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

The One Left Behind

by JET

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

The temperature had plummeted without warning. It had been unseasonably warm for late January, but none of the forecasts had predicted this sudden cold spell. Within the space of an hour, the skies had darkened, and the raindrops had grown heavy, ponderous with ice crystals. Soon, the highway glistened with sleet.

Blair Sandburg was worried. It was dusk, and there was still an hour to go before they reached Cascade and the Rainier campus. The university bus was about a quarter full with chattering undergraduate students majoring in anthropology and archaeology. It had been Blair's idea to take them up to Vancouver to the exhibit on aboriginal culture on display there for a month and attend a couple of the accompanying lectures by some of the country's most prominent scientists. They'd been gone five days, and all on board were ready to be home again.

Leave it to me to pick the worst night of the year for a bus ride, Blair thought, gazing out at the sleet in the quickly fading light. The bus had slowed to a near crawl on the winding highway. There were fewer and fewer headlights meeting them; it seemed most traffic had left the road for the safety of garages and driveways.

Marissa Owens leaned forward in her seat, her long blonde hair tickling Blair's shoulder. "Mr. Sand-burg," she asked. "Do you think it's safe for us to still be on the road?"

Catching the note of worry in her voice, Blair half turned in his seat and flashed what he hoped was a confident smile at the young junior. "We'll be fine, Marissa. I just spoke with Anthony a few minutes ago. He's been driving for Rainier over twenty years, you know. We're in good hands. About an hour more, and we'll be home, but he promised if things got too rough, he'll find a safe spot to pull us over." Blair reached up to pat her arm. "Relax. We'll be home soon."

She smiled and followed his advice, leaning back to relax in her seat. "This was a really cool trip, Mr. Sandburg. Thanks for getting us out of our classes for a few days."

Blair winced, then grinned at her. "I'm glad you had fun, Marissa, but I hope you learned something, too. You've got a paper on the exhibit due in a week, remember."

The attractive girl rolled her eyes, but her smile removed the insult from the gesture. "We all learned lots, and my paper will be on time this time. For real, Mr. Sandburg. I promise." Marissa flashed one more brilliant smile at Blair and leaned back to talk with her companion, her gold Egyptian cartouche gleaming from its gold chain around her neck.

Blair could hear them discussing the up-coming basketball game and which of the girls were planning to go with which of the guys. He smiled wistfully. Had he ever been so young and carefree himself? Somehow, it seemed he had always been pushing, trying to grow up too soon, and taking on more responsibility than anyone should at such a young age. Perhaps no one else had expected it of him, but he definitely expected it of himself. Take high school classes in 7th grade, graduate early to attend college, enter grad school when he was barely twenty....

Had he ever let himself just be a kid? Ever slowed down and taken time to enjoy life and his youth? Listening to the chatter of the kids around him, Blair felt a brief twinge of regret for what he had missed. But, he wondered, is it even possible to miss what you've never known?

His musings were interrupted by the muted ringing of his cell phone. Reaching into his backpack, Blair answered on the third ring. "Sandburg." He stared out the window at the swirling flakes and sighed deeply, still caught up in his feelings of melancholy.

"Hey, Chief. You nearly home?"

The familiar voice coaxed a smile from Blair's lips. He moved closer to the window so his words wouldn't be easily overheard. "Yeah, Jim. We're about an hour away. You doing okay?" The unspoken words 'with your senses' hung clearly between them.

"I'm fine. It's been pretty quiet around the station." A note of concern crept into the sentinel's tone. "What's the weather doing there? We've got sleet."

Blair stared out the window, this time actually noticing the weather. He could barely see past the shoulder of the road. Damn, it looks cold out there. He shivered uncontrollably at the sight. "Us, too, Jim. Sleet mixed with snow. We're okay, though. The driver's going slowly, and there's not that much traffic any more." Blair turned his head as peals of female laughter, underscored with low, male chuckles, filled the bus.

He could hear the grin in Jim's voice. "Sounds like the kids are having fun in spite of the weather, Chief."

"Yeah, they are." A feeling of weariness suddenly reminded Blair exactly how tired he was. The past few days had been fun, but he was ready to be home. In the background, beneath the crackling of his weak cell phone connection, was the sound of Jim rattling pans in the kitchen. Probably getting ready to prepare dinner, with a fire blazing in the living room, and soft music on the stereo.

"Chief? Are you all right?"

Blair realized that he'd been silent long enough to worry his partner. He could visualize clearly the concern in Jim's clear blue eyes, the uncertainty etched on his face. He'd be leaning forward now, listening intently for Blair's heartbeat, monitoring his breathing. Nothing was wrong, after all, and there was no sense worrying Jim over a simple case of mild homesickness and a slight touch of the blues. Sandburg took a deep breath before answering. "I'm fine, Jim. Just ready to come home, that's all." He paused for a moment, then added softly, "And a little lonesome, I guess."

Jim's warm chuckle brought a small glow to his heart. "I miss you, too, Chief. Listen, I don't want you driving home in this weather. I'll meet you at Hargrove in an hour."

The inward glow flared and blazed. Blair had lived a lifetime without knowing the feeling of having someone waiting for him, someone who cared enough to brave ice and cold, just to be sure he got home safely. Jim cared about him. He was going home.

"Thanks, Jim. It'll be good to get home."

Jim sounded bemused. "What? No argument? No 'Jim, I'm perfectly capable of driving home by myself in a little ice?'" Once more, Jim's low laughter tickled Blair's ear.

Somehow, on this night, Blair wasn't in the mood for humor. The warm glow Jim's words had given him was too important to belittle with jokes. "No, believe it or not, not this time. Sometimes it's nice to know my Blessed Protector cares, y'know?" He leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.

Through the static, Jim's voice darkened with sincere affection. "Your Blessed Protector always cares, Junior. Always."

Blair smiled as he glanced up at the battery-operated clock suspended in the front of the bus. Nine PM. "Thanks, man. See you soon. I...."

Without warning, the bus began fishtailing wildly, slipping and sliding back and forth over the icy road. The girls sitting directly behind Blair screamed and grabbed the seat backs in front of them.

"Sandburg?!" Jim's anxious voice shouted in Blair's ear. "What's going on?"

Before Blair could answer, the bus swerved sideways again, and he could see Anthony, the driver, frantically struggling to control the heavy vehicle. Grabbing onto the seat in front with one hand, Blair gripped his phone tightly with the other. "I'm here! We're sliding! I think...."

Suddenly, the bus careened wildly to the left, teetering precariously for several seconds before tumbling wildly on its side. "Jim! We're going over!!"

The bus rolled violently over the shoulder of the highway, tumbling over and over down the forty foot embankment. Blair was thrown from his seat and tossed around the interior of the bus like a sock in a dryer. He struggled to keep his arms over his head, giving himself all the protection he could manage. Around him, the screams of his students and the sickening sounds of human flesh slamming into walls and seats combined with the groans of wrenching metal to create a cacophony of terror.

As he fell, Blair thought of his partner and realized that Jim was hearing it all though his open cell phone line. I'm sorry, Jim. You shouldn't have to hear this. I'm so sorry, man.

He whispered into the phone that was still grasped tightly in his hand, "Jim? I'm sorry.." The words ended abruptly as Blair gasped. His head struck something hard, then, everything went black, and the screams faded into peaceful silence of nothingness.

Just before the looming void enveloped him, Blair whispered for the last time, "Jim...?"

Outside, the snow-punctuated darkness was ignited by a fireball's blast from the front of the bus. It lighted the sky with a violent, fiery glow as flames rose high into the sky.

On such a cold, dangerous night, not many people were out and about on the roads, and there were no houses within sight. There were no human eyes to see, no warning voices to report the tragedy that had just occurred and summon help. As the sleet continued to fall and the temperature plummeted, the fire burned on in the night.

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

In the loft, Jim stared at the phone in disbelief. "Sandburg! Answer me! Blair!" Straining to hear something - anything - from inside the doomed bus, the sentinel concentrated with all his might. All he heard were the groans of injured students, a confusing mixture of heartbeats and painful gasps for breath, and the soft pattering of ice striking the outside of the bus. Jim listened intently, reaching his senses out for every sound. To his horror, one by one, he heard several of the heartbeats stop, their moans silenced abruptly.

As his eyes widened in fear, Jim cried into the phone, "Blair!!"

Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion, and Jim yanked the phone from his ear with a pain-filled grimace. When he quickly held the phone up to listen again, there was only silence. The connection was broken.

Jim's hands trembled as he dialed 911. "A bus from Rainier...about an hour out...crashed and rolled... sounded bad...fire... multiple ambulances...hurry... please!"

As he slammed the loft door behind him, Jim was already dialing Simon's number, pulling on his heaviest coat and gloves as he went.

The same words beat repeatedly in Jim's heart in a desperate mantra. Hang on, Blair. I'm coming for you, I promise. Wait for me, Chief. Wait for me.

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

Simon met him at the station on the way out of town. He had been watching the Jags game and munching on popcorn with Daryl when the call had come from Ellison. In his haste, Simon had pulled on his oldest sweats and a down jacket. As he ran out the door, he'd ordered Daryl to stay put and promised he'd call as soon as he knew anything. On the way to pick up Jim, he phoned Joan, his ex-wife, to ask her to check on Daryl in case he didn't get home until late.

Jim slid into the captain's sedan, letting a cold blast of air in behind him. Once they were underway, the sentinel sat in absolute silence as they sped toward the highway where the accident had occurred.

Glancing over at his passenger, Simon's heart tightened in concern. Jim looked terrible, like a man who had just taken a strong fist to the gut. Several sucker punches was more like it. A heavy rain of blows to the gut would have been easier to withstand, Simon knew, shaking his head in empathy for his friend's pain. Ellison's face was pale, his eyes clouded with worry, his jaw clenched tightly enough to crack a tooth. At last, Banks broke the heavy silence. "My God, Jim. You were on the phone with him when it happened?"

Ellison turned toward him, and Simon could see the shocked disbelief clouding his sky blue eyes. "He said he wanted to come home, Simon, that he was lonely and was ready to be home. Just a few seconds later, I heard...." Jim's voice broke off suddenly, and the sentinel shook his head violently before turning to stare out the window into the cold night.

Simon patted his friend's shoulder briefly before re-turning his hand to the wheel. "Don't, Jim," he said compassionately. "You don't have to go through it again." Knowing that only reaching the scene of the accident and finding Sandburg would help Jim, Simon pressed the accelerator as far to the floor as he dared on such a terrible night.

Jim continued his story in short, clipped sentences, as if to reveal too much too soon would be to risk losing the thin layer of control he was managing to maintain. "I heard him cry out. The students were screaming. The bus sounded like it was being ripped apart. Then, there was this tremendous crash. Blair screamed out my name. He...He said he was sorry." Suddenly, Jim's fist beat down on the seat between them, and his voice grew angry. "Damn it! I know what he meant. He was sorry I was hearing...."

Haunted eyes stared out the windshield. "Oh, God, no. Blair...?" Ellison's voice broke as he added softly, "What if...? Simon, what if I heard him die? I don't know...." After several long moments of hesitation, Jim spoke slowly...haltingly, "I don't know if I could live with that."

What do you say to a man whose heart is breaking? All Simon could do was shake his head and struggle for the elusive words that might ease Jim's pain. "We don't know anything for sure, Jim. Don't start thinking the worst, not yet. Sandburg's tough; he's a survivor. You know that better than anyone. Just wait. Wait and see."

There was little left to say. They drove on through the ice and the darkness, each man consumed in the grimness of his own thoughts and fears. To break the tension in the air, Simon reached over and turned on the radio. A chill ran through him as the lyrics filled the air:

Lying here in the darkness
I hear the sirens wail
Somebody going to emergency
Somebody's going to jail
If you find somebody to love in this world
You better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always at the door....
And in these days
When darkness falls early
And people rush home>
To the ones they love>
You better take a fool's advice>
And take care of your own>
One day they're here;>
Next day they're gone

Simon abruptly switched off the radio. "Sorry, Jim," he apologized.

Jim rested his head against the back of the seat and tightly closed his eyes. " 'S'okay, Simon. Just hurry, okay?"

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

The combination of flashing red, yellow, and blue lights lent a surreal, carnival atmosphere to the frigid night as they reflected brightly off the ice covering the road and trees. Emergency workers, police, and firefighters scurried about like ants. The heavy smell of leaking gasoline permeated the air, mixed with the metallic scent of blood and the tangy odor of fire. Jim felt his own heart pounding frantically as he and Simon jogged toward the cluster of emergency workers at the top of the drop-off next to the highway. The smells were overwhelming. So much pain...so much blood...so much...death.

"Jim?" Simon's voice whispered urgently in his ear as the older man squeezed his arm hard, almost to the point of pain. "Don't you dare zone out on me here! You know I'm no Sandburg. Don't you even think about it! Jim!"

Ellison shook himself back to reality. With a quick nod, he hurried toward the embankment.

A young officer stopped them. "Sorry. Only authorized personnel...."

Simon whipped out his badge and ID. "Cascade PD. One of my men was on that bus." He kept one hand on Ellison's arm, as Sandburg had so often done, hoping it might help keep Jim's attention focused on the here and now.

A flash of pity shadowed the young officer's eyes. "I'm sorry, Captain Banks. I didn't recognize you, but you really shouldn't go down there. There's nothing you can do. So far, they haven't found any survivors." He shook his head. "There was a fire...."

Simon could hear the sudden intake of breath from Jim, and he reached out to steady his friend with a firm hand on his bicep. He might as well have tried restraining a cyclone. Breaking roughly away from Simon's restraining touch with a powerful jerk, Jim lunged through the snow and ice toward the embankment. "No!" he gasped. "Sandburg!"

The officer moved after him, but Simon stopped him with a strong grip on his shoulder. Looking steadily into the young man's eyes, he said softly, "His partner's down there."

For a long moment, the cop remained silent. Then he nodded.

Carefully, both men followed Jim down the ice-covered slope.

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

As he neared the crumpled wreckage, Jim had to fight back a wave of nausea. If the odors of death and dying had been tough on his enhanced senses up on the road, this close to the carnage, they were nearly debilitating. His breathing came in labored gasps, and his eyes watered furiously from the fumes of the gasoline spilled onto the cold earth.

Bodies lay strewn about, some covered with plastic, others still exposed to the sleet. The rescue teams, short staffed due to the demands of the dangerous night, rushed about tending to the injured and dying. Jim tried not to look at the faces, but he saw enough. They were all young, too young to be lying so still - so cold and broken on the ground.

One girl, who had obviously been a lovely blonde, was sprawled where she had apparently been thrown from the bus. He stared for a moment at the gold Egyptian cartouche lying haphazardly at her throat. What do those symbols mean? Whose daughter were you? Whose best friend or lover? As he stared at the lovely young face, marred now by burns and lacerations, Jim felt the reality of the scene begin to darken around the edges as the comforting release of a zone-out tempted him.

No! There wasn't time for retreat. With a sudden shake of his head, Jim forced himself to look away, but his breath caught in his throat when he saw the dirty, smoky remains of what had been the Rainier University bus.

Half of the bus lay charred and smoldering; the other half was nearly severed from its frame. Emergency crews were searching desperately through the wreckage, while the fire fighters applied a light spray of water to the still-smoldering portions of the bus.

Simon appeared beside him, his concerned brown eyes studiously avoiding the carnage around them to focus on Jim's face. "Jim? You okay?"

The sentinel didn't speak. He was already filtering through the layers upon layers of sound and smell, searching intently for the one heartbeat, the one scent, he so desperately needed to find.

Jim's eyes clouded over, and he grew still. His head tilted slightly, and tiny, barely visible, tremors shook his body. He felt Simon's touch on his arm and heard his concerned voice whisper a warning, but Jim tuned both out. Some part of his mind knew that Simon feared he was zoning, but he couldn't afford to break his concentration. Something was out there. Something...alive, something breathing and in pain, was calling to him on such a primal level that Jim knew if he let his attention stray for an instant, he would lose the contact forever.

Without warning, Jim came alive with an inhuman cry. Pouncing toward the crumpled bus, he pushed past the emergency workers who tried to hold him back, tossing them aside as easily as tissue.

"Sir!" one of the firefighters shouted. "You can't go in there! We're working our way to the back of the bus, but there's just no one left alive in there! There's still a chance of another explosion!"

Ignoring the warning, Jim rushed on. He would not accept that Sandburg was dead. He could not accept it. Not yet; not until he held Blair's lifeless body in his arms, confirming with his own senses that it was truly over. For the moment, the possibility that Blair was gone was an enormity too terrible to consider. It wasn't true; it couldn't be true. End of discussion. For the sentinel had heard something from within the broken and charred bus - something no one else could have heard - something that lit a faint flame of hope deep within him.

The bus lay on its side, its roof dented and crushed from its violent tumble down the embankment. The body of the bus was so twisted that it was difficult to tell where the aisle had once been. Rows and rows of seats had been pulled loose from the floor and were scattered haphazardly throughout the bus. Suitcases, books, and purses lay open like abandoned and exposed dreams, some spattered with fresh, sticky blood.

Most horrific of all were the still bodies, pinned and trapped amidst the twisted wreckage. Young faces - forever unwrinkled and forever young - their staring, dead eyes focused on eternity.

For Jim, it was as if all the chaos around him did not exist. The sentinel was totally focused on the faint beating of the one heart which lived in the doomed bus, the only one left behind after death claimed all others on board. Jim barged through the cluttered aisle, pushing aside baggage and wreckage with a strength only found in the truly desperate.

"Sandburg!" Jim cried. No voice answered his call. Focusing on the beating of his guide's heart, Jim charged on, dropping to his knees at last beside the crumpled body lying in the rear of the bus, near the emergency exit.

Sandburg's face was cut and bleeding. His eyes were closed, and an ugly gash above his right eyebrow bled profusely. A twisted seat lay heavily across his mid-section, and his left leg was bent at an unnatural angle.

Jim reached out to gently brush back the bloody curls from his guide's face. "Chief," he whispered. "Blair? Can you hear me?" When there was no response, Jim cried over his shoulder out the broken windows, "I've got a man alive back here! We need medics! Now!"

With powerful arms, Jim shoved the heavy seat off his partner, taking care not to jar his broken body. Running sensitive fingers under Blair's torn and bloody sweater, he probed carefully for injuries. There...a small swelling. Maybe some bleeding there. Definitely a broken leg, and certainly a head injury, if his pupils were any indication. That deep gash would need stitches. He settled for pressing against it with his coat sleeve to quell the bleeding.

Jim's careful inspection and ministrations were interrupted by the arrival of the medics. Immediately, he switched to military mode. Just the facts. Give them the information they need to care for Sandburg. He recited the facts in a monotone. "He's unconscious. Left leg's broken, and I think maybe he's bleeding internally." When he'd finished, Jim moved as far to the side as he could in the cramped area between the twisted seats, grasping Blair's hand and holding on.

While the emergency workers prodded and checked his best friend, Jim did the only thing he could do and held on.

He held on to Sandburg's hand, cold and still.

He held on to hope, praying...begging...whoever might be listening to spare his guide's life one more time.

He held on to his own strained sanity, promising himself and the deity that guarded sentinels and their guides that, if by some miracle, he got Blair home to the loft this time, he would hold on to him with all his might. He would hold on and never, ever let Blair out of his sight again, Sandburg's objections be damned.

As the paramedics worked, as the sounds of Blair's labored breathing and the coppery scent of his blood filled the frozen night, Jim Ellison held on.

"We're ready to transport!" the young Asian woman in charge of the crew shouted at last, and immediately, Jim felt himself being firmly ushered away.

"No," he whispered, trying to maintain his hold on Blair's cold hand. "Please...."

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

Suddenly, Simon was there, slipping in from the shadows to take Jim firmly by the arm, his voice low and gentle, yet with the unmistakable tone of command that came so naturally to him. "Jim, listen to me. You've got to let them help Blair. He knows you're here. He knows you're with him, but they need to get him to the hospital right now." Wrapping one strong arm around the sentinel, Simon talked constantly as Blair was carefully carried from the bus and loaded into the ambulance. "He's going to be fine, Jim. You know Sandburg. He's resilient. Blair always bounces back."

As the stretcher disappeared into the red and white ambulance, Jim twisted away from Simon and tried to climb into the back behind the stretcher. "I'm sorry, Detective," the paramedic closest to him said firmly, blocking his way. "You'll have to meet us at Cascade General."

"C'mon, Jim," Simon said quietly, pulling Jim back. "Let's go. We'll get there right when Blair does, I promise."

Jim Ellison nodded, too stunned to respond.

"Shell shocked," Simon muttered under his breath. "C'mon, Jim," he said out loud. "Let them do their job."

Slowly, Jim backed away from the ambulance doors.

"Take good care of him. Please," Simon said softly to the young paramedic as he took Jim's arm. "He's one of us."

The man nodded, and the doors were slammed shut.

Jim jumped at the loud noise, and Simon squeezed his shoulders. "You turned up your hearing, didn't you, to find him? Dial it back now, okay? Isn't that what Sandburg says? I'm not so sure I know how to handle this guide thing, but it's just until he's back on his feet, right?" Simon tried to smile, realizing even as he did that it looked forced. "It's okay, Jim. Let's go. The ambulance is pulling out now."

Without a word, the sentinel turned and sprinted toward Simon's car, the tall captain right on his heels.

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

When he looked back later, Jim could never be sure how he made it through the unending hours after they arrived at the hospital. The passage of time blurred into a confusing haze, yet certain scenes remained clear in his mind. Rafe, Henri, and Joel hovering constantly nearby. Daryl Banks struggling to control his tears when he arrived to hear that Blair was in surgery to quell the bleeding inside and hopefully save his life. The phone call to Naomi to tell her that her son was in critical condition, only to find that she was out of reach somewhere in the mountains of the Himalayas.

Just as well, Jim thought bitterly. Naomi had never been around before when Blair lay hurt and needy. Why the hell should she turn up now that he might be dying?

Dying....

Jim sat slumped in an uncomfortably hard chair in the waiting area, tucked into the far corner of the room, isolated from his friends and co-workers both physically and emotionally. He had no desire to talk to anyone, no need to hear their well intentioned, yet meaningless, words of comfort. He had been so alone before Sandburg found him, and he could already feel those cold fingers of isolation waiting to claim him once more if Blair died. Even now, he was vaguely aware that he was withdrawing into himself, distancing himself from his friends. He didn't give a damn. Jim wrapped his arms tightly around his own body, as if he could hold on to Sandburg's life within his strong arms.

"Jim?" Simon eased down into the chair next to him. "Coffee?"

The sentinel shook his head slowly, but he didn't reply. Jim's eyes were focused on a distant point as he stared straight ahead.

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

Simon watched Jim for several minutes, setting the ignored Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee on the table beside a stack of outdated magazines. Jim was aware of his captain's scrutiny, but he was too focused to acknowledge it.

Unexpectedly, Simon leaned over to speak softly. "You're listening, aren't you? Listening to Blair's surgery, trying to hear how he's doing." He paused for a moment. "What can you hear?"

Jim's voice was a monotone, devoid of emotion. "Not too much. It's...hard. Too many other sounds, other voices. Can't seem to focus long enough...." Jim rubbed his eyes wearily. "From the little bit I can pick up, he's...not good. The doctors can't seem to stop the bleeding. He's...."

Suddenly, Jim jumped to his feet, his eyes wild and filled with fear. "Get a nurse over here, Simon! Now! I've gotta get to Sandburg!"

The other members of Major Crimes hurried over.

"Captain? What's going on?" Henri asked.

"Is Jim okay?"

"I...I don't know, Rafe!" Simon stared at the figure of the sentinel, striding away down the hall. "Leave us alone, will you? I need to speak with Jim."

Simon Banks caught up with Jim and ushered him almost roughly into an empty room, shutting the door behind them. "Calm down and talk to me! What's going on, Jim? What did you hear?"

Jim's hands gestured helplessly as his voice broke. "He's...dying. Blair's heart has stopped, Simon." The sentinel's eyes filled with tears. "They're losing him!" He threw open the door and rushed out of the room, following the sounds of the doctors fighting to save his best friend's life.

Simon and the other members of Major Crimes ran after him, catching Jim right before he pushed through the doors marked Surgical Wing: No Admittance.

"Jim! No!" Simon grabbed hold of Jim's left arm as Henri latched onto his right, and Rafe held his shoulders. "You can't go in there!"

"What's happening, babe?" Henri asked quietly. "Those docs are doing everything they can for Sandburg. You gotta let them do their job, man."

"No!" Jim argued. "He's dying! I've gotta get to him! Let me go!" Once more, he began to struggle, straining toward the forbidden doors, fighting their attempts to hold him back.

Without warning, Jim stopped cold, his head cocked to the side, his gaze frozen on the closed doors.

Recognizing the signs of the sentinel in heightened listening mode, Simon relaxed his grip and motioned for the others to do the same. Slow seconds slipped by, then Jim turned to them as he took a long, deep breath. "It's okay. For now. He's back."

Joel shook his head. "Jim? What the hell's going on here? How on earth could you possibly know...?"

Simon Banks interrupted him abruptly. "Let's go back to the waiting area, Jim." As Simon led him carefully back to their seats in the waiting room, he shook his head at the others, waving off more questions before they were even spoken. "Don't ask," he said softly. "Just...don't ask."

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

By the time the surgeon came to talk with them, Jim was pacing the floor like a nervous cat, unable to stay still for long. As the doctor entered the waiting area, he froze, the only motion the tightening of his jaw.

"How is he?" Jim asked, his eyes steady as he stared at the doctor.

The tired surgeon ran his fingers through his graying hair. "I'm Dr. Charles Bledsoe. I was chief surgeon during Mr. Sandburg's surgery. Are you his family?"

Jim took a step forward impatiently. "What the hell difference does that make? I just want to know...."

Simon spoke up, his voice calm and reasonable. "I'm Simon Banks, Cascade PD. Sandburg's mother is out of the country. This is Jim Ellison, one of my detectives. Jim's his closest friend and his partner. He also has power of attorney for Blair." He paused briefly before adding, "Trust me, Doctor Bledsoe. They're family."

Satisfied, Dr. Bledsoe filled them in on his patient's condition. "Mr. Sandburg had multiple internal injuries. It was a very difficult surgery. We experienced quite a few complications during the procedures to stop his bleeding. Once...."

Impatiently, Jim finished the sentence for him. "....his heart stopped. But he's okay now?"

Bledsoe's eyebrows arched. "How did you know that? The nurses aren't supposed to reveal a patient's condition without my authorization." He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Never mind. I'll take it up at the supervisors' meeting. Yes, Mr. Sandburg is stable now. He's in recovery, but it will be a while before they bring him to his room. Why don't you go have something to eat? Then you can come on up and wait. Room 516."

Unwilling to be dismissed so easily, Jim shook his head. "Not quite yet. What's the prognosis, Doctor?"

"I'm very optimistic. Once we got his heart going again, his vital signs remained stable. If he makes it through tonight without any further complications, I don't foresee there being any difficulties with his recovery. We set his broken leg - a compound fracture - and I put in several sets of stitches on his face. The head injuries don't appear to be severe. He'll have a small scar above his eye, but it shouldn't be too bad. None of his internal organs were severely damaged. The burns were bad, but not serious enough to cause noticeable scarring. He'll need therapy with the leg, of course, and those burns need close observation, but overall, considering the severity of the wreck, Mr. Sandburg's a very lucky man just to be alive."

Simon slapped Jim lightly on the back and grinned. "The ladies will probably consider his scar sexy," he teased. "You know Sandburg."

Encouraged by the doctor's news, Jim nodded wearily and forced a smile. "Simon, why don't you guys go on home? We'll be fine tonight."

The Major Crimes captain motioned for Taggert, Henri, and Rafe to leave. "I'll hang around awhile, Jim. I'd like to see the kid myself before I go. You three head on home. I'll see you in the morning."

After their friends had departed, Jim and Simon moved their vigil to room 516.

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

How many hours had he spent at the bedside of his partner, waiting for Blair to awaken, to open his blue eyes and let his sentinel know that, once more, he had survived and would be all right? Too many, Jim decided with a weary shrug, as he watched the sleeping form in the narrow bed.

The hospital room was quiet and dark. The pale green lights from the displays of the numerous medical devices hooked up to Sandburg lent an eerie glow to the darkness. Only the sounds of the automatic blood pressure cuff tightening with predictable regularity, the reassuring beeps from the heart monitor, and occasional passing footsteps in the hall broke the silence. Twice, Jim had allowed himself to extend his senses enough to hear the beating of Sandburg's heart and the whooshing of air in and out of his lungs. Both times, he'd managed to catch himself before slipping into a zone, doubly dangerous now with no guide to pull him out.

From several blocks away, Jim heard the chime of a church bell. Four AM. He rubbed his tired eyes and leaned forward to study Blair's still face. Simon was dozing in the corner, his head tilted back against the wall behind his chair. Outside the room, the city slept peacefully. It would be dawn in a couple of hours. The hospital would come alive. Meals would be served to those conscious and able to eat, babies would be born, and the unfortunate would die. And maybe, just maybe, Sandburg would awaken.

Right now, he certainly showed no signs of it. Jim's hand found its way back to his partner's arm, absently stroking the cool skin in long, slow movements. At least, there was no fever yet. All in all, the night was peaceful and quiet. When Jim did speak, it was softly, in hopes of not disturbing Simon's rest. His captain was a good man, a better friend than Jim had ever had any right to hope he would be. Simon had stuck beside them throughout their journey into the mystical and often confusing world of sentinels and guides. He had remained at Jim's side throughout this long night. He deserved some rest.

Jim bent close to Blair's face and murmured. "Chief? It's okay now. You can wake up, buddy. You're safe. I'm here, and Simon's here." He laid his hand alongside Blair's cheek, feeling the nearly day-old stubble scratch his sensitive skin, and beneath that, the warmth of his living, breathing partner. He dialed up his sense of touch slightly, just to increase that reassuring feeling of life beneath his fingertips.

"God knows, you had me scared this time. I know you've told me again and again that these senses are a gift, but...." Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly as he fought for control. "Sometimes, I wonder about that, y'know? I heard those kids dying, Chief. I heard you being slammed around in that bus like a ping pong ball. Heard you whisper my name as you lost consciousness. What if...?" Jim's voice broke, and he bowed his head for a long minute before he could continue. "What if I'd heard you die, too? What if I'd had to live with that? Always hearing...."

With his focus on Blair, he hadn't heard Simon awaken, hadn't heard his friend come alongside the narrow bed. "Jim," Simon said in a voice laden with compassion. "Don't do this to yourself."

Ellison immediately withdrew back into his self-imposed cocoon of control, but he left his palm resting against Blair's face, cupping his cheek in his big hand. "Sorry, sir. I didn't mean to disturb you."

Banks moved closer to the bed and peered down at Blair. "No bother. Have you seen any signs he might be coming out of it?"

"Not yet. The doctor said not to expect him to wake up until morning, if then. All the anesthesia and the shock from the accident...." His voice trailed off.

Stretching his long limbs, Simon suggested, "How about some coffee? I think I'll wander down to the cafeteria. They start serving at five." He glanced at his watch's glowing dial. "It's 4:40 now. By the time I slip out for a puff or two, it'll be open."

Not taking his eyes from Blair's face, Jim nodded.

Simon laid a strong hand on Jim's shoulder and squeezed. "He's made it through the night, Jim. The doctor said he'd be okay if he hung on through the night. Blair's gonna be okay."

Again, Ellison's only reply was a brief nod.

Simon squeezed Jim's shoulder again, then slipped out.

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

The coffee was strong. Jim was vaguely aware of the fact and automatically dialed down his sense of taste. At least it was hot, and perhaps the caffeine surge would be enough to sustain him another few hours. Simon had gone to the cafeteria again for a late morning breakfast, promising to bring Jim a plate when he returned.

Ellison was exhausted. In his career as soldier, special forces officer, cop and detective, he was well acquainted with fatigue. He knew how to push himself to his limits, and then beyond, how to shove down the warning signs of fatigue, to carry on well past the point where his body demanded rest and still perform his job better than most men who were still fresh and rested.

This was different.

Jim was emotionally drained, devoid of energy. He was bone-deep tired and soul weary. Physical stress, he could deal with; emotional stress was much more difficult.

If only Sandburg would wake up.

The sentinel's sensitive ears were teased by a slight change in Sandburg's breathing. He didn't need the beeping of the heart monitor to inform him that his guide's heart rate had increased. He leaned forward expectantly.

"Chief?" Jim covered Blair's hand with his own, squeezing gently, reassuring his awakening friend of his presence. "I'm here, Blair. You're all right. It's safe to wake up now. Open your eyes."

The dark lashes fluttered lightly against his pale cheeks as a low moan emerged from the long-silent throat.

"That's it, kid. That's the way," Jim encouraged. "Take your time. Listen to my voice and follow it back." Reaching out, Jim stroked the hair back from Blair's forehead. "That's what I do when I zone, right? Follow your voice, your touch...you...back from the edge. You need to do that now, Sandburg. Follow me back home." He continued the soft, low litany, not consciously thinking about what he was saying. The words weren't important anyway; Jim knew that from his own experiences with zone-outs. It was the sound...the touch...the love that called him home to Blair, and it was those things that would bring the younger man back to him now.

He hoped.

Time passed slowly - the sentinel was never certain how much - and at last, heavy lids slowly opened to reveal tired, confused blue eyes.

Laying one hand tenderly atop Blair's head, Jim whispered, "Hey, there. Welcome back." He threaded his fingers into the soft curls and rubbed gently.

Blair's voice was so soft, so hoarse, only a sentinel could have understood. "Jim...hey...yourself." He hesitated a moment before adding, "My...students... How...?

Shaking his head, Jim's eyes burned with hot tears. Gentle hands cupped Sandburg's face, as he bent lower. "Blair...." His voice was rough with emotion. "You've had surgery, and you've been badly hurt. We'll talk about everything later, I promise. For now, you need to rest."

The hoarse whisper was emphatic. "No!" Blair leaned into the hand cupping the right side of his face. "Please...? I...need...to know."

Jim moved his hand back to the pale cheek, and at once, Sandburg leaned into his touch. Jim's thumb tenderly stroked Blair's face, lying so heavy in his palm. Ever since he'd accepted that Sandburg was going to survive, he had been dreading this moment. He looked into the questioning blue eyes and savored the warmth - the life - he held in his hands. Blair had brought so much joy to his life, had given him the priceless gifts of light and color and laughter. The weight in his hand reminded him that along with the happiness came an almost numbing responsibility. His prayers had been granted, and now, it was time to share the terrible news. It was time to break his best friend's heart.

Blair was waiting calmly. A small smile, trembling slightly at the corners, encouraged Jim. "It's okay, man," he whispered, more clearly now. "It's...okay."

Jim nodded, closing his eyes for a moment as he resigned himself to the task. "I'm so sorry, Chief." Jim laid his free hand on the slim shoulders, keeping the other against Blair's face. "No one else made it out alive. The force of the crash, the violent rolling, and the fire...." Unable to continue, he shook his head. More words were unnecessary. The blow had been struck.

Blair's eyes shut as he took a deep, shuddering breath. A single tear slipped from under tightly-closed lids to trickle down a bruised cheek. "All of them...?"

"A couple of students survived the crash," Jim explained gently. "But they died on the way to the hospital. The driver was DOA at the emergency room. All the others...." He hesitated, then added, "They never stood a chance, buddy. I'm sorry."

Looking up at Jim, Blair shook his head. "No, not your fault, Jim. Not yours...." He fell silent, and his eyes closed wearily once again.

For a long time, Jim sat beside his friend, stroking his hair, rubbing his arm and shoulder, letting him know through his touch that he was not alone. A pretty nurse slipped in to check his readings and asked a few questions. Blair's answers were polite, but short. He made none of his usual efforts at conversation. After a time, Sandburg's breathing evened out, his heartbeat slowed, and he slept.

Ellison watched as the welcome forgetfulness of sleep claimed his friend. "Sleep, Blair," he whispered, running his sensitive fingertips across the full brows, then stroking lightly at his temples. "Rest. I'll be right here when you're ready to wake up again. Sleep now...."

He sent up a silent prayer that dreams would spare his friend.

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

"Detective Ellison, I'm Dr. Lopez, a psychologist on staff here at Cascade General." The brunette woman motioned to an empty chair in her office as she closed the door behind Jim. "Have a seat, please. There are some things I need to discuss with you."

Jim settled himself in the chair across from the large desk as Karen Lopez sat down in her chair and opened the case file in front of her. An uneasy feeling settled dully in the pit of his stomach. Whatever the psychologist who had been seeing Blair the past few days had to say, he didn't think it was going to be good.

"I understand you are to be Mr. Sandburg's primary caregiver during his recovery period?" Dr. Lopez removed her glasses after scanning the file and leaned back in her chair. Her warm brown eyes held Jim's gaze firmly.

Jim decided that his initial impression was correct. He liked this woman. Middle-aged with touches of gray in her black hair, she was forthright, but seemed to be genuinely concerned about Blair's well-being. He smiled, then nodded. "That's right. He lives with me, and his mother is out of touch at the moment."

The doctor cocked her head and studied Jim appraisingly. "You feel you are qualified for this task?"

Jim's sense of misgiving returned. What was she suggesting? "I was a trained medic in the military, and I've cared for Blair before when he's been injured," he pointed out, making an effort to keep his voice even. "I can handle it this time, too."

"I have no doubt about your ability to take care of Mr. Sandburg physically," Dr. Lopez agreed. "I'm more concerned about his psychological health. In the three sessions we've had here, he has been...reluctant...to discuss the events of that night or his own feelings about what occurred. This is a very dangerous thing, Detective Ellison."

The muscle in Jim's jaw tightened as he stared across the desk. "Dangerous? What are you saying, Doctor?"

Dr. Lopez leaned forward and spoke with great seriousness. "I'm talking about survivor guilt. Blair Sandburg was the only survivor of a deadly accident in which a number of students for whom he was personally responsible perished. Of course, we all know the accident was not his fault. However, Mr. Sandburg may see things differently. From what I know of his personality, he is a deeply caring and empathetic individual. Yet, he is bottling up his emotions internally, refusing to discuss anything about the accident. That's a deadly combination, Detective. Before I can sign off on his release, I have to officially recommend that he attend regular counseling sessions, and I need your assurance that you, as his caretaker and friend, will see that he gets them. It's also important that he be able to turn to you during this time, to talk with you about his feelings and pain."

She took a deep breath. "Years ago, when situations with insurance were different, I never would have released Mr. Sandburg so soon. He would have received intensive psychological therapy here in the hospital." She shrugged helplessly. "Today, my options are limited. When the doctors feel he is no longer in any physical danger, he goes home. I need your assurance, Detective Ellison, that you will see to his emotional needs as well as his physical ones."

"Of course. Because of Blair's association with the Cascade PD, he's eligible to see our therapists. I'll get him there." Jim smiled tightly. "Sandburg loves to talk. Maybe he's a bit clammed up right now because it's so soon after the accident. He'll talk, though. Blair Sandburg won't stay quiet about this too long."

Secretly, Jim hoped he wasn't making a big mistake about how Blair would cope with the aftereffects of the tragedy.

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

Sandburg was ready to return home a week after Jim's discussion with Dr. Lopez. The intervening time in the hospital had been spent mostly in sleep. It worried the sentinel that his guide seemed unable to remain awake for more than a few minutes at a time.

"Don't let it concern you too much," Dr. Bledsoe had reassured him when Jim had brought the matter to his attention. "Long periods of sleep are not uncommon in patients who have experienced emotional, as well as physical, trauma. It's the psyche's way of coping with events that may be too huge to face at the moment."

"An avoidance strategy," Jim said glumly.

"In a manner of speaking," the doctor agreed. "But only because he's not able yet to cope with all the emotional turmoil thinking about the wreck would entail. When he's ready, he'll deal with what happened." Thoughtfully, the doctor added, "Just be sure he does deal with it, Detective Ellison. Something like this could destroy him if he tries to bury what happened deep down inside. When he does begin to face up to what happened, it will be important that he has someone there for him."

"I've already had this discussion with Dr. Lopez. I'll get him help, and I'll be there for him, Doctor," Jim assured him with a tight smile. "I'll definitely be there."

And Jim had been, from the moment they arrived home from the hospital. Blair had been granted leave from Rainier for the remainder of the semester, to heal emotionally and physically. Many of his colleagues and friends, along with other students, had called and come by. The young anthropologist would speak briefly with them on the phone, but so far, he hadn't wanted to see anyone from Rainier in person.

"I'm just not ready for that yet, Jim," Blair would say. "Later. When it's all not quite so fresh."

Jim accepted the explanation and made Blair's wishes known to the concerned friends who came calling. Except for Simon's visits, they saw no one at home in the loft.

Blair went to physical therapy twice a week, and every other day, Jim helped his friend to the elevator and into his truck for his visits to one of the police department psychologists. Blair remained tight-lipped about what went on during the sessions, and Jim didn't pry too persistently. As long as Blair was in a counselor's hands, he figured the young man was trying to get a handle on all that had happened. Maybe he just wasn't ready to open up yet to Jim. Still, Dr. Lopez had insisted that it was important for Blair to talk about his feelings not only with his counselor but with his friends as well.

The days slipped by as if sliding on the ice that had caused the tragedy. Jim watched Blair surreptitiously as he prepared dinner during the second week after Sandburg's release. The unexpected cold snap had abated, but the air remained seasonably chilly. Blair stood on the balcony, leaning heavily on his crutches. His head was bowed, and small clouds of cold fog rose into the air with each breath. Focusing his hearing, the sentinel could hear the small hitches in his friend's breathing which spoke of threatening tears.

Wiping his hands on a dishcloth, Jim turned down the eye on the stove and joined his partner.

"Hey, Chief," he said softly, moving to stand beside the silent young man. "Kinda chilly out here tonight. Want to move inside where it's warm?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm fine, Jim. I just needed some air." He jerked his head toward the living room. "You can go inside if you're cold. I'll come in soon."

Jim chuckled easily. "You know me, Chief, never cold. I'll get a little air myself, if you don't mind the company."

Sandburg shrugged but didn't reply.

Jim monitored his friend's breathing. Still slightly ragged, unsteady. The younger man was visibly upset, and every ounce of protective compassion Ellison possessed for his guide rose within him. There had to be something he could do.

"Blair, if you want to talk about this...."

Abruptly, he was cut off. "I said I was fine, Jim. Really. I just wanted some fresh air, that's all." Turning away, he opened the loft door. "I'm not hungry, but I'm a little tired. Think I'll lie down awhile. You go ahead and eat without me." Limping on his crutches, Blair disappeared into his room and firmly shut the French doors behind him.

Shutting me out, Jim thought helplessly, staring at the closed doors. Chief, why the hell won't you let me help?

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

The next few days brought no change. Blair remained quiet - too quiet - and distant. Jim's attempts to get him to talk, to open up about the wreck, were unsuccessful.

Two weeks after returning from the hospital, Jim went back to work. Sandburg had insisted there was no need for the detective to stay in the loft any longer to nurse him. His leg remained encased in its cast, but it wasn't hurting badly. His other injuries were healing slowly, and the discomfort from the surgery had subsided to a bearable level without pain pills. Jim came home at lunch every day to drive Blair for his appointments with his psychologist and physical therapists, and whenever he had appointments for check-ups with his medical doctors. Yet, during all their time together, Blair never discussed the accident and never told him how his sessions were going other than a tiny smile and a brief, "Great, Jim."

Three days after Jim's return to Major Crimes, Simon watched from his office window as the detective stared at the phone. He wants to call Sandburg, Simon thought. Ellison had that 'Blessed Protector' look on his face, the one that clearly stated that he was concerned for his partner and that Blair only had to say the word, and he would be at his side in an instant. Simon sighed in frustration. He knew Jim was worried about the kid, and, truth be told, so was he. Blair had been too accepting of the deaths of his students, too quiet about whatever was going on inside him.

Blair had been unable to attend any of the funerals. Most of the young people had been from out of the state, and by the time Sandburg was released from the hospital, the funerals had all been conducted. The memorial service at Rainier had also been held while Blair was still recovering. The combination of events bothered Simon. The kid had been denied the chance to achieve the closure such ceremonies can bring, and he wouldn't let Jim get close enough to help. Simon was willing to bet that Blair wasn't opening up to the department shrink either.

It had been obvious from the first day he came back to work that Jim was uncomfortable about leaving Sandburg alone in the loft. Blair had insisted, the detective explained helplessly to Simon, and as long as Sandburg wouldn't let him help, what more could he do? Maybe all the kid needed was some time alone.

It was obvious that Jim didn't believe his own lie.

Banks watched as Jim lifted his hand from the phone but continued to sit staring at the receiver. Once more, his hand hovered over it, his fingers nearly touching, then again, he withdrew. Unable to tolerate the display any longer, Simon called to him softly, knowing the sentinel would hear even through his closed office door. "Jim, come in here a minute, would you?"

Ellison's head snapped up, and he saw Simon watching him. Immediately, he left his desk and headed for Simon's office.

"Close the door," the captain requested, sitting down in one of the chairs facing his desk. "How are you, Jim?"

"Fine, sir." Jim complied, settling himself in across from his commanding officer. "I still haven't received the tox screen on...."

Banks interrupted him and stopped his report on the Warren case with a dismissive wave. "Relax. This isn't business, Jim, so don't you dare lie to me. I know damned well you aren't fine. How's the kid?"

The cool, detached professionalism evaporated, and Jim's eyes clouded with concern. He shook his head. "I'm worried about him, Simon. He seems almost okay on the outside, aside from being way too quiet, but I get the feeling Sandburg's like this volcano, y'know? All those emotions, all that sadness and guilt, bottled up inside him, just waiting to explode. He's still attending his therapy sessions, but...." Jim shrugged. "I don't know if he's talking to his doctor or not. He won't tell me anything, and of course, the shrink won't say a word to me. Doctor/patient confidentiality and all."

"Have you talked with Blair?"

"Damned stubborn kid! Sandburg's always bugging me to talk to him, to let him into my head, to open up and tell him everything I'm thinking and feeling, but when it comes to his emotions, he closes up tighter than any clam!"

Springing gracefully to his feet, Jim paced the floor, his frustration clearly almost too much to contain. "I've tried, Simon! Damn it, I've tried! He insists that he's fine, that he's thankful to be alive, and that in a few more weeks, he'll be as good as new. The thing is, I know he's lying, and he has to know that I know. He doesn't sleep, but when I go in to him, he ignores me and pretends he's asleep. Blair's trying everything he can to avoid me, to keep from discussing this. I can literally feel the pain he's in, but, damn it, he just won't open up!" Slamming his fist against the wall, Jim stared out Simon's office window.

"And you're here?" Simon watched Jim's broad back, waiting for his reaction.

Slowly, Ellison turned to face him. "What do you mean?"

Banks chuckled, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded behind his head as he regarded his friend. "I mean, your place is with Blair right now. I've been watching you, Ellison, and I'm a pretty damn good detective myself, remember. You're here in body, but your mind is definitely elsewhere. Look, you're not going to be much good to me as long as you're this worried about Sandburg. Go home. Shake him, shame him, do whatever it is you two do to reconnect or bond or...." Simon threw up his hands in surrender. "Hell, Jim, you know I don't understand most of this stuff about sentinels and guides, and I really don't think I want to. All I know is that when something's wrong with that kid, you're in pain, and when you're not one hundred percent, Sandburg hurts right along with you."

Simon stood up and grasped Jim's arm, escorting him to the door. "Go. Take care of your partner. Come back when you know in your gut that Blair's all right. I'll take it out of your vacation time or sick leave or...something. Just go."

Jim didn't hesitate. "Thanks, Simon. I really appreciate this." He flashed a relieved grin. "I think I'll call first and see what he wants for lunch. You never can tell with Sandburg. Sometimes he's this health food junky, next day, he's got a craving for a pizza."

"Use my phone, Jim," Simon offered, moving to sit behind his desk. "Just make it quick. I've got a conference in ten minutes." He opened a file and began reading.

Jim picked up the receiver and dialed the number for the loft. As Simon watched, his eyes grew puzzled, then, after a few more rings, obviously concerned.

"Something wrong, Jim?"

"He's not answering, Simon. The machine's not picking up either. He can't get anywhere on that leg by himself yet. Something's going on. I've gotta get home. Now!" Jim threw open the door and strode through the bullpen.

Without a word, Simon Banks grabbed his coat and followed Jim Ellison out of his office.

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

"Sandburg!" Jim called as he slammed the loft door behind them. "Blair!"

No answer.

Focusing his hearing and sniffing the air, he immediately located his partner in the small bedroom tucked beneath his own. Jim covered the distance at a full run with Simon right behind him.

Now wasn't the time for social niceties. Jim's concern overrode Sandburg's right to privacy. Throwing wide the French doors, Jim burst into Sandburg's room. "Sandburg?" He recoiled sharply in shock.

Blair sat on his rumpled bed in a half-lotus position facing them, Jim's personal revolver from the bureau upstairs lying on the coverlet in front of him. Empty blue eyes stared down at the gun, and he didn't acknowledge the entrance of Jim and Simon. Beside the gun lay a bottle of pain pills, its contents spilled haphazardly across the bed.

Jim and Simon exchanged quick glances. Simon started forward, but Jim blocked him with his arm and shook his head. The taller man took a step back and waited.

"Chief?" Jim said softly. "Blair? I was worried about you."

Jim Ellison was as scared as he could ever remember being in his life, but only the subtle underlying fear in his voice and the intermittent tightening of his jaw muscle betrayed him.

Taking one slow, hesitant step toward the bed, then another...and another...Jim continued to talk softly. "Blair, we need to talk, buddy. It's way past time we did. I know you're upset, that the last few weeks have been tough, but this isn't the answer."

Jim froze in his tracks at Blair's hard laughter, so unlike him. "Then what is, Jim? What the hell is the answer, man? If you know, then I sure as hell wish you'd share it with me, 'cause I ain't got a clue any more!" The final word was broken by a strange, choked sound, but Jim wasn't sure if it was a chuckle or a sob.

Blair's head jerked up, and Jim was stunned at the hopelessness in the depths of his blue eyes. "I wasn't gonna do it here, y'know. I wouldn't do that to you, Jim. Not ever, man. I know what...finding me like that...would do to you. You'd never get out from under that load of guilt, would you? I was gonna leave before you got home. Gonna go...." Shrugging, he shook his head in frustration. "Hell, I don't know - somewhere. Maybe some place no one would find me for a long, long time. Save everyone the trouble of a funeral, right?"

Looking down at the gun, Blair's voice grew bitterly cold. "Which way do you think would be easiest, huh? You're the death expert, right, Jim? Pills...." He gestured toward the bottle. "Or a bullet in the brain?" Blair's trembling right hand caressed the cold steel of the gun, his index finger lingering on the trigger, while he touched his temple with the fingers of his left.

Jim fought off the sudden chill of horror brought forth by that image. Moving cautiously, he eased down on the edge of the small futon bed. He kept his hands quietly in his lap, in plain view, never reaching to touch his friend. Jim knew that he couldn't afford to spook Sandburg now, not while the gun was so close. "Why, Chief? Why?" He struggled to keep the frustration and anger Blair's words had triggered out of his voice.

Sandburg shook his head, staring at Jim in disbelief. "You really don't get it, do you?" His haunted blue eyes pleaded desperately with Jim for understanding. "They all died, man! All of them! Marissa and Michael and Antoine and Sarah and...all of them! My class is dead, Jim! They were so young, just beginning their lives, and suddenly, they're dead!! They sat in my class all semester, expecting me to teach them something about life, trusting me with their minds, and then their lives, and just look what I've done to them! They're all dead, man, and I'm still here!" Blair snatched up the gun so quickly, Jim didn't have time to reach out first.

Blair fought to scramble past Jim on the narrow bed as best he could with his heavy cast, seeking escape, but Ellison's arm darted out, capturing the wrist of the hand holding the gun. "Give me the gun, Sandburg. Let me have it." Jim's voice remained soft, even as his steely grip held his friend's arm motionless.

Simon started forward, then stopped at a warning look from Jim. "No, Simon. This is between us. There are some things that need to be said if Blair's ever going to start healing."

With Jim momentarily distracted, Sandburg began to struggle in earnest for both his freedom and the gun. Jim was just as determined not to release him, but the sentinel was limited in the amount of force he was willing to use. All Sandburg needed now was a broken wrist to match his broken leg.

"Let me go, Jim!" Blair hissed. "If this is what I want, then...."

Suddenly, Jim's grip slipped, and Blair's finger jerked on the trigger. There was a loud explosion and a bullet ripped through the air. "Damn it!" Simon shouted, ducking down for cover.

Jim felt the bullet fly past his left ear, its roar temporarily leaving a buzzing noise as its calling card. The sentinel clearly heard the thud the bullet made as it entered the wall behind him, and he mentally counted the layers of wood it penetrated before coming to a stop in the wooden stud. Jim's shocked blue eyes held Sandburg's, and he watched Blair's horror build as the young man realized what had nearly happened.

The two men held their silent pose for a long moment, their eyes locked together. At last, Blair let his hand fall to his side as Jim's hold on his wrist loosened. "Oh, God. Jim, I...I'm sorry. I...I almost killed you. Take it, man," he said bitterly. "I can't even kill myself without screwing it up."

"Blair...?" Jim whispered, but before he could continue, Sandburg rolled off the bed, picked up his crutches, and limped brokenly into the living room.

Tossing the gun to Simon, Jim followed right behind. "Sandburg!"

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

Blair stood beside the shelves in the living room, leaning against the wall and breathing heavily from the exertion of his walk combined with his highly emotional state. The crutches lay abandoned at his feet. He wrapped his arms tightly around himself, hunched over slightly as he ranted. "It's all my fault, you know! If I hadn't come up with this brilliant idea to take the whole class to Vancouver, they wouldn't have been on that bus! Damn it all! They would be alive right now!"

With an anguished cry, Blair turned and began ripping books from the shelves, slamming them to the floor. "What the hell was I doing? Why can't I ever leave well enough alone, huh?" Taking the carefully reconstructed remains of an ancient vase given to him by the site director of a dig he was on in South America, Blair heaved it across the room, shattering the television screen. The vase broke into a hundred pieces, scattering across the floor like ice cubes. Blair moaned at the pain the effort cost him, and he hunched over even further for an instant.

A broken sob escaped as he straightened up and faced the stunned sentinel and Simon Banks. "What do you know about it anyway, Jim?" Blair shouted angrily. "You're not a teacher! They were my students! I was responsible for them! And I killed them! Do you know how much their parents must hate me? Their brothers? Their sisters? Their friends? Those kids had their entire lives ahead of them! They didn't deserve this!" With another agonized cry, he braced his shoulder against a bookcase and shoved, sending it crashing to the floor.

The strain sent another stabbing ache through his abdomen, and Blair cried out again, nearly doubling over with the intensity of the pain. He staggered forward and began tearing the remaining objects from the shelves of the second bookcase, crashing them furiously to the floor.

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

As if suddenly released from a trance, Jim broke out of his shock and rushed to his partner. "Blair! Stop it! Listen to me!" Moving in front of his friend, Jim tried to still the younger man's fury with his own powerful arms. Sandburg struggled against him violently, lashing out with his arms and trying to kick with his one good leg only to stumble, landing heavily on his cast with a whimper of pain.

"Sandburg! Chief! Listen to me! You have to stop this." The last thing Jim wanted was to hurt Blair, but he couldn't allow him to damage the still-healing repairs the surgeons had made. The sentinel worked his way behind the distraught man, wrapping his arms around Blair from behind, then wrestling him to the floor, with Sandburg fighting him every inch of the way. He maneuvered himself beneath Blair so that his own body cushioned the younger man's fall.

As soon as they hit the floor, Jim wrapped his longer legs around Blair's, captured his flailing arms beneath his own, and held on tightly. "Easy...easy now," Jim murmured softly, lowering his head to whisper into Blair's ear. "Easy, Blair. Shhhhhh... shhhhh...shhhh. Stop fighting me, Chief. You're going to hurt yourself." The curls pressed against his face were drenched with perspiration, and beneath the stink of the sweat, he could smell Blair's fear.

Sandburg continued to struggle, to fight Jim with every ounce of his waning strength, but he was too weakened to keep up the battle for long. At last, he slumped weakly back against Jim's chest in surrender, panting hard. Jim could feel Blair's heart pounding through his back without extending his senses in the least.

Jim felt the fight drain from Blair's tense body as the emotional pain took over. When he was certain that the struggle was over, Jim tenderly turned Blair in his arms so that the younger man's face was pressed against his broad chest. Slowly, Sandburg's arms encircled him, only to tighten desperately as the sobs grew harder. Jim closed his eyes in relief as he felt Blair bury his face deeper into his sentinel's chest.

"I'm...sorry, Jim," he whispered brokenly. "Never meant...to drag you...into this. I...almost...killed you. Oh...God...what have I done?"

Lightly, Jim kissed Blair's sweaty temple before resting his cheek against the soft curls. "Let it out, Chief," he whispered. "Just let it out. I'm all right. You didn't hurt me. Everything's going to be all right. I've got you, and I'm not letting go. You're safe with me. You know that, right? It's okay. You can let it all go now, Blair."

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

Simon caught Jim's eye, asking silently if Ellison needed any help. Jim shook his head slightly, indicating that he had everything as well under control as it could be at the moment. "Just get that pillow over there, Simon, and slide it under his cast," he said quietly, indicating with his eyes a throw pillow lying on the couch. After Simon carefully lifted the injured leg and slipped the pillow beneath it, he retreated back to stand behind the couch.

Blair's tears began in earnest, no longer the hot tears of anger, but the slow, painful tears of despair. He clung to Jim Ellison like a lifeline, his last remaining link to sanity. Jim almost completely enveloped Blair, using his strong body to shield his partner from his own out-of-control emotions. Jim's cheek rested against the top of Blair's head, nuzzling him gently as he murmured to the exhausted young man. The two men huddled so closely in the debris scattered around them, they seemed almost one.

Simon moved onto the balcony, closing the door softly behind him.

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

"Why, Jim?" Blair whispered after Simon closed the door. The question was asked so softly, even the sentinel's ears barely heard.

Unconsciously, Jim began to slowly rock them back and forth as if to comfort Blair with the soothing motion. "I don't know, Blair," he whispered helplessly, his head bent so low that his lips brushed Blair's ear as he spoke. "I honestly don't know."

Jim tightened his embrace, wishing he could magically remove his friend's pain, but knowing such protection was far beyond his limited abilities. "I know you like to think there's an order to the universe, that everything happens for a reason. That there are no coincidences."

Jim paused and hugged Blair tighter while he collected his thoughts. Lifting his head, he surveyed the damaged living room and nodded his reassurance to Simon, waiting on the balcony. "I don't think that's true, though. Not all the time. You asked me why. Why they died. Why you survived. I honestly don't know. Maybe there is no reason, no explanation. Or maybe there is, but it's not meant for us to understand. You know I'd do anything to help you right now, but I just don't have those answers for you, Chief."

Jim's shirt was damp with tears, and the sentinel could feel their hot wetness seeping through to soak his chest. He could taste the saltiness when his lips brushed Blair's face as he bent close once again to whisper to him. "I do know one thing, without a doubt. I do understand what you're feeling right now, but it was not your fault."

Carefully, he eased Blair away from him, just enough to look down into the pain-filled blue eyes. "Listen to me, Chief. What happened was not your fault."

When Blair shook his head, his eyes still brimming with unshed tears, Jim shook him gently. "You listen to me. When that chopper went down in Peru, I was the commander of that unit. Those boys followed me onto that helicopter, right to their deaths. That must mean it was my fault that they died." He waited, his hands holding Blair tightly, his eyes never wavering, demanding an answer. "Right?"

Immediately, Blair denied Jim's assertion, his own pain momentarily forgotten in his concern for his sentinel. "No! You didn't cause the crash! You can't blame yourself for something you...." The light dawned, and Blair's eyes closed in pain, his head dropping low in shame. "But, they wouldn't have been there if I...."

Tenderly, Jim slipped two fingers beneath Blair's chin and tilted his head upward. "Look at me, Chief." Watery blue eyes flickered open. Jim smiled softly. "It wasn't your fault. I know you, Blair Sandburg, and I know you would have died to save those kids. There was absolutely nothing you could have done. Just as there was nothing I could have done to save my men. It's a damned hard truth to accept, Chief, but an important one."

At last, Blair nodded slowly, and Jim continued in a voice roughened by the powerful emotions churning within him. "As to why you survived, I don't know, but I'm thankful for it. If it makes me selfish to be glad you were the one who lived, then so be it. I'm sorry the others didn't survive; believe me, I am, but that doesn't stop me from being so damned grateful to have found you on that bus alive."

Sandburg buried his face against Jim again, and once more, Ellison pulled him close. They sat for several minutes in silence, rocking gently, neither man yet willing to relinquish the comfort their closeness brought.

Finally, Jim whispered, "One more thing, Sandburg. You ripped my heart out in there a few minutes ago, did you know that? I know it hurts like hell, Blair. I know it does, but don't you dare think about leaving me that way, do you understand me?"

Jim swallowed hard against the tightness in his throat as he pressed his lips hard against the soft skin of Blair's temple, shuddering at the terrifying image of his own gun's barrel pressed there. Jim laid his cheek back against the matted, sweaty hair. "I may not always be able to protect you. I know that. Some day I may lose you, and God help me, I don't know what I'll do if that day comes. But, my God, Blair, do you have any idea what it would do to me if you...left...me the way you were thinking about a little while ago?"

Pulling Blair back away from him once more, Jim stared hard into his partner's eyes. "Promise me you won't ever let it get to that point again. I'm here, Sandburg, right here. With you. Damn it, I love you. We're in this thing together. You get that far down again, you come to me. I swear to you, I'll do everything in my power to keep you from falling that far, but if you do, you find me. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing, you find me and let me help pull you back up. You don't want to talk to some shrink, fine. Talk to me. I swear to you, I'll listen. Just don't ever think about doing something like that again. You'd destroy us both. Remember that. Promise me."

Blair's voice was a broken whisper, but the vow rang clearly in Jim's ears. "I promise, Jim. I won't leave you that way; I promise you."

Ellison huddled over him and around Blair, clutching him so closely, it was difficult to distinguish the arms and legs of one from those of the other. Murmuring mindlessly, Jim let him cry, willingly giving Blair the safety of his arms, a place to release the pain and the regret.

In time, Simon slipped in from the balcony. Jim glanced up, so wrapped up in Blair's need that he barely acknowledged his captain's presence. Banks moved to crouch down beside them. Blair's swollen face rested against Jim's neck, burrowed into the comforting warmth like a child escaping a nightmare.

"You'll be okay?" he asked quietly, resting a supportive hand on Jim's shoulder.

Jim nodded briefly, never lifting his head from Sandburg's. "Yes, sir. We'll be fine now."

Standing and stretching, Simon nodded. "Take care of him. I don't want to see you at the station until Monday morning. I also want him to set up daily appointments with his department psychologist. That's every day, Jim. You've made a start here, but he still has a long way to go." Simon began to walk toward the door. "Is that clear, Detective?" Banks looked back sternly, his hand on the doorknob.

Never a man to disobey a direct order, Jim replied, "Perfectly, sir." Before his captain opened the door, Jim added softly, "Thanks, Simon."

The loft door shut behind him, and they were alone. Jim glanced around at the debris scattered around the loft, suddenly very tired. Sandburg obviously had forgotten every house rule he'd ever been taught. Listening to the deep breathing and the heart beating so close to his own, in nearly perfect rhythm, Jim realized that Blair had fallen into a deep sleep, and he smiled with relief.

All that was broken could be replaced. The life cradled in his arms could not. Leaning back against the wall, he adjusted Sandburg to rest more comfortably against him, then tightened his embrace once more.

His eyes fell to the pages of an open book, lying haphazardly where it had fallen during Sandburg's rage.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

What is essential? Jim wondered absently. Not that much, really. Air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink.

And this....

....this feeling of fierce love for the one whose life had become more valuable to him than his own. Blair Sandburg was essential to him. There was no hesitancy in admitting it; there hadn't been for a long time.

Jim closed his eyes, dialing down his discomfort from sitting on the hard floor with Sandburg's full weight against him. He had no desire to move to a more comfortable location and disturb his friend. Blair was sleeping soundly at last, and at that moment, nothing else mattered. Taking a deep breath, Jim allowed himself to slip a little closer to sleep himself. "Hang in there, Chief," he whispered before drifting away. "It's not going to be easy, but I'm here. We'll make it through, I promise you. Trust me."

Outside the safety of the loft, the city went about its business, and across the country, families grieved for young lives lost too soon. Inside, a sentinel held his guide, protecting him, enfolding him, supporting him until he was strong enough to stand on his own once more.

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

Six months later....

Rainier University was quiet, lazily slumbering in the rainy spring night. The term had ended that day, and already, the campus was nearly deserted. A lone figure stood before an unblemished marble monument carved in the shape of a star. On its glistening surface were carved the names of those whose lives had been cut short on a cold, icy night six months earlier.

The young man reached out, touching first that fateful date, then tracing each name with his fingertip. Names as familiar to him now as his own; names to match the faces that he would never forget. The light rain that fell had dampened the marble, sending drops falling like tears to the earth below.

He had attended the dedication ceremony earlier in the day. There had been throngs of people then - friends and family of the young victims, along with professors and counselors and acquaintances. Standing at the edge of the crowd, he had listened to the speeches and had slipped away unnoticed, which was fine with him. This had been their day, not his. That ceremony had belonged to the dead, not to the one left behind.

Now, he had returned to pay his own private tribute.

He whispered each name aloud as he traced its letters. When he had finished, he laid both palms flat against the monument, closed his eyes, and murmured a final good-bye. He stayed that way a long time, ignoring the raindrops soaking his hair and clothes, hands pressed against the incised marble. Remembering.

He considered it a minor miracle that he could remember now. Remember not only the horror of that night exactly six months ago, but the happy times that had come before. Equally as important, he could also see that in his life, there would once again be joy and laughter.

Six months had passed. Six months of hard work and healing.

As the clock in the tower behind him chimed nine times, he lifted his head and dropped his palms from the cold marble. Then, he turned away, straightening his shoulders in determination. It was time to move on with his life. Head held high, he walked away through the rain.

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

Jim kept watch in the darkness, leaning against his truck parked at the curb across the small park where the monument had been erected. The rain wasn't bothering him either. Compared to the importance of this night, getting a little wet was of no consequence. Jim was determined that Blair have this time in private to say his farewells, to complete this stage of his healing. It had been with a sense of relief that he had seen no one else at all since the twilight had given way to evening. Nearly two hours had passed since Sandburg had first approached the newly dedicated monument to the lost students of Rainier, but Jim would have stood there in the rain all night, if necessary.

The process of healing had been slow. After that violent night in the loft, a fissure had opened up in the dam of Blair's emotions. He began to talk, both to Jim and to his psychologist, slowly at first, then with building confidence, as if with each new revelation, it became easier for him to confide even more.

The process was far from over. It would never really end. As far as Jim was concerned, closure was a misnomer. There could never be closure for such a tragic event. Even when the counseling sessions eventually ceased, there would always be a part of Blair that would remain forever changed from this trauma. The cuts would heal, but the scars would always be with him.

Jim had learned that lesson the hard way.

It was far from over, but the healing was progressing. Blair could smile again, and Jim had even heard genuine laughter a few times. Amazing how that simple sound he had once taken for granted could now fill him with such deep gratitude. Blair could laugh again. What a blessing.

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

As he walked slowly away from the memorial, Blair saw Jim in the dim glow of the streetlamp, watching him. Knowing his sentinel could clearly see every nuance of his expression, hear each breath he took, Blair smiled as he walked toward the truck. Although he would always feel guilt for what he had put Jim through, would always cringe in horror at the thought of what he had nearly lost, Blair understood now that his dangerous facade had been doomed to crumble eventually. Even though Jim insisted he was thankful to have been there, grateful to have had the chance to help his guide, Blair knew it would be a long time before Jim got over the events following the accident. The bullet hole in his bedroom wall had been repaired, but the sentinel still had some healing of his own to go through.

He reached his friend and stood before him, just looking up at Jim, his face soaked with rain. As the sentinel gazed deeply into his eyes, Blair understood that Jim was measuring what he saw there. He knew that Jim was listening and focusing each sense, one by one, seeking to confirm that the wetness on Blair's cheeks came from raindrops, not tears...that his heart beat calmly and steadily...that the scents of pain and fear didn't mask his very essence. At last, Jim asked quietly, "Are you okay?"

Blair's voice was equally soft. "I'm okay, Jim. I promise."

For a long minute, the sentinel's head tilted to one side. Blair remained still under Jim's hands, allowing the obvious sensory scan of his heart rate and respiration, knowing that his friend had earned the right to conduct it.

Apparently satisfied with what he found, Jim nodded at last. One hand moved behind Blair's neck to cup it gently. "What do you need, Chief?"

Blair shook his head in wonder at his friend's concern, a smile teasing his lips. "I'm okay, man. Really. All I need is to go home, curl up with a cup of hot tea, and watch one of your action movies on TV. Maybe some popcorn." He cocked his head and grinned up at Jim. "Think you can handle that, big guy?"

Turning to open the truck door, Jim squeezed Blair's neck gently. "You got it, Junior. You got it."

As Jim turned the truck toward home, its headlights focused for an instant on the new, white marble monument, illuminating it in a flash of brilliant light. Blair looked from the tribute to his students over to Jim's face, clearly seeing the concern in his blue eyes. He smiled reassuringly. "Let's go home, Jim." Reaching over, he rested his hand on Jim's arm. "Let's go home."

Jim covered Blair's hand with his own for a moment. Then, he gripped the wheel again, and drove away through the spring rain.

The monument was left in darkness, and the campus once again wrapped in silence. Gradually, the light rain ceased, and the full moon emerged slowly from beneath its blanket of clouds. The moon's soft rays slipped down to earth, touching the glistening marble with their silvery light, and the names carved there glowing warmly throughout the night.

Finis...

The song, "New York Minute" is by Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar, and Jai Winding.

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