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

Note: This was originally published in the zine 'Hear No Evil'.

The Price of Silence

by Arianna

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

"Damn it, Sandburg, would you put a cork in it!" Ellison growled as he pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was hammering, with sharp, slashing bursts of pain, as if two lumberjacks were swinging their sharp axes at the stem of his brain.

"Be careful what you wish for, man, or you might just get it!" Blair chirped, blissfully unoffended as he continued to yammer on about one damned thing or another.

Sighing, Jim knew he was always telling Sandburg to 'zip it up', or to 'shut up', or Blair's avowed personal favourite, 'can it, motor-mouth!' and the kid had long past learned to ignore the routine snarls and sniping. Hell, if Sandburg paid attention every time he growled or glared, Blair would be shivering at shadows by now, afraid to move, speak or even breathe. Unfortunately it appeared Sandburg figured this was just one of those times when he was just letting off steam and hadn't registered that the complaint had been meant seriously.

"I mean it, Junior," Ellison grated, becoming seriously angry as the pain eroded the last of his limited supply of tolerance. "Open your mouth one more time and I swear I'll close it for you!"

Startled, Blair turned in his seat to stare at Jim, his mouth slightly agape, wide eyes conveying his shock as clearly as any words could have done. Had Jim just threatened him with actual physical violence? He couldn't believe it! "Don't you think that's a little over the top…" he began, but quickly pushed back against the side door, his hands in the air in the timeless gesture of surrender, when Jim snarled and reached for him, as if truly intending to smack him.

When Jim paused, glaring daggers at him, Blair moved one hand in a zipping motion over his lips, though his eyes were wide with a stunned disbelief that quickly darkened to fury. When Blair's hand shifted to the passenger side's handle, Jim wondered if Sandburg was debating whether to jump out of the truck, no doubt imagining how he would slam the door as he stomped off into the night.

But apparently duty held him in place.

Sandburg knew they were on an important stakeout, and that Jim might well need his back-up, especially if his headache was so bad it had pushed him past the boundaries of what even Ellison recognized was anything remotely considered civil interpersonal interaction. So instead of storming off, Sandburg shifted in his seat, pointedly crossing his arms and staring out into the darkness. Evidently, he'd decided he could pout just as effectively in the truck as he could in the alley.

Jim felt an immediate flash of contrite regret, but then the hammering in his head overwhelmed him again and he winced, sighed, muttered, "Finally…some peace," and turned away, trying to focus his sight and his hearing to detect if anyone was finally going to show up at this damned warehouse. Three nights they'd staked this place out. Three nights of not enough sleep on top of relentless days of the usual shit. Three days and nights of drinking umpteen cups of coffee until his hands were almost trembling from the caffeine. Seventy-two hours of too little rest…and too much sensory stimulation.

Though he knew Sandburg's feelings had been hurt, the quiet was blessedly welcome. He just couldn't handle the inanities of some bizarre mating ritual or the esoteric way any number of irrelevant and long vanished cultures had handled aggression and conflict. Not tonight, anyway.

Three blessed hours of silence later, with no action on their target, Rafe and H finally showed up to relieve them and, more grateful than he either looked or sounded, Jim started up the truck and headed back home.

As soon as Jim had parked the truck, Blair jumped out and wordlessly led the way into the building. Once they got into the loft, Sandburg went to the cupboard and pulled down the bottle of aspirin. Pointedly putting the pain medication on the counter with a glare that spoke volumes, Blair turned and went to his room and closed the door.

Jim sighed and shook his head, but then smiled a bit in spite of the pain stabbing through his head. Sandburg in a snit was actually pretty funny, and Jim reflected he'd have bet money the kid would never have been able to keep his mouth buttoned up for such a long stretch of time. Dry-swallowing three aspirin, he plodded up the stairs to his room, turned on the white noise generator and went to bed, sincerely hoping the headache would be gone by morning.

Which, he groaned to himself, was only four short hours away.

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

In his own room downstairs, Blair seethed as he pulled off his clothing and crawled into the bed. Staring into the darkness, he bit his lip as he remembered Jim actually reaching for him in the truck, as if prepared to make good on his threat. Sandburg didn't like to think Jim had really meant it, and couldn't bring himself to believe his best friend would have actually hit him, but the threat and the gesture had gone 'way past the line. Furious, Sandburg debated his options, mentally ticking them off in his head.

Option One: He could get up tomorrow and ignore it had ever happened, going on as usual, letting it slide as if it hadn't been important.

But it was important. This wasn't something Sandburg was prepared to let slide.

Option Two: Flip the finger at Jim in respect for his so well expressed desire for silent communication and move out.

But…that seemed just a tad over-reactive. Sandburg knew Jim was operating on adrenaline, over-stressed, exhausted and well past his limits of patience. And, no way had Ellison been faking the severity of that headache. He didn't get them that bad often, but Blair understood when he did. Headaches like that resulted from trying to keep excessive sensory stimulation at bay for too long without a respite, without adequate rest. Sighing, Sandburg rubbed his forehead, wondering if headaches were catching.

As he catalogued the reasons underlying Jim's outrageous behaviour that night, Blair found himself calming down. And as he did, he realized that no way would Jim have actually, really, hurt him. Jim had just been making his point, making it crystal clear, so there could be no possible confusion about the message that he was giving that he needed silence. And, maybe, Blair thought with a certain guilty resignation, maybe he should have respected that. He was supposed to be helping Jim handle his senses, not adding to Ellison's problems by nattering on and on when Jim was over-tired, in pain and struggling with sensory overload.

But Sandburg couldn't let it just go as if nothing had happened. Senses or no senses, Jim had to learn that threatening his roommate, friend, partner and Guide with violence was not, repeat, not acceptable.

So, Option Three: Blair smiled into the night as he considered a suitable retaliation. Hadn't he told Jim to be careful what he wished for? That he might get it? Well, if Jim wanted silence so damned much, then, well, he could have it. Sandburg decided he wasn't going to say another word to Ellison until his grumpy Sentinel had apologized, groveling sufficiently to remember the moment and not make the same mistake again.

Happily imagining Jim's frustration with an oh so silent partner, Blair drifted off to sleep.

And he dreamed….

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

When Jim woke the next day, he was very, very relieved to find that his headache was indeed gone, though he still felt tired and out of sorts. Sighing, he pushed himself up and reflected that it was only two more days to the weekend, days off, and sleep. Endless, beautiful hours of uninterrupted sleep.

When he got downstairs, he wasn't surprised that Blair was still snoring softly in his room. Banging on the door on the way to take his shower, Jim called, "Up and at 'em, Sandburg. Day's a'wasting!" And he grinned at the routine mutterings and moans that followed his morning call to rise and shine. Sandburg kept going, with what sometimes seemed an endless supply of energy and good humour once he was up. But the guy truly resisted getting up in the first place.

By the time Jim came back downstairs, dressed and ready to go, Sandburg was coming out of the bathroom, his damp hair curling around a face that still looked half asleep.

Blair looked up as Jim called, "See you at the station later?"

When Sandburg smiled and gave him a thumbs-up gesture, Jim nodded as he hastened into the kitchen to pour the coffee Blair had put on while Jim had been in the shower, and reflected the kid seemed to have gotten over his snit. Which was a relief. Jim really wasn't up to his best apologies first thing in the morning, and they both knew it.

Just as they both also knew that Blair probably deserved an apology and would get one later.

Sandburg was still in his room when Ellison grabbed his jacket and opened the door to the hall. "Don't be late, Chief! We'll have to relieve Joel and Megan on the stakeout by three if nothing breaks before then." Not worrying when Blair didn't reply, Jim headed out, locking up behind him as he went.

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

Blair arrived at the station at 2:30 pm, in lots of time for them to head out to take up their seemingly endless stakeout on the Standler Brothers' warehouse down by the docks. At first, his silence wasn't immediately noticeable because Jim was the only person he wasn't talking to. He greeted Rhonda with a grin and a typically flirtatious comment on how great her new dress was, and she grinned back with traditional pleasure that someone had finally noticed. He joked with Rafe and H, reminding them to be on time later, and they teased back that by then the great team of Ellison and Sandburg would surely have caught the perps, wrapped up the case, and they'd be able to sleep undisturbed for the rest of the night. Blair even managed to have a word with Simon, something about the Captain's most recent attempt to make his own fishing lures. The latest one was a wild purple and bright yellow monstrosity that had Sandburg in stitches.

So, when Jim stood to leave and Blair just fell in behind him like usual, Ellison didn't detect that things might not be as normal as he expected.

On the way to the truck, Jim brought Blair up to date on what had been learned that day about the illegal arms shipment they'd been watching out for. Apparently, the ship suspected of bringing the weapons into the US had been caught in heavy seas and delayed for days…but it was scheduled to dock that evening. Rafe and H hadn't been entirely joking when they'd indicated that the stakeout might well bear fruit that night. The plans for the raid were all laid out and all they'd have to do was call it in as soon as they observed the crates being unloaded at the warehouse.

Blair nodded as he'd gotten into the truck and fastened his seat belt. Immediately, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a stack of papers, which he laid beside him on the seat, picking up the top one to begin the grading.

Jim just quirked a brow, shook his head and sighed. The kid never took a break, and was always 'multi-tasking' his responsibilities as a teaching fellow with his support to Jim, filling every available minute to the max. Ellison knew Sandburg would ditch the homework as soon as he needed to give his full attention to what was going down at the warehouse. Rather than interrupt his partner's concentration, Jim decided the apology he fully intended to make could wait.

And so it went for the next two hours.

But Jim started to figure something was up when hunger persuaded him to break the peaceful silence that reigned in the truck. He hadn't had time for lunch and hadn't worried about it because Blair would bring sandwiches as he always did when they were scheduled for a stakeout.

"You hungry, Chief?" Jim asked.

Blair looked up, and put the paper in his hand aside to dig into his backpack and pull out the sack of sandwiches he'd made that morning, a couple of apples and a thermos of coffee with two mugs. He handed Jim one of the sandwiches, poured his partner a cup of coffee and set it in easy reach on the dash, grabbed a sandwich for himself and picked up the paper he'd been reviewing.

"God, Chief, give yourself a break already!" Jim exclaimed.

Blair looked up and then nodded, setting the paper aside again as he took a bite of his sandwich.

"So, anything exciting happen at Rainier today?" Jim asked, looking forward to the response. Blair never failed to come up with one outlandish story or another about the vagaries of his fellow faculty members or the particularly memorable antics of certain of his less than stellar students.

But this evening, Sandburg just looked as if he was thinking about the question for a moment, and then he shrugged and shook his head.

Surprised, Jim just gazed at his partner while Blair looked guilelessly back at him and then the grad student turned away to take another bite of his sandwich as he stared down the alley at the warehouse at the end.

Jim munched on his own sandwich and waited, figuring Sandburg would launch into some esoteric thing or other as soon as his active mind finished musing over whatever the hell it was that he was thinking about.

But…nothing.

No mating rituals. No rambling, but highly entertaining stories about hunting rituals. No questions about what had caused the heavy seas that had slowed down the delivery vessel. No hilarious musings about how Simon's new fly would work the next time they all went fishing.

Nothing.

And for the first time, Jim realized the silence wasn't incidental but intentional. The smart-ass kid was giving him the silent treatment. Hell, Sandburg was still pissed about what had happened the previous evening. Shaking his head, Ellison was genuinely astonished at how well and how long Sandburg could carry a grudge. Surely the kid realized it hadn't really been personal, and that there was no way in hell he would have ever actually belted his partner?

Well, fine. If he wanted to play this little game, Sandburg could damned well wait for the apology. Could wait a long time. Two could play this game, Jim figured. No way could the kid outlast an experienced cop and Covert Ops trained ex-military ranger who knew how to hold his peace and maintain silence for days if necessary.

Settling back in his seat with a grunt of disgust, Jim grabbed his mug and sipped his coffee, not missing the way Sandburg turned to give him a slightly quizzical look that soon transformed into one of awareness.

Blair's appraising look indicated that he had no difficulty reading Jim's expression and body language. Ellison had finally twigged to the silent treatment. The look of sardonic amusement in Sandburg's eyes revealed that he figured it had taken Jim long enough--evidently, being willfully silent was no fun at all if the other party wasn't even noticing. Giving a half shrug of implied indifference, Blair finished his sandwich and picked up one of the apples, biting into it as he again retrieved the paper and went back to work. One thing about this silence business, he was sure making headway on the grading of the essay assignments.

Jim worked through astonishment to irritation to anger in just under forty minutes. "You going to keep this up all night?" he demanded, feeling frustrated and unhappy with the fact that he'd caved first. But silence from Sandburg just wasn't natural. It disrupted the normal order of things. And made Jim feel guilty. And he didn't like that.

Blair just cut him a hard glance, his lips firmly closed and set in a 'you figure it out' grimace. Then he shook his head and picked up the next paper in his diminishing stack of work. Hiding a smile, Sandburg figured the first attempt at an apology would be forthcoming any time now.

And it was about time, too. Jim should have apologized that morning. Having failed to do so, it should have been the first words out of his mouth when Blair arrived at the station that afternoon.

It certainly would have been tactically sound to have to have offered it up as soon as Jim had realized the incident of the night before was neither forgotten nor forgiven. But, then, Jim hated to surrender.

Unfortunately, Blair's cavalier response pushed all the wrong buttons, wrong at least if he'd hoped he'd get an apology out of his partner.

Jim went from frustrated anger to something approximating righteous fury in one hot flash. Where the hell did Sandburg get off being so huffy and holier than thou? It wasn't as if he hadn't been babbling non-stop last night, even after Jim had asked him several times to 'can it'. Wasn't as if he hadn't known Jim had a killer headache, not that that had appeared to matter to the little punk in the slightest. So he'd blown up in a fit of pain and the inability to stand it any longer? So big deal!

Absolutely livid, Jim clamped his own lips closed, his jaw grinding as if to say would be a cold day in hell before he was the one to break this silence. His expression cold and stiff, his eyes flashing, he turned his attention back to the warehouse.

Blair duly noted the white-knuckled fists clamped on the steering wheel and his partner's rigid posture, and had to suppress a sigh. He should have foreseen this. Jim just didn't do rejection well. For a moment, Blair considered relenting. It was getting ridiculous. They were behaving like an old married couple, for God's sake, not two men with a solid friendship and a pretty good understanding of one another. Not that married couples didn't understand one another, but…he sighed. This analogy wasn't getting him anywhere, and the implications of the parallel made him uncomfortable. This was how divorces happened. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, retaliation, more hurt feelings, more anger, distancing, alienation: it was a downhill road all the way.

A 'divorce' wasn't the objective. If he'd wanted that, he would have gone with Option Two to begin with.

But when he tried to think of how he could broach this growing gap between them before it became a looming chasm, Sandburg found his own irritation escalating again. Why should he be the one to relent? He was the offended party, after all. Some days he just got tired of being the perpetual peacemaker in this little domestic scenario, or at least that was the fond role he'd ascribed to himself. Wryly, he figured Jim would probably have a different view. Well, tough. He had more papers to grade, and he didn't feel a huge urge to jump that little gap just yet. It wouldn't grow into an abyss overnight. Tomorrow he'd get up as if none of this had ever happened, secure in the righteous knowledge that he'd made his point.

What with his ruminations, Blair was more focused on Jim than the paper he was supposed to be marking, so he sensed it immediately when Ellison stiffened beside him, coming to a higher stage of alertness. Blair cast a quick look at Jim, and then down the alley to see what had attracted his partner's attention. Ah, the truck from the dock had finally shown up. About time. This stakeout was getting old.

"Call it in, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I'm going for a closer look."

Blair reached for the radio while Jim quietly let himself out of the truck. Without looking back, the detective moved like a wraith into the shadows along the grungy walls of the warehouse they'd parked beside, loping silently up the alley, his gun in his hand.

Blair raised dispatch and called in the cue for the rest of the raiding team to close in. They'd be surrounding the place in less than two minutes, according to the plan. Reasoning that Jim hadn't specifically told him to 'stay in the truck', not that that would have necessarily stopped him anyway, Blair quietly eased out of the vehicle and followed the path of his Sentinel. However, in the darkness, with all the refuse littering the alley, Blair took it much slower than Jim had been able to do, being very careful not to make any sound that might alert their quarry.

He'd only made it three-quarters of the way along the dark, narrow lane when the sirens split the night as patrol cars rushed in from every direction. In the raw, flashing red of the lights, Blair was finally able to see where he was going--and that he'd lost track of his partner. Jim wasn't in the alley ahead of him. Frowning, anxious to catch up in case Jim needed him, Blair picked up his pace, loping to the end of the alley, keeping low and hugging the shadows as much as he could.

The bad guys were focused on the loud and very visible incoming threat of the cruisers and weren't watching for anyone right under their noses. So they didn't notice Sandburg who'd dropped to one knee in the shadows and bending forward, was easing into the intersecting laneway to look for Ellison.

Sandburg spotted his partner chasing escaping perps, so he eased around and raced after Ellison, intent upon getting between Jim and the bad guys now shooting back at the police, to watch Jim's back.

Jim was hot on the trail of a couple of guys who had taken off and were ripping down the alley, hoping to escape capture, firing back at him as they raced ahead and dipped quickly into another side laneway. Jim was yelling at them that he was the police and to stop or he'd shoot, and the delay of the necessary warning cost him the chance to get off a shot before they'd disappeared around the corner. Cursing under his breath, he slowed a little in preparation for taking a quick look to see if they were waiting to ambush him before he plunged through the shadows after them.

Jim heard the sound of feet racing after him, splashing through a puddle, and he figured he'd been spotted by another creep who was trying to take him from behind. Having already announced himself loudly as a cop, and knowing there was no way any of the other police would be behind him yet, adrenaline pumping, he was feeling vulnerable to the gun no doubt being leveled at his back….

Jim dropped to one knee, wheeled and shot all in one motion, aiming low, not trying for a kill, just trying to incapacitate.

Blair had been running as fast as he could go while remaining practically doubled over in the near total blackness of the shadows at this end of the alley, to keep himself from being seen by the guys still back by the truck. He was counting on his black leather jacket, dark jeans and dark, tied-back hair, to help him remain virtually invisible. He saw Jim drop and start to turn, and was about to call out, well, whisper loudly, to let Jim know he was there….

Sandburg felt the fire burst through his body, stealing his breath and his strength, and he staggered hard into the brick wall of the warehouse for support. For just a moment, he hung there, his mouth open in stunned surprise, eyes wide in disbelief…and then he crumpled.

Ellison had only seen a guy in the heavy shadows coming in low on the attack, his dark shape picked out by the intermittent, pulsing, too bright red lights that half-blinded Jim, who had been focusing to see into the darkness ahead. Knowing he'd disabled his would-be assailant, he turned quickly to carry on after the others, slipping around the corner of the alley, keeping to the dark shadows and taking shelter behind a dumpster.

And he'd been right to be cautious. Just before he'd become aware of the other guy coming up behind him, Jim had heard them waiting for him. And now, he could pinpoint their heartbeats and rasping breaths coming from behind a dumpster further along the alley, about ten feet away, where they'd slid for cover when they'd heard the shot, probably figuring he was shooting at them. Jim was about to go after them when another patrol car screamed into the alley from the far end.

"Give it up!" Ellison shouted. "You're surrounded!"

Not being hardened criminals, more likely just guys who had signed up for some easy money to unload a truck, they apparently decided further resistance was futile and tossed their 'Saturday night specials' into the dirt. Jim watched only long enough to make sure the uniforms had them well in hand, and then he turned to go back to the guy he'd wounded to cuff him for pickup when the raid was completed.

As Jim loped back along the alley toward his would-be assailant, his attention was still more on the battle now raging around the truck at the loading dock, as the still figure lying in the dirt didn't appear to pose any immediate threat.

And suddenly, as he got close, he picked up sensory signals that didn't make sense…and that alarmed him.

He could swear he could smell the lingering scent of Sandburg's shampoo and his aftershave. Confused, Jim's gaze darted around to see where his partner was sheltering from the firefight now in progress.

But it was when Ellison registered the sound of his best friend's heart, beating much too fast, and sounding weak and a little fluttery, that he knew something was badly wrong. His own heart clenched with the realization that Sandburg was somewhere close…and that he was hurt.

"Sandburg!" he shouted out, frightened now, knowing Blair needed help but unable to spot him in the darkness, figuring the kid must be curled up behind one of the dumpsters in the lane. It was only when he heard the familiar timbre in the tones of the groan that answered his call…the groan that came from the man he'd just shot, that Jim faltered and really looked at the guy lying practically at his feet, and saw blood beginning to seep through the familiar black leather jacket.

"Oh, my God, no!" he whispered in horror, dropping to his knees as he cried out again, "Sandburg!"

Shuddering with the sick wave of shock and realization that swept over him, Jim gently turned Blair over, supporting his head and shoulders against his arm and chest. "Oh, Jesus, Chief," he gasped. "What have I done? How bad is it?"

Blair, barely conscious, struggled weakly to grasp the edge of Jim's jacket, and his wide eyes dark with shock stared up at Ellison. He was panting hard against the terrible pressure in his chest, unable to get enough air, and blood was bubbling on his lips. For a moment, his vision cleared and he looked up at Jim, struggling to speak, unable to form the words. But the awareness that Jim had shot him was in his eyes, the awareness and the confusion. Blair was struggling to understand how it had happened, how he could have been so stupid as to have come up behind Jim in a volatile situation, when Jim didn't know anyone but hostiles were behind him. It was his own fault and Sandburg knew it…and he was so desperately sorry. Sorry for what having shot him would do to Jim. Sorry to realize he might have just gotten himself killed.

But Jim only saw the confusion and the deep sorrow, and he read the look as Sandburg's effort to understand why Jim would have deliberately shot him. "I didn't mean it, Blair," Jim choked out as he fumbled with Sandburg's coat and layers of clothing, to find out how bad the kid was hurt.

What he saw chilled him to his soul. Blood was pumping out of a wound in Blair's chest, to the right of his sternum. Bright, crimson life was soaking Sandburg's clothing. Jim pressed down hard on the wound, as he tried to apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding, but the hot, viscous liquid streamed through his fingers, around his palm, and kept draining away.

Looking up and around desperately in support of help, Jim spotted the uniformed officers emerging from the alley behind him. "I need help here! Officer down!" Jim shouted and one of them reached hastily for the radio at his belt.

"Just hold on, Blair! God, please, just keep breathing!" Jim pleaded as he turned his gaze back to Sandburg's face.

But Sandburg was no longer conscious…could no longer hear him.

Hearing his partner's heartbeat grow increasingly erratic, Sandburg's panting breaths becoming ever more raspy and the bubbling of blood in his lungs, Jim knew there was no time to wait for an ambulance to respond. Blair was bleeding out, and one lung at least was collapsing. Jim gathered Blair into his arms and rose to turn back to the cops behind him.

"He's running out of time. I need one of you to get me to Cascade General now!" Jim ordered, and they turned back to race ahead of him down the alley to the patrol car, to get their two prisoners out of the back and help Jim slide in with Sandburg clutched tightly in his arms. One of the men slipped in behind the wheel. In moments, the patrol car was tearing backwards along the alley, skidding tightly into a back turn, and then plunging away down the street beyond, sirens flaring, as the young officer drove as quickly as he could to the hospital.

In the back, Jim held Blair close, fighting off his own shock and horror at what he'd done as he focused all his attention on his unconscious partner. "I'm sorry, Blair, I'm so sorry," he murmured over and over, with little awareness of his words. "Don't you quit on me! Please, God, don't you die!"

Jim could feel the clammy shock when he brushed Sandburg's hair back from his deathly white face. Could see and hear the bubble of blood on Blair's lips, as his panting grew fainter. Could hear the faltering heart, beating a frantic tattoo in his partner's chest, and the low moans of the terrible pain his best friend was enduring even in his unconscious state.

Pain from being shot. Dying from being shot.

Dying from a bullet fired by the man most responsible for keeping him safe.

As the patrol car swerved into the driveway of the hospital's Emergency Entrance, Jim was deaf to the shrieking siren. The panting of breath, the fluttering of the desperate heart, was all Ellison wanted to hear.

Not, not this. Not the sudden thundering silence of no breath and no heartbeat.

"Nooooo!" Jim screamed hoarsely in desperate denial as he clutched Blair's lifeless body closer to his chest, almost mad with grief and horror, even as the vehicle squealed to a sudden stop.

The back door was hauled open and hands reached in to pull Sandburg from him. Shocked, sick to his soul, Jim let them take Blair from him and just sat there for a long, panic-stricken moment. And then he was out of the vehicle and racing after the gurney as the attendants pushed it at full speed through the busy entrance and back to one of the treatment rooms.

Someone blocked Jim from going further once he reached the doorway of the treatment room, but he wouldn't be moved away. He saw someone intubate Sandburg and hook him to a respirator, while another stripped open his clothing, baring his bloody chest, and then paddles were pressed down, as the doctor called, "Clear!"

Sandburg's body arced up, convulsing with the sudden burst of electrical stimulation, and then dropped like a limp, boneless sack back onto the gurney.

Jim almost collapsed with relief at hearing that precious heartbeat thump again. Not strong. Too fast. Uneven. But there.

As soon as they had life signs again, the emergency crew slammed back into action, shoving the gurney back out, past Jim, and along the corridor to the elevators to hustle Sandburg immediately into surgery.

Someone held Jim back as the elevator doors closed, someone telling him they needed information, that he couldn't do anything for his partner, and that the kid was in good hands. Trembling, Jim lifted his head to see who was holding him and recognized the earnest and empathetic police officer who had driven them in. Numbly, Jim allowed himself to be pulled back to the desk, where he haltingly gave them the information they required. The basic facts of the patient's life. 'Tombstone' information, he knew they called it.

Fighting the urge to vomit, Jim pulled out his cell phone and called Simon.

When the call was answered, Jim didn't even register Simon's proforma growl. Cutting in to the flow of words, he stammered, "Blair's… shot. At Cascade General. It's bad."

Jim didn't hear Simon's shocked gasp or his assurance that he'd be right here, his admonishments to 'just stay calm'.

In a daze, Jim turned to the bank of elevators, and when one finally opened, he got in and made his way up to the floor where Blair was being worked on, finding his way almost blindly to the waiting area.

The scene in the alley kept playing over in his mind. The blare of sirens and the racket of bullets splitting the night. Calling out a warning that he was a cop. Hearing someone sneak up behind him. Turning to shoot the guy lunging at him. Seeing the guy fall.

Seeing Blair crumpled at his feet.

Smelling the blood.

Hearing the silence.

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

Simon found him sitting there, slumped in the chair, a glazed look on his face.

"Jim!" Simon cried out, aghast at the smears of blood staining Ellison's clothing and hands.

When there was no response, Simon knelt by his detective, and called again, this time putting a hand on Jim's shoulder, gripping him hard and shaking him a little, "Jim! Come on…Jesus, Jim. Don't zone on me now!"

The glazed, vacant look gradually cleared, but gave way to such raw, naked pain that Simon winced, his heart clenching as he lightly shook Jim again. "Jim, tell me what happened!" Simon ordered gently. "How bad is Sandburg hurt? Who shot him?"

"In the alley," Jim stammered, shaking his head, not wanting to say it. Not wanting to believe it. Knowing it was the awful, inescapable truth. "Behind me. He was behind me." Looking into Simon's eyes, Jim whispered hoarsely, "His heart stopped before we got here."

"Ah, Jesus!" Simon swore, looking away as he clenched Jim's shoulder in mute sympathy. Taking a breath, striving for calm, Simon turned back to Ellison and was staggered by the grief and horror he saw in the other man's eyes. "Easy, Jim, this wasn't your fault."

But Jim shuddered and swallowed convulsively, his face chalky and his eyes dark with pain. "Yes, it was," he grated. "I shot him."

"What?" Simon exclaimed, his own eyes widening in disbelief.

"I thought he was in the truck," Jim replied, his voice dazed, his eyes losing focus. "I…I didn't know he was behind me. I'd yelled that I was the police. I was chasing two of the bastards down and…and heard someone sneaking up behind me. There was shooting behind me, back at the truck, between the perps and some of the other cops. I thought I was being ambushed and I turned, and there was this guy lunging toward me in the dark. I could only barely make him out in the shadows, and the flashing lights semi-blinded me and I fired. I didn't know…."

Ellison's voice cracked, and his eyes glistened with tears as he stammered, "Oh, God, Simon…I shot Sandburg!"

Simon sagged into the chair beside Jim, shaking his head, trying to picture it going down. He had no doubt it had been a terrible, devastating, accident. Finally, his voice thick, he asked, "Didn't Sandburg call out to you? Didn't he let you know he was behind you?"

Numbly, Jim shook his head. "No…no, he didn't." Pausing for a moment, Ellison murmured, "We'd had a fight last night. He wasn't speaking to me. We haven't talked, not really, not since. It…it was my fault. I…I…he…"

But Jim's voice caught and broke. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, remembering the blood on the back of Sandburg's jacket…the blood pouring from his partner's chest…the look of shock in those innocent blue eyes…and the faltering of his best friend's heart…

And Jim wept.

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

Blair moaned and tossed restlessly in his bed, nearly awakening. But it was as if he was being held captive in the dim world of sleep, as if he knew he was dreaming but couldn't wake himself up…no matter how much he wanted to escape the frightening, painful images. Even as he struggled against them, once again, Blair began to see everything going on with Jim as well as himself, hearing Ellison's thoughts and emotions, and feeling his pain….

"See you at the station later?" Jim called as he came swiftly down the steps from the loft, dressed and ready to head out.

Blair looked up, his hair still damp from a cold shower, the hot water having been used up by his roommate and flipped said roommate the bird as he continued back to his room.

Ellison snorted and shook his head. Blair was a dynamo once he got going…but mornings were not his favourite time of day. Blair hadn't been up to making coffee that morning, so Ellison looked regretfully at the empty carafe and shrugged. Calling out to Sandburg to not be late for the stakeout, he grabbed his coat and was on his way to face another long day.

Blair waited until he heard Jim close and lock the door as he left for the station. Though Jim had clearly assumed that they would be meeting at the station later, Sandburg had no intentions of doing so--he just hadn't wanted to engage in the discussion that would inevitably ensue if he had made that point clear.

Hastily, he packed up the personal possessions he needed to keep easily accessible in his backpack and one small suitcase, and then went to the local supermarket to pick up a batch of empty boxes. Back home, he packed those with everything else that he owned and then hauled them downstairs, one at a time, to load them into the back seat and trunk of his car. When he was done, he stood a moment, shaking his head. Wondering if it was a good thing that he could get everything he owned into one small vehicle, because it said he wasn't all that materially oriented and could leave at the drop of a hat. Or if it meant that his life was really pretty pitiful, that at the age of almost thirty, he didn't have a whole lot to his name--no roots, no commitments, just boxes of stuff that he could haul from one place to another when it was time again to move on.

He made one last trip upstairs. For a long moment Blair just stood staring at the phone. Then, finally, with a grim look of resolution on his face, he picked it up and dialed the familiar number. When Rhonda answered, Blair exchanged a few niceties of the day, asked how things were going, and then said, "Look, will you tell Jim that I've gotten caught up on something and won't be able to make the stakeout with him after all? Maybe there's time for him to get someone else to back him up."

Rhonda said she'd pass along the message and that was that.

Hanging up, Blair looked around the apartment one last time and shook his head, a sudden lump thickening in his throat. Honestly, he knew he didn't really want to go. But Jim had gone too far, and Blair knew enough about how abusive relationships got entrenched to see they were on a bad road. A road he just didn't want to follow. Couldn't follow. He had too much self-respect.

So he sighed heavily as he hefted his backpack over his shoulder and, dropping his apartment key in the basket, he set the locks and closed the door on the life he'd really loved, leaving it all behind him.

As he drove away, he glanced up at the balcony, and whispered, "Take care of yourself, Jim. I'm going to really miss you, man. I wish…I wish it could have turned out differently, you know?"

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

Jim looked down at the message slip and grimaced, vastly annoyed. "Hey, Rhonda," he called out, "did Sandburg say why he couldn't make it?"

Rhonda shook her head. "No, sorry," she replied.

His lips thinning in a tight, compressed line, Jim looked away, thinking about the night before and how Sandburg hadn't said a word to him that morning. 'I bet he's still sulking,' the detective thought, irritated by the childish behaviour and Sandburg's failure to follow through on his commitments. The kid knew Ellison had counted on him being there for the stakeout, and it was far too late now to arrange for other backup.

Ellison had no way of knowing that Sandburg had called hours before, but that he'd only just gotten the message because he'd been out tracking down why the damned illegal weapons hadn't shown up yet. Jim had discovered that the delivery vessel had been delayed by a storm at sea, but was finally expected into port that afternoon. So it was going to go down that night.

'Well, fine,' Jim thought, grabbing his coat and heading out. 'All I have to do is keep watch and call it in when the truck shows at the warehouse to signal the raid can start. No sweat.'

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

While Jim sat alone in his truck, he thought about the fight he and Sandburg were having. Sighing, he realized he'd been 'way out of line the night before. Ellison knew an apology was required, and that he would give it. Sure the kid could have been more sensitive about his headache, but the headache wasn't a good enough excuse to have threatened violence. Shaking his head, Jim sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering helplessly at his propensity to say and do the wrong things when driven by anger…and regretting that tendency profoundly.

The hours dragged without the company of his best friend, without his energy, effervescent good humour and wacky, hilarious stories. Though Jim was irritated that the kid had bailed for the assignment that evening, Ellison couldn't really, honestly, blame him.

Finally, the truck showed up, and he called in the six back-up cruisers that were waiting not two minutes away. Getting out of his truck, he loped through the shadows to get closer, to make sure no one slipped through the net that was even now tightening around these crooks.

When the blare of sirens hit and the strobing red lights filled the night, all hell broke loose on the loading dock and truck. Confusion quickly shifted to fear and then resistance, as men positioned themselves to fight back. The way out through the warehouse would surely be blocked and they knew it, but still some stole inside to take cover there, hoping to hide well enough to miss detection.

Two took off racing down the lane, desperate to slip through the net that was fast closing. Jim held to the shadows, knowing he hadn't been spotted-because he was too close. Their attention drawn by the more aggressive and obvious assault of the converging police vehicles, they didn't realize someone was already right there, just a few feet away.

Jim took off down the alley after the escaping felons, and called out, "Police! Stop and drop your weapons or I'll shoot!"

But the two guys ahead of him used the spare seconds of his warning to skid and slide into a side alley, desperate to allude him.

Cursing, Jim ran after them, slowing as he reached the corner to drop low and check to see if they were planning to ambush him as he came into view.

Shots were firing now behind him, and the sirens continued to shriek, the strobing, blood-red lights making it hard to focus his vision on the darkness beyond. He shook his head, filtering out the louder noises around him as he tried to pick up the sounds of heartbeats and breathing in the alley just out of his view.

His concentration was so tight, so narrowed, he didn't realize that he'd become a target.

But someone at the truck had heard his shout of warning and had cursed at how close he was, how he'd slipped up on them, getting under their radar.

Well, there was a price to be paid for that!

Squinting, taking time to aim, the killer squeezed off a shot.

Jim grunted in surprise as the bullet ploughed into his back, blasting through his spine and losing some momentum as its trajectory shifted…but not so much momentum that it didn't tear through his heart before lodging against a rib.

Jim pitched forward into a muddy puddle, stunned, not feeling any pain, unable to move. The sirens shrieked, as if wailing for him, and the red, whirling lights bled the alley crimson.

He choked on blood and gasped, trying to breathe. But he felt himself drifting, the sounds becoming distant…the pulsing colour of life fading to black….

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

Blair had found a cheap motel to crash for a couple of nights until he could arrange more permanent accommodations. He'd turned on the television and was listening with half an ear while he graded essay papers that had been submitted earlier that day by his first-year class.

But the sharp voice of an announcer with an 'up to the minute' update on a raid that had just been successfully completed on a massive haul of illegal weapons captured his attention. Startled, he looked up, realizing the shot of the warehouse was the place they'd staked out for the last three nights. The camera panned the scene, showing the wrap-up of the raid, police cuffing the bad guys and leading them away.

The announcer's voice cut back in as the camera panned a body covered by a blanket, looking sad and diminished in the glaring light of the cameras as they showed the grungy alley and then focused on the man sprawled on his face in a muddy puddle, his head and body covered but one arm, his legs and boots visible. Sandburg recognized Simon Banks, standing just to the side, his head bowed and shoulders heaving, his hand covering his eyes.

"Sadly, success carried a high price," the voice droned over the picture on the screen. "One of Cascade's finest, the detective responsible for calling in the raid, lost his life when he was ambushed from behind. His name is being withheld pending notification of his family…but all of Cascade mourns his loss tonight."

Blair stared at the screen, his wide, shocked, gaze locked on the frozen image of the body, his face suddenly drained of all colour.

"Jim?" he choked out, recognizing the sleeve of the jacket, the hand, the legs and boots, knowing exactly who had been on the stakeout and was responsible for triggering the subsequent raid. If he'd any doubt, Simon's palpable grief made the hideous truth only too abundantly clear.

Sandburg shook his head, the words of the announcer playing over and over his head, 'ambushed from behind'.

Jim had gone without back-up.

Because Blair had let him down.

Over a stupid fight. A fight that meant nothing.

A fight that had cost Jim's life.

"Nooooo!" Blair screamed, wanting to deny the obscenity of it, wanting it to be a mistake.

Knowing it wasn't.

He'd let Jim down…hadn't been there when he'd been needed.

He'd let Jim die.

Sandburg curled forward against the grief and guilt…and the hideous pain of unending loss that clutched his heart and made him gag, sick to his soul. Slipping to his knees, he choked, "Oh, God, oh, God…no. Jim? Jesus, Jim…what have I done? I didn't mean…I never wanted…Oh, God…I'm so sorry…I'm so sorry…."

And Blair wept.

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

Tears stained Sandburg's cheeks as he thrashed in the bed, wanting to escape the horror, wanting to wake up and know it wasn't true…wanting to know Jim was alive, not dead…not dead. But the dream wouldn't let him go; wasn't finished with him yet. Once more, images, thoughts and ragged emotions unfurled as he lay helpless in their grasp….

Blair straightened as the elevator doors opened on the sixth floor and he strode briskly into the MCU Operations Room. He flirted with Rhonda, joked with Rafe and H and mocked Simon's latest effort at creating the perfect lure.

As Jim approached, Sandburg looked up and though he couldn't quite manage a warm smile, he nodded, "Hey, man…you ready to head out?"

"You're just in time, Chief…let's go," Jim acknowledged and led the way back out to the elevator, catching Sandburg up on the latest news on the arms shipment and the plans for the raid that night. Blair took a breath as he got into the truck, realizing the night would bring violence, hoping that no one would be hurt.

As they drove toward the warehouse down by the docks, Blair pulled out the essays that had been handed in that day and started to work on them, his concentration focused until Jim cut in to say he was hungry.

"Okay, man," Sandburg replied, "I've brought some sandwiches and stuff." Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out the sandwiches he'd made earlier, as well as a couple of apples, a thermos of coffee and two mugs. Once he'd served Jim and pulled out his own sandwich, he turned to look down the alley at the warehouse, still stinging from the previous night's confrontation, but trying to let it go.

"Chief…I owe you an apology," Jim said quietly. "I was 'way out of line last night, and I'm sorry. The headache was killing me…but that's no excuse."

Smiling tentatively, Blair turned to him with a slight shrug. "It's okay, Jim. I know you that you wouldn't ever deliberately hurt me."

"You sure about that, Sandburg?" Ellison asked, his anxious gaze boring into his partner's eyes, needing to know that Blair really did know that he'd never, ever, hurt his best friend.

"Yeah, man, I'm sure," Sandburg reassured him with a wide, bright smile, his eyes sparkling, easy with the restoration of peace between them, and very glad of it.

Just over an hour later, the raid went down. Blair called it in, and then followed Jim into the darkness, losing him briefly, just as the sirens split the night and patrol cars squealed to a skidding halt as they converged from behind and the left.

Blair spotted Jim then, halfway down the darkened alley to the right, chasing two guys who were trying to get away. As he darted around the corner, keeping low and to the shadows, his dark clothing merging into the night, Sandburg heard Jim call out, "Police. Stop and drop your weapons or I'll shoot.'

By the time Sandburg had started to gain on Jim, he was aware that shots had started to ring out behind him. The sirens were still wailing and lights pulsed through the night…and Blair knew it would all be playing havoc with Jim's senses. Casting a quick look back at the action over his shoulder, Blair saw a man swinging around and taking aim on Ellison, not having seen Blair in the darkness.

"Jim!" Sandburg shouted as he dove forward to catch his kneeling Sentinel by the shoulders and push him down out of the way.

Blair felt a burst of molten fire burst through him…and then darkness.

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

"What is the value of friendship?" Blair heard his own voice thundering in his dreams. "What is the measure of trust? Does anger hold sway--or compassion? What price will you pay for your silence? Is your pride worth a life? Will he die…will you? The moments of your life are spilling away like grains of sand through the glass of time…how will you spend the hours you have left? Tell me, what is your choice now? What will you do…?"

Sandburg surged up into a sitting position, trembling, gasping in wild fear. His wide and horror-filled gaze raked the darkness, trying to figure out where he was, what was happening…what was real. It took him a long, scary moment to realize he was in his room, in his bed--and that he'd been dreaming.

Only dreaming…

"Oh, God," he gasped, closing his eyes and raking shaking fingers through his hair, fragments of the horrible nightmares flashing again in his memory.

Calming down, he kept telling himself over and over that the shattering memories were not real…just his too vivid imagination working over time.

Just his subconscious helping him to rethink his decision of the night before.

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

All evening, ever since arriving at the station earlier, Blair had been haunted by the remembered fragments of the far too disturbing nightmares he'd had during the night…troubled by the echoes of the dreams in his and Jim's words and actions as the evening had played out.

But they were only dreams, right? Not real. Not some portent of impending disaster. It wasn't like he could foretell the future or something.

So Sandburg had shrugged off his gloomy thoughts and concentrated on the hours ahead. He had work to do and he'd better get at it while there was time, before the raid went down. But he felt his tension growing, his smile only tentative after Jim apologized during their light meal, distracted by those fractured memories…but he forced himself to relax and accept that everything was all right. He and Jim were good again, and he was very glad to put their stupid quarrel behind them.

Again, the quiet had fallen around them as he'd gone back to marking the essays.

"Call it in, Chief. I'm going to get a closer look," Jim's voice cut into his concentration as Ellison eased the truck door open.

"Jim, wait! We should wait for back up," Blair replied urgently, turning to face Jim, deep fear in his eyes. The memories of his dreams had been haunting him for hours, and now he was finally afraid, very afraid to ignore them. It was too much, too eerie…it was all playing out the same damned way.

"What? Why?" Ellison demanded.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I had this dream…and trust me, man, something really terrible is gonna happen if you go out there," Blair blurted out, feeling like a fool, but having to warn Ellison not to go. "You could get killed, Jim."

Ellison cracked a half smile and shook his head. "You going psychic on me, Junior?" Jim teased. "Don't worry. This'll go down like clockwork, just like always. Relax and call it in."

Sandburg opened his mouth to protest further, but Jim was already gone, loping away into the darkness. "Damn it," Blair cursed as he reached for the radio's mike.

Blair hastily made the call and then followed Jim out of the truck and down the dark alley, moving as fast as he could. The eerie sense of deja-vu plagued him, and he could feel the fear tighten around his heart. If he followed Jim…he might get shot.

If he didn't…Jim might get killed.

Blair kept going, telling himself he was a fool to be worried about a stupid dream.

But the fear was escalating and twisted in his gut.

'Oh, my God,' he thought, as he reached the corner, and the sirens flared, and the lights strobed, blood-red…and Jim called out to the men trying to escape.

It was all happening.

It was all happening all over again!

"Don't kill me, please don't kill me," Sandburg chanted under his breath as a mantra as he tore after Jim, not sure if he was praying to some greater power or to Jim. All he knew was that he couldn't risk Jim's getting killed. Of all the dreams, that had been the only one that had been crystal clear, the only one that had showed certain death. Jim's death. Sandburg clung to that thought even as he anxiously reminded himself of the theory that one couldn't actually witness one's own death, not even in a dream.

Racing down the dark alley, Sandburg threw a look over his shoulder and saw the gun coming up and around, targeting Jim.

"Jim!" he screamed as he dove forward, intent now only on one thing--getting Jim out of the way of the bullet-and saving his Sentinel's life.

Even as he crashed into Ellison's back, knocking Jim forward and down into the mud of the filthy alley, Sandburg felt the bullet burn through him and he gasped at the shock of it.

"Jesus!" he exclaimed breathily as he hit the ground. Dimly, he was aware of Jim rolling away and over, spinning back toward the truck and firing. The sound of other sirens erupted, closer, as a patrol car surged down the alley to the side, glaring headlights pinning the two runaways hiding behind the dumpster in their planned attempt to ambush Jim.

With one fast glance down that alley to see that everything there was under control, Jim quickly dropped down onto one knee beside his crumpled friend, sick to see blood starting to glisten against the black leather of Sandburg's jacket.

"Blair? Chief?" he called out, his voice sharp with fear as he gently rolled Sandburg over and cradled him close against his chest. "You hear me, Blair? Blair!"

Blair's face was stark white, and blood was already bubbling on his lips as he rasped for breath. His eyelashes flickered and then his wide, pain-filled gaze was searching, focusing, on Jim's face. "Hey, man," he gasped, his voice a choked whisper. "You…okay?"

"Shh, I'm fine. Don't talk," Jim urged, swallowing hard, his feelings of helplessness, rage…and terror clear in his face and eyes. "Just breathe, Blair. God! Just keeping breathing…"

Sandburg nodded weakly as his eyes lost focus. "Knew…my dream…knew…chose…"

He fought to get the words out before the world faded away. Fought to let Jim know this wasn't his partner's fault, that he'd known what he was doing, and what might well happen, and had chosen to act anyway, because not acting wasn't to be borne. But his voice failed him.

Jim looked around, desperate for help. He could hear the irregularity of Sandburg's heart, the odd flutter intruding as the speed of the beats accelerated and began to flounder. Could hear the choking, rasping, too shallow breaths start to hitch. Spotting the two uniformed cops coming out of the alley, he yelled to them for help and gathered Sandburg close, rising with his partner in his arms as he loped around the alley to the patrol car.

Blair could feel himself fading, the sounds, even the pain, becoming distant. Struggling not to slip away, he clutched Jim's jacket and focused on his Sentinel's voice.

A voice pleading with him not to let go.

A voice pleading with him to live.

Until even that beloved voice faded into the distance….

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

"Hey, Chief!" Jim called softly, having noted the signs that Sandburg was finally nearing consciousness. "You ready to wake up yet? C'mon, Sandburg, you're scaring me here…"

Blinking, wincing against the light, still disoriented, Blair moaned as he stirred weakly and the pain ripped through his back and chest, his indrawn breath ending in a startled gasp.

"Easy, Blair, you're going to be okay," Jim soothed, his strong fingers enfolding Sandburg's hand, while with his other hand Ellison gently pushed sweat-matted curls back from his best friend's broad forehead.

"J'm?" Blair whispered hoarsely, blinking again, squinting into the light as he searched for his best friend's face.

"I'm here, buddy. I'm right here," Jim replied, his voice steady and warm, reassuring.

"Wha'…?" Blair struggled to focus, to remember, but everything seemed hazy, out of reach.

"You're in the hospital, Chief," Jim sighed wearily. "You got shot a couple of nights ago, blocking a bullet aimed at me."

Ellison's voice caught and faltered, his throat tight with the memory of those terrible moments and all the moments in between. It had been touch and go, Blair's heart fluttering into silence as they'd pulled into the Emergency Entrance driveway. Sandburg had been on a respirator until five hours earlier…

In the silence, Blair closed his eyes as if trying to shut out the fragments of his dreams along with the memories of the reality that had played itself out in that dark alley. "S'kay," he muttered. "Could'a b'n worse…"

"Okay? No, it's not 'okay', Sandburg," Jim growled, his grip on Blair's hand tightening. "You almost got yourself killed playing hero back there! How many times do I have to tell you to stay in the damned truck? You shouldn't have been anywhere near that alley, dammit. Jesus, Blair! I don't want you killed…not ever, and certainly not to save my life. Don't you understand?"

Sandburg waited out the rant patiently, more focused on holding the pain at bay, trying different breathing strategies to see which one hurt the least. When Jim's voice broke and faltered, Blair nodded slowly as he again blinked his eyes open.

"Yeah," he whispered. "Unnerstan'…but…trus' me, J'm…could'a b'n a lot worse, man…we're both still alive…."

Ellison's throat tightened and his eyes burned. He'd been cursing himself for not having listened to Sandburg's warning back in the truck, for discounting the dream, because he'd thought it silly-him, the guy who had visions of a dead Shaman and spirit guides. He of all people should have known better.

And he remembered Sandburg's choked words back in the damned alley. Knew that somehow, the kid had made a choice about what had gone down. A choice Ellison could wish with all his heart that Blair wasn't so ready to make for him.

Jim knew he needed to learn to listen better, to pay more attention, when his Guide warned him, just as he had to listen to his own visions, though the whole mystical thing still gave him the willies. Inclined toward being a rational man, the imagery and symbolism of the visions and dreams made him uncomfortable, scared him, but he couldn't afford to discount it anymore…couldn't afford to take that kind of risk again.

Finally, as Blair's eyes searched his, worried about his prolonged silence, anxious that he understand, his own worry and regret for Sandburg's suffering in his own eyes, Jim nodded. "I trust you, Chief. Believe me, I do. And, I'll listen to you next time…the next time you try to tell me about your dreams."

Contented, Blair smiled softly before slipping back to sleep, seemingly happy with the apology, and satisfied that there'd been enough groveling to last them both a long, long time.

Just as he drifted off, Jim murmured softly as he stroked Sandburg's forehead, "Thanks, Chief. Thanks for being there--for watching my back. For saving my life…."

Finis

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