by Sheila Paulson
Summary: Blair has a tooth pulled. Jim has a worse day. Rated G.
Author's Notes: Originally published in Sentry Duty 2.
Disclaimer: Alas, I do not own Jim and Blair or The Sentinel.
The novocain was wearing off. Blair wiggled his jaw, prodding at the wadded cotton ball tucked into his cheek. This really sucked, man! Bad enough to have an abscessed wisdom tooth that had needed an emergency extraction, but worse, it had made him miss the excursion he'd promised to go on with Professor McIlhon and a selected group of the older man's students. He didn't know any of the kids, but they were fledgling anthropologists, people he could relate to. The trip into Olympic National Park so they could see a real rain forest, even if it wasn't a tropical rain forest, had appealed to Blair's sense of adventure. Six eager kids, McIlhon, who was interesting in spite of a gruff exterior, and a chance to 'play hookey' from his own classes and even from his police observer duties with Jim had given him a sense of unexpected freedom. When he'd awakened with a throbbing jaw, he'd deliberately ignored it as a minor annoyance. Maybe it would let up, and if it didn't, it could wait until tomorrow. That tooth had been cranky for weeks. There was no reason to think it wouldn't settle down in time for the trip.
He'd made himself an ice bag and applied it surreptitiously, dumping the ice into his thermos when Jim had poked his head into the kitchen and asked him about his raid on the ice cube trays.
"Just getting ready for the trip," Blair had explained.
"Make sure you fill those again before you go," Jim said, knowing his Guide too well to let it go.
"You know it," Blair promised. There was always some new duty that made up a part of the house rules at Casa Ellison. Feigning conscious virtue, Blair had moved toward the sink with the empty tray.
Apparently satisfied, Jim had watched him for a minute to make sure he was going to follow through, then he had gone to work. Freed from the constraint of pretending perfect health, Blair had mixed up a natural pain killer that had always worked until now.
It didn't this time.
By the time he reached the pick-up spot for the shuttle bus, he was in such pain even the students, who had never seen him before, could tell something was wrong. McIlhon caught Blair by the chin, studied his face, and sent him sternly off to the dentist.
"If I can't handle this bunch of wild Indians, I've got no business taking them out," he'd said when Blair had started to apologize for leaving him in the lurch. "You need to have that seen to. You young ones always think you're immortal. Go. Take care of yourself."
So instead of a field trip into the rain forest, Blair had spent the morning in a dentist's chair, having his tooth pulled and listening to a stern lecture about how ignoring such a problem could have led to further problems such as poisoning his system. Armed with a prescription for antibiotics and a firm order to take them instead of any of nature's own remedies, Blair had felt too groggy to drive home. Leaving his car in the dentist's parking lot where Jim could drive him to pick it up after work, he filled the prescription and flagged down a cab. He wound up back at the loft, his entire jaw, cheek, and tongue still numb. Ever since, he'd been checking and replacing the cotton pads, trying not to poke his tongue into the cavity to investigate it, and dreading the moment the novocain gave up the ghost.
And now it had. The sharp, stabbing agony was gone, but in its place was a dull ache that throbbed in time with his heartbeat. He felt like he'd been punched on the jaw and was sure if he wandered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, he'd have bruises to prove it. Reluctantly, he took the scheduled antibiotic and once again tried his natural pain killer. This time, it worked better, but the combination made him sleepy.
Tired and drained, Blair dragged a blanket from his room and curled up on the couch. It was a gorgeous day--all the better for running around in the rain forest--so he opened the balcony doors and tried to imagine himself out communing with nature, thinking wistfully of the rain forest. He had papers to write, but he didn't have the energy to drag out his laptop and reference materials and start. With the television providing background noise, he tried to read some textbooks and papers, but his attention span didn't stretch very long. This was not the way he'd planned to play hookey. Feeling a little sorry for himself, he wished for company, someone who would be soothing, stroke his fevered brow. Hard to image Jim as the brow-stroking type, but Ellison would be sympathetic, once he got done yelling about the mess Blair had made of the loft in his absence.
* * *
It was late afternoon when he heard Jim's footsteps in the hall. He'd been half asleep, the TV muttering incomprehensibly in the background, the sound turned low. That didn't disturb him, but Jim's footsteps roused him to alertness. They sounded heavier than usual. And it was kind of early. Blair sneaked a glance at his watch. Early, all right. This could be interesting, Jim sneaking out before his shift ended. He'd have to tease Mr. Responsibility about it.
The key turned in the lock and Ellison stood in the doorway, his shoulders slumped, his face dark with grim unhappiness. He didn't even see Blair; his eyes were focused on an inner vision as if he were almost zoned out on whatever it was that compelled him. His clothes hung on him, damp and wrinkled and stinking of river water as if he'd taken an unexpected dip, and he was shivering without even being aware of it. The angle of the daylight put Blair into shadow so he wouldn't readily be visible, but Jim was a Sentinel. He should have heard Blair's heartbeat at least a floor down, the way he always did. He should be building up a rage for the cluttered state of the loft; the soda bottle on the table, books Blair had lacked the energy to read tossed here and there, the ice cube tray lying on the counter unfilled. But Jim saw none of those things. He stood there, his eyes hollow with shock and unhappiness as if he'd lost his last friend, as if he'd come so far and had the strength to go no further. Carefully, he closed the door and leaned against it.
"Hey, Jim," Blair prompted softly, almost afraid to break through Jim's concentration, although if it were a near zone out, maybe he needed coaching. "Come on, man, you're scaring me here."
For a moment, Jim didn't react at all, then every muscle in his body went rigid. His head jerked up so fast Blair was afraid he'd get whiplash, and Sandburg could see his eyes sharpen upon him. He felt like he was at the center of Jim's entire focus, as if he'd tuned in sight, hearing, smell, even taste and touch, upon him with the intensity of a laser beam.
"S-Sandburg?" His voice caught, nearly broke.
*Oh, God, what's going on here? I don't like this,* Blair thought uneasily, struggling to untangle himself from his blanket and push himself to his feet. He spread his hands.
"It's me, Jim. What's wrong? What happened? Are you okay, man?" When Jim just went on staring, Blair finally kicked away the blanket and bounced up. "Talk to me."
Ellison took one long stride to meet him and his hands came down on Blair's shoulders in a grip so tight it rivaled the pain in his jaw. Blair bit his bottom lip, but didn't object because whatever this was, it was bad.
"Jim, come on, Jim. You're zoning out here. Listen to me. Listen to my voice. Focus, man. Come on, now."
"Blair?" One hand freed a shoulder and came up to touch Blair's face in a feather touch, the other hand rested flat on his chest as if he needed an extra boost to hear the heartbeat, through his ears and through the tactile sensation. "You're not dead? You weren't there?"
"Dead? Do I look dead? Well, don't answer that. I look like I've been run through the wringer, but last I heard, losing a wisdom tooth isn't fatal. I'm a little sore, that's all."
"Wisdom tooth?" Jim wasn't tracking yet. "Sandburg, what the hell..."
"It was abscessed. McIlhon wouldn't let me go on the field trip. He made me go to the dentist." Blair talked very fast, still at a loss. "I had my tooth pulled, that's all that's wrong."
"You didn't go on the field trip?"
Blair shook his head. "I just felt too rocky, man. I had the tooth out, then came home."
"And you didn't think that maybe, just maybe I might want to know about this?" Jim was suddenly furious. He grabbed Blair by the upper arms and shook him.
"Ow, ow, ow," Blair cried. "That hurts, man. Do you know what it feels like to have an abscessed tooth?" He spat out a slightly bloodstained cotton ball and dropped it on the table with the others. Jim watched the movement as if he had to track everything Blair did.
*Good. Now he'll yell at me for messing up his living room and this'll be over.*
But Jim didn't. Instead, he tightened his grip on Blair's arms, then abruptly pulled him close in a massive hug, nearly smothering him. Jim wasn't usually the hugging type, but he held Blair against his chest, so tightly Blair could practically hear his heart thudding away.
"You're alive," breathed Ellison, and Blair sucked in breath in alarm because Jim almost sounded like he was crying. Ignoring the nasty, damp sensation from Jim's not-yet-dry clothes, he put his arms around his partner and patted him on the back.
"I'm alive, I'm fine, I'm okay, Jim," he chanted, hoping the litany would get past whatever had shocked his Sentinel so much. "It's okay. Come on, man. You're soaking wet. What's going on?"
Jim cleared his throat and tried, his cheek bent against Blair's hair. "Sandburg, that van you were supposed to be in went off the 101 into the Hood Canal and there were only two survivors. Your Professor McIlhon is in the hospital with a skull fracture, and one of the kids has a broken back. They found two bodies, but we haven't found the others. There have been divers down..." His voice trailed off. "The university got the word. They called me... Simon and I went...."
Blair suddenly made the connection. Jim's sodden clothes, his misery so absorbing that he hadn't even noticed or sensed his Guide when he came in. "Oh, my God, you thought I was on the bus," he breathed. "You thought I was *dead*."
"I went down as often as they'd let me, Chief. I couldn't find you. Simon finally made me give it up. God, Blair, I was so sure... I called your office at the university, but you weren't there. And when I came home, your car wasn't here. I just knew... I've been telling myself I'd know if you were dead, but it blindsided me and I couldn't think, couldn't focus..."
"Jim. Listen, Jim." Blair raised his voice to break through his friend's litany of guilt and misery. "I didn't go. My car's in the dentist's parking lot because, between the nitrous oxide and the novocain, he didn't think I should try to drive. I'm fine, Jim. It's only a tooth. I wasn't in the van. I'm safe. God, I hate this. It wasn't me."
Jim only held on tighter. Blair could imagine him diving and diving until he was exhausted, unwilling to stop long past the time when Blair could have survived, had he been there. He was humbled beyond belief at the proof of how much he meant to Jim.
Blair held on tight a minute longer, then he gently guided Ellison toward the sofa. "Come on, sit down. We've gotta get you out of those wet clothes." He hesitated, unwilling to interrupt his reassurances even if he had to have more answers. "Will McIlhon be okay? He's a cool old guy. God, Jim, all those kids.... I hate that, man. I really hate that."
It was Jim's turn to offer comfort. "They say he'll be okay, and the student with the back injury will probably make it, too. They don't know if he'll be paralyzed yet. I'm sorry about those kids, Chief. I know that has to bother you."
"God, if I hadn't had the toothache..." Blair stomped down the thought of how he had cheated death. He could deal with that and with his grief over those eager kids later. That sucked. It wasn't fair. But right now, Jim was more important. There was nothing he could do for the students. But Jim was alive, and needed him.
"Okay, Chief?" Jim asked. "You're really okay?"
He nodded against Jim's shoulder. "I'm okay. But you're the one who had the worst of it. Thinking I'd been there."
Jim lifted his head and looked him right in the eye as Blair urged him to sit down. "You're alive," he said again, not to prove it to himself but as a final reassurance, his voice warming with utter relief. "God, Sandburg, when I thought you were dead, I realized how...how important you've become in my life. I know Steven's out there, I've got a brother in blood. Even my dad. But you're my family now, Chief, in every way that matters. I thought I'd lost all that. Everything about you that changed my life. It wasn't just the senses, though of course I'd miss that. But it isn't only because of that-- It's because...you're family." He struggled to find words, and Blair, who had never expected such an open declaration of family from his taciturn partner, felt tears sting his eyes.
"I wouldn't have had you go through that for anything, Jim," he said quietly. "But...you're my family, too." He put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I told you this partner thing was about friendship, Jim, but it's more than that. I never had a brother--not until I met you."
For a moment, they held that pose, affirming their words, then Jim's shoulders slumped with reaction and he leaned back against the couch. "If I never have a day like this one again, I'll be a happy man," he said.
Blair knelt in front of him and attacked the sodden laces of Jim's shoes. "I don't know, Jim," he said. "This last part just now was pretty great."
Ellison smiled suddenly, a dramatic, blazing smile that warmed his whole face. "You called that right, Sandburg," he said without hesitation. "You called that right."