie-ish. He has long hair, for God's sake!"
"Is that supposed to mean something?"
"He's not even thirty! Is he?"
Jim shot to his feet. "What, Dad? You want me to throw him out? Is that it? How many times do I have to say this to you? Blair's my partner. He's also my friend, and my roommate. So he looks a little different, so what? He's loyal to a fault, braver than most of the cops I know, and a hell of a lot smarter. I like him. And I like things just the way they are. I'm not about to change them because you don't like the way it looks."
"Drop it, Dad. And don't ever bring it up again. Not to me, and especially not to Blair."
His father gazed up at him. "Why is he so important to you?"
"Because he--" Anger drained out of him. He was not going to explain Blair to his father. "He just is, Dad. He just is."
His father looked away, and he stood in awkward silence. "I've gotta go to work. Get some sleep, Dad."
A nod was his only answer. Well, what else was new? Jim walked out. That wasn't new, either.