Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.

Notes: It has somehow become a tradition for me to post a story on my birthday - which just happens to be the same day as Jim's helicopter crash in Peru - as a gift to all in this wonderful fandom who have read my stories, supported my writing, and in a great many cases, become my friends. This particular story is purely about friendship, about commitment to a person - to a cause bigger than the individual. I think we've all found something special in the world of TSFF - I know I have. I sincerely hope each one of you has found or will find that someone in your life who will patch up your broken wings and care for you when you're down. Thank you all for another wonderful year in the world of Cascade!

Too Close to the Ground

by JET

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

Tired eyes stared down at the pale, bruised features of his best friend. It had been too long since he'd seen life reflected in that face, too long since the dark topaz-blue eyes had been open and warm with familiar intelligence and wit.

Jim gripped Blair's hand firmly, anchoring himself to the younger man through touch, just as he'd been doing ever since the shooting four days earlier. Four long days and nights spent at his Guide's bedside, sleeping in restless catnaps, picking with disinterest at the food Simon brought faithfully from the hospital cafeteria. The doctors had given up trying to get him to leave; apparently, they recognized a lost cause when they encountered one. Not to mention incurring the ill temper of a Sentinel consumed with worry.

Jim was allowed to remain.

Outside, the rain fell continuously, just as it had on the day Blair had been shot. The city's tears trickled down the single small window, expressing the sorrow that Jim kept bottled up so tightly inside.

If only Blair would wake up.

The doctors assured him that in time, and with a great deal of luck, Blair would awaken. The only question they left unanswered was the one they had no way of knowing. Would Blair be... Blair? No one seemed willing to predict the long-term damage the fall Blair had taken after being shot might have done to the brilliant young man's brain. The bullet's damage had been negligible in comparison. The impact of hitting hard pavement after a four story fall was another question.

Jim scrubbed both hands heavily across his face, as though to wipe away the weariness steadily chipping away at his body and soul. He'd been on the ground when Sandburg was shot, interviewing a witness. They'd been so sure that all the drug-dealing suspects had fled the run-down tenement, and Jim had agreed to let Blair talk to the girlfriend of one of the college aged kids involved in the drug ring. It had seemed safe enough, and she did seem more likely to talk to Sandburg than one of the detectives.

An easy call. Or so he had thought at the time.

Yet, the best-laid plans can go awry, especially where Sentinels and their trouble-prone Guides are concerned.

A single suspect had remained hidden in the broken down old building, buried deep beneath a pile of debris in the corner of the front room on the fourth floor. Thinking the coast was clear, he'd emerged, only to find Sandburg there, talking to his crony's girlfriend. High on meth-amphetamines and scared, the kid had panicked, firing off three quick shots from the Saturday Night Special he'd probably picked up on the streets somewhere. Only one bullet had struck Blair - in the left shoulder, spinning him around with its impact. Taking advantage of his victim's confusion, the druggie had rushed Sandburg, hitting him hard and sending him crashing through the large window directly behind him.

On the ground, Jim had heard the shouts, and then the shots, and was already storming across the street toward the building when, to his horror, he looked up and saw his partner plummeting to earth. At that instant, Jim had cursed being a Sentinel. Not only had he seen the stark terror on Blair's face as he fell, Jim had literally felt the sickening thud when Blair's body hit the concrete sidewalk, had heard the dull sound of his Guide's skull hitting the ground.

If Blair's head had hit the sidewalk...

Jim shut his eyes against the memories and struggled to slow his rapid breathing. He would never forget those sounds, the look of pure panic on Blair's face, not if he lived to be a hundred. Gripping Blair's hand tighter, Jim focused on the pulse of life beating within his hand. They had been granted another miracle. Blair's head had missed the sidewalk, impacting instead with the softer earth, less than a foot from the pavement.

Only inches more and Jim knew he wouldn't be sitting here... waiting. Mere inches had spared Sandburg's life, and with it, Jim's as well.

At least for the time being. A tenuous reprieve. One that might be revoked at any time.

Blair had been unconscious when Jim reached him, bleeding profusely from the gunshot, along with all the cuts and scrapes, and an obviously broken leg and arm. All injuries that would heal in time. Jim had stared down in horror at his best friend, too afraid of causing further damage to do more than stroke back his matted, bloody hair, and murmur frightened, desperate pleas to hold on, to keep breathing. He had physically ached to gather Blair in his arms, to rock him and comfort him until the paramedics arrived, but his own training as a medic overrode his desires as Sentinel and friend. Blair could have suffered injuries to his spine; he could take no chances.

The ambulance ride to the hospital had lasted an eternity. Once they arrived, Blair was whisked immediately to surgery, and from the moment of the impact until now, he'd never awakened. The doctors were 'cautiously optimistic', whatever that meant. But as the days stretched on, Jim could see their hopes gradually fading.

Not Jim. He would never give up. He couldn't. Not as long as Blair's chest rose and fell steadily beneath the covers, as long as the reassuring heartbeat pounded out its rhythm in Jim's ears, or as long as the hand encased within his own remained so warm.

As long as Blair lived, there was hope.

Jim ran a damp washcloth over Blair's bruised and scraped face, avoiding the bandage that wrapped around his forehead, then glanced quickly at the monitors hooked up to his friend. The temperature read-out glowed at 101 degrees. It had been 102 the night before. Not enough fever to be alarming, really, but still...

Jim didn't want Sandburg to be uncomfortable at all, and he could tell from the little beads of sweat that dotted Blair's upper lip that the fever was wreaking havoc on his friend's weakened and shocked body. Jim got up and freshened the cloth at the tiny sink in the corner of the room. Returning to his post by Blair's bed, he stroked the cool cloth across his Guide's forehead, brushing back the disheveled curls from his face with his other hand. "Hey, Chief," he whispered, bending low, his lips only inches from Blair's ear. "How you doing, partner?"

Talking had become Jim's mantra. The words themselves were of no particular importance; it was the sound of his voice that mattered.

Or at least, he hoped it mattered. Hoped that Blair could hear him, was able to understand that Jim was there, beside him, and that if he could only latch on to the sound of Jim's voice, that he could follow that path home.

So Jim talked. More than he'd ever talked in his life, he thought with a grim smile. He'd already covered more recent events, finding himself following a backward trail, for some reason, through the stages of their relationship. He'd conveniently skipped over the less memorable moments, those for whatever reason, Jim determined Blair would just as soon forget. He stuck to the happy times, the good memories.

"I think your fever's down a bit. That's good news." His thumb traced its familiar path back and forth across Blair's palm. He'd forever imprinted every crease and line in his friend's hand upon his Sentinel sense-memory. For the rest of his life, Jim knew he would be able to identify Blair Sandburg merely by skimming once across his hand with his sensitive fingertips.

If you had not have fallen,
then I would not have found you...
Angel flying too close to the ground.

Somewhere in the distance, someone was playing music softly. Not so softly that a Sentinel's enhanced hearing couldn't pick up on the words and melody, however. Jim listened to the oddly heartbreaking lyrics that drew his mind backward to a time when relationships were forming and attachments growing. Jim's throat tightened, and his breath hitched suddenly with unexpected emotion.

"Remember when you first found me? It was right here in this hospital, downstairs. You came in, dressed in that ridiculous lab coat with its 'borrowed' name tag." Jim chuckled softly at the memory. "You were so anxious to convince me to go see this so-called expert on Sentinels."

The timbre of Jim's voice changed, becoming lower and rougher as the emotions conjured up by the memories grew stronger. "Did you have any idea how much I needed you then, Chief? I sure didn't. I knew I needed... something... but I sure as hell didn't think it was you. Just goes to show how... wrong... I can be sometimes."

I patched up your broken wing and hung around for a while,
trying to keep your spirits up and your fever down...

A nurse slipped in to check Blair's vitals, jotting notes silently on her clipboard. Jim reluctantly relinquished his hold on Blair's hand, reclaiming it immediately upon her departure. Noting that his friend's fever still hovered above 100, Jim kept up the cool bath with the cloth as he murmured to Blair. "I know you remember the scene there in your office, don't you? You were wearing that crazy vest, remember? The one that looks like a reject from the Salvation Army? Sorry, Chief, but our taste in clothing just doesn't jive, my friend."

Jim laughed softly. "I was so damned angry when you made that 'throwback' crack. Yeah, I know, it was an overreaction, but somehow you understood that I would have snapped at Mother Teresa at that point, didn't you? I stormed out of your office, determined never to lay eyes on you again."

Jim blinked quickly, forcing back the wetness that threatened. "Now..." He shook his head hard. "I never want to let you out of my sight. Blair, do you know that? Do you know how scared... ?"

He couldn't finish the thought. Not aloud.

So leave me if you need to,
I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground.

"You saved my life that day. For the first time. I still cannot believe you dove under that garbage truck to save me - a total stranger. Especially after the brush-off I'd just given you. You're a real piece of work, kid." Jim's voice cracked slightly, and he set aside the damp cloth. His mouth suddenly dry, his throat tight, he reached over to the bedside table for a sip of water from the cup he kept there. Swallowing hard, he let the liquid cool his dry throat. Days of almost non-stop talking had taken their toll.

"You know why I agreed to the whole ride-along thing, don't you? Purely selfish. I figured, hey, I'll let this kid hang around long enough to teach me a thing or two about controlling these senses, then I'll hand him his walking papers. Simple enough." Jim chuckled at the irony. "Guess what I didn't know back then is that there's never anything simple about our relationship. I sure didn't figure on things developing the way they have, that you'd still be with me almost five years later. There I was, planning on cutting you loose when I'd taken all I needed from you, and then one day realizing that I was scared to death you'd leave me. How the tide had turned."

Jim sat silently for a while, reflecting. He leaned over to rest his head on his folded arms, one hand still clasping Blair's. Looking at Sandburg's still face, he could almost convince himself the younger man was only sleeping.

Almost...

I knew someday that you would fly away,
for love's the greatest healer to be found

"You know," Jim said softly, "I'll never get everything I need from you, Chief. You didn't just move into my home, Blair. You took over my heart. You've got a place with me, a place where you are needed and appreciated, for as long as you want it. Everyone looks at us and thinks that I have the power, that I'm the one in control of this relationship. What a joke."

Lifting his head, Jim reached up with his free hand to stroke at Blair's cheek, carefully avoiding the heavy, dark bruise on his friend's jaw. "In the jungle, I had to confront my fears, and for a supposedly 'brave' guy, I sure have a lot of them. But the most terrifying one, the one that has the power to rob me of all reason, of all courage, is the fear that you will... that one day... in one way or another... you'll leave."

Jim shut his eyes tightly, unable to even look at Blair's too-still face as he spoke the words he'd never be able to say if his companion were awake. Dealing with his emotions was never easy, and expressing them to others, even to Blair, came hard.

"They say true courage isn't the absence of fear, but the ability to act, to go on, despite your fear. If that's true, then maybe I am a brave man, Chief. It would have been easy to have sent you away right at the beginning, when I first realized how much I was growing to count on you to be there. With me. For me. I could have let you go then, at the start. But I didn't. Before long, when it was way too late, I had no choice but to go on, despite the fear that was always with me that one day, you'd choose to go. Or be taken from me. Maybe that is courage; maybe it's just cowardice. I really don't know. Maybe, in the long run, it doesn't even matter."

His eyes opened again, finding Blair. Jim squeezed Sandburg's hand harder, holding on for dear life even as he set Blair free. "Blair... I don't know what you're feeling right now. I'm not even sure you're able to hear me or understand anything I'm saying. But if you need to... leave me... if there's no way you can come back to me... whole... completely you again... "

Jim stopped, taking a deep, unsteady breath. He wasn't at all sure he could say the words that had to be said. Make the leap of faith - of trust - that needed to be made. Leaning down, he rested his forward against Blair's chest, taking comfort in the slow rise and fall. "If you need to go... I'll understand, and I'll stay with you as long as you still need me to. It would hurt like hell, but I'll find a way to be all right, Blair. I promise you. I know... I know I can't keep you here unless I know that you'll be... you... that you'll have a life you would want to live. Not one that you're trapped in, an existence you're being forced to live."

So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground
Fly on fly on past, the speed of sound
I'd rather see you up than see you down

Nothing changed after that. Jim watched carefully for any sign that Blair had heard him, half afraid that Sandburg might take him up on the offer of release and half afraid he would not. That Blair - brilliant, energetic Blair - might be condemned to spend the rest of his life in this strange, still, sleep-like state.

Jim honestly couldn't decide which would hurt more.

By nightfall of the sixth day, Jim was so exhausted, he could no longer continue his litany of words. Simon had been by earlier, determined to send Jim home for some much-needed rest. Despite his determination, and ultimately, his higher rank, Jim won the battle of wills. Simon left; Jim remained at Blair's bedside.

"I can't leave him, Simon. I won't. Every day... every hour and minute... might be the last. If I went home and Blair... left... while I was gone, I would never forgive myself. I couldn't live with that. If he has to... go... I have to be with him. If he wakes up, I want to be with him. It's that simple. I'm not leaving."

Those words, coupled with the stubborn determination in the Sentinel's eyes, had finally won out. Jim was grateful for Simon's concern for his health, but if it came down to a choice between his own well-being and staying at Blair's side, there was no contest.

Down the hall, Jim could hear the sounds of the shift change. Nurses, glad to be off-duty at last, headed wearily toward the parking deck, while the new shift flipped through files and checked records, preparing themselves for the long night ahead.

It was midnight, the magic hour lying encased between yesterday and tomorrow. The time when miracles can occur.

If he had won the battle with Simon, Jim was losing the war to keep his eyes open. His lids felt like heavy steel, determined to close of their own accord. As the long minutes ticked by, Jim's head gradually dropped lower and lower, until his chin rested on his chest and his breaths were deep and slow. His right hand, gripping Blair's, loosened slightly in sleep, but the fingers remained wrapped around his Guide's hand.

So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground.

Something tugged at the edge of his sleep, patiently coaxing Jim back to reality. Groggy, muddled from a lack of rest, he fought the pull at first, but the nagging - something - refused to let go. So, slowly, painfully, the tired, bloodshot blue eyes fought their way open, and Jim looked down at the face of his friend...

... and into the weary eyes of Blair Sandburg.

"Chief!" Jim ignored his protesting neck muscles and straightened up quickly. "Ow," he protested, a huge smile betraying the complaint.

A slow grin curved the corners of Blair's lips. "Jim... Hey," he whispered dryly.

Easing himself to sit on the edge of the narrow mattress, Jim leaned over his friend, one hand on each side of Sandburg's shoulders. Jim knew he was staring too hard, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the broad grin straining his face gave away too much in the emotion department. But for once in his life, the fact that he was making an emotional fool of himself didn't matter.

Blair was awake.

He'd said Jim's name.

Blair remembered.

At that moment, nothing else in the world mattered at all.

"Welcome back," Jim greeted him huskily. "How do you feel?" He glanced at the array of instruments hooked up to his friend. All readings were normal.

Blair's eyes flitted to the tubes and casts encasing various parts of his body. His good arm came up, and his hand fidgeted with the wide bandage around his head. A puzzled, pain-filled look replaced the smile of moments before. "Head... hurts. What...? Don't remember... "

"Shhhh... " Jim soothed, gently catching Blair's hand and easing it back down again. "There's time later for all that. The doctor said some memory loss would be perfectly normal." Reaching over, he extracted a small piece of ice from the cup on the bedside table. He really should call for the nurse and alert the medical staff that their patient was awake, but at the moment, he wasn't yet ready to relinquish Blair to anyone. "Here," he said gently, slipping the ice between Blair's dry lips. "Try this. Just a little right now, then we'll try more once the doctors have checked you out."

Sandburg sucked the ice gratefully. "Thanks," he murmured. His eyes closed as Blair sighed wearily.

Thinking his friend might be slipping off to sleep, Jim reluctantly reached for the call button. He stopped at the sound of Blair's hoarse voice.

"You're wrong, you know. You're the bravest man I know."

"What?" That took him by surprise. Jim stared at Blair in confusion, his eyes widening.

"You said you were a coward... for needing me." Tired blue eyes held Jim's with a power surprising in one so hurt. "Not... true. You were willing to... let me go. Even though it hurt you to say it. To offer it."

Why didn't it surprise him to learn that Blair had heard it all? The kid was never truly at rest.

Sandburg pressed on, despite his obvious pain and weariness. "I... won't leave you, man." He smiled weakly. "Thought you... got that... by now."

Smiling fondly and blinking rapidly, Jim tapped Blair's cheek, then left his hand there, turning the pat into a lingering caress. "I get it, Chief. Just a slow learner sometimes, you know that." The younger man's eyelids drooped sleepily, and Jim chuckled. "Better get the nurse in here while you're still awake, kid. You ready to alert the world that Blair Sandburg's back?"

"Do we have to?"

That response was unexpected. Jim cocked his head. "Blair? We have to let them know... "

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah, I know. Just... give it a little longer, okay? It's nice to just be quiet... with you."

Jim's heart warmed immediately, accompanied by the familiar ache always triggered whenever he was confronted face-to-face with Blair's loyalty and love. "You got it, partner." Showing a depth of emotion outside eyes seldom witnessed, Jim's hand moved from his friend's cheek to his hair, stroking slowly, soothingly. "Close your eyes," he murmured. "Relax a little more... that's the way... I'm right here... everything's okay now."

Blair was all right; his vitals strong and steady. There was time to contact the nurse and doctor. What harm could a few stolen moments of closeness do? Secretly, Jim was pleased Blair had needed this time to reconnect, just to be together. It gave him the luxury of letting the reality, the wonder, of his partner's survival sink in.

Beneath his hand, the softness of Blair's curls soothed his own scarred emotions. The steady pulse he could feel in the hand he held within his own reaffirmed his soul's survival. "You made it, Blair," Jim whispered, not sure if his Guide was still awake to hear, but knowing it really didn't matter. Blair would hear, even if not with his conscious mind. He would know, just as he always did, what Jim was feeling. "We made it. I have to admit, I was having some doubts there for a while, Junior, but you surprised me. Again."

In sleep, Blair looked so much younger, so untouched by the harshness of life, so... vulnerable. Jim ached to do the impossible, to protect Blair from any danger, from all pain. "I'd give my life for you in a heartbeat, but the truth is, I know I can't always keep you safe, Chief," he murmured, absently stroking the soft curls as words he might never say aloud to an awake Sandburg poured forth. "But I swear to you, I'll always be there when you fall, to patch you up and put you back together again. It's not nearly enough, and God knows, I wish I could do more, but... " Jim faltered, then he added in a voice that was less than a whisper, "It's all I have to give."

He could only hope and pray it would be enough.

Life before Blair Sandburg had entered his life had been unbearable. Jim didn't dare consider what life without him now would be like. The young man lying there, sleeping peacefully at last, had become so much more than just a friend, more than just a partner and Guide. Jim wasn't an eloquent man; he didn't have words enough to express exactly what Blair had become to him, but he knew clearly in his heart... in his soul. Blair was his rock in a world that was too often unpredictable and unsteady beneath his feet. In a life where so many of those Jim had dared to care for had abandoned him, either by choice or fate, Blair was the one constant, the guiding star Jim could always find and rely on to bring him home safely once more.

If guardian angels assumed human form, then Blair was his, sent to protect and guide him as Jim traveled the path of the Sentinel. And if once in a while he fell to earth, Jim would always be there to pick him up. Jim would help him heal and give him his wings once more, always trusting that even if he flew away for a while, Blair would always return to his Sentinel's side.

To be entrusted with such a gift was not an easy burden to carry, but it was one Jim shouldered with gratitude, even joy. In a life spent protecting and caring for strangers, to have one life, one soul, lie so totally vulnerable within the circle of his protective arms brought a fulfillment he'd never before experienced.

"I'm here, Chief," Jim whispered as Blair stirred restlessly in his sleep. Sensitive fingertips brushed feather-light at bruised cheeks and forehead, and almost immediately, his Guide quieted beneath his touch. Jim's heart swelled with gratitude and affection. Nothing he had ever accomplished in his lifetime made him worthy of such a gift, but wasn't that the entire purpose of a gift so precious, so rare - that it be given without consideration of the worthiness of the recipient.

If the Sentinel was destined to stand alone, to guard his protectorate without thought of his own safety, then his Guide also had a destiny to fulfill. It was his path to follow, to lead, to protect his Sentinel without thought of his own welfare. Theirs was an unorthodox life, but not a solitary one. Their path was too treacherous to be traversed easily. One would undoubtedly fall, but his partner would be there - to watch his back, to pick him up, to set him unfailingly upon his way again.

It is about friendship, yes. But it is also about commitment. About partnership.

About love.

If you had not have fallen,
then I would not have found you...
Angel flying too close to the ground.
I patched up your broken wing and hung around for a while,
trying to keep your spirits up and your fever down...
I knew someday that you would fly away,
for love's the greatest healer to be found
So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground
Fly on fly on past, the speed of sound
I'd rather see you up than see you down
So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground.

Finis...

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