The conclusion of Blair's interview coincided with the end of their working day, so the partners cleared their desks and headed home for the night. Neither of them spoke until they were in the truck and headed out of the garage.

"They give you a rough time, Chief?" Ellison asked, flicking a look of concern at his uncharacteristically quiet partner.

"Oh, man, this is so not good," Sandburg groaned as he unconsciously thumped his fist on the bottom of the open window frame of the truck. Turning to face Jim, he continued, "They've convinced themselves I'm some kind of master-criminal in league with Alex Barnes, and that you overlook my lack of ethics because we're…"

"I know what they think, Chief," Jim cut in, his jaw tight. "Their insinuations aren't subtle."

Blair blew out a long breath and slumped back against his seat, his eyes pressed closed as he massaged his temples. "God, I have such a headache!"

"Ah, Sandburg, are you trying to tell me something here? Like you'd just like to have a quiet night?" Jim quipped, a grin playing around his lips as he gently teased his best friend.

Blair frowned at the words and tone. Opening one eye to peer suspiciously at his partner and catching the woe-be-gone, heartbroken look that Jim was casting at him, he broke up into snickers that turned into guffaws. Panting, trying to catch his breath, shaking his head at the broad grin on Ellison's face, Blair sputtered, "This isn't funny, Jim!"

"I don't know…you seem to find the idea pretty amusing," Ellison replied with a chuckle. Sobering then, he flashed a look at Blair then reached out to grip his friend's shoulder as he drove one-handedly while he said, "I don't care what they think, Chief…it doesn't matter. What matters is clearing up this mess." Jim sighed then shook his head. "They twist things to their own ends, things you say, things that happened…I don't think I helped you much today during my interview with them…."

"They quoted some of what you said to me," Blair replied, waving off Jim's concerns. "Don't worry about it, Jim…they only hear what they want to hear. That's what makes them so dangerous. They've already made their minds up before they start their investigation and there's no point bothering them with the facts."

"We'll get you out of this, Blair…we'll find the real thief," Ellison promised him.

"Yeah, I know…it's just a matter of time. The Major Crimes Unit always get their man," Sandburg replied with a drawl, smiling in private amusement at his obscure reference to the motto of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"You got it, Chief," Jim replied with determined confidence. As he noticed where they were, he pulled over into a convenient parking slot in front of his bank. Popping open the door, he said, "I need some cash, Chief. I'll just be a minute…do you want to come in or wait?"

"I'll wait," Blair replied. "Banks depress me…all that money and none of it mine," he quipped.

Jim grinned at him as he shut the door and headed into the neighbourhood branch.

Blair leaned back, again massaging his temples and taking deep, grounding breaths…but when the sharp, explosive pops of weapons' fire split the air, he jerked upright, looking quickly around the area to determine where the shots had come from. The behaviour of the pedestrians, as they scrambled away from the bank's window, caused his heart to clench.

"Oh my God," he breathed as he grabbed up the microphone for the police radio in the truck. "Bank holdup in progress on McGillvery south of Crow's Foot. Shots fired. Officers on the scene require backup immediately."

Even as Dispatch confirmed his call, and sent out the message to all units in the vicinity, Blair was out of the truck, pulling his weapon into his hand as he raced to the bank's window and took a cautious look inside. What he saw made his blood run cold…three men down, including Jim, two more standing and waving their weapons around wildly at the innocent people trapped in the bank.

Blair knew he should probably wait for backup…but that was Jim lying in there, bleeding on the marble floor…and there were too many potential hostages, too many people in danger if these guys weren't taken down quickly. Making his decision, doubled over to present a smaller target at the window, he raced to the door to shout through it, "Police! Drop your weapons!" but the only response was a barrage of bullets that shattered the glass of the door beside him as he twisted away. Taking a deep breath, Blair crashed through the remains of the door, rolling as he landed and coming up to whip off a shot at one of the gunmen, who was swinging his weapon toward him. His bullet caught the guy in the shoulder, shattering it and causing the villain to drop with a scream of agony to the floor.

Blair rolled again, just in time to evade bullets shot at him by the only criminal still standing. The bullets hit the marble floor, spitting up dust and chinks of stone. By the time Blair was back in position, braced on one knee, his other bent with his foot firmly braced on the floor and his gun focused on the last bad guy, the felon had grabbed a young teller as a shield, holding her tightly against him, his gun at her head. She was trembling with terror, her eyes wide and panicked as she begged him to let her go.

"Shut up!" he snarled, digging the snout of his gun into her temple for emphasis and her wretched, shrill pleas abruptly stopped, leaving only the sounds of her hysterical sobs. "Drop your gun, pig, or I'll blow her head off," he threatened.

Blair kept his gun trained on the assailant while his eyes quickly flicked around the bank, evaluating the situation. Jim was laying face down a few feet away, blood spreading on the floor from a wound in his head that Blair couldn't see. The other two guys who had been shot were wearing masks, indicating Jim had done some damage before he'd been taken down, however much he'd been taken by surprise. There were what looked like half a dozen other clients in the bank, two more tellers and some other staff. All of the civilians looked terrified, standing or crouching in a frozen tableau of fear. He didn't see any other wounded and hoped that, so far at least, none of the civilians had been harmed.

"No…I think I should keep my gun," Blair replied calmly. "You don't want to kill her, man…right now, you haven't even stolen anything, just committed assault. Why go up for murder when you can get away with a slap on the wrist? Besides, if you kill her, you won't have a shield anymore to save you from me. So, I'd suggest you drop your gun, now."

It was a standoff. The guy holding the girl was desperate…made more so by the sounds of sirens converging outside.

"You're surrounded, man, you'll never get away. Give it up, before you make things worse than they already are," Blair cajoled softly, easing himself slowly up until he was standing. He was watching the gunman's gun arm and hand, watching the trembling caused by desperate fear and adrenaline, watching the finger on the trigger of the weapon shoved against the poor girl's head.

"I swear, I'll kill her," the man insisted, breathing heavily.

Looking into the felon's eyes, seeing the flat, cold, brutality there, Blair knew he was telling the truth. "If I lower my gun, will you let her go?" he asked, knowing the guy wouldn't be able to resist turning the gun on him.

"Oh, yeah, pig, I promise," the criminal smiled, unable to believe the cop could be so stupid, but glad of it. "She'll be fine if you drop your gun," he urged, starting to think he might get out of this mess alive. "I don't want to kill her if I don't have to."

"Okay, man, just stay cool," Blair soothed, evaluating his options. The only target open to him was the man's head, and if he shot while that gun was trained on the girl, the body's reflex at sudden death could well result in the discharge of the weapon, killing her instantly. He had to get the gun away from her head. Taking a deep breath, swallowing hard, steadying himself, he kept his eyes trained on his target, bitterly conscious that all his time in practice to avoid killing someone had only prepared him to take on the single small target left to him…the felon's face. This was it…the questions about 'when' and ' how soon' were about to be answered. He couldn't let that girl or anyone else be killed by this man. He'd made a vow to 'serve and protect'. He didn't have any more choices.

His face suddenly white, his eyes wide, Blair began to lower his gun. As soon as it was trained on the floor, the gunman sneered and moved quickly to turn his own weapon on Blair, his finger tightening on the trigger. Stupid pig, he thought.

Blair moved with electric speed, his arms sweeping up, the gun steadied by his two-handed grip, as he fired.

The girl screamed as the gun in her captor's hand exploded, so close behind the blast of Sandburg's weapon that the sounds merged together in one defeating blast. Blair was thrown back by the force of the bullet that hit him. The criminal dropped, dead before he hit the floor.

Ignoring his shoulder wound, Blair pushed himself up quickly and moved to put cuffs around the wrists of the villain he'd wounded, checked the others and found Jim had fired with deadly accuracy. Blair couldn't bring himself to look at the man he had just killed, just concentrated on the pain in his own shoulder and the effort of keeping his breathing even to distract him from the roiling in his gut…to keep himself from vomiting or shrieking wildly with helpless, hopeless anguish. As he worked, he called out, "Anyone else hurt?"

"No," a tall man said from his position by the wall.

Nodding gratefully, Blair then demanded, "Who's the manager of this branch?"

"I am," a middle-aged, smartly dressed, woman said as she stepped forward, her face haggard.

"Call 911, tell them the robbery in progress has been stopped, the bad guys subdued and that the police officers outside can come in. Tell them we need a couple of ambulances immediately…officer down. Got it?" Blair rapped out.

"Got it," she replied, moving quickly to a phone. Blair didn't want to risk anyone being mistaken for one of the robbers if they stuck their heads out that door so soon after shots had been fired.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself and fight off the darkness hovering on the edge of his vision, having finally fulfilled all of his duties, he turned to do the only thing he'd wanted to do since he'd first looked in the window and had seen Jim on the floor. Stumbling a little, he fell to his knees beside Jim, terrified of what he might find. Quickly, he checked his partner before moving him. Reaching for a pulse, Blair thought he might faint with the relief of that steady, strong beat. "Thank you," he whispered fervently to whatever powers that be. Leaning forward, he carefully felt Jim's head to find out how bad the wound was and was again infinitely relieved to find that his partner seemed to have been only grazed by the bullet. Not seeing any evidence of other wounds, he gingerly turned his friend over, made awkward by the wound to his own shoulder.

Positioning Jim's head and shoulders over his thighs, supporting his friend against his chest and good shoulder, he called out softly, "Hey, Jim…time to wake up, buddy…you're scaring me, man. C'mon, Jim, wake up."

Sandburg was afraid his friend might have zoned on the pain or smell of blood, and was vastly relieved when Ellison's eyelids fluttered and opened to stare up at him in confusion.

"Easy, Jim, you're all right. Everything's fine…we got the bad guys and nobody else got hurt," Blair assured him.

Frowning, muttering a low groan as one hand gingerly came up to touch his head, Ellison winced with pain, but then his gaze caught the blood pulsing from the wound in Sandburg's shoulder, "You're…hurt…" he rumbled, fear flaring in his eyes.

"Not bad, don't worry," Blair replied quietly, ignoring the fire of pain that radiated from his shoulder wound. "Dial it down, man…the pain…your sense of smell. Stinks of blood in here, I know. Just dial it down and you'll be fine."

Ellison nodded and winced again, tried to get up but the sudden dizziness defeated him. "What happened?" he asked. "There were two others…."

"I took care of them," Blair replied, his voice suddenly flat as his gaze skittered away from his friend's eyes.

Just then, the door of the bank flew open as police wearing bulletproof vests stormed in, rifles in their hands. Turning, Blair called out, "It's okay, guys…it's over. This is Detective Ellison and I'm Detective Sandburg, Major Crimes Unit. We just happened to be in the neighbourhood…"

The room tilted and lurched suddenly, or so it seemed to Sandburg who suddenly felt himself spiral into darkness. "Take care of my partn…" was all he got out before he slipped sideways onto the floor. The last thing he heard was Ellison crying out his name.

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

By the time Simon arrived at the hospital with Joel at his heels, Jim's head wound had been stitched up and was in the process of being bandaged. At the desk, the captain learned that Sandburg was already in surgery.

Not giving a damn about hospital protocol, knowing Ellison might need him with Sandburg out of action, Simon strode down the hall and burst into the examining room. He was immensely relieved to hear Ellison giving the doctor a hard time…it meant Jim was just fine.

"Look, you want me to stay overnight for 'observation', fine. You want me to stay awake to be sure that this concussion isn't dangerous, also fine. But…I'm telling you that you might as well put me in the same room as Sandburg, because that's where I'm going to be…sitting right beside my partner," Ellison snarled.

"Detective, you need to rest…and sitting up all night isn't my idea of 'rest'," the doctor was replying with some impatience. It appeared to Simon that this discussion might have been underway for some time.

Jim looked over as he entered and called out, "Simon, thank God. They won't tell me how Sandburg is, or what's happening to him…" he said, fear naked in his eyes.

"He's in surgery," Simon advised him, then turned to the physician. "I'm Captain Simon Banks. How is he, Doctor?"

"Ornery," the physician replied. "But, I can't do much to treat him for that. As for his head, I think he'll be fine."

"He'll rest a lot easier if you let him be with his partner tonight," Simon offered, trying to make peace the easiest way possible.

Sighing, the doctor nodded. It wasn't that hard to arrange and easier than fighting with a man who didn't need his blood pressure rising to aggravate his concussion. "Fine…"

Jim blew out a sigh of relief, and accepted Simon's assistance to sit up. "Surgery…how bad was his wound?"

"The officers on the scene reported that it didn't seem that serious, Jim. Relax, Sandburg will be fine," Simon reassured him. "But," he continued, seeing the need for a more expert opinion in Ellison's eyes, "to be sure, perhaps the doctor here could give us a few more details…"

"Detective Sandburg lost a fair amount of blood because the bullet clipped a small artery, but it was a flesh wound, no shattered bones. They've taken him to surgery to remove the bullet and he should be up in his room within a couple of hours," the physician replied. "Captain Banks is correct. Detective Sandburg should be just fine in a couple of weeks."

Banks could feel Ellison's muscles finally relax under his hand. "Ready to tell me what happened?" he asked his detective.

"I don't know all of it, Simon," Ellison replied with a sigh, wincing a little against the pounding that thudded through his head. "I'd jogged into the bank, not really paying attention, and found myself in the middle of a hold up. I guess I startled one of the robbers, because he whipped around and shot at me. I remember pulling my gun, and shooting…but that's about all. When I woke up, Blair told me it was over and none of the civilians had been hurt."

"Well, from what I can piece together, you managed to take down two of the bank robbers, and Blair took down the last two, saving a hostage's life in the process," Simon supplied.

"What do you mean by 'took down'?" Jim asked as he rubbed his forehead, dreading the answer.

"He had to kill one of them, Jim," Simon replied quietly. Ellison looked up at Simon, then behind him to Joel, seeing the grief and regret in both of their gazes, knowing the same must be reflected in his own eyes.

With a muffled sound, Jim bowed his head, his eyes pressed closed. Oh God, Sandburg, I'm so sorry, he thought, knowing what that action must have cost his partner. I'm so very sorry…

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

Ellison consented to remain on his bed until the gurney bearing Sandburg's still form was finally wheeled into the room and his best friend was carefully transferred to the bed. And then, Jim was up and beside his partner, reaching for his hand, brushing the curls away from his face. Simon and Joel had waited with him, and were now standing at the foot of Sandburg's bed, equally anxious and concerned.

Blair blinked at the gentle touch on his forehead, the feeling of a larger hand grasping his own tightly. Blinking, bleary with the aftereffects of the surgery and pain medication, he looked up and tried to focus. "Jim?" he whispered past a dry, very sore throat.

"I'm here, Chief…you're okay," Ellison replied quietly with a soft, reassuring smile. "Everything's going to be okay."

"What happened?" Sandburg asked, confused. Looking around, he spotted Simon and Joel, squinting to see them better, to try to understand the expressions on their faces. They looked so sad. "What's wrong?"

"Don't worry about it, now, Sandburg," Jim soothed. "Lots of time for the details in the morning. Right now, you just need to rest, okay?"

Blair frowned, not liking the feeling of confusion. Unwilling to relax until he could remember what had happened, why he was in the hospital and Jim had that bandage on his head, he demanded, "You okay?"

"I'm fine, honest," Jim reassured him. "There's nothing to worry about."

His eyes flickering around the room, Blair took a breath and winced at the pain in his shoulder…and then he remembered being shot…and then he remembered… "Oh God," he gasped. Weak from the injury, muddled by the drugs, he couldn't help the trembling that took hold of his body or the tears that suddenly filled his eyes. "I…Jim, I killed…"

"Easy, Blair," Jim replied, holding his friend's hand even tighter while he gently stroked his friend's head. "Easy. Listen to me…you had no choice. You saved a woman's life, maybe lots of lives…"

His face blanched as white as the sheets, wide blue eyes glistening with moisture, Blair fought the nausea, and felt guilt swamp him. Unable to face anyone, turning his head away, his jaw tight against the sob he was holding in his throat, he closed his eyes to stop the tears, but they slipped silently past his lashes to trace sad paths down his cheeks. Blessedly, darkness descended to mute the horror he felt to the depths of his soul.

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

"Oh great, just great," Hurley muttered as he threw the newspaper aside having just read the headlining story. "Now he's a hero, shot in the line of duty saving a civilian's life."

Forbes sighed as she rubbed the back of neck. "Yeah, looks like he is," she agreed wearily. They were back to square one without any credible suspect, and they might as well face it. "Look, Frank, I really don't buy that there is some massive criminal conspiracy going on up in Major Crimes…it doesn't add up with the facts about their performance. I think everything they've told us about Sandburg is true. He's clean. All we've got is circumstantial shit that doesn't add up to a hill of beans. Maybe we should take Banks up on his offer, show him what we have. It's not much, but if we can link anything to someone with a grudge against Sandburg, maybe we'll find our perp."

Hurley nodded in agreement, much as he hated to. Internal Affairs wasn't known for building alliances with other units. "If we don't, we really will look like fools…and I'm tired of whoever it is dancing around, snubbing his nose at all of us. Let's get this guy."

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

After Simon and Joel had taken their leave the night before, Ellison steadfastly ignored all the many efforts by the nurses to get him to return to his own bed. Throughout the long hours of darkness, he sat holding his partner's hand, keeping a vigil beside him. It was all he could do just then to keep Sandburg safe. All he could do was be there when the kid woke up again, to offer comfort as best he could.

Ellison did a lot of thinking during the night and the thoughts weren't happy ones. Blair could have been as easily killed as wounded during that shoot-out. The bullet had gone into his left shoulder. Only a few inches lower, it would have been his heart. The Sentinel closed his eyes and hung his head, overwhelmed by his failure to protect his Guide.

But, this time, the wound hadn't only been to Blair's body. Blinking against the moisture in his eyes, Jim knew it went a whole lot deeper than that. For as long as he'd known him, Sandburg had had an aversion to guns and violence, hanging in only because of his profound commitment to stay by Ellison, to support him in every way needed. Sick at heart, Jim counted off the costs, the prices Blair had paid to stand by him. He'd been taken hostage by a maniac who had intended to kill him, he'd been shot more than once, he'd been beaten, sometimes very badly, he'd been murdered, drowned in that damned fountain, he'd given up his career and his good reputation publicly…and now, this gentle, compassionate man had forced himself to learn how to use a gun and had killed a man. A monster, sure. There'd been no choice. But Ellison knew Blair wouldn't ever feel anything but guilt and grief for what he'd been forced to do.

Forced by circumstance…and forced by his commitment to one James Joseph Ellison.

And what had he gotten in return? Someone who too often treated him like shit. Who failed to get down on his knees everyday and thank God for the miracle of having Blair Sandburg in his life.

As he stared into Blair's too pale face and listened to the steady beat of his best friend's heart, Ellison shook his head as he murmured, "Too much, Chief…I cost you too much." Swallowing, his head again bowed with the pain of his decision, he determined that he had to save Blair from coming to any more harm on his account. Sandburg would be awarded his doctorate in a few weeks time. Maybe he could find work in the city and wouldn't have to move away…but Ellison was brutally realistic with himself. There weren't many jobs for anthropologists in Cascade, especially since Rainier wouldn't consider giving him a position. So, it was likely that Blair would have to go away. The anguish of that thought, the fear it engendered, constricted the Sentinel's, the friend's, heart. But, relentlessly, he mastered it and pushed it away.

It wouldn't be easy, Ellison thought as he again gazed at Blair's face and brushed the hair back. Crazy, wild curls. Sandburg wouldn't go without a fight. He'd already shown how much he was willing to face, to do, out of loyalty and love. No, it wouldn't be easy. Ellison knew he'd have to force Blair to leave. It would be hard, and it would hurt like hell…hurt both of them. But, at least the kid would be alive. He'd have to be one truly miserable bastard to make Blair finally give up on him. "No problem, eh, Chief?" he whispered aloud at that thought. "It's one of the things I do best, isn't it? Nobody knows that better than you."

So, once again, Jim Ellison decided to take control of the situation and do what had to be done, for Sandburg's own good. He consoled himself with the lie that it was only a matter of time anyway. Blair wasn't cut out to be a cop…his spirit was too innocent, too easily bruised. With his Ph.D., at some point Blair would realize that he just couldn't do it anymore, and that he did have choices. And, then he would leave. So…best to do it now, get it over with. It would be better for both of them in the long run.

Hard as it was, Jim really tried to believe the lies he was telling himself.

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

By the time Sandburg recovered consciousness the next day, Ellison had decided there was no time like the present to begin his campaign to drive Blair away. For the last few hours, he'd been grappling with his driving but competing needs to both lend Blair the support he needed to live with the shooting, and to make Sandburg despise him so much the kid would leave of his own volition. Finally, he decided he would give the necessary messages, and hope Blair heard them, but give them with a brutal clarity.

But, God, when those eyes opened and looked at him with such pain and trust, it damned near brought Ellison to his knees. "Sleep well?" he asked quietly.

Blair's eyes darted around the room, and the memories crashed back in. Striving to control his emotions, he gripped Jim's hand hard as he stared at the ceiling and whispered hoarsely, "I killed someone, and, Jim, I don't even know his name."

"Yeah, well, it doesn't matter what his name was…the guy was scum. You did right, Chief. From what I hear, there was nothing else you could have done," Jim replied, his voice steady, matter-of-fact.

Sandburg's gaze shifted to his as he murmured, "I know, Jim…but I feel so…"

"Don't," Ellison cut in, his tone impatient. "I don't want to hear a lot of angst and guilt. You're a cop. You did your job."

A frown puckered Blair's brow and his eyes clouded with confusion as he said quietly, "I know that. That's not the point…"

"It's the only point, Sandburg," Jim replied coldly, pulling his hand from Blair's grip, standing up and away. "I know how it feels, you don't have to explain it to me."

Remembering that Jim had also been forced to kill two men the day before, Blair immediately felt contrite, as he called out softly, "Hey, I'm sorry, man…I didn't mean…"

"Don't you ever get tired of apologizing and feeling bad, Chief?" Ellison again cut in harshly. "Get over it. You saved a lot of lives, ended a volatile, dangerous situation. You did everything right. So, if you killed someone who forced you into it, that's the way it goes. Live with it."

"Jim!" Simon's voice cut in sharply from the doorway. He'd arrived early, bearing clean clothes for Ellison, Blair's glasses and their shaving gear, just in time to hear the last couple of exchanges. And he was furious at the lack of compassion Ellison was showing his partner. For God's sake, Sandburg didn't need a lesson in civics right now…he needed the chance to talk it out, find some measure of peace with the choice he'd had to make, what he'd had to do. "Don't you think you could go a little easier on the kid?"

Ellison's eyes flashed to the door, filled with hot anger and a cold warning to butt out, as he shot back, "No, Captain, I don't think I could. Sandburg chose to be a cop. Yeah, he just killed a man…well, if he's going to be a cop, he'll likely have to kill again someday. The faster he learns to live with it, the better."

Simon looked from Ellison's flushed face to Blair's pale visage and swallowed at the look of confusion and pain he saw there. "Well, you've made your point, Detective. Let's shelve it for now," he said, trying to defuse the situation. The last thing Sandburg needed was a shouting match. "How're you doing, Blair?" he asked, brushing past Ellison to approach the bed.

Something flickered in Blair's eyes before he looked away. Quietly, his voice a little unsteady, he replied, "I'll be okay, Simon, thanks."

Simon hesitated, then said, equally quietly, "I know it hurts, son. But what this lumbering ox you call a partner was trying to say was essentially right. You didn't have a choice. From the statements made by the witnesses, it's clear you did what you could to avoid having to shoot…but he forced you into it, Blair. You saved that young woman's life, maybe the lives of everyone in that bank. It hurts…but it would hurt a lot more to have been able to save those innocent civilians and not done so. You did everything right, remember that."

Blair nodded tightly, his eyes skittering around the room until they finally came to rest on Simon's. Trying to smile, only succeeding in a wobbly facsimile, Blair said, "I know…Jim just told me basically the same thing in his own warm and fuzzy way. Thanks, Simon."

Patting his good shoulder, Simon counseled, "Right now, your job is to rest and get well. If you need to talk about it later, just let me know."

Blair nodded, but looked away. Much as he wanted, needed, to talk about the devastation he felt inside, he knew he'd never raise the issue again with either of these two men. Jim was right, they both knew what it felt like, and making it a big deal, as if it was so much harder for him to bear than it was for them, seemed too much like criticism of their ways of coping. So, he pushed the pain away, rigorously suppressed the tears that threatened, erased as much of what he felt from his face as he could, hiding it all away…until he was alone…and could weep with profound grief for what he'd had to do.

When Ellison saw that look of lost innocence and devastation sweep into Blair's eyes, he wanted to do nothing so much as lunge forward and pull Sandburg into his arms, to lend comfort and strength, to let him cry it out…and find some measure of peace. He felt tears sting his eyes as he swallowed against the lump in his throat. Turning to hide the emotion he couldn't master, Ellison growled gruffly, "You see, Simon. The kid is fine."

But, Simon had seen more than Ellison had counted on. Frowning thoughtfully at the raw, naked anguish he'd seen on Jim's face as the older man had studied his partner, hearing the gruffness and recognizing the sound of tears when he heard it, Simon wondered what the hell was going on.

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

Jim hung around for an hour after Simon had taken his leave, exhibiting signs of restlessness until he finally told Sandburg that since the kid seemed to be doing fine, there was no real need for him to stay, so he was going to head home, have a shower and get some sleep.

"Sure, Jim," Blair had agreed quietly, taking in his friend's haggard, tired expression, wondering how much sleep Jim had gotten the night before and worried about him. "I'm fine. See you later."

In minutes, Jim had gone, as if he couldn't wait to leave. And Blair was alone, with his thoughts, his memories…and the pain. Tears slipped down the sides of his face as he stared silently up at the ceiling. Sniffing, he figured he'd better get any crying he was going to do done now…he couldn't fall apart in the loft, not even in the dead of night, not with Jim able to hear everything, including a heartbeat made rapid by the peculiar mixture of furious anger, sick guilt and horrific grief he was feeling. Anger, because that guy had forced him, forced him to take a life. Guilt that he hadn't been able to find another way. Grief at having taken something as precious as a life, something as irreplaceable. Bad as that guy might have been, there sure as hell was no way now he'd ever have the chance to reform. That opportunity had been stolen from him when Blair's bullet had smashed through his brain.

Lost in his thoughts, drowning in his feelings, Blair didn't hear Joel quietly enter the room. For a long moment, the older man simply gazed with heartbreaking sorrow upon this gentle man who was suffering so much…suffering alone, Joel was surprised to see, wondering why Jim wasn't there. For a moment, he considered slipping away again, but he just couldn't bring himself to leave when Blair looked so lost, as if the world was ending and he didn't know how to make it right.

Clearing his throat to give warning of his presence, Joel moved forward, a kind smile on his face. "Hey, Blair," he said in greeting.

Startled, mortified, Blair hastily wiped the traces of tears from his face. "Joel…hi. Thanks for coming, man," he said, his voice shaky, rough with emotion.

Looking down for a moment, Joel laid a hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's okay to cry, you know," he said softly. Raising his eyes to Blair's wide blue gaze, he continued, "There're few things in this life that hurt a man as much as taking another person's life."

Blair bit his lip and looked away, desperately fighting back the sob he felt building in his chest. "Blair… where's Jim?" Joel asked, unable to believe Ellison wasn't nearby.

"Home," Sandburg managed to say, his voice cracking. "He…uh…decided to go…home."

Frowning with a mixture of puzzlement and anger, Joel had trouble believing that. "He just left you here, now? When you need…"

"It's okay," Blair sniffed, cutting in quickly, not comfortable with Jim being criticized. "He was hurt, too…he needs to rest."

Blair still wasn't meeting his eyes. Wanting to give support, hoping he was doing the right thing, Joel said gently, "You remember, Blair, I said if you ever need to talk to someone…you could talk to me."

And that was more kindness than Blair could withstand. His lips trembled as tears again filled his eyes and the sob burst from his throat in a low, anguished moan. Gripping Joel's hand tightly, grateful beyond his ability to express for the love and support of this good, decent man, Blair whispered brokenly, "I'm just so…sorry, Joel. I didn't want…didn't want to…ever have to…"

Reaching forward, carefully so as not to hurt his wound, Joel pulled Sandburg up against his chest in a tight hug. Stroking Blair's hair as the young man wept silently against his shoulder, he murmured, "I know, son…God, I'm so sorry you had to do that. I know it hurts. Let it out, Blair…it's okay…let it out."

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

Blair was able to go home two days later. Much as he wanted to act as if everything was fine, normal, he felt hollow and dispirited, still ached with sorrow. He wished he could talk to Jim about it…but Ellison wasn't giving out any signals of being approachable. Oh, he was there, he helped, did what needed to be done to help Sandburg with the dressing on his wound, with bathing…but it was as if he was just going through the motions.

Finally, the second evening, Blair asked, "Are you alright, man?" It had occurred to him that his ever-protective Sentinel might be feeling his own guilt about not being able to protect his Guide.

Looking up from the book he was reading, Ellison replied with mild surprise, "Yeah, I'm fine, Chief. Why, is something wrong?"

Shaking his head, Blair studied Ellison as he replied, "No, not wrong exactly. But, you've been awfully quiet since I got home."

"I'm not the only one, Chief," Jim replied with a shrug. "I just figured you needed time to, what do you call it? Process…yeah, process what happened."

Sandburg felt as if he'd just been slapped. The words had been innocent enough, but the tone had held a trace of contempt that was unmistakable. Looking away, he swallowed hard, wondering if he was somehow letting Jim down by not coping with all this better. He knew that Jim never took a life coldly or without some regret, but it was as if he'd expected Blair to be better than this, better able to deal with the reality and implications of the choices he'd made when he'd decided to become a cop. "Yeah, right, man…thanks," he murmured. A short while later, he quietly got up and returned to his room.

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

Blair returned to work two days later, 'light duty' it was called. 'Paperwork' was what he called it. Nevertheless, pitching back into the ongoing weapons' hijacking case gave him something to occupy his mind.

And it was a real relief to know that Internal Affairs had decided there had been an attempt to frame him and had backed off…were in fact working with Major Crimes, Megan and Joel specifically, to see if they couldn't collectively crack the case of the missing evidence.

Surprised to find out the decision had been rendered days before and that others had just assumed Jim had told him, Blair asked his partner why he hadn't shared the news. Unconcerned, Ellison shrugged as he replied off-handedly, "Guess it must have slipped my mind, Chief. Sorry." And then Jim had turned his attention back to the files on his desk, effectively terminating the conversation, leaving Blair to stare at his back in consternation.

It was the little things that wore Blair down as the days progressed. Jim's silent air of inexplicable impatience and disapproval. His constant bitching about files that seemed to somehow get misplaced or misfiled, complaining one day, "Dammit, Sandburg, it's not like you're pulling your full load here. The least you could do is keep the paperwork straight."

"What?" Blair had flared.

"What 'what'?" Jim had flashed back. "You mope around at home and here you seem incapable of doing the little bit of work being assigned to you. Chief, I…" breaking off, he turned away.

"Finish it, Jim, what were you going to say?" Sandburg demanded, stunned by his friend's words and his tone of condemnation.

"I just don't think you're cutting it, Sandburg…I don't think you're making the grade, here," Ellison replied coldly, his back still turned away…and then he walked away, leaving Blair with his mouth hanging open and his heart thudding in double time as he tried to absorb the hurt.

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

Blair was astonished, when he and Jim arrived for the ceremony, to find Eli's office filled and overflowing into the hall with people who had come to witness the confirmation of his doctorate and to celebrate that so richly deserved achievement with him. Not only were all the members of the Major Crimes Unit there, but Blair was touched to see that William and Steven Ellison had come as well. But, it was the presence of his former colleagues on the teaching staff, and most especially his former students who still regarded him with respect and trust, that most touched his heart.

Though no one could tell from his expression, Jim was both pleased and proud to see Blair so honoured. His friend's surprise and touched gratification at the presence of his former colleagues and students was written all over his face. He didn't miss the respect with which Sandburg was greeted, and it only served to reinforce his views that Blair still had a very real future in academia. A future that was safe, far away from the monsters…far away from guns. Nor did he miss the frozen looks that were directed his way, the contempt with which many of them seemed to regard him for having allowed Blair to make the sacrifice he had. They might not know the full truth of what had happened, but there was no doubt in their minds that Blair Sandburg was a honourable and ethical man. His gaze falling away, Jim couldn't blame them for what they thought about him. They were right. Shifting away from Blair's side, Ellison moved into a corner, where he could watch but not take anything away from the attention Blair was receiving from everyone present.

It was a big day, one that was long overdue. It took everything Ellison had not to reveal how much it meant to him to see Sandburg so happy…or how much it hurt to know that this outstanding success, so deserved, was going to take Blair away from him. Everything except what it took to keep him from throttling that self-righteous harridan, or as she preferred to be called, The Chancellor, for how she was treating Sandburg.

The kid had worked almost half his life to achieve the doctorate the Chancellor was grudgingly presenting to him in Eli's office that afternoon. Blair, still looking a little pale, his arm in a sling, stood beside Eli while Chancellor Edwards said with cool formality, "Blair Sandburg, in recognition of your achievement in completing the requirements for a Doctorate in Philosophy, on behalf of Rainier University, I am here to present you with your degree." With that, she handed Blair the sheepskin scroll, turned and left Eli's office.

Unwilling to allow her inexcusably rude and hostile manner to take away from the satisfaction Blair had every right to feel, Dr. Eli Stoddard turned and held out his hand as he said, "Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg. May I be the first to say what an honour it is to have a scholar of your brilliance and dedication within our ranks. You have made outstanding contributions to the field of Anthropology by increasing our understanding of any number of cultures, both within our country and abroad. May I also say, it's been both my honour and my privilege, as well as my distinct pleasure, to have been your adviser since you came to Rainier University. But, most of all, Blair, I'm grateful for your friendship."

"Thank you, Dr. Stoddard," Blair replied formally, then broke into a wide grin as he moved to hug the older man. "Thanks for everything. I couldn't have done it without you, Eli."

"Hear! Hear!" H. called out, his words the signal for others to cheer loudly, applaud with vigorous enthusiasm and clap Blair on the back as they shouted their congratulations. Eli broke out the champagne and served it around with warm geniality while his assistant offered trays of any number of tempting little morsels. Everyone there was determined to do all they could to make it the joyous occasion it should be for Dr. Blair Sandburg.

But, much as he smiled and acted as if this was one of the happiest days of his life, Blair was only too conscious that his mother hadn't been able to make it back from some remote place of meditation in Peru, and his best friend was standing in a corner, doing a first class imitation of a stone.

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

Simon steamed all weekend about Jim's behaviour at Blair's party at the university. Dammit. Jim should have organized a big party for the kid. It wasn't every day that someone achieved a Ph.D. Especially given that he might not have gotten it at all, throwing away his chances, hell, everything, to protect that thankless ass Sandburg called a friend and partner. Oh yeah, Simon was very steamed.

Monday morning, he barked out Ellison's name and virtually slammed the door of his office after Jim had entered. Eyes flashing with anger, standing like an avenging angel, Simon demanded, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Jim looked up at his boss, then away. "Would you care to clarify that question, Captain?"

"You have been acting like a prize jackass ever since…" Simon paused, suddenly remembering, understanding. "Ah, Jesus, Jim," he sighed, the force of his anger gone as he recalled that look of devastation on Ellison's face at the hospital, "don't do this…"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Ellison responded with cool remoteness, his empty eyes coming to rest on Simon's.

"Yeah, right," Banks snorted as he pulled up a chair and sat down facing his best Detective. "You're trying to drive him away, aren't you…for his own good, right?" Simon mused, shaking his head. "Dammit, he's not a child. He's a man…he made his own decision to become a cop. Blast it, Jim…Sandburg doesn't want anything more than to be your partner and friend. Why do you do this to him?"

Ellison's head dropped while he debated being straight with Simon and figured he might as well be. It was pretty clear his boss had twigged to his game. "Because it'll kill him, Simon," he replied quietly. "Either literally…or it'll kill his soul to do what we have to do. I can't do it anymore. I can't accept the price he pays to back me up."

With a heavy sigh, Simon closed his eyes and prayed for strength. "Jim, you don't have the right to make his life choices for him. What you're doing now hurts him more than this job could ever do to him. Can't you see that?"

"No, Simon, I'm afraid I can't," Ellison answered stonily. Raising his eyes to Simon's concerned gaze, he went on, "Think about it, just think about what it has cost him to be my friend. I'm not worth it, Simon… nobody is worth what Sandburg gives. I can't accept it anymore. He has his Ph.D.…he has other choices. I want him to get on with his life. He will, eventually, can't you see that? This…this job that we do…it's not him, Simon. You know that."

"No, Jim, I don't know that," Banks retorted. "Oh, I grant you, Blair is in some ways wasted here. But, you can't make assumptions about what's good for him, or about what he should be doing with his life. You can't just…drive him away like this. Without giving him any say in the matter. Talk to him…tell him your concerns…."

But Ellison just stubbornly shook his head. His face impassive, his eyes cool, he asked, "Was that all, Captain, or was there something else?"

"Hell, yes, there's something else!" Simon spat out. "Just tell me how you're going to manage without him. You know you need him to help handle your senses…"

"Simon, I haven't zoned for months. I managed when he was at the Academy. I managed when he was off duty two weeks ago. If I get into any eal trouble, you know what to do," Jim replied scathingly. "I don't need Blair to do my job."

"Are you sure about that, Ellison?" Simon demanded, not at all sure himself.

"I'm sure," Jim replied. "Now, if there's nothing else…"

Rolling his eyes, Simon shook his head. "No, Detective…there's nothing else."

As Jim stood to go, Banks murmured, "You're a fool, Jim…"

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

Two days later, Sandburg was at Simon's door, asking for a few minutes of his time.

"Come in, Sandburg," Banks nodded, waving him to a chair. "What's on your mind?" he asked, though he could guess.

Blair sighed, and then shook his head, unable to believe he was doing this. "Simon," he finally began, "have you noticed anything going on with Jim lately?"

Looking away, Banks shrugged, determined not to get in the middle of it all. "Why…is something wrong?"

"I don't know…yes…I guess," Blair replied, uncharacteristically inarticulate.

"Spit it out, Sandburg, I don't have all day," Simon replied, waiting for it.

"Well…maybe it's that we not only live together but work together, I don't know. But…I seem to be really getting on Jim's nerves. He's snapping at me all the time, impatient when he's not being indifferent," Blair replied, trying to explain without sounding like he was whining. "Whatever is wrong, I sure can't seem to do anything right."

"Have you talked to him about it?" Simon inquired.

"I've tried…it's like talking to a brick," Blair replied, disgusted. Looking up at his boss, he suggested tentatively, "I thought…I thought maybe if we could get a little distance it might help. Maybe I could work with Joel and Megan could work with Jim for a while."

"And here I thought you liked Megan," Simon replied dryly.

Blair grinned a little at that. "Yeah, I know he can be a bear sometimes…but, I just don't know what else to suggest," he said with another sigh. "And she knows about him…knows what to do if he gets into trouble. If it's something really bad, I'm still here and could move in if need be."

"Let me get this straight," Simon replied, leaning forward on his elbows. "You want to keep working here, keep being a cop, but you don't want to be Ellison's partner for a while."

"Of course I want to keep working here," Blair exclaimed. "Why wouldn't I?"

Simon shrugged, the picture of innocence. "Well, you have your doctorate now…."

"Simon," Blair cut in, lifting his hands in frustration, "what difference does that make? I made my choice, man. We do important things here…make a difference. What? Do you want me to quit?"

"NO!" Simon exclaimed sharply. "No, absolutely not. You're doing a fine job."

"Well, then, what about the exchange idea? Do you think it's worth trying?" Blair asked, returning to his original concern.

"It's worth a try," Simon nodded. "I'll speak to Joel and Megan. I'm sure there won't be any problem. Will you tell Jim or shall I?"

"I'll tell him," Blair said morosely. "Tonight, when we get home."

As Simon watched Blair head back to his desk, he picked up a cigar and rolled it in his fingers. This should be interesting, he thought. How will Jim handle having Blair working with someone else, going out on assignments where he won't be present to ensure the kid's all right? Not exactly what you expected, is it, Ellison? But, then, Sandburg doesn't do 'expected'.

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

"Jim," Blair began as he toyed with his pasta, finally getting up his nerve to say what he had to say, "I talked to Simon today…"

"You talk to Simon everyday, Sandburg, we all do," Ellison replied, taking a swig of beer.

Looking up at his friend, Blair blurted out, "I asked him if Megan and I could exchange duties for a while, if I could work with Joel, while she works with you."

Carefully setting the beer bottle down on the table, Jim turned his cold gaze on his partner. "You what? Without discussing it with me?"

"Yeah…well, it's pretty clear you're not happy with my performance, Jim," Blair murmured, looking away from that icy gaze. Shrugging, he persevered, "I just seem to be getting on your nerves…and well, I can understand why. We work together, we live together…it's not like when I was at Rainier and you had some space…"

Blair's voice faltered, conscious of the waves of anger that were radiating from his friend. "Look, if I made a mistake, and you don't want to switch…"

"No, no, that's fine, Chief," Jim cut in, his voice laced with venom. "Whatever works for you."

Sighing, Blair tried to diffuse the anger. "Jim, if you're mad, or want to yell at me, go ahead. But, I'm really getting tired of the contempt." Though his words were provocative, his voice remained calm, reasonable. "If I've done something to piss you off, I really wish you'd let me know what it is."

"You haven't done a thing, Sandburg," Ellison replied, standing abruptly to leave the table. "Not a damned thing."

As Ellison grabbed his jacket and slammed out of the apartment, Blair rubbed his head as he murmured, "You say that like it's a crime, Jim…what the hell is going on with you?"

Blair wracked his brain to try to figure out Ellison's behaviour, but he didn't come up with anything more that night than he had come up with any evening of the preceding weeks. Staring at the ceiling of his room, he tracked it back one more time. The IA investigation had been going on…with all the misery that had involved. The whole thing kept coming back to why Jim would work with a liar and a fraud, and the only reason they could come up with was the insinuation that the two of them had to be more than room-mates. Jim had joked about it, said he didn't care…but did he care? He was a pretty uptight, conservative guy. He valued his 'righteous' reputation. Was it starting to get to him that people thought he was putting up with a fraud and liar for reasons other than platonic friendship and Blair's competence as a detective? And, right on the heels of that had been that disastrous bank robbery. Jim couldn't handle Blair's guilt about killing a man, however clear it was that there had been no choice. Was he offended by Blair's reaction? Considering it somehow a judgment on his own ability to cope with the grim realities of their jobs? Was it that he hadn't been able to protect Blair from getting shot? Was that it? Jim seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Blair's role as a full-fledged police officer, not just an observer who could be coddled and kept out of danger. Was it as simple as the fact that they were spending so much time together now, giving Jim a bad case of 'cabin fever'?

One of the above, some of the above, all of the above or none of the above? God, how Blair wished he could read that man's mind. It would be so much simpler if he didn't have to guess, if Jim would just talk to him and tell him what was wrong.

Round and round his thoughts went, questions swirling in his head.

But, he still couldn't seem to come up with any answers. Only assumptions. Assumptions leaving him feeling bleak and more than a little scared. Because any way he looked at it, it came back to the same thing.

Whatever the mysterious reason, Jim seemed real tired of having him around.

If the modest degree of space he could offer by working with Joel wasn't enough…what then?

Closing his eyes, Blair really didn't want to go there.

Because 'there' meant he might have to give up the only space that was left. He might have to move out, leave the only real home he'd ever had.

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

The air in Major Crimes was thick with tension the next morning, largely because Detective Jim Ellison was in full 'bear' mode, snarling at anyone who got too close.

When Blair carried the files he'd been working on to Megan's desk, she looked up at him with a pained expression on her face as she hissed so that Ellison wouldn't hear her, "I thought you were a friend of mine."

"He can still hear you," Blair whispered back and she rolled her eyes. Thinking she was serious, Blair's face clouded, as he offered, "Look, Megan, if you don't want to do this…I mean, Jim's my best friend and he can be really great to work with, it's just that sometimes I get on his nerves and I thought he could use a break…."

"You get on his nerves?" Megan repeated, her eyes wide. "Sandy, you are a saint and everyone here knows it. You are the only person he has ever not only agreed to work with, but wants to work with. But," she smiled then, letting him know she was teasing, or partly teasing anyway, "even saints deserve a break now and then. Just don't leave me there for too long, okay?"

Blair grinned as he nodded. "Believe me, I can't wait for things to…well, get back to normal. I hope this won't have to be for long," he said sincerely.

Glancing over toward Jim, Blair could see Ellison was making a great show of being engrossed in his computer screen. But the back of his neck was flushed and his muscles tense…he'd heard their exchange and wasn't amused. Sighing, Blair shook his head, wishing he could figure out what was wrong.

Taking pity on him, Megan patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Sandy, I'm sure this is just a mood thing that will blow over. Now, here are my files. Joel and I have been working on trying to crack the caper of the runaway evidence. Here are the security videos, which is frankly all there is to go on. And here is a list of everything that has been taken over the last four years. However…in going over the old records, I discovered that this might have been going on for at least ten years. Only weapons have been taken until now…fancy pieces, good stuff, and your garden-variety handguns. There doesn't appear to be any particular pattern, no correlation with officers on duty at the time, or with officers submitting confiscated weapons for evidence. There is no predictability as to when to anticipate another rip-off will occur, zip. It's odd, I'll give it that. Odd, and very subtle."

"Okay, thanks," Blair said as he picked up the box full of videos and files and headed back to his desk.

Dumping the box on his desk, studiously ignoring the waves of animosity radiating from Jim, Blair rummaged in it and pulled out a handful of videos. Might as well begin with 'all they had'. He went to one of the small conference rooms and watched boring, black and white, grainy videotapes for two hours. Sighing, he shook his head as he gathered them back together and headed back to his office. Megan was right. There didn't seem to be much there. Just the usual activity, the usual traffic of people who had every right to be there. Nothing suspicious. Nothing stealthy. Nothing, period.

Back at his desk, he pulled out the files and began his usual pattern of meticulous research. First, he reviewed the dates and times that the thefts had been discovered, but that didn't reveal much because the discovery only came when the evidence was requisitioned which didn't have any necessary relationship with when it was stolen. Then, he went through the registration numbers of the weapons that had been taken. When he realized that none of that had been entered electronically in a separate program, he sighed but set about the time consuming, meticulous task of inputting all of that information.

It took two days.

Once the data was in, he decided to see if any of the weapons had turned up anywhere else. Sending out the information to other police organizations across the state, and then thinking, what the hell, nationally, he requested any information that might be had on the weapons in question.

He waited another day and a half.

And then it started pouring in. Responses from other police departments in the State of Washington, from neighbouring states, and then from states all across the country, including from the FBI. Weapons that had once been in their evidence locker were showing up as seized in busts and in arrests, all over the country.

Now, that's interesting, Blair thought. How did the guns manage to wander so far away? Squinting in thought, he decided to run another program, and sent out the registration numbers of the weapons lost in the hijack of semis over the past six months.

A day later, he discovered that a fair number of these weapons had also gotten into circulation.

Even more interesting was the information he got back that their evidence lock up wasn't the only one being pilfered. "Why are some cities involved and not others?" he mused, frowning. "What's the common denominator?"

He was even more surprised to learn that semis in other parts of the country, carrying military or large commercial supplies of weaponry had also been hijacked. "Would have been nice if the military had told us that," he groused to himself. Secrets. Everyone was always keeping secrets. How was a guy supposed to do his job if no one ever told him anything?

Sighing, he sat back and brainstormed in his head all the different groups of people who worked in any organization. Once again, he went back to his computer, entered in the variables, such as secretaries, drivers, salesmen, buyers, managers, executives, clerks, admin assistants, finance officers, human resource officers, computer technicians, cleaners, telecommunications contractors, caterers, and so on. Once again, he wrote back out asking for information on what contractors, if any, were routinely used for any of the listed functions. Again, he was forced to sit back and wait until information came in from his counterparts across the country.

Finally, he was able to hit the key and let the machine do the work, processing through bits of information, looking for the common factor, if any.

When he got the results, he sat back, shaking his head, murmuring, "Shape shifter, who would have guessed?" Then he went back to the videotapes.

"Gotcha," he breathed, focusing on the movements of specific staff, when their actions could be clearly seen and when not.

And then he went to Joel.

"It's circumstantial, I know…there's no real evidence to connect it all," Blair said, pushing his hair behind his ears as he waited for Joel's reaction.

"But, highly suggestive and very, very likely," the older man mused. Looking up, Joel gave Sandburg a warm smile. "Good work, Blair…very good work. I think it's time we share this with Simon."

Within fifteen minutes, Blair had outlined his research approach, the correlations he'd made, the extent of the distribution of stolen weaponry, and came to his conclusion. "It's the Proteus Cleaning Company, Simon. They are the only common denominator. 'Proteus' was a minor Greek God in the ancient pantheon, a shape shifter. Whoever is in charge of this operation has a sense of humour," he said, unable to resist adding the esoteric information.

"Do you see me laughing, Sandburg?" Simon asked quellingly while he thought about what had been laid out for him. Good Lord, the kid had taken a local, internal issue of evidence pilfering and discovered what looked like a nation wide weapons laundering system.

"No sir," Blair replied, his voice subdued but a grin dancing on his lips. He knew he'd done good work and they had the first break in the case anyone had had in years. And, even better, he'd tied the internal thefts to the bigger case of the hijacked semis.

"How long has this department been doing business with this Proteus Cleaning Company?" Simon asked.

"Almost ten years, Captain," Blair reported. "Two five-year contracts, back to back. It's up for renewal again in a month."

Chewing on his lip, Simon nodded. It wasn't enough for any court. But it was certainly more than enough to move forward. "Good work, Sandburg, very good work. Let's share this with Ellison and Conner…and let our friends from IA know we've cracked their case for them," he said with no little satisfaction.

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

Ellison found it hard, worse than hard, damned near impossible, to keep the light of pride from his eyes or a wide smile of congratulation from his lips when Simon, Joel and Blair shared the information with him and Megan. But, years of covert ops training and experience had taught him to school his expressions and hide his emotions and his thoughts. Even then, he couldn't hold back all trace of warmth from his eyes, or his voice. Blair Sandburg had come through again; his unconventional way of looking at things, his technical skills in computer research, his penchant for meticulous detail and the patience that took…he'd broken the case wide open.

"Good work, Sandburg," he muttered, not quite meeting Blair's eyes before he again looked away and dove into the discussions about the next steps.

'Good work, Sandburg'? Blair thought, with rising disappointment. Don't strain yourself with excitement or anything, man. It's not like we've been working on this case for months or anything…

But, Sandburg pushed his reaction aside and entered into the discussions about how they might use this lead to draw out the criminals and get the evidence they needed to make a case.

Later that evening over yet another painfully quiet dinner, Blair sighed and pushed back his plate. "We have to talk, Jim," he said quietly.

"About what, Sandburg?" Jim asked, looking up, his eyes so cool and distant that it made Blair's heart ache.

"About us, man…about how this just isn't working anymore, and I don't know what to do about it," Blair replied, his eyes wide with anxious sorrow. "You have got to give me a clue, Jim…you have got to tell me what's going on with you."

"Sounds like there's an ultimatum in there somewhere, Chief," Ellison replied, leaning back, his hands lying loosely on either side of his plate.

Swallowing, Blair looked at him for a long moment, a look of pleading in his eyes, but there was nothing, scarcely even mild interest in Jim's gaze. Looking down and away, shaking his head, Blair murmured, "If you don't want me here anymore, you just have to say so, Jim."

"This is your home, Sandburg. I promised you that," Ellison replied, his voice flat.

A smack across the face might have been more merciful. Taking a shuddering breath, lifting his eyes again to watch Jim's face, Blair said mournfully, "I don't know what you want from me…I don't know what else I can do, or give to you, to…to convince you that I'm on your side. Jim…what is it going to take? I've…"

"Is this going to be a recitation of what it's cost you over the years, Sandburg? Because I'm not sure I need to hear it," Jim cut in, his voice cold.

And that did it.

Blair felt his anger push past the hurt, felt rage stir in his heart. "Yeah, maybe…maybe it is an accounting. I have died because I wouldn't betray you, Jim. I have given up my career and my reputation to protect you. Dammit, I have killed a man because that was part of the deal…part of getting the right to be your partner, to back you up," Sandburg blurted out, his voice low and intense, his eyes flashing with fury. "And nothing is ever enough to convince you, never enough to meet your standards, whatever the hell they are, man. Well, I can't do this anymore. I can't put up with the contempt and the silences and the nasty little digs. Or the lack of respect. I thought we were friends, Jim. I thought that our friendship, our partnership, mattered to you. I guess I was wrong."

Jim held Blair's look as long as he could stand it before he lost it completely. He had to clamp his jaw tight to force back the words it was killing him not to say. Looking away, he told himself this was what he'd set out to do…hurt Blair so bad that he'd go. Hurt him to save him. Swallowing, Ellison looked back at his best friend, the only partner he ever wanted, the man he respected more than any other in his life. "Sandburg, I never asked you to do any of that," he replied stiffly. "And, you're right. This isn't working anymore. But, if you think I'm going to leave, you're crazy."

Oh man, you left weeks ago…you just forgot to tell your body, or your Guide, where you went, Blair thought as he blinked and blew out a breath of disbelief. "There're more ways than one of kicking someone out of their home, Jim," he said, his voice cracking. "It's not just about packing up their gear."

"Sandburg, whether you leave or stay, the decision is yours," Jim replied, his voice indifferent.

"Okay, Jim, you win," Blair stated with weary resignation. "Whatever the game is, you win. I'm done playing." Standing, Blair left the table and went to his room where he pulled out his duffel and started to pack. He could get a motel room for a couple of days until he found something more permanent. At least he had a pay cheque now and could afford someplace decent. With grim determination, he blinked back the tears that glazed his vision, and beat back the rising tide of grief in his chest. Not now. He would not lose it now. He had his dignity, and he had his anger, to sustain him.

Hoisting the bag over his shoulder, he left the bedroom without a backward look. Jim watched him track across the room and grab his jacket before asking quietly, "You quitting the whole game, Sandburg, or just part of it? Does this mean you'll be looking for another job, too?"

There was a taunt in the voice, almost like he was laying a bet, 'double or nothing'.

Blair paused for a moment, then turned, his voice fierce as he replied, "If you think you're going to drive me away from my job, forget it. I'm a cop…that's not going to change. So you'd better accept that you can't push me that far away, that you're going to have to deal with me and, whether you want to or not, you'd better be able to work with me with a modicum of civility and respect. I'm not going to take any more crap from you, Jim. That ends now."

Without waiting for a response, Blair yanked the door open, walked through it and slammed it behind him. Jim listened to the angry clatter of shoes on the steps, and the slam of the outside door. He heard the Volvo start up and he heard it drive away.

Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, he wept.

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

After so many months of frustration, the break in the case brightened everyone's spirits, with the exception perhaps of the stone cold Jim Ellison, but they'd actually gotten used to his moroseness again and scarcely noticed. It was also a certain relief to be able to deduce that the military weapons hadn't been stolen by some paramilitary wacko operation, but was a fairly straightforward acquire and sell operation. Not great, but better than worrying that a small revolution might break out at any moment.

But, Sandburg's initial assessment was correct. There wasn't enough to make a case. Still, administration decided that the next five-year cleaning contract would be awarded to a new company.

And they had enough to work on with the management of the trucking company to judiciously leave information where it might be conveniently found…lying loose on desks, discarded copies in waste paper baskets, unguarded conversations about logistics and transportation arrangements within earshot of the cleaning staff.

They set up the surveillance operation, both on the truck destined to carry the next haul of weaponry, and on the local cleaning company, which had two large warehouses on the edge of town. Jim and Megan pulled the duty on the truck; Joel and Blair got the warehouses, which were conveniently located side by side on the industrial parkway.

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

"Stakeouts are boring, man," Blair observed as he yawned and stretched. It was late afternoon and they'd been sitting there for four hours. Cleaning crews, vans, warehouse workers, supply trucks had come and gone, but they'd seen nothing particularly suspicious or untoward.

"Patience, Blair, patience," Joel soothed, rolling his neck to loosen his own still muscles.

"Yeah, so Jim has always told me," Blair grinned.

"Really?" Joel replied. "Jim doesn't strike me as a patient man."

"You'd be surprised, Joel…the man can sit like a statue, taking it all in and never lose focus," Sandburg said. "Me…I'm always twitching, and talking and generally driving him crazy. But, Jim…man, there is a guy who can persevere with scary resolve. Nothing, but nothing, can distract him from the target, from the result he's after."

"You're right about that," Joel nodded. "Once he's made his mind up, it's hard to shift him."

They thought about that, both of them silently musing about what was motivating Jim now, what he had decided that had led him to build the wall between him and Sandburg? Ruefully, Blair glanced at Joel, who had no idea just how high that wall had gotten. He hadn't told anyone yet that he'd moved out, and since Jim didn't talk to anyone about anything except what was required in their work, Blair knew no one had heard of their latest falling out. He didn't look forward to the reactions when word did get around.

Four hours later, they were relieved by Rafe and H.

Sandburg dropped Joel off at his house, and headed back to his room at the motel. As he entered the Spartan, impersonal room and kicked off his shoes, he decided he'd better let Simon at least know he wasn't living at the loft anymore. But, dispirited, he figured that could wait until morning.

Slumping into the uncomfortable single chair in the room, he picked up the remote and clicked through the channels, finally deciding on an old movie being shown on the local station. Not really interested, but not having anything else to do, he was debating whether to turn it off, and just go to bed, or stare at the screen for another half hour or so when the news brief flashed on.

Standing on a dark highway illuminated by the garish red pulses of emergency vehicle lights, a blazing truck fire behind her, the local newscaster gave the community the late breaking news. "Just over an hour ago, a high speed chase between the driver of the semi behind me and the Cascade Police ended tragically. The driver of the truck was killed instantly when the truck rolled and exploded. It appears that the police detective's vehicle was forced off the road just before the crash, rolling down the embankment." The camera view shifted to show the mangled remains of an upside down truck lying nose down at the base of the steep slope before cutting back to the newscaster. "The Cascade PD detective has only just a few minutes ago been cut from the wreckage and taken by ambulance to the hospital. His injuries are thought to be critical. Information on the two men involved is being withheld pending the notification of their next of kin. This is News Ten at 10:00. More at 11:00."

Blair felt as if his blood had turned to ice. "Jim? Oh my God," he breathed and then he lunged for the phone. Pounding in the number, he whispered, "Come on, come on," and when Simon answered, he demanded, "Where is he? Where did they take him?"

"Sandburg? Where the hell are you? I've trying to track you down for an hour now," Simon shouted back, frustration and fear vibrating in his voice.

"Where IS he?" Blair demanded again.

"Cascade General…you'd better get down here quick," Simon replied.

Simon hadn't finished speaking before the dial tone sounded in his ear. Blair had already raced out of the motel room to his car.

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

Chapter Four: But Then Face to Face

All the way in, he'd prayed to whomever was listening, prayed with everything he had. His heart was pounding as if he'd run a marathon, his breath tight in his chest, his muscles rigid with anxious fear. It was bad; he could feel it. Dammit…he could feel it. Jim was dying. Oh God, oh God, please don't do this, he pleaded.

When Blair ran breathlessly into the Emergency Unit, he found Simon and Megan waiting there for him. Not wasting time on any preliminaries, Sandburg demanded, "How bad is it? When can I see him?"

Simon laid a steadying hand on his shoulder, his face grave. Megan turned away, tears on her cheeks. For a breathless, endless, agonizing moment, Blair wondered if Jim was dead. Wide blue eyes begging for a reprieve stared up into Simon's compassionate gaze. "It's bad, Blair," Simon said quietly, fighting for his own calm. "He's in surgery…"

"Oh God, he's still alive," Blair exclaimed, almost sobbing in relief.

"Blair…listen to me," Simon ordered firmly if gently as he gripped Sandburg's shoulders tightly. "They don't know if they'll be able to hold onto him. He suffered a compressed skull fracture, as well as massive trauma to his chest and abdomen. He lost a lot of blood while they were cutting him out…He…he went into arrest on the way in but they managed to bring him back. You have to prepare yourself…"

"NO!" Blair exclaimed, pulling away. "No. He's going to make it, Simon," Sandburg protested, not wanting to hear any more, not wanting to accept there was no hope, unable to imagine a world without Jim Ellison in it. "No," he protested again, fighting back tears. He would NOT cry. Crying meant it was over. Crying meant that he'd lost Jim…lost his best friend…lost his Sentinel.

It was inconceivable.

Impossible.

It couldn't happen.

And he held onto that thought with dear life as he took deep, ragged breaths, forcing himself into an unnatural calm while his mind screamed, Jim! Jim! Don't you dare leave me! Jim!

"Take it easy, son," Simon soothed, his own eyes glittering with unshed tears in the harsh fluorescent lights. "I know it's hard."

"You're not hearing me, Simon," Blair cut in again almost harshly, fighting the panic, his voice tight in his throat. "He's not going to die…he can't…"

"Blair, you have his power of attorney. You need to be ready…there may be decisions that you have to make," Simon persevered, holding onto the details because the impact of what was happening overwhelmed him. Jim had been his friend, good friend, for years. Captain Simon Banks was also in a lot of pain. "I think we should call his family."

"Fine," Blair agreed, nodding as he dug into his pocket for his cell then remembered he'd left it at the loft in its charger, forgetting it when he'd stormed out the night before. "Can I borrow your cell," he asked, then took another deep steadying breath, forcing his muscles to relax. He didn't need to be afraid, he told himself, Jim won't give up. Jim's a fighter…he won't quit.

"You can take a minute, Sandburg…wrap your head around…" Simon offered, worried about the kid, seeing the denial that would only make it worse if, well, Banks didn't want to think about that either.

"I'm fine," Blair cut in tightly, his face pale with shock, but with a clear conviction burning in his eyes. "I told you…"

"Yeah, I heard you, he's going to be alright," Simon cut in wearily as he closed his eyes and turned his head away, wishing with all his heart he could believe it as he pulled the cell from his pocket and held it out toward Sandburg.

Taking Simon's phone, Blair punched in first William's number and then Steven's. Briefly, calmly, he informed them that Jim had been in an accident and had sustained serious injuries, that he was at Cascade General, currently in the operating room. He offered them the option of coming down immediately or waiting until he called later with more news. They both opted to wait at home, seeing no use in waiting fruitlessly for what might be hours at the hospital. Concluding the calls, Blair handed the phone back to Simon, then demanded, "What the hell happened tonight?"

Megan moved closer, laying a hand on Sandburg's shoulder as she replied wearily, "We were doing a tandem tail and following the bait, the semi that was carrying some weapons but mostly ammunition. When the driver pulled off at his regular stop for dinner, we maintained surveillance on the truck. As soon as the driver was out of sight, another man came out of the shadows. He had the keys for the truck, and he drove it off. We'd called in for a roadblock about ten miles ahead. Jim…Jim was moving up on the inside, to keep the truck from swinging out and around. The driver of the truck sped up, started to sway, to ram him and drive him out of the way…and that's when the truck driver spotted the roadblock. I guess he must have panicked. The truck went out of control, smashing Jim's vehicle hard and driving it off the road just before the semi jackknifed and rolled, exploding when it crashed. Jim was…Jim was trapped upside down, pinned against the steering wheel…he was unconscious, Sandy…he wasn't feeling any pain."

"You don't know that," Blair replied, closing his eyes as he turned away. Unconscious or zoned? he wondered, forcing his mind to practical considerations, to what his friend would need from him. Or first one and then the other? God, he needed to see Jim, needed to determine for himself what he had to do to help his Sentinel. The compulsion was overwhelming, and it was all he could to keep himself from charging right into the operating theatre. All the conflict between them, all the harsh words, none of it mattered. Just like before, Blair recalled, when he'd raced to save his Sentinel from a warehouse explosion and ended up saving him from a bullet.

Staring up at the large, round clock high on the wall, not really seeing it, he knew finally and irrevocably, with inescapable clarity, that he had no choice. He was tied to Jim Ellison in a way he didn't understand, and there could be no walking away. Ultimately, it was why he knew he could never leave Major Crimes. It wasn't about a career, not about being a cop, never had been. It was about being near Jim. Even if he and Jim were estranged, he could not stray far. He needed to be the Guide. He needed his Sentinel. It was what he was.

They were bound together whether Jim wanted that or not.

Blair bit his lip in frustration, unconsciously shaking his head. For all they tried, for all they meant to each other, it wasn't working…they kept coming up against these damned walls. It wouldn't work, couldn't work, if only one of the essential pair was fully and utterly committed, if only one of the two was completely open and vulnerable to the other. It couldn't work unless the love both ways was unconditional, grounded in perfect and absolute trust.

Blair's lips parted at that revelation.

"Oh my God," he murmured under his breath, stricken by his failure. "How could I have been so stupid? Incacha, why didn't you ever tell me? I've been doing this all wrong…being a researcher, or student… even friend…but not a guide! Dammit! I've been so busy focusing on the senses, and…and the stuff that's been going on around us…that I lost sight of the man…."

Looking up, sightlessly staring at the clock, he shook his head as he whispered to himself. "I've kept letting him get lost…oh, God, Jim…I am so sorry."

Bowing his head, he ran trembling fingers back through his hair. Please, he prayed, passionately pleading for a reprieve, please, give me one more chance to make it right.

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

The long hours of the night dragged on with excruciating slowness. Simon had sent Megan back to the office to write up her report and then to go home and get some sleep. But, the captain had no intention of leaving himself, so he accompanied Blair to the visitors' waiting lounge outside the surgical unit. Sandburg paced and watched the clock while Simon watched Sandburg, wondering how long it would be before that eerie calm shattered and the kid fell apart.

"Sandburg," Simon began again just after 3:00 a.m., "Blair…you're wearing a hole in the floor. Sit down. You won't do anyone any good if you exhaust yourself."

The first three times he'd made the suggestion, Sandburg had simply shrugged and ignored him. This time, however, Blair turned to respond, and for the first time, really saw Simon. Saw the gray, haggard look, the anguished eyes, and the slumped posture. Moving to take a seat across from Banks, Blair leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, his expression clear and earnest as he said quietly, "I'm sorry, Simon. I forgot, this is hard on you, too."

Sighing, Simon nodded glumly. "Yeah, kid, it is," he admitted.

"Simon…you have to believe me. Jim isn't going to die," Blair soothed, his voice warmly confident.

Suddenly unable to stand the denial, needing to face the facts, Simon snapped, "You don't know that, Sandburg. You didn't see…"

Looking away, closing his eyes for a moment against the image of his best friend bloody and broken, Blair shook his head. But, he insisted with quiet vehemence, "Yes, I do know."

"Right," Simon snorted, leaning back in his chair, taking off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. "Have you been reading the leaves in your teacup or is this just some kind of weird vision that you have?" he asked disparagingly, not wanting to hurt, but believing Sandburg had to come to grips with reality or that reality would roll right over him and crush him.

"Simon…" Blair began then paused, wondering how he could explain why he was so certain that this wasn't it, that it wasn't going to end like this, so futilely, with so much left unsaid and undone. Looking back at his Captain and friend, his eyes earnest, he tried to find the words as he began again. "Simon, I don't have any mystical knowledge. It's Jim who has the visions, not me. Though I've never understood why. But…I do know that something…something bigger than us, call it Fate, call it whatever you want…something brought Jim and me together, led us to one another. And though we've been through hell, that 'something' has made sure we've stayed together. There has to be a reason for that…some purpose that hasn't been fulfilled yet. It's not time, Simon…it's not time for Jim to go…anymore than it was time for me to go at the fountain."

Slipping on his glasses, Simon found himself remembering those inexplicable moments when Ellison had been as certain as Sandburg was now that Blair wasn't dead. And that time, they'd had a dead body lying on the ground at their feet. At least this time, so far as he knew, Jim was still breathing. For just a moment, he felt a warmth steal over him as he remembered that blinding light that had come from nowhere, springing from the union of Ellison's hands against Blair's face and he trembled.

And then, an odd thought occurred to him and he wondered aloud, "Why do we always call it the 'Sandburg Zone'?"

"Huh? What do you mean?" Blair asked, not sure what Simon was talking about.

"When strange things happen…why do we all think of it as the 'Sandburg Zone' not the 'Ellison Zone'?" Simon clarified, his gaze distant, trying to figure it out. "We've all always focused on Jim, his Sentinel senses, as if he were the center of it all, and yet we think of it as the 'Sandburg Zone'." Turning to Blair, his gaze puzzled, confused, he tried to make sense of it.

"Because the Sentinel can't function fully without the Guide," Blair murmured. "Without the Guide, it's all just a jumble of sensation, muddled by distractions and emotions, by assumptions and beliefs and experiences that just get in the way. The Guide brings clarity."

"But…Jim functioned in the jungle…you weren't there…" Simon questioned, wanting to understand this, needing to get it straight in his head.

"No…but Incacha was and, as a great Shaman, he could render assistance…he could point out the choices, the questions…but he wasn't the Guide. He couldn't lead…" Blair reflected, also trying to work it out, to stop guessing and know what it was he was to do. "I've been guessing at things, asking the questions, trying to understand." Suddenly, it was if as pure energy filled him as he sat up straighter. "That's it. Simon, that's it. I've been following when I should have been leading, accepting when I should have been challenging, allowing Jim to…to determine how far he can go with all this, how our partnership works, or doesn't…I gave him space when I should have been moving in closer, demanding to be heard. I've kept letting him get lost."

"Sandburg, do you have any idea what you're talking about?" Simon groused.

Looking up at him, Blair replied with a tone of wonder, "Yeah, Simon, I do. For the first time, I know what I have to do."

"Fine, then you can make it a bit clearer for me?" Simon asked, frustrated.

"I'm the Guide, Simon. I am as programmed genetically for my role as Jim is to be a Sentinel. A Guide leads, Simon…that's the whole point of a guide, right, when you go hunting or to a special fishing spot. The guide doesn't follow, the guide leads," Blair answered, confidence burning in his eyes. He knew he was right about this. It was a moment of sharp, crystalline, illumination and his mind was speeding, back to all they'd done, said, the confusions, the hurts, the rejections, the separations…and forward, to where he needed to go, where he needed to lead Jim or…or they'd both fail. Jim couldn't find the path on his own…he tried. Over and over, he tried, but he kept stumbling around, tripping over the same things, going in circles, helpless to find his own way out. "I won't fail him this time, Simon. I won't."

"Jim's not a follower, Blair…what if he refuses to follow you," Simon asked, frowning. He couldn't imagine Ellison giving up control that completely or irrevocably.

"Then, that will be his choice, not just his reaction to circumstances. I have to allow him the choice, he has to want to follow. But, if he refuses, he will not be a Sentinel, Simon," Blair said, knowing this time there could be no half measures, no pausing at the brink or hesitations. Knowing a refusal to join his Guide 'in the water' this time might well be irrevocable.

"And…if that happens, will you still be a Guide?" Simon asked, feeling like he was caught in the kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo he didn't want to have to deal with.

"No…but I have other responsibilities I haven't paid any attention to at all so far," Blair replied, looking away and out of the window toward the skyline.

"Being a cop you mean, or a professor?" Simon pressed.

"Those things, maybe, probably," Blair replied his voice distant, "but more than that, I am the Shaman of a Great City, Simon. And it's time I figured out what that means."

Simon groaned as he covered his eyes with his hand. Yep, he was in the 'Sandburg Zone' all right. And he wasn't sure he was ever going to find his way back out to anything that had resembled reality before this kid had blasted into their lives.

It was a funny thing, though. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to find a way out.

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

It was after five a.m. before the weary surgeon emerged from the restricted area beyond the double doors. It had been a long, hard battle for life. Blair and Simon were immediately on their feet, moving toward him, grateful beyond words to know they could finally learn how Jim was doing.

Dressed in his green scrubs, mask still hanging around his throat, the lean man projected a vigour and intelligence that the weariness could not tarnish. "You're the people waiting to hear about Mr. Ellison, I presume?" he said as they approached.

"Yes, sir," Blair replied. "I'm Blair Sandburg, Jim's room-mate, and this is Captain Simon Banks, Cascade Police Department. How is he?"

"I'm Doctor Reynolds and I performed the surgery on your friend. I know you are anxious about him and I wish I could tell you everything is going to be fine, but it's too soon to tell just yet. He's breathing, but not on his own," the surgeon explained. "Your friend has suffered severe injuries and we've patched him up as best we can for now. The blood loss has been replaced, the damage to his lungs, kidney and abdominal wall have been repaired. We've had to drill a small hole into his skull to relieve the pressure of the compressed fracture just over his left ear which, fortunately, was small, not as severe as we'd first feared. I'm guardedly hopeful, I suppose is the best way of putting it. If he holds his own over the next few days, and if the edema from the skull fracture doesn't do any permanent damage, well, then, he'll be fine. Broken bones heal."

"When can we see him?" Blair asked, holding his emotions in check. He hated to think of Jim so hurt and couldn't imagine the pain all this would involve before he was well again. At least he had the dials, if he was conscious enough to be able to access them.

"Give us another hour to be sure he stays stable, and then you can visit in the Intensive Care Unit. Do you know where that is?" Dr. Reynolds asked.

"Yes, thank you, doctor…" Blair replied. Man, did they know where ICU was…he could wish they didn't know so well.

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

Blair winced in empathy and sighed with sorrow when he was finally admitted to the restricted access area of ICU and saw Jim lying so helpless and still. It looked like every inch of his bruised and battered body was covered with bandages, gauze or plaster, with lines and tubes snaking into and around his body, monitoring his heartbeat, breathing for him, carrying fluids in and bearing waste away. Moving forward, he hesitated for a moment, but knew he had to touch Jim. Reaching out, Blair wrapped his fingers around Jim's limp hand and squeezed as he said, "I just can't let you out of my sight, can I, Jim? One night. I'm gone one night and look at the mess you've gotten yourself into." For a moment, Blair's grief at how badly Jim was hurt, how much he must have suffered at the accident scene and at the prospect of the long weeks ahead, swept over him and he trembled, his eyes glazing with tears. "I'm sorry, my brother…I am so sorry you are suffering this," he murmured.

But, Blair blinked back the tears and took a steadying breath. Jim didn't need tears, couldn't use grief. He needed a Guide who knew the way, who was sure and confident, unshakable and unswerving. Drawing a chair close to the head of the bed, he sat down and leaned forward, once again covering Jim's hand with his own firm but gentle grip as he murmured into Jim's ear. "I'm here, Jim…and…I'm not leaving. I've thought about what was happening and I know why we were having trouble. I've let you get away with a lot of nonsense, indulged you…and that stops right now. I am your Guide, Jim and I am going to show you the way. You will follow me, do you hear me? You will follow where I lead."

Leaning back, his thumb unconsciously massaging the back of Jim's hand, Blair continued to speak, his voice low, but not too faint for a Sentinel's ears. "I understand now what we were missing," he explained. "I didn't understand what my role was, and neither did you. Oh, you'd follow me on the small stuff, the tests to understand your senses, to learn to manage them. But neither of us got what it meant that it was my voice that you would follow when you were lost in a zone. You're programmed to follow my voice, Jim, just as I'm programmed to be your Guide. We are intertwined, linked…it just doesn't work, wouldn't work, with someone else. You knew that didn't you? You knew, somehow, that you needed a guide, that you need me…that's why you had to bring me back at the fountain. It was irresistible. Like, I needed to find you. All those years knowing there was a Sentinel out there, knowing if I just kept looking, I'd find you. Because you needed me. I had to find you. Face it, it's bigger than us, man. Somehow, some way, we are a part of the cosmos and we have a role to play, together."

Blair watched and listened to the machines as he lightly stroked his hands along Jim's arms, his head and face, his chest and body, his legs, imprinting his touch upon the Sentinel deliberately. As he worked, Ellison's heart rate grew steadier, stronger. "That's it, Jim…follow my touch, the sound of my voice. You aren't going to leave me, are you? You said that the other night. That if I thought you were going to be the one to leave, I was crazy." Letting his thoughts drift, Sandburg recalled other bits of conversations, turning the situations around, trying to look at them from Jim's perspective. They'd been fine up until that bank hold up. It didn't have anything to do with the IA investigation and what people might think about them. Jim had said he didn't care, and he'd meant it. There had been honesty, a candour in his eyes that was unmistakable. And, from what Blair could remember of that night, when he'd first woken up, Jim had been so gentle…trying to soothe away the pain.

But the morning Blair woke up after being shot, the eyes had gone flat when they gazed at him at all. Emotion and thought blocked away behind a curtain of blue ice. A Sentinel who hadn't been able to protect his Guide, fury, more likely fear, in overdrive. Frowning, Blair searched his memories, and he again heard Jim's voice, 'If he's going to be a cop…' Gazing down at his unconscious friend, Blair shook his head, wondering how he could have missed the 'if'.

He remembered the night Jim had been furious about not having been informed about the university's expected offer to consider a new dissertation submission. With unconscious insight, Blair knew now he'd hit a vital truth that night. 'Desertion, why is it always about desertion with you?'

Jim had had a lot of time to think that night, waiting for him to wake up. A lot of time to consider what it meant if a shootout went bad, or if someone with a doctorate decided it was too rough…especially after having just killed for the first time. "You decided it was all too dangerous, too hurtful for me, didn't you? That was the Sentinel. Wanting to protect me. But, you also told yourself I'd leave you anyway, right? Because everyone else always has left you. That was the man. The answer for both was to push me away either before I left because I was dead or I left because I couldn't take it anymore. If you push me away, then it all plays out on your terms, doesn't it Jim? You're not vulnerable then, waiting to see what I might decide to do someday that might tear your world apart. Oh, Jim, my poor, confused friend…how hard you try to do your best, how much it must hurt to feel so alone."

Blair had been musing aloud, following the patterns of his thoughts as they occurred to him, exploring this new insight into the power he had, had to have, in their unique relationship. Not coercive power. Not any kind of hierarchical power. But a vision of balance, where each had their role, dependent upon the other in healthy ways based upon trust and unconditional love. "And that's the core of it, isn't it Jim? The meaning of unconditional love, not as a concept but as a way of being. That's what you don't get, don't trust…don't understand. Well, my brother…you'll understand when I'm finished with you. And you won't ever again have to hurt both of us so terribly in a misguided effort to save us both."

Smiling gently down upon the being he loved most in the world, Blair stroked Jim's forehead with light cool fingers, soothing and comforting the fevered skin, restoring, sharing energy…pouring out his love…and his strength. "You ever heard the saying, 'If you love something, set it free…if it comes back to you, it loves you, too'? I'm back, Jim…and nothing you can do is ever going to drive me away again. How's that for your worst nightmare, man? You did your best and it wasn't enough. You can't get rid of me. For the rest of your life, you, my brother, will be in the 'Sandburg Zone'."

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

Blair had all of his arguments ready, now all Jim had to do was wake up. But, there was a problem. He didn't seem inclined to wake up. One day passed and then another. His body strengthened and he was able to breathe on his own. But, still he didn't wake up.

Studying him, Blair wondered if his friend had slipped into a zone. So he tried the usual methods, appealing to smell and taste, since touch was muted by pain medication and sight wasn't on-line. And he talked.

Talked until he was hoarse.

But, still Jim didn't wake up.

Blair knew the doctor was concerned. That the apparent rallying of Jim's strength might be a phenomenon often seen before a person crashed…and died. But, somehow, Blair didn't think that was what was happening. He closed his eyes and saw the world as Jim Ellison. He'd driven his Guide away. Trashed their partnership and relationship. Believed that when Blair had stomped out the door that he was gone for good. As the vision of that moment took form in his mind, he felt his heart clench with unendurable pain and he almost cried out. His eyes flew open, wide and alarmed.

"You don't know, not for sure, that I'm back, do you?" he murmured. "And you're so lost right now, you don't know if you even want to try to find your own way back to this world. Dammit, Jim. You hurt yourself worse than anyone else ever could."

Straightening his back, stretching to loosen cramped muscles, Blair paced around the bed, wondering how to contact his Sentinel if Jim wouldn't wake up and talk to him. "If you won't come to me, I need to find a way to go to you," he finally decided. "Like I have a clue about how to do that," he sighed. Gazing back at Ellison's face, he murmured, "Why did Incacha only ever come to you in visions? Why doesn't he ever appear to me?"

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," a voice sounded behind him, a voice he recognized, unsurprised that he now also understood the speaker's words. They spoke now heart to heart, soul to soul.

"Yeah, that's what they say," Blair replied with a small smile as he turned. "Incacha, thank you for your patience and for coming to me now," he said with a slight bow of his head.

"I have been waiting for The Guide to fulfill his role," the Shaman's spirit said. "It has taken you a long time, the path winding and uncertain…but you have finally found your way."

"How do I find my way to Jim?" Blair asked.

"Do you know where he is?" Incacha asked.

"Yes, I believe I do," Blair replied.

"The Guide does not follow…the Guide leads. If you know where he is, go to him and lead him back," Incacha directed him…and then disappeared.

Blair shook his head with a wry grin shadowing his lips. "No wonder Jim comes back from conversations with you more confused than he left," he murmured. Sandburg stared into space as he thought about the Shaman's words. Did he know where Jim was? That was easy…where else would he be but the jungle? And, since he knew, he should just go there. Simple. Right? Not.

Or, maybe it was. Maybe the block, the barrier, was simply his belief that he didn't know the way.

Moving back to the bedside, Blair moved the chair so that he could still touch Jim's head lightly, but was out of the way of staff coming to check on his friend or change his dressings. He wasn't sure that the staff would appreciate this, but he didn't much care. The next time the nurse came in on her regular rounds, he told her that he was going to meditate for a while, and that she shouldn't worry if he didn't respond if he was touched or called…he'd come back when it was time.

She looked at him and wondered if he didn't need to sleep more than he needed to meditate. But, she knew meditation was healing. Nodding, she simply smiled in acknowledgment and continued on her rounds.

"Ready for company, Jim?" Blair asked. Then he reached out, buried the tips of his fingers in Jim's hair, closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply, ever more deeply, as he pictured the jungle he'd glimpsed that day at the fountain and where he'd lain by a river until Jim had come for him when Blair hadn't been sure if he ever wanted to wake.

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

When he felt the shift of air, the warm, humid heaviness of the jungle, scented the vegetation and heard the calls of parrots and the rushing of the river, Blair opened his eyes. He wasn't surprised, but was mildly amused, to see that he was once again as naked as he always seemed to be in this particular jungle. Turning his head, he saw Jim sitting with his back against a large tree trunk, his arms wrapped around his drawn up knees…and once again, Jim was dressed in those combat fatigues. Made sense. The guy was always ready to do battle to defend himself and those he cared about.

"Hey," Blair called softly. "What are you doing here? We're waiting for you to come back, man."

Jim didn't respond but turned his head a little away as he drew himself up tighter as if trying to crawl into himself.

"Classic defence posture, man," Blair advised him with a trace of humour as he stood to walk over and sit down again directly in front of his friend, close enough that their feet touched. "It's gotta go, Jim…it's getting in the way."

"I thought you'd left, Sandburg," Jim replied, his voice flat, that cool gaze once again in place.

"Did you really think that, Jim?" Blair asked, tilting his head a little as he studied his friend calmly, even serenely.

Jim stared back for a moment, then looked away, the muscles in his jaw working under the skin. "Yes," he whispered as if his throat was tight.

"And did that make you happy, Jim? You sure worked hard enough to drive me away," Blair asked.

Ellison's eyes dropped to study the jungle floor. There was just the slightest negative jerk of his head in response.

"How bad did it feel, my brother?" Blair asked, his voice dropping to little more than a murmur.

Jim's whole body twitched at the question and he drew in a shuddering breath. "Don't," he groaned, pressing his eyes closed.

"That bad, huh?" Blair murmured, his eyes dark with concern. "As bad as when your mother deserted you? Or when your unit up and died on you, leaving you in the jungle, alone and scared? As bad as when Carolyn walked away?"

Jim's throat worked as he swallowed convulsively, but he didn't speak and he wouldn't look at Sandburg.

"Jim, the rock," Blair mocked gently, smiling into eyes that lifted at that to blaze into his. But the smile faded to a stern look as Blair stated with a hard tone, "This is an old game and not one that's any fun. You have told yourself enough lies. It's time for a different truth."

"What truth?" Jim ground out, fighting the waves of pain that crashed over him, striving with all his being for control.

"The truth that your mother didn't leave you…she left your father. She wasn't a well woman, Jim, you know that. She didn't leave or abandon you. That takes deliberate action, intent. She was not capable of that. You were hurt, only a child, who didn't understand. You are a man now and it's time to see it as a man. It wasn't about love or commitment. It was about being ill and incapable of giving you what you needed, whether she wanted to or not."

Jim looked away, closing his eyes as if he couldn't see Blair or the jungle, he could be somewhere else.

"And your men? They didn't desert you. What? You think they died deliberately, just to spite you, to hurt you? You know that's not true. Again, the choice wasn't theirs or yours. It just was," Blair stated, his voice softening into kindness.

"It hurts…when…" Jim whispered, a single tear slipping down his cheek.

"Yeah, I know," Blair replied, his voice stark. "It hurts like hell to lose people you love, who are part of your soul. So, you decided not to risk being hurt like that again, didn't you? That's why you drove Carolyn away. And me. So it wouldn't have to hurt like that again, right?"

"Yeah, I guess," Jim sighed in surrender, seeing no reason to deny what was suddenly so patently obvious, his head coming forward to rest wearily on the arms crossed over his raised knees. Blair reached out to lay a gentle hand on Jim's hair, like a benediction.

"Does it hurt less when you drive us away, than if we left on our own? Does the pain you cause hurt less than the surprise hurts in life? Did it hurt more to lose your men in the jungle than to see me walk out of that door?" Sandburg asked quietly, with infinite compassion.

Jim's shoulders started to shake as he remembered that dark, terrible finality of the door slamming closed. Remembered hearing once again Incacha's solemn warning in his mind, believing he'd ruthlessly and deliberately thrust Blair out of his life for the last, hopeless and irrevocable time. His choice, his words, his own cold actions had brought him to that shattering moment. Oh, God, the agony of that moment and every moment since. Tremors rippled down over his body as he was wracked by silent sobs.

Blair shook his head, wanting to offer comfort but it was not yet time. Jim had to work through this, had to face his choices clearly, both as a man who was vulnerable to being hurt, as any man is, and as a Sentinel with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and a virtually limitless need to protect. "Jim," he asked, "what was the difference between your men leaving you and me leaving you? Why did my leaving you hurt more?"

"It didn't…didn't have to be…" he whispered brokenly. "They didn't have a choice."

"And whose choice was it, when I left?" Blair pressed. "Mine…or yours?"

It was a long time coming and when it did, the sound of Jim's voice was a heart wrenching moan of anguish, "Mine…"

"The pain of that will end if you will let me back in," Blair said, keeping his voice steady and calm though he wanted to weep for the pain in his friend's soul. "I'm here…will you let me back in?"

Jim's head flew up, his face contorted with grief, tears streaming down his flushed face, as he stammered, choking over the words, "Wwwant ttto…ccccan't…."

"Why can't you?" Blair pushed relentlessly, not letting him retreat.

"Have ttto ppprottect you…" the Sentinel cried helplessly. "Cccan't…let…you…dddie…" he whispered, his eyes pleading for understanding. Jim's head fell back onto his knees as he curled tightly into himself, wracked by sobs. "Hurts, BBlair…Oh GGGod, it hurts…."

Blair had to take a long shuddering breath of his own, and he sniffed as he wiped the moisture from his eyes. They weren't quite finished yet. There could be no comfort yet. "When you rip my heart from my body, and tear my soul into shreds…how are you protecting me? You, Sentinel, are the one who is causing my pain…you are the one who is destroying me, not saving me," Blair thundered above the sounds of the wretched sobs. "Tell me, Sentinel…who protects me from you?"

"NOOOO!!!" Ellison screamed out, as his fists clenched and every muscle in his body spasmed with the terrible pain. Whatever he did, whichever way he chose, his Guide was at risk and would be hurt beyond bearing. The Sentinel was caught in the intrinsic paradox, unable to escape, and he was in agony.

"If you don't hurt me, I am safe," Blair told him, his voice steady and strong as he once again laid his hand upon the Sentinel's head. "If you are there for me, I am comforted. If you love me, then I am complete. Will you be there for me, when I need you? Do you love me whatever I do?"

Though the shudders wracking the Sentinel's body eased as he thought about the Guide's words, he remained silent, thoughts whirling in his head, emotions clogging his throat.

When there was no answer, Blair bowed his head and took a breath to steady himself for what he had to say. His voice resonating with grief and sorrow, he proclaimed, "Then, that is your choice. You will not be there for me…you do not love me enough to risk the pain of it…I cannot be your Guide." Blair's eyes were glazed with tears and it was taking all he had to contain his own sob of grief as he shifted away and prepared to rise.

"Chief, please…" Jim begged, lifting his desperate gaze, one hand reaching out in supplication. "I don't know how…"

When Blair's head came back up, his face was stern. "Will you let me in? Will you let me show you the way? Will you follow me, Sentinel? Go where I lead?" he demanded.

For a moment more, Jim faltered. "Where?" he stammered.

"Where I lead…that is all you need to know," Blair replied, giving no quarter. This was it. Jim had to decide he could do this, or they could go no further. "Do you trust me enough, love me enough, to follow me? To let me be your Guide?"

Jim's eyes flickered around the jungle…could he follow, not knowing where they were going? Could he surrender himself that much? Blair felt a wave of compassion at the fear he saw in his friend's eyes, the fear that froze Jim into place, rendering him unable to move. And his thoughts in those moments of clarity came back to him… 'I gave him space when I should have been moving in closer, demanding to be heard. I've kept letting him get lost.'

Instead of moving away, Blair moved forward until he was kneeling before Jim, his hands on his friend's drawn up knees, covering Jim's own hands that were so tightly clenched in his frozen fear. He was the Guide, it was his job to lead, by small incremental steps if necessary, to lead his Sentinel out of the darkness. "Do you believe that I will lead you into danger?" he asked gently, his eyes filled with compassion. "Do you believe that I love you so little that I would do you deliberate harm?"

His throat too tight to speak, Jim shook his head, his gaze locked onto Blair's like a drowning man, desperate for salvation. "Do you believe me when I say I love you, Jim?" Blair asked, his voice soft, his eyes kind and filled with his boundless love.

"Yes," was the small, whispered response, but Jim's eyes begged Blair that it be true, that the love be constant and unswerving, a love Jim's tattered soul could rely upon and trust eternally.

Blair smiled then as his eyes misted up. "Okay, then you need to let me in. Come on," he encouraged, tugging lightly on Jim's hands to open the fists, pressing on his friend's knees to lower them to the ground, stepping forward so that he straddled Jim's body to press his arms open. Sinking down onto his knees, Blair moved in…going closer, giving no space, no place for Jim to hide. Wrapping his arms around his friend, Blair laid his head on Jim's shoulder. "I'm here, Jim. I love you, my brother. I will always be here for you when you need me. I will not leave you unless you tell me to go. But, if you tell me to go, I will go."

He felt Jim's arms come up to circle him and pull him closer still. Felt Jim pull in a shuddering breath, and then he felt his friend's hot tears fall on the back of his neck. "Tell me to go, Jim…"

"No," Ellison whispered, holding Blair more tightly still. "No."

"Do you trust me, Jim?" Blair murmured.

"Yes…yes, I trust you," Jim replied, taking another shuddering breath.

"Do you trust me with your life?" Blair demanded softly.

"Yes, I do," Jim answered, without hesitation, shaking with the intensity of how very much he meant it.

"Do you trust me with my life? Trust me to make my own decisions, my own choices…and respect those choices even though you might have chosen differently for me?" Blair pushed again, knowing that these were the harder questions. Jim valued his friend's life more than his own.

Again, there was a long pause as the Sentinel struggled. "I love you enough to let you make your own choices," Jim finally murmured. "But…I'm afraid, Blair…I'm afraid you don't value your own life enough."

"But, you will live with the fear, not try to take my choices from me?" Blair asked, but he knew he was going to have to think about what Jim had just said when he had time. Just as Jim had his blind spots, his own patterns of less than functional behaviour, Blair knew he was only human as well, and had blind spots of his own.

"Yes," Jim sighed, finding it very hard to surrender but wanting to, knowing he needed to if he was going to be able to follow the path set out by his Guide.

"Do you trust me enough to follow unconditionally where I lead…even if it seems that it might be into danger?" Blair asked then, as if he had been reading Ellison's thoughts.

Jim's arms tightened around him, and Blair felt the Sentinel take a deep breath, and then another, as he thought about whether he could do that or not.

Finally, Jim's arms relaxed marginally, so that Blair knew he could stand and leave if he chose to do so, yet not quite letting him go. "Yes, I trust you enough to follow you," the Sentinel said soberly. "If there's danger, I will stand with you and protect you."

But, it was not yet quite done. "Do you trust me enough to let me go off alone, knowing I will always come back to you so long as I live?"

The arms tightened spasmodically around him again for a long moment. And, then, Jim's grip on him relaxed as the Sentinel allowed himself to fully accept the surety of his Guide's love and he felt the peace and warmth of that love drive away the last chill of doubt in his soul. Blair Sandburg, his friend, his partner and his Guide, would never forsake him. "Hell, Chief," he muttered then, laughing a little at himself, "I don't seem to be able to get you to leave and stay gone. You always come back…you always will. I know that."

This time, it was Blair's arms that tightened around Jim as he lifted his head and planted a gentle kiss on Jim's brow. "You got that right, man…there ain't no way you're ever gonna get rid of me," he chimed. Leaning back so that he could see into Jim's eyes, Blair murmured, "Welcome back, man. I missed you."

"I'm sorry, Chief…I wanted so much to protect you, and I was so afraid of how much you keep getting hurt because of me. I figured…I lied to myself and told myself you weren't strong enough to keep taking it forever. That you'd go, so better now than later," Jim murmured looking away into the jungle. "Simon told me I was a fool…he was right."

"Partly," Blair agreed. "But mostly, you were just lost, confused and didn't know what to do to make everything right. You keep thinking it's your job to make everything right, to be in control. It's not. If it's anyone's job, it's mine. I'm the Guide…I illuminate the path. Now, you might have to take care of the trouble I get into when we get wherever it is that we're going…but you are never to forget that I was the one who led us there, and the responsibility for that is mine."

Jim swallowed hard as his gaze fell away, still so afraid the protection he offered with all that he was might someday not be enough. What then? What if the path Blair chose threatened his life? What was his Sentinel supposed to do then? Taking a deep breath, Ellison told himself he no longer had a choice. He could not, would not, push Blair away again. He had to love and trust Blair enough to allow him his own choices, more to support those choices, come what may. Ellison's heart ached with the pain of unconditional love, of knowing he could never offer perfect protection to the one who walked ahead, the one who led. He could only love with all that he was and hope it could be enough to shelter his Guide if darkness ever befell them. He could not see what lay ahead, but he knew he loved Blair Sandburg with all his heart, with all his soul. Loved him enough to surrender that last final shred of control, to respect and honour him enough to allow him the responsibility for his choices and to share the risk of those choices with him.

Jim nodded slightly as his eyes came back to Blair's gaze. "I can live with that, Chief. So long as we travel that path together."

"We will, Jim," Blair replied with a blinding smile. "Every step of the way, man." For a moment, Blair paused, an impish gleam in his eyes. Giving his friend a quizzical look, he asked, "Uh, Jim…have you noticed that your clothes have disappeared?"

"Yeah, I noticed, Chief," Ellison drawled with a teasing smile. "But, I figure I'm safe with you…that you won't take advantage of me."

Blair burst into laughter, that bright joyous sound that Jim had been missing so badly, with all the innocence and grace of a child, with all the brightness of life. "You got it, man!" Blair crowed. "You finally got it!" Sobering, his voice suddenly tight, Blair vowed, "You will always be safe with me, Jim Ellison. I will not let you fall. While you serve and protect as the Sentinel of the Great City, I will serve and protect you as your Guide. You have my word."

"Yeah, well, I expect you to help me serve and protect that city, or have you forgotten that you're my partner?" Jim drawled.

"I haven't forgotten…I'll be beside you every step of the way," Blair affirmed again. "Now…if you're ready, it's time to follow me home. But…I gotta warn you, Jim…your body is really wrecked, man, and you'd better turn those pain dials down now. You'll get better…but it's gonna be a rough road for a few weeks."

"Okay, Chief," Jim replied as he and Blair rose to their feet. "I'm ready…lead on, Guide."

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

Blair came back into the hospital room and could hear the sounds of the machines, spell the astringent scent of disinfectant as he opened his eyes. Jim was still lightly unconscious, but when Blair reached for his friend's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, he felt Jim's grip tighten marginally in response. He was going to be fine.

"Sandburg, are you alright?" Simon asked tentatively from the doorway behind him. He'd come into the room minutes before and had realized that Blair was in some kind of trance.

Looking up and around, Blair smiled at his superior. "Yeah, Simon, I'm fine. And so is, Jim. Like I told you, he's going to be all right."

Simon studied the young man standing before him, so peaceful and confident, and damned if he didn't believe him. The terrible anxiety eased out of Simon's eyes as he turned his gaze down on Jim. "I'm glad, Blair…I'm really, very glad to hear that."

Turning back to Ellison, Blair stroked his friend's face lightly…a reassurance, a benediction. He knew it wouldn't always be easy, that they'd still hit rough spots. They both had a lifetime of behaviours to face down and overcome. But, Jim had let him in. Consciously, willfully had let down the last of his walls, leaving himself fully vulnerable…knowing he was safe.

They were finally on the right path.

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

Guido sat alone in his office in the darkened warehouse, tapping his fingers on the desk, the only illumination the flickering images of the television screen in the corner. The news that one of the trucks had been overtaken by the police, one of his drivers dead, had sent a thrill of fear along his spine. For the last two days, he'd been monitoring the media trying to discover how much the cops knew.

What had attracted them to that truck? How had they known a hijack was underway? How much else did they know, he wondered, thinking of the loss of the cleaning contract with the same police department? There was nothing in the truck to connect it to his business, including the remains of the driver. If the cops really had anything, they'd have shown up by now.

Biting his lip, he made his decision.

He was a patient man, and a cautious one…it was one of the reasons he had so successfully built a national network that had never been suspected, never threatened. Reaching for the telephone, he began the process of shutting down operations in illegal arms trafficking until further notice.

Once he was finished, he sat back and sighed as he ran a hand over his hair and rubbed the back of his neck to ease his cramped muscles. The good thing about weapons, he thought, was that guns didn't go bad. His inventory would remain valuable, maybe even increase in value if there was a lull in the availability of the product on the streets for a while.

Satisfied that he'd done what he could to ensure his business' security in the long term, he clicked off the television and headed home for the night.

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

Taking his lead from his Guide, Ellison held himself in a semi-conscious state for three days. The one time he'd tested the boundary and eased up the pain dial despite Blair's guidance, the agony had overwhelmed him. Now, only his hearing was dialed up to a position where he could hear Blair's whispered words, and his sense of touch was just high enough that he could feel Blair's hands. In a remote way, he accepted that he needed this time to allow his body to heal. Though he couldn't remember much about the crash, he did remember the hideous pain that had driven him close to a zone-out just before unconsciousness had claimed him.

During those days, Blair scarcely moved from Jim's side. He closely monitored the medication they were giving his friend to ensure it was enough but not so much as to create any risk with Jim's senses or hypersensitivity to drugs. He dozed in the chair by the bed, his hand always linked to his friend's, so that Jim would know he was not abandoned, and that he could rest because his Guide was also safe and nearby.

"How long are you planning to sit there, Sandburg?" Simon asked as he walked into the room. "You're only human…you need to rest sometime."

Looking up, Blair gave his friend a warm smile. "Soon, Simon…I'm going to wake him up later today, just for a little while, to get his bearings. He's doing really well…blood pressure, heart rate…he's breathing well on his own now, and there's no infection."

"Yeah, I know," Simon replied, drawing up a chair. "But, it's going to be a while before he's ready to come back to work."

"Oh yeah," Blair nodded, but then grinned. "But you get to tell him that. You know how much he hates just lying around and since he doesn't have any broken legs or arms, he's going to want to be kept busy."

Simon grunted softly as he shook his head. "Oh, good…make me the bad guy. Thanks a bunch, Sandburg."

Snickering, Blair was unrepentant as he replied sagely, "Such is the burden of command, Captain."

To pass the time, Simon decided to ask about something he'd been wondering about for several days now. "Blair, you said something the other night about being the Shaman of a Great City. What was that all about?"

"Oh…yeah," Sandburg replied, startled by the question. "Well, you remember when Incacha and some of the tribe came here from Peru a couple of years ago?" When Simon nodded, he continued, "Well, just before he died, Incacha passed on his role as shaman to me, naming me the Shaman of this city." Though Blair had kept his tone matter of fact, his expression had gone somber.

"What does that mean, exactly?" Simon asked, frowning. "I don't know a lot about this shaman stuff, but it seems to me that it involves something about spiritual leadership and guidance of the tribe…the sharing of tribal wisdom. But…tribes are small gatherings of people. How can anyone be the Shaman of a city?"

Blair studied Simon for a moment, struck that this very pragmatic man who was grounded in his modern culture and pretty concrete view of reality was talking about shamanism as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He smiled a bit in appreciation of the open-mindedness and generosity of spirit that that revealed. But, the smile dwindled as Blair replied to the question Simon had posed. "I don't know, Simon. Incacha died before he could tell me what it meant. What I have to do." Shrugging, he looked at Jim and then away as he replied, "I've been reading up on shamanism, to try to understand. But, I haven't gotten very far, and I've let other things distract me. I guess because it scares me."

"I can imagine," Simon replied, then shook his head. "No, actually, I can't. This is way beyond my experience."

"Don't feel bad," Blair replied with the trace of a grin. "It's way beyond my experience, too. But, I can't just ignore it…not forever. Incacha wouldn't have given me the responsibility if there wasn't something I was supposed to do with it."

Simon nodded thoughtfully. "Well," he said after a moment, "I'm sure you'll figure it out. If anyone can make sense of all this weird mumbo jumbo, you can."

"Thanks…I think," Sandburg returned, a twinkle in his eye.

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

Simon had left some hours before and the hospital had quieted around them as evening drifted towards night. Standing by the side of the bed, Blair leaned forward to stroke Jim's forehead while his other hand gripped Jim's hand firmly. "Hey, Jim," he murmured, "you ready to wake up now?"

He felt the fingers in his hand tremble, then shift to link with his. "That's it, Jim, take it slow, man, keep those dials turned down. But, I want you to wake up…I want you to open your eyes," Blair encouraged. "It's time you knew what your injuries are so that you can understand better what you need to do to get well."

Ellison's throat worked as he swallowed, and his brow furrowed. He moaned softly and his fingers gripped Blair's with more deliberation. "That's it, buddy, come on…wake up," Blair called softly.

Jim's head shifted toward Blair's voice and then he blinked, wincing against the light streaming in from the hallway. "I know, I know…but I couldn't very well ask them to turn off all the lights on this floor, now could I?" Blair said with a trace of humour in his voice, though his eyes were wide and dark with compassion.

Opening his eyes, Jim squinted to find his focus, to distinguish Blair's face against the dimness of the room behind him. "Blair…" he whispered, his throat rough and dry.

"Uh huh, I'm right here," Sandburg replied as he reached for the ice chips he'd requested. "Here, suck on one of these for a minute. It'll ease your throat." Gently, he eased the ice between his friend's lips.

"Okay, now, can you hear me? Understand what I'm saying?" he asked.

When Jim nodded slightly, and squeezed his hand, Blair rewarded him with a blinding smile. "That's great, Jim…you're doing great. All right, all you need to do is listen. I want to tell you what happened to you. You and Megan had been tailing one of the hijacked semis, and you were moving to box it in just before the roadblock. But, the semi went out of control and crashed into your truck, sending you down a steep embankment. It was a pretty spectacular crash man…looked ugly on the news, I can tell you."

Blair felt the fingers tighten around his again, and could read the apology in his friend's eyes for having frightened him. "Yeah, I was pretty scared, I admit it. Don't do that again, okay?"

When Jim rewarded him with the trace of a smile, Blair reached out to stroke his friend's cheek. "I can't do any of this without you, man. I miss you when you're all banged up and unconscious and stuff. I'm glad you're going to be okay."

Again Jim nodded stiffly and squeezed his hand. "Can't…do it without…you…either, Chief," he whispered painfully.

They exchanged a long look that went beyond words, reading one another's heart and soul, understanding the messages written there that words could never fully express. Clearing his throat, blinking hard as he sniffed, Blair chided Jim gently, "Now, don't go all mushy on me…you know I can't handle it. Now, where was I, oh, yeah…the accident. Anyway, it took them an hour to cut you out, and you lost a lot of blood. You'd gotten all scrunched up against the steering wheel and the door…and it didn't help that you were hanging upside down, man." Jim winced at the image and rolled his eyes, effectively conveying that there were some details he didn't need. Smiling gently, Blair continued, "You crushed most of your ribs, and that punctured your lungs. Not good, man. Anyway, your ribs are all back where they should be, your lungs are patched up and the drainage tube was removed this afternoon so you're not bleeding inside anymore. The crash also ruptured one of your kidneys, which has also been repaired, and that's healing nicely, too. They had to take your spleen out…so from here on in, we need to be especially careful that you don't get any infections, 'cause your immune system won't be what it was. But, lots of people live full lives without their spleens, so don't worry about it. The good news is, you didn't break any arms or legs, your spine and pelvis are both fine. You did take a nasty blow on the head, but since you're alert, it looks like that won't be a problem either…which is a tribute to your very hard head."

Again Jim rolled his eyes, but there was a trace of laughter in them, under the pain and the weariness.

"And, that's it. Now you know it all," Blair assured him as he slipped more ice into Ellison's mouth. "In the next day or two, they are going to start working with you to get you to cough to clear your lungs, and they'll give you deep breathing exercises. You need to do them even though they are going to hurt like blazes to make sure you don't get pneumonia. Just keep the pain dial locked down for now. We'll also start getting you out of bed, to sit up for a while every day. In a couple of days, we'll start you walking for short distances to build your strength back up," Blair explained, so that Jim would know what to expect and wouldn't be taken off guard by anything. "I think that's about it…any questions?"

Jim swallowed again, then croaked, "Home?"

"Not for a couple of weeks, Jim, sorry," Blair replied, knowing this would not be welcome news.

Frowning, Jim nodded weakly, accepting the ruling. Then, he looked again at Blair, his gaze moving over his friend's face, as he whispered, "You…need rest."

"Yeah, you're right," Blair agreed, allowing his Sentinel to take care of him. "If you're okay, I'll head home tonight. But, I'll be back in the morning, I promise."

"Go," murmured the Sentinel, more concerned about his Guide than the pain in his own body. "Get some…sleep," Jim insisted, worried about his friend.

"Okay, thanks," Blair murmured back, stroking Jim's forehead. "But, I want you asleep before I go. So, relax, Jim, let the pain drift away…just relax and sleep."

Obligingly, Jim's eyes drifted closed again, soothed by his best friend's touch.

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

Blair was as good as his word, returning to the hospital the next morning before Ellison had awakened. For the next three days, Sandburg stayed close, assisting in the exercises, coaching Jim on the control of his senses, reassuring and encouraging his friend that he was doing fine. He wanted to make sure Jim didn't push too hard, forcing himself past what his injured body was yet able to take. The doctor was pleased with Ellison's progress, most particularly that there seemed no lingering effects of the head injury, and decided Jim could be moved out of intensive care. After that, at Jim's encouragement, Blair returned to work, calling often and still spending his off duty time with his friend.

Neither Blair nor Jim had referred to the moments they had spent in the jungle. They didn't need to. Jim's acceptance of Blair's guidance throughout his recovery was ample evidence that he'd heard and understood, as was his insistence that Blair return to work, even if the Sentinel couldn't yet be there with him. He was signaling his trust that Blair wouldn't take risks that he couldn't handle while his partner was out of commission. He was also signaling that he was prepared to let Blair out of his sight, knowing his friend would return.

But, Blair needed to address one final matter about that first terrible night, when Jim had been so badly hurt. He'd been only too well aware of the Sentinel's intention to linger in the jungle when Jim's more natural response would have been to fight back to consciousness.

Judging that Jim was strong enough for a difficult conversation, Blair moved the dinner tray out of the room and closed the door so that they wouldn't be disturbed. Jim was sitting in a chair beside the bed, finding that more comfortable than trying to eat in bed. Perching himself on the edge of the bed, Blair said quietly, "Jim, there's something I want to talk to you about."

"What's that, Chief," Ellison asked, quirking a curious brow. He kept his expression bland, but he really hoped they weren't going to dive into the painful subjects Blair had forced him to confront in the jungle. Jim couldn't remember ever having gone through anything quite like that in his life. Not that he regretted it, far from it. He'd felt a kind of peace he'd never known afterward, but that didn't mean he wanted to go there again.

"When you were in the jungle, when I first found you there…you didn't intend to come back, did you?" Blair asked, a worried frown creasing his brow.

Looking away, Jim blew out a long breath. Yep, the jungle…only worse. Blair was asking about the one thing Jim had rather hoped he hadn't realized. Ruefully, he figured he should have known better… Sandburg didn't miss much. But, Jim had learned a few things in the jungle, and one of them was that he shouldn't lie to, or deliberately hide things from, his Guide. His eyes intently studying a stain on the floor, Jim shrugged then admitted, "No, Chief…I didn't intend to come back."

Blair swallowed at that. He didn't have to ask why…he knew. At that point, Jim had felt he'd been abandoned, that he was alone again and so isolated…and he just hadn't wanted to come back to all that. Slipping off the bed, Blair reached out to grip Jim's shoulder, causing his friend to look back up at him. "Don't ever hide like that again. Don't ever give up," Blair told him, friend and Guide united. "Wherever our road leads us, whatever happens, this world needs you in it. There are a great many people who love you, Jim Ellison…your father, Steven, Simon, the others at work, all your friends…me. Don't abandon us, and don't ever feel you are alone. Alright?"

Jim felt his chest constrict with the emotion rising to fill his throat and he had to blink against the burning in his eyes. Lifting one hand to lay it over Blair's on his shoulder, he murmured hoarsely, "Thanks, Chief. Alright…no matter what…I won't do that again."

Blair smiled at him softly. "You're doing great, Jim…I'm proud of you, you know that? None of this has been easy for you, but you've faced your demons. You're a strong and very brave man."

"Maybe," Ellison replied, his eyes flickering away, uncomfortable with the praise. But, then his gaze again sought Blair's wide blue eyes as he said, "But you showed me the way. You never gave up on me." Hesitating for a moment, he continued quietly, "When you walked out that door, Chief, I was afraid I'd blown my last chance. Oh, I was dumb enough to still think I'd done the right thing. But…Incacha told me, when you…when you weren't sure you could trust me again, after…well, he'd told me that if I rejected you again, that I wouldn't get another chance." Pausing, his eyes glittering with moisture, he finished, "Thank you, for giving me one more chance."

Blair smiled down at him as his hand moved to cup the Sentinel's cheek. "I am your Guide and your friend. I need you in my life, Jim Ellison…that chance was as much for me as it was for you. I screwed up, too, you know. Not being the Guide you needed. This time, we both got it right."

Jim found he had to swallow hard before he could speak again. Taking a breath, he said, "I'm a little tired, Chief, could you help me back to bed."

"Sure thing," Blair replied, moving to assist Jim onto his feet, a maneuver he couldn't quite manage yet on his own.

"Just a minute, Sandburg," Jim said as Blair started to shift away. Jim lifted his arms around his friend, embracing Blair tightly as he whispered, "Thank you, my brother…"

It was the first time Jim had used those words, and this time, it was Blair who found his eyes filling as he trembled with emotion. This time, it was Jim who brushed his lips over Blair's forehead and held him close.

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

By the middle of the second week, Ellison was able to walk the length of the hall outside his room. The intravenous had been removed two days earlier, and though he was no fan of hospital fare, he diligently ate and drank what was put in front of him, knowing he needed the nourishment to build up his strength. All in all, he was a model patient…he had a goal, and that goal was to go home. To achieve that, he had to demonstrate he was ready. Three weeks after he'd been brought in by ambulance, he was ready to go home.

After another week at home, Simon finally relented and agreed to allow him to return to the office on 'light duty'. Not perfect, but at least Jim didn't feel so out of the action. Not that he'd been abandoned and ignored. Given his behaviour before the accident, he was more than amazed and not a little touched that everyone from Major Crimes made a point of visiting regularly, both in the hospital and once he got home. But, even then, he was surprised at the reception he received when he walked back into the Major Crimes Unit. There were balloons and streamers everywhere, and a big sign over his desk, proclaiming, 'Welcome Back, Jim!' and everyone jumped up to add their personal wishes to that message.

But the words he relished most of all were "Welcome back, partner."

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

Chapter Five: So Faith, Hope, Love Abide…

Two weeks later they were all fed up with the lack of action on the hijacking/weapons dealing case. In close contact with their counterparts across the nation, it was only too abundantly clear that the operators had shut the business down tighter than a drum after the last hijacked semi had almost been captured by the police.

Calling the whole team into a meeting in his office, Simon reviewed what they had and formally declared they were stuck. "So, I'm open to suggestions. Anybody have any ideas?"

Most shook their heads dejectedly as they recounted all that they had done to find a crack somewhere. They didn't have enough evidence or probable cause to push for a search warrant to get into those warehouses and take a good look around. Though surveillance had been constant and tight, there'd been nothing to suggest anything but a legitimate cleaning company occupied the premises. There was nothing to link the identity of the man who had burned in the hijacked truck with the company. They'd searched bank records, trying to track the money and had come up with zip. They'd checked police records nationally to see if there was any record of the owner or senior officers of the company having been charged with any prior offenses. Nada…not even a parking ticket.

Stuck wasn't the word for it. It would take a stick of dynamite to get this case moving again.

Blair had been sitting with his head lowered, obviously thinking about something. "Sandburg, you're being conspicuously quiet," Simon observed.

Looking up, Blair replied, "They're careful, but they'll move eventually. When they do, we need to be ready and waiting for them. I think the only thing we can do now is place someone on the inside."

Simon frowned as he thought about that, and then nodded. "I agree. We need someone who could credibly apply for a cleaning job, but who also knows how to drive a semi," he said then, his eyes scanning the members of his team and coming to rest again on Sandburg.

"Told ya these curls would come in handy," Blair quipped.

Jim stiffened and had to forcibly keep himself from protesting. While he was trying to school his emotions and instinctive reactions, Joel put his own objection forward. Frowning, he reflected, "I'm not sure…after the media attention, won't there be a danger someone would recognize you?"

Conscious of Jim's struggle beside him, Blair thought carefully before he answered. "No, I don't think so, Joel. That was months ago, and there was only the one short video that featured me…the others all focused on Jim. My hair was tied back and I was wearing my glasses, so I could wear it loose, and/or wear a cap, and there won't be any paperwork there, so I won't need the specs. I still look young enough to pose as a student looking for work…"

"Chief, I…" Ellison began, then paused as if he was thinking better of what he'd intended to say. Jim wanted so badly to say this was a stupid idea, that it was too dangerous, that they'd find another way. But, he'd promised to let Blair go…to trust Blair to make his own decisions, even if they weren't the ones he'd make, even if there might be danger. God, he thought, this is so damned hard.

"Go on, Jim," Simon encouraged.

Sighing, Jim continued, "I think you're right that you've got a good chance that they wouldn't recognize you…and, while I'm not sure I'd give you any references as a cleaning specialist, so far as I know at least, you're the only one here who can handle a semi with professional expertise."

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said with a smile, his words innocuous…his message profound. Turning to Simon, he chirped, "Looks like I'm your man."

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

It was late that afternoon when Blair jumped off the bus, and trudged up the industrial parkway, going into each business' administration entrance to apply for a job. He was dressed in jeans and his old jacket, with a baseball cap yanked down over his unbound hair. The day was blustery with gusts of rain, so by the time he arrived at the office entrance of the Proteus Cleaning Company, he was cold, wet and looked very miserable.

"Whew!" he exclaimed, catching the door against another gust of wind and pushing it shut behind him. "What a truly horrible day, man!" he said turning to face the thin, middle-aged fellow behind the counter as he wiped rain from his face and pushed his hair back behind his ears.

"Can I help you?" the man asked, rising from his desk further back in the large open area to approach the counter.

"Oh, man, I sure hope so," Blair exclaimed almost breathlessly as he pulled his pack from his shoulder, rummaging in it to pull out a worse for wear sheet of paper. Handing it toward the stranger, he explained, "I'm looking for a job, and this sorta gives you an idea of what kind of work I've done before."

The older man gave him a skeptical look as he took the paper and scanned it, his brows rising as he took in the extensive list of former occupations. Murmuring to himself as he read, "Clerk, construction worker, back hoe driver, house painter, bee keeper, deck hand, truck driver, farm hand, inventory control, supermarket checker, hospital attendant…"

Looking up, with a quick glance back down at the name on the top of the list, he said, "Mr. uh, Morris, you've certainly had a wide variety of jobs in the past…but, this is a cleaning company."

"Uh, yeah, well, I'm a student, actually, and I take pretty much whatever I can find to help pay the bills, man. At least it shows I can learn different duties," Blair explained, a hopeful look on his face. "Working nights or evenings would be best for me right now, what with classes, and most of those kinds of jobs require work during the day."

"I see," murmured the stranger again, a frown puckering his face as he again looked doubtfully at the sheet in his hand.

"Look, honestly, I learn really fast…and, well, if you think the cleaning would be too complicated, maybe there's warehouse or inventory work…I really need a job, man," Blair offered anxiously. "Those student loans…you wouldn't believe…I'll be old before I dig my way out. And, now, with my Mom so sick…" Blair paused and made a visible effort to pull himself together. "Ah, sorry, man…you don't need to hear my problems…."

"If money is that much a problem, you could make a great deal more as a construction worker or truck driver than as a cleaner," the man replied, his eyes narrowing in speculation.

"Yeah, you're right. But, like I said, with the classes, construction work is pretty much out until next summer. And, truck driving, well, these days with the large firms handling drivers as independent operators, you pretty much need your own rig, man," Blair explained, then looked away with a miserable sigh, "and I sure can't afford my own rig."

For a long moment, the man studied him while Blair stood trying not to shift restlessly, giving the perfect imitation of a student who was desperate for a job, pale, hopeful, more than slightly frazzled around the edges. Nothing like playing a part he knew so well from years of first hand experience, Blair thought as he trained his eyes wide with hope upon the hapless clerk. Finally, the man nodded, "Alright, you're in luck. We had someone quit today unexpectedly and we're short-handed."

Blair's face blossomed into a smile of disbelieving delight. "Oh, man, that is so great!" he enthused. "What do you want me to do…when do I start?"

With a slight smile of indulgence, the man said as he reached under the counter for a form, "My name is Charlie Michaels. Here, fill in this form. You'll be starting tonight." While Blair completed the documentation, Charlie told him where to report at 10:00 that night to begin his new job as a cleaner. Looking Blair over, Charlie said thoughtfully, "I think a medium uniform will do for you. I'll requisition one for you and the senior cleaner at the site will have it for you when you get there. Pay goes right into your bank account."

Nodding as he listened and finished the form simultaneously, Blair looked up with a mixture of gratitude, relief and a fragile vulnerability in his face. "Thanks, man, I mean it. You don't know how desperate it's been…" he said sincerely.

"Yeah, well, do your job and you'll work out fine here," Charlie replied, then added as Blair turned to go, "Uh, kid…sometimes we have other work…in the warehouse when supplies come in. If you want, I can call you for extra duty…because it's sporadic, we pay cash at the end of the shift."

"Great, yeah, anytime," Blair replied, then stuck out his hand to shake Charlie's, as he again uttered a heartfelt, "Thanks."

"No problem, kid, see you around," Charlie replied, turning back to his desk, Blair's application in his hand.

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

Jim looked up from the kitchen where he was chopping vegetables for a stew as Blair blew into the loft. "Hey, Chief, how'd the job hunt go?"

"Just call me Mr. Clean, man," Blair replied with a grin as he peeled off his soaked jacket and hung it on a hook, dangling the cap on top of it. "I start tonight."

"Start what, exactly?" Jim replied as he dumped a double handful of chopped carrots, potatoes and turnip into a pot where he'd already been searing chunks of beef.

Blair made a face, as he replied, "Cleaning, unfortunately…I was hoping to get something in the warehouse, but no such luck, not right away anyway. My new friend, Charlie, says sometimes there's sporadic work that pays cash at the end of the shift and he'll call me if any comes up."

"'New friend', huh. Don't get carried away, Chief. And, look at it this way, Sandburg, the next time it's your turn to clean the loft, you'll bring a professional's touch," Jim teased, trying to keep it light, trying to curb his anxiety.

"Yeah, I might finally meet your standards, Jim," Blair snickered as he pulled two bottles of beer from the refrigerator.

"Finally," Jim joked as he took the bottle Blair held out to him and screwed off the cap.

Rolling his eyes, Blair gave his partner a look of appraisal as he asked, "How're you doing?"

"Oh, still stiff and the ribs are tender…I won't be able to lift anything heavy for a while yet," Jim replied, his gaze shifting away.

"Uh huh," Blair replied, taking in the slight tremble in Ellison's hands. "It's okay to say you're not happy with all of this, Jim…letting me do my job doesn't mean you always have to be joyful about it."

Ellison looked down at the counter for a moment, then nodded. Looking back up into Blair's steady gaze, he admitted, "I'm not happy about it, Chief. Scares the hell out of me, if you want the truth, to think about what you might be getting into, with no back up, no wire…."

"I know," Blair replied with a sigh of his own, wishing this could be easier on his friend, but it went against every instinct Jim had, whether as a man, a friend, a partner or a Sentinel. It challenged his need to control and protect, the two most powerful drives he had. "I'll be careful, I promise. I won't take any stupid chances, and I'll make sure you know where I am and what I'm doing."

Biting his lip, his tight jaw clenching, Jim nodded tightly. "Okay…okay, Chief," he muttered.

But, he still didn't like it, not one bit.

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

The active surveillance of the warehouses had been terminated as soon as Blair signed on with the cleaning company. If it had been noted by those being watched, which was more than likely, then the discontinuance would give a sense of reassurance that the police had given up, their attention moving on to other matters.

Blair dutifully went off to work each night as a member of the cleaning crew in a large office complex downtown. He took every opportunity he had to talk about how bad his debts were, how sick his mother was, how he just didn't know how he was ever going to meet his obligations…he was going to have to quit school, find a second job, his mother's treatments and medication were so expensive and she might need to have surgery, he was 'desperate, man, really desperate'. His supervisor listened and nodded, mumbled words of sympathy and reported back to Charlie.

It was easy work, if tedious, and he was learning more about industrial strength cleaners than he'd ever wanted to know. "Man, Jim, that stuff is pure, unadulterated poison. It'll burn the skin right off your hands, and the fumes, whew! Potent, man…would knock you out," he bitched one night. "And, it's so pathetically unnecessary! There are plenty of natural substances that would do as good a job, maybe even better, and not pollute the environment…"

"Yeah, but they cost more, Chief, and business is business," Jim replied philosophically.

"The world is our business, man…won't be much of a profit to be had if none us can breathe or drink the water," Blair groused, pushing his hair back behind his ears, as intense about environmental issues as he'd ever been.

"If they issue you a gas mask, Sandburg, let me know," Ellison replied. "Until then," he shrugged, "I think we'll all survive."

"Oh, man," Blair moaned theatrically. "More than four years listening to every thing I've been telling you, and you can still say that?"

"Listening, Chief?" Jim replied with a look of surprise. "Was I supposed to be listening?"

Blair threw a pillow at him and snickered. "If you weren't, you'd better start, man," he said with laughter in his eyes.

"Already have, Chief," Jim replied before he shot the pillow back across the living room at his friend, but beneath the banter that comment was made with perfect seriousness.

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

Guido was cautious. He waited nine days before he believed the cops had finally given up their interest in his affairs. But, finally, he decided that his secondary, and far more lucrative business, could be resumed.

Blair got the call from Charlie about an hour before he was due to head out to the office complex advising him that there was work the next night, a scheduled night off, if he was interested.

"Oh, yeah, for sure," Blair replied eagerly. "Where and when?"

"Back at the warehouse," Charlie advised him. "We've got to load supplies for a delivery to Olympia. Be here by 8:00 tomorrow night. Just one thing, kid, this is a competitive business and we don't like our competitors knowing what we're up to. So, we expect our employees in the warehouse to be…discreet."

"No problem, man, my lips are sealed," Blair agreed with a 'thumbs up' to Jim who was listening intently. "Thanks, Charlie."

As he hung up the phone, Blair turned with a satisfied smile. "Finally…I get to see what's inside that warehouse!"

Nodding, Jim looked away and sighed, "Yeah." But then he rallied, looking back at Blair with a woebegone look. "Does this mean your days learning to clean properly are over, Chief?"

"I hope so, man," Blair snickered. "I truly hope so."

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

The next day, Simon met with Blair and Jim to go over how they'd play it out. "We can't be anywhere in the neighbourhood, Sandburg, or they'll spot us."

"I know, Simon…it'll probably go down like silk. They think I'm an impoverished student who doesn't care what work he picks up so long as he can pay his bills. I'll help load the truck and report in once I'm clear," Blair replied. "Who knows, I might actually be loading carpet cleaners and barrels of cleaning fluid."

"Maybe," Jim allowed, "but a warning to be discreet seems a little over the top for something as simple as that."

"I agree," Simon replied. "This is likely the break we've been waiting for." Pondering the scenario, Simon stroked his chin. "I think you should go in armed, just in case."

Blair thought about that. No back up, no wire…probably wasn't a bad idea. "Looks like I'll finally get some use out of that ankle holster you guys gave me," he replied, aware that Jim relaxed marginally when he agreed to Simon's suggestion.

But, Ellison still wasn't happy about it. "I don't like the fact that I can't be close enough to listen in…" he said, still mulling over the lack of cover but Blair cut him off.

"Close enough?" Sandburg exclaimed, shaking his head. "Jim, you're not even cleared for full duty yet… not only do I not expect to see you anywhere in the neighbourhood, but I do expect you will be resting at home. If you push too hard, too soon, man, you could really hurt yourself and you know it!"

When Jim blew out an exasperated sigh, Blair just grinned at him. A confrontation at the warehouse wasn't likely, in Blair's estimation. His job was to get the information they needed to justify a search warrant. In and out, simple. But, if something did go wrong, a gun would help him dissuade anyone from following him too close if he had to run for it. A couple warning shots to make sure they backed off, and he'd be out of there.

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

Watching Blair fasten the holster around his ankle after dinner that evening, Jim swallowed against the butterflies in his stomach as he said quietly, "Be careful tonight, Sandburg. No heroics."

Looking up with a reassuring smile, Blair replied, "I'll be careful, Jim. You're the hero on this team, not me."

Thinking he could argue that but now was not the time, Ellison nodded tightly. "I'll wait up for you."

"That's not necessary, Jim. I have no idea how long this will take…could go all night," Blair protested, but when Ellison just leveled a flat stare at him, he raised his hands in surrender as he moved to grab his jacket and pull it on. "Okay, man, thanks. I'll see you later."

"Good luck," Jim said as he went to the door, closing it slowly after Blair headed down the stairwell with a bright reassuring grin and a wave back at him. He stood there for a long time, thinking how much he hated this, what a bad feeling he had. Though he still wasn't cleared for 'active duty', he'd be there regardless if it wouldn't have increased the danger rather than lessened it for Blair. He would have felt a lot better if he could have been close enough to listen in, but the warehouses were in an open, flat area, with no cover. There just wasn't anyway to get close enough without attracting attention. Taking a deep breath, he moved back to the sofa and plopped down on it, clicking the remote as he stared sightlessly at the images flickering on the screen.

It took everything he had to just sit there and wait.

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

When Blair arrived, he discovered he was one of three guys called in to help with the loading of the big semi that had pulled up in the back. Charlie met him at the door and walked back through the darkened warehouse with him, to introduce him to Kyle and Nate. The other two looked like tough customers, if a little ragged around the edges. But, then, looking closer, Blair decided they weren't so tough as just plain ragged and somehow desperate. Picking up the faint trembles and perpetual sniffing, Blair deduced that these guys needed work to pay for their habits. Feeling a pang of sadness, reflecting on his own cover story as a student in need of money, he thought with compassion, Now, that's real desperation.

The other two were old hands, and were already busy shifting heavy crates to the loading dock and from there onto the truck. As Blair approached the long, high stacks of coffin like crates with the peculiar black coding designating weapon descriptions, he observed blandly to Charlie, who would be working with him, "Funny looking crates for cleaning supplies."

Cutting him a sharp look, the older man asked, "Does it matter?"

"No, Charlie, absolutely not," Blair replied with a shrug. "Crates are crates, man."

They'd been working for a little more than an hour when the driver showed up to check on the progress. He wanted to be off by midnight so that he could finish the run well before dawn.

"Hey, Pete," Charlie called out when the tall, muscular young man ambled through the large open entrance leading in from the loading dock.

"Charlie," Pete acknowledged with a nod. "How much longer do you think this'll take?"

Blair, who's back was turned as he moved toward another crate froze at the sound of the voice, as Charlie replied to the boss' nephew, "Another couple of hours anyway, maybe more, I'd guess."

Swallowing, Sandburg considered his options. His eyes darting around the warehouse and the stacks of crates, he realized he might be able to hide, if only briefly, but the others were between him and the only exits, except for the entrance to the administration offices which Charlie had locked behind them when they'd come into the warehouse. Stooping forward, as if to lift the crate, he reached for his weapon and drew it out. Taking a deep breath, he straightened and turned around. Holding the gun out, he said quietly, "Hello, Mallory. Fancy meeting you here."

"What the hell!" Charlie exclaimed as he turned and saw the gun in Blair's hand.

Peter Mallory blew out a snort of disgust. "Sandburg," he sighed, raising his hands slightly. Flicking a contemptuous look at the older man, he said scathingly, "Good work, Charlie…you hired a cop."

"A cop?" Charlie groaned, lifting his own hands. "Dammit it all to hell."

Blithely unsuspecting of any problem, Kyle and Nate sauntered back in from the dock, only to look around with confusion when they spotted the other two with their hands in the air and then with shocked alarm when they saw the gun in Blair's hand. They'd come to load crates, not to get stuck in the middle of a shoot-out.

"Easy, everyone just take it easy," Blair said calmly. "This doesn't have to get messy. For the record, I'm Detective Blair Sandburg of the Cascade PD and you are all under arrest. If you'll just keep your hands up, we'll head back to the offices and I can make a call."

Mallory laughed at that. "You're a fool if you think we'll just fall into line like sheep. There're more of us than you…"

"Yeah, but I've got the gun and your friends don't look like they'd appreciate getting shot," Blair replied, waving his gun a little to indicate they were to move into the warehouse and head around him back toward the offices beyond.

He didn't hear the soft snick of the door's lock disengaging. His back to it while he kept a wary eye on the others, he didn't see it swing open or Guido and another man emerge, both holding revolvers in their hands.

"You're not the only one with a gun, kid," Guido interjected with a low growl. He didn't know what was going on, only having heard the last exchange. For a moment, he wondered if another 'entrepreneur' was trying to rip him off.

Blair stiffened and flicked a quick look back over his shoulder. 'Oh, man, this is so not good,' he thought to himself, wondering at the propensity of the cosmos to ensure that if anything could go wrong, it would.

"He's a cop, Uncle Guido," Mallory supplied with a feral grin as he lowered his arms. "His name is Blair Sandburg…I met him at the Academy last spring."

Emotions raced over Guido's face, shock, disbelief, anger then resignation. "Drop your gun," he said. "Or I promise I will shoot you where you stand."

Blair closed his eyes for a brief moment, then relaxed his stance, stooping to drop his weapon gently on the ground and kicking it away, back toward the crates rather than toward the men who now surrounded him. Licking his lips, he turned to face the older, stocky man with a calm he wished he could feel. "Look, so far all we've got is illegal possession of arms. You don't want to make this worse than it has to be."

Ignoring him, Guido called out, "Charlie, check outside and make sure this kid doesn't have any friends hanging around. Nate, Kyle, go with Pete…take him back to my office and wait for me."

"My pleasure," Mallory growled, a predatory look in his eyes, as he advanced on Blair and backhanded him viciously across the face, causing the smaller man to stagger in an effort to retain his balance. Reaching up to dab at his split lip, Blair murmured, "Really good to see you again, too."

Mallory grabbed him roughly and shoved him forward, back past Guido and the other man, out of the warehouse. When they reached Guido's office, Mallory grabbed Sandburg by the arm, intent upon pulling him around, his right hand already fisted and drawn back for a punch.

But, Blair couldn't see why he should have to stand still and have the stuffing beat out of him. Moving with the pull on his arm, he whirled around and low, punching up with all his strength into Mallory's gut, winding the bigger man and driving him back. Shaking out his fist, Blair said, "Your uncle didn't say anything about beating me up."

Snarling in fury, Mallory roared at the two young men who'd followed them into the office, "Get him!" and then they all charged. Blair backed up to get the space to maneuver, kicking out and blocking punches, giving better than he got, but he knew he was only filling time, delaying the inevitable. When his back hit the wall, and he had nowhere else to go, they finally overpowered him. Nate and Kyle grabbed his arms to pin him tightly, while Mallory finally satisfied his long delayed desire to teach Sandburg a lesson he wouldn't forget.

It took a while, longer than Blair liked, for the fierce, angry, former cadet to beat him into senselessness, but finally the darkness rescued him.

Growling in satisfaction as he glared down at the crumpled body of the man he despised, giving Blair a couple of solid kicks for good measure, Mallory snapped, "That should hold him for a while. Kyle, you watch him. Nate…come with me to finish loading the truck."

After the other two had left, Kyle stood looking down at the body of the cop, shaking his head and wondering how the hell he'd gotten himself into a mess like this. God, he'd kill for some stuff to settle his nerves but it didn't look like he'd be getting out of here for a while.

Back in the warehouse, Guido, Charlie and Guido's partner, Jules, were discussing damage control.

"We don't have any choice, Guido, we have to waste him," Julie stated, his voice cold as he stated the facts.

Casting his partner a dark look, Guido blew out a long breath as he looked away. So many years with no trouble. Then first a truck blows up and now this. A cop. Nodding reluctantly, he couldn't see any other option because there was no way he was going to prison at this stage of his life. "We'll finish up here, kill him and load him into the back of the truck. You and I can follow Pete outta town, and we'll dump the body somewhere nobody will ever find it. If the cops come sniffing around, we don't know what happened. The kid finished loading the cleaning supplies and left. Agreed?"

Charlie swallowed hard. It was one thing to participate in an illegal arms business; it was another to see a man killed with one of those guns. He'd never done anything like this before and he felt more than a little sick. But he nodded, as did Julie.

When Nate and Pete Mallory returned with the news that the cop wouldn't be bothering them for a while, Guido gave Pete a hard look, but then just sent Nate to get back to work with Charlie, loading the crates.

"So, what's the plan?" Mallory demanded of his uncle.

"What do you think the plan is?" Guido snapped back, feeling angry and hounded. "We'll have to kill him and dump his body."

Smiling coldly, Mallory offered, "Can I do him? I really hate that guy."

Guido looked up at his tall, vicious nephew, a look of strained forbearance on his face. This kid is no damned good, he thought. I've told my sister that he's an animal…look at him. So eager to kill another man…so damned eager to sell his soul to the devil. Sighing, he just nodded wearily and turned away.

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

Jim had given up on pretending to watch the television and had simply been staring at the clock for the past hour. How the hell long does it take to load a truck? he thought with frustration as the minutes ticked toward midnight. Pacing restlessly, he tried to contain his anxiety, knowing Sandburg would be beyond disappointed if he charged in to the rescue and ruined all the work the kid had put into this case.

But, his skin crawled and his chest was tight, his throat dry as dust and he felt a desire to punch something, anything. Blowing out a long breath, he paused and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to calm down.

But, his head snapped up, his heart hammering, when he heard the lonely long howl of a wolf.

"Sandburg!" he blew out with a breath of all pervasive fear. "Oh God…"

Turning to the phone, he punched in Simon's number and when his boss finally answered, he snapped, "Sandburg's in trouble. I'm heading over there."

"Jim, just hold it a minute," Simon snapped, looking at the clock on his own wall. "It's early yet. Did he call or what?"

"No, Simon, and I don't have time to explain," Jim replied, his voice tight. "I heard the wolf, Simon. I have to go."

Slamming down the phone, Jim grabbed his coat and hit the stairs running.

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

Blair heard someone groaning and it took him a minute to realize who it was. Sucking in a breath against the searing pain in his chest and side, and the relentless pounding in his head, he blinked, trying to remember what had happened. Focusing on the strange office, then upon Kyle hovering between him and the door, he groaned again as the memories crashed in. 'Busted,' he thought.

Realizing his prisoner was beginning to wake up, Kyle shifted in anxious indecision. Should he go for help? Yell for somebody to come? What was he supposed to do?

The nervous youth was just shifting toward the door, when Blair mumbled, "It's okay, I won't hurt you," then giggled at himself for the absurdity of it all. Squinting up at Kyle as he slowly levered himself to sit with his back against the wall, one arm braced around his aching ribs, he continued, "Turned into a real mess, didn't it, Kyle?"

Jumpy as a deer, Kyle nodded jerkily. "You can say that again, man," he replied, a tinge of a whine in his voice, his eyes dark with confusion and fear.

"Relax, Kyle," Blair grunted and he winced again against the flare of agony that radiated to his back. "Nobody's going to hurt you. Just relax okay?"

But, Kyle just blew out a long breath, wishing he were anywhere but here.

Watching him, Blair decided he had to try. This might be his only chance. Taking his time, pushing himself up to lean against the wall, he kept talking slowly and calmly all the while he was moving. "Look, man, I know you didn't bargain on any of this. You were here to load cleaning supplies, right? You don't want to get mixed up in murder."

"Murder, man?" the kid's eyes widened in horror. "Who said anything about murder?"

"You don't think they'll just let me go, do you?" Blair replied, his tone reasonable, soothing.

"Oh, man," Kyle whimpered, then bit his lip, trying to keep himself together. He needed a fix and he needed it badly.

"Look, it might not be too late," Blair offered hope. "It's just you and me here, right? There's nobody to stop us from just walking out of here, man. So…what do you say? Should we make a run for it?"

Looking from Blair to the door, trembling in his fear and need, Kyle was confused, feeling trapped and desperate. Blair stayed by the wall, his hands up in a gesture of surrender, no threat, not pushing. But, he whispered softly, "Come on, Kyle…you don't want to kill me. I'm a cop…you could never run far enough or fast enough to get away. Besides, you're not a killer, are you? You don't want to be part of this."

Taking one step back and then another, Kyle poked his head around the door to see if the coast was clear. The others were all still in the warehouse, the office area dark but for the light that splashed in from the streetlights on the broad roadway. Taking a shuddering breath, he nodded as he waved a hand toward Blair, his eyes still locked on the warehouse door. "Come on…hurry," the scared youth appealed, just wanting so much to escape.

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Blair moved across the office, fighting the dizziness and the urge to throw up. Together, they moved silently across the wide-open office area toward the exit.

And they almost made it.

"Hold it!" Mallory shouted, the door banging against the wall with a crash as he charged through it. "Kyle, you dumb ass, what do you think you're doing?"

Blair threw a quick look back, intending to try to run for it, but the gun in Mallory's fist told him it would be useless. Putting out an arm to block Kyle from moving any further, the youth's body between him and Mallory, Blair turned as he said, "Don't hurt him, he's just a scared kid…"

"Yeah, well, he's gonna be a dead kid if he isn't careful," Mallory growled as he waved the gun toward the door. "Come on, it's time we were leaving."

Blair moved gingerly to place himself between Kyle and Mallory, his hands again in the air as he said, "All right, we're coming…just stay cool, Mallory. Nobody has to get hurt here."

Mallory laughed maliciously at that as the others preceded him through the door back into the warehouse. But then, cocky, too confident, excited to know he was going to kill this pig in a matter of moments, Mallory made a mistake. Shoving Kyle out of his way, he moved in too close, his hand on Sandburg's shoulder as he whispered with unholy relish, "Somebody's gonna get hurt, Sandburg…"

He never got to finish whatever else he was going to say. Blair jabbed a hard elbow back into his solar plexus, winding him, and then dove away behind the stacks. Dragging Kyle with him, he scrambled to find the gun he'd kicked there earlier.

Howling in rage, Mallory snapped off a shot just as Blair pushed Kyle down and away. Rolling to grab his gun, Sandburg came back up to his knees as, still off balance, he whipped off a shot to wing Mallory. The larger man howled as the bullet seared through his upper arm, but fury kept him on his feet and he turned back, his gun up.

Blair pushed Kyle further along behind the crates, giving them some protection. The others had been thrown into confusion by his sudden resistance and the sharp explosion of the guns. Having finished loading the truck, they were all bunched about fifteen feet from the opening onto the dock…and Blair could see there was a clear path to the door.

Calling out, Blair said as he leveled his gun at them all, "Drop your weapons! Kyle and I are getting out of here…anybody else want to surrender and come with me, fine. The rest of you, just stay where you are." Thanking fortune for having given him a break at last, putting all of the bad guys in a line where he could keep them covered, he urged Kyle toward the doorway. Warily, he noted Guido and the other guy had let their guns fall away, but he and Mallory were still in a Mexican stand off.

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

Jim kept his siren blaring as he raced across town, only shutting it down when he got close to the warehouse knowing that it would be a giveaway that the cavalry was on its way, and, alone, he might need all the advantage surprise could give him. Turning off the headlights, he ghosted down the long avenue, drawing up in front of the dark warehouse. Slipping out of the truck, he tilted his head to listen, searching for the sound of his partner's voice…his heartbeat.

Trembling when he heard Sandburg offer them a chance to surrender, he loped around the corner of the warehouse, taking care to stay in the shadow of the long warehouse owned by the Proteus Cleaning Company. If his partner's heart hadn't been pounding so hard and fast, he would have thought Sandburg had everything under control.

He was still moving along the endless wall when he heard another voice call out, taunting, vicious. "You can't get away…I'll kill the kid."

Blair wondered if Mallory was bluffing to rattle him or if the guy was really that rotten. All he knew was he couldn't take the chance. He needed to buy enough time for Kyle to get away. He needed to keep Mallory focused on him, not the kid. Shifting to cover Kyle with his body while shoving the kid out of the large doorway, he kept his gun leveled at Mallory who was shifting further to the side, drawing Blair's gaze slightly away from the other men. Blair called, "Don't do it, man…just back off."

But, then, Guido, shouted out, "Drop your gun."

Too many to watch at once, with a sinking feeling Blair realized that Guido had stooped to grab up his gun and was now leveling it at him. But, the good news was, Kyle was away, stumbling into the night.

In the space of a heartbeat, Blair evaluated his options. He could run and be shot in the back. He could fire, but he wouldn't likely get both of them, not with them each holding their weapons ready to shoot him. The civilian who'd tried to help him was gone, but there were other innocents still here who hadn't bargained on anything like murder and sure didn't deserve to die…Charlie, Nate, maybe even Guido and his nameless friend. For all that Guido was still holding a gun on him, Mallory was the real threat here, Blair knew that as his eyes lifted to those of the man who wanted to kill him so badly. For one heartbreaking moment, Blair thought of Jim, of what it would do to his friend if he died here tonight. If he killed Mallory, he might yet survive. But…closing his eyes against the hideous grief he felt, his shoulders sagged. What a hell of a time to realize I just can't do it, Sandburg thought as he raised his hands and straightened, shifting his stance to face them fully, his gun still held loosely in his hand, accepting the truth of his soul.

He wouldn't, couldn't, kill…not when his life was the only one in the balance.

He would not take a life, only to save his own.

But, he hoped with all his soul that Jim wouldn't hate him for all eternity for the choice he'd just made.

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

Jim was tearing down the last few feet, slowing only to take a quick look around the corner into the warehouse to assess the situation before he moved to Sandburg's rescue. Close enough to hear words that chilled his soul, close enough to see what was going on once he reached the splash of light from the loading dock that spilled into the darkness beyond, just a few more paces ahead. Close enough to fire, if there had been but a single moment's more time.

But not close enough.

"What, that's it, you're just going to give up?" Mallory taunted, stalking forward, his gun raised and trained on Blair.

"I won't kill you," Blair said, his voice steady, but then a pleading tone came into it as he begged, but not for himself, "Don't do this, Mallory. I'm not worth the cost to your soul."

"My soul, Sandburg?" Mallory crowed as he pulled the trigger. "I could give a shit for my soul."

As if in slow motion, Blair felt the bullets hit his body with the force of massive, concussive hammers, driving him back off his feet even as he heard the sharp, percussive explosions of the gun echoing throughout the warehouse. Shock and breathlessness, a glare of light and the thud of his body hitting the concrete. Eruptions of pain, searing agony merging into an all-consuming fire that savaged him. Hot, metallic, liquid spurting into his throat, choking him, gasping for breath. Splotches of darkness reaching for him, spangles of brilliant blinding light offering him peace.

"NOOOOOO!!!" the Sentinel screamed in a rising wail of desperate, terrible denial as the sound of gunfire filled the air and Blair's body blew backwards from the force of the bullets tearing into his body.

In the distance, Blair heard the wretched, anguished howl of a lost soul splitting the night, filling the air as a shadow passed overhead to linger protectively between him and the light-spangled darkness, keeping him safe. More shots, and the hoarse shouts of that beloved voice, sounding harsh with anger and terror. Jim, Blair thought, feeling immense relief wash over him. He wasn't alone, wouldn't die here alone. Jim had come, was protecting him. But, the surge of relief gave way to sorrow and grief as he again felt himself begin to drift. No, can't, he sobbed in the silence of his mind as he pushed back at the darkness as if it were a physical shroud, rejecting the light that offered respite from all the pain, can't let go… That had been the frenzied scream of his lost Sentinel…he needed to help…needed to guide… couldn't leave… not yet….

Ellison had no memory of how he leapt onto the loading dock like an avenging God winging in out of the night, or of firing and killing Peter Mallory. No memory of moving to stand over Blair's body, between his best friend and the others who might still threaten him. No memory of snapping off a shot that winged Guido who'd hesitated too long to shoot first, causing him to cry out and drop his gun. No memory of screaming at them to get on the floor, on their faces, or of quickly cuffing them together in a tight circle around a pillar so that they couldn't go anywhere…nor of promising to kill them if they moved even as he backed away from them. No memory of kicking their weapons away or of pulling out his cell phone and punching in 911, yelling that an officer was down and giving them the address.

No memory but one that scrolled over and over in his mind. The memory of what he'd seen when he'd finally reached the end of the long warehouse wall, pausing for just a breath of time to check quickly around the corner for a rapid, necessary assessment of the situation before he moved in to protect his friend. One rapid, less than a second, pause…an eternity of time.

Blair, standing so vulnerable and alone on the dock in the garish lights that bathed him with a bright, sharp, luminescence. His friend, flying backward through the air as the bullets crashed into him, blasting through skin and muscle and bone. His partner's blood, splattering in the light. His Guide, lying crumpled, so still, on the cold, filthy concrete flooring of the dock.

No memory but of his heart splintering into a thousand pieces and his soul shrieking out in horror.

"If you so much as twitch, I swear I will kill you," Ellison snarled with vicious promise.

Jim took a final step back and knelt by his friend in one smooth, hurried motion, his eyes rapidly scanning the damage, his hearing locked on Blair's heartbeat, thundering so fast, trying to push blood that wasn't there through the stricken body. The blood the heart sought so desperately was pulsing out at a terrifying rate, soaking Blair's shirt and jacket, pouring onto the floor beneath him, a river flowing into an ever-widening crimson lake. Dimly, Jim was aware of sirens somewhere far away but drawing closer.

Too far away, not coming fast enough, not nearly fast enough.

"Oh God, Sandburg," he groaned with sick, helpless despair. His eyes lifted to his friend's face even as he shoved his gun in his belt and pressed his hands down on Blair's chest in a futile effort to try to hold the blood inside. He felt its sticky warmth slide past his fingers, staining his hands with Blair's life.

Sandburg's blue eyes were wide open, the pupils already dilating. His face was starkly white under the mottling of the bruises from the earlier beating and creased with the pain that flamed up to overwhelm him with every shattering shallow breath, scarlet bubbles of blood breaking on his bluish lips with each puff of air. "Jim?" he whispered, his voice a mere wisp of sound as his hand fumbled, wanting to touch his friend, his Sentinel.

"I'm here, Chief," Ellison called back, his voice clogged with fear. "Hold on, Sandburg…God, hold on."

"Sorry…Jim…couldn't…" Blair panted, feeling as if he was drowning again and fighting the panic as he tried to draw in enough air while he strained to focus on his friend's face. Weakly, exerting all the strength he had left, he lifted a heavy arm, reaching to rest his hand upon Jim's cheek, fumbling to brush away the tears that slipped down his best friend's face. "Sorry…"

"Don't talk, Sandburg," Ellison ordered, looking up and around, growling under his breath, "Where's the damned ambulance!"

"Jim…no time…" Blair breathed again, resisting the darkness that swirled around him, feeling a sense of urgency build within him. He coughed weakly and the scarlet bubbles erupted into a stream of hot liquid that filled his throat, letting him know he was running out of time. Searing agony was pulsing through him and though he tried to bite it back, a low moan escaped him.

"Oh God," Ellison whispered, hearing the agony beneath the weak, unwilling moan; his own heart clenched at the sight of the spasm of unendurable pain that ghosted across Sandburg's face.

"Just…hold me, man," Blair gasped, his trembling hand now cupped weakly against Jim's tearstained cheek, his other hand fisted in his best friend's jacket, trying so hard to hold on, to not let it all slip away. Needing to give comfort, feeling so cold, aching to be held and protected by his Sentinel, needing the touch, the strength of his Sentinel to hold himself here, to keep himself from slipping away.

Terrified by the bubbling sound of each painful wheezing breath, Jim gathered Blair gently into his arms, holding him tightly against his chest, his friend's neck and head supported by his arm and shoulder. "Please…don't do this…" he pleaded, though whether to Blair or to the Almighty, he didn't know.

Jim was devastated by the knowledge that his friend was dying and he could do nothing…his Guide needed him but he'd been too late to protect him and he hadn't the power to save him now. Blair felt so small in his arms, so fragile. He was in so much pain…so hurt, so desperately hurt. Jim felt fury and fear…and so helpless, so miserably helpless as he clutched Blair close and stared down into his best friend's face, into those bright, vital eyes that held his own. Unaware of the tears on his cheeks or the shudders that wracked his own body, Jim held on for dear life.

"'S'okay," Blair murmured, feeling as if he was drifting but unwilling to rest yet, knowing only that he was safe and secure in Jim's embrace. Each gasp now a strangled sob of sound, he kept trying desperately, while he still could, to guide his Sentinel, to give some measure of peace to his friend. "'M okay…you're good…Jim…I'll be…close…promise…"

"Blair, don't…" Jim cut in, his voice breaking as he panted in desperation, overwhelmed by that thumping heartbeat, by the rich, cloying smell of blood that surrounded him. He couldn't lose it, couldn't lose himself in a zone, not now, not when Blair needed him, needed whatever meager help he could give. Oh, God, he'd give anything…anything….

"Promise me," Blair choked out, his tear glazed eyes filled with infinite love, pouring out all the compassion and regret in his soul as he struggled to form the words. "Won't…hide…"

"Not now, Chief…just breathe…" Ellison commanded, feeling panic clutch at his gut as he felt Blair tremble in his arms and read the message in those too bright eyes, a message he couldn't bear.

"Now…Sent'nel…" Blair breathed, struggling to keep his eyes open, though he could barely see through the glare of the brilliant light that almost surrounded him, blotting out everything but Jim's eyes, and to hold his icy, shaking hand to Jim's face, to guide him toward the path to sanity.

"Alright, dammit, I promise," Jim ground out, anything to get Blair to rest, to save his strength. He'd promise his life, his soul…anything if it would help his Guide, his best friend, to just concentrate on living.

Blair felt peace then and allowed the tension of his body to ease, allowed the searing agony to slip away while he settled into the strong arms that cradled him so close and gave him comfort. Looking up into Jim's eyes, seeing the fear and regretting it, Blair wished he could give comfort back to ease his friend's pain. There was such love in the eyes that held his own, love that sustained him with warmth and safety and filled him with radiant joy. Jim…his best friend, his partner, his Sentinel…his life. Oh, God, he thought, with aching tenderness and helpless sorrow, I don't want to leave him….

Blair's eyes remained locked on Jim's, projecting all that was in his soul as he smiled with incandescent radiance, giving the last gift he could to the one he loved best in all creation. "Love you…Jim," he whispered, with the last of his strength. "Always, man…"

"Blair, please…" Jim begged brokenly, holding him tighter, feeling Blair's body trembling in tiny spasms, as his muscles demanded the nourishment they were no longer receiving from a flagging, faltering heart. But, even as he pleaded, Blair's hand fell limply away as his eyes clouded and drifted closed.

The sirens were closer now, their shrieking din splitting the night. But their sound was nothing as the Sentinel's hoarse scream filled the air, "NNNOOOO!!!!"

Ellison pulled Blair against him, and curled tightly around him, his head resting on Blair's curls, desperately holding onto the fragile sound of a heart still fluttering like a butterfly under his hand pressing against Sandburg's back. "Don't leave me, Chief," he begged as he rocked his friend in mindless despair. "Dammit…you promised me…promised me you'd be careful…you can't do this, Sandburg…God, Blair, please don't let go…."

Pulsing lights, the colour of blood, washing over them. The shrill of countless sirens trying to blot out the sound of that precious heart beat. Voices, so many voices shouting and yelling, but they held no interest for him…only the sound of Blair's heart, the soft, rattle of his breath had meaning. Hands grabbing at him, trying to pull Blair away from him.

Lost now, overwhelmed with the stench of blood, concentrating only on that heartbeat, determined to protect his Guide, Ellison shrugged them off as he fought to hold on to the person who mattered most in his whole existence, terrified to let go.

"JIM!" Simon's voice came; strong, steady hands grasped his shoulders. "JIM! You HAVE to let go. For God's sake, let them help him!"

'Promise me, you won't hide,' Blair's voice intruded, distant, compelling, cutting through the confusion in his mind.

"JIM!" Simon pleaded.

"Pppromise," Ellison stuttered softly as he released his grip and let the EMTs take Blair from him.

Simon pulled Jim back and around into his own arms, holding him tightly as he looked past Ellison's shoulder at the blood…so much blood. "Easy, Jim," he murmured through a throat clogged with the grief that filled his being. "Easy, my friend," he soothed the man shuddering with silent sobs in his arms.

"Oh God…Sandburg…" Jim ground out, pulling away, needing to see to his friend, his partner. He couldn't fall apart, not now…not yet. Blair still needed him. That heart was still fluttering…so weak, so vulnerable. He had to be with him, touch him…protect him.

In minutes, Blair was loaded into the ambulance, intravenous running, pressure bandages on the wounds, warmly wrapped against the chill of shock. Jim climbed in behind him, and the doors were slammed closed. In seconds, the emergency vehicle was racing through the night, sirens shrieking, red lights flashing, their garish pulse mimicking the beat of the failing heart within.

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

For Jim, the night became a series of surreal, shattered images. Blair coding just as they entered the Emergency Room of Cascade General. The crushing silence where there should have been sound. A flurry of activity, confusing to the observer but disciplined and professional. Paddles on Blair's blood-washed chest, his frail, vulnerable body arching, and then again. The blessed sound of a silent heart thumping back, slow and erratic. Clothing being ripped and cut away from a near lifeless body. IV cutdowns, a curved tube thrust down his throat, a bag held to his face, pumping in air. Blood being hastily washed away while a new source of life dripped heavily into his veins. Doctors shouting orders. Nurses responding.

Jim stood in the corner, refusing to be pushed out of the room, his eyes and ears locked on his partner, unaware and uncaring of anything else. They left him, too urgently busy to bother with him. Simon stood by him, a steadying arm around his shoulders, a firm hand gripping his arm, as Ellison watched in a daze of horror that felt as if it would never end.

The doors of the treatment room crashed open as a gurney was hastily wheeled in, and Blair was shifted onto it. And, then, they were gone, taking Sandburg away from him, racing him away down the long crowded corridor, medical staff pushing the wheeled stretcher bearing its precious burden, while others moved people out of the way in the dash for the elevator that someone in scrubs was holding open. Jim stumbled after them, wanting to follow, but Simon pulled him back.

"They're going to the O.R., Jim…you can't go with him," Simon explained patiently, fighting his own stark grief and riotous anxiety, concentrating hard on keeping his voice low and calm, his touch strong and reassuring. "Let him go, Jim…you can't help him now."

"Simon…Sandburg, he's…" Ellison replied incoherently, the shock overcoming him, leaving him uncertain, confused.

"They'll do all they can," Simon cut in. "Blair's in good hands."

"'Hands?'" Jim repeated, looking down at his own hands, smeared with blood that had barely had time to dry. His clothes were thick with Blair's blood, encrusted with it. "Simon…Blair's blood…"

Frowning, realizing the powerful sickly sweet, metallic scent of his best friend's blood was about to send Jim careening into a zone, Simon reached out to lift Jim's jaw, to force his eyes up. "Jim! Listen to me. Don't lose it now, for God's sake."

The dazed look gave way to an unspeakable pain so raw it took Simon's breath away. Pulling Jim against him in a tight, if quick, hug, he gathered his own thoughts. "Come on, Ellison, we have to get you cleaned up." Putting an arm around Jim's shoulder, he turned his friend toward the men's room down the hall and led him along the corridor.

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

Waiting as the endless minutes ticked by with excruciating sluggishness.

Pacing back and forth along the corridor outside the entrance to the operating theatres beyond.

Voices intruding, trying to distract him from focusing on that precious heart beat, with questions that couldn't be answered, with painful, hesitant reassurances that lacked any wisp of confidence, with sorrowful support.

Silences, terrible silences in the midst of the racket of sounds around him…stark, terrible silences that caught at his heart and breath, making him stagger, but then blessed, fragile beating again, not steady, not strong…but oh so blessedly there.

Memories of Blair flying through the air…of the sound of a fluttering heart going still.

Pacing, waiting, going quietly mad until a soft, compelling voice that just wouldn't quit finally broke through his consciousness.

'Promise me,' it called, reminding him.

'I love you, Jim,' it soothed. 'Always…'

Hearing that voice in his mind, so much clearer, purer, than the cacophony of sound that surrounded him, undid the last traces of control Jim Ellison had left. Staggering to a halt, leaning his shoulder against a wall for support, Jim raised a hand to cover his eyes as they overflowed with grief and pain. "Oh God, Blair…" he whispered, his whole body trembling with emotion.

Strong, kind arms reached out for him and pulled him into an embrace. "That's it, Jim," Joel murmured softly. "Let it out, man…let it out."

Jim's knees buckled but Joel supported his greater weight, easing them both down to their knees, still holding his friend tightly in his arms. Tears streaking his own face, Joel recalled a time not so very long ago when he'd held Blair to let him cry out the grief of his soul. "It's alright to cry," Joel whispered, stroking Ellison's back. "It's alright…"

"God, Joel…he's hurt so bad," Jim choked out. "I saw…I was too late…"

"Shhh," the older man murmured gently. "You were there, you stopped them from hurting him anymore. You called for help. You were with Blair when he needed you," he consoled.

"Too late," Jim protested, shuddering with guilt, with the horror of the memories.

"Shhh," Joel soothed again, closing his eyes as pulled Jim closer. "You did all you could…more. You were there when he needed you to hold onto."

"What if he…" Jim stammered, but he couldn't say bring himself to say it, the empty, aching abyss of loss drawing him down, leaving him shattered. "I can't…"

"One step at a time, Jim," Joel counseled. "Don't borrow grief, man…one step at a time."

Ever so slowly, the seconds ticked into minutes as the minutes rolled into hours.

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

The Major Crimes Unit effectively set up shop in the hospital waiting room, too anxious to be too far away, too busy tying up the ends of the case to let it lie.

Lightning raids were conducted all across the country, netting a widespread ring of criminals before they even knew what had hit them and confiscating the largest haul of illegal weaponry in the history of the union. Interrogators had been grilling Guido mercilessly. In return for amnesty on the possible murder of a cop, the man had sung like a canary.

"Pete, he hated that cop, Sandburg…it was personal," he recounted, dumping the full responsibility for the cop's shooting at his nephew's door…hell, he was dead anyway, what did it matter? "My sister told me all the time her boy was at the Academy, all he did was bitch about the 'liar and fraud', and when he was kicked out, he seemed to think that guy, Sandburg, was the source of all his problems. Bragged about trashing the guy's car. Stole those drugs from you cops to frame him…stupid ass. No sense. Pete never had no sense."

It all came out. The big story that the newspapers would headline for days about a generation of weapons' theft and illegal trafficking that reached into every major, and many minor, cities in the country. And, the smaller story, the one that haunted the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit. A story of petty vengeance, a shadowy trail of unrelated incidents that they hadn't paid attention to or followed up closely enough. If they had, that trail might not have led to bloodshed on a dark, cold night on the edge of the city.

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

Exhausted, Jim was slumped in one of the battered vinyl chairs, his elbows propped on the arms, his neck bent, his fingers absently massaging his forehead as if they had the magic to drive his pounding headache away. "If only we'd gone after the cleaning staff…we'd have gotten that bastard Mallory then," he mumbled, thinking as well of the flat tires and the smashed windshield, wishing with sick guilt that he hadn't let his initial sense of impending danger slip away.

"We didn't have sufficient evidence to pursue it, Jim, you know that," Simon sighed, ever rational.

"'If only,' will only drive you crazy, Jim," Joel murmured. "Let it go."

"Yeah," Ellison sighed, to one or both, they didn't know.

Finally, long after a thin dawn had forced its way through the gloom of a Cascade winter sky, Dr. Frank Reynolds, the surgeon who had sewn Jim back together not many weeks before, swung through the doors. Leaping to their feet, a crowd of five men and two women quickly surrounded the physician, causing him to hold up his hands to hold them at bay. Simon thought the man looked exhausted, shadows under his eyes, his face drawn…not the man who'd been tired but still vibrant with energy the last time he'd stood in this corridor waiting for news of a friend. His heart sinking, Banks didn't read it as a good sign.

"Jim," Reynolds said, readily identifying his former patient, understanding after a month of seeing Sandburg hover over this big detective just how close the two friends were, reached out a steadying hand to grasp Ellison's arm.

"Frank," Jim asked, his voice strained, "how…"

"He made it through surgery, though it was touch and go more often than I like," Reynolds advised them all, understating the controlled panic engendered by three cardiac arrests on the table. "Four bullets," he continued. "All of them penetrated Blair's chest cavity with savage results." Sighing, as he ran an unconscious hand through his short, graying hair, he continued, "His right lung collapsed, and then his left, which is what caused the respiratory and cardiac failures on arrival early this morning. As you know, arteries were compromised causing massive blood loss very quickly, which pitched Blair into deep shock. But…he's still hanging on. We've patched up the damage, but his breathing is still very compromised, the strain on his heart may yet be overwhelming. Give it a day, maybe two, and we'll see how he fares."

"When can I…" Jim began.

"See him?" Frank Reynolds supplied, anticipating the demand. "We'll be taking him upstairs within the hour and you can see him then. But, Jim…" he stated firmly, "I caution you. You haven't been out of here all that long yourself. I don't wanting you pulling the forty-eight or seventy-two hour shifts that Blair spent at your bedside. If he gets through the next couple of days, he's going to need you to be there for him. Recovery will take time and you'll need your rest to be ready when he wakes up."

"So long as Sandburg keeps breathing," Ellison replied, unconcerned about the state of his own health, "I'll be fine. Don't worry about me…just keep him alive. Okay?"

"You know we'll do all we can," Frank assured him, patting his shoulder. Turning to Simon, he said, "I'll hold you accountable for making sure Detective Ellison here doesn't over do it."

Snorting at the hopelessness of that task, Simon replied, "Why don't you just ask me to keep the sun from rising…it would be a hell of a lot easier."

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

An hour later, Jim walked into the dim room, the curtains drawn against the morning light while Simon lingered in the hall, the others waiting in the lounge farther down the corridor. Jim moved slowly to the bed, one hand rubbing his lips and chin, unconsciously ready to hold back a sob that had no place here. Here, he had to be strong, for Blair. Here, he had to be confident his partner would not leave him. His Guide needed the strength that the Sentinel brought to him, an offering, praying that it be accepted.

Blair's hair was loosely pulled back, long dark lashes contrasting with the purple bruises on his battered face and the sickly gray pallor beneath them, his lips tinged blue around the tube of the ventilator. His chest moved in shallow respiration while the machines blipped and hummed, and intravenous bottles dripped liquids with dreary monotony into long lines while other tubes drained bloody fluids from his body.

Swallowing, Jim moved closer, reaching with one hand to curl his fingers around Blair's and with the other to brush his fingertips in a gentle caress along the side of his friend's face. Frowning at the coolness of Blair's skin under his touch, his eyes flicked and spotted the blanket folded at the foot of the bed. Reaching, he pulled it up over the thin sheet that hid most of the bandages around Blair's chest from view. After carefully tucking the blanket up under Sandburg's chin and around his shoulders, Jim again took Blair's hand in his own, while one hand still rested on his friend's shoulder.

Ellison trembled, too overwrought to force words past the lump in his tight, dry, throat. Impatiently, the Sentinel blinked tears from his eyes and forced away the urge to weep. There'd been enough tears. Blair was alive. He wouldn't leave now…not now that he'd been cared for and was watched over. He wouldn't leave his friend bereft, his partner shattered, his Sentinel lost in a never-ending night. 'No,' Jim told himself over and over in the silence of his mind, 'Sandburg wouldn't do that…he won't abandon me, he promised. He said he'd always come back to me. So long as he was alive, he'd come back to me.'

"How's he doing?" murmured Joel, coming to stand sentry with Simon as they both gazed into the room through the wall paned with glass.

"Which one?" asked Simon with a sigh, wondering if he'd ever felt this weary before.

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

They'd decided to take it in shifts to be with Ellison until…well, until they knew, one way or the other. No way would they leave Jim alone so long as Sandburg journeyed through the valley of death. To ease Jim's burden, Simon took on the task of tracking Naomi down, finally finding her in a remote village in India, kneeling at the foot of some swami for all Banks knew or cared. The cell connection on her end was poor and kept breaking up, which didn't help. She'd cried first, in shock, then cursed with a surprising vigour, claiming she'd known all along that being a cop would kill Blair. Simon told her coldly that her son wasn't yet dead and inquired as to whether she'd been returning or if he should call her again the next day to give her further news.

"I can't face that journey," she'd sniffed then, sounding wan and frail. "So much grief, on my own. No, I'm better to stay here where I have friends to support me…to meditate with and send good vibes to Blair."

"Meditate," Simon repeated, rolling his eyes in frustration with this woman who wouldn't drop anything, let alone everything, to rush to the side of a son anyone else would kill to have. "That's good, Naomi… Blair needs all the good vibes you can send him right now." She didn't pick up the resignation in his voice, or the bitterness.

Later, it was Joel who was sitting with Jim, both of them relieved that the typical hassling from the staff to leave after only a few minutes had been over-ridden by Frank Reynolds' orders on Blair's chart. The surgeon didn't begin to understand the link between the two men, or the literal power of love he could feel radiating toward Blair Sandburg from all of the usually so taciturn and gruff police officers haunting their corridors. That love bathed the unconscious man with an almost visible light and tangible warmth, and Reynolds knew in his soul it was that love that had kept bringing the young man back when he'd faltered on the table, that was holding him here still.

The kid shouldn't have made it to the hospital with the mess those bullets had created, with barely a drop of blood left in his body beyond that which was awash in his chest cavity. When Jim had been in the hospital a month before, the staff had been spreading the story about how Sandburg had been brought in at the beginning of last spring, having ostensibly been drowned in a fountain they'd said. A miracle, everyone had called it, that he had revived after having been clinically dead for so long.

A miracle, Reynolds thought as he gazed in at the tableau of the three men. Two sitting in vigil, Ellison close by the bed with a hand clenched around his friend's wrist and his colleague sitting close by; one on the bed, fighting for his life. A miracle, he thought again. Bowing his head, the surgeon humbly asked for yet another miracle as he prayed that this young man would again triumph over death.

Inside the room, staring at Blair's face, praying for some sign of awareness, Jim sighed, a lost sound of lonely despair as he tightened his grip around Blair's wrist.

Joel turned his gaze from the friend on the bed to the one suffering beside him. "Don't give up hope, Jim," he said softly.

"He just looks so…fragile, Joel…so vulnerable," Jim murmured. "I'm so afraid for him."

"Blair's strong, Jim, you know that," Joel replied. "You know he just doesn't quit…"

"I know," Ellison murmured, "better than anyone. I know." Stiff, shifting in his chair, Jim raked fingers through his hair as he bit his lip, burdened again with those memories, fragments of horrific sights and sounds as he'd turned the corner of the warehouse and could see…

"He didn't defend himself, Joel," Jim shared quietly. "I heard what was going down while I was still too far away to help. He wouldn't kill to save his own life…." Jim's voice cracked as he recalled, "He even begged the guy not to shoot…not to save his own life, but to save that animal's soul."

Joel blew out a long sigh, closing his eyes against the unwelcome scene he could only too clearly imagine from the fragments of information they'd all pieced together of what had gone down, unsurprised by Jim's words. Unsurprised because he'd long hoped that a moment like that would never come about, that Blair would never be forced to that choice. Softly, he said, "Blair protects souls, nourishes them, cherishes them. He'd not risk his own soul even at the cost of his life, Jim…he knows that life is not the end of it. If he ever doubted it, which isn't likely, he learned that for sure at the fountain."

Jim flinched at the memories those words evoked. Clamping his hands together to control their trembling, he swallowed then looked at Joel. "I want more than his soul for company, Joel," he said bluntly. "If Sandburg can't defend himself, he can't be a cop."

Frowning, Joel shook his head. "You can't make his decisions for him, Jim…haven't you learned that yet?" he asked, frustration tingeing his voice, though he didn't disagree with his colleague.

"Yeah, I know," Ellison replied, irritation and frustration, fear and the memory of a commitment tearing at his soul. "It has to be his decision. I'm just saying he can't keep doing this…can't keep risking his life if he won't do anything to protect himself…not me, not other people…himself."

Smiling slightly despite the grimness of their vigil, Joel reflected that Ellison was talking as if he was convinced Blair would live to face that decision. Settling back in his chair, he took comfort from that; Joel figured if anyone would know if Blair was going to survive, Ellison would.

He smiled more broadly when he realized Ellison had been talking about 'hearing' with his extraordinary senses without a second thought, without even seeming to realize it. Turning his gaze back to his much beloved friend lying so still on the raised bed, he thought, "He's going to be all right, Blair…and so, I dearly hope, will you."

'Have faith, man,' he heard a familiar voice answer from somewhere near by. Startled, he looked around, wondering if Sandburg's spirit was hovering in the air beside him, his gaze catching Ellison's.

"Don't tell me you just heard him, too?" Jim asked in disbelief at the stunned look on Joel's face, thinking Blair's voice was only a memory trick of his mind.

"Have faith, man," Joel echoed with a tremulous smile, his eyes damp. "Have faith."

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

Chapter Six: And the Greatest of These is Love….

It was a long twenty-nine hours, thirty-five since he'd been gunned down, before Blair stirred and moaned softly.

In a flash, Ellison was up beside the bed, gripping Blair's hand, brushing his curls back from his face. "Hey, Chief," he called softly. "You coming back to us?"

"Mmrrgghh," Blair moaned again, his fingers fluttering, too weak to grip Jim's hand, a frown on his face as he struggled back to consciousness…and then a grimace as pain lanced through him.

"Easy, Blair," Jim soothed, stroking his partner's face with a gentleness his fingers rarely showed. "Just take your time. I know it hurts. Don't try to talk…they've got you on a respirator to help you breathe."

"Mm," Blair murmured, a sound different from the semi-conscious groan as his eyes fluttered open, blinking against the light.

And, somehow, Ellison knew it was his name Blair was trying to say. "I'm here, buddy, I'm here…just rest, Chief."

Dark blue eyes as wide as forever gazed up trustingly into lighter ones filled with warmth and love. A smile tried to play around Blair's lips, inhibited by the large tube taped there, but Jim could see it, and his own eyes glazed with moisture before he could blink it away. "Welcome back, Sandburg," he murmured softly. "Don't worry about anything…everything's all right."

Blair gazed at him a moment more, a question flickering in his eyes as he searched the gaze of his Sentinel, a question soon replaced by the clear glow of love as he found his answer. Relaxing with the pain, not fighting it, reassured that his Sentinel wasn't lost, he nodded very slightly, then let himself drift back to sleep.

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

"You know, we gotta stop meeting like this," Blair quipped with a suppressed gasp of pain, as Jim wrapped a strong arm around him to help him move from the bed to the battered leather chair. "Way too much hospital time here, Jim. They'll think we've moved in."

"We have, pretty much," Jim shot back, not terribly amused. "This last year, it's been either you or me taking up space in this place. Not that they're not pleasant people, but it…"

"Gets real old, real fast," Blair chimed in unison with Ellison, then chuckled. "I cannot wait to get home, man."

"I can't wait, either, Sandburg…behave yourself and they might give you parole in a week or so," Ellison agreed, ruffling his friend's hair before he moved away to pull his own chair closer.

"A week, oh, man," Sandburg whined, then turned his wide hopeful gaze on his partner. "You gotta be able to do better than that, Jim…you're a medic…you can change the dressings, make sure I do what I'm supposed to…"

"Since when have I ever been able to make you do anything, Chief?" Ellison shot back, then grinned to show he didn't hold a grudge.

"I'll be good, I promise…I'll drink lots of fluids, take my medicine, stay in bed except when you say I can get up. C'mon, Jim, break me outta here," Blair cajoled.

"Tired of us already, Blair," Frank Reynolds observed as he briskly entered the room. "And, here I thought we were all being very nice to you."

"Uh, it's not that, Frank, and you know it. Everyone's been great…I just miss being home," Blair hastily explained, blushing to have been caught pleading like a child. He'd only been teasing, Jim. Well, mostly teasing…partly teasing…he really wanted to go home.

Reynolds chuckled as he moved in to examine one of his favourite patients. "I'd like to see you go home, too…and not see you come back," he added with a warm smile, satisfied with the healing wounds and Blair's vital signs. Glancing at Jim, he mused, "A medic, huh? Think you're up to taking responsibility for him?"

"No," Jim replied with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Jimmm!" Blair protested, almost a wail.

"But, I will agree to take on responsibility for taking care of him, at least while he's recovering, and promises not to wander off, leaving me in the dust," Jim continued, only partly teasing. Well, maybe mostly. He really missed having Sandburg at home. Hell, he missed Sandburg, period. At home, in the office, shopping, whatever. He wanted him back and away from the doctors and nurses and the lingering memories this place held.

"Well…it's early, but you're doing well, Blair…I think we can spring you loose…" Frank began.

Eagerly, his face alight with hope, Blair jumped in, "When?"

Laughing, Frank asked, "How soon can you get dressed?"

"Like I'm dressed good enough, man, and ready to roll," Blair crowed happily. "Bring on the wheelchair and let me outta here!"

"Alright," Frank replied with an indulgent smile. "Give me a few minutes to finish up the paper work, and we'll boot the two of you right on 'outta here'. But, you call my office and arrange to see me in two days, alright?"

"I'm down with that, Frank…no problem," Blair nodded enthusiastically. "And, hey, thanks, man…for everything. You did a great job putting me back together." Sandburg said it so guilelessly, with no shadows of the trauma he'd barely survived, just with a bright glow of glorious happiness.

Gazing at him, Jim shook his head then lowered it to hide his smile. Just like a kid on Christmas morning, he thought, himself so happy he could burst. Just like a kid. And, God help me, I love him more than anything or anyone else on the face of this earth.

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

Jim gave Blair a few days to just enjoy being home, with all that that meant. His own bed. His favourite herbal teas. Being wrapped tightly for warmth, but able to sit outside in the fresh air, watching the promise of a new dawn or reflective, as the sun set with a brilliant blaze of colour. His music. His favourite snacks. The scent of candles and the indefinable fragrance of home. Lazy naps on the couch. The peace of it.

And the company of his best friend to make it all simply perfect.

But, the day after Frank Reynolds had pronounced him to be making excellent progress, Jim sat down across from his friend, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. Blair looked up and read the stance, the intent, serious expression and his own clouded in puzzlement.

"What is it, Jim?" he asked, shifting a little straighter on the sofa.

"Chief, we need to have a talk," Ellison replied, then took a breath. "I don't know how much you remember of what happened…"

"I remember it, Jim," Blair replied soberly. "I remember being so relieved…so incredibly relieved, that you were there. I don't know how you always know when I need you, man…but you are always there."

"Not quite soon enough this time, Sandburg," Jim replied somberly. "But soon enough to know what went down. I heard what you said and, well, I know what you did. Or, rather, didn't do."

Blair's gazed dropped away. "Oh," he murmured, not having been quite ready for this little talk.

"Yeah, 'oh'," Jim sighed. "Blair…you refused to defend yourself. You might have had a chance, if you'd gone after Mallory. That Guido wasn't likely to shoot you. But, you didn't. You wouldn't. What was that about, Chief? I thought you told me you'd be careful, not take foolish chances. I know it's hard for you to kill, but…" His voice faltered and died.

Blair swallowed as he tried to find the words to help Jim understand. "But I've done it before," Blair murmured, finishing Jim's unspoken thought with a sigh. Looking up at his friend, his gaze steady and earnest, he said, "That was different. Other people's lives were at risk. I didn't have a choice if I was going to protect someone innocent from being murdered."

Frowning, Jim challenged, "What about your innocence, Sandburg? What about your life being at risk? Why are the lives of strangers so much, I don't know, more worthy, that you can kill to save them but you can't do the same to save yourself?"

"Different responsibilities, man…it's two completely different things," Blair replied soberly.

"Really? Well, excuse me, but I don't see the difference here. Enlighten me," Jim demanded almost harshly, feeling fear curl in his gut as he realized he'd been right to worry that this hadn't just been a one time aberration…Sandburg hadn't just frozen, confused in the moment. It had been a choice, and in similar circumstances he'd make the same choice again.

Nodding, Blair swallowed as he ordered his thoughts. "When there are others involved, I'm responsible for their welfare. If their lives are threatened by another human being, then I have a responsibility to protect them," he said, watching Jim's face, reading his expressions. "Regardless of whether that means I have to kill to do it."

"Right, I'm with you so far," Jim nodded.

"But, when it's my life and I have to choose between it and another, someone who, if I kill them, will never redeem their souls, or, if I let them kill me, may have the chance…to learn, to grow…then I have to safeguard their soul. That's my responsibility, too," he explained, as clearly as he could.

"Where is that written, Sandburg? What makes that the law? If some monster kills you, what about all the good you can do that's wasted, all the other people you might have helped while that piece of shit is playing out his time in jail…or escaping to kill someone else?" Jim argued back.

"It's not 'written' anywhere, man, except maybe on my own soul," Blair replied, a look in his eyes that begged for understanding.

But, it wasn't forthcoming. "What about me? What about your responsibilities to me to be my Guide? My partner? My friend? Doesn't that count for anything in these rules of yours?" Jim pushed, pulling out all the stops.

Blair closed his eyes and looked away. His throat tight, he whispered, "That was the only thing that made me even consider the option of killing that night, Jim." His voice full, he continued, "And, not just because of my 'responsibility', either. You are a whole lot more to me than a simple responsibility, you know that." Looking back at Jim, his voice was trembling as he said, "But…I'm not only your friend, or partner or even Guide. I'm also the Shaman of this City…and I'm starting to understand what that means."

Ellison blew out a snort of disgust at that. "Oh great," he groaned, falling back into his chair, "the Shaman bit. Damn Incacha. Damn him for saying that to you with his last breath."

"Don't, Jim," Blair pleaded, raising a hand in unconscious supplication. "You don't mean that."

"The hell I don't," Ellison exploded. "You're telling me that because you believe you are a Shaman that you have to give up your life to save some worthless piece of trash, in case he might someday reform? Where do you get that? Incacha killed in self-defence. When the tribe was attacked, or he was. He knew he didn't do anyone a whole lot of good if he was dead. Why can't you see that?"

Blair pushed his fingers through his hair as he fought to remain calm, to control his own raging emotions. Taking a deep, centering breath, he replied, "Incacha lived in a different world, a different culture. He was raised with different values and principles. He could kill to save himself without it being a crisis of the soul. But…I can't. I just can't take another life, cut off all its potential, without a reason greater than saving my own."

"Naomi," Jim muttered bitterly, "and all that stuff she crammed into your head when you were a kid."

"No," Blair stated with great deliberation, conviction in his voice. "These are not Naomi's values or Naomi's principles. I am a man, Jim…I have thought this stuff through for myself. I'm not just parroting someone else's philosophy of existence…this is what I believe. What is 'truth' for me. My life, your life, anybody's life, is a transient thing, a flash in time. But, our souls are eternal. If I condemn a soul that is dark with…with the stain of intended murder, that soul pays the penalty…maybe forever, Jim. And… and my soul gets a little darker, too, when I am forced to kill. But, I can deal with that, accept the risks of that, to save those who depend upon me. I cannot kill, condemn a soul that might yet find light if I give it more time, if I have the choice."

"Well, I seem to condemn souls all the time, Sandburg…I kill in self-defence. What does that make me according to your rules?" Jim pushed, wondering if Sandburg respected him after all.

"Jim, my choices and your choices aren't the same thing. Like Incacha, you've got your own rules for what is right, or wrong, for you to do. Your own sense of ethics and integrity. You are a Warrior…not a Shaman," Blair struggled to explain, knowing it was confusing…and that it was only his version of whatever the great cosmic truth was. 'No,' he shook, his head, with a humble sigh. 'Not cosmic truth… just my truth…the only truth for me that I can live with.'

"Fine," Jim snapped, "if I'm a warrior and you're not, then, that's it. You can't be a cop. You can't go out on the streets to face God knows what when we both know you won't do a damned thing to defend yourself."

Sandburg stiffened, a warning in his eyes. "We've had this conversation," he said, his voice firm. "I make the choices about how I live my life, not you. I'm committed to being your friend, your partner and your Guide. If that means being a cop, with all the risks that holds, that's just the way it is. Live with it."

Ellison stared at him for a long moment, then looked away, the muscles along his jaw jumping furiously as he kept his lips clamped tightly closed on words that would only too clearly make not one whit of difference.

Sighing, knowing how very hard all this was for his friend to accept, Blair offered the only comfort he could. "Jim," Blair's voice implored softly. "I know it hurts you to hear this stuff. Scares you. It scares me. I don't want to die…I don't want to leave you. But…you said Incacha doesn't do anybody any good dead. That's not true. You've seen his soul, spoken with him. So have I. You know what I'm saying about the soul is true…it is eternal. No matter what ever happens, I will be near you, close by. I can't… can't imagine ever abandoning you."

"No?" Jim murmured bitterly. "Death always seems pretty final to me, Chief."

"C'mon," Blair cajoled. "You know better than that…you're the one who sees ghosts."

Neither amused nor comforted, Jim turned hard eyes back to Sandburg's gaze. "Joel said something like all this to me in the hospital when we were waiting to see if you were ever going to wake up. I told him I wanted more than your soul for company, Chief. I meant it."

When Blair looked down, unsure of what more he could say, Jim continued, his voice strained, until it finally cracked on his last questions, "You might be around when I need you, as my Guide. But…what about my friend, Blair? What about my brother? How do I do this…without you? You taught me how to break down my walls, Chief…without you, and without walls, what do I have left?"

Tears filled Blair's eyes at the appeal of a soul that was frightened, a soul that needed him as did no other …and also loved him as no other soul did. Biting his lip, fighting for control, he whispered hoarsely, once again illuminating the path, "You let other people into your heart, Jim. You choose not to be alone."

Tears filled Ellison's eyes then, tears of hopelessness and the sense of the inevitability of the loss he would face if they continued along the path they were currently traveling. This wasn't working. Jim couldn't just give up, 'live with it'…this was Blair's life that was at stake. It was too important to leave it like this…to leave him in such danger. God, how he wished he had control and could just tell Blair he wasn't going to put himself in such a position again…but he couldn't. He'd surrendered to love, to Blair's right to choose the path…he'd promised to respect Blair as a friend, and as his Guide, and he'd provide the backup, the protection. Maybe…maybe if he couldn't control…couldn't command…rubbing the moisture away with his fingers, Jim cleared his throat as he sat forward again.

Time to take another tack.

Time to play his Sentinel card.

"Guide," Jim said deliberately, looking up into Blair's eyes, fighting to keep his voice steady, "I have promised to follow you, and I will. I have promised to protect you from dangers so far as I am able, even at the cost of my life. But, as your Protector, I have a duty to caution you and I hope you will hear me. The path we are on is not safe. You cannot safely play the roles of Guide, Shaman and Cop. They are incompatible and, as you have just said yourself, the role of Cop puts your own soul in danger. I need you as my Guide. The people of this city need you as their Shaman. I want my friend beside me. So, I ask you to choose, Guide. In respect for your own responsibilities if not to please me, choose another path…find a way through this jungle that will allow you to be Guide and Shaman, allow you to be with me, at less risk than the path we are on now. Out of love, my brother, I ask you to consider my words."

Blair just gaped at him for a long moment, then murmured, "Jesus, Jim…" But his voice fell away as did his eyes as he thought through what his Sentinel had just asked of him.

Jim sat back and waited, wretchedly grateful that he'd at least gotten Blair to think about a different option. Trembling, he thought he might have won a reprieve…an opportunity to maybe save Blair from himself.

Finally, after the silence had lengthened until Jim thought he might scream, Blair looked up at him with a quiet smile. "You have given me wise counsel, Sentinel. I will heed your words. Somehow, I don't know how yet, but somehow, I will find us a different path."

Jim crashed.

It had taken every last bit of strength he'd had to deny his own need for control and plead that his friend make another choice, a choice they could both live with. His body trembling, he bit his lip to fight back the sob of relief, his eyes brimming with tears he couldn't contain. He curled forward, his arms wrapped tightly around himself, trying to hold it in. God, the relief was shattering.

In a heartbeat, Blair was on his knees beside him, wrapping strong arms around him, leaning into him until Jim's arms loosened and came around him, clinging to him with his body, his heart and his soul.

"Oh God, Jim," Blair gasped, "I'm sorry…I'm sorry I hurt you so bad. Please…don't be afraid. I'm here…I'm here."

Heaving a breath, his voice cracking, Jim replied, "I'm not afraid, Guide, so long as you lead me. I cannot be hurt, so long as you are with me. Your love protects and strengthens me…and gives me peace. I'm not crying because I'm afraid…God, Blair…I'm just so damned relieved you heard me…."

"Oh, I heard you, man," Blair answered, tears on his own cheeks. "Loud and clear." Trying to lighten the mood, he leaned back a little with a wobbly grin. "You know, Jim…you're getting really good at this Sentinel thing. I am impressed, man…you blew me away."

"You say that like I should be glad…it only took me four years to figure out how to make you listen to a little sense," Jim snapped back, but then he sniffed and grinned to take away the sting out of it, as he reached to stroke his hand over Blair's wild mane. "Still, I guess it shows even a dumb cop can learn new tricks."

"Not so dumb, my friend," Blair chuckled back. "Not by a long shot."

"Could you use a different expression, Chief," Jim asked with exaggerated innocence. "The word 'shot' makes me wince when it's associated with you."

Blair giggled then started to laugh as he hugged Jim tightly. "Whatever you want, man."

"Promises, promises," Jim murmured wistfully, as he hugged his friend right back.

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

They brainstormed and debated all the various options they could come up with, finally settling on one that seemed to fit their needs and wants as well as any. When they then discussed how to present it to Simon, to get his support, Blair collapsed in giggles at Jim's preferred approach, gasping, "Oh yeah, man…we gotta do it."

The following day, Jim and Blair showed up in the Major Crimes Unit and, for a long while, Jim just stood back and watched with delight as his colleagues… 'friends,' he amended to himself, welcomed Blair back with unbridled enthusiasm and touching warmth. Simon came to the door of his office, determined to quell the riot that had arisen in the bullpen, but he grinned, totally disarmed, when he saw Sandburg. Finally, they were able to make their way to his office, and once they were inside, Blair softly closed the door.

Turning to Simon, his face solemn, Sandburg pulled out his badge and his gun and laid them on Simon's desk.

"What's this about?" Banks demanded, alarm flashing in his eyes as he looked from one to another.

"I'm sorry, Simon," Blair replied, his eyes wide with unfeigned sincerity. "I'll always be grateful for the way you stood up for me, and got me the chance to carry this badge. It's not easy for me to give it back to you. But…after what happened, I know with no doubt that I can't kill somebody to save my own life. Jim has helped me to understand that I can't be a cop anymore…not with the risks we face everyday. I'm resigning, Simon."

"Oh, Jesus, Blair…" Simon groaned unable to think of anything to say. The kid was right. It was too dangerous for him to be a cop. But…damn, he'd been a great detective. Ellison needed him as a partner…hell, they all needed him on the team.

Jim moved forward then as Blair looked away and made his way over to the window, pushing himself up to sit on the ledge. "There's something else, Simon…with Blair resigning, I need a new partner. And, well, I need your help to get who I want."

Taking off his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose, Simon felt if he was in the twilight zone, that this really couldn't be happening…Ellison couldn't be standing there calmly asking for a new partner. Hell, Ellison had refused any partner until Sandburg came along. He asked wearily, "Really, Detective…and who would this new partner be?"

"Well," Jim replied, struggling to keep his face straight, "I have this nephew, my sister's kid. And, well, he finally got his Ph.D., but damned if the university won't give him a job. So…I was thinking…maybe we could get him a position as a civilian consultant, and he could be assigned to work with me…actually, he's asked that I…that we…make this happen."

Simon froze, then looked from Ellison to Sandburg, who said with an eager, hopeful expression, "I have a really good understanding of the 'thin blue line'…"

"Would you quit with the 'thin blue line' stuff, Chief?" Ellison cut in. "What he's trying to say, sir, is he has a lot of relevant experience and has even written a paper on the police 'sub-culture', whatever that is…"

"You mean, you haven't read the paper, Ellison?" Simon asked, frankly astonished.

"He's not much of a reader, Simon. The big words confuse him," Blair offered innocently.

Jim threw him a pained look, but simply replied, "There hasn't been a lot of spare time since it was published Simon. I'll get to it. But, that's not the point here. What do you say? Will you speak to the brass?"

With a put-upon sigh, struggling to keep his lips from twitching into a treacherous smile, Simon nodded. "I'll see what I can do. Shouldn't be that much trouble to get this 'cousin' of yours an observer, er, consultant's pass. But…" he held up a hand when they broke into smiles, "it will be your responsibility to keep him out of trouble."

"I can live with that," Blair chirped, slipping off the window ledge, grinning brightly as he moved to stand beside Jim.

"That's the whole idea, Chief," Jim replied with a sigh as he turned back to Simon. "I'll do my best, sir," he vowed.

"I'm sure you will, Detective," Simon replied, and found he could no longer resist breaking into a broad smile, "I'm sure you will."

Leaning back in his chair, smiling with great satisfaction as he picked up a cigar, Simon found he no longer minded being in the 'Sandburg Zone'.

Hell, the place was never boring, and was often pretty damned amusing.

Who wouldn't want to be there?

Finis

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