By Gil Hale – email@example.com
Disclaimer: Characters from The Professionals belong to Mark-1 Productions Ltd and are used without permission but with no intent to defraud.
Spoilers: Second Chance
Jim was running. His feet pounded on the dock, and with every thud his head pounded in response. He struggled to go faster, knowing all too well how much could have happened—the dead men he left behind him were an indication of how badly Uncle Gustavo had miscalculated. His senses were flicking in and out nauseatingly, so that one moment the rank smell of salt air and the screech of gulls overwhelmed him, and the next he could hardly feel the ground under his feet. Time seemed to flex with his sight; how long was it taking him to cover this short distance to the boat? He felt as if he had been running forever, and the dock was lengthening out in front of him, then abruptly the deck was there under his feet.
And there, too, the sight he had dreaded seeing.
Sprawled unmoving on the planks, Sandburg lay like a sacrifice, limp and apparently lifeless.
He tried to hear a heartbeat, but he couldn’t hear anything outside the normal range now, his senses failing him when he needed them. He had to stoop, and put his fingers to the cold flesh, had to make himself do it coolly and professionally as though it was a distant thing and the result couldn’t tear his heart out.
He couldn’t feel anything.
No, that wouldn’t have been so bad. If he couldn’t feel anything it might just be his senses playing up completely, hiding the pulse that was there. But he could feel… everything else. Cold skin, clammy to his fingertips. The rough brush of clothing against the back of his hand. Even the slight curl in a strand of hair. But no heartbeat.
No fucking heartbeat at all, and the world still went on turning, and gulls lived and shrieked, when the light should all have gone and the blackness thickened to silence.
He hauled the abandoned body up, as if he could shake life back into it, and Blair’s head flopped sideways, showing the bloodstained forehead. The whiteness under the blood was deathly.
Laughter mocked his grief. He looked up at the crowd of faces scorning him, and didn’t question where they had come from or how he was now holding an automatic rifle. It didn’t need to make sense. Nothing would ever make sense again except carnage. He raked the jeering faces with fire, obliterating them in blood and bone; but the laughter didn’t stop even when there was no one left, and as he looked back down at Blair to say goodbye it grew louder—because all that was left of the well-loved features was a grinning skull with the hair curling horribly round the jaw.
He woke to his own scream of denial, and his heart pounding, and sweat drenching him as he tried to get back some sort of control… and to Blair, startled, hurrying from his room. The light from the lamp which had been left on when Jim fell asleep on the couch shone warmly on Blair. He was paler than he should have been, and bruised under the dressing on his head, but living and breathing. Jim’s senses feasted on every untidy, battered inch of him.
“Jim, what the hell was that?”
“Something woke me,” Jim said evasively, wondering how much Blair had actually heard.
“You woke you. You woke me too, and probably half the block come to that.” He dropped by Jim on the couch, and rested a hand gently on his arm. “You’re soaked, man. Whatever you were dreaming must have been a doozy.”
“Yeah.” Jim’s heart was slowing a bit now, but his head pounded as badly as it had done in his dream, and the hand he ran over his hair came away wet.
Blair, watching him with concern, stilled his hand and looked at it. “Jim, you’re bleeding. No, don’t rub at it. Let me look.”
“I got a bit of a knock on the head. Skin’s probably broken.” He’d forgotten about it, but it would explain the throbbing headache. “It’s nothing.”
Blair had found the place, turning Jim slightly so that the lamplight showed the damage. Jim didn’t want the attention, but he was still shaken from the clarity of the nightmare, and there was something undeniably welcome about being able to feel the slight vital warmth of Blair’s hand.
“Someone hit you on the head?”
“Uncle Gustavo and I had a tactical disagreement. It ended with me on my face in the road and the truck keys thrown away. He didn’t calculate on sentinel sight though.”
The brisk dismissal of the incident, with the tempting mention of sentinel abilities, was a total failure.
“You were knocked out?”
“Jim, I was knocked out briefly. You made the paramedic check me for every obscure complication known to man and ex-military paramedics, and even after the third time he’d told you I wasn’t concussed you suggested he got a second opinion,” Blair pointed out. He took hold of Jim’s chin in a way no one had had the temerity to do since he was about six, and looked inexpertly into his eyes.
“Your memory’s certainly okay,” Jim commented, making himself pull away, but rather late and not impatiently enough to carry much conviction.
“Is yours? Does the statement, ‘anyone who’s been unconscious needs checking out thoroughly’ sound familiar at all? Or ‘head injuries can’t be shrugged off’?”
Nemesis could evidently appear in a grimy T-shirt and ancient boxer shorts. Jim did, unfortunately, remember saying both things very firmly to Blair earlier.
“I don’t have a concussion,” he said truthfully. “I would know, Chief. I’ve been concussed two or three times since the senses kicked in. It has quite definite effects on them.”
He wasn’t sure whether to be irritated or flattered that Blair completely failed to jump at this tempting bait.
“You may not have a concussion, but you’ve a nasty cut, a huge lump and I’ll bet you have a splitting headache, right?”
“I’d say a headache about equal to yours.”
Blair, who had refused the painkillers he’d been offered, grinned. “Touché. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, my friend. At least let me clean this up.”
Any other time, Jim might well have said something regrettable at this point, but he was too grateful to Blair for not being the white lolling corpse of his nightmare to do anything but submit. It didn’t make much difference to the discomfort and he had to dial down the smell of antiseptic, but it was worth it to enjoy Blair doing those basic important things like breathing.
“You sure you’re okay?” Blair asked suspiciously.
“Well if you go as far as thanking me I’m definitely taking you to the ER.” He took the bowl of warm water away and washed his hands. “You want coffee? Or maybe herbal tea?”
“Coffee. I can make it though. And here, put this shirt on. You look cold.”
In the end, they puttered about the kitchen getting in each other’s way and it was reassuringly normal. He noticed the slightly drawn look around Blair’s eyes, and offered him the painkillers again.
“I will if you will,” Blair said. “They’re ones that work for you.”
Jim hesitated. He didn’t want to sleep again tonight, and had been relying on the thought of the pain keeping him awake, but he didn’t want Blair lying awake as well.
“Okay,” he conceded. “But I can hear whether or not you swallow it.”
“No fair. I have to take your word.”
“I’m not the one who thinks truth is an overrated concept.”
Blair shrugged, but swallowed the loathed medication and looked at Jim pointedly. Reluctantly, Jim followed suit. Blair might not have sentinel abilities, but he had brought sentinel watching to a fine art and it was a long time since Jim had been able to fool him.
By the time the welcome hot coffee was finished, the pounding in Jim’s head had definitely lessened, and Blair, cross-legged on the couch beside him, looked at him with approval.
“You look better. So, what were you dreaming about?”
Rats. He’d hoped that might have slipped by, especially as Blair was already starting to look slightly drowsy. “Just what went down today,” he evaded. “You know how it is. You replay things…”
Blair yawned, but didn’t let it put him off his stride. “Most replays don’t have you yelling and sweating like you’ve been working out.”
“Leave it,” Jim said. “It’s done with.”
“The best way to avoid dreaming it again is to tell me about it, Jim.”
Jim just couldn’t summon up his usual responses. He’d get ready to tell Blair exactly how to mind his own business, and then he’d remember the sickening meaninglessness of a Sandburg-free existence.
Blair looked at him, more worried than ever. “You’re missing all your cues, you know. Whatever happened to telling me to butt out?”
“I don’t want you to butt out.” Shit. That was the painkillers. He had really not meant to say that. Seeing the look on Blair’s face that meant he probably was thinking of calling the ER, he added hastily, “I dreamed I shot a lot of people.”
A half truth for a self-proclaimed obfuscator. That was fair.
But unfortunately, obfuscators apparently had a knack for spotting less than the whole truth from others.
“Why did you do that, Jim? Even in a dream, you wouldn’t shoot anyone without a pretty big motive.”
Jim wasn’t sure what made him talk. The fact that Sandburg would probably go on asking questions in his sleep, perhaps. Or the hope that Blair was right and putting it into words might stop him dropping straight back into the nightmare when the drowsiness he was beginning to feel pulled him under.
“When I came up on the deck today, you were lying there,” he said. “I didn’t know if you were alive or not ’til I checked on you. The way it played in my dream, you really were dead. I couldn’t find a pulse. Then I heard a noise. They—the crew, everyone—were watching us and laughing. So…”
“So you… shot them?”
“You know what it’s like when you’re dreaming. The gun was just there… I mowed them down.”
He’d expected Blair to be shocked, even though the violence had been only a product of his dreaming mind, but Blair looked more taken aback than anything, and he didn’t say anything at all. Maybe he really was appalled and trying to hide it for Jim’s sake.
“That was what woke you up?” Blair asked softly after a while.
Oh. He thought Jim had been horrified at what he’d dreamed he’d done. Maybe it would be better to leave it at that, but somehow he couldn’t. No point pretending to be better than he was.
“Sorry, Chief,” he said, equally softly. “I enjoyed it. I wanted them to die. I would have ended the world if I knew how. Then I looked at you, and you weren’t you any more at all, just bones. That was when I woke up.”
Blair looked at him with an unreadable expression. There was a long silence, then just a hint of unsteadiness in his voice when he spoke. “You know, as a declaration of friendship, that’s pretty unbeatable.”
Jim was thrown. Of all the reactions he’d anticipated, it wasn’t that. “You’ve lost me, Chief,” he said.
“I don’t know anyone else who would consider it even mildly cataclysmic if I was killed—except Naomi, I suppose, and she’s my mom. I mean, I wouldn’t actually want you mowing down anyone on my behalf, but I guess it wouldn’t have been great if your subconscious had just shrugged and got on with life. I’m kind of pleased it mattered.”
“It mattered,” Jim said. He could still feel the cold sick shock of how much it had mattered.
Blair put a hand on his arm. He was visibly sleepy now, but all the energy he had was focussed on Jim. “You won’t dream it again,” he said. “I’m right here. You can hear me breathing; you can probably hear my heartbeat. You couldn’t do that then, right?”
“No. My senses were playing up a bit. I had to feel the pulse in your neck.”
Blair’s hold on his arm tightened a little, and the murmur of his voice softened in sympathy. “That wasn’t a good moment, right? And when you fell asleep, you remembered it, and the fact you hadn’t heard those things. But if you let yourself focus now, you’ll know it wasn’t true.”
Jim had had that focus since the moment he woke and Blair came in, but he didn’t mention it. “Okay, Chief,” he said compliantly round a yawn. “I can do that.” His senses, in fact, were comfortably acute right now, and everything but taste was filled with Blair.
Blair, also yawning, shook his head. “Don’t take it the wrong way, man, but I’m not sure I can actually handle a biddable James Ellison. All this agreeing makes me worry about you. And too many people already…”
He broke off, but Jim understood where he’d been going. Too many people had acted out of character—or what Blair had believed of their character. Comfort was a two-way street, and he tried to find the right words. “Kind of rollercoaster with Maya?”
Blair glanced at him, saw he’d understood and shrugged. “I really thought I had a second chance with her, you know.”
You did, and she blew it, Jim thought, but didn’t say. She’d come too near getting Blair killed for him to trust himself to say anything fair about her.
“At least you finished on an up,” he managed.
“She wanted to do something good…”
Jim couldn’t find anything at all to say to that. He slid an arm round Blair’s shoulders instead. Blair leaned against him, undoubtedly getting more support from that than he would have done from Jim’s opinion of Maya’s good intentions.
“Won’t see her again.”
Jim bit back ‘thank goodness.’ “Not soon, anyway. But I’m sorry, Chief. I know she mattered to you.”
“Not cataclysmic,” Blair murmured. “Don’ think it would have ended the world for her if her cousin had shot me.” He slid another thirty degrees sideways. “Only you, Jim.”
“I won’t be able to haul you to your feet and push you back to bed, you know,” Jim said to the top of his head. “We’ll both be stiff enough in the morning without sleeping on the couch.”
It was a good argument. It might have convinced Blair to move if Jim hadn’t made it just a second too late. In that second, Blair’s eyes had finally closed and didn’t look like opening again. Jim found he couldn’t manage to regret it.
He propped Blair up gently and found it took a ridiculous amount of effort to walk to the small bedroom and drag the quilt off the unmade bed. He tucked it around Blair, and eased back onto the couch next to him. He could feel the quilt cocoon Blair’s warmth.
It banished the last traces of the dream that had tormented him. He let Blair slide down ’til he was comfortable and relished the reality—warm skin, slow, relaxed breathing, a sense of Blair himself that went beyond his physical nearness. He let himself drop towards sleep holding that awareness cradled in his mind. He felt as if he was the one who’d been given a second chance.
~ End ~