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

Guilt

by Arianna

Inspired by Ceci's Dues Graphic: Guilt

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

Late again! Late again! Jim's gonna kill me! Blair thought anxiously as he watched the elevator's floor indicator lights blink slowly up from the parking garage to the seventh floor. In his agitation, his body was literally twitching and almost bouncing with impatience and expressions of guilt, anxiety, fatigue, impatience and finally gratitude played across his expressive face as the lift mounted upward and, at long last, opened at his destination. His backpack slung over his shoulder, heavy with books and documents, his coat flaring wide, and hair flying, he bounded from the elevator to jog hurriedly into the MCU Operations Room.

"I know, I know, I'm late…again," Blair said, his hand up to stop any smart remarks or laments by his partner, Jim Ellison. "Sorry, sorry…the class ran late and then there were three students who HAD to see me urgently. And then Professor Bainbridge called and needed to discuss…."

Ellison rolled his eyes and held up both hands in surrender. "Enough! If this is such an inconvenience in your busy life, Sandburg, maybe it would be better if you just didn't bother…" he interjected with impatient sarcasm.

"Bother? It's no bother, man. I want to go on stakeout with you," Blair cut back in, his eyes wide with dismay at Ellison's clear tone and expression of exasperation with him. Lowering his voice as he leaned in further, he mumbled, "You know I don't like you going on them alone…"

"You're not my keeper, Sandburg," Jim retorted, his jaw tight. With a huff and an impatient look at his watch, he shook his head as he muttered, "I don't have time for this." Louder, he almost snapped, "If you're coming, then let's go. Maybe we can get there before the guys we're supposed to be tailing disappear."

Ellison brushed past Blair and strode aggressively toward the elevator, leaving the grad student to scramble in his wake. For the space of a micro-second, as Jim stabbed at the elevator button, the odd blue-tinged image of a wounded wolf flashed in his mind. Shaking his head, trying to grab hold of the elusive and oddly disturbing image, Jim scowled. The same image had been intruding for days now…and nights, when it slipped into his dreams and woke him in a cold sweat. It was annoying and inexplicable…and irritated him no end.

Shaking his head, Blair's lips thinned as he pushed down his own irritation. It wasn't as if he'd planned to be late. Or as if he didn't know this was important. Or that he didn't give every single moment he had, even shorting other responsibilities, to back Ellison up in the field. And it really wasn't as if this was the only responsibility he did have. There were the classes he had to prepare for and teach, the exams to be developed, administered and marked, papers to be graded, the research he had to do, the articles he had to write to maintain his fellowship, the staff meetings at the university, the continuing and never-ending research into the dynamics of human sensory perception to better support Jim…the list went on and on.

Increasingly, the only things that were no longer finding much place in his list of daily commitments were social activities, like dates and sleep. The last time he'd been out on a date that had delightfully led to more, something about stretching out on a very comfortable bed had triggered his exhaustion and he'd fallen asleep. Not that he'd meant to, it had been mortifying…and the result of it all was that he hadn't satisfied either need. Women were funny about men falling asleep in the middle of what they'd hoped would be more active interaction. While some thought it a touching signal of trust and endearingly vulnerable, most tended to just find it offensive…and then they'd wake him up to tell him so. It struck him that it wasn't a good sign that it had happened often enough that he had enough different reactions to constitute a mini-research project of sorts.

Aware that his mind had rambled off without him, Blair hauled it back as he followed Jim out of the elevator to the green Expedition. Jim was still striding along as if he was alone, giving no sign by word or glance that his partner was loping along trying to keep up. Man, he is NOT happy with me, Blair sighed to himself, not really blaming Jim. It was true that he was late more than he was ever on time these last few weeks. Wearily, he tossed his backpack into the truck and climbed in, doing up his seatbelt as he tried to reestablish contact.

"So, where are we going tonight?" he asked, then embarrassed himself by having to stifle a yawn.

"Am I boring you, Sandburg?" Jim growled as he steered the truck out of the garage and up to the street.

"No, man," Blair retorted with just the hint of an irritated whine. "I just didn't get much sleep last night…"

"Last night? How about last year?" Jim shot back. "Half the time lately, you're asleep on your feet. It's not safe, Sandburg. In this business, if your concentration flounders serious mistakes can be made. People can get hurt."

Blair swallowed and looked away. "Yeah, I know," he muttered. It was his greatest fear. That he'd screw up and Jim would get hurt, or worse, get killed. Ellison didn't need to remind him of the risks. Pushing his anxiety and exhaustion away, he glanced back at Jim to ask again, "What's the deal for tonight?"

"We got a tip that a load of weapons is being transported in by boat. We're to watch the unloading down at the docks and tail the truck to wherever it's going to get a handle on how big this operation is and, if possible, get a lead on who's behind it all," Ellison stated in a flat tone. "Once we find the warehouse, then we call in backup. If it looks feasible, we take the operation down then and there…if not, we fall back to develop a strategy for take down."

Blair leaned back against the seat and nodded. Tailing wasn't that complicated and, if the gunrunning operation was big, there'd be a need for careful planning to pull off the arrests successfully. Satisfied in his own mind that it wasn't hugely likely that Jim would be risking his life that night, Blair relaxed and pulled the backpack up from the floorboards and rummaged in it to find the papers he needed to grade and the penlight he used to work in the darkened cab of the truck.

Ellison flicked his partner a look of irritation when Blair flicked on the tiny light and began to read the paper, hunched a little to scribble in comments when he thought them necessary. Biting his lip, Jim muttered, "Do you have to do that now?"

"Yes, I do," Blair murmured back, used to the irritation his propensity to do two or more things at once generated in his friend. But there just weren't enough hours in the day to accord everything its own unique timeslot. He had to overlap, or he'd never get it all done.

The detective rolled his eyes and sighed heavily as he returned his attention to the road. Night came early this time of year, and the overcast skies and slight drizzle only reduced visibility further. "You'll have to turn that light out when we get to the docks or they'll spot us," he stated.

"I know," Blair mumbled, his attention on the paper as he frowned and shook his head. Chewing on his lip, he circled something and then scribbled another note in the margin.

Silence reined in the cab of the truck for the next fifteen minutes. While Blair read and graded papers, Jim thought about the night ahead. If it was at all possible, he hoped to bring the operation down that night. Any day delayed in terminating a gunrunning scam was a day when more deadly weapons could be moved illegally onto the streets.

At one point, when Blair unconsciously mumbled something out loud about whatever it was that he was reading, the detective found himself distracted into thinking about his partner and roommate. Sighing, his lips thinned as he thought that he'd really rather not have had Sandburg along tonight. Things could get dangerous in a hurry. The last thing he needed to worry about if bullets started flying, was a civilian who didn't know enough to keep his head down.

Frowning, Jim silently castigated himself for the last thought. Blair got into dangerous situations because he insisted on being where he was needed when Jim needed him, whether Jim always agreed or not. And Ellison was man enough to admit to himself that the kid had saved his bacon on more than one occasion. Though he knew he too often sounded irritated and impatient with the kid, his emotions were fueled by genuine concern. Sandburg was pushing too hard and was getting too little sleep. He had a recurring cold borne of never getting enough rest and the detective was beginning to suspect the kid forgot to eat unless he was reminded to do so. Ellison also knew that a big part of why Sandburg was always running from one task to another, or trying to do two or more things at a time, was because of the hours Blair devoted to being available to him. And that irritated the detective no end. He knew he needed Sandburg's help, but at the same time, he resented being a big part of the pressures and responsibilities the kid was trying to juggle. One of these days, Sandburg was going to lose his balance, all the balls in the air would crash and so would he.

So, when Ellison snarled that the kid should maybe not bother with showing up for every damned stakeout in lieu of getting some sleep, or snapped that he didn't need a keeper, it was more out of concern and guilt than anything else. Sighing again, he figured maybe he ought to just tell Sandburg to slow down or forbid him to come in to the police department every day and most weekends. Let alone any number of evenings, like tonight.

But he knew he wasn't likely to do that. His mind flashed back to earlier in the week when Sandburg had been lounging in the chair by his desk. Bright as sunshine on the gloomy winter day, dressed in that striped yellow shirt, he'd gotten caught up in the discussion of the Fonberg case. Without even trying, the kid would often correlate disparate bits of information in his head, form a synthesis that came at everything from a fresh perspective and offer up an insight that virtually cracked the case. Like with the Fonberg case. Nobody else had noticed the incidence of fresh flowers at every crime scene…hadn't clicked that the florist delivery agent was maybe casing the places to come back later to rape the single women who lived alone. But Blair was a trained observer, just as the police were and he didn't miss anything. He often noticed seemingly irrelevant details without judging them as irrelevant and unconsciously discarding them, just assimilated them for future reference. The kid seemed to have a limitless capacity to absorb new information, to learn and then to share and teach. Jim quirked a brow as he reflected Sandburg was very likely a genius of significant proportion. A faint smile played on his lips as he thought that the nickname, 'Einstein', wasn't inappropriate.

No, he wasn't likely to tell Blair to take it easier, to stay home to relax or get more sleep. The truth was, the kid was a big help, not only in understanding and managing recalcitrant senses, but also in a broader way, of helping to solve the crimes that plagued Cascade. Grimacing, Ellison figured he'd just have to make sure that he watched out for the kid, made sure that 'crash' never came.

As they neared the docks, Ellison grunted, "Lights out, Sandburg."

Blair flicked a look up at his surroundings and seeing that they were cruising past the warehouses down to the waterfront, clicked off the light and stuffed the papers back into his pack. Sitting back, he watched their surroundings as Jim slowly drew up behind some stacked crates that helped obscure the Expedition from any casual observers but which didn't inhibit his clear line of sight down along the wharf to a boat in the distance. Squinting, Sandburg could just make out that there was movement, and a canvas-sided truck parked on the dock that people were loading stuff into, but it was too far for him to make out any details.

Glancing at his partner, he asked quietly, "Can you hear them as well as see them? By piggy-backing sound to sight?"

Jim tilted his head as he tried that. Up until Sandburg had made the suggestion, he'd been focusing only on sight, as the task at hand was to watch. But listening as well was a good idea. When he frowned a little unconsciously at the effort it took, he felt Sandburg's light touch on his arm and it all immediately came into focus. He nodded a little to indicate he'd made the connection and was picking up on the conversations. Blair nodded to himself at that, and sat back while still maintaining the light contact, his attention shifting between the action on the dock ahead of them and Ellison to make sure he wasn't getting too deep into the concentrated effort needed. Using two senses at once reduced the possibility of a zone-out, and being grounded by the sense of touch helped even more, but Sandburg never took any chances of Jim slipping unnoticed into a zone. From time to time, Blair also scanned their immediate environment to ensure no one was trying to sneak up on them while Jim's attention was focused elsewhere or that some unexpected loud sound or bright light was about to erupt that would cause Jim crippling pain.

They hadn't arrived any too soon. The loading was almost finished and within half an hour, Jim pulled his attention back, and started up the truck, maneuvering without lights as he turned up an intervening alley and then angled across to come up behind the truck to follow it to its destination.

"So, did you hear anything interesting?" Blair asked, sitting comfortably beside him, one elbow propped on the window ledge.

"Mostly just a lot of whining about how heavy the crates were, but I heard a couple of names. Cheung and Lin Lee. Which fits as our informant said there's a Chinese mafia connection in play. One guy also spoke admiringly of all the firepower in those crates. Automatic weapons, military design," Jim replied.

Blair pulled a note pad out of his pack and wrote down the names for future reference.

The truck ahead skirted the city and moved out to the industrial warehouse district on the outskirts of town. Jim maintained a discreet distance, using his enhanced sight to track the vehicle without getting close enough to be noticed by their quarry. It was dark and deserted this time of night, and the risks of being spotted increased accordingly. Jim switched off his lights as he slowly cruised by a lane the truck had just turned into. Sure enough, it had pulled up at the loading dock of one of the buildings about a block away. Scanning the area, he then continued on ahead to circle around through the maze of lanes to come up on the truck on the other side, to be able to block the exit, if necessary, with his own truck. Stopping just inside the lane, about a block in front of the other vehicle, he slowed and parked in the shadows at the end of the lane.

"Call it in, Junior," he said quietly as his hand moved to the door handle. "I'm just going to do a bit of looking around."

"Um, Jim, shouldn't I come with…" Blair began.

"Stay in the truck, Chief…and that's an order," Jim snapped back. "These guys are dangerous…"

"Yeah, yeah, 'stay', 'sit', 'jump'…how high?" Blair grumbled as he reached for his cell.

"Look, it's your idea to be here, kid," Jim replied stiffly. "Tell dispatch to relay the call to H. and Rafe, and to send two patrol cars, silent running."

Blair just rolled his eyes, made a face and punched in the number for dispatch as he muttered, "Silent running…sounds like we're in some spy caper or using sonar or something."

Jim shook his head, got out of the truck and faded into the shadows as he moved forward to skirt around the targeted building and see what else he could find out. Irritated at being left behind, worried that Jim might get into trouble without backup, Blair made the call. Sitting back with his arms tightly crossed, he stared down the lane toward the truck a block away.

There were tall, brick buildings to either side and the alley itself was probably no more than ten feet wide. He could just make out Jim as he slipped across the opening of another bisecting lane and then his partner disappeared as he headed around the corner, out of sight.

About ten minutes later, H. and Rafe arrived, parking behind Ellison's truck. The patrol cars stayed back around the corner behind them. Blair got out of the Expedition to brief the others.

"Jim went to case the building about ten minutes ago," he reported, his voice low. "It's hard to tell, but I think there are more guys unloading here than were loading down at the docks so they should be finished with the truck in about an hour."

"Back in the truck, Hairboy," H. directed softly, half teasing, half serious, as he mocked Ellison's tones. "We'll go check it out with Jim."

Slightly disgusted, Blair quietly got back into the Expedition.

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

Jim met up with H., Rafe and the uniforms on his way back to Sandburg.

Nodding to his colleagues, he waved them in close so he could speak quietly as he brought them up to date. "We may be in luck," he said. "There're about seven guys unloading the crates and stacking them in the warehouse…which already seems pretty well stocked from the glimpse I got through a window on the far side. I saw a couple of suits pull up in a Lexus and go in the front about five minutes ago, so we may even have some big fish in the net. They'll be another forty-five, fifty minutes unloading so we've got time to get a warrant. Rafe, why don't you call Simon to get that in process and, Sgt. Lupes, is it? You could call in more back up, say another three patrol cars."

Signaling to one of uniforms to remain where he was for the time being, Ellison drifted off to circle the building again with the others to station lookouts on the other exits from the building and left H. and Rafe at the far end of the alley from where his truck was parked to block that exit. As more patrol cars arrived, lights out and quiet, they were deployed to cut off the various connecting alleys, to be sure no one escaped.

When Simon arrived a half hour later with the warrant, Jim left him at the front of the building to go in after the guys in the fancy suits while he headed around again to the back to deal with the guys unloading the truck. More uniforms were dispatched to back up H. and Rafe and to block yet another exit on the far side of the building. They'd coordinate with their cells and Simon would signal when they were all to move in.

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

Meanwhile, time was passing slowly for an observer stuck in a truck and out of the action. Blair felt his anxiety growing as the minutes ticked past, and he noticed the silent passage of a darkened patrol car along the lane that crossed behind them. A moment later, it backed up to block that exit. Taking a breath, he acknowledged to himself that it was going to go down then and there. So much for hoping that it would be an easy night and he had no need to worry about his best friend.

Swallowing, he tried to slow down his breathing. He felt like an idiot for the sharp anxiety that always gripped him whenever he knew Jim was walking into a dangerous situation. More likely running, Blair thought with a wry half smile. Shaking his head, he couldn't help but reflect on the sheer courage that Ellison exhibited without giving himself any credit for it whatsoever. 'It's my job,' he'd grunted once when Blair had commented upon it. But…it was more than that. The job was dangerous to begin with, infinitely more so for a man whose senses could reel unexpectedly, leaving him achingly vulnerable to attack. But that didn't stop Jim. Oh, no. When others were in trouble and needed to be saved, when bad guys were threatening the safety and well being of his tribe, nothing stopped Jim from doing what had to be done. Nothing. Certainly nothing as inconsequential to him as his own life.

But Jim Ellison's life wasn't inconsequential to Sandburg. On the contrary, Blair didn't think he'd ever known anyone he admired more. Oh, Jim could play the macho tough guy, with sharp edges, a quick temper and glowering looks and words. But Blair could see through the noise, see all the way through to the vulnerable heart and soul beneath the armour hardened by life. Could see the compassion, and Jim's driving desire to have his life worth something. Could see the small kindnesses that Jim often hid or didn't even admit to, or the heart-stopping moments when he'd do something like jump out of a plane over the jungles of Peru, even if only to bring the body of his friend back home. And strong? Man, Blair couldn't even begin to imagine surviving the things Jim had had to survive in his life. And Sandburg knew he didn't know the half of it because so much of it, the things he'd had to do, had to endure, during his time in Covert Ops Jim either couldn't or wouldn't talk about. Jim Ellison was a good, decent man…someone Blair Sandburg was proud to know was his friend. Someone Blair was grateful to be able to assist, even if only in small ways, to manage those senses so that Jim could more safely do what he'd been born to do.

It was SO aggravating to have to stay put in the truck, to not know what was going on…to not be there if Jim needed him. Chewing on his lip in worry and frustration, he shifted over to sit behind the wheel in order to maybe be able to see what was going down a little better, and then began tapping his fingers on it, an unconscious tattoo of anxiety and tension.

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

Jim cautiously approached the transport truck, keeping to the shadows, his senses on full alert. He waited, his gun in his hands, pointed to the sky. The cell buzzed in his pocket and he flicked it open, heard the order and clicked it shut. He began moving toward the truck, to subdue the men there.

Back down the alley, Blair tensed when he saw Jim move out of the shadows, his gun ready. "Here we go," he murmured to himself. "I hate this. I really hate this." And he did. He hated every moment his best friend was in danger. The fact that Jim went into danger nearly every other day or night didn't make any difference. Sandburg found he couldn't get used to it…and he hated it most when he couldn't be close enough to help. His mouth was dry and he had to remind himself to breathe as he told himself over and over that everything would be fine. They were cops. They all knew what they were doing. So what if the bad guys had guns? Everything was going to be fine.

Suddenly, the silence of the night erupted into shouting and the sharp staccato of gunshots. The headlights of the truck being unloaded blazed into the darkness. With something akin to horror, Blair saw that Jim had suffered a sensory spike from the unexpected burst of light and was momentarily stunned, standing vulnerable and alone in their glare.

Jim cried out at the pain that stabbed through his head as the light shattered the darkness. Reflexively defensive, he cringed away, one hand shading his eyes as he squinted through the blur of tears. "Police!" he shouted. "Drop your weapons!"

But the only response was the sudden roaring of the truck into life as its engine caught and it was rammed into gear to speed toward him, and the driver leaned out to shoot at him. For a moment, he held his ground, shooting toward the windshield and shattering it, but the truck didn't stop. Turning, ducking the bullets, he raced ahead of the vehicle back down the alley toward his own truck, but he could hear the roar of the engine close behind him. Too close. Way too close.

Without even thinking about it, Sandburg switched on the ignition and hit the gas. The sturdy green Expedition tore down the alley toward the truck that was so close to running down his friend. He wasn't exactly sure what he hoped he was doing, but vaguely he thought if the other driver saw a truck racing toward him intent upon playing chicken, he might slow down and back up, allowing Jim the chance to get away.

It worked, marginally. The other driver cursed and hit his brake, looking into his rearview mirror to see if he could get out the back way. But he could see a police car blocking that end and his foot once again pressed down hard on the accelerator.

Jim scanned the walls to either side to find a place to shelter, but they were bare brick facades and there was nowhere to go but to keep running up the alley. If he could make the corner with the bisecting lane, he could dash around it and out of the way. That is, he could get away if they didn't follow him. If they followed him, and scraped him off the wall he'd be clinging to, he was likely to become road kill in the next few seconds. And, he could see that a patrol car had visibly blocked the far end, and there were blinding headlights coming toward him, probably another patrol car. He considered just running on toward it, for the cover it offered, but the truck behind him was too close. He had to get out of its way, even it the vehicle behind him was likely to turn in a desperate effort to find a clear exit. Fleetingly, Ellison felt a moment of regret that he wasn't likely to get out of this in one piece… hell, he'd be lucky if he was still breathing in the next two minutes.

Sandburg felt a small stab of elation when he saw Jim gaining ground, but the momentary advantage couldn't last. He had to somehow get between Jim and that other truck, block it from running his best friend into the ground. Gritting his jaw, his eyes wide and his knuckles white as he gripped the steering wheel hard, he had only seconds to decide on his maneuver. Gauging Jim's position near the corner and the speed of the other vehicle, he hit the brakes and turned the wheel hard, sending the pickup into a controlled sideways slide toward the mouth of the lane the opposing vehicle was barreling down.

The momentary hesitation of his pursuer allowed Jim to forge ahead and reach the corner. Skidding around, he turned to shoot back at his pursuers and hit one of the wheels, blowing it out, but the truck kept coming at him. He ducked away from returning fire, his back against the brick wall at the corner. Just then, he was shocked to see his own truck plough into the intersection of alleys and skid sharply to turn and block the alley entrance with the length of the truck, trapping the other vehicle in the lane and shielding him. Jim looked up over the hood and saw Sandburg behind the wheel. His partner had ducked down and Jim had the fleeting impression that he'd lunged toward the passenger side to try to get out that door.

Only, the other vehicle still didn't stop. Instead, with a burst of speed, the desperate driver rammed the Expedition, intent upon pushing it out of the way. But steering the heavy vehicle with one flattened tire was awkward, and keeping control as it rammed solidly into the SUV blocking the alley proved impossible. In desperation, the driver held on, determined to escape, and kept his foot to the accelerator.

It all happened so fast. In one breath, Jim had skidded around the corner and, in the next, he saw his own truck giving him cover, and then there was a hideous crash as the heavy transport smashed into the Expedition at full speed. The driver of the transport hauled hard on the wheel, trying to steer into the alley, hoping for a clear exit. The two trucks locked together, the SUV was pushed over onto its side and with a hideous screeching of metal on pavement, was pushed fast and hard toward the far brick wall.

Sandburg had scrambled as fast as he could toward the passenger door, but wasn't fast enough. The impact of the other truck shuddered through the Expedition and then the world tilted as the lighter vehicle flipped over. Blair was thrown hard against the passenger door, yelping at the sudden burst of pain in his left shoulder and head. Terrified, he tried to get his balance, grabbing onto the steering wheel with his right hand to haul himself upward as he tried to reach the driver's side door, but the whole truck kept swaying as it skidded along the narrow strip of pavement.

"Not good, not good," Blair muttered as he rolled off the seat to the floorboards, banging his head again, on the dash this time. The shriek of metal was deafening.

The transport driver lost control as his truck, which was moving too fast, lurched to the side and skidded on the flat tire. The out of control vehicle careened on, smashing the SUV with heavy force into the wall, which buckled at the impact. Bricks from the buckled wall cascaded down upon the two vehicles, pelting them with hard, heavy clay, surrounding them in clouds of dust.

The next thing Blair knew, the roof of the Expedition was smashing down toward him as the fuselage beneath his body buckled and bucked. He felt a moment's crushing agony, as the world flattened in and around him, but there wasn't even time to scream before the darkness took him.

The green SUV was squashed between the wall and the grill of the transport, which in turn was crushed by the impact. As everything came to a sudden halt, the driver's momentum carried him forward and his chest was crushed by the steering column, killing him almost instantly.

"My God," Ellison gasped in stunned horror as he stood a moment in shock, trying to assimilate what had just happened…what it meant. And then he screamed as he lurched forward, "SANDBURG!"

The crushed vehicles were only a few feet away, melded together and half-buried in rubble. Reaching out with his hearing, even as his mind told him it was impossible, crazy to hope, he registered the silence in the cab of the transport…but, there! Muffled, faint and erratic…there was a heartbeat in the wreckage!

Dimly aware that the shooting in and around the building had stopped, Jim flipped open his cell and called dispatch. "Emergency at the warehouse operation. Officer trapped in crushed vehicle. I need a tow truck, the fire emergency crew and an ambulance IMMEDIATELY!" Cutting off that connection, he swiftly hit the speed dial for Simon's cell. "Simon…Blair's hurt bad. The Expedition's been crushed…the back alley. I've called in for assistance."

Shoving the cell back into the pocket of his leather jacket, he became aware of the scent of gasoline and his gut twisted with sick dread. The tank on the SUV must have been ruptured. Fortunately, Blair had turned off the ignition and the transport had stalled when the engine was crushed. At least he didn't have to fear an imminent explosion. He locked again on the sound of that soft heartbeat, and in a frenzy of fear, he began to pitch away the rubble that covered the smashed hood. He needed to see how badly Blair was hurt…and how hard it was going to be to get him out of there.

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

In minutes, every police officer who wasn't needed to take the criminals into custody was working to clear the debris. Simon had come running from one direction, H. and Rafe from another.

"Jim?" Simon gasped as he looked at the wreckage.

"He's alive, Simon," Jim snapped, as he continued his desperate effort to clear a way to his friend.

After that, they worked in silence, each man there sickened by the thought that there was no way anyone could survive a wreck like this one. Each man praying he was wrong.

Jim's gut clenched at the sweet stench of blood as he got closer to the smashed in, crushed windshield. His hearing was so focused on the sound of Blair's heart that he didn't notice the approach of the emergency vehicles and almost cried out as the sirens pierced his ears and lanced shafts of pure agony through his head. For a moment, he couldn't hear anything and he panicked, thinking Blair's heart had stopped beating. Like a crazed man, he cried out, an inarticulate sound of anguish, as he pushed and shoved chunks of brick wall out of his path.

Finally, enough of the rubble was cleared away that he could peer through the shattered windshield, trying to make sense of the jumbled interior that had been squashed like an accordion between the transport and the wall. The roof had been crushed down until it had buckled around the seats, leaving only a thin space along the bench. The floor of the truck had been smashed up and inward so that the floorboards were now only about six inches below the torn and mashed seats. The steering column was bent and the wheel had been snapped off. Shards of glass were everywhere.

Blair's body was tightly curled down in the passenger side wheel well. His lower legs and knees were bent against the passenger door and the side frame of the truck, the rest of his body crumpled and curled toward the seats so that Ellison could only make out the back of his head, and left shoulder. Blood streaked his hair. One arm, cut and bleeding the jaggedly ripped sleeve of his coat, was dangling down along the battered bench of the passenger side. He appeared to be completely wedged into the small space and there was no way to pull him out even if they dared risk it without knowing if he had back or neck injuries.

"Sandburg?" Ellison called out. "Chief! Can you hear me?"

But there was no response from the motionless body. Jim's hearing came back on-line, and he almost sagged with relief to once again hear that heartbeat, but he could also hear the bubbling of blood in the lungs, the fast and too shallow respiration. Going down on one knee and twisting to reach inside, his fingers brushed along Blair's head and then down along his jacket to his hand, and he could feel the cold, clammy shock in the skin of the limp fingers.

The tow truck had arrived and chains were quickly deployed to haul the transport out of the way, but the firemen halted that operation until they'd covered the area with fire-retarding foam. The last thing anyone needed was a spark to set off the gasoline that was soaking the ground under and between the vehicles. But, finally, the other vehicle could be hauled back, its driver already on the way to the morgue.

Simon pulled Jim back to allow the fire emergency crew access to assess their options in getting the victim out of the crushed Expedition. They could quickly see that they didn't have enough room to work. Even the jaws of life wouldn't create enough leverage for them to safely remove the broken body from the crushed cab of the truck. Chains were attached to the SUV, and men aligned themselves around the vehicle, gripping tightly. As the tow truck hauled back slowly and the Expedition began to tip back onto its fractured wheelbase, the men eased its progress, slowly, ever so slowly, so that there were be no further shocking impacts upon the man crushed inside. Muscles strained and jaws were gritted, as they grunted against the inertia of the truck and the pull of gravity to lower it smoothly back onto its wheels. The chains were repositioned to haul the vehicle far enough away from the smashed wall to allow the firefighters access to the passenger side door.

After that, crews worked on both sides of the smashed SUV, so that they could gain access to the victim from either side. The doors were pried open, pulled off and tossed out of the way. And then the EMTs moved in to assess the condition of the man wedged so tightly inside the crushed cab.

"Blood pressure 75/40, respirations 36 and shallow, pulse 128," one reported back over his shoulder as he worked. "There's a lot of blood in here and I can't see yet where it's all coming from. I need to start an IV and get me an oxygen tank. And a neck brace."

Meanwhile the firefighters had decided that they'd need to lever up the roof to give more access and were working to place the portable hydraulic pumps into the narrow space between the crushed roof and the bench of the seats. There was a screech of metal as the roof was slowly pushed up to allow sufficient space to ease Sandburg out of the truck.

The members of the MCU stood clustered closely together to the side where they could see what was happening but not be in the way. H. had a hand on Rafe's shoulder and Simon was gripping Ellison's arm.

"What the hell happened here, Jim?" Simon asked, his voice low and tight, thick with worry for Sandburg's life.

Jim shook his head as if trying to focus his attention on his Captain's words. "Uh…the driver of the transport tried to make a break for it and I was between him and the way out," he reported, his voice tight. Frowning, he struggled to recall the order of events as he continued to relate what had happened. "He was pretty intent on running me down and I was running to get out of the way. He slowed a bit, I guess because he saw Sandburg coming straight at him, and I got out of the way, around the corner, over there."

Ellison swallowed and closed his eyes as he remembered the horrific sights and sounds that came next. "It all happened so fast. The next thing I knew, Sandburg had slid the Expedition across the alley mouth, blocking it off, between me and the transport. I saw the kid try to throw himself free, but there wasn't time. The transport hit at full speed or close to it and the impact flipped the SUV…and then drove it into the wall. The driver of the transport must have lost control, I don't know…it just…the crash…then the wall collapsed over everything…and I…"

"Easy, Jim," Simon cut in as Ellison's voice choked and faltered. He could feel the tremors that rippled through the detective's body as Jim shivered with shock and fear. The rigidity of the muscles in Ellison's arm, under his hand, told him all he needed to know about the degree of control the detective was exerting upon himself.

"He's…he's all bunched up in there, Simon…all crumpled and kinda crushed. He was down in the wheel well on the passenger side and the roof of the cab and the floorboards had buckled up from different directions…there was hardly any space," Jim reported, his voice sounding dazed. "And blood… everywhere blood."

"Okay, okay," Banks soothed, his other arm coming up around Jim's back to pull him into a sideways hug and hold him steady. "It won't be long now and they'll have him out of there."

"I told him…I told him to stay in the truck," Jim rasped, and Simon could hear the broken sound of unshed tears in the ragged words. "I thought he'd be safe…in the truck."

Wordlessly, Simon squeezed Jim's shoulder. He looked over toward his other men and caught H.'s eye. Bleakly, H. shook his head, his eyes full of grief and sorrow. Rafe was standing like a statue, rigid, his face pale in the flickering emergency lights, his eyes glued to the drama being played out in front of them. They were cops. They'd all seen too many wrecks…and they knew that the odds for Sandburg surviving this one were just about zero.

It took an hour, sixty long agonizing minutes. When the EMTs finally got better access and started to assess the extent of the injuries, conversing in hushed whispers between themselves, Jim listened in. As the toll of damage mounted, he closed his eyes and felt a crushing ache in his chest. For a moment, nausea roiled in his gut and he thought he might be sick.

"What have you got?" the blond-haired guy asked his partner who had eased in from the driver's side.

"Can't see his face yet, so no way of knowing if pupils are regular or reacting. There're a couple of bad lumps on his head, one gash in the back and another that I can feel on his forehead. Left shoulder is dislocated. Still can't see where the blood is coming from, but, wait a minute, there's blood soaking the coat down by his waist. Okay, I've got the collar in place. How about you?" the one with the dark curly hair replied.

"Fractures to both legs…compound right tibia, complex left tibia…that's where some of the blood has come from. I've got a pressure bandage on it now. Femurs both seem okay, but the pelvis may be broken and from the sound of his breathing, I think his chest is likely crushed," Blondie murmured back. "We need to get him out of here. I don't think he's going to last much longer."

"Okay, I'm ready on this end. I'll hold his head and neck steady while you ease his legs and lower body out…I'll scramble along the seat and follow you out," Curly agreed.

Curly called to one of the fire crew to bring a backboard and to move the gurney into position. Another of the fire emergency crew helped the blond attendant begin to ease Sandburg out of the wreckage.

"Oh God," Simon gasped as Blair's face finally came into view. The right side was a mask of blood from the deep gash over his brow, and the rest was a deathly gray mottled with dark bruising. They could also see that his coat was sodden with thick dark blood as was his left pant leg from just below the knee.

Jim felt swamped by the stench and sight of the blood. Sandburg's increasingly weak and erratic heartbeat thundered in his ears. He tried to see through the blood, to make out Sandburg's features, to see if his face…

In just a few more minutes, they had the backboard secured to the gurney and Sandburg was wrapped in blankets against the chill of the shock that was deepening. The gurney was loaded and the ambulance tore away into the night, sirens blaring.

It was only then that Simon noticed that Ellison hadn't moved and was staring vacantly ahead. Shaking him, Banks called out, "Jim? JIM!"

The combination of being shaken and hearing his name called jerked him out of the zone. Not seeing Blair, Jim looked around in a panic as he muttered, "Where?"

"They've taken him to the hospital, Jim," Simon explained quietly, still holding tight. Ellison looked like he was on the verge of collapse. "Come on…I'll drive you there."

His muscles so stiff that he almost lurched as he walked, Ellison allowed Simon to lead him back along the alley to Bank's car.

Dazed, scared to his soul that Sandburg wasn't going to make it, he just kept mumbling, "I thought he'd be safe. He shouldn't have been here…my fault…thought he'd be safe…in the truck."

Rafe had pulled away from Henri's grip on his shoulder and had gone to stand by the truck, staring into the wreckage. His gaze shifted over the interior and then froze as a grimace that looked like pain twisted his lips. Swallowing hard, he reached in to pull out Sandburg's crushed and blood soaked backpack from under the wreck of the dash.

They left it to the uniformed police sergeant to handle the media who had arrived shortly after the emergency vehicles. H. cast a disgusted look at the crowd of reporters and cameramen. "Like ghouls," he muttered, shaking his head.

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

By the time H. and Rafe got to the hospital, Simon had gotten Jim inside and sitting down in the waiting area. When they saw him curled forward, his face buried in both hands, they looked quickly back at Simon, the question in their eyes.

But Simon shook his head. "We haven't heard anything yet," he murmured with a sigh as he gazed across the dreary lounge toward Ellison.

"Do you think he's got a chance, Captain?" H. asked quietly as he also gazed toward Ellison.

Biting his lip, Banks shook his head and shrugged. "I don't know," he murmured wearily, conscious that Jim could hear them speaking, though he gave no sign of listening to them. Banks suspected the detective was focusing all of his attention on the treatment room down the hall. Turning back to his men, he said quietly, "Look, there's nothing you guys can do here. Why don't you take off and I'll call…"

"That's all right, Captain," Rafe cut in, his voice a little hoarse. "I think we'll just wait with you, if you don't mind."

Heaving out another sigh, Simon nodded as he clapped first one and then the other on the shoulder and then went to sit beside Jim. Banks felt like weeping, they all did. Nobody seriously believed Sandburg was going to make it this time. Hell, it was a miracle he was even still breathing given the magnitude of the trauma he'd suffered and the amount of blood he'd lost before they'd finally cut him loose from the wreckage. Reaching over to lay a comforting hand on Jim's back, Simon thought it was all such a damned shame.

Bad enough that the kid had been hurt so bad. God, he was so young…and he wasn't even a cop, doing his job. He was a grad student who, if he'd been doing what grad students do, would have been safe in some pub somewhere, or ensconced in a library over a stack of books. A damned shame.

But, worse, Simon thought, as he watched Jim and felt the tremors again rippling through his rigid muscles, if Sandburg died, Ellison would bear the guilt of it for the rest of his days. Because the kid was only there in the first place to back Ellison up…and if Blair died, he would have died saving Ellison's life.

Jim was oblivious to everything but the sounds emanating from the room down the corridor. He could hear the doctor shouting orders, and the rip of clothing as they cut Sandburg's shirt and jeans from his body. Someone called out vital signs on a continuous basis. From what he could hear, he knew now that much of the blood in the cab was from a puncture wound in Sandburg's back, below his right kidney. He knew the EMT had been right in his assessment that Sandburg's chest was crushed on the right side. He knew that Blair's left pupil was slow to react to light. And that his right arm was also broken. He knew that they'd already intubated the kid and had him on a respirator and that a chest tube had been put into his chest to reinflate the right lung that had partially collapsed. He knew they'd already started pumping blood back into his body.

And he knew the first time Sandburg crashed, stiffening rigidly as he held his breath, listening to them resuscitate him, only breathing again when he heard the heart hitch and catch. And the second crash, the doctor cursing when Sandburg didn't respond, but refusing to give up. And the heart finally fumbled into action again.

They worked on Blair for more than half an hour, just trying to get him stable and treat the worst and most urgent of the injuries to keep him alive long enough to get into surgery. Hearing them prepare to move him, Ellison rose to his feet and moved rapidly toward the treatment room, standing in the hall where he could see Sandburg as they wheeled him away in the other direction toward the elevators.

Simon had moved with him and kept a steady grip on his arm. He was grateful for the support and the grounding it gave him. It was taking all he had to stay even halfway alert to what was going on around him. Twice he'd almost zoned on Blair's heartbeat.

Sandburg looked more dead than alive as he was pushed past them, and between the bandage around his head and the respirator in his mouth, they could see little of his face. Just a quick impression of pallor, of unnatural stillness, and then he was gone as the attendants rushed the gurney down the corridor.

"You're here with Mr. Sandburg?" a voice intruded on their attention, drawing their eyes away from the receding stretcher and to the Native-American doctor looking at them with compassion. "I'm Sam Wolfchild," he said.

"Yes," Simon replied. "I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade Police. And this is Detective Jim Ellison, Sandburg's partner and best friend. What can you tell us about his chances, Doctor?"

"Why don't we step down here to my office and I'll tell you what I know right now," the physician said, motioning them toward the small charting room behind the Emergency counter.

Once they were seated, Dr. Samuel Wolfchild studied them for a moment, then explained with slow, calm words, "As you already know, Mr. Sandburg sustained severe injuries, but for all that, he's been lucky so far. The EMT told me that he'd been trapped in a position that kept his body semi-upright. Because of that, he was able to maintain respiration and did not drown in the blood from his crushed and lacerated right lung. Had he been in any other position, I doubt he'd still be alive. The chest injuries are immediately dangerous but can be repaired relatively easily. It appears that his spleen ruptured and his liver may be lacerated. These are more serious injuries and both caused extensive internal bleeding as did a puncture wound in his back. I'm not sure what caused it, but it's likely something that occurred when the vehicles were crushed together. Again, though, it might have been a great deal worse. The position Mr. Sandburg was in, inside the vehicle, curled forward as I understand it, put some pressure on the internal wounds and prevented the worst bleeding until his position was shifted when he was lifted out. Otherwise, he would have bled to death long before the rescuers could have gotten him here. He has a skull fracture, and there is some pressure on his brain causing slow reaction to light stimuli. Mr. Sandburg is currently in a deep coma. This is the injury that worries me most just now because there is no way of knowing yet how extensive the brain damage, if any, may be. The dislocated shoulder, broken legs and arm will mend. There did not appear to be anything more serious than severe bruising to his back and pelvis. Once he is out of surgery, he'll be taken to the Intensive Care Unit. It will be hours, more likely days, before we know for sure how he will manage."

Jim shook his head. "Lucky?" he repeated, his voice strained. "Lucky? He shouldn't have been there in the first place!"

"Take it easy, Jim," Simon counseled as the doctor watched, not surprised by the outburst. It wasn't the first time he'd seen loved ones protest the realities of how badly their family member or friend had been injured.

"No, dammit!" Jim snapped, pulling away from Simon's grip on his arm. "This is MY FAULT!"

"Losing it won't do Sandburg any good," Simon replied in a hard, clipped tone. "He was there because he chose to be there, and you know it. He was hurt because a felon was trying to escape the scene of a crime. That's it. That's all."

Jim's jaw was tight and he glared at Simon for a moment before he closed his eyes and seemed to sink into himself. Turning away, he slumped back into the chair, and lifted a hand to cover his eyes.

"If you like," Dr. Wolfchild offered, "there is a waiting lounge outside the Operating Theatres. It's a little more private than the busy lounge here in Emergency. But, Mr. Sandburg is likely to be in surgery for several hours. It would be best if you went home. The staff will call you…"

"No," Jim whispered brokenly. "I'm not leaving…"

Nodding, the physician stood to end their brief meeting. There were other patients who needed his help. "I'm sorry your friend has been so badly injured. But, remember, he's still alive. Where there is life, there is hope."

"Thank you, Doctor," Simon replied quietly as he also stood and moved to help Jim to his feet. When they got back into the corridor, H. and Rafe joined them to move upstairs to the waiting area there.

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

As the night dragged on, the anxious men from the MCU felt the minutes trickle past like the gritty grains of sand in an hour glass…only every grain of sand felt hard and slid past slowly, rubbing them raw. Restless, afraid, tongued tied by the painful emotions that filled their chests and throats, and burned in their eyes, they sat or paced…or stared into space.

Only it wasn't space they were seeing but moments frozen for all time in their memories, like bits of coloured cloth that, as the night unfolded, became for each of them their personal tapestry of Blair Sandburg, and what he meant in their individual lives. Each mosaic of memory was different, but had they shared their thoughts rather than clutching them close to their own hearts, they would have found certain images in common, woven like bands of colour in the tapestry of Blair's life.

For H., Blair was a spunky, unexpected breath of fresh air in a world too often heavy with the noxious fumes of corruption and despair. He loved the sheer unexpectedness of Blair Sandburg in their uptight, tense world of crime detection and, too often, soul-wrenching tragedy. Like sunlight, Sandburg had blown in, with his wild, unconventional clothing, the earrings and that hair. Man, the hair was classic! It said all there was to say about a free spirit that refused to be bound by convention, but rather reveled in the wild adventure of life. At first, H. hadn't thought the kid would last two days. Who'd ever expect a grad student, someone who taught classes on anthropology, would be able to endure their world, with its dangers and horrors…let alone put up with Ellison's 'I'm a tough guy and don't push me' approach to winning friends and influencing people.

But…first the Switchman and then the siege at Headquarters…and the kid hadn't folded. To the contrary, he exhibited unexpected reserves of courage and determination. Not to mention the capacity to 'obfuscate' with the best, H. thought with a fleeting smile of admiration. I mean, 'flying Apaches in Desert Storm'! he thought with a shake of his head. He didn't know anybody else who'd come up with something like that in a moment of extreme prejudice, let alone a kid who looked more than a flowerchild than a storm-trooper! But, the kid had pulled it off. And, he'd stuck. Stuck even after he was personally targeted by that headcase, Lash…and had almost died to fulfill the freaking fantasies of a serial killer.

But, Sandburg didn't seem to know he was a brave man. He'd shudder and claim to be a coward, with no selfconsciousness or hesitation. Or he'd make one of his wacky, off the wall, comments with that shit-eating grin of his, his eyes dancing as he teased. But H. didn't think he'd known anyone with such simple courage, untrained and untested maybe, but there when it was needed. Without hesitation.

Like in that alley, tonight, H. thought, his eyes filling with sadness. Sighing, he figured the kid had known exactly what he was doing, the risks he was taking…but he'd done it anyway, to cover his partner the only way he could.

Swallowing past the thick lump that had risen in his throat, Henri cursed in the silence of his mind. Life could be so damned unfair. The world needed more light in it, the kind of light Sandburg brought. Needed men who were brilliant but didn't throw it in your face, lording it over you. Needed men who weren't afraid to show they cared, to show the warmth of the friendship they felt openly, without embarrassment. The big man's jaw tightened. The best he could do was tease and laugh to show the kid how much he liked him, liked having him around. Henri Brown had had to be tough all his life, had had to hide his vulnerabilities from the homeboy bullies in his old neighbourhood, not to mention the uptight white crowd who thought they were so superior, like colour designated quality or some damned thing…had had to be tough, or life would have eaten him alive. He'd developed a loud, brash sense of humour that suited his large frame and determinedly and unrepentantly irreverence. Laughing to hide the darker side of hurt, sometimes of fear…and often of a capacity to act with deadly intent. But he sometimes wished he found words as easily as Sandburg did…wished he'd found a better way to tell the kid how much he'd come to be one of the few friends H. valued deeply.

He found himself hoping against hope that he'd have a chance to find those words and say them…

His fingers clasped tightly together between his knees, his head bowed, H. found himself doing something he hadn't done for as long as he could remember.

He found himself praying for a miracle.

His partner, Brian Rafe, slouched against the wall nearby, his eyes alternating between the floor and the clock. Quiet and reserved by nature, Rafe's expression didn't give much away, but his pallor spoke volumes. Perhaps, more telling, he didn't seem comfortable in his clothes, buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket unconsciously, shifting his shoulders as if the jacket was somehow constraining him.

But below the even expression, behind the hooded eyes, his thoughts were reeling and he was wondering why he hadn't seen this coming. Why he'd never really ever considered that Sandburg was in any risk hanging around with them, going on stakeouts or to investigate leads, to meet with snitches or check crime scenes. Chewing on his inner lip, he knew that part of it was because Blair was 'partnered' with Ellison, the one man wrecking machine. Studying the old and worn tile floor, Rafe gave an infinitesimal shake of his head. No, it was more than that. A big part was just that Blair was so young and full of life. He'd seemingly bounced back from encounters with violence with scarcely a blink, focusing always on what was coming next, not on what had been. He'd seemed untouched by the darkness. Untouchable, somehow.

Until now.

His eyes flicking back up to the clock, which had moved a whole two minutes since the last time he'd checked, the young detective thought about how different he and Sandburg were, at least on the surface. Blair had long hair, sported an earring or two, dressed in student grunge. He babbled and bounced, smiled for the sake of smiling, his enthusiasms and emotions bare for all to see…hell, he presented as easier to read than a billboard or a flashing marquee. But, Rafe thought, his eyes dropping again to the floor, what did any of them, with the possible exception of Ellison, really know about Sandburg? About his life before he'd plunged into their lives and work? About the details of what he actually did for those hours when he wasn't at the station or out in the field? About how he really felt, or what he thought about his near misses with scary, sick wackos like Lash, or even just about the violence of the world they moved in everyday?

About as much as most knew about himself, Rafe thought. Most people saw what you showed them and didn't look a lot further than that. The youngest member of the team before Sandburg had arrived, though still a good five years older than the kid, Rafe knew what it was to come into that group, how intimidating it could be…how hard to be taken seriously as the most junior member of the team. So, he'd given himself an edge. The dead opposite of Sandburg's bohemian appearance, Rafe chose his clothing with a view to the unconscious buttons it would push in other people's automatic assessments. There were two men in the unit who dressed with flair…him and the Captain, though Rafe couldn't begin to match the quality of the threads that Simon Banks wore as casually as some men wore denim. But the look, the style, the immaculate presentation bespoke 'authority' in MCU, so Rafe dressed to echo that affiliation. His hair was always impeccably styled, his projected demeanor calm and contained to generate confidence and settle hotter emotions. Oh, he knew the others wondered how he could afford even his modest wardrobe, well, modest by the Captain's standards, and he privately enjoyed keeping them all guessing. They had no way of knowing he had an uncle, who was proud of his nephew and who generously supplied him at cost with expertly tailored suits, shirts and more casual wear from his shop in Singapore. Once a year, Rafe splurged on a silk suit and a couple more silk shirts…clothing he no way could have otherwise afforded on his salary.

No, the guys didn't really know anymore about him and his family, about his background, than any of them knew about Sandburg. Even H. didn't know, and it was part of the game between them, the guessing, the teasing and the bit of mystery. Privately, Rafe would have been willing to bet that even Ellison didn't know a whole lot more about Sandburg.

So, surface appearances would have tagged them as opposites…but there was always much more below the surface, like an iceberg that only revealed a seventh of its full reality. Shifting against the wall, twitching his shoulders, Rafe figured that he and Blair might have more in common than simply being men who let others settle for surface impressions. The young detective had been impressed with Sandburg's ready grasp of the challenges they faced, his quick, analytical mind and the way he gathered and processed details that others missed. The kid was a natural detective, for all that Simon and Jim kept harping on the fact that he wasn't a cop. Maybe that's what an anthropologist was…a detective who sifted through the clues of time and space, of actions and words, of relationships and traditions, to understand the motivations and behaviours of the people he studied. Pretty much what they did everyday in trying to understand what had gone down at a crime scene or predict the motivations and next actions of a criminal.

Oh, sure, Sandburg was no cop. He didn't carry a gold-plated piece of tin. Hadn't had any of the training. Didn't have the authority to make an arrest…and sure wasn't comfortable with weapons. But, none of that said why a man or woman became a cop, or what kind of cop they'd be. Didn't talk about the values or ethics that guided their actions, or the decisions they made. Didn't reveal the deep and abiding drive for order, and to make a community safe for those who were vulnerable. The desire to make a difference for the good in a world that sometimes seemed to teeter on the edge of chaos. No, Sandburg wasn't a cop in the sense that he didn't carry a badge or hold the authorities that entailed…but anyone who watched him, listened to him, could see that he carried the same values and ethics, the same drive to do good.

But, that still didn't explain what the hell he was doing in MCU. Rafe's brow furled for a brief moment as he once again tripped over the perennial question that he and H. and sometimes Joel debated. Why was Blair even there and how had he gotten assigned, and accepted, by the one guy who was famous for refusing any partner offered? Oh, yeah, sure, there was that piece of fluff about his doctoral dissertation about the 'thin blue line' and the closed society of law enforcement officers. Like that would ever persuade Simon to allow a civilian to 'ride-along' with virtually no restrictions into all kinds of risky or delicate situations. And it sure wouldn't have impressed Ellison enough to agree to let someone as… unconventional…as Sandburg near him, let alone partner with him as if they were joined at the hip. Hell, Ellison had even allowed Sandburg to move into his apartment. For someone as intensely and aggressively private as Ellison, that made an extraordinary statement about the importance Sandburg had assumed in the older detective's life.

His gaze flicking briefly over Ellison, seeing the stark grief and guilt in the man's beaten posture, the barely contained emotions of fear and helplessness that the clenching and unclenching fists revealed, and the pulsing of that muscle along his jaw advertised like a beacon for anyone who knew him. Ellison, the rock, the tough, independent, 'who needs anyone?' Ellison, was falling apart. Rafe's gaze skittered away, conscious of a feeling of intrusion on such naked anguish and he felt his own gut clench in a resonating despair. Losing a partner hurt like nothing anyone could ever imagine…and, cop or not, Sandburg was Ellison's partner. Partner and best friend…probably one of the few people who ever got past that stone cold façade.

Rafe felt an identification with Sandburg, something he knew the other man felt in return. He'd seen it in flashes of intelligent speculation and insight every once in a while when Blair looked at him…and Rafe knew, he knew, Blair was seeing past the clothes, past the façade, just as he saw past Ellison and Simon and the rest of them. But then the easy grin would appear, almost complicit in a wordless shared declaration. 'Let them guess, let them wonder. We know what we're about,' the look and the grin said.

A shaft of loneliness shot through Rafe's heart and burned eyes once again hidden by lowered lids as he studied the floor. Even H. didn't see him, didn't understand him, the way he knew Sandburg did. Shaking his head, he sighed wearily. They were all crazy to hope the kid was going to come out of this alive and intact…but he couldn't help himself.

He couldn't let the hope go.

Giving up, even the thought of giving up, just hurt too damned much.

His eyes flicked again to the clock.

Another five minutes had passed. Five minutes and two hours since they'd arrived downstairs. He rubbed his forehead, wishing away a headache he knew would only get worse. Suddenly restless, he pushed away from the wall. They needed coffee, and knowing Simon, he probably needed a supply of cigars to get through the night.

And, suddenly, looking around at the others, Rafe realized someone was missing. Someone who would want to know what had happened. Would want to be there with them as they held their vigil into the night.

Moving quietly over to Simon's side, he murmured, "I'm going to get some coffee for everyone, Captain. And…I think I'll give Joel a call."

Startled from his thoughts, Simon looked up, his expression a little dazed. "Good idea, Brian, thank you. I should have thought about calling him myself," he said quietly with a sigh of gratitude.

"No problem. You've got enough on your mind with one of our guys in there," Rafe replied easily, tilting his head toward the entrance to the Operating Theatres. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Simon nodded wearily and idly watched Rafe walk away, his thoughts already jerking back to Sandburg as his gaze moved to the closed double doors. Sighing, he lifted his glasses away and rubbed his eyes, then sat back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. Waiting like this was never easy. It was, in fact, almost the hardest part of his job, the hardest being the aftermath when someone who was a part of the whole got ripped away. Dealing with his own grief and the emptiness, helping his men to cope, keeping them focused on moving on while still being sensitive to their pain. Wearily, Simon acknowledged to himself that he wasn't good at the 'touchy-feely' stuff at the best of times, let alone at the worst of times.

If anything, this situation with Sandburg was even worse than when a cop got hurt. When it was a cop, well, at least you could comfort yourself that you all knew the risks and accepted them. But Sandburg was a civilian, a very young, innocent, civilian who should probably have been kept miles away from the action he and his men could get into as a part of their daily responsibilities. Not for the first time, Simon found himself wondering how he could ever have supported having someone so vulnerable in situations that placed him at risk on such a regular basis.

But, then his gaze shifted to Jim who was sitting again a few seats away, having worn yet another path on the old flooring. His face in his hands, Ellison was the picture of a man at the end of his rope, barely hanging on to the emotions that were tearing him apart. Sighing, Banks shook his head and looked away. The 'waiting' was only just beginning, and that was if things went well. If they went bad, the waiting would be over…and what then?

Feeling jumpy with the tension and needing to work off the nervous energy, Simon got up to take his turn pacing up and down the corridor. What the hell do we do if Sandburg doesn't make it? Banks thought, his brow furled in worry and consternation. The truth was, he really didn't think the kid would get out of surgery alive, and if he did, that stuff about possible brain injury didn't sound good. This Sentinel business wasn't just going to go away. Jim would continue to need help managing his senses. If he'd accept help. If he didn't just retreat into his shell and push anyway anyone who might even try to help him. He knew that he was the only one besides Ellison and Sandburg, oh, with the exception of Brackett, Simon thought bitterly, the only one who knew about this business with the out of control senses. Shaking his head, Simon knew that as much as he was willing to try to help his detective, he had neither the time nor the temperament to give Ellison the kind of support Sandburg had been providing.

Rubbing the back of his neck as he walked, he sifted through his team in his mind, wondering who would be the best match if…well, if Jim needed a new partner. Wryly, he figured Joel was probably the only one who had even a hope of coping with Ellison's prickly personality, and of having the patience to work with him on his senses. Nodding to himself that he'd come up with at least one viable option, he set the question aside for the time being.

The truth was, it made him feel guilty to even think about it, much as his responsibilities forced him to consider every option. Leaning a shoulder against a wall, one arm across his body as if trying to hold in the grief, he shook his bowed head. Damn, he hadn't wanted to, sure hadn't tried to, but he liked that kid. Maybe, maybe, more than 'liked' him. How the hell had Sandburg gotten to feel like family? Swallowing, Simon gritted his teeth and pressed his eyes closed against the twisting in his chest. It wouldn't do any of the others any good to see him fall apart right now. No, if there was any falling apart to do, he'd do it in the privacy of his own home.

His memory played over wide eyes of calculated innocence, the 'deer in the headlights' look not fooling him for a minute. There was too much intelligence in those eyes. Too much world weary wisdom in unguarded moments. Not that Blair was being dishonest with them. Sometimes Banks was certain the young grad student didn't fully grasp himself the brilliance and the almost uncanny understanding of people that were so much a part of who he was. The 'innocent' look wasn't used to deceive, to misdirect, particularly…it emerged to cover a lack of self-confidence or when the kid was caught by surprise and needed a second or two to think.

Yet, there was an innocence about Sandburg…an innocence that wasn't simply a lack of expertise, but rather a lack of any kind of spite, or malice, or meanness in his soul. Oh, the kid could recognize evil quick enough, like a Kincaid or a Lash, and he'd fight to save himself and others when he needed to…but he didn't seem to get bitter or twisted, didn't resent the creeps who had almost killed him. If anything, he seemed to mourn that such terrible beings even existed in the world, wondering what had shaped them, wondering what might have saved them.

And, Lord, the kid had guts. Who would have thought, that first day with his ridiculous comments about 'the thin blue line', Simon thought almost sardonically, that he'd have steel in his soul? He'd looked like a Woodstock throwback, easy-going to the point of seeming shallow, and yet, he didn't back down. Not ever. Not if there was a wrong he felt needed to be addressed, a mistake being made, or a threat being posed to Jim Ellison. And the glares that both he and Ellison had perfected over the years, to intimidate and overwhelm? Damned if Sandburg didn't just laugh at them or ignore them completely. Like he didn't even see them…like he knew they were mostly just show. How did he do that? Was it all the years he'd spent observing other people and cultures that he saw past the superficial and immediate, focusing instead on the issues at play, the dynamics and the underlying personality of the people he was dealing with? Simon shook his head. He knew Sandburg had nailed him as a compassionate man who bellowed more than he ever bit and who would give his life for his men. For anyone under his protection.

Sandburg was supposed to have been under his protection. And what had he done? He'd blithely let the kid get into situations that were forever beyond the bounds of safety. Why? Just for Jim, to safeguard Jim's well-being and effectiveness? Or, because something inside told him Sandburg could actually handle the heat? How crazy, even unconscionably and criminally incompetent was that? The man was a grad student! Not a cop. Not trained. Hadn't sworn any oath to serve and protect. Wasn't expected to put his life on the line.

Yet he had, hadn't he? Sandburg had put his own life on the line more than once. Had even jumped out of an airplane over Peru into a hostile and highly dangerous situation to search for a friend and his son. Simon blew out a long breath. What did you do with a man who didn't even know he was a hero? Who didn't think about the courage with which he acted out of a sense of moral decency and rightness, because it needed to be done? How did you protect a man like that?

How did you thank him?

Simon found himself sipping a coffee he couldn't even remember having accepted from Rafe and noticed it was already cool. Time had a kind of unreality that evening…creeping by like a snail when it was watched, flashing by like a river in flood when no one was looking. Simon looked up at the clock and realized they'd been there almost three hours. He was about to go and check on Ellison when the elevator pinged and Joel rushed out, his face stark with sick fear.

"Any news?" the older man asked, not even conscious that he was breathing like a steam engine.

"No, no news," Simon replied as he laid a hand on Joel's shoulder to steady him. "And, for now, that's good news."

Nodding, Joel murmured, "Yeah, I hear you. Rafe…Rafe told me it was bad."

Simon gave a slight nod. "Uh huh," he grunted. "Sandburg suffered multiple serious injuries in the crash when Jim's truck was overturned and crushed into a wall by a heavier vehicle. It took more than an hour to cut him out of the wreck. For all of that, according to the doctor down in Emergency, the famous Sandburg luck was holding…he could easily have died out there. But, he didn't. And, he's still alive. Until and unless we hear differently, we have to hold to that fact."

"How's Jim holding up?" Joel asked then.

"How do you think?" Simon asked wearily, looking back toward the waiting room. "Sandburg…Sandburg was hurt in the first place because he acted to give Jim cover. From what I've been able to piece together, the kid might well have saved Jim's life back in that alley."

Swallowing, Joel shook his head. They were all pretty good at doing 'guilt', but Jim was a past master of it. If the kid didn't make it, Joel wondered if Ellison would ever allow himself to get close to another human being again. Patting Simon on the arm, he lumbered toward the waiting area and sat down beside the younger detective, laying a quiet hand on the man's shoulder. He wasn't sure Ellison was even aware of his presence.

Sitting back, nodding at Rafe and H., Joel looked up at the clock on the wall. One way or the other, it was going to be a long night. He tried to calm his hammering heart and fight back the sheer wretched sickness he felt at what had happened to the kid. It was impossible to think of that bundle of boundless energy forever still, those bright eyes empty of life and humour, empty of intelligence and compassion. Impossible to imagine never seeing that smile again, or hearing that voice that could lift in laughter or lower to ground and calm others in crisis. Never to hear that endless flow of enthusiastic chatter, so peppered with just so damned much information, all the time. Blair was like a walking encyclopedia, forever open to dispense knowledge and insight without question or pause. Impossible to imagine Major Crimes without him, without his soothing teas and gentle teasing, his self-deprecation even as he shared thoughts and perspectives that left others with their mouths hanging open. Good-natured and compassionate, easy going and jam packed with charm, the kid could worm his way in anywhere…including the coldest and most well defended of hearts.

Shifting his gaze to study Ellison's rigid back and bowed head, Joel bit his lip, then lifted his gaze to the ceiling, uttering a silent but heartfelt prayer that Sandburg would be spared.

It would be the first of many prayers before the waiting was finally over.

Jim was barely conscious of the hand on his shoulder, but for all he'd scarcely noticed it, part of him was grateful for the touch. He'd been spiraling into a zone, his hearing stretched to its limits to sort through the confusing sounds and grunted comments, past the click and whine of machines, the swish and drip, the clatter of steel instruments on trays…to a single weak and unsteady heartbeat. The touch grounded him, not as well as Blair's touch always did, but still, it helped.

His thoughts were all jumbled, incoherent splashes of sights and sounds, of memories and feelings, of harsh words and tones…of blood and a silent, limp body where there was only ever motion and sound. And that damned image of the wounded wolf, intruding, overlaying other images…mostly getting in the way of his memories of Blair's face.

Why the hell did I let the kid come along on that operation? he cursed himself, over and over.

Because you needed him with you, an internal voice argued.

Not like this. Not like this, another voice wailed like a lost child. Never like this…I never wanted him hurt!

And, why the hell, having dragged him along, did you treat him so coldly…like you resented him? another voice demanded in his mind, condemning him. When really you'd been resenting your need of him.

The horrific moments of the crash played over and over in his mind…the last glimpse he'd had of Blair in motion, desperately trying to dive to safety though he'd had to have known there was no time. Closing his eyes, Ellison tried not to think of what Sandburg's last conscious moments must have been. Terror? Pain? He thought he might throw up.

It was his fault, all his fault. His damned senses. His decision to have Sandburg ride with him. His desire to get the raid over and done with, pushing for a resolution that night. His inability to stop that transport truck. His fault Sandburg had been there. His fault Sandburg had been hurt…and might well die.

The endless night wore on. Midnight came and went, and then the dawn.

And still there was no news.

H. brought more coffee and the early edition of the morning paper.

"Sandburg's made the headlines," he said soberly as he waved the paper. "Man Seriously Injured in Car Crash: Civilian tried to save his law enforcement friend from criminals, sustained serious injuries," he reported as he again scanned the front page and grimaced at the picture of Ellison's wrecked green Expedition.

Ellison's head jerked up as he demanded, "Let me see that!" Almost tearing it from H.'s hand when the man willingly held the paper toward him.

Jim shook his head as he scanned the sparse article, his lips thin, a scowl darkening his face. "My fault, dammit…all of it!" he growled, low in his throat.

"Jim, don't," Joel tried to deflect him, mute his guilt.

But, Ellison wasn't willing to accept any form of solace or absolution. Practically throwing the paper at Joel, he surged to his feet, gesturing sharply with his hand as he said, "Look at that picture! Look at it! Sandburg was in that because I brought him along when I should have known better. Because I couldn't do my job and he had to save my sorry ass!"

Henri shook his head. All damned evening and night, Ellison had mumbled about how he was responsible, that it was his fault, and the streetwise black man was tired of the self-flagellation. More, he was offended by it. "Why don't you take responsibility for everything else that's wrong with the world while you're at it?" he demanded, his voice low but audible.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ellison cut back, whirling to face the other detective.

"It means this was NOT your fault, man," H. continued, standing his ground. "It's arrogant to claim that it was."

"Arrogant?" Jim spit back, his eyes flaming with fury. "Sandburg had no business being out there! He wouldn't have been anywhere near the place if I hadn't…"

"What, you hog-tied him and dragged him along? Cuffed him to the steering wheel, maybe?" H. shot back. "Funny, I didn't notice any restraints when Rafe and I arrived there last evening."

When Simon tried to cut in, recognizing that ragged emotions were about to burst into words that might deal lasting wounds…and maybe come to blows given the anger he could see flushing both men's face. "Easy, men…just calm down," he counseled, gripping Henri's arm to pull him away. Even Simon didn't like to mess with Ellison when he had that look in his eyes.

But H. shrugged him off, irritated, no longer able to hold his peace. Every time something happened to Sandburg, it was the same damned thing. "You're no better," he shot at his boss. "And I, for one, am damned tired of it."

Simon blinked and then his own irritation emerged in a scowl. "Just settle down, Brown. This isn't easy for any of us," he directed with a tone of steel.

H. shook his head. "Do you even hear yourselves? You go on and on about Sandburg like he's some kind of mindless kid who couldn't cross the street if you didn't take him by the hand. The man's working with us because he chooses to, dammit! He was there because he wanted to be there. Don't get me wrong… I'm…I'm as sick and scared as you are about him. But…don't you see? You're denying his courage. You're behaving like he can't think for himself… like he didn't know what he was risking last night. He knew, dammit! He knew…and he did it anyway. Because it was the right thing to do. Because he's a brave man. I can't stand to hear the two of you take that away from him, denying it, assuming all responsibility for his actions. It's not right. He deserves better than that…he's earned better than that, from all of us."

Simon and Jim reared back as if they'd been slugged, their expressions suddenly blank with shock. Rafe looked up from his position against the wall, his own eyes hard as he consciously nodded in agreement. Joel's gaze met Simon's and he, too, nodded, a sad, weary expression on his face that suggested he understood why Simon and Jim felt as they did…but they were wrong, nevertheless, and H. was right. The kid was a hero, and they acted like they had to tie his shoelaces for him.

Simon's gaze broke away as he thought about what H. had just said. And thought about how he'd unconsciously stripped Sandburg of dignity by not acknowledging that he had, indeed, been where he was and done what he'd done because of his own free choice and his own selfless courage. Closing his eyes, Simon blew out a sigh. It didn't make him feel any less responsible. It had been his decision to allow Sandburg to 'ride along'…but his responsibility didn't take away from what the kid, no the man, had done. Looking back up at H., he nodded wordlessly and turned away to resume his pacing.

Jim had turned to stare at the double doors that separated him from his best friend, partner and Guide. Oh, Jesus, Chief, he thought, is that what I've been doing? Stricken, he turned like a man in a daze to slump back into his chair. Rubbing his face with his hands, kneading the back of his neck, he pondered Henri's words. Part of him recognized that H. was right, absolutely right. Blair deserved respect and gratitude and Jim could only hope that Sandburg lived for him to tell him so.

But, he couldn't shake the knowledge deep inside that it was his job to protect Sandburg. And that he'd screwed that up big time. It wasn't anything he could explain, not even to himself. It was just there, a part of who he was…a part of their relationship, whatever the hell that relationship was.

Guide, yes, sure. That's where it had all begun. Sandburg helping him to sort out these crazy senses that went haywire with no warning. Helping him to learn how to control and use them. To not be afraid of them.

Partner, that, too. What else did you call the guy who rode around with you, watched your back, helped figure out crime scenes and how all the bits of evidence fitted together? The guy who did most of the paperwork? Sandburg might not be a cop, but he was there, and he was loyal…and he'd proven he'd risk his life, if need be, to save his partner's life. Sandburg knew Ellison wanted him to stay out of the way and safe! And he'd acted anyway. Jim bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose to clear his eyes.

Friend? They lived together, ate together, went camping together. They laughed and teased and fought like an old married couple sometimes. They were there for one another. Blair had certainly proven that in spades. And, though Ellison might never have said it out loud, given the choice and chance, he'd always stand between the kid and anything that threatened Sandburg.

The aching fear of loss ripped through Ellison's gut and clamped down hard on his heart. What would he do if Sandburg didn't make it? How could he ever get past this? How could he ever accept it wasn't his fault?

The kid deserved so much more, so much better. He was so brilliant it was unnerving. Where or how he came up with his ideas, with his innate sense of what to do with Sentinel senses, Ellison had no idea. There was so much more for him to experience in life…more to do in the world. Jim felt like a criminal, as if he'd robbed that from Sandburg by grabbing hold of him and hijacking his life to serve his own needs. But, Sandburg got something out of it, too, right? He got his dissertation subject. He got a place to live.

He got a friend, too, right?

Was it enough? If Sandburg died, would that ever feel like it had been enough?

Yeah, he's brave, all right, Ellison thought almost bitterly. So brave he scares me to death. I do NOT want him to die for saving my life. I don't want that responsibility…that guilt. Dammit…why'd he have to do that?

Because he's your Guide, your partner…and your friend. That's why, that annoying voice said in his head. The best damned friend you'll ever have.

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

Almost twelve hours had elapsed before a weary surgeon pushed open the double doors to come and meet with them. Pulling his mask from his face, he looked around at the imposing number of tall, tough men that moved to crowd around him. Holding up a hand instinctively for some space, he said, "I'm Dr. Gary Des Loupes, the primary surgeon on Blair Sandburg's case."

"Dr. Des Loupes, I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD," Banks introduced himself. "Sandburg is one of my men, and this is Detective Ellison, Sandburg's partner and room-mate. These other men are his colleagues and friends. How's Sandburg doing?"

The surgeon looked at the tense, exhausted men, at their eyes so full of a desperate hope they were clearly afraid to allow themselves. He wished he had better news for them. "Well, you all know Mr. Sandburg suffered numerous severe traumas. It's taken us all this time to put the pieces back together again." Biting his lip, he wondered where to begin. "We've had to remove his spleen and a part of his liver…but he can survive that. Many, many people do, though without a spleen, he'll have to guard against infections. The liver will regenerate itself in a matter of weeks, given the chance. His ribs have been repaired, as have the other fractures to his legs and right arm, and the dislocated shoulder has been reduced. The lung was damaged, but we've repaired it and reinflated it. He's currently on a respirator. The puncture wound in his back tore through his right kidney, but the wound was 'clean', if you know what I mean, and we've also repaired that. He's lost more blood than any single body contains, but we've managed to keep him from going into terminal shock. Finally, he suffered multiple concussions, to his left temple, his frontal lobe and to his occipital lobe, including a skull fracture that, luckily, was not compressed. There is considerable edema, though, that is pressing on his brain and inhibiting some degree of function at this time. He's in a level four coma, which means that he's not reacting to any stimuli, such as pain, and his pupils respond unevenly to light. Whether this is temporary, we don't yet know. The brain scan indicates considerable activity, so his brain is still functioning. If the pressure on his brain increases, we may need to go in to relieve it."

As the litany of injuries and repairs was listed in the dry, unemotional voice, they all looked away, pale and sick. When the surgeon paused, Simon cleared his throat and looked back up at the medical man. "You don't paint an encouraging picture," he sighed. "Will Sandburg make it?"

The surgeon grimaced and shrugged, hating this question above all others. Hating it especially when he had no clear answer. "Honestly? I don't know. By the odds, I'm surprised that he's lasted this long. His system has suffered enormous damage and he would be unable to live without support right now. But… he is alive. We don't know, yet, if the coma is the result of brain trauma, or a reaction of the body to shut down all non-essential activity in order to wage its own battle for survival. We'll do our best to help him in every way we can. At this point, I can't predict if that will be enough."

Jim swallowed to moisten his dry throat. "When can I see him?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

Dr. Des Loupes glanced up at the wall clock. "He'll be in recovery at least another two hours. I'd suggest that you go home, clean up, maybe get some rest and come back later this morning, perhaps close to noon. We'll have him in ICU by then."

"No, I…" Jim began to protest, but the doctor wasn't about to have his recommendation ignored.

His tone a little sharp, not having a lot of time for martyrs, Des Loupes over-rode the protest. "Frankly," he said, "you all look like hell. You won't do him any good if you collapse in anxious exhaustion. I will make it clear that you are to have access to him, as we know that patients in coma are still aware of their surroundings. Remember that fact. If he hears you falling apart, you will frighten him. I will not have you risk his recovery because you haven't the discipline to take care of yourselves. Now…go home and don't come back for at least five hours."

With that, the surgeon turned and pushed back through the double doors.

"Nice bedside manner," Joel observed dryly, finding himself actually amused by the man's blunt words. Somebody had had to say them.

"I don't care if he's less charming than Attila the Hun," Simon drawled, "so long as he keeps Sandburg alive. He sounds like he knows what he's doing, and he's right. Absolutely right."

Jim was still looking mutinous, but Simon took his arm in a firm grip. "Come along, Detective. I'm taking you home…and that's an order."

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

Simon pulled into Jim's parking slot at the loft, noticing that Blair's car wasn't there and realized that, of course, it would still be down at the station. Ellison hadn't said a word all the way from the hospital and Simon thought he'd really perfected the 'I am a rock' routine, but kept his observation to himself. Not content to just drop Ellison off, Simon followed him upstairs, ordered him into the shower and made himself at home. Deciding he'd had enough coffee during the long night to float the Queen Mary, he rummaged in the cupboard and brought out a packet of Sandburg's herbal tea to induce relaxation…or at least that's what it said on the packet. Sniffing it, Simon shrugged and set the kettle on to boil. Next, he called downtown and arranged for someone to drop off Blair's car, and then he confirmed that the Expedition had been hauled in to the lot where vehicles required for evidence were stored. By then, the kettle was boiling and Jim was coming out of the shower.

Looking up, Simon took in his friend's ravaged appearance and shook his head. "Put in your earplugs and turn on that white noise generator that you said Sandburg got for you. Put the sleeping mask over your face. I'm going to crash down here after I have a shower and a mug of tea. Do you want some?" he asked after having made his orders clear.

Jim looked around the loft, dazed and apparently disoriented. Frowning, Simon asked with concern, "Your senses playing up?"

"Ah, yeah, I guess," Jim replied, rubbing his forehead. "Hearing cuts in and out and my head is killing me."

"Take two aspirins and have a cup of this while I have a shower," Simon directed, pouring out the steeped tea, figuring that it didn't matter if it wasn't all that strong.

"Simon, you don't have to stay," Jim rumbled, resenting the sense of 'being taken care of' by his boss.

"I'm too damned tired to drive another block," Banks retorted, "and I want to go back to the hospital with you later. I'll drive you in…Sandburg's car isn't likely to be dropped off until later this afternoon."

Jim actually flinched that time at the mention of Sandburg's name. Once again, he looked around the apartment, at the candles and afghan, the masks on the wall…the tea on the counter. And then Simon realized why he looked so lost. He was wondering what it would be like if Blair never came back. Moving closer to put a steadying hand on his friend's shoulder, Simon murmured, "He's alive, Jim. Don't bury him yet."

Swallowing convulsively, Jim turned his face away. But, gradually his stiff muscles relaxed a little and he nodded. Wordlessly, he turned and headed upstairs…but halfway up, he paused to say quietly, "Thanks, Simon."

"Just try to get some sleep, Jim," Simon replied, and then went to take his own shower, hoping it would wash away some of the despair and anxiety he felt along with the grime and sweat from the alley that seemed to cling to him.

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

When they arrived at the ICU just before noon, they discovered Dr. Des Loupes had been as good as his word. Convinced that coma patients should not be left alone to be lost in darkness and silence, he believed that patients needed to hear voices and feel the touch of others to help draw them back to consciousness. Listening to one of the nurses explain this, they also learned that Dr. Des Loupes apparently had a pretty good record of individuals 'waking up', even when it had appeared that the odds of them doing so were poor.

"Whatever works," Simon mumbled as they turned toward the small cubicle where Blair had been taken. When they saw him through the wall of glass, they both stopped in their tracks and stared. Simon thought he'd seen stiffs that looked more alive than Sandburg did at that point. Every inch of skin that wasn't covered by bandages was scraped or darkly bruised. He had more tubes running in and out of his body than…well, than anything Simon could think of off the top of his head. Blood and IV, heart monitor, respirator, EEG, chest tubes, blood pressure monitor, and tubes carrying waste from his body. He looked like a technodream of a modern day Frankenstein. There was a bandage around his head, another around his chest and a third swathing his abdomen. His arm and right leg were in casts and his left leg was held immobile by a detachable brace to allow access to the wound. A short sheet was draped over him from mid-abdomen to mid-thigh and his left arm was in a sling to support the repaired dislocated shoulder.

"Ah, Chief," he heard Ellison groan under his breath.

"Maybe it's a good thing he can't feel anything right now," Simon sighed. "Even with the drugs, the pain would be intolerable."

"Yeah," Jim rasped as he finally got himself moving again toward the doorway. He kept moving until he got to the bed, and lifted a hand to reach out…but there didn't seem to be a single place he could touch that wasn't covered by linen or plaster or bruises. Finally, he reached and lightly stroked Sandburg's mottled cheek with the tips of his fingers…a feather-light, gossamer connection, but one he couldn't resist making.

Simon moved a couple of plastic chairs up beside the bed. "Might as well sit down, Jim. It could be a while before he wakes up."

Jim nodded and sat, but his eyes remained on Sandburg. The nurse said they were supposed to talk to the kid, but he couldn't think of a damned thing to say, and he wasn't sure he could force any words past his throat, not right then, anyway. He jumped when Simon began to speak, almost conversationally, though he could detect the underlying tremor.

"I've made arrangements for your car to be brought back to the loft, Sandburg," the Captain said. "And, I have to tell you, that relaxation tea of yours doesn't do a half bad job. Of course, staying awake all night might have had some impact, but I fell right asleep on that couch in the loft. I can see why you're always falling asleep on it when you work late on marking papers or working on your computer."

Simon heaved a sigh. Well, that was it. He'd run out of conversational topics. Looking at Jim, though, he figured he'd better come with another, 'cause his friend didn't look like he was up to forming words just then. Rubbing his forehead, Simon went on, "You made the headlines, you know. In this morning's paper. I gotta say, the Expedition has seen better days…it was scarcely recognizable in the photo. But, we got the bad guys and the guns are all impounded. Oh, and since you may not know it, 'cause he hasn't said anything yet, Jim is fine. Well, 'fine' being a relative word, but you know what I mean. He's sitting right here. And, well, we both hope you wake up soon."

That was it. He was definitely dry. Shifting restlessly, he watched the machines for a while, then shook his head. Maybe Jim would talk more freely if he was alone, and Simon figured he had to get down to the station sometime soon. Might as well go now. Standing, he dropped a hand briefly on Ellison's shoulder. "I'll check in later, Jim. Don't even think about being anywhere but here or home for the next few days," he said quietly.

Jim nodded and watched him go, and then turned back to gaze at Sandburg's bruised face. "You look like hell, Chief," he murmured. "And you've got more machines pumping and swishing and beeping…well, let's say it's a busy place. The surgeon said…well, he said that the coma is to give your body time to recover, or he hopes that's what it's about. But, you had a few good whacks on the head…anyway, he said it might be a few days before you wake up." Jim paused, his voice cracking, and it was rough and strained as he continued hoarsely, "You will wake up, right, Chief? Promise me, you'll wake up."

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

Before the day had ended, the guys from MCU had organized themselves into shifts to make sure someone was always at the hospital with Jim, if only to make sure he ate at least once a day, and went home to sleep at some point, even if only for a few hours at a time. Though they also spent time talking to Blair, they left Jim alone with him a lot, too, figuring he needed the time.

The first day came and went, and then the second crawled by. No change. But no worse, either. They all tried to cling to that, to see hope even in a lack of progress.

The third day, Jim thought he detected a change, and he stood, listening intently, watching his friend. What was it? And then he realized that Blair's heart was slightly stronger, its beat more regular. Not normal, not yet…but better. Reaching out, he lightly touched Sandburg's cheek and thought the kid didn't seem so cool to his touch, either. "Can you hear me, Chief?" he asked. "Are you starting to wake up? It's going to hurt, buddy…but they can give you something to help that. I know drugs aren't your favourite thing, Sandburg, but I think you can make an exception just this once."

But, there was no further response. After a bit, he sat down again. God, he was tired. His body ached from the tension and lack of sleep. His skin itched and his senses of taste and smell seemed heightened. He figured he knew what was it about. His whole body was attuned to get some sign from Sandburg's too still body. Anything that would signal that his friend was in there somewhere, and would come back. Today, next week…just so long as he came back, and was all right.

Stress took its toll, and Ellison found he couldn't always force back every tear that burned in his eyes. Alone, he'd brushed a drop of salty moisture from his cheek and sniff back others. Falling apart wouldn't help Blair. It wouldn't do anyone any good. But…he couldn't help the ache that devoured him from within. A vast empty chasm of fear and guilt that he couldn't seem to either ignore or fill up with any amount of positive thinking and hope.

"I wish you hadn't done that, Chief. I wish you'd've listened to me…stayed back and safe, like I told you to do," he murmured, not for the first time. "I'm grateful for my life, I guess, but not if it has to cost yours. I don't want to pay that price, Sandburg. Don't make me pay that price."

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

The third day disappeared and the fourth dawned. By then, the doctors were convinced that Blair was coming up through the fog of coma. He was moaning from time to time, and he seemed to be fighting the respirator, so they took it out.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when Sandburg kept breathing on his own.

When Simon came in that afternoon, Ellison looked up and shook his head. No change. Blair hadn't awakened yet.

Simon sighed as he sat down. "The doctor said it could be days," he consoled.

"Looks like he was right," Jim grunted. "I can't stand this, Simon. It's just so…wrong! I can't ever do this again. If he…if he gets better, we've got to come up with a better way of controlling these damned senses. I can't keep dragging him into danger."

"Don't tell me," Simon replied, holding up his hands as if to fend off an attack. "I'm not the one you have to convince. You know Sandburg's not about to let you do some stuff, like long stakeouts, on your own. I just don't think that's ever going to happen."

"No? Well, I'll just have to get him to see reason, that's all," Jim retorted. "This…this is too much. Hell, Simon, what if…what if…"

But his voice broke and he couldn't get the words out. Taking a breath, he complained, "I can't even find his mother. I don't know where to begin looking. I don't know what he'd want done, if…"

Again, his voice caught. If he didn't wake up. If he died. Words that didn't bear thinking about, let alone saying.

"One step at a time, Jim," Simon murmured quietly.

Closing his eyes, Jim reflected how odd it was to hear comforting gentle tones from a man who more routinely bellowed at the top of his voice or growled when he wanted your attention. Stumbling a little over the words, he said, "You've been a good friend, Simon. Through all of this. Thank you."

"Yeah, well, if it was Daryl lying there, you'd be doing the same for me," Simon muttered. Jim didn't protest the comparison, just nodded and returned his gaze to Blair's face. The bruising was a little lighter and the swelling had gone down. They'd taken off the bandage around his forehead to leave the stitches open to the air. Looked pretty ugly, but the nurse had said there'd hardly be a scar once it was all healed. His gaze wandering down Sandburg's body, Jim wondered if the same could be said for the rest of the incisions once they, too, had finally healed.

"He doesn't deserve this Simon!" Jim grated. "Do you know how long it will take him to recover…if he recovers? The pain…because of me and my damned senses! It's not worth it! I'm not worth it…"

"Like I said, I'm not the one you'll have to convince about all that Jim," Simon replied patiently. "H. was right the other day when he so bluntly pointed out that Sandburg is his own man. He makes his choices for reasons that he believes are right. You didn't put him in this bed, Jim."

"If he'd just done what I told him, he wouldn't be in that bed," Jim seethed once again.

For about the forty-thousandth time, Blair thought, as he tried to sort out what was going on. He'd been hearing voices virtually non-stop for what felt like forever and he was tired. He wanted to rest. But they just wouldn't stop talking to him.

And, man, did it hurt. Where exactly? Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.

"Jim…we've been over this, let it go," Simon sighed.

"I mean it, Simon! If he's going to keep riding with me, he's got to pay attention and do what I tell him to do, for his own safety, dammit," Jim argued.

"Stayed in truck," Blair whispered, though his voice carried a bit of the whine of irritation he felt at the continuous criticism that he didn't do what he was told.

The soft words electrified the two men. As one, they lurched to their feet to loom over the bed.

"Chief?" Jim called softly, reaching out to stroke his friend's forehead. "You back with us?"

"Don't know," Blair muttered, his voice raspy and dry. "Did I go somewhere?"

He winced then and couldn't restrain a moan at the pain that swamped him from every part of his body. "Wha' happn'd?" he gritted through clenched teeth.

"Just take it easy, kid," Simon soothed, looking up at Ellison as he turned away. "I'll see if we can get him something for the pain."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim murmured, still stroking Sandburg's forehead gently, soothing him the only way he could. "You're going to be okay, Chief," he said quietly.

Blair squinted up at him, a disbelieving look in his eyes. "Yeah? Is that why you've been grumbling about dumping me?" he grated.

"What? I didn't…" Ellison protested.

"Heard you," Blair murmured, scowling, trying to dredge back the memories. "Confused, sort of…but heard you."

"Look, just rest now, okay?" Jim entreated. "You've had a rough few days."

"No kidding," Sandburg rasped as he arced a little in pain, but that only seemed to make things worse. "Oh, God, it hurts!" he swore weakly.

"I know. Just breathe, slowly. You know, like you tell me to do," Jim urged, wishing there was something, anything, that he could do to help.

"Right," Sandburg chuffed, giving Ellison a withering look. "I don't have dials, man."

"How do you know?" Ellison retorted. "Have you ever tried to find them?"

His curiousity peaked by that question, Blair had to admit to himself that he hadn't. Maybe Jim had a point. Closing his eyes, he tried to even out his breathing, but found his chest pulled and ached with a deep burning sensation. "Can't concentrate…" he panted, frustrated.

Jim looked up through the glass, searching for Simon, to urge him to hurry as he said softly, "It's all right. Don't push it. Just picture a big dial in your head…picture it set at ten." But, his Captain's back was turned as he talked with one of the nurses. Nodding, she moved away and Jim fervently hoped she was going to get something to help Sandburg. Shifting his gaze back down to his friend, he asked, "Can you see it?"

But Blair had given up trying to fight the pain and the exhaustion that assailed him and had slipped back into the darkness. For a moment, Jim felt a stab of panic, but then he forced himself to calm down and listen to Sandburg's heart and respirations. Blowing out a breath of relief, he sagged back down into his chair.

Blair was just sleeping.

Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, he finally gave in to the tears. He could cry now…crazy as that seemed. He could allow himself to cry with relief.

Of course, a still, silent Sandburg combined with a sobbing tough guy detective, scared the hell out of Simon when he came back into the room.

Laughing through his tears, Jim tried to feel bad about that, he really did. But, he couldn't. He just felt so damned glad to know Blair had finally awakened, had been lucid…and would be all right.

Simon, taking pity on him, just rolled his eyes and shook his head, but then he, too, couldn't resist chuckling with blessed relief.

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

For the next two days, Sandburg drifted in and out on a haze of pain killers. The other guys came by regularly to check on him and visit when he was awake, to just stare at him with broad smiles if he was sleeping.

They hadn't really thought that they'd get him back.

And they couldn't quite get over the sense of euphoria that they had.

Over the next several days, whenever he was awake, Sandburg kept struggling to piece together his jumbled fragments of memory. He didn't remember anything about the crash, and for that, he was really quite grateful. But, isolated phrases kept nagging at him, things Jim or others had said to him, tones of deep sadness, of guilt and grief. The pain he remembered in their voices bothered him, most especially the lost ache in Jim's voice.

About a week after he'd regained consciousness, Henri and Rafe stopped in on one of their regular visits. With Blair's strong support, they were able to chase Jim out to get some fresh air.

"You up to see what kind of hero you've become locally, Hairboy?" H. teased, pulling out the folded front pages he'd kept with the hope of one day sharing them with Sandburg.

"Hero?" Blair repeated with a puzzled frown. "What are you talking about?"

"Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" Henri chortled as he flipped open the sheets of newsprint and passed them to Blair. Fumbling a bit to manage them with his left hand, and finally getting Rafe to pass him his glasses from the bedside table, Blair read with a growing sense of dismay. The picture of the wreck made him very glad he couldn't remember much about it. But the headlines and articles bothered him even more. 'Civilian tries to save law enforcement officer friend', and the next day, 'Successful raid on gunrunners marred by tragedy', followed a few days later, 'Civilian police observer finally wakes up!'

"Jim must have just loved these," Blair murmured with a scowl of concern.

"You know the man so well, Hairboy," H. replied with a heavy layering of sarcasm, though he smiled to soften his words.

"Oh, I can just imagine…paroxysms of guilt, right?" Blair asked, looking from H. to Rafe.

Rafe nodded, and then with a glance towards his partner, he said quietly, "H. tried to set them straight, Jim and the Captain."

Blair's brows lifted as he pinned H. with a look that said, 'So, give already!'

Squirming a little, Brown muttered, "Well, I just got sick of it, you know? They act like you can't cross the street by yourself, Sandburg. But that's a load of crap. You are all grown up, my man. And it wasn't right…"

"I agree," Blair replied when H. ran down. "They shouldn't feel guilty or responsible for the decisions I make."

"It's more than that, Blair," H. said quietly. "You acted with real courage, man. When they carry on like you don't know what you're doing, they take that away from you. And, that's just not right."

"Oh, well, I'm not sure about that," Blair stammered as he blushed. "I don't remember thinking so much as just acting…"

"Stuff it, Blair," Rafe cut in, his voice still quiet, though his tone was intense. "You knew exactly what you were doing…and the risks. Don't diminish yourself."

Blair looked away for a moment, then sighed and nodded. But he temporized, "I didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't do for their partners."

"Is that so, Rafe, partner of mine?" H. crooned. "Would you risk a wreck like that to save li'l ole me?"

Rafe threw him a 'get serious' look as he drawled, "What? And ruin my suit?"

For a moment, H. looked a tad flummoxed, but when Rafe looked at Sandburg and rolled his eyes, and Blair snickered, Henri laughed and reached out to muss his partner's hair. "Yeah, I knew I could count on you," he said with a laugh, but the look in his eyes was serious.

"So, what are you going to do about Jim's overdeveloped sense of guilt, Blair?" Rafe asked. "He's been tying himself in knots…even suggesting that maybe the whole partnership needs to be rethought."

Blair shook his head. "Yeah, I overheard him say something like that when I first woke up," he muttered. He pondered it for a moment longer, then looked up at his visitors. "Would you guys do me a favour?" he asked.

"Sure, if it's legal or it's pretty certain we won't get caught," H. replied with a grin.

Rolling his eyes, Blair couldn't resist a smile. "Oh, it's legal. Would you have a lawyer come see me and bring me the documents to establish a Power of Attorney? In the next day or so?"

"Sure, we can do that," Rafe confirmed.

"Good," Blair replied. "I think I have an idea…"

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

The next morning, Blair was just finishing up with the lawyer when Ellison arrived.

"Well, that's all for today, Mr. Sandburg," the stranger said. "I'll take care of the rest of what we discussed, and have the papers ready for signature tomorrow."

"Thank you, Mr. Lawson. I appreciate your help," Sandburg replied as the middle-aged man closed his briefcase, nodded pleasantly to Jim and left.

"What was that about, Chief? Who was that guy?" Jim asked, curious.

Blair looked up at him as he replied with a neutral voice. "That was Mr. Anthony Lawson, my lawyer."

"Your lawyer? Since when do you have a lawyer?" Ellison asked as he moved closer to the bed.

"Since I realized I should get my affairs in order," Sandburg replied blandly. "Every adult has a responsibility to take care of certain things. I'm sure, for example, that you have a will and a power of attorney, should it ever be needed."

"Will? Power of attorney?" Jim asked tightly, feeling his gut clench. These were not words to warm a Sentinel's heart, not when they were ushered from the lips of his Guide.

"Uh huh," Blair carried on, picking up a document under his left hand. "I've given you Power of Attorney over my affairs should it ever be needed. And, tomorrow, Mr. Lawson will bring in my will and my living will. I realize that it's hard to track Naomi down in emergencies, and well, there's no one, maybe even including her, that I trust more than you."

Jim just stared at the document Blair was holding out toward him. Shaking his head, he stammered, "This isn't necessary. You're fine now and this isn't going to happen again…"

"Jim, you didn't tell me your senses included being able to forecast the future," Blair said, a trifle mockingly. "Now, you realize, I'm going to have to run lots of tests on that…"

"Chief, this isn't funny. This is serious stuff here," Ellison cut in, stung by his friend's tone.

"Yes, it is serious stuff," Blair replied, sobering immediately. "I'm an adult and anything could happen anytime…accidents can't be predicted, Jim. And, the work we do is sometimes, well, dangerous. So…"

"About that, Chief, I've been thinking," Jim muttered, looking away. "I'm not sure you should keep working at the station."

When the silence lengthened, Ellison was forced to return his gaze to Sandburg's stormy eyes. "Oh, you don't?" Blair replied coldly.

"No, I don't," Jim retorted, growing a bit belligerent. "It's too dangerous. You almost got killed…"

"I was doing my job," Blair replied stiffly.

"No…your job is to help me with my senses," Ellison argued.

"And, for that, I have to work with you in the field…that's when you need my help most," Sandburg flashed back.

"I don't accept that," Jim said with a heavy tone of censure, as in 'the conversation is over'.

"Then I quit," Blair replied, his jaw tight. "And you can pack up my stuff, 'cause I'm moving out, too."

"What?" Jim exclaimed. "Where did that come from?"

"From you trying to run my life, make my decisions and tell me how to do my job," Sandburg snapped back. Shaking his head, deciding the sniping had gone far enough, he softened his voice as he continued, "Look, Jim…you think I don't know that you've been blaming yourself for what happened. Been bearing a whole load of guilt that's not yours to carry?"

Ellison swallowed and looked away. "It's my responsibility to protect you," he replied firmly.

"Okay, I'll grant that in the normal course of things, yeah. I count on you protecting me," Blair allowed. "But, that doesn't mean I'm a child or that I can't act when I decide it's necessary, like I did the other night. Jim, you can't take away my right to choose my own actions. I won't let you."

Ellison shook his head, not wanting to hear that. "I don't want you hurt like this again," he said finally, his voice low.

"Believe me, I'll try not to make a practice of it," Blair replied with a soft smile. "Jim, look at me…and hear what I'm saying. I know I'm younger than you…but what were you doing at my age? You were a soldier, already in Covert Ops, right? How would you have reacted if some older guy tried to tell you that you didn't have the right to make your own life and death choices? I mean, after you'd wiped the floor with him, what would you have said?"

His jaw tight, Ellison grudgingly admitted, "I'd tell him it was none of his business."

"Well, I'm not going to tell you that, because you're my best friend. So, it is your business. I appreciate the fact that you care enough to worry about me. And, if something ever happens, I want you to be the one who makes the decisions about what to do…like if a plug has to be pulled, or something," Blair replied, wincing a little at the stricken look on his best friend's face. But he took a breath and carried on, saying quietly, "And, I'm leaving my possessions, such as they are, to you. I know you'll let Naomi have whatever she might want…and I want Eli to have the artifacts that he'd like, but the rest is yours to do with as you choose."

"I don't want your possessions, Sandburg…I want you alive," Jim protested.

"I know that," Blair replied steadily. "I want you alive, too. That's why I did what I did…and you'd do the same thing for me, I know you would. Don't deny me the respect to make my own decisions about my life…I'm an adult, not a child."

"Simon warned me that you'd give me a hard time about this," Jim admitted, not yet quite ready to concede.

"That's why Simon's the Captain, Jim…he's a smart guy," Sandburg replied with a grin. "Come on, man, take this," he urged, holding out the Power of Attorney. "I need to know that you will be there to take care of things for me, if I can't take care of them myself. And you need to know that, too. It must have been hell, when you didn't know how it was going to go, and you couldn't reach Mom… 'cause I know you don't know where she is."

"Do you?" Jim challenged.

"In a general way…somewhere in South America, I think," Blair smiled. "You see…you need this! I trust you, Jim, more than anyone. I want you to have this."

Reluctantly, Jim took the document and folding it, put it in his pocket. "You're a stubborn man, Blair Sandburg," he sighed.

"I have to be," Blair snickered. "My best friend is a very stubborn Sentinel."

"I can't tell you that I won't feel guilty if something happens to you," Jim stated. It was the simple truth.

"I know," Sandburg sighed. "But…amidst the guilt, remember I gave you this because I am determined to make my own decisions…and sometimes, I'm sorry, but they may hold some risks."

"Okay," Jim finally conceded grudgingly. He paused for a moment, then he said quietly, "Thanks, Chief…you probably did save my life the other night. If you'd died, I wouldn't have thanked you for it…but, since you didn't, I want you to know I'm grateful. It was a brave thing to do, Chief."

"Not really…it was the only thing I could do," Blair said with a warm smile.

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

Simon dropped in to visit not long after. And Blair was glad to see him. Sandburg hadn't thought about the condition of Jim's truck until he'd seen the newspaper pictures of the wreck, but now he wanted to do something about that.

"How're you doing, Sandburg?" Simon asked, nodding at Jim as he moved into the room.

"Uh…I could be better, I guess," Blair replied sorrowfully.

Surprised, Jim looked at him then at Simon, shrugging to indicate he had no idea what the kid was talking about.

"What's wrong?" Banks asked, frowning with concern.

"Well, I think I killed Jim's truck, and I feel really bad about that," Blair sniffed. "Jim really loved that truck, man."

Simon gave the kid a bemused look and rolled his eyes. "And what do you think I can do about that?" he asked, knowing a set up when he saw one.

"Fix it?" Blair suggested, his eyes wide with hope and trust.

"Oh, now, look Sandburg," Simon began, shaking his head. "That truck is beyond salvage, kid."

"Hey, it was instrumental in stopping a getaway, and it's a private vehicle, not a police owned truck. So, it should be fixed or replaced," Blair persisted.

Shaking his head, Simon had to admit the kid had a point. "Okay," he sighed, "I'll see what I can do."

Blair grinned, evidently feeling much better. But Simon had his own news to impart. "Sandburg, because you were out there in your approved capacity as an observer, and since you stopped the escape of a criminal from the scene, I've talked with the department, and the PD will pick up your hospital costs."

"You're kidding!" Blair exclaimed, feeling a big worry he hadn't admitted to anyone lift from his shoulders.

"Would I kid you?" Simon asked, his voice dripping with innocence. For a moment, Blair wondered, and worried, but he saw the truth in Simon's eyes. The Captain had gone to bat for him.

Smiling, his voice low with gratitude, Sandburg said quietly, "Thanks, Simon…that means a lot. And sure helps a lot. I figured my insurance would get canceled with the costs of this little sojourn. I mean it, I'm really grateful, man."

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

The next day, when Jim came in, he again met the lawyer on the way out. This time, Blair handed him a copy of his will.

Silently, Jim took it. And then he pulled a document from his coat pocket and handed it to Blair.

Not sure what to expect, Sandburg eyed him narrowly, then opened it. When he saw what it was, he swallowed hard. "You sure about this, Jim?" he asked, looking up from the Power of Attorney Jim had given him.

"Yep," Jim replied seriously as he gazed into Sandburg's wide eyes. "Because there's no one in my life, Chief, who I trust more than you."

Finis

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