The following work of fanfiction is not intended to make money or infringe on the copyright of Pet Fly, UPN, Paramount, or anyone else. The characters, concept, and setting aren't mine, but the story is. Please don't republish or sue without permission of the author.

Notes'n'stuff: Rated PG-13. Thanks to Sammi and Paulette for betareading and saving me from some stupid mistakes; special thanks to Wendy for encouragement and smarm above and beyond the call of duty.

by Katie

Blair reached out and braced himself against the dashboard of the truck, not trusting his seatbelt to hold him against the demands of gravity as Jim squealed around the corner at top speed. The car the crack dealer and two-time murderer was in pulled slightly ahead.  Jim stomped on the gas, his jaw clenched and eyes glued on the car as if he could stop it by sheer force of will.

Blair had attempted to follow Jim's orders to phone for backup, but hadn't quite figured out how to dial the phone while clinging to various parts of the truck's interior for dear life. After a brief second's contemplation of letting go long enough to grab the phone, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and he could always call when Jim finally stopped the truck--provided they were still alive. If not, well, they wouldn't be needing backup all that much at that point, anyway. In the meantime, Blair was quite content to dig holes in the upholstery with his fingers and see if he could induce muscle cramps in his eyelids if he squeezed them shut hard enough.

With a screech that must have left half the tires on the pavement, Jim brought the truck to an abrupt halt. Blair cautiously opened his eyes. They were at the mouth of an alley, which was partially blocked by an industrial-size dumpster and several old crates. Jim jerked the door of the truck open and took off running, yelling over his shoulder, "Stay here, Sandburg! Call Simon!"

Blair just sat for a second, getting his bearings and his breath. //Okay. Alley plus Jim running equals bad guy on foot, I guess.  Sure couldn't get that tank he was driving around the dumpster. Call Simon. Right.//

It only took a second to hit the speed dial and relay the message.  He rolled his eyes slightly at Simon's repetition of Jim's order to stay put, but figured he was compromising by only getting out of the truck and not actually going down the alley. He stared uneasily at the alley's mouth. He really, really hated these times when Jim ran off on his own. Not that the man couldn't take care of himself, of course, but there was that wait until he came back, the possibility that this time, something could go wrong and Jim could get hurt--


The sound shattered the silence left after Jim's footsteps had faded.

//Ohmigod.// Blair froze. //It was Jim's gun. It had to be Jim's gun. Why was there only one shot? Did he miss?// The thing was, it hadn't sounded like Jim's gun. Blair wasn't any sort of expert, but he had heard Jim's gun more times than he cared to think about, and this hadn't been the same sound. //So the alley distorted it. That's all. Get a grip, Sandburg. Jim told you to stay here, and he'll be back in a minute, so you'd better be here where he told you to be.//

It was sound advice, even if he did say so himself, but he wasn't listening. With a careful look around the dumpster, he stepped into the alley, keeping himself close to whatever protection afforded itself to him. There were so many old crates and piles of junk that he could only see a few feet ahead at a time, and he didn't want to startle Jim or the dealer into shooting him.

The smell was atrocious.  Rotting garbage mixed with stagnant puddles of water, but it was almost welcome, because he could tell himself that that was why he couldn't breathe. //God, how did Jim handle this? I hope he remembered to turn his smell dial down--gotta think of a better name for that before I put it in the diss. What if he got distracted . . . no, quit thinking like that.//

Blair crept forward slowly, part of his mind screaming at him to hurry in case Jim needed him, the other, more sensible part reminding him that there were guys with guns roaming around back here, and even the one who would object to shooting him was a little preoccupied at the moment. He reached up distractedly to push a strand of hair out of his face, wishing he'd thought to put it up today, and realized that he still had the cell phone in his hand. //Great, just what I need--this thing'll go off and everyone in the neighborhood will know exactly where I am. Brilliant, just brilliant.//

With an exasperated sigh, he tucked the phone into the pocket of his jacket and peered around an armoire someone had left blocking about half of the path. For a moment, his mind wouldn't comprehend what it was seeing, and then he was on his knees next to the crumpled figure of his partner, trying frantically to find out where the blood was gushing from. There was so much blood that, for a long moment, he thought there had to be more than one wound. But his mind, locked in a strange, calm clarity, insisted that there'd only been one shot, so there could only be one bullet hole.

"There it is," Blair said, a small part of him marveling at how composed he sounded. "Doesn't exactly look good, Jim, and you're gonna have to get a new shirt, but you're going to be okay. Hear me? You're going to be just fine."

The bullet had gone through Jim's chest--on the right side, thank all the deities that looked out for headstrong Sentinels--and had left behind what looked to Blair like a huge, ragged hole. Working quickly, Blair pulled off his jacket and then the flannel shirt he was wearing over a T-shirt, then folded the flannel and pressed it down on the wound. "Pressure to stop the bleeding, right, Jim? I hope it's pressure, man, 'cause if it's not, I'm not helping you much here. Hang on, okay? I've gotta call this in."

He was keeping his voice casual, as if they were just having a normal conversation, even though Jim was unconscious and probably couldn't care less. It wasn't so much by design as by the fact that he was completely, utterly calm. His entire attention was riveted on his partner. Nothing else existed, but he wasn't scared, although he thought maybe he should be. He felt like the world had stopped, and he had nothing to be afraid of until it started again, because nothing could happen to Jim until time resumed. He had all the time he needed to get the bleeding stopped and call the paramedics. Those chores done, he sat down on the wet ground beside the older man and pulled him up off the cold, damp ground to rest on his legs, keeping the pressure on the wound steady the whole time.

"There, that's more comfortable, isn't it?" he asked, studying the pale, still face. Jim's hair had gotten mussed, which would have irritated him to no end if he'd known about it.  The dark strand lying on his temple only served to show how white his face had grown. Blair rocked him gently, speaking as softly and evenly as he would to a frightened child.  "Help's going to be here soon, Jim. Everything's going to be all right, hear? Just take it easy, man. Take it easy."

The blood had soaked through his shirt and was staining his hand. He noticed it with a sort of academic interest, thinking briefly that blood loss in that volume wasn't good, but he still wasn't frightened. Even when Jim moaned, his body tensing as he returned to consciousness, Blair didn't feel anything but the stillness that had pervaded him. He shifted the arm that had been holding his partner steady so that he could rest his hand on Jim's forehead, quieting the detective's sudden thrashing as pain hit him.

"Hush, now. You're all right, just don't try to move, okay? You're all right, man. Everything's all right," Blair whispered like a mantra, offering his voice as well as his touch as an anchor. "I'm here, help's going to be here soon, just be still."

Jim's brow furrowed as he forced his eyes open to blink hazily in Blair's direction. "Blair?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

" . . . hurts . . ." Jim raised his hand weakly, trying to push the shirt away from his wound, but the movement didn't have any strength behind it.

"No, man, don't mess with that. You've gotta picture that pain dial, okay?" Blair murmured, gently tightening his hold on his partner. "Just see it in your mind and turn it down. You can do it."

Jim's eyes weren't usually very expressive, but Blair knew how to read them, and to him, the pain and disorientation there were as plain as if they had been written on paper.

" . . . can't . . ." Jim gasped, the words stealing his breath for a second.

Blair stroked the tense lines of his forehead soothingly. "Sure you can. Just listen to my voice and feel my hand on your forehead. That's all there is, Jim. Nothing else in the world but my voice and my hand. Feel that? Now, there's a dial there, too. It's turned up pretty high, but that doesn't matter. You're just going to turn it down lower, is all. Just listen to my voice, feel my hand, and turn the dial down, okay? You're doing great, man. Just great."

"Blair?" Jim's voice had grown more urgent, his body tensing as he grabbed weakly at Blair's hand--not so much trying to push it off as to hold on, now. His fingers were icy and white against the blood that coated Blair's. Hurting, slightly puzzled and alarmed blue eyes focused on Blair's face. " . . . okay?"

Blair smiled slightly. "Yeah, man, I'm fine. We both are." And it was true, too, because there was no way Jim Ellison was going to bleed his life out in a stinking, wet alley as long as Blair Sandburg was around to prevent it.

Jim closed his eyes again, his breath escaping in a long sigh. Blair continued the soothing strokes across Jim's forehead and hair, focusing on the soft, cool feel of his skin and the steady rise and fall of his chest under Blair's other hand, letting Jim's weight on his legs anchor him the same way he was trying to anchor Jim.

In the distance, he could hear sirens approaching. An illogical part of his mind almost regretted them.  He was caught in a strange, timeless universe where only he and Jim existed, and where--as long as no one intruded--he could protect Jim from anything. Jim was dependent on him for that protection now, which was sort of an odd feeling; he was used to Jim being the protector. The bullet had shattered Jim's usual fašade of the strength, though, leaving him with a defenseless vulnerability that awoke every protective instinct Blair had.

If he could have, he would have prevented the shooting.  As it was, he did the only other thing he could. He created a private world, bound by his voice and his touch, and encased Jim and himself in it, barring the pain and fear from any chance of entrance. Jim slowly relaxed against him, accepting his comfort, as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Blair's hands started shaking as he filled out the forms a nurse gave him, and it was downhill from there. Without the need to stay calm for Jim, the unnatural peacefulness he'd been feeling disappeared, and by the time Simon came into the waiting room, he was pacing frantically, hands clutched together to keep them from flying all over the place, wondering why the hell no one had come to tell him how Jim was. Just how long did it take to patch up a bullet wound, anyway?

Unless they were taking so long because there was something really wrong. Jim had those weird reactions to medications--what if he had one to the pain meds the doctors were sure to give him? If he woke up when Blair wasn't around to help him with the pain dial . . .  He'd had a hard enough time controlling them when Blair was there. He'd lost control a couple of times when the paramedics were working on him; Blair had helped him to focus again, but he couldn't imagine what would happen if Jim had to try to focus without him. Or what if the wound was worse than it had looked? Not that it looked all that great, but . . .

"Sandburg, what's going on? How's Jim?" Simon's deep voice rumbled through Blair's thoughts, temporarily derailing the panic that had been building in Blair's chest. Blair looked up at the big captain, for once more comforted than intimidated by Simon's ability to command a room just by walking into it.

"I don't know, man. They aren't talking. He's been in there for hours . . . "

Simon gripped his shoulder hard enough to hurt, halting Blair's frantic movements and the words spilling out of his mouth at the same time. "Blair, calm down. It's only been half an hour since you called me, and Jim hadn't even been hurt then, so he hasn't been in there that long. These things take time." Simon released him and patted his shoulder gently. "Now, tell me what happened."

Blair took a deep breath and tried to center himself.  Not that he hadn't been trying before, but somehow Simon's presence served as an focus, and he was able to give a reasonably calm account of finding Jim and calling the ambulance.

"So you didn't see who shot him?"

Blair shook his head. "No, I was back at the truck when it happened." //Where I couldn't do him any good.// "Who else could it be but the guy Jim was chasing, though? Sam Fellers? It's the only thing that makes sense, Simon."

Simon sighed. "That's not enough for the D.A., Sandburg." He ran a hand over his face. "We'll just have to hope that Jim saw him, otherwise it'll be a tough conviction."

Blair looked away, not wanting the captain to see the knowledge that had just hit him, that was crawling in his belly and making him want to throw up: if he'd been backing Jim up, he would have seen who'd shot Jim.  Hell, he might have been able to stop it. What kind of partner was he, if he couldn't even make sure Jim didn't get shot? God, for all he knew, Jim had zoned on the smells or a light reflecting off something. It was Blair's job to make sure his sentinel didn't zone in dangerous situations, his only real reason for being Jim's partner, and if that's what had happened and he hadn't been there to stop it . . .

He swallowed heavily, forcing himself to breathe in and out normally, clutching at the sleeves of his jacket with either hand so that he wouldn't fly apart. It took him a second to realize that the fabric he was clinging to was covered in blood.  Jim's blood.  He had to get out of there. With a vague wave in Simon's direction to show he didn't need to be followed, Blair pulled himself free and bolted.

He hit the door to the restroom just in time. Falling to his knees beside the toilet, he started retching and couldn't stop, the visions of Jim's blood obscuring everything else. Finally, long after his stomach had been emptied, he leaned back against the cold tile wall and wiped his mouth absently. The tremors running through his body weren't entirely due to the cold, but at least he felt slightly more in control.

"Okay, Sandburg, you've done the adrenaline rush thing. It's time to get it together again," he muttered to himself, slowly levering himself up off the floor and flushing the toilet on his way to the sink. Turning on the water, he rinsed out his mouth before splashing water on his face and running wet hands through his hair in a probably futile attempt to tame his wild curls. He looked up into the mirror, meeting his own eyes with a grimace. He looked two steps away from the loony bin: eyes wide, face pale, the faint hint of five o'clock shadow adding to the impression. His jacket was stained dark where he'd held Jim against him.  With a sudden, almost frantic movement, he jerked it off and threw it in the corner, shuddering.

"C'mon, man, Jim needs you. Take some deep breaths, get a grip, and get back in there." Inhaling deeply, he straightened his shoulders and pulled open the door. Back out in the hall, the antiseptic-and-urine smell of the hospital hit him again. Another deep breath got his stomach back under control, but he found himself turning in the opposite direction of the waiting room and walking aimlessly down the long white corridor without even making a conscious decision to. Shoving his hair back out of his face, he walked faster, deliberately breathing in and out, in and out, forcing himself to relax, to focus, to be calm . . .

The corridor branched abruptly, one side heading through a set of swinging doors marked "Hospital Personnel Only," and the other a thick wooden door framed by stained glass windows. A discreet plaque informed him that he'd found the "W.J. and Martha Wilson Memorial Non-Denominational Chapel." Blair hesitated, but an odd impulse--or maybe pure avoidance--propelled him forward. He opened the door, entered, and leaned back against it, letting the room's atmosphere soak into him.

The interior of the chapel was softly lit. A few rows of benches were set pew-like, facing the table at the front of the room.  A bowl of fresh flowers, centered on the strip of lace that stretched the length of the table, gently perfumed the air. The floor and lower walls were carpeted in the same deep, soft purple, and oak paneling lined the upper walls. Quiet music by some classical composer Blair couldn't place was just barely audible in the background. It was such an abrupt change from the noise, frantic activity, bright lights and sharp smells of the rest of the hospital that Blair had to blink a few times to be sure he was experiencing what he thought he was. This room had been set aside as a sanctuary, and for a second, all Blair could think of was how much of a relief it would be for Jim after the chaos he'd just gone through--once the flowers were removed. Blair stifled a somewhat hysterical giggle at the memory of Jim's reaction to Captain Finkleman's attempts to turn Simon's office into a florist's shop, afraid that if he started laughing, he wouldn't quit until someone came to haul him off.

He had to get back soon in case Jim came out of surgery or Simon decided he'd been gone too long, but . . . not yet. He needed a couple of minutes to center himself, to get back the calm he'd felt in the alley, or else he wasn't going to do anyone any good at all. He didn't really know where that calm had come from, except Jim had needed it, needed him, and he'd been there, giving Jim what he needed. //Yeah, finally,//an insidious voice whispered in the back of his mind.

Jerking away from the door he'd been leaning on, Blair went forward and dropped onto one of the benches, closing his eyes against the voice and the picture that kept slipping into his mind: Jim, alone in the alley, creeping forward, not knowing he was about to be shot, no one there to protect him or at least catch the man who'd shot him. //Some backup you are,// the voice went on inexorably, seeming to take great delight in ripping his soul to shreds. //If you were a cop--if you were the sort of partner he needed--you'd have been right behind him when he needed you. He wouldn't have had to leave you behind to protect you.//

With a groan, Blair dropped his head into his hands, running his fingers over his face and absently feeling the rough rasp of whiskers against skin. Jim wouldn't blame him for anything.  He'd done exactly what he was told, for once. But the fact that Jim wouldn't see anything wrong with what he'd done didn't mean he was blameless. He should have done something to protect his friend, and there was no excuse that could change that.

The chapel was quiet enough that he clearly heard the door open and shut, but he didn't turn around. He'd been enjoying the privacy to wallow in his guilt, but it was a big hospital and there were sure to be other people needing a quiet place as well. When the cushions on the bench sagged as a large form settled next to him, though, he looked up into the concerned eyes of Henri Brown. The big detective wasn't smiling for once, and Blair felt a shaft of fear rip through his stomach. Was Jim . . .?

Henri must have read the panic in his eyes.  He said quickly, "No news yet, Sandburg. Captain just thought you'd been gone a long time, sent us out to look for you."  For a second, the familiar grin lit his face. "I think he was getting tired of us pacing around the waiting room."

Blair smiled back, as much from relief as amusement. He sighed and straightened, flexing his shoulders a bit. "Well, tell him I'm okay. I just kinda needed to center myself, you know?"

Henri nodded. He leaned against the wooden back of the bench and stretched his arms out on either side, obviously in no hurry to rush back. "Nice in here, isn't it?"

Blair nodded absently, his mind sliding relentlessly back to the reason he was here. The wound had looked bad to him, and the paramedics hadn't exactly laughed it off, either. What if the doctors weren't able to get the bullet out? Or what if there was so much damage that they couldn't fix everything? Jim had been in so much pain . . . Blair's stomach clenched again at the memory. Of course, Jim's enhanced senses hadn't helped there.  What would have been agony for anyone was doubled or tripled for the sentinel. Blair had done everything he could //everything?// to keep the pain at bay, but Jim was still suffering as the paramedics had taken over, and he'd nearly come unglued when Blair had moved away from him to let the paramedics work.

Blair shivered, wishing for a second he still had the jacket he'd discarded--no, not that one, not ever again, but a jacket would be good. He was a little startled when a warm hand settled on his shoulder.  Glancing up again, he found Henri's gaze focused somewhere at the front of the chapel.

"You know," the detective said softly, "it's a weird thing about partners. Even the ones you don't like that much, the ones you don't want to see outside of work, you still feel responsible for them. It's like, you know their life is in your hands, and yours is in theirs, and it makes you feel this . . . I don't know, this bond with them. Like they're family or something."

He gave Blair a sideways glance, looking slightly embarrassed to be talking about something so personal. For all Henri's outgoing ways, Blair couldn't think of a time when he had really talked about anything more intimate than girlfriend troubles. The uncommon occurrence was enough to pull Blair's attention away from his worries for a minute.

Before he could say anything, though, Henri continued in the same quiet, musing voice, "It's different when they're your friend, though, 'cause you've got to worry about more than just protecting them on the job. You've gotta watch their backs no matter what, and when something happens to them, no matter what it is, you always get this feeling like you failed them."

Blair, who hadn't minored in psychology for nothing, stiffened slightly under Henri's hand. "Listen, H, I know what you're trying to do here, but you don't know . . ."

Henri, still not looking directly at the younger man, interrupted gently, "Did I ever tell you about the partner I had before Rafe?"

Blair shook his head, not sure if he should be honored that Henri was telling him something so obviously personal, and if the expression on his face was any judge, painful, or if he should be impatient about hearing an "I know what you're going through" story. Henri and his previously unheard of partner were both cops; they had the knowledge to back each other up, so how could Henri possibly know what it felt like to know you totally failed the person you were supposed to be helping?

"Debra Shaunnessy. We went through the academy together, eventually ended up as partners after both of us made detective. She was a good cop; smart, cool under fire, had no fear that I ever saw." Henri smiled faintly, lost in his memories. "We were friends outside of work--not like Rafe, not someone I'd bring home to watch the game or whatever, but we got along pretty good." He stopped for a second, and when he resumed, his voice had taken on a hardness Blair had never heard from him before. "She was killed on a simple drug bust we were helping Narcotics with--the only shot fired was the one that hit her in the head. Killed her instantly." He paused again, and Blair, not knowing what to say, waited silently. "I wasn't there--had some stupid seminar on new weapons the gangs were showing up with."

"Henri . . ." Blair started, forgetting for a moment his own worry and his cynical thoughts that Brown wouldn't know what he was experiencing.

Henri looked down at him, the compassion in his eyes stopping whatever Blair was going to say. "Point is, Hairboy," a faint grin worked its way out as he used his favorite nickname, "I spent about six months convinced that I could have saved her if I'd been there. Spent those same six months insisting I wasn't going to have another partner, 'cause I couldn't be trusted with one. Of course, I didn't say that to Simon; he'd never have taken it for an excuse, but it was what I was thinking. Finally--I don't know how he knew, except maybe he'd been through it before too--but Simon sat me down and told me the same thing I'm telling you now: If you didn't feel guilty when your partner got hurt, you wouldn't be fit to have a partner. You're supposed to be responsible for them, that's just the way it works."

Blair started to point out that he knew that already, but Henri quieted him again with another look. "Thing is, you can't forget that sometimes, shit just happens. People get hurt, sometimes they get dead, and you can't do anything about it. That's when you gotta choose--are you gonna spend the rest of your life telling yourself what a failure you are, or are you gonna get your act together and get back on the job?"

Blair raised his eyebrows. "People don't come cry on your shoulder very often, do they, H?"

Henri grinned. "Just passing on some wisdom from the great captain himself. After he told me that, he pointed out into the bullpen at this GQ wannabe standing there looking like a lost puppy, and told me that was my new partner, and I'd damn well better get my act together and get to work."

Picturing this, Blair felt his mouth curving into a grin.  It felt out of place, as if he didn't have any right to smile while his partner's life was still hanging in the balance, but at the same time, it made him feel lighter. He took a deep breath, ready to, as Simon apparently would say, "get his act together and get back on the job."

Henri reached out and ruffled his hair in a gesture so reminiscent of Jim that it made Blair's heart lurch. "Speaking of, Simon's going to be sending out another search party if we don't get back soon. You about ready?"

Blair nodded, but then caught Henri's arm as the big man stood up. "Thanks, man."

They walked back to the waiting room in companionable silence. As they entered, Blair saw one of the doctors that had taken Jim into surgery talking to Simon, and he abruptly felt sick again. Henri clapped him on the shoulder and went to stand beside his partner a few steps behind the captain. Blair joined Simon, barely noticing the sharp look the older man gave him or the gentle hand that was placed on his shoulder. Blair's entire being was focused on trying to read the doctor's expression, to know if Jim was going to be all right or not.

She smiled at him, apparently remembering him from when the paramedics had brought Jim in. "There you are. I was just telling your captain that Detective Ellison made it through surgery and is in recovery now. It was actually a fairly simple procedure, which is why it didn't take all that long. We extracted the bullet and patched him up, and he should be as good as new after some extended rest. The bullet wasn't anywhere near his lungs or other vital organs, so the greatest danger he was in was from infection and blood loss, which we've taken care of with some transfusions. We've got him on some antibiotics just to be safe, but I didn't see any early signs of infection while we were working on him, so I'm optimistic that he'll come through this without any complications."

Blair let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding, concentrating for a second on the odd sensation of all the blood in his body rushing to his feet. Simon's grip on his shoulder tightened as the captain said something Blair didn't hear, and the next thing he knew, he was being pushed down rather abruptly onto one of the chairs that lined the wall of the room.

"Sandburg, if you pass out on me now, I'm gonna tell that pretty nurse that's been asking about you that you've taken a vow of celibacy," Simon said gruffly, squatting down in front of Blair with a concerned look on his face. "Just take a few deep breaths, you'll be okay."

Blair waved him off. "I'm fine, Simon, really. I just want to see Jim for a minute, okay? I need to . . . " He stopped, not sure what he needed to do except know for certain that Jim was all right, and he didn't want to say that in front of the doctor, who was right behind Simon. It wasn't that he didn't trust her; he just needed something to replace the image of Jim crumpled in the alley, covered in blood.

"I think we can arrange that, for a few minutes. He'll still be unconscious, but you can have a short time with him," the doctor smiled gently, somehow seeming to know how important it was to Blair that he get to be with his partner, even for a short time.

Blair smiled gratefully at her, then stood awkwardly as Simon moved out of his way and followed her back toward the recovery room. The doctor paused outside the door and said softly, "He's going to look pretty bad. He's got bandages and tubes everywhere. Don't be alarmed by them.  It looks a lot worse than it is. He'll still be unconscious from the anesthesia, so don't expect him to sit up and start talking to you. I'll come back and get you in a few minutes, all right?"

Blair nodded impatiently, then followed her into the room. It was a big room, with several curtained areas that contained hospital beds and medical equipment lining the walls, and a nurses' station that looked vaguely like the bridge of the Enterprise sat in the center. Most of the beds were filled with people in various stages of wakefulness.

Jim's bed was near the door. Blair had to look twice to recognize him.  This pale, fragile-looking man was not the strong, intimidating detective or the protective, competent friend Blair was used to seeing--but at the same time, he was all of those things. Crossing space to his bed, Blair put his hand on Jim's arm carefully, trying to ignore the feeling that his friend might shatter at the slightest pressure. Jim's face was still lined with pain, anesthesia or not, and Blair winced in sympathy and started rubbing the arm under his hand almost without thinking about it.

"Hey, Jim." His whisper was so soft that only Jim could have heard it, but he couldn't help looking around guiltily as he broke the silence that only the nurses' efficient murmurs and the beeps of the machines had intruded upon. "I'm back. You miss me? I told you everything was going to be all right, didn't I? The doctor said you were going to be just fine, but we knew that already."

The lines between Jim's brows seemed to be easing at the sound of Blair's voice, so he kept whispering, trying to recreate that private, almost pain-free world he'd cocooned them when they were in the alley. He couldn't get the feeling back for himself, but he thought he was managing to do something for Jim, at least. The older man sighed once and relaxed so subtly that Blair wouldn't have noticed if his entire attention hadn't been focused on his partner. "They're not going to let me stay long tonight, but I'll be back tomorrow. You just keep that dial turned down like it is now, okay? I know you can do it. Then when you get well, we'll do some tests to see if we can't figure out how much your control's grown, okay?" He paused, irrationally waiting for Jim's standard objection to his test proposal.  When he only got silence, he shifted nervously, then sighed. It wasn't like he really thought Jim was going to respond to him. He just needed the familiarity of the argument to help him know that Jim was going to be all right.

The doctor returned too soon, ushering him out to where Simon was waiting to drive him home with promises to call if anything happened and to let him see Jim tomorrow as long as he went home tonight and got some rest. Reluctantly, Blair followed Simon out to the captain's car, resigning himself to a long, sleepless, lonely night.

A week or so later . . .

"Damn it, Sandburg, where the hell's that remote?" The growl from the couch, as familiar as it had become in the past few days, still set Blair's teeth on edge, but he took a deep breath, let it--and his irritation--go, and answered calmly enough.

"On the table, under the pile of magazines, I imagine. At least, that's where it was last time. Now, answer my question. Do you want to eat first, or change your bandages first?"

Blair had been making a determined effort to accept Jim's frustration at his unaccustomed helplessness with as much grace as he possessed. The first few days in the hospital and then when they'd gotten home hadn't been that bad. Jim had been groggy from the pain meds and anesthesia and had spent the majority of the time asleep or gazing blankly at the TV. Blair had been a little worried about that at first, but as Jim became more alert each day, the younger man had simply decided it was Jim's body's way of dealing with the trauma and drugs and had shrugged it off. Still, he'd been staying close, trying to keep an eye on Jim in case his reaction was more serious than it appeared.

Getting the big man home from the hospital had been something of an adventure, even with Simon's help. Jim had barely been able to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time and kept drifting off to sleep, even when he was standing up. The doctor hadn't seemed that concerned, saying it was a side effect of the pain meds that wasn't that common, but also wasn't unknown, and since Jim's one coherent wish was to go home, she didn't see any reason why he couldn't once they were done with the intravenous antibiotics. If she'd seen the struggle Simon and Blair had had trying to keep Jim upright as they got him into the elevator and then into the apartment, though, she might have changed her mind for their safety, if not for Jim's.

By mutual, unspoken consent, Jim's bedroom hadn't even been considered as a place to park the swaying detective. A brief debate between Blair's futon and one of the couches had been decided when Jim had sagged forward onto Blair, making the nearest furniture the default choice--it was that, or drop him. In the end, the couch was proving extremely practical. Blair could reach it easily from any part of the loft, which had been vital when Jim had come thrashing out of nightmares the first night home and Blair had had to get to him before he could roll himself off onto the floor. Having the extra couch nearby so he could catch some sleep and still be close when he was needed was an additional bonus.

More importantly, as Jim improved anyway, there was the TV, several magazines and books in easy reach, and the bathroom not too far off. Blair could see it--and therefore Jim--from any part of the loft, which was a relief. Blair had found himself getting nervous whenever he was too far away from the older man, not knowing if a sudden silence meant he'd drifted off to sleep or had passed out, or if a sharp gasp meant he'd moved too suddenly when grabbing for the remote or he was about to be sick from the aftereffects of the anesthesia or there was another problem Blair hadn't even thought of yet.

Now, the biggest appeal of the couch was that Blair could go into his own room, shut the door, and not look at it for awhile--at least, until Jim bellowed again. Blair had known Jim was a terrible patient. They'd already suffered through colds, a flu, and various other injuries together, and Blair had learned that when Jim suffered, everyone nearby suffered, as well. This was the first time he'd had to deal with Jim when he was bedridden, though, and it seemed like he was discovering all new depths to Jim's bad moods every hour. As much as he understood Jim's irritation at his enforced helplessness, which grated on the poster child for control freaks much more than it ever would have on Blair, the younger man was two steps away from losing what little patience he had left and telling Jim precisely where he could stick the remote.

In fact, if it hadn't been for the residual guilt he was still feeling over Jim's injury and the constant worry hovering in the back of his mind, he probably would have lost it sometime yesterday. Blair sighed, running a tired hand through his hair as he listened to Jim's grumbling over the selection the TV was offering, vaguely noting that Jim still hadn't answered his "food or bandages" question.

He thought back to the conversation he'd had with Henri Brown the night Jim had been shot. He could accept the fact that, as Henri had put it, "shit just happens" and that he probably couldn't have stopped Jim from being shot. Even if he'd been a "real cop," it was entirely possible that he couldn't have prevented the shooting.  He was only one person, and he wasn't exactly omnipotent. That much, he could accept. What kept him up nights and gave him nightmares when he managed to get to sleep was the fact that he hadn't been much help in the things he could do. If he'd called for backup when Jim first told him too, Jim might not have been alone in the alley. If he'd gone in after Jim the way he'd been told not to, the way his instincts were screaming at him to do, he might have spotted the shooter in time to give warning, or at least to give the other Major Crimes detectives something to work with.

As it was, Jim had no recollection of who shot him, so Fellers couldn't be convicted for shooting him, no matter what else they got him on. Nothing Blair could think of, including trying to get his grouchy partner to do the memory-regression trick that had let him remember his ex-partner's last message to him, had yeilded any results. The memory just wasn't there. The worst part about it, though, was the suspicion that the reason Jim couldn't remember who shot him was that he'd been zoned at the time. //And if he was zoned, and I wasn't there to pull him out of it like I should have been . . . what the hell good am I, then?//

Fact was, the only help he'd been was in calling the paramedics, which wasn't that great a feat if you took into consideration the fact that if he'd done better in the first place, there wouldn't have been any need for them. Sure, he'd managed to keep Jim a little calmer than he would have been if Blair hadn't been there, but ultimately, how much good was that?

"Jim, if you don't answer me, I'm just gonna come over and rip those bandages off and forget about the soup altogether." Blair brought his mind back to the task at hand with an effort and started moving around the kitchen, gathering the supplies he needed for the twice daily ritual of changing Jim's bandages.

"The only thing getting ripped off around here is your head if you even attempt to 'rip these bandages off'." Jim mimicked his voice, looking over the back of the couch at him intimidatingly, although the effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that Blair knew he still couldn't make it off the couch, much less across the room, by himself.

"Finally, he pays attention," Blair told the ceiling. "Now that you're listening to me, do you want to change the bandages first or have lunch?"

Jim grimaced. "Bandages. Then maybe I'll be too nauseated to choke down anymore soup. I'm telling you, Sandburg, if I never see another bowl of soup--if that's what you call that mess you've been feeding me--it'll be too soon."

Blair walked over to the couch and set the medical supplies on the coffee table, then gave Jim his sweetest smile. "This soup's good for you. It's got herbs in it that help stimulate red cell replacement and fight infections. And it's hardly the only thing I've been feeding you, so unless you want to get up and cook for yourself, Ellison, I'd suggest you keep the commentary to yourself."

Jim scowled at him. "I wouldn't want to deprive you of something to keep you busy. At least when you're cooking, you're not hovering over me like some demented mother hen."

The last part was muttered, but Blair still heard it. Rather than rising to the bait, however--particularly since he had been hovering and couldn't effectively deny it--Blair gave him a bland look and held out his hands for the magazine and remote Jim was holding. The most practical way to change the bandages was with Jim lying flat, but Jim didn't quite have the strength to move his entire body from a sitting to a prone position and cope with the pain at the same time, so Blair had to basically pull him flat before attempting to work off the tape that held the gauze on. Needless to say, Jim was usually exhausted by the time they were done.  The first few times, Blair had been sure the older man was going to pass out. Actually, Blair hadn't been too convinced that he wasn't going to pass out, but somehow he'd managed to get the chore done, and since then it had become commonplace.

After pulling the blanket off Jim's legs, Blair eased his shoulders up and tugged the pillows out from behind him, wincing in sympathy at the sharp hiss of pain that emerged from Jim's lips. This was nothing, though, in comparison to what was still to come.

"You ready?" he asked quietly, his irritation temporarily set aside as he focused on hurting his friend as little as possible.

Jim nodded, his hands gripping the couch on either side of him. Blair slipped under his shoulder and slid an arm around his back, then in an even, practiced move, shifted him down the couch and lowered his upper body to lie flat. Jim gasped once, his face almost as white as it had been that day in the alley, and the hand nearest to Blair flew up and latched onto his arm with a crushing grip. Blair didn't say anything, giving Jim a chance to get his composure back.

When the detective finally let out the breath he'd been holding, it was in a sharp hiss. "God, that hurts."

Blair patted his shoulder gently before moving to unbutton the loose flannel shirt Jim had insisted on wearing, even though it would have been easier and probably less painful to go without. He kept saying, rather petulantly, that he was cold and the covering on the couch bothered his skin, so what could Blair do but get him a shirt to wear?

Jim suddenly frowned and swatted at Blair's hands. "I'm not a baby, Chief. I can undress myself."

"Coulda fooled me," Blair muttered, knowing perfectly well that Jim could hear him but not caring. He tried to help the man and all he got was griping. He was just about completely out of patience, friend or no friend.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim snapped.

"Nothing. Why don't you just let me change these bandages so we can get on with our lives?" Blair turned away to lay out the swabs, gauze, and the various cleaning and antibiotic solutions he had to use.

"Dammit, Sandburg, if you don't want to help me out here, then just say so. I'll do it myself."

Blair snorted. "Hate to tell you this, Jim, but you're in no condition to take care of yourself right now. I think you're stuck with me."

That was obviously the wrong thing to say. Jim's whole body bristled at the implication that he couldn't take care of himself, and he growled, "Like hell. There's nothing you've been doing that I couldn't do myself. Just leave that stuff there and I'll take care of it. It'd be nice to have some time to myself for once, anyway."

Blair didn't give him the satisfaction of a reaction. Jim had been spoiling for a fight for days now, and it had become a matter of principal to Blair not to give in. However, as he looked at Jim, and saw the obstinate, angry Ellison stare focused on him, he realized that he was in the middle of a losing argument on the bandage issue. //Fine. He wants to do this himself, I'd like to see him try.// "Great, man, go ahead. Let's see how far you get."

He set down the gauze he was holding a bit more roughly than he absolutely had to and went back into the kitchen, intending to get himself some lunch while Jim proved how hardheaded he was. A grunt of pain behind him made him pause guiltily, but several days of putting up with Jim's temper had his own, much harder to rouse temper at full mast. He refused to look back, knowing that if he saw his partner struggling, he wouldn't be able to resist going back to help.

//Yeah, like he'd let you help.// Blair opened the refrigerator and grabbed a container of leftover pasta, even though what little appetite he'd had lately had left him completely. Staring down at it, listen to the sounds of difficulty behind him, the guilt began to grow. //This is brilliant, Darwin. You bitch and moan to yourself about not being able to help him, and then when it comes to something you can do, you run off and leave him alone the first time he gives you trouble. Okay, maybe not the first time, but you know he's hating being out of control, you know that scares him and that's what's got him biting your head off, and you know you should just ignore it. Let it go and get back in there and change those bandages before he falls off the couch or something.//

"Jim, man, I'm sorry . . ." he started, turning back to the couch, but a sudden, gasping moan cut him off. Throwing the pasta container onto the counter, he all but ran back to the couch.

It was like a flashback to the alley or the hospital. Jim had apparently tried to reach too far for something on the table, and it had been too much for him. He seemed to be trying to fight the pain, his whole body clenched tight, one hand gripping the couch and the other, the one he'd reached with, hanging down to the floor. His face was that frightening greyish-white again and had that odd look of fragility that Blair had noticed and hated before.

Dropping down on his knees beside the couch, Blair caught Jim's free hand and rested it back on the couch, saying gently, "Jim, I'm sorry, really, it's going to be okay now. Just take some deep breaths and relax.  Don't fight it."

Jim didn't even seem to hear him. His entire being was centered on the pain, almost as if, Blair realized, he'd zoned out on it. God, the very thought made Blair almost sick. To be so intensely focused on pain that it was the only thing in your world . . .

"God, Jim," he whispered, wishing frantically that there was something he could do, some way to take the pain away. Normally he talked Jim out of zones, but this one--if it was a zone in the first place--had Jim so lost in it that he didn't even seem to be hearing Blair's voice. Blair could always tell when Jim heard him, there was a subtle shift in the sentinel's body language when he was tuned in to his guide's voice, even in the middle of a zone-out, and that just wasn't happening here. "I'm sorry, man, seems like I'm not a whole lot of help lately, doesn't it? Listen, I know it's bad, but it's just like before, in the alley.  You've got to find that dial and turn it down. Okay, Jim? Just try to listen to my voice."

Nothing. He might as well not be there at all, for all the good he was doing. Blair took a deep breath, trying to push down the panic that was building in him. Just his voice wasn't working, but . . . damn, it made sense. Jim was focused in on pain, which was a tactile sensation, basically. Maybe he needed another tactile sensation, a safe, comforting one this time, to replace it, to focus his attention on along with the auditory sensation of Blair's voice. It was worth a try, anyway.

The best thing to do would probably have been to hold him like Blair had done in the alley, to give him as much contact with his guide as possible, but Blair didn't dare risk moving him that much and adding to the pain. Instead, he rested one hand on Jim's forehead and another on his closest arm, stroking gently, and continued the soft litany of words he'd kept up even as his mind was racing for answers. "You need to focus on my hands now, Jim. Can you feel them? That's all you need to think about, my hands and my voice. There's nothing else there, man. No pain, no fear, nothing. The only things that exist are my hands and my voice. You got that? It's going to be all right now. Just relax and let everything else go."

After forever, he could feel a minute relaxing in Jim's muscles, that subtle shift that said he was focused on his guide again. Blair didn't have time or room for relief yet, though. That still, timeless feeling he'd had in the alley was coming over him again, swathing them both in its safety until Jim was all right, and it took all of his concentration to maintain it.

"You can see the dial now, Jim. It's right in front of you. All you need to do is turn it down as low as you want to for now. It's okay, you need some rest, so turn it down to zero if that's what you want. Everything's all right, just focus on my hands and my voice, let everything else go."

In slow degrees, Jim's tight muscles unclenched as Blair's voice and touch coaxed him into relaxation. Gentle hands soothed the lines on his forehead, and slowly a peaceful expression replaced the agony on his face. When his eyes finally opened, it was with a look of . . . serenity was the only word Blair could think of, something that had been missing from Jim's eyes since he'd first been shot. His gaze locked on Blair's, and he smiled slowly.

"You did that before," he murmured almost dreamily. "When I was shot, and the pain kept doubling and I couldn't find any control, I couldn't stop it, and then you touched me and talked to me and you made it stop."

Blair pulled back uneasily. "You were zoning, and I pulled you out. That's all.  Nothing mystical about it."

Jim blinked at him sleepily, insisting, "You made me feel safe, Blair. I remember . . ." The rest was cut off in a yawn.

Blair ran a nervous hand through his hair and forced out a chuckle. "That's nice, Jim. Why don't we get to work changing those bandages now, while you're relaxed? If you'll let me help you this time, that is."

"Y'already help me," Jim murmured. His eyes were losing the battle against sleep, even though he was trying valiantly to keep them open. The zone-out had taken too much out of him.

"Yeah, right." Blair didn't really try to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, thinking that Jim was too tired to notice. He should have known better.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim's eyes flew open and he reached out--carefully, this time--to grab Blair's arm before the younger man could turn away. "Listen, Chief, I know I've been a real asshole lately, especially earlier, and I had no call to say the things to you that I did. You've been more help than I had any right to expect, and I shouldn't have said anything different."

Blair, unable to pull away without hurting Jim, settled for turning his face away and studying the medical supplies on the table intently. "Good, man, I'm glad to hear that. I'll just remember how you acted next time I get banged over the head by the criminal of the week, and we'll call it even, okay? Now, about these bandages."

"Sandburg." The growl, while not quite up to the records Jim had been setting the last few days, was still impressive. "Look at me for a second."

Reluctantly, Blair turned to meet intense blue eyes that seemed to be trying to bore into his mind.

"Spit it out, Blair. Whatever you've been bottling up the last week or so, just spit it out."

Trapped, Blair thought for a second about fleeing, but the concept of sharing his burden, particularly with the person who'd always been strong enough to help him carry whatever was needed, was just too appealing. "I just haven't done much good around here lately. I mean, I haven't done anything a hired nurse couldn't do, and I sure as hell didn't do you much good in the alley that day. And then today, I knew you weren't in any shape to try to change your bandages by yourself." He paused for breath, then rushed on before Jim could interrupt. "I'm really sorry about that, man. I was the one being the asshole--I mean, you've at least got some excuse, but I just lost my temper and . . ."

Jim, obviously giving up on the idea of waiting him out, interrupted bluntly, "Blair, shut up for a minute, okay?" He paused, giving Blair's mouth a chance to snap shut, then continued, "One thing at a time, here, Chief. First, I already told you you've done more for me than I had any right to ask. Most people wouldn't put up with someone who's been giving them the kind of hell I've been giving you, and if anyone needs to apologize here, it's me. No, I said shut up for a minute." He paused again, waiting until Blair had complied. Blair shifted uncomfortably, wanting to argue, or at least to get up and pace, but Jim's hand and eyes had him effectively pinned down.

"Second, when I was shot . . . weren't you listening a few minutes ago? God, Blair, if it weren't for you, I couldn't have handled it any longer. It hurt, Chief, and I couldn't stop it, and it kept getting worse and worse, like my senses were spiraling completely out of control. I don't know what you did, but you made it stop hurting, made me feel like I was in this safe place where nothing could ever hurt me again."

Now Jim was the one looking away, as if he couldn't say anything so personal while actually looking at Blair, but he took a deep breath and visibly forced himself to go on. "If you're thinking I would have been better off with another partner, someone who could watch my back better or something stupid like that--well, I don't know where you've been the past few years, but there's no one I'd rather have with me when I'm hurt or in a bad situation than you. Are you hearing me here?"

Blair ran his free hand through his hair again, tugging on the ends fiercely. "I hear you, I just don't know . . . you could have died out there, man. I should have been with you, should have done something . . ."

"But you did, don't you get it?" Jim made a move as if to sit up, then obviously thought better of it. Blair automatically put a hand on his chest to keep him from moving, then found it trapped there as Jim's hand left his arm and moved to cover his hand. "You kept me alive and sane, you reminded me that the world wasn't all hurting, you put up with me when I was acting like the world's biggest asshole."

Blair sighed. He wasn't the one who wasn't getting it. "It's not that, it's . . . you could have died, Jim. You were . . . I couldn't . . ." He shook his head in frustration, at a loss to explain what he'd been feeling, the horror of seeing Jim hurt so badly and his own helplessness at not being able to save him from that.

Jim squeezed his hand gently. "What you did do was more than enough."

Blair could see nothing but complete conviction in his eyes, and that was enough to ease the burden so that it was at least bearable. He returned the pressure on his hand, silently promising that he'd do better in the future, then backed away from the moment.

"Okay, well, we've still gotta get these bandages changed. You ready?"

Jim accepted his retreat with a faint smile and one last pat on his hand as he tugged it free. "Sandburg, did anyone ever tell you you've got a cruel streak?"

Blair gave his best evil grin. "Remember when I said we'd call it even for the way you've been acting lately? It occurs to me that I might have spoken too soon."