"Easy. Easy." Jim Ellison loosely wrapped his arms around his friend. "C'mon, Chief. Relax."
Blair miserably nodded. Finally catching his breath, he leaned against Jim.
Jim was dimly aware of the sounds around him…the quiet hum of the jet's air conditioning…the dull roar of the jet's engines…the distant complaint of a passenger several rows behind them disturbed by Sandburg's coughing.
Jim scooted sideways in his seat, stretching his long legs to his right. Pulling his friend against him so Blair was propped up against his broad chest, Jim tucked both Blair's thin blanket and his around the shivering young man.
'I should've dragged him off the plane in San Francisco. Should've gotten him to the hospital then and there.'
But Blair had turned pleading eyes on him when he'd suggested it…pleading eyes that left him no defense. "I just want to go home," he'd weakly protested.
'Home rather than to a hospital? Home to die? Is that it, Sandburg?' Jim's arms instinctively tightened around his friend. 'No way, buddy. You hear me? No fucking way.'
Jim looked up as Simon Banks leaned over the seat. He silently watched as Simon spread his own thin blanket over Blair.
"How's he doing?" Simon quietly asked.
"It's getting harder for him to breathe. His fever's high enough that he's starting to chill."
Simon winced at the cold recitation. If he hadn't seen the look of pain and near terror in Ellison's eyes, he would have physically removed him from Sandburg's side. "I'm gong to find out how long it'll be until we land." Simon eased his tall body into the aisle. "Need anything, Jim?"
'A miracle? Absolution? Forgiveness?' Jim silently shook his head, then watched as the other man purposefully walked away.
Suddenly Blair jerked, trying to sit up as another racking cough erupted. His body helplessly shook as he struggled to breathe.
"Shallow breaths, Chief," Jim urged. He wiggled until he was sitting up straight. Tucking his right leg under his hip, he pulled Blair back until the younger man was sitting almost in his lap, upright against his chest. Tucking the blankets back around his friend, Jim soothed, "That's it. That's it. Shallow breaths."
"Cold." Blair turned his head trying to snuggle closer to Jim. "You're warm."
Jim took the blanket Megan Connor was draping over Blair. Tucking it snugly around Sandburg, he then wrapped his arms tightly around his friend. "Then just lay here against me," he whispered. 'I'll get you warm. I promise.'"
Megan bit her lip then reached up and clicked the overhead light off. When Jim looked up in surprise, she forced a smile. "It's probably bothering Sandy."
Jaw clenched, Jim nodded then gently rested his chin on the top of Blair's head.
"I have some cough drops if it would help him."
Megan turned to see an elderly woman standing in the aisle. She remembered seeing her sitting a few rows behind them. Doubting Jim even heard the offer, she smiled. "Thanks so much. But I don't think it would help."
The older woman hesitated. "Then let me get my blanket for him. Surely it couldn't hurt."
Megan smiled as the older woman quickly retrieved the blanket. 'Young or old. They all want to take care of Sandy.' Then she frowned, remembering how Alex Barnes had taken care of Sandburg. She quickly took the blanket from the older woman, not wanting to risk an eruption of Mt. St. Ellison. Laying it quietly over Sandburg, she gently squeezed Jim's shoulder then turned to the older woman. "Thank you."
"Poor boy. Were you all on vacation?" the older woman asked.
"Actually, it was business," Megan explained. She deftly edged the woman back to her seat then sat down beside her.
"Getting warmer, buddy?" Jim whispered. When Blair shivered, Jim briefly closed his eyes. "You're gonna be fine, Sandburg. You hear me?"
"Hurts." Blair's whisper surprised the Sentinel.
"What hurts, Chief?" Jim frowned.
"Chest…when I breathe." Blair tried to look up at his friend.
"You gotta breathe, Sandburg. Remember. You gotta breathe." Jim gently patted Blair's arm, silently urging him not to move.
"Sounds…like…a plan," Blair gasped.
"Shhhh," Jim gently urged. "I know it's rough. But you gotta stay quiet, okay? Just concentrate on taking shallow breaths. No talking."
The misery in Blair's voice felt like a knife in the Sentinel's gut. "We are, Chief," he assured his friend. "Not long now."
Jim felt the knife move from his gut to his heart. "I AM taking you home, Chief. Your home. Always your home." He turned his head to stare down at the other man's face. "You hear me, Blair? I promise. I'm taking you to your home." He saw the other man's eyes flicker open and dazedly stare up at him. "I promise," Jim whispered.
"So…sorry…" Blair's eyes wearily closed.
"Nothing for you to be sorry about, Chief," Jim murmured. He reached beneath the blankets for Blair's wrist to check his pulse. He was surprised when the younger man's fingers hesitantly curled around his. He quickly squeezed Blair's hand, holding onto the limp fingers.
Startled, Jim looked up to see Simon leaning down. He quickly looked away, not wanting the other man to see the emotions on his face.
"The pilot says we'll be landing in about 15 minutes," Simon quietly explained. "There'll be an ambulance waiting."
Jim silently nodded.
Recognizing the silent dismissal, Simon gently touched the top of Blair's head. Rising to his full height, he saw Megan sitting with an elderly woman. From the somewhat glazed look on her face, the Australian detective looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Seeing the elderly woman was taking full advantage of a captive audience, Simon took a seat a few rows ahead of where Jim sat cradling his partner.
Grateful for the privacy Simon provided, Jim tucked his head down so he could murmur in Blair's ear. "Hear that, buddy? Not long now. We'll get you back to the hospital where you belong. Then, as soon as the doctor clears it, you're coming home. All your stuff's back at the loft anyway." He took a deep breath. 'God, you chose a rat hole to run to when I kicked you out. But I managed to haul all your stuff back to the loft before leaving for Sierra Verde. By the time you're healthy enough to leave the hospital, it'll all be exactly where it should be. Every scrap of paper.' Jim worriedly glanced down at his friend. "Blair? You still with me, buddy?" He sighed when there was no response but took heart that Blair's fingers were still twisted around his.
Jim sighed and stared out the window into the dark sky. 'Why did you come after me, anyway? You were sick!' The Sentinel glimpsed his reflection in the window and looked away. He didn't like the man he saw staring back at him. 'No, you weren't sick. You died on me, Chief. The big "D". If you thought I lost it when Danny died, you should've seen me when the EMTs gave up on you.'
Jim wearily leaned his head sideways against the back of his seat. 'You should've stayed in the hospital. You didn't need to make the long flight let alone traipse after me in the jungle. I set a pretty grueling pace, didn't I? And you never once complained about that either.'
Blair weakly shook his head against Jim's chest. "Should've…told you 'bout…" He curled up as deep coughs wracked his weakened body.
"Calm down…easy…" Jim took a deep breath. 'No, WE messed up. But we can fix it. We WILL fix it. You know that, don't you, Chief? You KNOW it's what I do that matters…not what I say. Right? You know that, don't you?'
Jim lowered his head until his mouth nearly touched Blair's ear. "Hey, just think…I validated your fear-response theories."
"Not funny." Blair tried to shake his head.
Jim soothingly patted the side of Blair's sweat-drenched head. "I know…I know." He wearily leaned his head against the back of his seat. "Just relax and keep breathing, okay? We'll work everything out later."
Minutes later, the attendant bent over the seat. "Sir, we'll be landing soon. You need to…"
"He can't breathe in any other position," Jim curtly interrupted. "We'll be fine."
Hearing Jim's voice, Simon worriedly looked over the back of his seat. He saw the young woman eye Jim uncertainly, then she decided not to argue and continued up the aisle. Simon grunted in approval. The look on Jim's face had forced stronger-willed people than her to back down. When the attendant passed him, he rose and walked back to his original seat.
Seconds later, Megan settled into her seat next to him with a thankful sigh. "How's Sandy?" she asked as she fumbled with her seatbelt.
"Hanging on." Simon stared out the window. The lights of Cascade shone brightly, welcoming them home. "I'm just not sure what he's hanging on for."
Megan's eyes glittered. "Jimbo needs his ass kicked…hard. And I have just the boots to do it with."
Simon grunted and pulled his seatbelt tighter. "No one's better at kicking Ellison's ass than Ellison unless it's Sandburg," he warned.
Megan held her silence as the plane descended.
As soon as the plane began rolling towards their assigned gate, the attendant spoke over the intercom. "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Cascade. Please stay seated until advised. We have a very ill man on board who needs to disembark first. Thank you for your understanding and consideration."
As soon as the plane had stopped, Jim eased Blair off his lap. As the attendant opened the door, he reached down and scooped Blair into his arms. Followed by Simon and Megan, he carefully walked down the narrow aisle towards the open door. As soon as he was in the wider connecting corridor, he nearly broke into a run.
The EMTs met him halfway, pulling a gurney behind them. Seconds later, Blair was lying on the gurney with an oxygen mask over his face.
The ill young man weakly opened his eyes and looked around.
"I'm here." Jim leaned down and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. 'And I'm not leaving.'"
Blair nodded once, then closed his eyes.
Jim looked at the EMTs who began shoving the gurney towards the airport terminal. "I'm riding with you."
One of the EMTs started to shake his head.
His partner, having had experience with both Ellison and Sandburg, nodded. "No problem, Detective." He looked at his partner and sighed. "Don't argue. He rides with us."
"We'll get the bags and meet you at the hospital," Simon said as they followed. "Cascade General?"
One of the EMTs nodded in reply.
Jim ignored the stares from the people in the terminal as they rushed Blair towards the waiting ambulance. He shivered as the cool air rushed around him when they exited the terminal. He stepped into the ambulance and took hold of Blair's hand.
Megan and Simon stood helplessly in the terminal, watching as the ambulance drove away, lights flashing and siren screaming.
Simon ground his back teeth. "Come on, Connor. Let's get those bags and get to the hospital." He stopped when Megan didn't move, but continued to stare out the glass doors to where the ambulance had waited for its patient. "Connor?"
Megan slowly looked at Simon. "Are they going to be able to make things right? Sandy and Jim?"
Simon didn't immediately answer. "If anyone can, they will," he finally grunted before turning and walking towards the luggage claim area.
Megan wearily sighed and followed. She wished she could be so sure.
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