Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Breakdown

by Arianna

Inspired by a photo-montage by Hill
[Sorry, it's in the SA files, so I can't post the link)

Note: This could also be an answer to Crosswork's themefic to come up with a story if something had happened differently and changed the course of events in the series…

********************

Jim flinched backwards as the Iceman's bullets ripped up from below. He was conscious that Sandburg had also dodged back, stumbling to the ground, his heart beating like a mad drummer's tattoo. One glance downward was enough to see that Zeller had done himself in and Ellison couldn't help the small smile of satisfaction that the taxpayers would be spared the cost of this stone-cold killer's trial.

But a strange, gurgling sound caught his attention, and the smile died on his face as he caught the sickly-sweet metallic scent as he turned and saw Blair lying on the ground, his face ashen and eyes wide with fear as he gasped for breath, his hands fumbling at his throat. Jim felt the icy grip of horror around his heart when he saw the bloody ruin of Sandburg's neck.

"Jesus!" Ellison gasped as he fell to his knees beside his partner, one hand on Blair's chest just over his heart and the other grasping his partner's hands to pull them away from the wound, as he quickly scanned the damage, trying to understand what had happened and how serious it was. There was blood everywhere, but it didn't look like either the carotid or jugular had been hit. Air keened and gurgled through the ragged hole torn across Blair's trachea, his mouth open to gasp in more air even as he felt himself drowning on his own blood.

He'd been half-turned toward Jim when Zeller had started firing and one of the bullets had grazed him. Had it been his shoulder, the wound would have stung but not have been serious. But the deep gouge in his throat was another matter.

Ellison clamped a hand over the wound, hoping to stem the flow of blood, to allow Sandburg to breathe through his mouth. But it did little good. The light in Sandburg's eyes began to fade even as he tried to focus up on Jim's face. Hoarsely, barely a whisper, he gasped, "It's over."

"Don't try to talk!" Jim ordered. "Just breathe!"

Blair gagged and choked on the blood filling his trachea, terrifying Jim. Desperately, Ellison hauled Sandburg up, hoping that would help, and was conscious of Blair's death-grip on his shirt. But awareness in Sandburg's eyes dimmed and his grip loosened, his arm dropping heavily to the gritty asphalt of the roof. Heavy lids drooped and finally closed, hiding the last, haunting shadows of hopelessness and surrender, a look that chilled Ellison to his very soul.

"Damn it, Chief," he cried out in desperation, "don't you quit on me!"

Wondering why the hell no backup was arriving, conscious that Blair needed help immediately, Jim stood and pulled Sandburg up with him to cradle his partner in his arms. Ignoring the burning agony of the wound in his leg and the tearing of already damaged muscle, he limped forward as quickly as he could. Oblivious to his own pain in the presence of this greater danger, Jim carried Blair off the roof and staggered down the cement steps. Shoving the heavy door at the bottom open with his shoulder, he shouted, "Help! I need help here! NOW!"

********************

He became aware of the sound first. The 'whoosh-thump' of the nearby machine. And then of the slim fingers tightly gripping his hand. His body felt leaden and his mind numb. In a remote way, he knew he should try to figure out where he was and what had happened, but the numbness made everything seem irrelevant. Empty. He felt empty. And tired. So very tired.

But a voice intruded, demanding some response, a voice filled with anxious concern. He'd have no peace if he didn't respond. Moaning a little, he realized then that he couldn't talk and that his throat was full, thick with something hard and intrusive. Panicking, not yet fully conscious, he struggled against it, but the hand gripped his harder and the voice increased in volume, commanding his attention.

"Don't fight it, Sweetie," Naomi called, standing to lay a hand on Blair's shoulder. "You're on a respirator. Just let it breathe for you, okay, Blair?"

Blinking, he winced against the sharp light and moaned again softly. Naomi? Respirator? Eyes glazed with confusion drifted around the room and finally found his mother's concerned green eyes.

"Shh, baby, you're going to be all right," she soothed, as she tenderly brushed errant curls back from his forehead.

Blair studied her for a long moment, trying to make sense of her words. All right? No, somehow he knew he wasn't going to be all right. Not this time. Not that he cared. Weary, he let his eyes drift closed, hungry for oblivion.

********************

Voices. Why wouldn't the voices leave him alone? Reluctant to listen, unable to shut them out completely, he only heard disjointed phrases.

"…the jerk who betrayed…"

"…don't know why the cop wants to see him…"

"…have to treat him…don't have to like it…"

Frowning against the intrusion, the ache in his heart more painful than the fiery agony of his throat, Blair again drifted away.

********************

"Blair, honey?" Naomi called again, worry thick in her voice. "It's time to wake up, Sweetie."

Sluggishly, Sandburg found himself responding, his body heeding the command though his mind had little interest. Blinking, he again found his mother hovering by the side of his bed. She smiled waveringly, trying to be brave, but her pallor and the abiding worry in her eyes belied her efforts at normalcy.

"That's it, Blair," she encouraged, with a sigh of relief to see he was finally awake and alert. "The doctor wants to see you, to explain what's happening. I'll just let the nurses know you're awake, okay?"

Blair blinked and his gaze drifted away from hers even before she'd turned to leave the room. Vaguely, he remembered being shot by Zeller and he had thought he might be dying, though the details of exactly what had happened escaped him.

He was alive, apparently.

He wasn't all that happy about it.

It might have been a minute or an hour later when she returned with the physician in tow; Blair neither knew nor cared about the passage of time. The doctor couldn't quite hide the contempt in his eyes as he studied Sandburg. Like everyone else in Cascade, likely in America, the physician evidently believed he was looking at a man who had betrayed his best friend, had written lies and committed fraud. But as the doctor had said to the colleague who had operated on Ellison the evening before, he had taken an oath to heal whether he respected or liked his patient or not.

His voice chilly with remote professionalism, the doctor told him, "Mr. Sandburg, I'm Dr. Hunter. You are on a respirator to allow your trachea to heal. You were wounded by a bullet, but the damage shouldn't be permanent. We should be able to allow you to breathe on your own in a couple of days, maybe as early as tomorrow. Do you understand?"

Slowly, Blair nodded as his gaze drifted to his mother and then back to the doctor. Even in his strange mood of remote numbness, he was aware of the doctor's thinly veiled contempt, and weariness washed over him. Weighted by despair, he fought his lethargy enough to lift his hands and signal that he wanted to write something.

With a sigh of resignation, the doctor accepted his patient's desire for communication and pulled a small pad and a pen from his lab coat pocket.

Laboriously, Blair scrawled, 'Tired. No visitors.'

"Fine," Dr. Hunter replied curtly, unable to imagine that many would want to visit this man anyway, and unsurprised by his apparent lack of appreciation that at least his mother had been fawning over him. In his view, anyone who would betray a best friend probably didn't accord his mother much respect either. Turning to Naomi, Hunter said with more kindness than he'd shown his patient, "Ms. Sandburg, your son needs to rest. I'll be restricting all visitors until further notice."

"But, I…" she began to protest, but the physician took her firmly, if gently, by the arm to lead her to the door. "You also need to rest. You've been here for almost twenty-four hours, hovering over him. He's fine. Go home."

Blair turned his gaze away, toward the window. Dully, he noticed that the sun was shining and it was apparently a beautiful day. But the warmth of the sun could not chase away the chill from his heart and the brightness of it seemed a mockery of the darkness that shrouded his soul. His eyes drifted away from the windows, his gaze moving to the machine that forced him to breathe, the intravenous bottle that nourished him through the tube snaking down to the back of his hand. He felt a vague resentment of those inanimate objects that tied him to life. Shifting his gaze again, he registered the stark, impersonal ambiance of the small room, and thought it reflective of the cold emptiness he felt inside. His gaze flickered to the window in the wall that let him see out into the corridor. But he cringed away from it, not wanting to accidentally meet the gaze of any who might know him or recognize him. He didn't have the energy to bear their contempt of him, contempt he'd seen in too many eyes since the press conference. Instead, he stared sightlessly at the ceiling, enduring the artificial inflation of his lungs, feeling as if the tube was choking him…almost wishing it would.

It's over, he'd said to Jim. And it was. Everything was over. He was finished at Rainier, his lifelong dream of becoming an anthropologist and a teacher ripped into tatters. His reputation for integrity was trashed. Anyone who might once have respected him would only now loathe the sight of him. His students would feel betrayed in believing he'd abrogated everything he'd ever taught them to stand for. He couldn't be Jim's partner anymore. That was also over. Other cops would never trust a confessed liar and fraud and would only resent him if he tried to keep working with Jim. The cops outside the MCU despised Blair, and he knew it. He'd felt it at the station when he'd gone back there to work with Jim after they'd left the hospital after the press conference.

Worse, Jim had said that he didn't want the senses anymore, that he wanted his old life back, that it was time to move on. Though he'd clearly appreciated the gesture of the press conference and even seemed to understand what it meant, Ellison hadn't retracted any of those earlier remarks. Remarks very like those he'd made before, over the first chapter of the dissertation, and during the debacle with Alex. Regardless, the press conference had killed any hope of them continuing to work together, or even continue to share the same apartment, even if Jim had still wanted to. Too many questions would be asked if Jim continued to tolerate having him around. People would start to wonder if maybe the diss had had some truth in it and the danger to Jim was just too great if the truth ever came out for Blair to ever allow that to happen.

It was time to move on. But to where? To what? It was all over. Everything.

His life had no meaning. No purpose.

Closing his eyes, he wished that bullet had truly finished it.

A single tear leaked down Blair's face, but he blinked the others away. The respirator wouldn't allow him to sob out his pain even if he would allow himself the relief of tears. Instead, he sank deeper into the numbness of despair, lost in the hopeless realization that all he'd ever dreamed about, all he'd most loved, was lost to him now. It was over.

The only emotion that surfaced was a vague resentment of the fact that he was still breathing. Death would have been so much easier, so much more preferable than this empty wasteland of a meaningless life.

********************

Joel frowned with worry as he gazed down at Ellison. Jim had refused to allow his own injury to be treated until Sandburg had come out of surgery and the doctor had said Blair would recover fully. When Jim had demanded to see Sandburg before he went into surgery himself, the doctors hadn't been able to hide their astonishment that the detective would care about the man who'd betrayed his trust and written such lies about him. Joel had been there and had seen the fury in Jim's eyes at their expressions and their refusal to allow him even a few brief moments by Blair's side. Ellison had tried to bull his way past them, but they'd had him restrained, which only ignited his fury into blind rage. So they'd had to sedate him.

The damage incurred by having to carry Blair off that roof, coupled with the delay in treatment, hadn't done Jim's leg any good. It was rigidly strapped now to keep it immobile while it healed, and Joel had been told by the doctors that they would not allow Jim out of his bed for several days at least.

And now, more than twenty-four hours later, Jim was still unconscious. The sedation combined with the anesthetic had hit him hard. Joel sighed as he shook his head. Taggart knew that Blair would never have allowed the sedation. Jim was allergic or hypersensitive to too many drugs. But the sedation wouldn't have been needed if Jim hadn't been so worried about his partner. What a mess. Damn Zeller, Joel thought, furiously condemning to hell the soul of man who had shot four of his closest friends in just the last few days.

Joel squeezed Ellison's arm, and he again called to his friend as he had been calling for hours now, "Jim? Hey, can you hear me, man? You need to wake up."

But this time he was rewarded with a small moan, as Ellison stirred restlessly. "Easy, Jim," Joel soothed, his voice low and reassuring, unconsciously mimicking Sandburg. "You're okay. But you need to wake up."

Ellison inhaled deeply, his jaw tight with pain. For a long moment, he seemed to be somewhere else, concentrating on something, and gradually, the tension of his body relaxed. Jim blinked then, wincing against the light, and then he swallowed, again seeming to take hold of himself somehow, as he opened his eyes and found Joel's face.

"Sandburg?" he croaked, his voice dry and brittle.

Taggart reached for the small cup of ice chips by the bed and spooned a couple into Ellison's mouth. "Blair's doing all right," Joel reassured his friend. "He's conscious and they say he won't suffer any permanent damage. But they have him on a respirator until his trachea heals well enough to let him breathe on his own, so he can't come to see you."

Well, all that was true. Joel didn't think this was the time to tell Jim that Blair was refusing any visitors, even his mother. Or that he looked diminished, lost somehow, when Joel gazed in at him through the window from the hall. The kid was just laying there, with no animation on his face, no spark of vitality, his expression and his eyes flat and empty. There was something seriously wrong with Sandburg, Joel could feel it in his bones. But Ellison didn't need to know that right now.

"Want to see him," Ellison ground out, impatient with the flare of pain from his leg as he tried to push himself up.

But Joel pressed his shoulders back down to the bed. "You're not allowed to get up, Jim. Not for a few days," Taggart explained, flinching a little at the blaze of resistance from Jim's hard blue eyes at that news. "You did a real number on your leg, man, carrying Blair downstairs like you did. The doctors have immobilized your leg and insist that you stay in bed for a few days. I know you don't like it, but there's no option. If you don't follow orders, you could do some serious, maybe irreparable damage. Understand?"

"Yeah," Jim snapped, disgusted. But the truth was, he felt weak as a kitten and didn't think he'd make it far anyway, even if he could get up. He was having trouble focusing and everything seemed a little surreal. Joel said Blair was okay. It bothered the Sentinel that he was separated from his Guide, but it appeared they were both bound to their beds. Sighing, he felt weariness wash over him, and figured he was still bleary from the drugs he'd been given. Taking another deep breath to calm himself, and to clear his head, Jim asked then, "Who else was hurt? Everyone okay?"

"A bullet grazed Rafe's skull, and they kept him overnight to be on the safe side," Joel reported. "But it looks like he's going to be fine. H is with him. A few others suffered flesh wounds, but nothing serious. We all got off lucky, Jim. Zeller's barrage of bullets could have as easily killed a lot of people."

"I know," Jim muttered, shaking his head with residual guilt that he hadn't been able to stop Zeller before the insane assault down at the station. Joel was right; they had gotten off lucky. It shouldn't have happened, wouldn't have happened if Jim had been able to tag Zeller days ago instead of being distracted by the media. Sighing, Ellison closed his eyes as he recalled what Sandburg had done to get the media off his case. God, what a mess. The kid had thrown away his life for the sake of these damned senses. For the sake of Jim's privacy and peace of mind. Ellison's lips thinned in bitter resentment of the fact that he couldn't get to Sandburg to see how his partner was doing. The kid had to be hurting from a whole lot more than the bullet wound. Looking back up at Joel, he directed, "Go, stay with Blair. I'm okay. Tell him-tell him why I can't be there myself, but I'll see him as soon as I can."

Joel's eyes shifted away, knowing that he wouldn't be allowed in to see Blair, but he nodded. He could at least go to keep watch from the window and try to catch the kid's eyes. And he could send the message in with a nurse. If he didn't go, Jim would suspect something was wrong. Nodding, he moved away from the bed. "Okay, Jim. I'll give him the message. You take it easy. I'll be back to see you later."

Reassured, Jim closed his eyes and let himself drift back to sleep.

********************

"Simon, something's not right with Sandburg," Joel sighed, frowning with worry. "He just stares up at the ceiling and doesn't move. The doctor says he doesn't want any visitors. But it's the look on his face that really scares me. It's empty, Simon…eerie."

Banks scowled and shook his head. He'd been sick to his soul when Joel had told him about the press conference where Blair had denounced the credibility of his dissertation, essentially labeling himself a liar and a fraud. That was more than bad enough, but then the two partners had been wounded by Zeller before the bastard had finally succeeded in doing something right when he'd shot through the rope supporting him from the roof, and plunged to his death. Sure, physically both Ellison and Sandburg would recover just fine, as neither wound was life-threatening. But after that press conference, Simon wasn't at all sure what the future would hold for either man. And he ached with grief for what Sandburg had felt compelled to do. No wonder the kid didn't want any visitors. He had to be feeling like just about the loneliest person on earth right about now, lost and confused about the disaster his life had become. Being alone was probably the worst thing possible for him, but the wound allowed him to isolate himself from anyone who might give him some badly needed support.

"I want to see him," Simon growled. "Get a wheelchair and help me up."

"Simon, he's refusing visitors," Joel protested, not at all sure that Simon was in good enough shape yet to be moving around.

Banks turned the full power of his best glare of intimidation on his colleague and Joel caved in the face of such determination. Lifting his hands, he nodded, "Okay, okay. I'll be right back."

A few minutes later, timing their approach to Sandburg's room, which was just a few doors down the hall from Simon's, to avoid any nurses who might try to stop them, Joel pushed the door open with his back as he pulled Simon into the small ICU recovery room. Looking around as he turned and pushed Simon's chair toward the bed, Joel could see that Sandburg was awake, but the kid gave no sign of having noticed their entrance.

"Give us a few minutes, would you, Joel?" Simon directed quietly as he studied the former grad student's pale, slack features and took in the sight of the respirator. Communication wasn't going to be easy.

Once Joel had quietly left, Simon reached out to grip Blair's hand, wincing at the pull of the movement in his chest and back. "Sandburg?" he called quietly.

But the hand under his own remained limp and Blair continued to ignore him.

"Look, kid, I know you have to be hurting from more than what that bullet did to you. What you did was incredible, unbelievable. And very, very brave. You're probably worried about what your future holds now. But, we'll work something out," Banks said rapidly, deeply concerned about the lack of any reaction. "You hear me?" he demanded, a tinge of authority entering his voice, commanding attention. "Sandburg, look at me, dammit!" he snapped in frustration and not a little fear.

Twin pools of blue shifted slowly toward him, and Simon gasped at the utter emptiness he saw in Blair's eyes. He'd seen the look before, not often, thank God, but he had seen it in the eyes of victims who'd been so traumatized that they'd given up, had in fact wished they were dead. It was partly shock, but more it was a depth of despair that drowned all hope, all vitality, leaving little more than an empty, broken shell.

"Jesus, Blair," he gasped, tightening his grip on Sandburg's hand. "Don't, kid. Don't…"

But his words caught in his throat. Don't what? he wondered. Don't hurt so much? Don't give up? Don't pull away from people who care about you? The hurt Blair was suffering had to be devastating and disorienting. Sandburg had given up all that he was for Ellison, and he'd done it publicly, for the whole world to see. How could something like that be fixed? Made right? What was there for the kid to hold onto, to make him want to engage with the world around him? Did he think that anyone cared about him? Anyone at all? He'd certainly been left to hang in the wind alone, an innocent victim of circumstances beyond his control. He'd sacrificed everything to protect Ellison and, in a way, the police department not to mention Simon himself, and had still gone back to try to help Ellison succeed against the Iceman-and had gotten shot for his efforts.

"We'll find a way to make this right for you, Blair," Simon said then, meaning it, his voice thick with compassion. There had to be something he could do to rescue this courageous and desperately wounded man.

But Sandburg's gaze shifted away, back to the ceiling. The wordless gesture, and the hopeless despair that shadowed Blair's face, made Simon's eyes burn with impotent grief. "Just rest, Sandburg," he sighed heavily, at a loss for words, for any ideas on how to make this right. "We'll figure something out. I promise you."

He might have been talking to a stone for all the reaction he got. Simon squeezed Blair's hand again, reluctant to give up the tactile contact, since it seemed that was all he could give, at least right now. His throat tightened as he gazed at the younger man, his memory flipping back over the past few months. Since the fountain-and Mexico. Sandburg had been brittle and quick to anger at first, and then almost too controlled. Too quiet and withdrawn, as if he'd been reluctant to impose his presence on the world around him. Contained where before he'd been a vibrant force of nature. With no little guilt, Banks realized he should have noticed that sooner, should have said or done something to confront the depression he could see settle over the young man like a shroud. But he'd ignored it. Figured it was up to Jim and Blair to work things out between them.

And then the damned mess around the dissertation had blown up, and Ellison had made it all too clear he wanted to have nothing more to do with his erstwhile partner. Cold, remote, furious-he'd shut Blair out completely, ignoring his very presence. Simon had known the kid was upset by it all, sick about it even, but the pressure of Zeller's threat hadn't left any time for Banks or anyone else to deal with any of it.

And then Simon had been shot, taken out of play-right when his leadership and counsel had been most needed. Was that the final straw? Did Sandburg somehow feel responsible for Simon and Megan being shot because the media frenzy had prevented Ellison from capturing Zeller when he'd had the opportunity to do so? Or was it simply that Sandburg hadn't been able to think of any other way to clean up the mess? Whatever his reasons, Sandburg had crucified himself publicly to keep Jim, and his secret, safe.

Gazing now at the immobile, unresponsive man on the bed, Simon grimly agreed with Joel's assessment that there was something badly wrong with Sandburg. Deeply alarmed by the pervasive sense of hopelessness that seemed to radiate from Blair, Simon knew the kid was at risk of being lost completely. If they didn't find a way to throw him a life-line soon, a way to re-ignite life into those eyes, Sandburg might well sink into a well of despair so deep that they'd never get him back.

"You're not supposed to be in here, Captain Banks," the nurse said briskly as she hustled into the room and pulled his chair away from the bed. "You shouldn't even be out of bed. Come on, we'll get you back where you belong."

Simon craned his head around to watch Sandburg as he was wheeled from the room. But the kid didn't even blink. Just kept staring up at the ceiling, looking like the only thing that kept him chained to this earth was the respirator forcing air in and out of his lungs. Simon felt a sudden cramp of nausea at how wrong it was that Blair was suffering so terribly-and a flash of fear that maybe the kid was already beyond reach.

********************

Naomi had taken the doctor's orders to heart and had gone back to the loft. Exhaustion warred with worried restlessness, so she lit scented candles, lavender to soothe her worries, cinnamon to clear her mind. And then, with a slight trace of guilt, she burned a small amount of sage to cleanse her spirit. Refreshed, she made herself a cup of tea and carried it into the bathroom, sipping it while she soaked in a hot bath, letting the heat ease the tension from her muscles. Finally, she went into Blair's room and slipped into bed, softly chanting her mantra to keep her mind from worrying again about all that had happened and couldn't be undone. Weariness drew her down into sleep.

When she woke, all the terrible reality of the last few days crashed back over her, and her eyes blurred with tears. Curling onto her side, hugging the pillow, she wept for what her actions had done to her son. She'd only meant to help him, wouldn't ever deliberately hurt him for anything in this world. But she knew she'd started a chain reaction that had destroyed his world and she was devastated by guilt. Sniffing, she wiped her eyes and tried to think about what she could do now to help him. Her poor, beautiful son looked so sad, so forlorn, so lost, and that terrible tube in his throat, the machine breathing for him, scared her. He could have been so easily killed and the very idea of losing him stole her breath away. Worse, the stark grayness of his aura terrified her. It was so lifeless, so unlike everything that Blair was normally: vibrant, hopeful, full of energy with an aura that usually crackled with bright colours. His physical wound would heal, but her baby was dying inside and she knew it. Her actions had cost him every dream he had, had led him to throw away everything that meant the most to him. She might not be a traditional mother, and never pretended, ever, to be a Donna Reed wannabe, but she loved Blair as she loved nothing and no one else. She was so sorry. So desperately sorry for what she'd done to him.

Finally, stiff with worry and grief, her head aching, she forced herself to get up. She had to get back to the hospital and be with him. Her presence was all she could give him right now, that and her unconditional support and love. Once he could speak again, they'd talk about what he wanted to do now. If he wanted to stay here, she'd support him. If he wanted to leave, and travel with her, go somewhere distant and safe from the condemnation of those who didn't know the facts, well, then, she'd go with him wherever he wanted to be.

She showered and dressed, then sat at the table to drink a cup of tea before heading back downtown. When grief and guilt threatened to overwhelm her again, she dabbed at her bleary eyes, and sniffed, straightening her spine, knowing that she wouldn't do Blair any good by being all weepy and forlorn. He needed someone to lean on right now, someone else to be strong, and she was determined to do all she could to help him through the very difficult days and weeks ahead. Resolved to be fully ‘present' for him, she pulled on her coat, picked up her purse and left the loft.

But once she reached the hospital, she was astonished to learn ,that she still wouldn't be permitted to visit him. "But I'm his mother!" she protested. "He needs me!"

The nurse shook her head, kind but firm. "I'm sorry, Ms. Sandburg, but your son has requested no visitors."

"That doesn't include me," Naomi argued, unable to believe that Blair didn't want to see her.

"I'm afraid it does," the nurse replied, and remained unmoved by the cajoling, the charm and then the sharp irritation borne by fear and guilt that followed her pronouncement.

Stunned, Naomi went to the window to gaze into her son's room, but the blinds had been drawn and the solid door was closed. "I want to at least be able to see him!" she snapped at the nurse.

The woman looked regretful as she explained, "I'm sorry, but earlier today, he wrote a note asking that the blinds be drawn so that he could have some privacy."

Naomi's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, but she could think of nothing to say. What was going on? Did Blair blame her after all? Was he angry with her? Rejecting her?

But it wasn't just her. The order was 'no visitors', period. Blair didn't want anyone near him right now. Frowning, her lips compressed as she thought about that. Her son was a social creature. She couldn't remember when he'd deliberately sought isolation, putting up walls that no one could scale. Thoughtfully, she looked again at the blinds that blocked her view. The enforced personal isolation, combined with the depression she sensed in his aura alarmed her. Blair was blocking out the world, withdrawing into himself, and if someone or something didn't shake him out of it, this depression could become very dangerous.

Needing to talk to someone about her fear for her son, someone who maybe cared about him as much as she did, she turned and headed back toward the elevator. Jim was upstairs on the orthopedic floor. Maybe he'd know what to do about Blair's odd and certainly uncharacteristic behaviour. Though it hurt her to acknowledge the fact, she firmly believed that even if Blair wouldn't see her or anyone else, he would allow Jim to visit him.

But when she got there, she found Jim asleep, as his body continued to react to the powerful sedative he'd been given. Frustrated, very worried, it took all she had not to grab his shoulders and shake him into wakefulness. Instead, she took a deep, cleansing breath, willfully relaxed her shoulders and sat down, intending to wait until Ellison woke up.

It was a very frustrated and irritated Naomi who was forced to leave when visiting hours ended before Jim roused.

********************

The wound was healing nicely, so the doctor decided to remove the respirator the next morning. When it was determined that Blair was able to breathe on his own, however painfully, the doctor directed that he be moved to the general surgical ward. Once there, Blair reiterated his request of no visitors, his voice little more than a hoarse, painful croak. He also asked the staff to call his mother to request that she bring in some clothing for him. He answered their questions about how he felt with dull, flat statements, and when they were finished settling him into his room, he curled on his side, facing the wall.

They assumed that his limited replies were the result of a very raw throat.

They were wrong.

He just wasn't interested in anything and wanted to be left alone. Though he was lost in the depths of despair, he knew they'd not leave him in peace until they were satisfied. In the same pragmatic frame of mind, he drank the fluids they brought, managed to eat some of the soft, tasteless foods, and feigned sleep when they checked on him. Since most didn't bother to hide their contempt for him, blessedly none of the staff were interested in striking up any lengthy conversations. Sandburg was aware enough to understand that if they ever suspected the depth of his depression, they'd have a psychiatrist prodding at him. He didn't want that. Didn't want to talk about how he felt or why. Couldn't really. They'd want to know why he'd lied in that paper, why he'd betrayed his best friend and he was too damned weary to be bothered making up a story to explain his behaviour.

All he wanted was to get away.

Away from everything and everyone.

If it were possible, he wished to could find a way to get away from himself.

********************

"How's Sandburg?" Jim asked that evening when Joel came into his room, finally feeling fully awake and very restless.

"He's off the respirator and they've moved him from ICU to a private room," Joel replied factually, though his eyes shifted away from Ellison's intense gaze.

Ellison relaxed marginally, relieved to hear that Blair seemed to be recovering well. But Joel was acting very reserved, and seemed the least bit evasive, his heart rate picking up when Jim asked about Blair.

"What aren't you telling me?" Jim demanded, suddenly suspicious and tensing again with anxiety.

Joel shrugged and looked at Ellison with nothing but confused innocence on his face. But his heart said he was lying.

"Spit it out," Ellison snapped, now definitely worried. Joel wasn't the type to lie, at least not without very good reason. "What's wrong?"

Sighing, resigned, Joel was about to reply when Naomi burst into the room. "Oh, Jim, thank goodness, you're finally awake!" she exclaimed with very evident relief.

Frowning, Jim took in the wan, worried appearance, the nervous tremble of Naomi's hands, and her wide, frightened eyes. Something was wrong, something to do with Sandburg. Frightened now, pulling himself up straighter on the bed, looking from her to Joel and back again, he didn't miss Taggart's hunted look. "What's the matter, Naomi? What's wrong with Blair?" he demanded, his voice tight with urgency and alarm.

"Oh, hasn't anyone told you?" she sighed, her voice nearly a sob as she glanced at Joel.

"No one has told me anything," Ellison growled, growing ever more irritated. "Would one of you tell me what's going on with Sandburg?"

Naomi looked at Joel, confused by the evident fact that for some reason he hadn't wanted Jim to know about Blair's behaviour. The older man shook his head and looked away, waiting for the explosion. Turning back to Jim, she replied, "Blair refuses to see anyone. He's…he's depressed, I guess. I'm worried about him."

"He won't see you?" Jim demanded, not entirely surprised given Naomi's role in the dissertation disaster. Turning to Joel, he grated, "What about you?"

Finally able to stop the charade that he and the others had kept up with Jim to keep him from becoming alarmed about Sandburg when there was nothing he could do about it, or worse, leading Ellison to disobey the doctor's orders and risk further injury to his leg, Joel allowed his concern to glow in his eyes as he responded, "I'm sorry, Jim. We knew you'd be worried about him, and there's nothing you can do since you can't get out of bed. But, well, like Naomi says, Blair won't let anyone near him. Simon tried, even sneaked into his room, but Blair wouldn't talk to him, would hardly even look at him. He's, uh, depressed, I guess you'd call it, but that doesn't seem enough to cover the…the emptiness in his eyes. We're all really worried about the kid."

"Son of a…" Jim growled as he shifted himself to the edge of the bed. "Get me some crutches or a wheelchair or something."

"Jim, you can't!" Joel protested. "You could do some serious damage to your leg."

"I'm going to see Sandburg," Jim grated, impatient and angry to have been kept in the dark for so long. God, what demons was Sandburg trying to fight on his own? Or had the kid just given up? "Either help me, or I'll crawl if I have to."

Blowing out a breath of frustration, Joel wondered why he even bothered trying to protect either Jim or Simon from themselves. Wordlessly, he nodded and left the room to find a wheelchair. While they waited for his return, Jim glared into space and Naomi stood to one side, wringing her hands.

********************

Though he would have preferred to remain huddled in his bed, hiding alone in his room, Blair finished dressing and shoved his wallet in his jacket pocket. If he didn't get out of there, the staff would soon twig to his depression and sic a psychiatrist on him and he just didn't have the emotional strength to deal with that, or the energy to make up more lies. Leaving his room, he went to the nurses' desk, where he signed himself out AMA. He felt light-headed and a little unsteady on his feet, but didn't much care. He needed to get away.

Outside, he caught a cab and headed to the loft, hoping that Naomi hadn't gone straight back there. Letting himself in, relieved to find himself alone, he moved quickly to his room and shoved some clothing and his passport into his pack, grabbing his toothbrush and other toiletries from the bathroom as he headed back to the door. In minutes, he was in and out, back on the street and wondering where to go.

For a moment, he just stood there, pale and confused, feeling hunted and alone. It was too much to work out any specific plan of action so he just started walking in the direction he was facing.

One foot in front of the other.

Heedless of his environment or of the cold drizzle of rain.

Unaware of the passing of time.

He walked for hours, lost in despair, feeling more alone than he'd ever before felt in his life, until evening faded into night.

********************

"What do you mean he signed himself out?" Jim roared at the hapless nurse, horrified to think that Blair was wandering around alone in his apparently severely depressed state of mind.

Made defensive by the challenge, the nurse bristled. "He's an adult and has the right to make that choice. He left about half an hour ago," she snapped and then pointedly turned away.

"Do you think he would have gone home?" Naomi asked tentatively, shocked by the air of violence that suddenly surrounded Jim, making his aura so deeply crimson it was almost black.

"I'll go check," Joel offered, deciding the safest bet was to get out of the way. Besides, he was worried, too, and wished Naomi hadn't been so quick to bring the kid his clothes.

"You don't think…" Naomi murmured in a thin, choked voice, unable to complete the thought, suddenly very afraid. One look at her stricken face and haunted eyes was enough to let both Jim and Joel know that she had suddenly realized her son was depressed enough that he might actually wish he were dead.

"No, I don't," Jim grated, his eyes flashing denial of what she was suggesting. Sandburg wouldn't do that. No way would he ever hurt himself. No. It was inconceivable. But when Jim looked at Joel and saw the doubt and flicker of fear in the older man's eyes as he turned away, Ellison's chest constricted and he had to fight swallow the bile in the back of his throat. No. Sandburg wouldn't do that. No.

********************

Joel had spoken to the people in the bakery downstairs and already knew Blair had been and gone, though no one had noticed which direction he'd taken, only that he'd had his ever-present backpack over his shoulder. "Damn it," he cursed softly as he pulled out his cell once he was back outside, gazing up and down the dark, rain-shrouded street as he waited for his call to be forwarded to Jim's room.

"He's gone," Taggart reported succinctly. "The woman in the bakery saw him with his backpack, but doesn't know where he went."

"Find him," Jim growled and disconnected.

"Yeah, right, like I couldn't figure that out for myself," Joel muttered as he put his cell back in his pocket. "Any idea where I should start looking?" he groused, worried, and desperately hoping that the backpack meant that Blair had some plan for going somewhere other than to his grave.

********************

Blair found himself on the stretch of boardwalk he and Jim had walked along just a few days ago when he'd tried to explain what had happened, and Jim had blown him off. Infinitely weary, he sank down on a bench near the water and stared out over the harbour. Where was he going to go? What was he going to do? What did it matter?

Shivering, leaning forward, elbows on his thighs, he covered his face with his hands. He'd walked most of the night in a daze of despair and dawn couldn't be far off. His throat was raw and each swallow felt like ground glass. He was soaked from the cold rain and he was tired. So tired.

An insightful, intuitive man who'd had the benefit of some courses in psychology, Blair knew he was deeply, even dangerously, depressed. Wryly, he figured he'd been depressed for months now though he'd tried to ignore it, hoping things would eventually get better. But the last few days had really pushed him over the edge. Intellectually, he also knew he should be seeking professional help before he lost all interest in living, but emotionally, he just didn't have the energy to make the effort. What could a psychologist or psychiatrist do to change the facts of his life? No matter how he looked at his situation, he couldn't come up with a single thing that gave him any hope for the future, or any particular reason to keep breathing. He felt so empty, so bereft of joy or any hope of happiness. Wearily, he finally decided that since he just didn't seem to have the courage to kill himself and be done with it, he'd better come up with some kind of destination, preferably some place far away where maybe he could pretend he was someone else.

"Far away, where nobody knows me and nobody will recognize me," he murmured to himself, reflecting with distant realization that he must have unconsciously known that he'd try to leave the country when he'd grabbed his passport back in the loft. Pushing himself back upright, he again stared listlessly out over the water, and after a time, he became aware of the fishing boats heading out to sea.

Nodding a little to himself, he rose stiffly from the bench and shambled along the waterfront toward the docks. Hitching a ride on a boat to anywhere was as good a way as any of getting away from Cascade. Maybe if he got lucky, he'd get blown off the deck in a storm and drown. Disappearing forever under the eternal waves would be a relatively painless and quick way to go-it wasn't as if he didn't know what drowning felt like. It didn't hurt as much as getting shot. And it would make a kind of karmic sense.

Three hours later, he'd talked himself hoarse, giving out a story that he was a student on his way to a dig, but he'd missed the plane because he'd had to have emergency throat surgery and the ticket hadn't been refundable. He offered to work as a deckhand in return for a bunk and rations. It was a thin story, and he'd changed his intended destination depending on where the ship might be sailing each time he told it. This latest Captain hadn't looked like he believed much of it, anymore than had anyone else he'd spoken to, but finally the stocky, swarthy man shrugged and waved Blair on board. Runaways were an old story, and free help wasn't easy to get. The kid looked haggard, but sturdy enough to give a good few days of work.

Two hours after that, the disreputable freighter was pulled away from her mooring by the tug, and hauled out to the channel, to head south to Mexico.

********************

It was two days before the guys from MCU found someone who'd remembered seeing Blair on the docks and that he'd been asking for a job to work his way at sea. Once one witness was found, H, Rafe and Joel managed to find others amongst the dockworkers and crewmembers from the various vessels, not that it helped them a lot. They learned that Sandburg had been flexible in his intended destination, and that he hadn't been seen again after he'd approached the captain of a Mexican freighter. It didn't make them feel any better to learn the ship had left days before. If Sandburg was on it, he was long gone.

They drew lots to see who got the short straw and grim chore of informing Ellison of what they'd found out.

********************

Blair pretended that his Spanish was limited, and that along with his very evident difficulty speaking and bandaged throat soon assured him of the isolation he hungered for as the rest of the crew ignored him except to tell him his tasks. Having little appetite, he still forced himself to eat. He'd made a deal to work his way, and he would keep up his end of the bargain. He did his work listlessly on whatever watch was assigned, but he did it, and then he went below and laid on his bunk, staring up at the musty, cobwebbed ceiling of the dingy hold. As the days wore on, he moved in a kind of daze, numb inside, just existing.

********************

Jim had been stunned with dismay to learn that Sandburg had apparently hitched a ride on a boat to Mexico. His features had gone slack as he took in the fact that the kid had really left. Unbidden, the memory from the rooftop of the PD rose in his mind, Sandburg gasping out, 'It's over.'

"No, by God, it isn't," Ellison had snarled then, startling Rafe who'd been unlucky enough to be the one to report the news.

"Isn't what?" the younger detective asked tentatively.

"Over. It's not over," Jim had replied tightly. Rafe shrugged. That wasn't news. The only question in anyone's mind was how long it would take for Ellison to track Sandburg down. Absently rubbing his sore leg, Ellison bit his lip as he thought about what a dazed and depressed Sandburg would do once he got to Mexico. It wasn't hard to come up with the best place to start looking. Punching the call button for a nurse to ask her to call his doctor, Jim looked back at Rafe as he asked, "When, exactly, does that ship reach its first port in Mexico?"

"Five days," Rafe had informed him. "The first port is Acapulco."

"That's quite a ways from Sierra Verde," Jim mused, wondering if Blair would get off the ship or stay on. His partner was restless, depressed, not thinking straight. Most likely, he'd get off, wanting to be on the move. Nodding, Jim figured he had at least a week to get his leg in good enough shape to do some serious hiking in the jungle.

********************

When they docked at the harbour five days later, Blair left the ship. Despite his feelings of listless and dazed disorientation, he had come up with a plan of sorts. He'd made a cardboard sign on the ship and carried it as he hiked out of town to the highway. A farmer driving a truckload of squawking chickens picked him up and took him off down the road on the first leg of his journey back to Sierra Verde. When the old guy tried to start up a conversation, Blair waved toward his throat and the grimy bandage he still sported, pretending he was mute.

It was just so much easier if he didn't have to talk. Slumping down in the seat against the door, he drifted off to sleep, the only peaceful haven he had from the relentless despair, providing no nightmares intruded to torment him.

********************

Though Blair had spent much of his second day in Mexico trudging along the hot, dusty verge of a narrow highway, he finally got lucky in flagging down a transport that was headed all the way south to Sierra Verde. Since the driver planned to drive through the night, Sandburg expected to arrive in the small Mexican town on the edge of the jungle early the next day.

Once again, Blair pretended to be mute, and slumped into an exhausted stupor, staring sightlessly out at the passing miles. He hadn't eaten since leaving the ship, but he wasn't hungry. Even the nagging thirst, which had been building in the hot sun ever since his last bottle of water had run out, seemed irrelevant and of no consequence. Finally, he drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

********************

"Damn it!" Jim cursed against the pain that lanced up his leg as he worked the leg extension weight machine in the physio department. He was sweating from exertion, and his face had a haunted, hollow look borne of his all-pervasive sense that he was running out of time. Ever since Jim had talked with Simon and had understood how very depressed Sandburg had seemed to his superior, he'd been afraid and had wanted to take off immediately. Only cold common sense had held him in Cascade and in the hospital, where he'd been working for endless hours every day to build up the strength he'd need. But his damned leg was still weak.

"You're trying too hard," the therapist cautioned him. "If you keep this up, you'll only injure your leg further."

"I don't have time for this," Ellison snapped, his eyes icy cold. "I need to be able to walk, maybe for hours at a time, even run, if need be."

The therapist shrugged and shook her head. "Make time now or later. One way or another, your leg is going to take its own time to heal." With that, she turned and walked away. Detective Ellison hadn't endeared himself to the staff over the past the week. Driven, quick to anger, perpetually frustrated, he was difficult to deal with. Nor could any of them understand his desperate frenzy to go after that Sandburg who'd taken off a week before. The hospital was a small, insular community, and gossip circulated freely so any number of the staff now knew that Ellison was determined to track down his partner as quickly as possible.

They just couldn't figure out why. They would have thought the detective would have been glad to see the last of the young fraud who'd written lies about him. Ellison's behaviour made no sense to them.

Jim sagged back against the bench, desperately afraid his leg wasn't strong enough for what he needed to do. But he couldn't delay any longer. Sandburg could reach Sierra Verde anytime now, could already be heading into the jungle. Wiping a hand over his mouth, Ellison closed his eyes, nauseated by the idea of Blair wandering around out there on his own, feeling hopeless and alone. It was time to go after him. Come hell or high water, Ellison was going to be on the midnight plane south.

********************

The former police capitain, now a humble member of the constabulary having been demoted for his sins, noticed the young man walking unsteadily down the street toward the outskirts of town. The kid was disheveled and filthy, his long, curly hair matted with dust and sweat. Another rich gringo punk who'd followed the drug highway south, the patrolman assumed contemptuously as he began to turn away.

But then he stopped, arrested in place by the large, blue eyes in the ashen face. There was something familiar-the cop snapped his fingers as memories flooded back. This Americano had been with the others months ago. The young man had not looked well even then, though he'd been a good deal cleaner and stronger than he appeared now. The policeman's gaze darted around the busy street as he wondered if the others were here as well, or if they would be coming. This group seemed to travel in a pack, like wolves united in a family-like relationship.

His eyes narrowing, the swarthy man decided to keep an eye out. Aguillero had been charged, yes, but money talked in Mexico, talked loudly and clearly and the criminal hadn't spent a night in jail. He'd be interested to know one of the Americanos was back. If the big white one who had defeated him also returned, well, Aguillero would want to know that, too. In the past, the policeman had been an informant to protect the lives of his family. Now, angered by his demotion and the lack of mercy it represented, he just did it for the money.

********************

It was dusk, almost dark, by the time Blair stumbled through the thick forest to the steps of the Temple. Staggering with exhaustion, he looked up the broken flight of stone and wondered if he had enough strength left to climb them. Too many days without food and too little water had taken their toll. Broken sleep, haunting nightmares, and the burden of anguish in his soul had worn him down to a pale shadow of his former strength and vitality. Dizzy, weak, he sank to his knees.

Doggedly, he began to crawl upwards, but was stopped by the presence of the strong, bare, brown feet and legs that suddenly and silently appeared in his path. Startled, he shook his head, confused by the presence of another person when he'd believed the ancient temple grounds were deserted. Blair lifted his heavy head slowly to see who it was, snorting with self-disgust as he muttered, his voice hoarse from disuse, "Incacha. Great, now I'm hallucinating."

The spirit of the Chopec Shaman stood with his arms crossed, a stern expression on his face. "Guide, why are you here and not with your Sentinel?" he demanded almost harshly.

Sighing wearily, Blair rolled stiffly to sit on a step as he shook his head. "Not a Guide. It's over."

"Why are you here?" Incacha demanded again.

Sandburg hung his head, conscious that his eyes burned with shame and despair, as he whispered, "I'm lost, Incacha."

"Why are you here?" the voice thundered from above his head.

Swallowing, pushing his fingers through his lank hair, Blair looked up and past the Shaman toward the Temple portal as he murmured, "Because this is where the end really began. I lost him here. He pushed me away. Jim doesn't want his senses anymore-doesn't want me around anymore."

"Why are you here?" the question came again, relentless.

Blinking up at the Shaman, his face haggard with pain and his eyes clouded with misery, Blair replied hesitantly, "I guess I'm looking for answers, to make sense of it all. I guess I'm looking for some kind of peace."

"You seek death here?" Incacha asked with a frown.

"If that is what awaits me," Blair sighed, looking away. "If that is the only, final answer."

Incacha sank down to crouch by Sandburg, and one strong hand reached out to grip the young man's shoulder. Blair's brows raised slightly, surprised that he could feel the grip; that this hallucination seemed to have substance as well as form. "A Guide needs his Sentinel," the Shaman said quietly, his expression softer, compassion glowing in his dark eyes.

"I know," Blair whispered, his throat tight with unshed tears. "But I have no Sentinel. Not anymore."

"And so you are lost," Incacha intoned softly. When Blair nodded wordlessly, blinking against the burning in his eyes, overwhelmed by the sorrow and despair that surged through his chest, the Shaman sighed. "Perhaps it is well that you've come to the place of dreaming. Perhaps in the dreams, you will find your path. Come."

Incacha took Blair by the arm and drew him up to his feet, supporting him up the rest of the ruin's steps. Drawing Sandburg through the portal, Incacha led him into a chamber Blair hadn't seen on his last visit. The walls were covered with hieroglyphics and seemed to glow softly though the interior of the Temple was dark. Patiently, the Shaman deciphered the symbols, explaining their meaning and the ritual Blair must perform to find his path. Some part of Sandburg's mind reminded him that he should be filled with wonder at what was happening, but he was too tired. He just didn't care.

"Beyond that portal are steps down to the Grotto of the Guides. You will find what you need for the potion there. Do what you must, Guide," Incacha instructed him. "And then choose your path-to life or to death."

Nodding, barely conscious, Blair stumbled out of the chamber and down the stone steps to the small interior garden. He was too far gone to even wonder about how he'd understood a spirit who had presumably spoken in Chopec, a language Sandburg didn't know, too weary with the burden of his depression to notice the eternal beauty of the Grotto. Stumbling to his knees as he reached the foliage, Blair fumbled to find the herbs he needed, and finding them, he pulled them into his trembling hands. Pushing himself back up to his feet, he staggered toward the edge of the pool, toward the ancient, moss-covered mortar and pestle and cup he could see on the lip of the stone bench.

His awareness narrowed down to this one simple task, he ground the herbs to a fine paste, then added water from the pool, mixing it all with the pestle. Before drinking, he pulled off his clothes, vaguely sorry to be entering a sacred place when he was so filthy, but having no option, no means of cleaning his body first. Stepping into the tepid water, he shivered as he knelt and then reached for the cup with a trembling hand. Pausing for a moment, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Jim. Sorry that I failed you. I'm so very sorry."

Then he drank the bitter liquid, grimacing as he forced himself to empty the cup as he wondered if the visions to come would make his way clear or drive him mad, lead him to life or push him into the cold embrace of death. The last of his energy spent with the effort of carefully setting the cup down, he collapsed onto his back in the shallow pool, dimly surprised to find that the water supported him and kept him floating on the surface, as his eyes lifted to the broken roof, to the stars…

********************

Jim was surprised to find H and Rafe waiting for him at the airport, astonished to learn they intended to go with him.

"You're not the only one who wants Hairboy back," H said brusquely to stave off any argument.

"Besides, you know your leg isn't completely healed yet," Rafe added for good measure, "so you might need some help before this is over. Joel would have come, too, but someone has to stay behind to cover MCU, and he's the one Simon left in charge."

Jim ducked his head and managed to mutter, "Thanks," past the lump in his throat, deeply touched that these two friends wouldn't allow him to take this journey alone. Then he led the way to the departure gate.

********************

Blair floated for a long time, feeling warmth steal through his body, driving away the chill of the pool. Misery and despair faded into a numb nothingness of being, as if the pain of his life no longer mattered and he simply existed.

And then the visions slammed into his mind.

Stark, terrible visions of pain and horror. Jim, always Jim, blown up in a bus, crushed by the wheels of a train, Jim blinded by bright light or in agony from a sharp, relentless sound, helpless to save himself. Jim shot, stabbed, beaten. Dead.

Blair screamed out his anguish and denial, begging the visions to stop. They weren't true. Jim wasn't dead. He wouldn't watch. But he couldn't stop them.

Incacha's voice resounded in his mind. "A Sentinel is lost without his Guide, just as the Guide is lost without his Sentinel."

"NOOOO!" Blair screamed. "Stop it! STOP IT! Jim's not dead!"

The visions didn't stop, but the tenor of them changed. Jim fighting Lash to save him. Jim dragging him from the pool, breathing life into his body, begging him to live. Jim, hurt and confused by what he'd believed to be betrayals. Jim compassionate, telling him he was a great cop.

Blair sobbed, his heart aching with the awareness of Jim's emotions in those moments, the Sentinel's desperate fears of losing his Guide. "No," he whispered, heartbroken to only know now how much Jim had truly valued him, devastated to realize that Jim might miss him now that he was gone. "No. Please, stop. I can't be his Guide anymore. It's too late. It's over."

The visions shifted again showing him images of events he didn't recognize, while Incacha's voice thundered, "You must choose your path, Guide!"

Visions of Jim in deadly danger, his senses out of control, being stalked by those who would kill him, tormented Blair, terrified him. Jim, alone and vulnerable…zoning. "NO!" Blair cried out, desperately afraid for his Sentinel. "JIM!" he screamed. "Oh, God, help me! Don't hurt him! JIM!"

The visions vanished, leaving only darkness.

And Blair floated between life and death, staring sightlessly up into the lightening sky.

********************

When the plane landed, Jim led his colleagues straight to the helicopter hanger, to transfer onto the chopper he'd reserved days before to take him to the clearing closest to the ancient Temple of the Sentinels. Instinctively he knew, was absolutely certain, that that was where Blair would head. He could only pray that his partner, his Guide, had not yet arrived at his destination, though he didn't know what it was about Blair being at the Temple alone that frightened him so deeply.

But his desire to head straight into the jungle, though it was still dark, was soon frustrated by the sight of the pilot and the mechanic working on the engine.

"What's going on here?" Jim demanded, anxious to be on their way. "What's the problem?"

"Just a small difficulty with the engine, Senor," the pilot explained with no sense of urgency, and certainly no apology, as he wiped his oil-stained hands with a greasy rag. "When she is fixed, we will go."

"Look, I arranged to be taken into the jungle as soon as we arrived here," Jim growled. "Get another chopper."

"Ah, well, you see there is no other," the pilot shrugged carelessly as he waved vaguely around the airfield. "When she is fixed, we will go," he repeatedly maddeningly as he turned back to the work required.

"Damn it," Ellison cursed, as he dropped his duffle bag and turned to pace impatiently.

"Is there any other way in?" H asked, increasingly anxious and tense himself in the face of Ellison's very evident and increasing sense of urgency.

Shaking his head, Jim replied with considerable frustration, "No, not unless we want to waste time finding a jeep to rent in the middle of the night and even then it would only take us partway and we'd still have to hike for hours. We wouldn't get there until late afternoon."

"Then I guess we wait," Rafe replied philosophically, figuring someone had to try to stay calm. He spotted a bench against the wall and moved over to it to sit down, dropping the backpack he carried to the ground.

"Yeah, I guess we do," Jim grunted, resuming his pacing. H stood a minute, arms akimbo, watching him, but then sighed and went to sit down beside Rafe. It looked like it was going to be a long night.

It was almost dawn before the helicopter was repaired and the pilot beckoned them to board. Jim was striding forward, ignoring the twinges in his leg and trying not to limp, when he could have sworn he heard Blair scream his name. Startled, he stopped and turned around, listening, looking. But there was nothing there, just the airfield, and some workers in their overalls, no one else. And no one else appeared to have heard Sandburg cry out.

"What is it, Jim?" Rafe asked, laying a hand on his shoulder, startling him.

"Nothing," Jim muttered, picking up his bag and turning back to the chopper. "I thought I heard something, that's all."

Rafe threw a look at H who shrugged and rolled his eyes. Who knew what Ellison ever heard? was H's unspoken, rhetorical question. Rafe grimaced but nodded, understanding the wordless, wry observation. Silently, they tossed their bags inside and climbed into the chopper behind Jim.

None of them were aware that their arrival, and subsequent departure, had been observed. The informant called the former police capitain, who in turned called Aguillero.

********************

The helicopter landed in a clearing about a mile from the ancient Temple but it was as close as they could get by air. Jim and his colleagues jumped out and Ellison's leg buckled when he hit the hard ground. H grabbed his arm to keep him from falling, and supported him as they moved into the jungle, moving as quickly as Jim's damaged leg would allow. Though they left their bags behind, Rafe hitched the small backpack he'd brought with him over his shoulder.

Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the ruin. H and Rafe were awed a little by its still compelling façade, but Jim didn't have the time for, and even less interest in, any sightseeing.

"Come on," he called impatiently as he limped quickly up the uneven steps to the portal. Once he reached the entrance, he stopped to catch his breath and to reach out with his hearing. His anxiety was so intense that his chest felt tight and nausea roiled in his gut.

"He's here!" Ellison snapped, moving into the dim interior. Again, the partners shook their heads, wondering exactly how Jim could be so sure, but not doubting him as they strode swiftly in his wake. They passed through a couple of chambers with amazing images painted and carved into the walls, but then Jim stopped with a gasp as he looked at something below where he was standing, just outside the chamber.

"God, no," he whispered, clinging to the reality of Sandburg's slow heartbeat to assure himself that the still body floating in the pool below him was still alive. Only Blair's stark, white face was fully visible and his wide blue eyes were staring sightlessly upwards, unblinking, and chilling in their emptiness.

Sick with the fear that he was too late, Jim lurched down the steps, Rafe and H close behind him, and they both helped him pull Sandburg from the water, laying him on the moss-covered flagstones that surrounded the pool.

"Is he alive?" Rafe choked out, scared. He hadn't had a chance to check for a pulse as they'd hauled Blair from the water. Sandburg's skin was so cold, and his body was limp, lifeless.

"Yeah, barely," Jim muttered, stripping off his coat as he knelt to wrap it around his partner before pulling Blair up into his arms, against his chest. Gently, he slapped at Sandburg's cheeks, desperation in his voice as he called sharply, "Chief, can you hear me? Sandburg!"

H draped his coat over Sandburg's legs, while Rafe watched, feeling helpless. Unable to bear the stricken expression on Ellison's face, Rafe looked away and spotted Blair's clothing and backpack not far off. Wandering over, he gathered up Sandburg's belongings, wrinkling his nose at how filthy the garments were. Scanning the area, he spotted the cup on the lip of the pool and picked it up, grimacing at the strong, sharp odour that remained from whatever it had contained. Moving back to Jim, he held it out, as he explained, "I found this over there. Do you think he drank some kind of potion?"

Ellison sneezed at the scent and pushed the cup away. "Yeah, I think he did," he agreed, feeling fear twist in his gut. How long had Blair been in the pool, facing who knows what visions alone? Jim wondered, terrified by his memories of what over-exposure to this Temple's pools and potions had done to Alex. Turning his attention back to Blair, he muttered, his voice tight with anguish, "Dammit, Chief-what have you done? Why?"

"We'd better get him back to the chopper and to the hospital in town," H urged then, hoping that if they could get him to help fast enough that Blair would live. "I'll carry him."

Reluctant to let go of his Guide, knowing he could never negotiate those steps while carrying Blair, Jim's throat tightened and he gave a bare nod. But then his expression blanked as he tilted his head. "Another chopper is heading this way," he said, his voice low with urgency.

"Trouble?" Rafe asked, instantly alert as he pulled their guns from the pack he was carrying.

"Maybe," Jim nodded. "They're landing in that clearing where we left our own chopper."

"We'll check it out," H snapped as he and Rafe raced up the steps. "You take care of your partner."

They'd just reached the top of the stairs when Jim yelled to them. "I heard a shot. I think they've killed our pilot!"

"Definitely trouble," H observed, but he gave Ellison a wicked grin and a wave as they disappeared into the darkness of the Temple.

"Chief? Sandburg? Come on, kid, wake up! You're scaring me, buddy," Jim called, hugging Sandburg close to share the warmth of his body. "Blair?"

Sandburg blinked once, and then again, awareness slowly coming into his eyes.

"That's it, Chief," Jim begged, his voice cracking with emotion. "Come back to me."

Gradually, Blair's eyes focused on Jim's face, and a look of wonder and disbelief came into his eyes. "Jim?" he whispered, his voice hoarse from the screaming he'd done through the nightlong horror of the visions.

"Yeah, it's me, Chief," Jim soothed, pushing the wet hair back from Blair's face. "Just stay with me, okay?"

Blair jerked with alarm as the sound of shots rang out from somewhere nearby. "What?" he stammered, disoriented, weakly struggling to free himself from Jim's arms.

"Easy," Jim replied, listening intently to the action that was taking place on the far side of the Temple. "H and Rafe are taking care of business."

"Have to help…" Blair mumbled, pushing at Jim to urge him to go.

"I can't carry you up the steps, kid, sorry," Jim replied, his voice tight. He could leave Blair, but he was afraid to let go of his partner.

"I c'n walk," Sandburg insisted feebly. "Just…help me up."

Not sure that was the best idea, Ellison complied nevertheless. He could hear the racket of automatic weapons fire and knew his companions were outgunned. They could use all the help they could get. He helped Blair stand, supporting the younger man when Sandburg stumbled dizzily, and insisted on pulling the jacket onto his Guide's chilled body before they staggered up the steps together.

When they got to the entrance, they found H and Rafe pinned down by the barrage of automatic gunfire from below. Standing just inside the shadows, Jim looked out and saw that the other two detectives had already taken out three men. But the one shooting at them now was almost completely hidden in the thick foliage-and then Jim spotted another man sneaking around to the side to catch them in a cross-fire.

The Sentinel felt the light touch of his Guide's hand on his back as he aimed at the guy firing from the brush, focusing his vision to be certain of his target, and then squeezed off a shot. A startled yell and the crash of a body falling through the bushes told him he'd hit his mark. Shifting his attention, he lined up on the last aggressor, and recognized the drug lord who had tried to kill them the last time they'd been in Mexico. His jaw tight, Jim called out, "Drop your weapon, Aguillero, or I'll shoot."

A burst of fire answered his offer. Ellison ducked quickly back behind the lintel, wincing as the bullets ricocheted off the stone wall right where he'd been standing. Dropping to a crouch, he darted back into the opening and fired back, killing the crime lord.

Grimacing against the pain in his leg, Ellison braced a hand on the wall to lever himself back up to a standing position. Turning to the others, he said, "I think that's all of them."

"Listen, Jim," Blair counseled quietly, his voice raspy and weak. "Are you sure?"

Ellison tilted his head unconsciously as he followed his Guide's instructions, listening intently while his eyes raked the forest around them. Tired, he might have zoned but for Blair's sure touch that held him grounded and steady. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure. We're clear."

He heard a soft sigh behind him and whirled around to see H grab Sandburg as he collapsed, unconscious. Swinging Blair up into his arms, the big man moved past Ellison to head down the Temple steps.

"Come on. We need to get him to a doctor," H urged as Rafe wrapped a steadying arm around Jim to help him limp down the cracked and broken steps and through the jungle.

When they got back to the chopper, they found that their pilot had indeed been murdered, and the other pilot must have been one of the dead men back at the ancient ruin. But H never hesitated as he strode up to their conveyance. "Jim, get in the back and Rafe and I will hand him up to you."

"No, I'll have to fly…" Jim argued, much as his instincts were shouting at him to take back possession of his Guide.

"Got it covered, Tough Guy," H drawled. "Just get inside."

Jim gave his colleague a puzzled look as he climbed up into the helicopter, Rafe beside him to help lift Sandburg upwards. "Don't tell me you know how to fly one of these crates," Jim exclaimed, astonished by H's comment and air of assurance.

"Yep," H grinned as he lifted Sandburg up to their hands. Winking, he continued, tickled to have caught both Ellison and his partner, Rafe, by surprise with this little known fact about his past, "I really did fly Apaches in Desert Storm."

********************

Jim cradled Sandburg close as H flew them back to town. Blair's breathing was shallow but clear and even, and his heartbeat remained steady, if slow, but his pallor and haggard appearance scared Ellison, as did the continued chill and limp, lifelessness of his body. The kid looked like he'd lost weight, and his skin was papery, dry, giving clear evidence of severe dehydration. The loud thump of the rotary wings and the roar of the engine almost overwhelmed Jim's senses, but he refused to turn down his hearing. He needed to hear Blair breathe. Needed to hear the sound of his best friend's heart beating. It was the only evidence he had that Sandburg was still alive. Within an hour they'd arrived back in Sierra Verde, H choosing to land on the lawn of the small local hospital rather than return to the airfield, and only minutes after that Sandburg was warmly bundled on a gurney in the rather primitive Emergency treatment room.

The local doctor bustled over him, checking his blood pressure, getting a temperature reading, monitoring his breathing and heart rate, testing the reflexes of his pupils to light and his body to pain stimulus, feeling the dry texture of his skin. Blowing out a breath, the elderly man finally straightened and nodded thoughtfully. Speaking quickly in Spanish to the nurse, he directed that an intravenous be started to combat his patient's evident malnutrition and dangerously severe dehydration and he asked that blood samples be taken so he could determine what nutrients were most urgently needed.

"Well, is he going to be all right?" Jim demanded, anxious, his body tense with worry.

Turning to face the agitated man, the old doctor smiled reassuringly as he nodded. "Si, I theenk your amigo, how you say, 'friend'…he is just in a deep sleep. We weel watch over him, but, si, yes, I theenk he will be fine."

Blind with relief, Jim swayed a little as the tension washed out of him and the exhaustion of strained emotions and too many hours without sleep caught up with him. Henri steadied him with a strong grip on his arm, and swallowed back the lump in his own throat.

"Jim, you stay here with Hairboy while Rafe and I explain what happened to the local authorities. We'll call Simon from the copshop and tell 'im we found the kid, okay?" the detective said, his voice suspiciously hoarse.

"Yeah, great, thanks," Jim sighed, blinking back the burning in his eyes as he gave them both a small, but very grateful, smile. Rafe was beaming at him, as was H, as they shared a moment of profound relief.

"We'll check into a hotel and then come back to see how he's doing," Rafe said then, as the two partners turned to go.

********************

Ellison sat by Sandburg's bedside for hours, tightly gripping his partner's hand. H and Rafe had joined him for a couple of hours, but left again to get something to eat. They brought a couple of tacos back with them, along with some strong Mexican coffee, and nagged Jim into eating. He'd complied, but had eventually sent them back to the hotel to get some sleep. Night had fallen long before, but Jim wasn't prepared to leave himself, not until Sandburg woke up, and probably not even then. The slow drip of the IV and Blair's soft breathing was the only sound in the bare, whitewashed room. Beyond the barren walls, during the day and evening, he had heard the quiet sounds of nurses going about their tasks, and of other patients in the rooms along the hall. But now the small hospital had fallen into the quiet of the hours between dusk and dawn.

It was sometime after midnight when Blair finally stirred back to wakefulness, blinking against the soft light of the small lamp on the tiny table by the iron bed.

"Hey, you finally waking up?" Jim murmured softly, reaching to stroke his friend's forehead, his touch light, even tender.

For a moment, Blair seemed confused, but then his eyes focused and found Jim leaning over him. "Hey," he muttered, his voice a little dry and raspy.

Jim lifted the cup of water from the table, and then supported Blair's head while he drank. "Take it slow," Ellison cautioned.

When Blair had had enough, Jim gently settled his head back on the pillow and again took the smaller hand in his own.

"You're really here," Sandburg marveled, still feeling dazed and a little disoriented. "It wasn't just another vision…"

"Oh, I'm here all right," Jim replied, his voice tight with pent-up emotion. He knew it probably wasn't the time, and he knew he should just let Sandburg rest, but he couldn't help himself. His eyes flashing with residual fear, his voice harsher than he wanted it to be, he demanded, "What the hell did you think you were doing out there? For that matter, why did you take off in the first place?"

Blair's eyes darted away as he swallowed, wondering what to say, how to explain what he didn't really understand himself, his memories of those days of dazed despair almost surreal. He'd been acting instinctively, driven by a sense of hopelessness and the need to escape the disaster of his life. "I didn't know what else to do," he whispered, his voice cracking a little. "There was nothing left back in Cascade…"

"Just hold it right there, Junior," Jim challenged, his voice gruff, his heart aching at the despair he could see on Blair's face and in his eyes. "Your home is in Cascade. Your life is there."

"Not any more," Sandburg ground out. "At least-I thought it was all over, Jim. The University, us-everything…"

"Well, you were wrong about that, Chief," Ellison replied tightly. "You're my partner, and we'll figure out what to do about the mess at Rainier."

Sandburg shook his head. "It's too late, Jim," he sighed wearily, feeling the depression settle over him again, bringing the weight of hopelessness with it. "I can't be your partner, not when everyone believes I'm a liar and a fraud. Besides, you said…" but his voice broke and he couldn't continue.

"What? What did I say?" Jim demanded, frowning at the shadows in Blair's eyes, the anguish in his voice.

"You said you didn't want the senses-that you wanted your life back-that it was time to move on," Blair blurted in one breath, having to get it out before he lost control completely. But he couldn't look at Jim, and had to blink at the burning in his eyes.

"Ah, Blair," Jim sighed as he rubbed a hand over his face. Turning, Jim dragged the wooden chair closer and sank onto it, his hand again reaching for Blair's, knowing they both needed the physical contact. "I was scared, hurt. I didn't know what I was saying. Not thinking, just reacting. I'm sorry, Chief." He paused for a long moment as he gazed at Sandburg, devastated by the pain he'd caused his best friend, sick to his soul at how close he'd come to losing his partner because of his thoughtless words and actions. "When I saw your press conference, I felt…" Jim paused, unable to express what those moments had felt like; as if something had been crushing his chest and he couldn't breathe, choking him with a jumbled mixture of grief and guilt, sorrow and disbelief, and an ache deep inside that Blair had done that for him. Ellison shook his head, wishing words didn't get caught in his throat. Wishing he could express how deeply he'd been affected by Blair's sacrifice.

Swallowing, his voice low and cracking as he attempted to control his emotions, Jim continued, "I guess, I don't know the words for what I felt. Nobody has ever cared about me that much, Sandburg-to give up everything just to protect me. I never expected, never wanted you to do that."

"I know," Blair replied tightly, his eyes still averted. "It wasn't your fault, Jim. I owed you…"

But Ellison cut in sharply, "You don't owe me a thing, Blair. Not a single thing. I'm the one who owes you, for protecting me, and helping me control these things. Don't you understand that yet?"

His throat tight, Blair shook his head slowly. "I felt as if everything that ever mattered to me was gone, that I had nothing left." He sniffed, blinking hard again, but a single tear escaped to roll down his cheek.

Tenderly, Jim reached to brush it away, fighting the burning in his own eyes. "God, I'm so sorry, Blair," he sighed. "But-why the Temple, Chief? Why did you risk that?"

Blair searched the dark ceiling, his lips tight as he swallowed back the surging emotion. "I felt so lost, you know?" he finally murmured. "I didn't set out to come to Mexico. I just needed to get away from everything. But, when I got here, I had no place else to go. And…and I'm sorry, but I didn't care what happened to me anymore, Jim. I didn't care if I lived or died. I just wanted to try to understand what I'd done wrong, how I'd failed you…"

"Jesus, Blair," Jim choked, closing his eyes to hold his own tears back. "Don't ever do anything like that again. If I'd lost you…"

But Ellison's voice broke with emotion, and he couldn't continue. All he could do was hold on to Sandburg's hand for dear life. Finally, he said quietly into the silence that had fallen between them, "You didn't do anything wrong, Chief. Not a thing, except leave without talking to me first. That was wrong. I'm your friend, your partner, and your Sentinel. I couldn't believe it when I heard you'd left on some ship, took off without a word and just left me behind."

Jim cringed a little at his words. He sounded like this was all about him and it wasn't, and it wasn't what he'd meant. It was about Sandburg, and how lost his best friend had felt, when if he'd just talked to Jim, they could have worked it out. The kid wouldn't have had to suffer so much, wouldn't have had to taken risks that might have killed him.

"I guess I didn't think you were any of those things anymore, not when I left," Blair sighed miserably. "I just felt so empty."

"But you know now, right?" Jim pushed, needing to know that Sandburg knew he'd never had to leave in the first place; that Jim was, and would always be, there for him.

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah," he whispered. Shifting his gaze to Jim, he revealed then, "I saw Incacha at the Temple. He told me how to make the potion and led me to the Grotto of the Guides."

"What?" Jim almost shouted. If Incacha wasn't already dead, the Sentinel might well have killed him in that moment for having put Sandburg at such risk.

"He said that maybe it was right that I'd gone there to find answers," Blair replied quietly. "He said I'd have to find my path, that I'd have to choose between life and death."

"Oh, God," Jim sighed, closing his eyes. So close. It had been so close. The thought of finding Sandburg dead in that pool made his gut churn with nausea, tightened his chest and made it hard to breathe.

"I saw all these visions, Jim," Blair continued quietly. "Visions of what could have happened if I hadn't found you almost four years ago. Visions of how you felt when you thought…when you thought I was in deadly peril, or…or dead. Visions of what might happen in the future if I wasn't there to back you up, to be your Guide. And I had to choose…"

Jim swallowed hard as he opened his eyes and looked into the dark pools of Sandburg's intent gaze, waiting wordlessly for his best friend to finish his story.

"I chose life, Jim," Blair murmured. "I couldn't leave you, not when it came right down to it. I couldn't. But it was too late. I was too weak to get out of the pool. I would have died there if you hadn't come for me."

Jim's lips trembled as he stood to lean over Blair and lift him into a tight hug, one hand cradling Blair's neck and head against his chest. "Don't ever leave me," he whispered, blinded by tears, his lips against Sandburg's curls.

Blair's arms came up around him, hugging him back. They were silent for a long moment, and then Blair said quietly, "I don't know how to make this work, Jim. It's all so badly screwed up now. I can't be your partner…"

"We'll work it out, Chief," Jim cut in, his voice hoarse but determined. "Together, we'll figure out a way to make it work. I promise you that. It'll be okay."

Blair closed his eyes as he leaned into Jim's chest, holding his Sentinel tight, warmed and finally reassured and comforted by Jim's strong, secure, embrace. He took a deep breath and then another, letting the fear and the depression seep out of his body and his heart. Jim wanted him back, needed him. And that was all that mattered. Finally at peace, he nodded against Ellison's chest.

Together, they'd find a way to work it all out.

Finis

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