This is a small section from a longer story I'm working on. In this universe, set post TSbyBS, Blair was a cop for a year, then an injury forced him to resign from the police department. He went to work for his girlfriend, training and showing grand prix show jumping horses.
This was also written as a Sentinel Angst March themefic for Linda3. The requirements were Blair getting into a fender bender with a bad guy, and ending up getting drugged.
Blair glanced at the side mirror of the van, noting once again the headlights that had been following him for miles. "Come on, man," he told himself, "chill out. It's not like you're a cop anymore, and the bad guys are crawling out of the woodwork after you. It's probably someone just heading in the same direction." If Tracy were here, she would think he was paranoid. But Tracy wasn't here. She'd had to stay behind in Seattle to meet with some of their sponsors. Equestrian show jumping was a costly sport, and every little bit helped keep the expensive horses in the back of the specially designed van he was driving fed and pampered.
He turned onto rural route 17, heading for Tracy's stables. The headlights followed him. Once a cop, always a cop, he guessed. Picking up his cell phone, he punched in the speed dial for Jim's number, and waited as it rang, his mind running over the events of the past 14 months. Forced from his position as Jim's partner on the force by a knee injury, Blair taken up his girlfriend Tracy's offer to help her run her stable of jumpers. Jim had been disappointed at first, but he'd learn to live with it, eventually finding a new partner he could trust with even the Sentinel secret in Candace Blake.
The relief Blair felt at hearing his friend's voice was overwhelming. "Hey, Jim, it's me."
"I thought you told me you were going to be home before dinner, Chief."
"Yeah, yeah, tell that to the traffic on interstate 5. Listen, Jim, I'm on 17, about ten miles from Tracy's, with a van full of horses. And I've got this guy on my tail who seems to be following me. Before you start in about my vivid imagination, let me mention this has all my cop instincts buzzing." He took another look in the side mirror. The car was gone. "Oh, never mind, man. The guy's gone. Sorry to bug you."
Jim chuckled. "That's okay. So I should expect you home in a couple hours?"
Blair glanced at the dash clock. "Yeah, probably no later than 9. Talk to you later man. Oh shit!" He looked up in time to see a car with no headlights cut in front of him. Red lights flashed, and Blair slammed on the brakes, but not in time to avoid rear-ending the other car. The seatbelt kept him from going through the windshield, but he still cracked his forehead on the steering wheel.
Dazed, he could hear Jim's voice coming faintly from the cell phone, which had landed on the floor. "Sandburg! What happened? Are you okay? Talk to me!"
Shifting the van into park and releasing his seatbelt, Blair was reaching for the phone when the driver's side door was pulled open. Hands grabbed him, yanking him out of the cab. He landed on all fours, pain shooting through his weak knee. A foot kicked him in the stomach, and he grunted, rolling away from the blow and staggering to his feet. In the darkness of the country night, he couldn't make out any faces, just the shadowy forms of three, maybe four assailants. He took a defensive stance, determined to give as good as he got, even though his head was still ringing, and something wet and sticky was running into his eyes.
Blair's back was to the van as the thugs formed a semi-circle around him. He jumped as a loud thump came from behind him. The horses! Shit! They could be injured or upset. The loud sound of hooves meeting metal came again. Definitely upset. "Look, guys, I'm sorry I didn't see you. My insurance will cover any damages."
One of the men grinned evilly. "Think it will cover the damage we're going to do, fellows?" The other men laughed at his joke. It was not a pleasant sound.
Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Blair ducked, and a baseball bat slammed into the side of the van. Frightened whinnies filled the air, along with more pounding of hooves. Magic and Jewels were terrified. "Come on, man! This is stupid! It's just a little fender bender. Let me just calm my horses and we can settle this amicably."
The guy with the bat swung again, and this time Blair wasn't fast enough. The bat struck him along the ribs, and he went to his knees, struggling to breathe through the pain. A hand twisted in his hair, yanking his head back. "Listen, you piece of shit, tell your cop buddy to lay off Sam Elliot, or it ain't just horses who are gonna end up dead."
Rage roared through Blair. Elliot! His daughter's horse had died under mysterious circumstances at Tracy's barn. Blair had suspected it had been killed for the insurance money, but he couldn't prove it. He'd asked Jim to look into it, but he hadn't been able to come up with much in the way of leads. Jim hadn't told Blair he was continuing to investigate, but he must have stepped on someone's toes. A backhanded blow across the face brought Blair back to the present.
"Did you hear me, punk!?"
"Yeah, yeah, I heard." He punched his assailant in the crotch. Letting go of Blair's curls, the man doubled over, mewling. Leaping to his feet, Blair grabbed the end of the baseball bat, pulling forward and down as he brought his knee into its wielder's stomach. The man released his grip, and Blair had a weapon. He twirled it menacingly. He'd gotten really good with a nightstick at the academy, and hadn't forgotten much. "Okay. New game. Now it's my turn to beat the crap out of someone. How about you?" One hand on either end of the bat, he slammed it into the chest of one of the thugs, knocking him back.
They all moved out of range, and Blair took stock of his situation. Leader guy was still on the ground moaning, but the two others he'd injured were recovering, and the fourth guy hadn't been hurt at all. Blair figured he was still going to get beat up; it was just going to take a little longer, and be a little more painful for them.
Three of them rushed him at once, just as a loud crash came from the back of the van, followed by the clatter of horseshoes on asphalt. Great, just great! He smacked one of his attackers with the end of the bat, and blocked the punch of another. The third slipped under his guard and shoved something into Blair's thigh.
With a yell, Blair fell back against the van, his leg on fire. What in the hell? Reaching down, he pulled a hypodermic needle from his thigh. The world tilted. He realized he must be lying on the ground, but he couldn't find the strength to rise, or even figure out which direction was up. Confusion reigned. A horse was screaming--no, people were screaming. Four dark legs ending in hooves flashed across his vision, metal shoes sparking on the concrete. Running feet, slamming doors, revving engine, squealing tires, then silence. Warm, hay-scented air blowing on his face. Velvety nose whuffling in his hair. "Magic..." he thought, then everything faded to black.
"Can't you go any faster?" Jim asked Candace, his ear still pressed to his cell phone, though the signal had cut out several minutes ago. What he'd heard before then hadn't been encouraging. After Blair's "oh shit!", there'd been what sounded like an accident, followed by muffled yells, and a constant, echoing banging noise. He'd been headed out the door of the loft before he remembered his partner still sitting on the sofa. Fortunately she'd been paired with him long enough to read his signals. Jim had looked back to find the petite black woman right behind him, her car keys already in hand.
Now they were speeding along the back roads of Cascade County toward god knew what kind of trouble. The last thing Jim had heard over the cell before they entered a no service area was screaming. He finally set the phone in his lap, his fingers white-knuckled as they curled around it. Candace had radioed headquarters, and dispatch had relayed the report of a possible accident on RR17 to the sheriff's department. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Jim couldn't even use driving to distract himself. "Are you sure you can't go any faster?"
After rounding the turn to 35, which would take them to 17, Candace eyed him. "Jim," she said patiently, "we can't help Blair from the morgue. I'm running with lights and siren. What more do you want?"
Ellison gave her a weak grin. "Instantaneous matter transportation?"
She grinned back. "Better yet, how about a time machine?" She pressed a little harder on the gas as they reached a straight stretch of road.
Closing his eyes, Jim leaned his head against the seat back. "Time machine is good. Then I could go back a year and..." His voice trailed off. "Sorry. Didn't mean that the way it sounded." He felt her pat his arm, and knew she understood.
"Didn't take it the way it sounded. I know how much you care about Blair, and how much you valued him as a partner. I worked with you guys, remember? What happened was a tough break, but you both handled it." At his grimace, she added, "Okay, maybe not so well at times, but you got through it."
Jim opened his eyes. The sign for 17 was coming up. "Take 17 north. He said he was about ten miles from Tracy's, so that would put him about 5 miles north of the 35 intersection."
Slowing the car slightly, Candace made the indicated right. Three miles later they hit stalled traffic. "Uh oh," she muttered under her breath, then steered the car to the shoulder and drove past the stopped cars, siren off now, but lights still flashing. A few minutes later they rounded a tight curve in the twisting, two-lane road and found the way completely blocked. Emergency lights from more than one vehicle strobed through the darkness.
They parked as close to the scene as they could, then Jim took off at a ground-eating trot, Candace running to keep up with him. "What do you see?"
"Two deputys' cars, an ambulance, and the van. I don't see Blair." He rounded the county police car, which was perpendicular to the road, blocking both lanes. He noticed the second car was parked the same way, only toward the front end of the van. Almost like they were trying to keep something in...
A deputy hustled over to him. "Sir, I'll have to ask you to stay back--"
Jim held his badge up. "Cascade PD. We turned in the call." He heard Candace repeating his words as he continued on, then pulled up short. A large dark horse was trotting back and forth along the side of the van. Behind him, on the ground, not moving, lay Sandburg. "Oh my god..."
He started to move forward, to go to Blair, but Candace held him back. "Jim! You can't just go running in there. Everyone's staying back for a reason."
Jim heard the deputy say something about waiting on animal control. "Damn it, Candace! No one's doing a damn thing to help him!" He took a step toward the pacing equine.
Her fingers tightened on his arm. "Take a look at that horse, Ellison. I'm no expert but I'd say right now he's pretty upset."
He did as she asked, noticing the foam flecked, sweat-soaked flanks, laid back ears, and wildly rolling eyes. As an experiment, he edged closer. The animal lunged toward him, teeth bared, squealing in anger. As Jim hastily back-peddled, the horse jumped sideways and kicked, then resumed its frantic pacing.
"*That's* why we're waiting on animal control," the deputy said. "They're equipped to deal with this kind of thing. We aren't."
Jim reached around to the small of his back for his weapon. "I'll just shoot the damn thing!"
Candace was in his face then, her small fingers wrapping around his wrist, nails digging in as she forced his hand down. "And what if you miss? You could spook it into trampling Blair. And if you do manage to hit it, how do you know it's not going to fall on him? Use your head, Jim!" She pushed him back a few feet, away from the deputy. "Use your ears!" she hissed, touching a finger to her ear.
Clenching his jaw, Jim nodded. He inhaled deeply, then let it out slowly, trying to calm himself. Once he felt somewhat centered, he stretched out his hearing, trying to filter out everything but his friend's heartbeat. A few seconds later he glanced down at Candace.
"He's alive. Heartbeat's steady, but too slow. I'd almost say drugged but--"
"Jim!" A woman with short blonde hair eluded the sheriff and headed toward him. "That's my van! What in the hell is...Oh my god! Blair!"
Ellison prepared to grab the woman before she made the same mistake he had of rushing toward Sandburg, but she didn't budge, just took in the situation. "Tracy," Jim said, "can you get that horse out of there so the EMTs can get to Blair?"
She nodded, muttering something under her breath that sounded like "idiots". Unfastening her belt and pulling it free from her jeans, she yelled, "Everyone get back! And turn off those damn lights! You're just making it worse!"
Once the flashing lights were cut, Jim watched Tracy walk around the outside of the area enclosed by the van on one side and the sheriffs' cars on the others. She came to a stop at an angle to the van, her eyes never leaving the horse. Jim realized she'd moved so she was upwind of the animal, letting him smell her familiar presence before she approached. The change that came over the bay horse once he caught her scent was instantaneous. He stopped his pacing, turning to face her.
"Whoa there, Magic. That's a good boy. You've had a really crappy day it looks like." She slowly approached him, the belt plainly visible in her hands, her voice low and gentle. "You've done a really good job, Magic, protecting Blair. But I'm here now, and it's okay. We wanna let these nice people help Blair." As she got closer, his ears swiveled forward, and his head lowered. Reaching out, she rubbed his forehead, and slipped the belt around his neck. "Come on, boy," she coaxed, and led him around to the back of the van and inside. No one moved until she called out "Okay!"
Jim sprinted to Blair's side, then immediately had to move back to let the EMTs in. After a check of his vital signs, they carefully turned him over onto his back, stabilizing his head and neck as they did so. A dark rivulet of drying blood ran down the left side of his face from a gash on his forehead. Gravel from the roadway was embedded in his right cheek. "What in the hell?" Jim squatted by Blair's legs, reaching into his pocket for an evidence bag. A syringe with some liquid still in it had been underneath Blair's body. The scent on it was familiar, but he couldn't concentrate enough to identify it. He showed the needle to the technician. "He might have been drugged."
The medic looked up from checking Blair's pupils. "Could be. I've got a slow response here. Might be drugs, might be concussion. His vitals are a bit off, blood pressure's low. We're going to transport him as soon as we get him on a backboard. We'll take that with us, turn it over to the ER team. If he was given whatever's in it, once we know what it is, then we can treat him that much quicker."
Jim nodded. "Yeah, I'll follow you. Cascade County Hospital?" At the medic's affirmative nod, Jim walked over to where Candace was standing with Tracy. "I'm going to follow the ambulance to the hospital. If you'll let me have your keys?"
His partner handed them over with out protest. "I'm going to follow Tracy back to her barn in her truck. I'll give the van a once over while I'm there and see if we need to have forensics come look at it. We still don't know if there was another car involved or not."
"Okay. See you at the hospital when you're finished. Tracy?" The blonde tore her eyes from Blair's still form to glance at him. "Thanks." Then Jim disappeared into the darkness.
Candace followed the large horse van up the winding drive and parked Tracy's pickup next to the barn, waiting as the other woman maneuvered the van around so it was backed up to the stable door. Getting out of the truck, Candace watched as Tracy punched in a code on a keypad set next to the door, then slid the big door open and flipped on the lights. Lowering the ramp to the van, she entered it, and quickly returned leading a chestnut horse.
"Anything I can do to help?" Candace asked.
Tracy shook her head. "No, not really. I'll try to be as quick as I can, but I need to look both horses over thoroughly, make sure they're not injured."
Sticking her hands in her jacket pockets, Candace followed Tracy into the barn, noticing the bright lights that left nothing in shadow, and the clean, wide aisles. At the sound of their entrance, equine heads appeared over stall doors, neighing greetings to their returning stable mates. Out of curiosity, she peered inside a stall, finding it to be roomy, the floor covered in thick sawdust. The occupant blinked and yawned at her, then snatched up a mouthful of hay. She was about to turn away when she spied the security camera tucked in an upper corner of the stall. A question in mind, she went looking for Tracy.
Candace found her in a side aisle, the horse she'd brought in tied by its halter to chains hanging from both walls of the aisle as Tracy examined its feet. "These horses really valuable?"
The blonde peered up at her, one eyebrow raised. "Some of them, yes. Why do you ask?" She went back to running her hands down the animal's leg.
"Couldn't help but notice all the security. Just seems kind of out of place, you know."
"Ah, that." Tracy set a foreleg down and walked toward the horse's hindquarters, reaching for a foot back there. "That's known as locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen, or in this case, killed. Vet couldn't come up with a cause of death, but Blair had a feeling it was foul play, so he insisted we put in the system. Just wish I had thought of doing it sooner. Just one of those things you think only happens to other people." She went on to the next foot.
"Did you talk to the police at all about what happened?"
Tracy made a snorting noise. "Yeah, we talked to the sheriff's department. But since the vet couldn't determine a cause of death, they said we had no case. And the owner of the horse wasn't complaining, so they pretty much let it slide. I know Blair talked to Jim about it. He was going to check into some things, unofficially. But as far as I know, nothing ever turned up."
Candace ventured close enough to the chestnut to pet its nose. "So how would you kill a horse so that it couldn't be detected? A drug of some kind?"
Tracy finished her exam of the horse and straightened up. "Drugs are traceable. You want to kill a horse with no muss, no fuss, you electrocute them."
"Oh my god!" Candace couldn't keep the disgust out of her voice.
"Yeah, really sick. You just clip an electrode on an ear, and one at the back end, and flip the switch. Quick, silent, and pretty much undetectable. All for the insurance money. When people do that to people, they call it murder. When it's done to a horse, it's just cruelty to animals." Tracy's eyes flashed as she unhooked the horse and led it to its stall. Candace could see the rage still playing across her features as Tracy turned back toward her. "I'd love to have a couple electrodes and a few minutes alone with Sam Elliot." She headed toward the van at a quick walk.
Candace waited until Tracy had returned with the dark bay horse called Magic before she asked her next question. "Elliot the owner of the horse that died? Is that the Sam Elliot who designed the new City Center?"
"One and the same. Shamrock was his daughter's horse. A nice little jumper, handy, safe, willing. Not flashy, and not grand prix class, though. A fourteen-year-old girl doesn't need a grand prix jumper. What she needs is a best friend. Her father took that away from her," she answered, her voice rough. She hooked Magic to the cross-ties, then wiped at her eyes. "Sorry. Shamrock was boarded here for almost four years. He was like a part of the family, you know?" A tear slipped down her cheek and she dashed it away.
Remembering she'd told Jim she'd check out the van, Candace said, "Do you have a flashlight I could use? I want to see if there's any damage to the van."
"Sure. It should be on the shelf just to the left of the tack room door."
Finding the light without any trouble, Candace headed back outside.
Jim tailed the ambulance to the hospital in Candace's Grand Am, the lights flashing. It had taken some fancy driving to catch up with them because of the traffic jam caused by the incident. He'd managed to phone Simon at home, though, and the Captain was going to meet him at County General.
He knew he shouldn't do it, but Jim stretched out his hearing, listening to the sounds from the ambulance in front of him.
//Shit! We're losing him! He's going into arrest!//
It was all Jim could do to keep control of the car as he listened to his friend's heartbeat slow, then stop completely.
The whine of the defibrillator filled his ears. //Charging. Clear.// He imagined he could hear the electricity surging through Blair's body, shocking his heart.
Please, god, please. Not like this. I can't lose him like this.
//Got a rhythm! Hurry up with that IV! How much further? Almost there.//
Thank god, thank god.
The five minutes before they pulled into the emergency entrance of the hospital were the longest in Jim's life. Parking the car, he rushed into the building. Striding up to the admitting desk, he had to restrain himself from reaching over the counter and grabbing the clerk. "Blair Sandburg. Just brought here by ambulance. He might have been drugged. Who do I talk to?"
The woman handed him a clipboard. "Please fill out these forms, and the doctor will be with you as soon as he can."
As Jim was about to give in to his initial impulse to throw the thing at her, the all too familiar sound of a defibrillator reached his ears again. No, no! Dropping the clipboard, ignoring the woman's protests, he ran through the exam area until he found the cubicle holding his partner.
Sandburg lay on an examining table, still strapped to the backboard, his shirt torn open, what little Jim could see of his face pale, almost white. Doctors and nurses swarmed around him. A nurse stood at his head, manually supplying air to his lungs with an ambu-bag. She stopped as a doctor called "Clear" and pressed the defibrillator pads to Blair's chest. Jim felt his body jerk in sympathy with Blair's. There was no familiar beep-beep from the machine. "Again," the doctor said, and this time the jolt of electricity was followed by the electronic recognition of a heartbeat.
Too close. Once again, too close.
As the medical team's actions slowed from frantic to quick and assured, Jim remembered the needle. He ran the smell he'd picked up off it through the catalog of scents stored in his sense memory. Opium--it smelled like morphine, or heroin.
He felt someone touch his arm. "Sir, you shouldn't be back here."
Shaking himself out of his semi-trance, Jim pulled out his badge. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This man's my partner." Well, he wasn't, not officially, not anymore, but that didn't matter now. "He was found by the side of the road unconscious. He might have been trampled by a horse as well as been drugged with what's in the needle the EMTs brought. It's some kind of opium derivative."
"That would explain a lot. The low BP, suppressed respiratory--" She caught the eye of one of the nurses. "Alice, get an analysis done on the hypo brought in with Mr. Sandburg, stat!" Locating the syringe, the nurse took off. "Detective Ellison, I know you're worried for your partner, but we need you to go up front and wait. We will take very good care of him, I promise. As soon as he's stable, I'll come out and let you know what's going on, okay?"
At Jim's nod, one of the other nurses escorted him back to the waiting area. The clerk handed him the clipboard once again, and he took a seat, trying to get the picture of his best friend's body jumping under the defibrillator charge out of his mind.
Flicking on the flashlight, Candace played the powerful beam over the combination tailgate/ramp at the back of the van. The fastening bolts were still intact, but the bands of metal they slid into to hold the ramp up had been ripped away. One bent piece remained, held on by a solitary screw. She could easily imagine an angry horse kicking the ramp hard enough to tear the parts loose, especially if the van was old, and the metal rusted and worn.
Walking up the ramp, she looked around the interior. There was room for four horses total. Two at the front and two at the back, with about a four foot aisle between the front stalls and the back ones. Non skid rubber mats covered the floor, and hay nets hung in two of the stalls. The other two were packed with equipment trunks. Shining the light on the walls, she could see marks made by kicking hooves. Something had obviously upset the horses, but what? Had there been an accident, or had the horses just gone wild for no reason, and Blair stopped the van to calm them?
She thought back to the scene. Magic hadn't been wearing a halter. So Blair stops the van, goes around back and what? Magic kicks the gate down, slips his halter and takes off. Only he didn't take off; he stayed right there, by the van. She ran a hand through her hair. She didn't know enough about horses to guess at what one would or wouldn't do in that situation. She would have to ask Tracy.
Climbing out of the interior, she walked around the side of the van, using the flashlight to illuminate the painting on the side. Celtic Cross Stables arched across the panel. Underneath the name, a horse and rider jumped a tall fence. Below the pair was painted "Tracy Whitman", a celtic cross, and then "Blair Sandburg." Hadn't Jim said Blair worked *for* Tracy? The way that was written looked like they were partners. She shrugged. Whatever. It was symmetrical and looked nice. Toward the rear of the van, at the top, was written "Home of" and then a list of what she assumed were the horses' names. Piper Creek, Crown Jewels, Magic Penny, and Celtic Fancy. Huh. Magic must be Magic Penny then. Strange name for a horse. Well, they were all strange names.
Sighing, she swept the light over the side of the van again and paused. Underneath Blair's name there appeared to be a dent. Fresh, if the condition of the paint was any indication, and one that had been made by something striking the van from the outside. No paint flecks indicating another car, though.
Approaching the cab, she pulled the driver's door open. Immediately, she noticed the papers lying on the floor of the passenger side, right where they would have landed if they'd slid off the seat during a sudden stop. Blair's cell phone lay there too. She could see it was still on.
Closing the door, she walked around to the front of the van and examined the bumper. When she saw the dip in the center, and the long streak of red paint, Candace felt like pumping her fist and hollering "Yes!" There had been another vehicle involved, one that had left the scene. And if what Jim had told her about Sandburg saying someone was following him was true, then this might not have been an accident.
The crunch of footsteps on gravel warned her of Tracy's approach. "The horses are settled. I've called one of my employees to come check on them in a little bit. Stress can play all kinds of havoc with them. You ready to go?"
Candace looked up into the other woman's anxious face, and decided mentioning the possibility that what happened to Blair was deliberate was not a good idea at this time. "Yeah, I'm done here. You want me to drive? I still have your keys."
Tracy nodded. "If you would. I'm starting to get scared. Jim hasn't called, and I can't reach him on his cell phone."
"He probably doesn't know anything yet. But I'm sure Blair will be fine." Getting into the pickup, Candace waited until Tracy had fastened her seatbelt, then she started the engine and headed toward the hospital.
Balancing the cup of stale coffee precariously on his knee, Jim rubbed his temples. He hated this, he really did. He'd spent far too much time in hospitals the past year, though most of the time had been visiting Sandburg after his three knee surgeries. No gunshot wounds, or tangles with psychos had landed either man there in a long time. He'd thought Blair would be out of danger once he was no longer a cop, no longer in proximity to Jim Ellison twenty-four hours a day. Turned out he'd thought wrong.
"Hey, Jim. Any word on Sandburg?" Simon Banks' gravelly voice interrupted his musings.
Jim shook his head. "No, nothing. But it's bad, Simon. He coded twice, once in the ambulance, and again right after he arrived."
"Shit. The kid just can't seem to catch a break, can he? Where'd you get that coffee?"
Jim pointed down the hall, and Simon headed off. Returning a few minutes later, the tall man dropped into the seat next to the detective. "So what in the hell happened?"
Shrugging, Jim replied, "I don't know. I was on the phone with him when it happened. He was coming back from Seattle with Tracy's horse van, and was apologizing for being late, saying he would be home by nine. Then he said 'oh shit' and there was a crashing noise. I'm not really sure what happened after that. There was yelling, and more crashing. By that time, Candace and I were in the car, on the way there. Then I lost the cell phone signal. The sheriff's department was on the scene by the time we arrived. Sandburg was on the ground, unconscious, and there was this wild horse prancing around him, not letting anyone near."
"Jesus," Simon said quietly.
"Tracy showed up and took care of the horse. The EMTs loaded Sandburg up and rushed him here." Jim went on to explain about finding the hypodermic needle, and that Blair might have been drugged.
Taking off his glasses, Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose. "So what do you think happened for him to end up that way?"
"I don't know. I've been sitting here for the past hour, trying to figure it out. Closest I can come is that there was either an accident, or some problem with the horses. Blair got out to check on them, and the one got loose and hurt him."
"That doesn't explain the hypo."
"It could have been for the horse, something to calm him down. Blair might have been jabbed with it while the horse was acting up." Running a hand over his face, Jim shook his head. "God, I can't believe this is happening. I thought he would be safe once he was off the force."
"Jim, there's always a risk, especially when dealing with thousand pound animals on a daily basis."
Jim sighed. "I know, I know. I didn't want him to take this job, but I didn't feel like it was my place to say anything. I mean, I had already forced him through one career change. What right did I have to impose another on him?"
"I know what you're going to say, Simon, that it's not my fault. But it is, you know? When Sandburg got the news he was going to be assigned to a desk job, I started to seriously think of taking early retirement. I didn't want to work without him. But I didn't say anything, since it was the weekend, and he'd made it clear he didn't want to discuss it until Monday. I thought we would all get together in your office and discuss our options. I didn't know resigning was what he had in mind."
"I remember that weekend, when Sandburg ran out on us during the game. I still don't know what he was so pissed at me about. Did you ever find out where he went?"
Jim nodded. "He spent the night at Tracy's, and when he finally reappeared Sunday night, he told me he was taking the job with her. I tried to talk him out of it, but I didn't have anything concrete to offer him, and a big part of me didn't feel I had the right to question his decision. And he's been happy, I guess. What little I've seen of him in the past six months. Most of the time he's gone in the morning by the time I get up, and when he comes home at night, he eats and goes to bed."
Simon took a sip of his coffee, then asked, "Does he ever talk about what he does for her?"
The other man started to shake his head, then paused. "He used to, when he first started, but I was mad at him then. I know what happened wasn't his fault, but I felt like he'd let me down. And I was going through those damn new partner try-outs you insisted on, and well, I just tuned him out. Eventually he got the message and didn't talk about his job anymore, only about mine. That way we could pretend things were like they were before."
There was silence between the two of them, each of them lost in their own regrets. The click of boot heels on linoleum made Jim glance up from the contemplation of his coffee dregs. His eyes met the worried gaze of Tracy Whitman.
"Has there been any news?" she asked.
"No, not yet." As the words left his mouth, he spied the doctor who'd treated Blair in the emergency room. "Here comes the doctor now."
Both Jim and Simon got to their feet as she approached. "You all here for Blair Sandburg?"
Jim nodded. "Simon and Candace are friends. Tracy is Blair's girlfriend."
"Okay, can you follow me?" They walked down the hallway a ways, then she stopped outside an open door. "We can talk in here." She stood back as the four of them entered a conference room used by doctors when speaking with the families of surgery patients. "Have a seat." When no one sat down, she glanced down at the chart she was holding, then went on. "Mr. Sandburg's stable right now. As you know, when he was brought in, he was in cardiac and respiratory arrest due to the injection of an unknown drug. We were able to identify the drug as a tranquilizer used in animals, butorphanol."
Tracy gasped, and brought a hand up to her mouth. Candace reached out and squeezed her shoulder. No one else made a comment, so the doctor continued. "The dosage he was given was clearly meant for something much larger, say the horse you mentioned, Detective Ellison. We put him on dialysis to clear the drug from his body as quickly as possible. He's still on a ventilator, but we expect to take him off of it in a couple hours."
"So he's going to be okay?" Simon asked.
"He should recover from the overdose just fine. However, Mr. Sandburg did have some other, physical injuries." She flipped through the chart again. "No head, neck or spinal cord trauma, but he does have four cracked ribs on the left side, various cuts and bruises to his face and abdominal region, and there is a good deal of swelling in his left knee. From the records Cascade General faxed us, he's had surgery on it recently?"
Tracy jumped in before Jim could answer. "His last surgery was in August. He hasn't had any trouble with it since then, but he does limp."
"I don't think there's too much damage there, but we'll have our orthopedist take a look at it in the morning. Right now, we have Mr. Sandburg up in ICU where we can keep a close eye on him, but we'll probably move him to a regular room later tonight. You're welcome to go up to ICU waiting, but only one of you can visit him at a time, for ten minutes every hour. But like I said, he won't be there long. Any questions?" She gazed at each of them in turn. "No? Okay, I'll be checking in on Mr. Sandburg every couple of hours, so if you have any questions later, feel free to ask." With that, she left the room.
Jim turned to Tracy, trying to calm the anger building inside him. Blair *had* been trying to give the horse a shot when he'd been hurt. He opened his mouth to express his opinion. He didn't even get a word out before she turned to him, her expression hard.
"Don't you dare. Don't you dare try to blame this on Magic. Butorphanol maybe used on horses, but not on ours, and Magic would never, ever harm Blair!"
"Then how else do you explain Blair's injuries, huh?"
The blond shook her head angrily. "I can't. You don't know horses, and you certainly don't know this one. Tell me, what did you see when you saw Magic pacing in front of Blair?"
Jim flexed his jaw, his eyes flashing. "I saw a dangerous, out of control animal."
"Funny, because I saw an upset animal, yes, but one that was trying desperately to protect an injured member of his herd."
Simon stepped between them. "Stop it. Arguing among ourselves is not helping Blair. Tracy, why don't we go on upstairs, okay?" At her nod, Banks turned toward Jim. "And I think your partner has something to say to you." Dropping a hand on Tracy's shoulder, he guided her out of the room.
Jim leaned on the edge of a table, folding his arms across his chest. He looked up to find Candace frowning at him. "What?" he growled through clenched teeth.
"I just wonder what goes through your head sometimes. You were just itching to take out your frustration on someone, and she just happened to be closest? You know, you might try growing up someday. Might save you from putting your foot in your mouth." She shook her head, an expression of disgust on her face.
"Putting my foot in my mouth? What are you talking about?" He rose to his feet, using his height to stare down at her, his best "don't mess with me" glare firmly in place. He didn't know why he bothered; the tactic had never worked in the past.
"I'm talking about the fact that there was another car involved, Ellison. There's paint chip evidence on the bumper of the van. Anything under the sun could have happened. And unless their horse carries around needles full of tranquilizers, I doubt he had anything to do with it."
"Shit." Jim felt all his 'righteous' anger and animosity towards Tracy and horses in general slip away. His shoulders slumped.
"Yeah, shit is right. Now you have to go apologize, and I know how you love doing that." She grinned at him, then gave him a shove in the direction of the door. "Get going, buster. I am not going to miss this."
Jim stood outside the window to ICU, looking in. Blair lay motionless on the bed, his skin still pale except for the bruise along his right cheek, his eyes closed, the thick tubing of the ventilator snaking down his throat. Tracy sat in the chair next to the bed, her arm resting on the mattress, her fingers curved around Blair's, her thumb rubbing slowly over the skin on the back of his hand. Jim wasn't listening to what she was saying; he didn't need to. Her actions said it all. She loved him.
He wondered why that realization hadn't occurred to him before. It wasn't like he hadn't interacted with Tracy at all, or observed her around Blair before. He had, especially when Blair had first started seeing her. He hadn't been sure quite what to make of her; he only knew when she was in the room, Blair was usually laughing, and he'd wanted that for his friend. The accident and subsequent surgeries had done a number on Blair's usually upbeat and optimistic personality. Slowly, but surely, Tracy's presence in Blair's life had turned that around, given him something to look forward to other than another day stuck at home on medical leave. Jim realized now that perhaps Blair should have been getting some form of therapy to help him deal with the changes that had gone on in his life over the past couple years. Changes that had mostly been due to Jim's influence on his life.
Do you ever have regrets, Chief? I have a million of them...
A nurse entered the room, touching Tracy lightly on her shoulder, then pointing at her watch. Nodding, Tracy followed the nurse out into the hallway. "You can visit him again in an hour, after the doctor has checked him over."
"Okay, thanks." Running her hand through her short hair, Tracy turned around, her gaze landing on Jim.
Sighing, Jim ducked his head in discomfort, then said, "Look, Tracy, about earlier, I'm sorry. I was out of line. I just--I'm not good with the waiting thing."
The corner of her mouth turned up in a wry little half-grin. "I know. Apology accepted. We can save any further disagreements for after Blair wakes up and tells us what happened. You wanna get a cup of coffee with me?"
"Yeah." Jim followed her down the hallway to a vending machine, and didn't protest when she paid for both of them. There were a couple of chairs there and, not really wanting to face his captain and his partner just yet, Jim gestured for her to sit.
She did, her brown eyes regarding him quizzically. "Jim?"
He took a sip of his coffee, then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, staring into the paper cup. "Tell me about Blair, Tracy. I--we quit really talking to each other the night he told me he was going to work for you, and I'm not sure I know who he is anymore."
There was a long silence, while he assumed she was thinking about how to begin, or maybe just thinking he was a loser, for letting the connection with his best friend unravel. When she finally spoke, he had to strain to hear her words.
"Blair is...rainbows and sunshine, kittens and chocolate, a good book, a moving piece of music, a shooting star, or the waves crashing on the shore. He's snowfall on Christmas Eve and the first crocus in the spring. He's all the things that make you pause and take a second look, or just make you feel lucky to be alive. He's tenderness, and calm, and patience, and determination." She paused, then said, "I'm not sure if that's what you wanted to hear."
Jim ran a hand over his face, and swallowed with difficulty. "It might be what I needed to hear. Is he happy?" He risked a glance at her.
The trace of a smile played on her lips. "I think so, yes."
Jim sighed. "I won't pretend I know anything about what you do, about what he does, but is he good at it? Does it challenge his mind?"
She laughed quietly. "Horses are always a challenge, but yes, Blair is good at what he does. He has a good seat, and great hands. There's something about him horses trust. I don't know, his openness, maybe. And he and Magic are a terrific team. I think Magic would jump through flaming hoops if Blair asked him to. Give them a year or two, and they'll be doing big things. Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Yeah, that's what I wanted to know, thanks." Jim got to his feet and headed back toward ICU.
Pain. It was everywhere. Down his throat, along his side, shooting through his leg. It was like white-hot needles in the fuzziness that surrounded him. The pain faded to be replaced by sounds. Footsteps squeaking on tile, hushed voices, a soft steady beeping. Hospital...why...Magic!
Fighting past the clinging cobwebs of unconsciousness, Blair opened his eyes. The world was a slowly swirling kaleidoscope of colors. "J'm?" The half name started a fire in his throat, and a whimper escaped before he could stop it.
Something was pressed against his lips, and he swallowed. Delicious coolness soothed the pain. "Easy, baby, just a few sips for now."
"Jim?" he asked again, able to articulate fully now, but only at a whisper.
"He's not here right now, honey, but he'll be back soon."
Tracy. Tracy was here. Fingers gently stroked his cheek, and he leaned into the warm, familiar touch. Then the thought that had pulled him out of the abyss struck him again. "M'gic?"
"Magic's fine. He's back at the barn, waiting for you to come home and feed him treats."
"Ummm, good. 'Fraid hurt him."
"Did someone try to hurt Magic?"
"...g'ys...want'd...to...gl'd he's s'fe..." Blair's eyes closed slowly, the outside world slipping away.
When Blair awoke again, his head was much clearer, but he didn't open his eyes right away. Instead he lay still in the bed, listening to the sounds around him, cataloging his aches and pains. His throat was still sore, but better than he remembered. Feeling a soft pressure on his hand, he opened his eyes slowly, and was rewarded with the sight of Tracy seated in a chair next to him. One leg was curled up underneath her, and she was looking at a magazine in her lap, while one hand held his, her thumb grazing his knuckles in a soothing motion. When he tightened his fingers around hers, she looked up, a smile lighting up her face.
"Hey, you're finally awake!" The magazine slid to the floor unnoticed as she leaned forward, taking a glass from the bedside table and holding it for him as he drank greedily through the straw. "How are you feeling?"
Swallowing, Blair answered, "Sore. And confused. Where's Jim? What in the hell happened to me? "
"Jim's out at the stables, going over the van with the sheriff's department. We were hoping you could tell us what happened. Jim told me you were on the cell phone with him when something happened. By the time he got to the scene, you were laying by the van at the side of the road, unconscious, and Magic was loose."
Blair raised his hand to his forehead, running his fingers over the small bandage there. "There was an accident. I thought a car was following me, so I called Jim, but it disappeared. He must have passed me on the shoulder then pulled out in front. I couldn't stop. I hit my head on the steering wheel and dropped the phone. I could hear Jim calling to me, and then..." His eyes widened as the events came rushing back to him.
"What, Blair?" Tracy's grip on his hand increased.
"There were these guys. Four of them, I think. They pulled me out of the van and started hitting me. One of them had a baseball bat. I could hear Magic going crazy, and one of the guys hit me, told me to tell Jim--" He stopped. Should he tell Tracy about Elliot? She'd been furious over Shamrock's death, barring Elliot from boarding any of his other horses at Celtic Cross, and transferring his daughter to another instructor at a different stable. He looked into her eyes, seeing both worry and anger there. But there were no secrets between them, not since the fateful night she'd told him she'd figured out he'd lied at the press conference. "He told me to tell Jim to stay away from Elliot."
She gasped, and broke the hold she had on his hand before she crushed his fingers. "God damn him! I regret the day I ever got involved with him!" She sprang to her feet, pacing the room's small confines. She reminded Blair of a racehorse at the starting gate, all nerves and coiled steel. She paused at the end of the bed. "But how did you end up full of butorphanol?"
"I got the bat away from one of the guys and started to fight back. Someone stabbed a needle in my leg, and I passed out. Last thing I remember is Magic was free. I think he chased them away." Blair tried to sit up further in the bed, yelping as pain seared along his ribcage.
Tracy was instantly beside him, adjusting the pillows behind his back. "Careful, baby. You've got some cracked ribs."
"So I notice." He lifted the blanket covering him, dread filling his heart at the site of a bandage wrapped around his knee. "Oh, God. No. Not again." He felt himself beginning to hyperventilate. "I can't go through this again."
Tracy rubbed his arm, trying to calm him. "It's okay, it's okay. Look, let's get the doctor in here, and she can tell you what's going on, okay?"
Blair nodded, closing his eyes and trying to relax. He heard a nurse enter the room and Tracy ask for the doctor. A few minutes later, the physician entered.
"Hi, Mr. Sandburg, I'm Dr. Phelps. Glad to see you're finally awake! Let me just give you a quick examination to see how you're doing, and then we can discuss your condition."
"Where's Dr. Matthews?" Tracy asked.
"She's our ER trauma specialist. Once a patient is out of the ER, they get transferred to a resident. That would be me." He gave her a smile. "Now if you could just step outside for a few minutes?"
Tracy left the room, and Blair submitted to the poking and prodding and the taking of deep breaths. When the doctor was finished, he went over Blair's injuries, and mentioned the word Blair had been dreading in regard to his knee. Surgery. Blair just bit his lip, nodded, and told the doctor he would call his own orthopedist for a consultation.
Finally the man left, and Blair leaned back against the pillows, feeling everything he'd worked so hard for come crashing down around him. All their plans, all his hopes for a successful summer of showing on the grand prix circuit were crushed. According to Phelps, he'd be lucky to get on a horse again any time soon, let alone compete. God, he couldn't believe this was happening to him again. First he'd thrown away his academic career to save Jim, then he'd had to resign from the force because of a stupid fall on a patch of ice. Now he was losing everything he'd worked so hard for the past six months. He closed his eyes, trying to swallow past the tightness in his throat, fighting back the tears threatening to fall.
He heard someone enter, but didn't open his eyes to see who it was. "Hey, angel face, what did he say?" Blair didn't answer, just shook his head.
"Blair? What is it? What's wrong?"
Feeling Tracy's hand on his shoulder, he looked up at her. "Everything. Everything is so fucked. It'll be months before I can ride again, if I can. I'm sorry, Tracy. I'm sorry."
She perched on the edge of the bed, taking his hand in both of hers. "It's okay. Shit happens, Blair. We'll work things out. I'll ride Magic until you're better, get Anne to ride the green horses, help out with the training. We'll shuffle things around and adjust. It'll be okay."
Blair shook his head angrily. "No. It's not going to be okay. I have to have surgery again. You know what that was like before. I can't go through that again." The memory of hours of agonizing physical therapy made him shudder, sending pain rocketing through his ribs.
"No! Just leave me the hell alone right now, okay? I need some time." Pulling his hand from her grasp, he could see the indecision in her eyes. "Please, Tracy, I just need time to think."
"If that's what you want--"
"It's what I want."
Rising, she got as far as the door before turning back around. "No," she said softly, "I won't let you do this."
"I can see it in your eyes. I walk out that door, and you shut yourself off, retreat back into that shell you were in when I first met you, hiding from the world, hiding from yourself."
Blair bit his lip, avoiding her gaze. He knew she was right. That's where he was headed, back to being afraid, to being miserable and alone. He'd even shut Jim out then, though he doubted his friend had ever noticed. Jim had been so focused on the next operation being the *one* that would make Blair whole again, the one that would put him back in Jim's world, where he belonged, that he hadn't seen the torture he was putting Blair through. But Blair hadn't belonged at the PD, not really. He was a fraud and a failure playing at being a cop. And despite the fact Tracy was on to him, that she knew what he was doing, he still tried to push her away.
"Tracy, it's not going to work. I'm not going to be any help to you for months, if ever. Hell, I can't even drive to get out to the barn--"
She cut him off. "I'll come get you."
"That's twenty miles either way, two times a day. You'd never get anything done--"
"Then you'll move in with me," she replied quickly.
Blair shook his head, then ran a hand through his tangled curls. "Tracy, please, just let it go, okay. It's over. It would take a miracle to fix things."
Crossing the room to stand by his side, she whispered, "I already had my miracle."
He could see tears welling in her eyes, and suddenly got the feeling they were talking about two different things. "What do you mean?" he asked, though he was almost afraid to hear the answer.
"Didn't the doctor tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
She sat down next to him, her hands fluttering in her lap. "You died last night. Your heart stopped beating, and you weren't breathing. Twice. Once in the ambulance, and once after you arrived at the ER." Tears were running unchecked down her cheeks, but Blair was so stunned by her words he couldn't reach out to wipe them away.
"I didn't know," he finally managed.
"You know what was worse? I wasn't here. I was at the barn, putting the horses up. I didn't know until I got here that I almost lost you. Suddenly all I could see was what my life would be like without you, a dark and lonely place." Reaching out her hand, she cupped his cheek. "This is my miracle, that I have another chance to look in your eyes, to touch your face, to tell you none of this--" she waved her free hand at his body "--matters. All that matters is you're still here, that we have the opportunity to go on, no matter what the future brings. I love you, Blair. I want to spend the rest of my life right here, where you are."
Blair stared at her for a long moment, then pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly, ignoring the painful protest of his injured ribs, whispering the words that had been in his heart for a long time. "I love you, Tracy."
Ten Days Later
Blair limped down the barn aisle, leaning heavily on his cane. He'd been released from the hospital on Tuesday, two days after he'd been attacked. His orthopedist had taken a look at his knee Monday night, and pronounced the predictions of Dr. Phelps as "a load of hogwash." He would be just fine, providing he got plenty of rest, and stayed off his feet as much as possible while his injuries healed.
Blair felt a grin cross his face as he approached Magic's stall. The bay must have heard him coming because his head and neck appeared over the top half of the stall door. He snorted a greeting.
Leaning his cane against the wall, Blair rubbed his hands over the animal, one scratching the broad forehead as the other patted his neck. Sensitive nostrils sniffed at Blair's clothes, smelling a treat. "Ah, you know what I have, don't you, boy? Which pocket is it?" Magic nudged his hip, and Blair would have lost his balance, if not for the arm he'd thrown around the gelding's neck.
"That's right," he laughed. Sticking his hand in his jeans pocket, he came up with the treat, which Magic delicately plucked from his palm. As the animal chewed, Blair said, "Now I expect you to behave for Tracy this weekend. I know you're not used to anyone else but me on your back, but we can't let all our hard work go to waste while I'm laid up for a while. You have to keep learning, get some more experience so when I come back, we can move up from open level to grand prix classes. Then I can start earning my keep here again."
Hearing the side door to the barn open and close, Blair looked up to see Jim striding toward him. "Hey, Jim! Didn't expect to see you here today."
"Well, I found another box of your stuff down in the basement, so I thought I'd bring it out to you. I took it up to the house, and Tracy said you were out here. Don't you think you should be staying off that leg?"
Smiling at his friend's worried expression, Blair said, "I'm fine, Jim. This is the first time I've been up today. I have to come out to the barn at least once a day, or Magic starts worrying where I am."
"Can I ask you a question, Chief?"
"Sure, go ahead."
Jim hesitated before he asked, "Are you sure this is what you want? I mean, you always seemed to be such a 'people' person, you know? I just can't picture you here, cleaning up after horses the rest of your life."
Blair stroked Magic's nose, carefully considering his answer. Finally, he said, "I wasn't sure it was what I wanted at first, either. But then I realized that here, I'm free. The horses don't care about what I did in the past, about the mistakes I made, or the people I hurt. And I can't lie to them, the way I can to you, and to myself. In order to work with them, to gain their trust, I have to be honest with myself about who I am. And I found that underneath all the things I've done, and all the hurt I've caused, I really am a decent person. I mean, Magic puts up with me, so I can't be all bad. I'm happy, Jim, and very much in love, two things I couldn't imagine ever being six months ago." He fed the horse another treat.
Jim was silent for a few minutes, perhaps mulling over Blair's words. Then he asked, "What is that you're giving him?"
"Red licorice. Weird, I know, but it's his favorite. And thanks for bringing my stuff out. I thought I'd gotten it all packed when we moved me out here last weekend." He searched his friend's face for any sign he was upset over Blair's decision to move in with Tracy. "How are you doing?" he asked.
Jim looked slightly startled. "Me? I'm fine. Loft's a little empty, and I'm not going to say I don't miss you, but I understand why you left, and I agree with your reasons. Tracy's a nice girl, and I'm sure you'll be happy together. And well, while you were in the hospital, I did some thinking."
"Bet that hurt." Blair grinned and ducked as Jim aimed a swat at his head.
"I'm trying to be serious here, and all I get is a comedian." But he was laughing as he said it. "You were right, you know, in your decision to move on, to make another life for yourself. I just didn't really want to face it. That's why I've been such a--" He seemed to be searching for the right word.
"Jerk? Pain in the ass? Selfish SOB? I can go on."
Jim smiled. "Jerk works fine. I've been a jerk, so wrapped up in what I thought would happen to me without you as my partner, that I pretended nothing was wrong. Which kept me from seeing what really was happening, that I was losing you as a friend. Can you forgive me?"
Grasping Jim's forearm, Blair gave it a squeeze. "Already done, man. We will always be friends, and I will always be here if you need me. For anything, not just the Sentinel stuff. Speaking of which, no problems since I've been gone? Not that I expected any. You haven't zoned in nearly three years."
Jim shook his head. "No problems. And you were right about Candace. She might not be a guide, but she is what I need in a partner. She helps me keep my head on straight, and doesn't let my instincts get in the way of doing my job."
Turning to face Jim, Blair leaned his back against the stall door, Magic rubbing his head against his master's shoulder. "Uh oh, sounds like there's a specific incident behind that statement."
Jim's expression was sheepish. "I got a little bit out of line with the sheriff's department today. They haven't been doing a damn thing to find out who hurt you." Blair could see Jim was struggling to hold his anger in check.
"That's understandable, man. You know me, they don't. To them, I'm the fruitcake who made a big fuss over a dead horse, and now I'm trying to pin getting beat up on the same guy. If it wasn't me involved, it'd smell like a frame-up to you, too. And speaking of Sam Elliot..."
"Yes? You got something new for me?" Jim nearly rubbed his hands together in eagerness.
Blair shook his head. "No. I'm taking your advice. I want you to lay off Elliot. I want you to forget I ever mentioned his name to you."
"What? When did I ever give you that advice?"
"A long time ago, Jim. You told me I should just back off, that if you had backed off on certain things in your life, they would have gone down a lot easier. If I'd taken your advice then, maybe we wouldn't be here right now."
"My mind is made up. If it were just me involved it would be another story. I'd say yeah, go for it, rattle his chain, get him to make a mistake, get him to expose himself. But it's not just me anymore, Jim. What I do affects other people now. I don't want Tracy getting hurt. I don't want Magic, or any of the other horses getting hurt. I asked around. The dose of butorphanol that was in that syringe wasn't just deadly to humans. It would have killed a horse, too. I was damn lucky I pulled the thing out before I got all of it." He looked up at the taller man, his eyes pleading.
"Chief, I don't like it. I'd much rather Elliot was locked up in prison. But I'll honor your wishes. I don't want anything happening to you either." Jim's eyes took on an uncharacteristic softness, and then he surprised Blair by pulling him into a hug.
His voice muffled by Jim's chest, Blair said, "I love you, too, man."
Finally, Jim released him, his expression embarrassed. "Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about." Seeing Jim was still uncomfortable, Blair continued, "We're cool, we've always been cool, Jim. Now how about you come on up to the house and stay for dinner? I'm not taking no for an answer."
Jim smiled at him. "Sure."
Blair gave Magic one last pat before picking up his cane and heading for the exit. When he realized Jim wasn't right beside him, he turned around. Jim was petting Magic on the neck as he said in a low voice, "Thanks for taking care of Blair."
As Jim left the horse and walked toward him, Blair pretended he hadn't overheard his words, but he couldn't hide the smile on his face.
Jim threw his arm over Blair's shoulders. "Come on, buddy. Let's go eat."
With a light heart, Blair headed toward the house with his friend.
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