To Lory, my talented illustrator, thank you so much for making the story come alive through your artwork. I love what you've created for this one! To Wolfshy, my never ending gratitude for all your hard work!
In the Blink of an Eye
"Sandburg!" Jim Ellison's voice cut through the pre-dawn darkness of their room in the Shorebird Inn with an underlying impatience impossible to ignore. "Get your butt out here! Now!"
A mop of curls slowly emerged from beneath the pile of comforter, sheets, and blanket. Two sleep laden blue eyes pried themselves open to stare into the dim light filtering into the small room. "Damn, Ellison," a drowsy voice grumbled softly. "Only you would think getting up in the middle of the night on the first day of vacation is fun. What time is it anyway? Two AM? Two thirty, maybe?"
"I heard that, Chief," Jim called, stowing the last of his gear into his duffel. "It's nearly four thirty, and I warned you last night that we needed to get an early start if we wanted to get up to Lighthouse Point by dawn. Time and fish wait for no man." Jim shoved a small bag of light snacks into the bag, then zipped it shut. "I didn't fly all the way to Maine just to lounge around in a rented room."
Slowly, Blair's arms emerged from beneath the warm covers of his bed, and he reached out to stretch broadly, his mouth open in a wide, loud yawn. "Oh, man. It's just too early." He snuggled his head more deeply into the soft pillow. "Won't the fish wait another hour or so?" He opened one eye, knowing his sentinel partner could see him clearly in the dim light. "C'mon, Jim? Just an hour?"
In one fluid motion, Jim Ellison had covered the distance between his bed and his partner's. Before Blair could react, he ripped back the covers, exposing Sandburg to the chilly morning air. "Now, Chief. That truck's pulling out of here in ten minutes, with or without you. We'll stop on the way up the coastal highway for breakfast, eat on the road, and we'll be fishing by dawn."
Blair fought to get his hands on the blankets again, but Jim's grip held firm. Staring at his friend, he shook his head. "You're a cruel man, James. You know that?" A shiver shook Sandburg's body, and he made no effort to control it. Let Ellison know how cold he really was.
Jim grinned. "Yep. Torture's my middle name. Ten minutes, Chief. The meter's running."
Grumbling all the while, Blair Sandburg left what little warmth remained in his bed and prepared to meet the day.
The fishing trip had been Jim's idea. He had been to the rocky coast of Maine years before with his dad and brother. That trip had been a business venture for the elder Ellison, and his sons were left with a paid nanny for most of the six days they were there. There certainly hadn't been time for fishing. But, even after all the years that had passed, Jim had never forgotten the rugged beauty of Maine's coastline, and he had made an inward promise to return one day. When Simon had insisted he use some of his vacation time after a particularly long, difficult case, the detective had figured the time had come.
Ellison smiled as he stood at the window of the inn, waiting and listening to the familiar sounds of Sandburg in the morning. Not even once had he considered not asking Sandburg along on this trip. There had been a time when Jim Ellison was more comfortable with his own company than that of others, a time when he preferred his solitude. Like so many aspects of his life, that had changed with the arrival of his guide, friend, and partner. He'd fought those changes at first, tooth and nail, but gradually, he'd come to realize that he needed the young man who had whirled into his world - a cyclone of color and light and movement - needed him not only to master his sentinel senses, but to master his own life. Now, Sandburg and his hectic pace, his vibrant music, his exotic scents and tastes and hues, were as much a part of Jim's life as dress blues, precision, and predictability had once been.
The strangest part was that he wouldn't have had it any other way.
"Okay, man, I'm set," Blair commented, joining the sentinel at the window, his own duffel in hand. "I've got my gear, a book I've been meaning to get into - just in case the fish disappoint us - and my camera. Should be able to get some amazing shots out there. I mean, those rocks, that sky... Just what I've been waiting for to try out that new camera you gave me for Christmas, man. The coast around Cascade's beautiful, right? But the Maine coast! Now, that's... "
Jim reached around Sandburg's neck, pulling his head close in a tight squeeze, while reaching for his duffel with his other hand. "Let's go, Ansel Adams. If we don't hustle, we're going to miss the fish and the sunrise over the Atlantic."
Still trapped in the headlock, Blair grinned up at his best friend. "I'm with you, man. I'm with you. Lead on, partner."********************
The drive up the coast took about an hour. Breakfast consumed, Jim fell silent, watching for the signs for the turn off to Lighthouse Point. Blair skimmed over his notes for a new course he would be teaching the next semester at Rainier, his foot tapping in time to the jazz station on the radio. It was not yet dawn, and the darkness, combined with the comfortable silence within the truck, wrapped sentinel and guide in a warm cloak of companionship.
"There it is. Lighthouse Point, five miles." Jim wheeled the truck to the right, taking the side road toward Collins Lighthouse and their chosen fishing spot for the day.
Blair shut his notebook, leaning over to stuff it behind his seat. "Think we'll make the sunrise?"
Jim glanced at his watch. "Yeah, Chief. We'll make it." He looked at his partner and grinned. "No thanks to you, Sleepyhead." Reaching over, he cuffed the back of his friend's head.
"Ow!" Blair rubbed the injury in mock consternation. "Cruel, man. Simply cruel." Unable to keep the indignant facade intact, he smiled, then stretched broadly. "Sorry, big guy. I'm just a night owl at heart. Stay up all night, sleep all day. That's my idea of a vacation."
Ellison shook his head. "Get over it, Chief. I'm here for a week of fishing, eating fresh lobster, and walking in these Maine woods. You can sleep at home, for crying out loud."
Sandburg weighed the danger and took the risk. "Not teamed up with you, I can't. Old 'Up and At 'Em Ellison.' Man, 'Reveille' must be your favorite song!"
There was no escaping the large hand reaching out to cuff him once more, accompanied by a wide smile on the face of Jim Ellison. The sound of laughter escaped into the darkness.********************
They stood in silence before the dawn. It was not yet six o'clock, yet the sun rose out of the sea in all its magnificent splendor. Its rays cast a net of orange and gold upon the waves, like a mighty fisherman seeking to draw in the tide. Gradually, the remnants of the starry canopy flickered out, one by one, small candles extinguished in the growing warmth of day. Waves lapped gently against the rocks, and far in the distance, the haunting sounds of a buoy bell punctuated the stillness with its melody. Seabirds rose and fell with the wind's currents, already searching for the day's first catch.
Jim and Blair were alone. It was late in the season for tourists, and too early in the morning for those coming to visit the lighthouse.
They stood at the edge of the rocks, side by side, facing the sea. Neither felt the need or inclination to break the silence. Not yet. For the moment, they were content to stand there, shoulders lightly touching, facing the dawn of day at the edge of the continent, and drinking in the beauty which surrounded them.
Blair stole a glance upward at Jim. Seldom did his partner's face lose its intense look of concentration, the focus which seemed such an integral part of Jim Ellison. This was one of those rare occasions, however, when the older man seemed completely at peace. His eyes were soft, filled with wonder, as he gazed out at the sunrise. What did he see when he looked at the magnificent colors of the dawn? The question which popped into Blair's mind wasn't asked with the curiosity of the intellectual, but rather with the heart of a friend.
As if sensing the younger man's thoughts, Jim looked down into his eyes and smiled. He moved fractionally closer, reaching around with one arm to loop it loosely across Blair's shoulders. "It's brighter, more intense," he quietly commented, returning his gaze to the ocean and the sunrise. "The colors have a hundred different hues, all melting and flowing together like watercolors in the rain." The sentinel sighed, a soft breath barely discernable above the sound of the waves. "I wish... "
When his friend failed to continue, Blair nudged him gently in the side. "Wish what, Jim?"
Ellison glanced down at him once again. "I wish you could see it the way I do. All the colors, all the light. I can describe it, but it's not the same, you know? I just wish I could share it with you."
Jim's angular features were silhouetted against the bright, morning sky as Blair gazed up at him for a few moments. Then, the younger man turned and looked back out at the sea. "You do, man," he whispered. "I can see it, Jim. Through your eyes, I can see it all."********************
By the time the morning lightshow had ended, there were a few more visitors scattered about Lighthouse Point. The majority of them had come to view the lighthouse itself, posing for photographs before its gleaming white tower. They came and went every few minutes, grabbing their snapshots, then departing in their rental cars for the next sight down the road.
Except for the artist. Blair had noticed her arrival nearly an hour before. She was an elderly woman of at least seventy-five years, yet she carried herself with the ramrod poise of a proud woman forty years younger. Her white hair glistened in the sunlight, and her smile when she saw Blair watching her set up her easel was warm. She commenced painting, not once glancing around at the comings and goings of the tourists or the two men fishing on the rocks nearby.
Stretching, Blair brought in his line, then scampered up the rocks to the grass beyond. Setting down his pole, he waved to Jim, who was trying his luck farther away from the lighthouse, and wandered over to the artist, his camera in hand. He'd already shot nearly a complete roll of film that morning. The colors of the sunrise, the vivid white of the lighthouse against the deep blue sky, and the ever changing colors of the sea had been simply too much to resist.
"Hello," Sandburg called out as he approached the woman, her face set in intense concentration. "Mind if I take a look?"
Her blue eyes lifted to meet his, and the welcoming smile Blair had noticed earlier returned. "Of course not. Feel free." She regarded the shapes on the canvas, her head cocked to one side and a critical glint in her eye. "Not that I've captured what I'd hoped today, I'm afraid. The light's just not cooperating, and, for the life of me, I cannot get the shape of the tower to taper the way it should." She shrugged and grimaced broadly, her expressive face wrinkling with frustration. "Oh, well. Some days you have it, some you don't."
Blair chuckled. "You've got that right." He studied the half-finished painting carefully. "But, I have to disagree with your critique. I think you've captured the light reflecting on the ocean beautifully. It really seems to dance on the waves, just like it is now - out there." He gestured toward the sea. "By the way, I'm Blair Sandburg."
"Violet Howe." Wiping her right hand on her blue smock, the woman stood up, then clasped Blair's hand in hers. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sandburg."
"Please, call me Blair. That's my friend Jim Ellison down there fishing. We're from Cascade, Washington. Violet... that's an appropriate name for an artist. Are you from this area?"
Violet nodded as she resumed her perch on the stool before her easel. "Yes, I'm a native Mainer, I'm proud to say. Not that many of us around who can make that claim these days. I live about five miles down the road. This is my favorite place to come and paint. Even though I've done this old light a dozen times, I just never am satisfied." She sighed heavily. "I always think - the next time will be better."
Glancing toward Jim, then at Blair's camera, she asked, "You're here to fish? Or are you a photographer?"
Grinning, Blair shrugged. "I love photography, but I'm not a professional. Not even close. We're trying to fish, although Jim seems to be having most of the luck so far. I've come up empty. Doesn't matter though. I'm just enjoying the view so much that I haven't had time to worry about the lack of fish."
Violet agreed. "You sound like me. I'll still be coming to this place even after I've painted a hundred lighthouses. It calls to me. A person's fortunate, you know, to find a place that calls to them; a place that summons them back, again and again." A frown turned down the corners of her mouth. "The two of you should be careful on those rocks, you know."
Blair immediately checked out Jim, but seeing he was blissfully fishing away, safe and sound, his gaze returned to Violet, and he regarded her curiously. "Why? Other than their being a bit slippery, they seem very stable."
"Oh, it's not the rocks themselves, dearie. It's the rogues."
"Rogues?" Blair glanced around. The few people scattered about seemed inoffensive to him. Hardly the type to be considered rogues.
Violet laughed, a musical and delightful sound. "Not our guests here at the light, silly. The waves, Blair. The waves. Occasionally, even on the clearest days, one wave will rush in without warning. A wave bigger than anything on the sea that day. It will cover the rocks, then return to the ocean, dragging anything it covers right along with it. People have died after being washed from those rocks."
The young anthropologist smiled. "Thanks for the warning. We'll..."
Blair turned to see Jim waving at him, a large fish dangling from the line held in his grip. A huge smile covered the detective's face as he motioned for his friend to join him.
Turning back to Violet, Blair motioned toward his partner. "I've gotta go. Jim loves to brag about his catches, and I hate to deny him his audience," he explained with a wink.
The old lady waved him off. "I understand completely. Thank you for your kind comments on my painting. I wish you luck with your fishing today, or, if the fish won't cooperate, at least enjoy your time in this lovely place. Take plenty of photographs to remember it by once you're back home again."
Reaching down to give the thin shoulder a gentle squeeze, Blair smiled. "I will do that. Definitely. Good luck with your painting." Just as he turned to go, Blair stopped. "Would you mind if I took a quick picture?"
Patting her hair, Violet looked pleased. "Of me? Why, of course, if you'd like. Maybe you can get the lighthouse in the background."
"Just what I had in mind." Blair lined up the gracious woman and her easel, the painting clearly visible with the lighthouse in the background. He snapped the shutter, then smiled. "Thanks, Violet. Maybe I'll see you again before we leave."
After her last good-byes, Blair Sandburg jogged down the hill toward his friend.********************
The morning passed easily. Shortly after noon, Blair noticed that Violet had packed up her easel and paints and was moving toward her car. He waved as she climbed in and drove away.
Blair was perched on a huge boulder about halfway up the rocky slope between the grassy hillside and the ocean. A few fish had come his way, not as many as Jim had managed to hook, but enough to save his pride from too much teasing by his sentinel. Blair was satisfied.
Looking up, he saw his friend approaching. Jim climbed down the rocks to sit beside him. His hands were empty, and his light blue eyes followed Blair's next cast as the hook flew into the water.
"There's a storm on its way. About five miles out now," Jim said, gesturing vaguely out to sea. "It's moving fairly slowly, so we've got some time before we need to pack up. Beautiful place, isn't it?"
Long used to the ways of his sentinel, including his ability to detect subtle changes in wind speed, temperature, and barometric pressure, Blair Sandburg merely accepted the news and nodded. "It is beautiful, that's for sure. Did you come here on your first trip to Maine? With your father?"
Jim's breathe came out in a huff as he shook his head. "I came here, but not with my dad. He was too busy in meetings to see the scenery. The woman he hired brought Steven and me out here for a while." Jim nodded toward the lighthouse towering above them farther up the hillside. "We played around the light, even climbed up to the top to look out. I thought this was a perfect place to be, and I begged Dad to bring us back that Saturday. I wanted him to see it, too, to share it with us."
When Jim didn't continue, Blair prodded gently. "Wouldn't he come back with you?"
Ellison's eyes remained focused on the water, his jaw tightly clinched as though the events of so long ago were still fresh as dew in his memory. "No. He stayed at the hotel and worked all afternoon. We went to a movie, I think. He never saw the lighthouse."
Blair shifted closer so that his shoulder pressed firmly against Jim's. "His loss. He missed a gorgeous view, but more importantly, he missed this time with you."
A soft, sad smile touched Jim's lips. "Thanks, Chief." He was quiet for a few moments, then added, "I'm glad you're here."
Blair turned to smile up at him. "Me, too, buddy. Me, too."
Jim glanced at his watch. "It's after 12:30. You ready for some lunch? There's a little cafe up there past the lighthouse. I can go get us some sandwiches and a couple of drinks."
"Sure. Want some help?"
Jim rose and punched Blair lightly on the shoulder. "Stay here, Chief. Fish. You've got a few to go before you catch up with the master fisherman."
Playfully, Blair slapped his partner's leg, and Jim feigned a gasp of pain. "Jerk," Blair commented with a broad smile, his heart warming with the good natured teasing, as his throat tightened unexpectedly with emotion. He loved this man so much. It was in these little, relaxed moments when he least expected it that the wonder of their friendship often struck him full force. Blair hadn't had the chance to make many lasting friendships in his lifetime, and never one with the intensity of the relationship he had with Jim. It never ceased to amaze him that the big detective had let him into his life, and his heart, so completely.
Ellison seemed to sense his mood and reached down to ruffle the windblown curls. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Want anything else?"
Shaking his head, Blair reeled in his line. "A sandwich will be fine, Jim. Thanks. I'll catch about a dozen more fish while you're gone, then we'll see who the master fisherman is."
As he climbed back up the rocky slope, Jim called back, "In your dreams, Sandburg. In your dreams." Sandburg's laughter followed him as he strode toward the cafe.********************
The service in the small cafe was slow. The husband and wife team who owned the Lighthouse Point Cafe obviously placed friendly service and a pleasant conversation ahead of speed in filling orders. Apparently, the lone cook in the back was in on the plan as well. The sole customer at the moment, Jim visited with Mr. Jackson, the proprietor, as his wife wiped off several of the tables scattered about the small establishment.
"Weather forecast says we're in for a blow this afternoon," Jackson commented. "Should be here 'bout three."
Jim opened his senses slightly, testing the atmospheric conditions surrounding him. The air felt different. He moved toward the window. The wind had definitely picked up and he could detect a distinct difference in the barometric pressure, along with a degree or so drop in temperature. "Sooner, I'd say," he remarked casually. "I think it's picking up speed."
Laura Jackson looked at him curiously. "What makes you say that? The sky's perfectly clear."
Coughing slightly to cover his discomfort, Jim nodded toward the window. "Getting windier. Wouldn't you say that indicates a storm front coming through?"
Satisfied, the woman moved back behind the counter and began preparing ice for their drinks. "Of course," she remarked. "I hope you have time to enjoy your sandwiches before it starts to rain."
The cook slid the bag containing their club sandwiches through the window at last, and Mr. Jackson added two small bags of chips and pickles wrapped in wax paper to the order. Handing them to Jim, he commented, "Enjoyed visiting with you, Mr. Ellison. Hope you like your clubs."
Taking the bag with the sandwiches in one hand and the one with the drinks in the other, Jim headed for the door. "I'm sure we will. Have a good afternoon."
Using his shoulder, Ellison pushed open the screen door to the cafe. He glanced out to sea, noting the darkening clouds on the far horizon. They would have time to eat, but barely. That storm was approaching quickly now.
Turning his attention back to land, he skimmed the rocks for his partner. No Blair. On his way down the hillside, he detoured slightly to check out their rental truck. No Sandburg. He veered off to the small gift shop, ticket booth, and restroom building beside the lighthouse, pausing outside the door to listen for his guide. Nothing.
Concerned now, Jim broke into a jog as he headed toward the rocky shoreline. "Sandburg!" he called out above the sound of the breaking waves. "Blair!" No one answered him, no familiar voice called out his name in greeting.
Blair Sandburg had disappeared.
Jim forced himself not to panic, to drive down by sheer determination the heavy sense of loss rising within him. Sandburg had to be around somewhere. He couldn't have just disappeared without a trace. He had to be there.
Ellison turned to the discipline which had been his salvation throughout his military career and made him such an outstanding police detective. *Think, Ellison. You're not going to do Sandburg any good by losing it out here. Use your head. Use your senses.*
That was the answer. His senses. Jim dropped the bags of food to the ground, letting his hands fall to his side. He closed his eyes, then played out each of his enhanced senses, being careful not to let himself slide too far into the intense concentration which might bring on a zone. The last thing he needed to do here was lose touch with reality without his guide to bring him back.
The sentinel searched past the ordinary sounds which surrounded him - the sea, the birds, the sounds of peoople and their machines. He reached out, one sense at a time, searching. Searching for the life sounds which had become so vital to him. Finally, faintly, from far down the rocky coastline, he heard a distant heartbeat, smelled a wafting, comforting scent, and tasted the all too familiar scent of his guide's fear.
Jim's eyes flew open. "Sandburg!" At a full run, he flew down the sloping hillside, his eyes scanning the waves crashing against the rocks. Waves which were gathering strength by the minute with the force of the approaching storm.
In an instant, Jim spotted him. Blair was bobbing in the water, dangerously close to the huge boulders. His arms paddled furiously as he struggled to stay afloat in his soggy jeans, heavy flannel shirt and jacket. Jim could hear his breath coming in short, panicky gasps, and the younger man's heart was pounding a quick staccato.
As Blair fought to keep his head above water, the waves crashed brutally against the jagged rocks. There was only the slightest break between the waves, barely long enough for Sandburg to dip down into their trough before he was lifted up again by the next great swell. Without warning, a series of waves approached at angles, crashing into each other with a thunderous intensity, only to be followed by more waves even larger than the last. In the instant in which Jim stood paralyzed in shock, a large wave poured over Blair's head, driving him down into the dark, cold water.
As his friend's head disappeared from sight, the spell of fear which had held Jim motionless was broken. Taking only a moment to kick off his heavy boots and cry out for help to a family strolling toward the lighthouse, Ellison rushed toward the rocks.
"Call 911! There's a man drowning here!"
In the back of his mind, he heard the affirmative answer just as he dove into the churning surf.
His dive was shallow, taking into consideration the rocks, and he safely surfaced a few feet beyond the boulder strewn shoreline. However, Jim had not counted on the brutal force of the waves. He hardly had time to take a breath before he was thrown backward into the rocks, and his head smacked down with tremendous force just as a throbbing pain shot up his left arm and into the shoulder. For a moment, he lay panting against the boulders, too stunned to move.
The waves crashed into him in an unceasing procession, filling his nose and mouth with briny water, mercilessly stinging his sensitive eyes . Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Jim scanned the water for Sandburg.
He spotted him, caught between the swells, about thirty yards out to sea.
Jim Ellison was a soldier trained in survival skills. He knew that to allow the pain to intrude would be the first step in condemning them both to death. Blair needed his help. His own injuries would have to wait. Taking a deep breath, he dove forward into the churning sea.
The water was frigid, and Jim's first thought was to dial down the internal thermostat he had learned to control, thanks to Sandburg's help with his sentinel abilities. His next was to wonder how in hell the young anthropologist was going to survive at all.
Jim fought his way to the surface, his powerful muscles fighting against the pull of the waves trying to sweep him back into the rocks. The sound of the water crashing against the boulders was nearly deafening, and Jim dialed back his hearing. He wasn't worried about needing his enhanced sense of hearing to locate Sandburg now; he had no intentions of allowing the younger man to be pulled from his sight.
He struck out toward Blair with strong, steady strokes, resolutely ignoring the pain each movement triggered. Reaching out, he snagged the soft fabric of Sandburg's flannel shirt and dragged his guide toward him.
At first, Sandburg fought against him, kicking and pulling with a strength Jim was surprised he still possessed. Long fingers of pain radiated out from his injured shoulder, and Jim fought to stay conscious, forcing back the black swirls with the sheer force of his will.
"Chief! It's Jim!" The sentinel spat out a mouthful of briny water as he struggled to keep his grip on Sandburg. "Stop fighting me!"
Wide, terrified blue eyes focused at last on Ellison's face. "Jim!" Sandburg screamed out his partner's name, then gulped in a mouthful of salt water as his head sank beneath a powerful wave. He gurgled frantically, tossing his head back as his arms and legs flailed wildly.
Jim had to calm his frantic partner if he hoped to save either of their lives. Taking a deep breath and kicking with all his might, Jim reached out with both arms at once, pulling Blair toward him through the stormy water.
Anchoring his friend tightly against his side with his injured arm, Jim resumed treading water with the other, his legs moving constantly to keep them afloat. Glancing toward the shore, he could see that they were being pushed ever closer to the deadly boulders. As dangerous as the sea was at that moment, the thought of being crushed against the rocks was no more appealing.
"Chief! Listen to me!" Jim struggled to keep Blair close to him, while at the same time, he worked to keep them from drifting even closer to the rocks. The throbbing in his head was nearly too much to bear, creating dark, swirling circles before his eyes.
"I'm here, buddy. I'm here now. I've got you, but you have to stop fighting me." Taking in the panic still all too evident in Sandburg's wild eyes, Jim tried a last, desperate ploy. "Blair! I'm hurt. I can still help you, but not if you're going to fight me. If you don't calm down, we're both gonna die out here!"
Somehow those words managed to penetrate Sandburg's terror. *Jim's scared. Jim's hurt. He thinks he could die. Oh, God, I don't want to be the one to get him killed!*
Almost instantly, Sandburg stopped struggling and rested heavily against Jim.
Relieved, Ellison managed a tight smile in spite of his pain. "That's better, Chief. Keep your legs moving - kicking - to help keep us up. Just let me worry about the rest, okay?"
The younger man nodded wearily. He shivered uncontrollably. "C-cold..."
Jim pivoted them so they were facing toward the waves, cautiously working the younger man around in his arms so Blair was facing him. Somehow, it helped him to see what was coming, but he had the feeling that it would be better if Blair could see his face rather than the oncoming waves. He felt the almost constant shivers shaking his partner's body. "Yeah, buddy, I know. It is cold," Jim sympathized.
A wave lifted them up, then dropped them mercilessly back into the frigid water. Jim spat out the salty water driven into his mouth. "Help's on the way. You just hang on to me, you got that?"
He felt Blair's arms tighten around him as the young man gazed at him with absolute trust shining past the lingering fear in his blue eyes, even as his teeth chattered from the cold. "Yeah, man... got that. I... I won't... won't let go... I promise." The trust turned to concern. "W-what's... wrong... with you? You're... hurt?"
Jim forced a smile. "Nothing a few warm blankets and a hot bowl of soup wouldn't fix, buddy. Just my shoulder. I must have pulled something when I dove in the water." He didn't mention the pounding in his head or the fact that his entire arm and shoulder hurt like hell.
Glancing back up toward the shore, Jim could see the crowd gathering there. Someone was yelling at him, so he adjusted his hearing to listen. It was the cafe owner, Mr. Jackson.
"The rescue unit is on the way! They'll be here in ten minutes!"
It might as well be a lifetime.
The rain had begun. It started as a gentle shower, but quickly turned into a driving downpour. Soon it became difficult to see more than a few feet away, and the hard wind drove the drops into their faces, transforming them into stinging needles.
Sandburg's lips were already tinged with blue, and his entire body trembled violently. Jim sought to draw him closer, to warm the quickly cooling body with his own heat, but the relentless pounding of the waves made it impossible. Instead, he settled for murmuring words of encouragement as he battled to keep them afloat against the ever strengthening waves. It wasn't much, certainly wasn't enough, but for the moment, his words were all he could give. His words and his remaining reserves of strength.
Jim could only pray that he wouldn't give out of either before help arrived.
Sandburg was muttering something, but the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind rendered his voice inaudible. Jim cautiously turned his hearing up a couple of notches, and his heart nearly broke when he was able to hear his friend's words at last.
"No... Alex... please, no... don't want to drown... don't want to die... not here... not yet, please... I'm not ready... Jim?... help me... "
Sandburg was reliving the horrifying day Alex Barnes had nearly drowned him in the fountain waters at Rainier. Even as Jim cringed inwardly, he wasn't surprised. Their situation combined with Blair's mental confusion almost certainly would bring back those memories. The violent sounds of nature forced Jim to dial back his sense of hearing once again, but he was relieved to do so. He didn't think he could bear hearing Blair's pain any longer.
*I may not have been there to protect you from Alex, Chief, but I'm here now, and I'll be damned if I'm going to lose you again.* Jim felt a surge of strength kick in, and he held Sandburg tighter as he turned his eyes skyward toward the boiling, black clouds. *Give it your best shot, you bastard, he inwardly cursed the storm. You can't have him! Do you hear me? I won't let you take him.*
Aloud, his words were gentle. "Chief... it's okay, buddy... I'm here... You're not alone, Blair... Hang in there... The rescue unit's coming, I promise... We're going to make it, do you hear me?... We're going to make it... Don't you quit on me, damn it... Don't you dare quit on me now... "
Jim could feel the body clasped in his injured arm growing weaker, the legs beside his under the bitterly cold water kicking more and more slowly with each passing minute. Blair's eyes drifted shut as his head lolled back.
Hypothermia was definitely setting in, slowly leaching the warmth and life from Sandburg's body. Mentally, Jim went over the dangerous signs his friend already exhibited - uncontrollable shivering, mental confusion, slurred speech. Jim knew even though he wasn't feeling the cold badly as Sandburg was, thanks to his sentinel senses and built in thermostat controls, he faced the same dangers from the cold as Blair did. He might not be as aware of the discomfort, but his own body was cooling dangerously just the same.
The cold might be their enemy, but Jim Ellison swore it wouldn't claim their lives without a fight. "Sandburg!" Jim shouted angrily. Spitting out a mouthful of water, he called out again, as loudly as he could, "Sandburg!"
When there was no reply, Jim realized his friend had drifted to the edge of consciousness. If Blair fell asleep now, he might never awaken. Using more of his own quickly waning strength to try to stir his friend back to wakefulness, Jim shook Blair viciously with his good arm, switching the injured limb to the chore of treading water. Needles of pain protested the motions, but Jim steadfastly ignored them. There was too much at stake to succumb to the pain. "Wake up, damn it! Sandburg! Do you hear me? Wake up!"
Confused blue eyes flickered open at last. "J-jim? Y... you here, man?"
Relieved that at least for the moment, Blair was no longer in the grips of his delusions, Ellison managed a small smile. "Yeah, Chief. Right here." Pulling Blair as close as he could, Jim ordered in his best military voice, "Listen to me, Sandburg. You've gotta stay awake here, you understand me? You cannot go to sleep. Not yet. You got that, kiddo? I need you to stay awake. Promise me."
The younger man stared at Jim's intense eyes. Seeing the concern, fear, and determination brimming in Jim's gaze, Blair nodded slowly. "... 'wake... Yeah, I promise. Stay 'wake... " Even as he spoke, his eyelids struggled to stay open.
Jim's heart swelled at his friend's courage, even as his spirits dropped at the sound of his slurred speech. One of the signs of impending hypothermia. However, if there was one thing Blair Sandburg was not, it was a quitter. He had certainly proven that often enough.
*You make me proud, Chief.* Letting his head drop for an instant, he kissed Blair's cold, salty forehead.
Then, he turned his concentration back to battling the sea.
With the sun's departure behind the heavy, black clouds, the temperature had dropped quickly, adding to their discomfort in the cold ocean. Jim was vaguely aware of the encouraging shouts from the onlookers standing on the shore. How much time had passed since the news that the rescue unit was on the way? Two minutes? Three? Five?
Jim's legs and arms had lost all feeling. Considering the pain he had been in from the injured shoulder, that was a blessing, he thought wryly. His headache, on the other hand, showed no sign of abating. Jim was aware of his mind losing its sharpness, becoming cloudy like the darkening sky above. Reaching deep within himself, calling on his years of training and discipline, he fought to remain alert. He had to continue treading water, had to keep fighting the waves, had to keep Blair close. If not, if he failed, they were both lost.
Just as in all areas of Jim Ellison's life, failure simply was not an option.
*An Ellison never quits, son. It doesn't matter what the world throws at you, never show a hint of weakness. If you do, the bastards will eat you alive. Only the strong survive in this world, Jimmy. The weak are destroyed without mercy. That's the way it should be. Never give in; never give up. Remember that you are an Ellison. Don't quit. Ever. You hold on until you're the last man left standing. You hold on.*
"I remember, Dad," Jim murmured, talking to himself to stay focused. "You s.o.b., you may not have given me much, but at least you taught me not to quit." He spat out another mouthful of salt water, feeling his tongue already swelling in his mouth. "I'll be damned if this water's gonna take me out, and I sure as hell won't let it take Blair. I won't quit. I'll hold on. I promise, Dad."
Yet, for all Jim's grim determination, deep inside, he wondered if he would be able to keep his oath. His marine opponents had grown stronger, even as the sentinel grew weaker. Waves which once reached heights of a few feet were now eight to ten feet tall. Each swell took the sentinel and his guide high upon its crest, then fell angrily over them, its power slamming them into the concrete hard surface of the water below. With each wave, Jim fought to hang on to Sandburg. He could feel the younger man weakening by the second. How long had Blair been in the water before he got there? How much of a head start did the deadly hypothermia have in him?
Suddenly, Jim looked toward the sky, only to find himself staring up at the tallest wave he had ever seen. The towering wall of water completely blocked out the clouds above, casting its shadow over them for an instant which seemed frozen in time before it crashed down over their bodies.
Jim only had the chance to wrap the arm he'd been using to tread water around Sandburg and pull him with both arms as close to his own body as he possibly could. "Hang on to me, Chief!" Jim shouted above the roar of the ocean. "Hang on and don't let go!"
He saw Sandburg's terrified eyes lock onto the gigantic wave as it crested over them, then flicker back to him in the final instant before the wave broke. His friend didn't try to speak, but the sentinel felt his arms tighten around him with as much strength as the exhausted young man could muster.
Then, all hell broke loose.
The wave was a monster, an avalanche of water, and it attacked the helpless sentinel and guide with all its power. Sandburg was ripped from Jim's grasp, torn out of his arms as easily as a doll from a child. The force jerked Jim's injured arm backward, and a sharp pain shot through his shoulder, almost forcing him to scream and gulp in a deadly mouthful of sea water.
In the space of an instant, Jim was driven deep beneath the ocean's surface, rolling and tossing and turning in the churning water. He fought to keep from gasping for oxygen, even as he struggled to determine which direction led to the life-giving air above. Catching a glimpse of light, he surged upward, ignoring the pain in his arm and scanning the water around him for Blair.
Jim broke the surface and gratefully drew a deep, ragged breath. "Sandburg!" He screamed as loudly as he could, his voice hoarse from swallowing salt water and trying to shout above the sound of the waves. Desperately, Jim searched the water for his friend. "Sandburg!"
Only the rolling, gray water and driving rain greeted him.
The sentinel turned his face skyward, his features contorted with rage. "No!" he screamed in denial. "No, damn it! No!"
Gasping in a deep breath, Jim dove. He reached out, grasping blindly for his friend. Blair had to be there. He couldn't be gone, couldn't be lost to Jim forever. James Ellison simply would not allow that, could not allow it.
Jim surfaced once more, empty handed. Taking only time enough to draw in another deep breath, he dove once more.
Beneath the churning surface, the sea was strangely quiet. Jim could hear the crashing of the waves on the rocks, now seemingly so very far away, their roar a haunting echo through the distortion of the water. In his ears, his own heart pounded furiously. Jim kicked even deeper, not caring that he might not reach the surface again before he gave out of air, not caring that every stroke drove nails of pain through his shoulder. If he didn't find Sandburg, it wouldn't matter.
Nothing would matter any more.
Then, like a vision through fog, he appeared. Blair was about eight feet below Jim, his mouth closed, his arms and legs floating freely with the churning motion of the water. His blue eyes were open and staring vacantly ahead, his face surrounded by a grotesque halo of long, floating hair.
Driving back his terror, Jim refocused his fear to kick twice with all his remaining strength, torpedoing down close enough to Sandburg to latch on to his friend's neck, wrap his arms around him, then shoot upward as fast as his legs would propel them.
He broke the surface with a great gasp, seeking to fill his oxygen starved lungs with much needed air. Immediately, Jim turned his attention to his partner. Blair wasn't breathing, his lips already tinged a frightening blue.
Like at the fountain...
The unbidden memories slammed into Jim's mind like a hammer. *NO! It can't happen again! Sandburg!!*
Another wave drove them under, and again, the exhausted sentinel battled his way back to the surface. Even as he swam, his thoughts raced desperately. How could he hope to resuscitate Blair if he couldn't even keep them above water? Desperately, the reality of his predicament took hold. Blair was dying, and Jim was helpless to stop it. His heart tightened with the realization that he had very little time left to get oxygen into his friend's lungs before the young anthropologist would suffer brain damage.
"Sandb... !" Jim screamed as water flooded into his mouth, choking off his cry. A thunderous breaker slammed over them, its bubbles churning in a furious swarm.
Jim felt his body weakening with every second that passed as he struggled back toward the dim light of the surface. The cold water and the battle for survival were taking their toll. Jim realized with sickening clarity that his own body was betraying him, and it wouldn't be long before a wave took them under forever. He had failed Sandburg again. For the last time, he had let his guide down. Seconds before he broke the surface, Jim felt a strange sense of peace settle over him. It would be so easy just to let go, to quit fighting and allow the sea to claim them. With the cocoon of its liquid darkness would come peace... rest... freedom from guilt.********************
Then, he broke the surface and breathed again at last. With the cool, life-giving oxygen came renewed strength. Jim looked around desperately for some way to get Sandburg out of the water, to give him mouth to mouth, but there was nothing to see but the thunderous waves. The rain was beating down in thick, driving sheets, obscuring everything more a few feet away. The shoreline was no longer visible at all, and Jim had no idea how far they were out to sea. He quickly laid two fingers against Blair's neck, probing frantically for a pulse. Even his touch sensitive fingers failed to find any sign of life.
"No, Chief, no!" Jim panted. "You can't do this to me, do you hear? Breathe, damn you! Breathe!" He managed to tilt the younger man's head back slightly and puff a few quick breaths past the cold lips as he kicked viciously to keep them afloat. "C'mon, Chief! C'mon!"
Another wave, and they were submerged once more, and again, Jim fought his way back to the surface, Blair clasped limply at his side. *This is hopeless*, Jim thought bitterly, even as he struggled upward. Blair was already dead, and at this rate, he wouldn't be far behind.
*You could let him go*, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. *Let him go, and you'll survive. Without him, you can make it. Just release him, and it will all be over. He won't suffer. He's already dead anyway.*
"No! I won't let him go!" Jim screamed in defiance as he shot through the surface into the storm. He drove the sound of the treacherous voice from his mind. Shaking his head to clear the rain and the sea spray and the tears from his eyes, Jim stared down at Blair's lifeless face. *I won't let you go, Chief. I promise I'll hold on. I'll never let you go.*
The sea raged violently around them. The passage of time no longer carried any meaning for Ellison. The only reality was the interminable pounding of the waves and the cold, motionless body clasped tightly against him.
Unexpectedly, a new sound intruded into the thunder of his maritime world. For a moment, he thought he was imagining the sound. It was only the roar of the sea or the thundering of his own desperate heart. Then, he felt the breeze from the rotors and heard the whine of the engines.
The rescue helicopter had arrived.
Jim stared up at the blessed sight of the white and red apparition hovering noisily above them, and his eyes blazed with hope. He shouted above the roar of the wind and the engine, "Hold on, Chief! Just a little longer now. You hold on, damn it!"
A diver in a black wet suit plunged down from the Coast Guard helicopter, landing near Jim and Blair, covering the distance between them in a few strong, sure strokes.
"You guys okay?" The young diver shouted as loudly as he could above the wind and the pounding waves.
Ellison shook his head toward his partner. "He's not breathing! Get him up there now!" Jim saw the rescue basket being lowered from the helicopter behind them, and his heart surged with renewed hope. If only he could get Blair aboard that chopper...
Taking in Blair's pale skin and blue lips, the diver nodded. "Give him to me!"
They had come too far for Jim to even consider such a suggestion. Ellison shook his head. He wouldn't surrender his friend now, not even to the courageous, highly trained rescue diver sent into the stormy sea to save them. "No! I was in Covert Ops - Special Forces! I'll put him in!" Even as he cried out his answer, Jim was already stroking toward the basket, his injured arm wrapped firmly around Sandburg's neck, the remaining pain all but forgotten.
Realizing that he was being left behind, the diver followed, then assisted Jim in hoisting the deathly still body of Blair Sandburg into the rescue basket. Once their burden was safely inside, Jim reached out to touch his cold cheek. "Don't quit fighting, Sandburg! Don't you dare leave me!"
Giving a thumbs up to the crew waiting above in the chopper, the Coast Guard diver pulled Jim away from the basket. "Let him go," he shouted above the din. "They'll take care of him!"
Now, Jim realized that it was time to let go. Time to surrender Blair to the hands of others. He had done all he could. Nodding, Jim swam backward, staring up at the swaying basket as it inched toward the helicopter. Now that his friend was in sight of rescue, he felt the exhaustion overtaking him and the cold seeping into his consciousness. His head swayed slightly, then the diver's strong arm wrapped around him.
"Hang in there, buddy," the diver reassured him. "We'll have you up there, and you'll be warm and dry in no time."
It was no longer important that he wait. Blair's fate was out of his Blessed Protector's hands, and Jim was so very weary of fighting. He gave up the struggle at last and allowed the void to sweep him away.
It was only after the sentinel lost consciousness that the young Coast Guard diver saw the blood swirling in the water at the back of Jim's head.********************
He was exhausted, a thousand miles beyond tired, surrounded by darkness and the gently swirling sea. The sentinel rested and weighed the possibilities in his mind. He could stay here in this peaceful, tempting darkness where nothing was required of him.
Stay here and rest and sleep. No awareness. No pain. No heartbreaking realization that he had failed and lost his best friend forever.
Or he could choose the light again, opt to battle his way, kicking and fighting, to the surface where the air awaited him.
And awareness. And the unimaginable pain that would rise from the void in his soul where Blair had once dwelled.
One simple answer would determine the solution to his dilemma. Did Sandburg live? If not, the decision would be easy. He would never emerge from the peaceful promise of the darkness. How tempting to stay and sleep. Forever.
The problem was, he couldn't be sure that Blair was dead. If he lived, then Sandburg might need him. Would need him.
There was no decision to make, in the final analysis. The sentinel began his struggle, and a moment - or a lifetime - later, he opened his eyes to the light.********************
"Doctor! I think he's waking up!"
Doctor Jack Newell turned back toward his patient from the chart he had been updating. Setting it down on the bedside table, he leaned over the battered figure of the man resting in the bed. James Ellison had been brought in by Coast Guard helicopter late the previous afternoon. Suffering from severe hypothermia and other injuries, the patient had been unconscious ever since. They had managed to bring his body temperature back to normal, and his vital signs remained strong, however, he had yet to show any signs of awakening. Now, that had changed.
The lids shuttering the blue eyes blinked open cautiously, darting around the small room as he took in his surroundings. The swollen, bruised lips moved soundlessly as a question died unspoken within him.
The nurse brought a soothing chip of ice and placed it between his lips. Gratefully, he sucked on it until his parched throat and swollen tongue eased a bit. Then he tried again to speak.
"Sandburg... ?" His voice was little more than a croak, but the meaning was clear.
The doctor checked the machine beside the bed which was recording Jim's vital signs, then he met his patient's eye. "Your friend? The one who was with you in the water?"
Jim nodded, suddenly discovering that his voice would no longer cooperate, whether from the gallons of salt water he had swallowed or from the fear suddenly gripping his throat, he wasn't sure. He had never realized before that an eternity could be contained in the space of mere seconds.
Dr. Newell's eyes were too serious to provide much reassurance. "I'm afraid his condition at the moment is... guarded. Apparently, Mr. Sandburg was in the water longer than you were. His hypothermia was far more advanced. The emergency crew put you both on Thermostats in the copter to raise your body temperatures, and that worked very well. Unfortunately, Mr. Sandburg went without oxygen for an unknown period of time. I'm afraid we just don't know what kind of damage that may have done."
Brain damage. The doctor was talking about brain damage.
Jim felt the denial building inside him, a mighty surge of emotions threatening to erupt at any moment. No! It couldn't be true! Not Blair, not brilliant, talented, erudite Blair Sandburg.
*No, damn it! If Sandburg has to suffer some kind of long-term injury from this horror, please, God, please don't let it be to his mind. *
This must be a dream, a nightmare from which he could not awaken. The alternative was simply too horrifying to consider. He couldn't just take some stranger's word for something this important. Jim had to see his partner for himself, touch him, listen to his heart, and try to reach his soul. Only then, could he be certain. He moved to sit up, but an insistent, sharp pain in his shoulder combined with a sudden, shooting pain in his temples drove him immediately back to the relative comfort of the small hospital bed. With a heavy sigh filled with pain and frustration, Jim collapsed helplessly against the mattress, closing his eyes tightly against the wetness collecting behind his lids.
Seeing the distress his words had caused his patient, Dr. Newell hastened to reassure Jim, placing gentle hands on the sentinel's shoulders. "We don't know anything for sure, Detective Ellison. The water was very cold, and that will work to Mr. Sandburg's advantage. People who drown in extremely cold water have a reduced chance of suffering brain damage. We don't know for sure how long he was without oxygen. If it wasn't long, then there may be no damage at all We'll just have to wait and see."
The doctor smiled at his patient. "Would you like to find out about your own injuries, Detective?" At Jim's distracted nod, he continued, "You suffered a dislocated shoulder and a concussion. It took about a mile of sutures to close the wound to your scalp in the back of your head. I'm sure that's going to throb for a few days. You've sustained cuts and bruises over most of your body, no doubt due to the pounding you took against those rocks."
Curiosity shone in the doctor's eyes. "Detective, if you don't mind my asking... I heard that you dove purposefully into that water, knowing full well that the rocks were there and the waves could crush you against them. Pardon my language, but what the hell were you thinking? Why didn't you wait for a rescue team to arrive?"
Jim's eyes blinked open. "My partner was drowning in that water." He stared steadily at the other man, waiting for some argument or request for more explanation.
Dr. Newell considered his response. Jim Ellison was an honorable man, a soldier, a police officer. Someone he obviously cared for deeply was drowning in that stormy, dangerous sea. Jim had never considered any other option, because, in his heart, no other option existed. He would save Blair, or lose his own life in the attempt.
The doctor had read of Jim's record in the Rangers and of his reputation on the force in the materials Simon had faxed when he was notified that his best team had landed once more in the hospital. It was quite an impressive collection of deeds. As Dr. Newell gazed into the steady, light blue eyes, he looked beyond the curtain of pain to read the certainty and self confidence there, the courage, and the absolute devotion to his partner, and he understood. This was a man who would give his life to save a total stranger out of his deep sense of duty. Was it surprising that he would be willing to do the same for a friend out of love?
"I understand," Dr. Newell reassured his patient. "All in all, you came through a harrowing experience rather well. I'd like to keep you over night for observation, but you should be fine." He glanced at his watch. "I have more rounds to make. I'll look in on you later tonight. For now, rest and try not to worry."
Dr. Newell nodded at the nurse then departed. She efficiently injected the contents of a syringe into Jim's IV, then she moved to check his temperature and pulse. Only a few moments later, the room seemed to be behaving strangely, twisting and writhing each time he blinked. Jim shut his eyes tightly for a few seconds, then opened them slowly, only to see the nurse's face, blurred and unfocused, weaving before him.
"D... dizzy... " he managed to croak through his raw throat.
"You've been given something more for your pain through your IV," a soft voice floated through the fog. "The pain in your shoulder and head should ease in a few minutes, and you should be able to sleep, Detective. Just close your eyes and rest."
*Can't rest... not yet... Sandburg... need to find him... Chief?... Where are you?* Every inborn, protective sentinel instinct within Jim demanded that he get out of bed, rip out the IV tubes, storm out of the room and locate his partner.
The spirit was willing, but the body was far too weak.
*Sand... burg... gotta... get... to... Blair... *
Jim fought to keep his eyes open, but the pull of sleep overpowered him. As he sank down heavily into the drug induced void, he whispered in a voice far too soft for the nurse to understand his words, "Hold on... Chief... I'll find... you... promise... just... hold on... "********************
He had no clue how much time had passed. It was dark outside, that much he could see through the slats of the blinds covering the windows of the small hospital room. There had been sunlight shining through the last time he had awakened. Hadn't there?
Jim Ellison moaned softly as he turned his head to study his surroundings. At least his vision had cleared up. The blurry fog was gone, and if he moved slowly enough, he could actually look around without too much pain. That must be a good sign.
His vision was better, but his memory seemed to have a few holes in it. Where the hell was he?
He wasn't in Cascade's hospital. If there was one place on earth Jim Ellison knew all too well, it was Cascade General. This definitely was not it.
His left arm and shoulder were immobilized, nearly useless to him now.
Squinting his eyes shut tightly, Jim rubbed his temples with the hand attached to the IV and tried to remember. Everything came rushing back at once.
*Cold water... pounding surf... waves towering above... crashing down like thunder... Blair's eyes... frightened... pleading... a cold, limp body cradled against his own as the sea mercilessly pounded them over and over and over... *
Jim's eyes shot open, as he yanked out the IV in his right hand by bringing it close to his immobilized left arm, determined to ignore the resulting pain which shot through his arm and shoulder as a result. Shoving back the IV pole, he sat bolt upright in his bed, then hesitated as the room twirled around him. Jim shook his head to clear it, impatient with his own weakness. He couldn't afford to wait for his body to adjust. He had to locate his partner.********************
*"Unfortunately, Mr. Sandburg went without oxygen for an unknown period of time. I'm afraid we just don't know what kind of damage that may have done... "*
The doctor' s words unrelentingly tortured Jim's memory.
*Oh, God, Chief... *
Jim took uncertain, halting steps toward the door, stumbling once as his weak legs betrayed him. His entire body ached, every muscle sore from his battle with the sea. Turning the knob, then opening the door quietly, he stepped out into the empty corridor.
Compared to Cascade General, the hospital in the small Maine town was not large. It only took Jim a moment to locate the room with the name Blair Sandburg posted outside a few doors down from his own. Checking both ways up and down the hall, he slipped inside unnoticed.
The room was darkened, illuminated by the eerie, green glow from the machines hooked up to his best friend. The only sounds were the constant beeping of the heart monitor and the reassuring rhythms of Blair's heartbeat and breathing. At least, he was alive. At that moment, Jim was thankful to have received that single, most important, blessing.
Jim stood beside the small bed and stared down at the still body resting there. Everything swirled around him for a moment, and Jim fumbled for the raised bedrail to steady himself. Whatever kind of painkiller they'd pumped into him was effective; of that, there could be no doubt. The dizziness passed slowly, and Jim opened his eyes again.
Even in the darkness of the room, Jim could tell that Blair was pale. Far too pale for his sentinel's liking. Dark lashes lay closed, and his tangled hair contrasted vividly with his colorless face.
Jim reached out to brush back a stray curl. "Hey, Chief," he whispered. "This was a close one, wasn't it? Too damn close." His hand came to rest against Blair's neck, and Jim let his sensitive fingertips take in the blessed pulse beating steadily beneath the cool skin. "You still feel a little cold, buddy. Let me see if I can find another blanket for you."
Moving slowly, his exhausted muscles all protesting against the movement, Jim located a spare blanket in the tiny closet across from the bathroom. Gently, he spread it over his partner, carefully tucking in the edges to maximize the warmth. The trained medic in him took over as he rearranged Blair's IV lines and the wires connecting him to the monitors. When he'd finished, he pulled up the single chair in the small room and settled down to wait.
To wait. How many hours had he spent waiting in hospitals to find out if his partner was going to be okay? Far too many, Jim thought angrily. Why did it always seem to be Sandburg who ended up taking the brunt of the physical trauma directed against them? Reaching out, Jim took his friend's hand in his own, curling his fingers around it protectively. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered. "Who would have believed that a rogue wave would hit those rocks on the one day we happened to be there?" Despite his worry, Jim laughed softly, a faintly bitter sound which seemed far too loud in the quiet room. Maybe it shouldn't be that hard to believe after all. "Simon swears you're a trouble magnet, Sandburg, but it's not just you, is it? God knows, I've had my own share of trouble in the past. Enough to last a lifetime."
Jim leaned forward, searching the still face for any sign of awakening. "Can you hear me, Chief?" With one hesitant finger, he traced the outline of his friend's cheekbones, then he followed the soft hollows beneath the closed eyes. "You're gonna be okay, aren't you, Sandburg? It'll take more than some waves and wind to knock you out of the game."
The sentinel took a deep breath. "I still need you. More than I like to admit, even to myself. Oh, God, I hope you know that. I know I told you that I wanted to learn to control these senses myself, and you've done a great job helping me do that. That all seems so long ago now, doesn't it? I mean... " Jim broke off suddenly, his thoughts suddenly jumbled and confused. He rubbed his hands hard against his face. Why was he so damned tired?
Jim's voice cracked with emotion as he continued softly. "Hell, I don't know what I mean, Chief. I just know that once I wanted nothing more than to learn to be independent again, to be alone and self-sufficient like I was before these senses took over my life. Now... " Jim's heart tightened, like an over-stretched rubber band just before it reaches its breaking point. "Now, that's the last thing I want. To be alone again. Stay with me, Blair. Please."
Nothing. No reaction at all from the motionless body on the narrow mattress. The room began to twist around again, and a wave of dizziness swept over him. Jim didn't look up as the light from the hallway penetrated the dark room. He never heard the nurse's soft voice or felt her gentle hands support him as he plummeted forward, unconscious and unfeeling.********************
He was not alone.
In the same way one senses when there are eyes watching discreetly from across the room, the sentinel sensed the presence of another at his side. For several minutes, he merely allowed the thought to penetrate his awareness. He was not yet capable of doing more.
As the dark, swirling mists retreated, he found himself listening for a clue to the identity of the person. There was something familiar, yet he could not quite remember. The scent, the sound, the very presence of the other spoke of comfort and safety and peace.
The sentinel's eyes flew open, and when he had managed to focus, he found himself staring right into the laughing blue eyes of Blair Sandburg.
"About time you woke up," the younger man scolded, the brilliant twinkle in his eyes softening his words. "I convinced the nurse to give me just five more minutes, that I was sure you were waking up, but I was beginning to think you were going to prove me wrong. What took you so long, man?"
Jim Ellison reached out and grasped the outstretched hand of his partner. "Sorry, Chief," his whispered softly, his throat dry and scratchy. "You know me... show up at the last second..."
"... and save the day," Blair finished for him, smiling affectionately.
Jim shifted in his bed, finding the controls that would raise his head. He waited until he could see his partner eye to eye, then asked, "When did you wake up?"
Blair handed him a cup of ice, and Jim gratefully slipped a few pieces into his mouth with his right hand. His left arm and shoulder were still immobilized, but his mind felt clearer, more focused.
Settling on the edge of the bed, Sandburg answered, "Not too long after you hit the floor, and I do mean that literally, big guy. Of course, that was two days ago. Man, when you sleep, you really sleep!" He squeezed Jim's good shoulder in concern. "Speaking of which, how are you feeling?"
"A little confused, truthfully," Ellison responded. "The last time I saw you, you were in a coma and the doctors weren't sure if you'd..." As the images flashed through his mind, Jim found himself unable to finish his thoughts.
Gently, Blair's hand moved to cup his face, then slipped back to his shoulder once more. "Brain damage," he whispered. "I know. Dr. Newell told me everything when I came out of it."
Still unable to believe the sight of Blair, whole and healthy, sitting beside him, Jim carefully played out his senses, taking in every steady beat of his heart, every breath he took. His body temperature seemed a little elevated, and his lungs sounded like they contained some fluid. Jim cocked his head, listening carefully. The heartbeat was steady and strong. "You're really all right? No effects from it all? Nothing?"
Blair laughed, and the music warmed Jim's soul. "Nothing major. I promise. Hell drowning's getting to be routine for me." At the flash of pain in Jim's eyes, Blair felt an immediate twinge of guilt. "Sorry. Bad joke. I'm a bit stiff and sore, I admit. Being tossed around like a toy boat on the waves will do that to you, I guess. There's some lingering congestion in my lungs, and I've got some broken ribs. Kinda want to sleep around the clock. Other than that, I'm fine." Looking with concern at Jim's bandaged shoulder, he added, "That's more than I can say for you, isn't it?"
Jim glanced at his arm. "This? I'd almost forgotten. Nothing some rest won't cure." He touched the bandage covering the back of his head. "A few stitches in my head, but luckily... "
Blair interrupted, smiling broadly. "It's hard enough to take it, right?"
Jim shook his head in affectionate aggravation. "Sandburg, I swear..."
"That's it!" the nurse exclaimed, walking in on their laughter. "Mr. Sandburg! Back to your room. Now!"
Shooting Jim a helpless look, Blair cautiously moved from his perch on Jim's bed back to his wheelchair. Immediately, the nurse took the handles and maneuvered him to the door.
"Hey, Jim?" he whispered as the door closed behind them, knowing the sentinel was tracking his every movement. "Thanks... "********************
Home had never been so welcoming.
As Jim surveyed the loft from his bedroom, he smiled softly in pleasure. No matter where his life might take him, this place would always call him back.
Blair was curled on the couch, napping. They'd been home only five days, and both men remained drained from their ordeal. Dr. Newell had warned that getting their strength back would take time. Jim's arm was still immobilized, making everyday chores annoyingly difficult.
Yet, all things considered, he knew he shouldn't complain. They were alive, despite the odds, and now, they had returned home once more to the home they both loved.
Monitoring Blair's breathing, the sentinel determined that he remained deeply asleep. Jim slipped a large, rectangular package from beneath his bed, then crept silently downstairs.********************
When Blair awakened, the loft was wrapped in afternoon sunlight. Beaming in brightly from the wide windows, the sun had coaxed the living room to a cozy warmth. Blair smiled sleepily and stretched broadly.
*Like a cat napping in the sun*, Jim thought with a smile as he watched from the chair where he'd been reading. "You waking up, Junior?"
Sandburg turned over slowly, still cautious about jarring his broken ribs. "Yeah, I guess. How long did I sleep?"
Shrugging, Jim answered, "About three hours, I'd guess. You feel okay?" Automatically, he checked Blair's lungs for an increase in fluids. Pneumonia was always a concern after taking in so much water.
"Fine." Blair pulled himself to a sitting position, tucking the afghan around himself. "You okay?"
Ellison nodded, then rose from his chair. "I'm going to take out that hamburger meat to defrost. You feel like grilling out?"
Sandburg swung his legs around, but let out a tiny yelp when the movement jarred his ribs. "Ouch!"
Immediately, Jim was at his side. "Easy, Chief. Take it slow, okay?" Taking his friend by the arm with his one useful hand, Jim supported him as Blair got slowly to his feet.
"Grilling sounds good, Jim. Why don't we... "
Blair fell silent as his attention was attracted by something on the far wall. Slowly, he made his way over. Jim stood behind him, his hand resting lightly on Blair's shoulder.
The sun from the window illuminated the lighthouse in the painting with a brilliant glow. The waves danced, and the light reflected on the sea like a mirror.
"It's Violet's painting," Blair said softly. "How... ?"
"She came by the hospital, Chief. You were asleep, and she didn't want me to wake you. Violet told me about your conversation, and how impressed she was with your kindness, your interest in an old woman and her hobby." Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder gently. "I asked if she'd consider selling the painting she'd been working on when you met her, and... Well, here it is." His eyes grew concerned and he looked down at Blair. "That is, if you want it here. I mean, if it bothers you to see it, where it happened and all... I just thought... "
Blair turned and gazed up at him. "What, Jim?"
Ellison took a deep breath and looked back at the painting. "I guess I thought that it might remind us... I don't know... of what we almost lost that day and how it can all be taken away so fast. It reminded me of how beautiful I thought it was a long time ago and of the good time we had before... " He shook his head at the memory and at the realization of how quickly it could all be lost. In the blink of an eye. "But, if it makes you uncomfortable..."
Blair felt a tightening in his throat. He understood what Jim was trying to say, as clearly as if the thoughts had been his own. "It doesn't bother me, Jim. I love it. Thank you."
Nodding, Jim's eyes moved back to Sandburg. He seemed to struggle for a moment, then his words rushed out. "Do you ever regret hooking up with me, Chief? I mean, we can't even take a simple vacation without ending up in the fires of hell. Or, I guess it was more like the waters this time." He laughed a little, a choking, bitter sound. "Why do you stay?"
Blair was taken by surprise for a moment. Where had this come from? Jim Ellison was one of the most unpredictable people he'd ever met. The waters of the man's emotions ran deep beneath his undisturbed surface.
"Why do I stay?" Blair's dark blue eyes gazed calmly upward. "Because of something a wise woman told me on the rocky shore beside a lighthouse." He reached up and laid his hands on either side of Ellison's face and quoted, "'A person's fortunate to find a place that calls to them; a place that summons them back, again and again.' " Blair stared hard into Jim's eyes. "Or a person. You're that place for me, Jim. No matter how far away I am, no matter what happens, you'll always call me home." He shrugged. "It's still about friendship, my brother, and so much more."
No words were possible, and none were required. Drawing Blair to him, Jim tightened his arms around his friend and gazed around his home. They'd held on through the storm and through all that had gone before. Now, he held on to the security and friendship offered by the unique man who had chosen to make Jim's life his own. Held on to the warmth and acceptance, the understanding and the unconditional love, the joy that Blair's friendship brought him. Around him, the loft glowed warm in the afternoon sun. His job awaited him when his healing was done. He felt the tension leave his body as his soul soared. Taking a deep breath, Jim rested his cheek against Blair's soft hair and closed his eyes.
*I'll hold on, Dad. Maybe not to the things you would have wanted, but to what I value, what I love. Thank you for teaching me that. I'll hold on. I promise.*
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