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

This story has been creating havoc in my mind long enough. Time to give it a life of its own. Italics will set off selected short scenes occurring over an extended period of time and will indicate internal thoughts.

Hilltop Hour

by JET

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Love cures people-both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.
Dr. Karl Menninger

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

"Ellison," Jim answered his cell phone with one hand, keeping the other on the wheel of his '69 blue and white Ford pickup. Blinding sheets of rain continued to fall, as they had for the past twenty-four hours. Even for Cascade, the weather was foul. Ellison braked and stopped at the red light.

"Jim, it's Simon. What's your location?"

"I'm at the light at Chelsea and Waverly, about five minutes from the station," Jim replied. "What's up?" The light changed, and the Ford pulled away.

There was a moment of silence before Simon answered. "Meet me at County Hospital, Jim. It's...it's Sandburg."

Jim Ellison felt his heart constrict with fear. Not again. "What happened, Simon?"

"Just get there, Jim. Be careful, but get there. I'll explain when I see you. I'm on my way now." With a click of static, Simon was gone.

Jim turned on his lights and siren and drove, his hands clutching the wheel like a vise, his knuckles whitening with the intensity of his grip. One thought pounded over and over in his mind, Blair, Blair, Blair...

The double doors to the ER waiting room exploded on impact as Ellison sprinted through them, his anxious eyes searching for Simon. Damn, thought Banks, He's already so wired, it'll take a miracle to calm him down.

"Simon! Where is he?" Jim rushed over and grabbed his captain by the forearms.

"Easy, Jim. Come sit down, and let me explain," Simon's low voice was calm as he tried to lead the distraught detective to one of the green plastic waiting room chairs.

Ellison jerked his arm away from Simon. "Tell me what's happened now, or I'm going in there!" Jim nodded toward the ER doors marked "Authorized Personnel Only." As if to prove his point, Jim did a half turn and started toward the doors.

Simon looked at him in exasperation. "All right, Jim, all right! Just calm down. You're not doing Sandburg or yourself any good getting so worked up."

Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly, fighting for control. When he spoke, his voice was steady, each word carefully enunciated, but the dangerous, icy undercurrents were unmistakable. "For the last time, Simon, what happened to Blair?"

Simon could recognize defeat when it stared him in the eyes. This was as calm as he could hope to see Jim anytime soon, and the former Army Ranger would break down those doors if he had to in order to find his partner. "He was driving back after meeting some old friends from his undergrad days..."

Jim interrupted impatiently, running his fingers through his closely cropped hair, "I know that, Simon; he left the station to meet them at that new seafood place up the coastal highway. Tell me something I don't know!"

Taking a deep breath for courage and praying for patience, Simon continued, concentrating on keeping his voice calm and soothing. "One of the friends followed Blair back toward Cascade on his way to the airport. Blair's car hydroplaned on the slick road, Jim. It flipped three times before..." Simon's voice faltered. "Before slamming into a utility pole. The friend called 911."

Ellison collapsed into one of the plastic chairs, his legs unable to support his weight. His shocked eyes stared up at Simon, the pupils mere pinpricks in a sea of blue. "How...how is he...?"

Banks slowly shook his head. "I don't know, Jim, but he was in bad shape when they brought him in. When the EMTs arrived on the scene, he wasn't breathing; they couldn't find a pulse..." Simon slumped down into the chair beside Jim. "They got his heart going and brought him here. The officer working the scene recognized Blair and called me. That's it; that's all I know." Simon stared at the floor in front of his feet, seeing nothing. Jim's eyes focused, unmoving, on the ER doors.

For several minutes, both men were silent, alone with their private thoughts and fears. The doors to the ER opened, and a doctor approached them. Jim stared at the splashes of dark red which stood out in stark contrast with the green of his surgical scrubs. Blair's blood. He could see it, smell it, almost taste it, so heightened were his senses. So much blood. So fresh. So...It took a hard squeeze on the arm from Simon to bring Jim back to reality.

The doctor spoke to the men, "I'm Dr. Forrester. Which one of you is James Ellison?"

Jim jumped to his feet, meeting the doctor halfway across the room in an instant. "I'm Ellison."

Dr. Forrester nodded. "You're listed as next of kin and emergency contact on Mr. Sandburg's records. Are you his brother or...?" His voice trailed off.

Simon responded for Jim. "I'm Captain Banks, Cascade PD. Detective Ellison is one of my officers. Blair Sandburg is his partner, roommate, and best friend." And so much more, Simon thought. But I wouldn't even begin to know how to explain.

"Mr. Sandburg suffered a broken leg in the accident, along with multiple contusions and lacerations. However, the main problem we need to deal with right now is internal bleeding. We must get him into surgery immediately. I'm concerned, though, because of the head injury."

Jim's face blanched a shade paler, and his jaw muscles tightened perceptibly. "How serious...?"

The doctor looked from Jim to Simon and back again. "He suffered severe trauma to the frontal lobe, probably resulting from his head hitting the steering wheel during the rollovers. There were no air bags in his car, as you're aware. He still has not regained consciousness. In addition, we don't know for certain how long his brain went without oxygen before the EMTs arrived. The witness who called 911 was unable to reach Mr. Sandburg. All treatment was held up until the jaws of life could open the vehicle. In order to live, Mr. Sandburg needs this surgery; however, we just don't know if he can survive it, and if he does, what his prognosis will be when, and if, he wakes up."

Jim's breath came in small gasps, and he sank back into a chair, his face buried in his trembling hands. Simon sat down beside him, one arm over his shaking shoulders. He could feel the powerful muscles twitching as Jim fought for control. "Detective Ellison," Dr. Forrester said quietly, "I need your consent to proceed with the surgery." He held out a clipboard and a pen.

Jim looked up, his angular features contorted with grief. "He'll die without it? But it might kill him?"

The doctor nodded, "Or he may never awaken. But without the operation, he'll bleed to death. That much is certain."

Jim reached out and took the clipboard and pen with shaking hands. "We have to try, have to give him a fighting chance. Where do I sign?"

After signing all the indicated lines, Jim handed them to the nurse who had entered the small waiting room. "May I see him? I...I...need to see him."

The doctor started to deny the request, considering the urgency of Blair's condition, but when he looked into Jim's eyes and saw the desperation and pain there, he relented. "All right, you both may come back, but only for a minute or so. We must get him into surgery as quickly as possible. He's not awake, however, and probably won't know you are there."

In the trauma room, Jim stared down at the battered face of his friend. A large gash along his right cheek had been stitched up and was now covered by a bandage. There were numerous bruises, already turning dark. Another bandage covered the entire frontal region of Blair's head. Jim was barely aware of the small tremors attacking his body as he looked at his friend, as he felt Simon's hand on his shoulder. "You don't have much time, Jim."

Ellison nodded. He carefully took Blair's hand, the one not hooked to the IV, in his own. caressing the soft skin with his thumb. Bending down, he rested his cheek against Blair's and whispered into his ear, "I'm here, Chief, I'm right here. I know you can hear me. You gotta fight, kid; you can't give up. I need you too much, Blair. Please...please don't leave me alone." Jim brushed his lips softly against Blair's hand. He felt the hot tears running down his cheeks, and his shoulders heaved with the silent sobs that suddenly overwhelmed him.

Strong hands grasped his shoulders to pull him away from Blair. Simon's kind voice softly told him, "It's time..."

"No," he whispered, "Not yet..."

The doctor's firm reply broke through the pain filled fog that clouded his mind. "Detective, we must take him down to surgery now. Every minute counts." Jim brought Blair's hand up to his face again, holding his wrist tenderly, feeling the precious beat that pulsed within. Then,with a strength of will he did not know he possessed, he managed to let go of Blair, breaking contact with his friend, as he placed his hand gently back on the gurney.

Simon carefully guided Jim back against the wall as a nurse and orderly prepared to move Blair to surgery. As the gurney was wheeled past, Jim reached out and let his fingers brush over the long brown curls fanned out on the pillow. Be strong, Chief. Please be strong. Then he prepared to wait.

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

Later, in the surgical wing waiting room, Simon looked at his friend in exasperation. "Jim, the doctor said it would be at least four hours before there would be any news. You have to keep up your strength. Let's go down to the cafeteria and get a quick bite, just a sandwich, anything. We'll tell them where we're going, and if there's any word, they'll call us."

Jim Ellison stood staring out the window at the darkening skies and the heavy rain still pounding Cascade. His city. His protectorate, Blair had once called it. Yet he had failed to protect the one life that was the most dear of all to him. Again. Still letting you drive those poor excuses for automobiles. I knew something like this could happen. Some Blessed Protector I've turned out to be, Chief. I'm so sorry. Jim shook his head. "Sorry, Simon, I just can't leave. You go ahead. I'm not hungry anyway."

Simon glanced at the other members of Major Crimes who had joined them not long after their shifts ended. Joel Taggart moved forward and put his hand on Ellison's arm. "Come on, Jim. We'll wait here while the others go on down to the cafeteria. Okay?"

Jim nodded in appreciation and heard Simon, Henry, and Rafe walk down the hall to the elevator. "Joel, thanks. I just can't leave right now. I just can't..."

"S'okay, Jim. Listen, I'm going to sit down right over here. If you want to talk, I'm here. If you just want to stare out that window for the next four hours, that's okay, too. Whatever you need right now, you do. Understand?" Joel waited for Jim's brief nod before leaving to sit in one of the waiting room chairs and thumbing through a magazine.

Jim watched the rivulets of water trickle down the glass in front of him. Rivers of rain...He thought back to a camping trip he and Blair had taken the previous summer. They had been caught on the way to the campsite by a sudden summer shower. They'd raced each other back to the tent, but Blair had tripped over a tree root. He'd fallen face down into a mud puddle and come up laughing, mud and water dripping from his curls and making tracks down his face. Jim had reached down, taken his hand, and helped his guide to his feet, both of them doubled over with laughter. Suddenly, Blair took off, racing again to the campsite and managing to beat Jim by a substantial margin. He smiled now at the memory. Blair... You've given me so much and taken so little...Hold on, Chief, just hold on.

He heard approaching footsteps but didn't bother turning around to see who it was. As always, the smell of cigar smoke preceded Simon. He heard quiet voices behind him as Taggart and Banks conferred, but the sentinel didn't try to listen to their words. What they said didn't really matter. Everything that mattered to Ellison was downstairs in surgery fighting for his life. All else was secondary.

Simon came up behind him. "The others have gone on home, Jim. We felt you didn't need too much company right now. I promised to call and update them when we know something. Joel wants to stay; do you mind?"

Slowly, Jim shook his head. "Joel understands, Simon. It's okay." Simon nodded and went back to sit beside Taggart. From time to time, they both glanced at Ellison's motionless figure in concern, helpless in the knowledge that there was nothing they could do for their friend.

Jim didn't know how much time had passed. He hadn't zoned, although it had been close. He forced himself not to give in to the soothing temptation of a zone out, no matter how comforting it would be to forget the nightmare, if only for a brief while. Finally, his knees stiff and his back aching, Jim turned from the window with a deep sigh. Simon was stretched out on the one couch, his long legs extended several feet beyond the end of its cushions, his head tilted back in sleep. Joel still sat in the chair, but his head had fallen over onto his shoulder, and he was softly snoring.

Ellison stretched his aching muscles. He walked to the water fountain for a drink, then to the nurses' station. He glanced at his watch while waiting for the older woman behind the counter to look up from her monitor. Three hours had passed. Another hour, then maybe they would know something...anything.

The nurse looked up. "May I help you?"

"I just wondered if there had been any word on my friend who's in surgery, Blair Sandburg?" Jim waited.

She looked down at her papers, then back up at Jim and shook her head. "I'm sorry, there's been no news. But usually we only hear when there's a problem."

Jim smiled a tightly. "No news is good news, then, I guess."

She nodded, and went back to her work. Jim turned and walked to the waiting area.

Simon and Joel were awake. "We missed you," Simon said with a yawn. "Any news?"

Jim shook his head. "Nothing yet."

Taggart stood up and stretched. "Think I'll run to the coffee shop. Anybody else want a cup?" Simon nodded and indicated that he should bring a strong cup for Jim who had returned to his vigil at the window. Joel left the small room.

Simon went and stood beside Jim. The tall detective stood by the window, leaning on one arm propped against the wall. He didn't look up as Simon approached. "He'll be okay, Jim. Sandburg's been through a lot worse and come out on top. He's not going to let this wreck beat him."

Jim nodded, "Thanks, Simon. I just wonder when his luck's going to run out. When the day will come that I'll...lose him forever. I don't know what I'll do if that day does come. I don't know if I can handle that..."

Simon interrupted, "Don't think like that, Jim. Sandburg will be okay. You have to believe that."

"I do. I'm trying to anyway. It's just that he's been through so much..." Jim stopped and lowered his head down onto the arm he had been leaning on. "Sorry, Simon. It's been a stressful day."

Simon smiled, "I know. Has been for all of us. But we're going to be okay; we're all going to be okay. Here's Joel with that coffee. Come on and have a cup. That's an order, Ellison."

Jim nodded and raised his head. "Yes, sir. I could probably use the caffeine. We're going to have a long night ahead."

Almost two hours later, a little after midnight, Dr. Forrester entered the waiting room. Jim, Simon, and Joel all rose to their feet in anticipation. The doctor came over to them, his face serious.

"Mr. Sandburg came through the surgery amazingly well, considering the extent of his injuries. We had to do quite a bit of repair work, but there was no lasting damage to any vital organs, I'm happy to say. We also set his leg after the surgery. He's in recovery now, in stable condition."

Jim's tense face broke into a real smile at last. "Then he's going to be okay, Doctor? The worst is over?"

Dr. Forrester shook his head. "We're over a major hurdle, that's true. But don't lose sight of the fact that he was without oxygen for an unknown period of time. We don't know when, or if, he will awaken from his coma, or what his...his mental condition will be if he does. Don't get your hopes up too high quite yet, Detective."

"Coma? Blair's in a coma?" Jim's eyes searched the doctor's face for any sign of hope to cling to in his anxiety.

"Yes, I told you he had not awakened since the accident. That unconsciousness has now deepened into a coma. The longer he remains asleep, the worse the prognosis, I'm afraid. For now, I suggest you all go home and get some rest yourselves. You'll be able to see him in the morning."

"No!" The word burst from Jim's throat. "He'd want me to be there. He'll be alone and scared. He hates to be alone! Simon, please...tell him..." The desperation in Jim's voice was heartbreaking. Joel reached over and put an arm around Jim's shoulders, gently leading him away from Simon and the doctor.

Simon Banks took a deep breath, searching for the right words. "Doctor Forrester, do you believe the reports of coma patients being aware of what was happening around them while they were still asleep?" His concerned brown eyes held those of the doctor as he tried to read his face for a response.

Forrester hesitated before replying, "I've seen some fairly convincing evidence. I don't think it happens in all cases, maybe not even in most, but I do think it can occur."

Banks nodded. "And do you think that in those cases where the patient is aware, that the presence of a loved one can make a difference in recovery?"

"I'd be a fool to answer in the negative on that question, Captain. Having those the patient cares about around is always a boost to recovery. But..."

Simon interrupted, "I know hospital policy forbids around the clock visitors. But...hospital policy makers never met Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg. Doctor, they are connected like no two partners I've ever seen. Like no two people I've ever seen. I can't explain it, but trust me, it is in the best interest of your patient for James Ellison to be at his side for as long as he thinks it is necessary. I'll be sure he eats and sleeps properly, but please, let him stay with Blair. The kid will know he's there, I promise you."

Dr. Forrester looked over at the tall detective, standing with his arms crossed and his head bowed while Joel Taggart spoke to him in soft, encouraging tones. Then he looked back at Simon with a small smile. "I can tell there's a great depth of friendship there, Captain, a great depth. You're right, though, it is totally against policy to allow visitors 24/7." Simon's face fell, and he immediately began thinking of additional arguments to use to convince this doctor. But Forrester continued. "However, rules always have exceptions, and I tend to think this is one time when an exception is appropriate. I'll leave orders that Detective Ellison is to be allowed unlimited access to Mr. Sandburg's room. We even keep a few rollaways around, just for cases like this. I'll see that he gets one."

Simon's smile spread across his face. "Thank you so much, Doctor, thank you. When can Jim go in to see him?"

"He'll be in recovery for another another hour or so. Tell him that my offer has one condition...that he go right now for something nutritious to eat. By then, he should be able to see his friend."

Simon agreed, "I'll do that, Doctor. Thanks again." The doctor waved his hand in dismissal and walked back into the surgical unit.

Simon walked over to Joel and Jim. "Good news. The doctor has agreed that you can stay with Blair, around the clock if you want, with one condition. You have to go right now and get a decent meal. It will be another hour before he's in his room and you can see him. That gives us just enough time to go down to the cafeteria and eat." At Jim's look of hesitation, Simon added, "If you want to see Blair, you have to eat first. Doctor's orders."

Jim nodded his reluctant agreement. "All right. I'll go. Thanks, Simon." Banks and Taggart smiled as they left. At least it was a beginning.

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

The small private room was dark except for the greenish glow from the medical instruments hooked up to the small figure lying in the bed. Simon flipped on the bathroom light, although he knew Jim could see perfectly well without it. He watched as Ellison moved beside the bed to examine his partner.

How can anyone be so pale? Jim wondered. He's as white as the pillow under his head. He reached out and gently brushed a stray curl from his friend's face. Then he carefully moved his hands over Blair's chest and abdomen, his touch sensitive fingers picking up the repaired injuries and incisions. He checked the cast that came up to just above the knee.

Simon chuckled softly. "Well, Dr. Ellison, how does the patient seem to you?"

Jim turned his head to catch the glint of humor in Simon's eyes and even smiled a little himself. "He's okay, now. They did a good job. The injuries were massive, though. It's a wonder he didn't bleed to death before they could get him into surgery." He pulled up a chair beside the bed and once again captured Blair's free hand in his, linking their fingers and squeezing gently. "I'm here now, buddy. Jim's here. I'm not leaving you again, Chief, I promise."

Simon walked to the other side of the bed, carefully avoiding the tubes and wires attached to Blair. "Jim, can you tell if...if he's aware of you, aware of anything?"

Jim lowered the bed rail and leaned closer to his guide. He continued his hold on Blair's hand and, with his other hand, reached up to stroke his face, carefully avoiding the bandages and bruises. "Chief? Blair? Can you hear me, kid? I know you're in there, Chief, and I know it's too soon for you to wake up. Just want you to know I'm here, okay?" He looked up at Simon. "I know Blair's there, Simon, but I can't tell if he hears me yet. He will, though. Blair always hears me."

Simon nodded. "I'm sure you're right, Jim. Listen, the doctor only gave me five minutes, so I'd better go. Do you need anything tonight? I'll stop by the loft in the morning and pick up some clothes, shaving supplies, toothbrush...the usual."

Jim shook his head. "I'm fine for tonight, Simon. The cot's over there, but I doubt I use it tonight. Thanks for all you did. For getting me in here."

Banks came around the bed and put his hand on Jim's arm. "No problem. That's what captains are for, right? See you in the morning, Jim. Call me if you need anything."

After Simon had left, Jim stayed in the chair beside Blair's bed for a long time. Then he got up to add another blanket. Blair was always too cold, especially in the hospital. He draped it carefully over his partner, then tucked in the edges to maximize the warmth. After checking the IV tubes, he settled back into his chair to wait, Blair's smaller hand again cocooned within the warmth of his larger one. "Just rest, Junior. Just rest. I'll be right here beside you. You're safe, Blair. Everything's going to be all right, I promise. Just rest tonight, my Blair...rest." Jim crooked his free arm under his head as a pillow on the bed beside his partner and closed his eyes. The sound of Blair's steady heartbeat and breathing comforted him, and for the first time since that hellish day began, James Ellison slept.

And dreamed...

"Enquiri!"

Jim lifted his head at the familiar voice. Standing at the foot of Blair's bed was the familiar figure of the Chopec shaman, Incacha. "I am here, Incacha."

The shaman looked at the small body lying in the bed. "Your guide, your shaman, lies injured, Enquiri. Why does he not awaken?"

Jim shook his head. "It is too soon, Incacha. He will awaken when it is his time."

Incacha looked doubtful and crossed to the other side of Blair's bed. He pressed his palms to Blair's cheeks and closed his eyes. Jim stood up, still gripping Blair's hand. After long minutes, Incacha opened his eyes, and spoke to Jim. "Enquiri, your guide is caught in the between world. You must help him if he is to come back to this one."

"I don't understand. Blair's in a coma...a very deep sleep. He will wake up, Incacha, when it's time. When his body has healed enough for him to awaken."

"Have your doctors promised you this?" Incacha's voice was stern. "Did they promise you your guide would return to you whole and safe?"

Jim looked down at Blair's bruised, bandaged face and shook his head regretfully. "No... They cannot make that promise. They said he might not wake up at all."

Satisfied, Incacha shook his head. "Your medical doctors..." He looked at Jim, and his voice was filled with disgust, "They cannot make such promises." Then Incacha caught Jim's eyes in a firm hold and spoke with determination, "It is up to you, Enquiri, to bring back your guide from the world in between this one and the next."

Jim reached over the bed, catching Incacha's arm. It felt real, warm...

"How, Incacha? You know I'll do anything... Just tell me how to help Blair." Jim's voice was pleading now, desperate for the answer that would save his friend.

Incacha smiled, "You help the guide as he helps you. You must guide him back to this world."

Jim's blue eyes reflected his puzzlement. "I don't understand, Incacha. How? Tell me what to do!"

As Incacha's figure became first translucent, then transparent, Jim heard his voice whisper, "The answer is within you, Sentinel, as it always is. You have but to look to your own heart." Incacha was gone.

Jim awoke with a start. He rubbed his stiff neck, looking around the room for proof that his old friend actually had been there. Nothing had changed. The monitors still beeped, the automatic blood pressure cuff still tightened and registered, and Blair's heartbeat was still steady and strong.

He stared at his friend's face, recalling the words Incacha had spoken. Had it been only a dream, nothing more? Or was it a message from his old shaman to help him save his young shaman now lying motionless in the bed before him? And what did Incacha mean? You must guide him back...help the guide as he helps you...

Jim gently released Blair's hand and went into the bathroom. His body felt weary, old. He found a washcloth, rinsed it in cold water, and held it to his face. After a minute, he removed it and stared at his reflection in the mirror. I'm no shaman! I don't know how to interpret dreams. Blair's the one who understands all this mystical stuff. I don't know what to do, how to help him, Incacha. Help me understand, please!

The voice echoed in his memory, Guide him back...help the guide as he helps you... All right, if that's all the answer I get... In frustration, Jim walked back to the room and sat down, enveloping Blair's hand again in his, stroking it gently. How do you guide me, Chief? With your words...with your touch...You help me to focus on my senses. My senses...

Jim jerked his head up and stared out the window. Is that it, Incacha? I need to tap into Blair's senses as he does into mine? Is that what you meant? No voice responded, but Jim felt a calm certainty warming him from the inside out. "That must be it, Chief," he whispered. "That must be the answer." He picked up the phone to call Simon.

The captain answered on the fourth ring, his voice groggy with sleep. "Banks!"

"Simon, it's Jim," the excited voice responded. "Sorry to wake you, but I need you to do me a favor on your way here in the morning..."

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

Shortly after 7:00 AM, Simon opened the door to Blair's room to find Jim sitting on the edge of the bed, holding Blair's hand and gently rubbing his shoulder. The detective didn't turn around, but spoke softly, "Mornin', Simon."

"How do you do that?" Simon asked in an irritated voice. "Do you have any idea how disconcerting it is when you know I'm here before I even..."

Jim chuckled quietly. "Sorry, Simon. Give up those cigars and make it harder for me, okay? Did you bring the stuff?"

Simon put two plastic grocery sacks on the small table by the window. "I did, Jim, though for the life of me, I can't figure out why you want these things. But, here they are...Blair's Walkman CD player and headset, several of his CDs...primitive music and nature sounds only...some candles...and everything else you asked for when you called last night. Or rather, this morning...3:30 in the morning, I might add."

"Sorry, Simon," Jim apologized, "I know it wasn't a true emergency, but I was so excited that I'd understood the answer that..."

Simon interrupted, "Understood what answer, Jim? What are you talking about?"

Without releasing Blair's hand, Jim turned slightly on the bed so that he could see Simon. His voice was low and steady, "Are you sure you want to know?"

Simon moaned, "Oh, no, this is more of that hocus-pocus, mystical, sentinel/guide thing, isn't it, Jim?"

Jim grinned, "Yep, that it is, Simon. Shall I continue?"

"Why not?" Simon threw up his hands. "One day, maybe I'll stop being thrown off by invisible panthers, spirit wolves, and all the rest of it. Go on, Jim, lay it on me."

"No panthers or wolves this time, Simon. Just Incacha."

Simon looked at Jim in disbelief. "Incacha? Your ex-shaman. The one who died, right? That Incacha?"

"One in the same, Simon. He came to me in a dream...a vision...last night. I know this is difficult for you to accept, to understand, but he gave me the answer to helping Blair."

Simon chuckled, "By playing strange music, burning candles, and doing who knows what with these exotic spices, huh, Jim? That's his answer to a coma? I don't know about this. Maybe it was just a dream, you know."

Jim shook his head vehemently. "No, Simon, it wasn't. Think about it. When I zone, isn't that similar to this deep sleep, this coma, that Blair's in? How does he bring me out? By using my senses. That's how I bring him back, Simon, through his senses. Guide him like he guides me...That's what Incacha told me."

"And how long does this take, Jim? The doctor said that the longer he went without waking, the poorer the outlook."

Jim turned and studied his friend's face, still and white against the pillow. "That I don't know, Simon. I just know it will work."

"All right, Jim. I'm with you. Where do we start?"

"You did a good job talking Dr. Forrester into letting me stay in here. Do you think you could work the same magic and get permission to use these candles?"

"That may be a bit more difficult, Jim, but I'll try. I saw Forrester in the corridor. Let me see what I can do." Simon left the room.

Jim loaded a CD into the player and plugged in the headphones. He checked the volume and smiled at the inadvertent choice of music. The CD was the same Aboriginal music that Incacha had accidentally turned on that evening in the loft. Jim's smile grew as he remembered the Chopec warrior's startled reaction when the first notes blasted into the room. Then Blair's wondrous smile when Jim translated Incacha's comment for his young partner. Earth music...Yeah!

"I wish the two of you could have gotten to know each other in life, Chief," Jim said as he fitted the small headset over Blair's curly hair, adjusting them to rest over his ears. He sat down on the edge of the bed again. "I know you would have learned so much from each other. There...now you just listen to the music...listen to my voice...feel my touch, Blair...concentrate on the sounds, the feeling..." Jim stroked his friend's hair gently as he continued talking in the same low, calming voice Blair used when he zoned. I hope I'm doing this right, Chief. I'm a little out of my element here.

Finally, Simon returned, a huge, proud smile on his face. Jim turned to look at him. "By the look on your face, I'd say the mission was a success, Captain."

"That man is most unusual for a doctor, Jim. Most unusual. I explained your theory, leaving out the part where you're visited by a dead shaman, of course, and Forrester was very receptive. Said burning the candles was all right, as are the headset and the spices. He figured the nurses would have a fit, but he'd handle it. Want me to light up these candles?"

Jim nodded. "Which ones did you bring?"

"Hell, Jim, I don't know. A green one, a white one, a red one... Here, you smell them."

Jim dialed back his sense of smell and sniffed each candle. "Now what did Sandburg say? The white is vanilla, and that's for relaxation. The red is more stimulating; it's a combination of spices. That green is a forest scent for feeling relaxed and content. Try it first, Simon. I'll use the vanilla at night, and the spice later in the day."

Simon nodded and proceeded to light the evergreen scented candle. He brought the spices to Ellison who looked through the bag making approving sounds. "These are perfect, Simon. A good variety." Banks settled into the chair that Jim had vacated for his seat on the bed.

"Are you planning to cook in here, Jim? I'm not so sure Forrester will approve that."

"Not exactly. I'm just going to put a taste of the different spices on his tongue periodically to stimulate his sense of taste. Did you know Blair once brought me out of a deep zone using lemon juice?" Jim opened one of the small clear bottles and removed a pinch of the spice. "Nutmeg. Let's try that." Very gently, Jim eased Blair's lips apart and placed the spice on his tongue. "That's it, buddy. You can taste that, I know. Come on back to me, Blair. Whenever you're ready, just open your eyes."

Simon shook his head slowly in wonder. No matter how much he thought he knew about the connection between the two men, they never stopped amazing him with their devotion. Although he could have listened to Ellison's low-pitched, soothing voice all morning, Simon forced himself to stand up. "Jim, do you need anything else? I need to get to the station, but I'll check back at lunch."

Jim nodded. "Instead of coming here at lunch, would you run another errand for me? Go to a fabric store. Get a variety of different textures...silk, corduroy, cotton... and bring them by this evening. I need more to activate his sense of touch. You could even look for other things to smell like flowers and..."

Simon broke in. "I get the idea, Jim. I'll take my lunch hour and see what I can find. Just don't overwork the kid. He still needs his rest, you know. I'll be back this evening. Don't forget you've got a change of clothes in the bag. I'll bring you some dinner when I come back."

"Thanks, Simon. I appreciate your help. We both do."

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

The days passed in a blur of routine. Every day, Jim worked at making contact with Blair through his senses. He selected a variety of Sandburg's favorite music, sometimes gently drumming his fingers on Blair's arm in time to the beat. He rubbed different textures over his skin and put different tastes on his tongue. Simon brought in more candles to be burned, and Jim even experimented with the lighting in the room, just in case Blair could discern a difference between candlelight and a low watt lamp bulb.

And Jim talked. Almost constantly, he murmured to his friend. Talked to him of their camping trips, their successes in Major Crimes, their friends...When Jim left the room on rare trips to the cafeteria or to take a shower, Simon, Joel, Rafe, or Henry sat with Blair and talked. Still, as the days passed into weeks, there seemed to be no change in the still figure beneath the sheets.

The stillness bothered Jim the most. Vibrant, spirited Blair Sandburg was seldom still, even in his sleep. Now, watching the motionless body of his guide, Jim yearned to see the movement that would indicate that Blair was on his way to being Blair again.

"It's been well over a month, Detective Ellison. There have been no signs that Mr. Sandburg is any closer to waking up." Dr. Forrester stood at the foot of Blair's bed, studying his chart. "I think it's time you considered going back to your life outside this hospital, at least part time. He will receive excellent care while you're gone, I assure you."

Jim stood up from the chair beside Blair. "Go back to my life, Doctor? You don't understand, my life is right here. Blair is going to wake up soon, I know it. I intend to be here when he does." The tone of Jim's voice left no doubt that he meant every word. "I'm not leaving him. Don't ask me again, please."

The doctor sighed. "All right, Mr. Ellison. But if he doesn't awaken soon, we're going to have to look at an alternative placement for him. I can only keep him here in the hospital for so long. There are some excellent nursing facilities nearby, and..."

"No! Blair is not going into one of those places. He's going to wake up, Doctor Forrester. Please, just give him a little more time. That's all he needs," Jim pleaded.

"I can manage another week, ten days at the most, Detective, but that's all. We have regulations to contend with here. I'm sorry. Let's just hope he wakes up soon." The doctor left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

Jim sat on the side of the bed and reached out to Blair, running his fingers across his cheek. "Hey, kid, did you hear that? I need you to wake up soon, buddy. I know you're listening, Chief. You can do this..." He resumed his gentle encouragements to his friend and partner.

By midnight, Jim's voice had given out. He moved to his chair beside the bed, resting his head on the edge of the mattress, his right arm tucked under his head for a pillow, his left hand entangled in Blair's curls. "Just gonna rest here awhile, Chief. Keep trying to wake up, okay? Listen to your music...smell the candles...try to...wake..." Jim's voice faded away as sleep captured his exhausted mind and body.

The hours passed.

Blair peered up through the depths of the water that had surrounded him, seemingly for an eternity. The brilliant light was still there, beckoning him upward. He listened to the music, familiar and comforting. The smell of vanilla soothed his mind. Jim's voice had stopped; how long ago, he wasn't sure. He tried to remember what Jim had said. Try to wake up... Was that the problem? He wasn't awake? Blair floated again, staring up at the light through the crystal blue water.

Jim seemed to think it was important that he wake up. Reach the light, Sandburg, he thought. It's time now. Try to reach the light. That's what Jim wants you to do. He began to swim upward through the cool blue waters toward the inviting glow above.

Blair was aware of more sounds now...a beeping near his head, a gentle breathing near his right ear. He struggled to open his eyes, but he found that the stubborn lids refused to obey his command. Okay. No eyes yet. What else? Taking inventory of his body, he realized that something warm, something strong, was gripping his right hand. Long fingers curled around his own. Jim? Blair concentrated his strength, his thoughts, on that hand...and squeezed. No reaction. Ah, come on, Ellison. Pay attention here. Let's try that again.

Jim felt something summoning him through the darkness of his dreams. He inventoried his senses. No new sounds. Smell? Only the typical, all too familiar, hospital smells mixed with the sweet vanilla candle. Touch? There. That was it. Something had gripped his hand, squeezing it lightly. He shook off the dregs of sleep and opened his eyes. His hand was still wrapped around Blair's. So what...?

Another squeeze, more insistent this time. Jim sat upright, staring at his partner. Don't overreact here, Ellison. Make sure this is real...

"Blair? Blair, can you hear me? Squeeze my hand again, Chief, if you hear me. Come on, buddy, you can do this. Come on, Chief..." He waited, scarcely daring to breath for fear of missing that slight pressure.

There it was! He hadn't imagined it; Blair had squeezed his hand.

"All right, Sandburg!" Jim encouraged. "Can you open your eyes for me, Blair? Give it a try, Chief. Wake all the way up. Easy now, Blair. You can do it."

Blair heard Jim's voice just above the waterline where the bright light summoned him. He pushed harder, fighting to break the surface. Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Suddenly, the light blazed about him, brighter than he dared imagine. Blair struggled to focus, to try to bring the hazy images into sharper view. There, that was getting better. He could almost make out a face. Jim...Jim's face only inches from his own, tears flowing down his cheeks. Blair concentrated, and his arm obeyed, lifting to brush weakly at Jim's face, wiping away the tears. Blair smiled.

Jim saw the eyelids flutter, then open to reveal the beautiful blue eyes that had been hidden for too many long weeks. The pools of tears building in Jim's own eyes at last overflowed in joy. He didn't bother to wipe them, not wanting to spare a hand from stroking Blair's hair, his face. He felt a trembling hand reach for his face and brush the tears away before dropping weakly back to the bed. "Thanks, Chief," he whispered.

Blair opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. His eyes showed a trace of fear. "Shhhh," Jim soothed. "Don't even try to talk yet. You've been out a long time, buddy. It's going to take awhile to get all your systems back on line. I need to call the doctor."

He reached for the call button, but his effort was stopped by Blair's hand grasping his wrist. His friend shook his head. Jim looked at him and smiled. "Not yet?" he questioned. At Blair's affirmative nod, he agreed, "Okay, but in a few minutes. What do you need, Blair? What can I do?"

His partner held out both hands and weakly grasped Jim's arms. Understanding, Jim reached down around his back and gently eased Blair up against his chest. He tucked one hand into the limp curls, supporting his head as if he was an infant. He wrapped the other arm around Blair's back, pulling him close. "That better, buddy? Hmm? You just want to be close for a few minutes, is that it?"

A slight nod against his shoulder answered the question. Jim felt Blair's hands reach up, and his fingers curl into his sweater, holding on as tightly as he could. Jim began a slight rocking motion, and bent his head to whisper in Blair's ear. "That's right, Chief, just relax. You've been fighting this a long time, I know. It's all okay, now. Just rest...I'm right here, not going anywhere. I've got you, Blair. It's all right. Shhhh..." He kissed Blair's forehead gently, then his cheek, and held him even closer.

Jim looked out the window at the morning sun beginning its rise over the buildings of Cascade. He smiled and closed his eyes, rubbing his face against Blair's curls. He felt the reassuring heartbeat against his own chest now, felt the steady breathing on his neck. His partner was back. It might be a long time before he completely recovered, but he had awakened. Blair recognized him, could let him know what he wanted, what he needed. For now, it was enough.

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

"N-n-no! I...I can't...d-d-do it-t!" Blair cried as he slumped to the floor of his hospital room. The therapist, a middle-aged, kindly woman named Doris, had been working with Blair to regain his motor skills and rebuild the strength in his muscles and in the leg that had been broken. The cast had been off for over two weeks now, but the leg remained unstable and weak. They had made it halfway to the hall door, when Blair's energy and control gave out.

Shoulders shaking with overwhelming frustration, Blair crawled a few feet back until he was pressed against the wall. Doris bent down. "Mr. Sandburg, you have to get up now. Let's try to walk back to the bed. We'll go together, all right?" She reached to support his arm, but was stopped when Blair jerked away.

"N-n-no! Don't...touch-ch...m-m-me! W-want...J-Jim...pleassse." He buried his face in his hands, trembling.

Doris watched him for a moment, sighed, and reached for the phone.

Jim turned right and accelerated the Ford down the one way street on his way back to the station. When his cell phone rang, he grabbed it and answered by the second ring. "Ellison." Listening to the voice in his ear, he shook his head in frustration. "I understand. Yes, I'm sorry. I'll be there within ten minutes. I'm on my way now." He clicked off the phone and placed it back on the seat beside him. Oh, Chief. What have you done now? He turned down the next street and headed to the hospital.

Dr. Forrester caught up to Jim Ellison as the detective was striding off the elevator. Jim had gone back to work half days and had received the call to come to the hospital when he was only a short distance away. "Detective Ellison, wait!"

Jim slowed his pace slightly, allowing the shorter man to catch up. The doctor caught his arm, and Jim turned to him, an anxious look on his face. "I have to check on Blair, Doctor. His therapist just called..."

"Yes, I know. Detective, we must have a conference about Mr. Sandburg. Go look in on him now, but when he's settled, come to my office. Third floor, suite 306. Some very important decisions need to be made." Forrester waited for Jim's nod of ascent before walking away.

Jim sighed and headed toward Sandburg's room.

Doris met him at the door, motioning toward the small, curled-up ball of Sandburg huddled on the floor. She shook her head. Jim nodded his understanding, and she left the room.

Jim knelt down beside his partner, wrapping one strong arm around his trembling shoulders. Blair leaned against him with a choked sob, and Jim pulled him close, completing the embrace with his other arm cradling Blair's head. The tears ran down Sandburg's face, dampening Jim's shirt with dark, salty splotches. "Shhhh. Hush, now. It's all right. Shhhhh... Easy, Blair, easy. Shhhh..." Jim murmured meaningless assurances as he rubbed comforting circles on his friend's back. The minutes ticked slowly by.

Gradually the tense muscles relaxed, and the sobs quieted. Jim stroked his hair for another few minutes before speaking. "Ready to give it a try, Chief?"

The head on his chest nodded briefly. Jim unwrapped his arms and eased them under Blair's shoulders for support, helping him to his feet. "Steady, there. Just stand here a minute. You doing okay now, kid? Yeah, you're looking good." Jim's eyes never left Blair's, willing his strength, his determination into his friend.

Jim smiled. "Ready, now, Chief? Good. We're going to take it a step at a time. Just one foot in front of the other, you remember. I'm not letting go, not going to let you fall. That's it...one step. Great, Junior! You've got it!"

Slowly, painfully, Blair made his way across the room to the bed. Jim encouraged him the entire way, never releasing his supportive hold. At last, Blair sat on the edge of the bed with a relieved sigh.

"Way to go, Chief!" Jim whooped. A proud smile broke across Blair's tense face, and he reached out, meeting Jim halfway for his hug.

After a moment's embrace, Jim helped Blair ease back onto the mattress, and covered him carefully with the sheets and blanket. Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and gently rubbed Blair's tense shoulders. "That was really good, buddy. You did just fine. Now, I want you to relax...rest." Jim took one of Blair's hands in his, gently stroking it with his thumb. The other hand rubbed softly on his friend's leg.

Blair looked up at him with drowsy blue eyes. "Th-thanks, J-Jimm."

"You're welcome, Chief. Anytime. Now, close those eyes and rest."

After a few minutes, Blair's breathing was slow and steady. Jim sat back, still not releasing his hold on Blair's hand. What are we going to do, Chief? How are we going to bring you the rest of the way back when you keep fighting the therapist, the doctor, everyone but me? He glanced at his watch, realizing that he had to get to Dr. Forrester's office for their meeting. "I'm going out for a little while, buddy, but I'll be back. I promise." Giving Blair's cheek a gentle pat, Jim eased off the bed and walked quietly to the door. He looked back once more, making sure his partner was still soundly sleeping, turned off the lights, and left the darkened room.

Dr. Forrester met Jim's eyes across his wide mahogany desk with a determined gaze. "Detective Ellison, as you know, Blair Sandburg has made a remarkable recovery from the injuries he suffered in the wreck. At least his recovery has been remarkable in some ways. To be honest, I never expected him to come out of that coma in as good a mental and physical condition as he did. Your work with his sensory awareness was nothing short of inspired."

Jim sat silently, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did.

"However..." The doctor paused, considering his words carefully. "Mr. Sandburg has proven a most uncooperative patient when it comes to his therapy. Both his physical and occupational therapists report that he is quick tempered, has an extremely low level of frustration, and refuses to cooperate with them much of the time. To be perfectly honest, you are the only person who seems to be able to work with him at all. Under these circumstances, we feel that the time of our therapists could be put to more productive use working with other patients."

Jim stared at Forrester in disbelief. "You're kicking him out? But Doctor, he's still having trouble with his speech, he can't walk far without collapsing...Blair's not ready to be released without help!"

"Now hold on, I didn't say we were releasing him without assistance. Listen to what I have in mind. You're a trained medic, correct?" After Jim's nod, he continued. "And you are the only one that Blair Sandburg seems to trust, to be able to work with. I'd like for you to work with our therapists for awhile. Learn some techniques, exercises, to teach to Blair. You become his therapist. We'll be here to help you along, but you'll do the actual work with him. I think his progress will move much faster. We're certainly not getting anywhere with him at this point."

"I...I'd never considered the possibility. Please try to understand, Doctor Forrester. Blair Sandburg is...the most vital, most verbal, most intelligent person I've ever known. He loves life...loves to talk, to move, to explore and learn all he can know about the world around him. Now, he's just a shell of that man, and it's killing him inside, because he sees it. He understands what's happened to him, and he hates every second of it. I think that's why he lashes out at you, the therapists, the nurses...not because he's angry at all of you. He's angry at himself, at what he's become." Jim stopped, obviously trying to keep his emotions in check.

"But he doesn't strike out at you," Doctor Forrester pointed out softly.

Jim shook his head. "No, he doesn't. It's difficult to explain...We have a...a special closeness, Doctor. He trusts me. He has almost from the moment we met. No questions; no doubts. Just as I trust him. He knows that whatever I ask him to do, he can do it. I wouldn't ask him otherwise. It's all about friendship...partnership...trust." He stopped, gauging the doctor to see if he understood.

Slowly, Forrester nodded. "Well, whatever the two of you have, it works. Are you willing to try, Detective?"

A smile warmed Jim's face. "Of course. I want my partner back. One hundred percent."

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

Banks sat across from Jim at the conference table in his office at Major Crimes. Even with his hearing dialed down close to normal, Jim could hear the buzz of curious voices outside in the bullpen. This was his first trip to the office since Sandburg's accident, and every member of the unit knew something important must be in the works if Ellison had left Sandburg long enough to come here.

Simon stared at Jim in disbelief. "You're going to do what?"

"I'm going to be Blair's therapist, Simon. At least for awhile. It's the only way to get him over these first rough steps. He won't try for anyone else; he doesn't trust anyone else." Jim met Simon's gaze with a determined stare of his own. "I've got the vacation time coming, Simon. If I need more, I'll apply for leave without pay. Whatever it takes. Think about it this way, Simon. What would you do if it was Daryl in the condition that Blair's in now. Wouldn't you do anything, try anything, to bring him back?"

In surrender, Simon threw his hands up in the air. "Okay, okay. You got me there, Jim. I see where you're coming from. Tell me what you need."

Jim's eyes reflected his relief and gratitude. "Thanks, Simon. I think we both need to get away from Cascade for awhile. A friend of Steven's has a cottage on the ocean about twenty miles up the coast. Steven contacted him, and he's agreed to rent it to me for a few months. At a cost a cop can afford... It's secluded, peaceful, but close enough for us to come into Cascade for his checkups. I want to take Blair there. We can be alone; he can feel safe, cared for. Hopefully, he can make some real progress."

Simon nodded in agreement. "Sounds like a good plan, Jim. Anything we can do here to help out?"

"Just check on the loft occasionally. I'll have my mail forwarded."

Simon hesitated. "Should we... come to visit?"

Jim shook his head. "Not for awhile anyway. Not to sound unfriendly, but I think what Blair needs right now is...me. He is so frightened, Simon. Scared of never being who he was...what he was...again. It embarrasses him for those who know him to see the way he is now. Uncertain...weak. But it doesn't seem to bother him for me to see what he's going through. Maybe it's the sentinel/guide thing..."

Simon shook his head and smiled. "Don't think so, Ellison. I think it's a Jim and Blair thing. The kid's always trusted you with his life; why should this be any different?"

Jim shrugged and grinned, pleased that his captain understood them so well. "I'd like to tell the others, Simon, if I could. I don't want them to think we don't appreciate all they've done...the visits, the cards..."

"I'll call them in, Jim. They'll understand. Wait here; this won't take long."

By the time Jim had explained the circumstances, all the members of Major Crimes were supportive of the plan. "You tell Hairboy we're all behind him, Jim," Brown said, with a pat to Jim's back.

Rafe squeezed Jim's shoulder as he left Simon's office. "If anyone can bring back the old Sandburg, it's you, Jim. He'll be as good as new when you're done."

"I hope so, Rafe. My God, I hope so."

Blair remained in the hospital for ten more days, working with his therapists, or rather they tried to work with him, with no noticeable improvement in attitude. While Jim was supposed to be at work, he was actually down in therapy himself, learning how to help his partner. He found himself enjoying the lessons; he had been a good medic once and appreciated the rewards of helping the injured. Now, in a similar role, he picked up the exercises easily. His instructors were impressed.

After his last day of training, Jim went to Blair's room, ready to approach his partner with the plan. He found Blair sitting up in the chair watching a movie on television. "Hey, Chief. Watching 'Rambo' again, huh? Think he'll beat the bad guys this time around?" His humor was rewarded with a grin and a nod from his partner.

Jim took the remote and turned the set off. "We need to talk, Chief." Blair followed him with watchful eyes as Jim sat on the bed beside Sandburg's chair.

"How did therapy go today, kid?" Jim's voice was casual, but he could tell from the suspicious look in Blair's eyes that his friend knew something was up.

Blair shrugged. "Okay, I g-g-guess." Each word was slow and labored. "W-why?"

Jim smiled. Keep him relaxed. Don't push too hard.

"How would you like to get out of here, Blair?" The brightness that appeared in Blair's joyful eyes seemed to light up the entire room. His smile warmed Jim's heart. We'll make it, kid. We're going to be okay.

Blair forced the words out slowly. "H-h-home, Jimmm?"

Blinking back tears, Jim leaned forward and patted Blair's knee. "For a while anyway. Then someplace I think you'll really like, Blair."

Confusion clouded his face. "I...I d-don't under...understand."

"I'm going to be honest with you, Sandburg. The doctor and the therapists feel they've done all they can to help you. All they can do considering your attitude, that is..."

Suddenly, Blair leaned forward, his eyes pleading. "B-but...I...I...c-c-can't..."

Jim knelt on the floor in front of Blair, placing soothing hands on his shoulders. "Hush...I think I understand what's been going on, Chief. You're afraid, Blair, and you can't stop striking out at these people, even though they're trying to help you get better. Think it's maybe a little like my old fear response, buddy? How I sometimes get afraid and push away the one person who's always on my side...you?"

His eyes cast down, Blair nodded.

Jim chuckled and reached up to tousle Blair's curly hair. "Fear does strange things to us, Chief. Believe me, I know. Now, for the deal."

Blair looked up, meeting Jim's eyes. "D-deal?"

Jim nodded. "Dr. Forrester has found you a new therapist. Someone he thinks you can work with and make progress. Of course, the new guy doesn't have a lot of experience, only about a week of training, but he's had experience as a medic, is a fairly pleasant guy to work with, and knows the patient well." He stopped, looking at the slow grin spreading over Sandburg's face, feeling it reflected on his own. "Loves him very much, actually."

Blair leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Jim in a tight hug. "L-let's g-g-go h-home, J-Jim."

Jim laughed softly, returning the embrace. "You got it, kid; you got it."

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

After spending a week at the loft, where Jim had easy access to the hospital therapists, in case he needed them, they left for the beach cottage. Blair had accepted the idea more easily than Jim had expected, agreeing that a peaceful retreat might be what they both needed.

Jim pulled his truck into the drive, smiling in approval at their temporary residence. While not large and impressive, the cozy one story cottage was neatly kept and attractive. Perched on stilts with a double set of steps ascending front and back, the white paint was bright, and the blue shutters echoed the color of the sea behind. A cupola sported a weather vane in the shape of a fish and indicated the wind was from the west. An American flag fluttered on the breeze on the flagpole out front.

Jim stopped the truck and leaned on the wheel. "Well, what do you think, Chief?"

Blair threw open the door and hopped out. "L-let'ss...g-go in-n!"

Whipping out the keys, Jim climbed out and grabbed his duffel from the truck bed. Slinging it over his shoulder, he took out Blair's, too, and carried them both up the stairs. He looked back to see Blair still standing at the foot of the steps, eying them warily.

Jim put down the bags, and looked down at his friend. "You can do this, Blair. Just take it a step at a time, remember? I'll come down and give you a hand."

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, Jim wrapped his arm around his partner's waist. "Okay, buddy. Hold on to the railing with your left hand; put your right arm around me for support. That's right; now let's try that first step. Great! Now the next...one step at a time, Blair. One step at a time..."

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

A quiet night at 3:00 AM...

Jim wasn't sure what had awakened him from his sound sleep. He lay still, listening. Focusing on his partner's heartbeat, he realized the reason for his disturbance. Blair was no longer in his room directly across the hall from Jim's. His heartbeat was coming from outside on the back deck. Jim eased out of bed, wrapping his robe around him as he padded silently down the hall.

The sound of the surf greeted Jim as he opened the sliding door to the deck. He heard Blair's heartbeat accelerate at his approach, but his friend did not acknowledge his presence. Blair sat on one of the deck chairs, staring out into the night at the stars and moon over the sea. Jim pulled up a chair and joined him in silence.

After long minutes passed, Jim spoke quietly, "What's on your mind, Chief?"

Blair sighed deeply before responding, "N-n-nothing really, J-Jimm. S'okay..."

Ellison chuckled. "Then why are you sitting out here in the middle of the night, Sandburg? Come on, spill it."

Blair cut his eyes over at his partner in exasperation. Jim could read him too well. "I-I j-j-just start...started thinking. Wh-what if I...I...never... If this is all..."

He stopped as Jim interrupted him. "Hush... I think I know what you're trying to say, Chief. You're worried about what will happen if you don't make any more significant improvement, aren't you?" He waited for Blair's answer.

At last, he caught a small nod and heard the quiet response. "I...I won't b-be able...able t-t-to h-help you. Y-you won't n-need m-m-me..."

Jim turned in his chair, grasping his friend's chin firmly in his hand, turning Blair's face toward his. His heart constricted at the tears and despair in the wide blue eyes. "Now you listen to me, Sandburg." Jim's voice was authoritative, demanding attention. "How you come out of this, whether it's fifty percent, seventy-five percent, or one hundred percent of what you were before, won't affect what we have one iota. Even if you had never awakened from that coma, I still would have needed you in my life. Your place is with me, Blair, and that's never going to change."

Jim paused, his voice softening, "You give me so much more than just help with my senses; you know that by now. You are going to come back from this, kid, I promise you. But no matter how it turns out, nothing is changing with us. Do you understand what I'm saying here?" Jim's bright blue eyes searched Blair's in the darkness.

Finally, he saw a small smile enter those beautiful eyes and spread across his friend's face like the tide rolling across the beach. Blair nodded. "S-sorry, J-Jimm. It...it's j-just so hard..." Jim reached out and pulled his friend forward until their foreheads touched. He whispered, "I know it is, partner, I know. Don't give up, though, Blair. Don't you dare give up. We're going to make it through this like we always do...together."

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

The living room overlooking the sea...

Blair lay on the soft carpeting, struggling to do leg lifts. "That's the way, Chief. You're almost there, just five more. Keep lifting. That's the way! C'mon, you can do it! That's it...one more...Done!" A puzzled look crossed Jim's face at the laughter forcing its way out between Blair's exhausted pants. "What is it, Junior? What's so funny?"

Blair just grinned and shook his head, the laughter continuing to bubble up.

"Don't make me force this out of you, Sandburg," Jim threatened.

Blair shook his head. "Okay, okay. You win. It's just...you...s-sound like a...a football coach. 'C'mon, boys, win one for...for...the G-Gipper.' It's funny!" He doubled up on the carpet in a burst of giggles.

Jim felt the tears gathering in his eyes and quickly blinked them away. God, it was good to hear Blair's laughter again...to see his blue eyes bright and shining. "Think that's funny, huh, Sandburg? Maybe this old coach will make you run laps next, you think? Or maybe just...tickle you into shape!" With that, Jim attacked with a gentle vengeance, being careful not to injure his recovering partner.

Unable to even plead, Blair laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. Finally, he squeaked out, "Uncle! I...I g-give, Jim. S-Stop!" Jim ceased the tickling, rolling over on his back, breathing hard with exertion and laughter. Blair rolled over, lying next to him, their shoulders touching as they listened to the music of the waves.

A soft voice whispered, "Thanks, Jim."

"No problem, Chief."

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

Mid-morning on the back deck...

"No more arm curls."

Jim looked at his partner's stubborn face in dismay. Blair had worked hard all morning, but now he was refusing to complete his sets of bicep curls.

Blair returned Jim's glare. "I'm hot; I'm tired. No more." Jim studied his friend. Blair's tank top was damp with sweat, and his face was slightly flushed.

A wicked grin spread across Jim's face. "You're hot, are you, Chief? Well, I can think of something to cool you off." In a single fluid motion, he scooped his partner into his strong arms, easily carrying him down the deck steps and toward the crashing waves of the ocean.

"Jim! Stop! You wouldn't...you couldn't...No, Jimmmm..." Blair's protests dissolved into peals of laughter as Jim carried him out into the surf, not slowing down until they were both soaked with tangy, salty water. He bobbed up and down into the waves several times for good measure.

"Cooled off now, Sandburg? Ready to finish those curls?" Jim grinned at the sight of his partner's limp, dripping hair and the mock consternation on his face.

"Aren't there r-rules for therapists about t-t-torturing their patients?" Blair grumbled, his shining blue eyes betraying him.

"Maybe, but I don't think those apply to little guppies," Jim laughed, dunking them once more into an incoming wave. He didn't miss the grin that flashed across Blair's dripping face as he carried him back to the beach. Blair finished the curls without complaint.

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

Walking along the beach late in the day...

The waves crashed against the sand, and the setting sun lent a pearly, pink glow to the earth. Two figures walked close together in the sand.

"These beach walks are great for your endurance, Chief. Your muscles have to work against the sand. You're going faster and farther each day, plus it's getting easier each time."

Blair looked up at his friend, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Race you to the pier."

Jim eyed the fishing pier jutting out into the ocean. It was a good quarter mile away. "Sure you're up to it, Chief?" His voice was etched with concern.

Blair nodded. "I know I...I won't b-beat you this time. B-but I will...someday."

Jim smiled, "And when you do, it'll be time to head home, buddy. Let's go for it. Ready? Set? Go!"

They erupted across the sand. Jim easily pulled away from Blair and debated holding back, but he knew his friend would be furious if he did. When he got to the pier, he stopped, turned, and watched for Blair.

The younger man struggled on. Jim could read the determination etched on his face and hear his labored breathing as he struggled against the pull of the sand. His strides were uncertain, but at last, he reached the pier and collapsed on the sand, panting.

Jim sat down beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "You did it, Chief. Made it all the way."

Blair looked up at him and smiled. "Get you n-next time, Ellison."

Jim pulled him in for a quick, warm hug. "Don't doubt it for a minute, kid. Not for a minute."

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

The weeks stretched into months...

"Jim, it's Simon. How's he doing?"

Jim looked out at the small figure of his friend, walking alone beside the waves. He smiled gently as Blair reached down to pick up a shell. Their collection was quickly outgrowing the basket set on the table by the back door. "Great, Simon. He's making more progress each day. He talks without stuttering now, and at regular Sandburg tempo...fast forward. His arms and legs are almost as strong as they normally would be. He's back to being Blair again. I think a couple more weeks here, and, if they give us the all clear at the hospital, we'll be coming home."

Jim could read the smile on the captain's face through the telephone wires. "That's great, Jim! Sure you don't want some company now? The guys have been talking about driving up..."

"No, Simon, thanks. It's kinda hard to explain, but I'm afraid that having anyone else here would...I don't know how to put it...break the spell or something. As long as it's been just the two of us, he's made such remarkable progress. I don't want to do anything to wreck what's been happening here. I'm sorry..."

Simon Banks interrupted, "No need to apologize. I think I understand what you're getting at, Jim. We'll all do something to celebrate when you're back home, how's that?"

Jim breathed a sigh of relief, "That'll be fine, Simon. Thanks. Like I said, it shouldn't be that long now. I'll let you know."

"Okay, Jim. Just keep doing whatever it is that you're doing. Seems to be working wonders. I'll call again in a week or so. Tell the kid hello from us all."

"I will, Simon. Give everyone our best." Jim hung up the phone.

He walked over and stood before the large plate glass window that overlooked the Pacific from the living area of the cottage. It was mid-afternoon, and the bright sun shimmered on the water. Blair had stopped a short distance up the beach. He stood alone on the sand, the wind ruffling his curls, staring out to sea. Then his head dropped, and he wiped a hand across his eyes. What are you thinking, Chief? Is everything really okay in that heart of yours? Unable to tolerate the thought of his friend hurting, Jim trotted down the two flights of steps to the edge of the sand, kicked off his shoes and jogged down the beach.

When he reached Blair, he silently stood next to his partner, waiting for him to speak first. Jim had learned that patience usually paid off when there was something bothering his friend. They stood that way for several minutes, the wind gently blowing Blair's long hair against Jim's shoulder, the silence comfortable between them.

"Jim?" Blair's tentative voice was barely audible over the crashing waves.

Together, they turned and began walking down the beach. "Yeah, Chief?"

For a long moment, Blair didn't respond. When he did, his eyes remained on the distant horizon, beyond the breaking waves. "In the hospital, while I was...in the coma, I...I could hear things..." His soft voice trailed off into nothingness.

Ellison felt his heart tighten; it was the first time Blair had brought up his time in the coma. What does he remember?

Jim studied his face for a moment. "What things, buddy?" He slipped an arm around his guide's shoulders. After a few steps, Blair leaned gently against him, accepting the support and comfort.

"I think... No, that's not right. I did hear Dr. Forrester tell you that I wouldn't wake up. That you should move on with your life. " Blair continued walking, but tilted his head upward to gaze at Jim with questioning clear blue eyes. "He told you that, didn't he?"

Jim nodded and took a deep breath before speaking. His arm tightened protectively around Blair's shoulders. "Yeah, Chief. That's what happened. You were asleep for so long, Blair, that..." He had to take a deep breath before he could continue. "They gave up hope you'd ever wake up," Jim finished in a quiet voice.

Blair looked back out to sea. His soft voice whispered, "But you didn't..."

Jim leaned over and gently laid his cheek against the soft, billowing curls. "No... Never..." He stood silently, gathering courage to ask the next question, desperately needing to hear the answer. "What else do you remember about the time you were asleep?"

Blair hesitated. "I remember...music...my Aboriginal music...music from the Pacific...South American tribes... And the smell of candles...vanilla...the forest... I think I remember tasting different spices, too." His voice grew stronger and faster as the memories flooded out. "I felt things, too, Jim. I remember your touching me, stroking my hair, holding my hand. And you talked to me; it seemed you never stopped talking to me. That was so cool, man, because I knew you believed I was still there...that I could wake up again. Even if no one else did." He stopped abruptly and sank down onto the sand, still staring out at the ocean.

Jim sat down behind his friend, somehow sensing that the words might come more easily without eye contact. The wind had turned slightly chilly, and Jim saw a small tremor pass across Blair's skin. He gently wrapped his long arms around his friend and eased him back to rest against him. Then he waited.

Blair settled gratefully into the comfortable, familiar arms of his best friend. He immediately felt warmer, inside and out. "I felt like I was in the deep end of a swimming pool, Jim. Like I was way down under the clearest blue water you can imagine, and when I looked up, I could see the light...the way back again. But I couldn't move at all, not until you started guiding me..."

Blair felt the slight tenseness of Jim's muscles at the last few words. He tilted his face back and saw surprise in his friend's eyes. "What, Jim? What did I say?"

A small smile flickered across the sentinel's face. "I don't know why that surprised me, Chief. Not really. Go on, finish what you were saying. Then I'll explain."

Blair lowered his head so that it again rested against Jim's chest. "After you began playing the music, burning the candles...I could move. I started swimming upward. It was so slow; it took so long. Sometimes I didn't get anywhere at all, but I knew I couldn't stop. I had to reach the surface. So I kept going. But, if you hadn't done those things, Jim, I don't know if I ever could have made it. I'm not sure if I even would have tried. How did you know what to do?" He lowered his head, tired from reliving the memories at last.

Jim squeezed him gently and lowered his face down into Blair's soft curls. When he spoke, the huskiness in his voice caught Blair by surprise. "I didn't know, Blair. Incacha did. He came to me the first night you were in the hospital after your surgery. He told me that I had to guide you back, just as you guide me. It took me some time to figure out what he meant, but I finally realized that I could use your senses to reach you, just as you use mine to reach me. Thankfully, it worked."

Then Blair felt a drop of wetness trickle down his neck. Jim's tears.

"You never gave up..." Blair's voice was choked with wonder.

He felt Jim's head shake against his own. "How could I? Would you ever have given up on me?"

"No, Jim, you know I wouldn't. You..."

"Hush...I know you wouldn't. So why are you so surprised that I never lost hope for you?" Blair felt the arms wrapped around him tighten a little, holding him slightly closer.

Blair shrugged slightly. "I don't know... It's just that the doctor had given up, told you to move on with your life..."

Jim interrupted, "Did you hear my answer to that one, Chief?"

Blair was silent a moment. "I...I don't remember...some things are fuzzy..."

Leaning down close to his friend's ear, Jim whispered, "Well, if you had been listening, Sandburg, I told the doctor that my life was right there in that bed, and that I wasn't going anywhere without you. I meant that. Every word."

Blair turned around quickly and pulled himself into Jim's embrace, streams of hot tears flowing freely, unashamedly down his face. "You are my life, Chief. Don't ever forget that, okay?" Jim whispered.

Unable to speak, Blair simply nodded against his friend's sweater. Jim stroked his hair gently, treasuring the feeling of holding his friend, safe and whole, against him. "Everything's okay, now. You're okay. I'm so proud of you, Blair. You made it back...all the way." Blair could barely feel the soft kiss against the top of his head.

Blair smiled and burrowed a little closer to Jim. "Thanks to you. I couldn't have done this without your help, Jim. You kept pushing me, carrying me; you never gave up..."

Jim chuckled, "You mean like you've helped me all these years with my senses, buddy? I never would have made it without you either, you know. You've carried me, too, Blair, but for a whole lot longer. It was just my turn now, that's all. Just my turn to carry you for a while, my friend."

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

Two weeks later...

"Ready? Set? Go!"

Two figures raced across the beach, sand flying from their bare feet. Their tanned backs glistened in the warm afternoon sunshine. The taller figure maintained a small lead, then the smaller body cut in front like a rabbit crossing the path of a hound. Slipping in the soft sand, the taller racer stumbled slightly, losing his advantage. With a burst of speed, arms raised in victory, Blair reached the pier, a good three strides ahead of Jim.

They tumbled into the wet sand, laughing. Jim reached out to tousle Blair's curls, just before Sandburg fell onto his back with a satisfied smile. He stared up at the white, billowy clouds gliding across the deep blue sky. The cool waves lapped at his sandy toes. "I did it, didn't I?" A wide grin blanketed his face.

Jim looked over at him, his eyes filled with affection and pride. "You sure did, Chief. Beat me fair and square."

Blair shook his head. "That's not what I meant, Jim. I mean, I really did it. We really did it. I got my life back. One hundred percent."

Jim rose from the sand, stretching out his hand. Blair grasped it firmly, letting Jim give him a boost up. "You sure did, Chief. One hundred percent." Their arms instinctively encircled each other's waists as they strolled back up the beach toward the cottage. "Now, how about firing up that grill and cooking those steaks I bought? I think this is definitely the night to celebrate."

He felt Blair's nod against his shoulder. "Then tomorrow...?"

Jim Ellison smiled, "Tomorrow, we go home, Chief."

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

The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were not limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.
-- Helen Keller

Finis

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