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

Notes/Warning: This story involves the intense suffering of a major character. An additional note appears at the bottom of this page, but unless you want to find out a huge portion of the plot going in, please save it for later. For those who prefer to know what they're getting into, go ahead and read. To keep from giving away the plot too soon, the dedication also appears at the end.

There's a quick mention of a scene from my first fanfic, 'Affirmation'.

Thanks to Danae for a marvelous beta job (as always)! In a longer story, it's so easy to miss the little things, and she caught some really important errors. Any remaining mistakes are mine alone.

Last Resort

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

Jim Ellison couldn't pinpoint exactly when the changes had started. They had not been sudden changes, really. More a gradual metamorphosis. His concern had begun the moment Jim realized that he couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Blair Sandburg laugh. No matter how hard he thought about it, Jim couldn't recall when he'd heard a real laugh from his friend, not merely the forced chuckles that had been all he could recall hearing for months. As distressing as it was, the missing laughter was only one phase of the metamorphosis.

Another was the hair. Jim had only known Sandburg a few months when he'd figured out that Blair's hair served as a fairly accurate barometer of the younger man's emotions. When Sandburg was in a serious mood, feeling stressed, or trying to appear very professional, the long curls were pulled back into a tight, restrained ponytail. On the other hand, a happy, relaxed Blair was accompanied by loose, free flowing hair.

It had been at least a month since Blair's hair had cascaded to his shoulders.

Once Jim began pinpointing the stages of the metamorphosis that had affected his partner, more and more changes popped easily into his mind. Blair's wardrobe, for one. Gone were the bright, funky get-ups, replaced by subdued khakis and earth tones.

The hole in Blair's ear was vacant and had been for a long time.

The clutter that had adorned his room had slowly disappeared, leaving a neatness in its place that was strangely unsettling.

The loft was uncharacteristically silent. No drumming rhythms from Africa. No ethereal flutes of the American Southwest. No 'jungle music'.

Most disturbing of all was the absence of the light. From the instant he'd met Blair, Jim Ellison had been warmed by the light shining from the exuberant young man's eyes. Through good times and bad, that light had remained, bringing Jim the priceless reassurance that no matter how tough things got, hope remained. Now, that light was gone, and more than any of the other changes in Sandburg, it was that dark void that most worried Jim.

When he'd first noticed the changes in Blair, Jim had marked them up to a particularly stressful few weeks both at the station and at Rainier. When time passed and the changes grew more pronounced, he realized this was not anything that could be simply explained by work pressures.

Blair Sandburg thrived on those kinds of stresses. Jim had seen him work through the night on a research paper due the next day. He knew Blair had often stayed up until the wee hours of the morning grading papers, then been up in time to accompany Jim to the station. Jim couldn't believe it was the pressures of work bringing about the disturbing changes he'd noticed recently.

Something else was going on, something with its own presence, dark and foreboding. He could sense it, even if he couldn't recognize and name it. There was something...different...about Sandburg. He could see it. He could hear it, and there were times when he swore he could smell and taste it.

Jim Ellison had grown tired of waiting for the metamorphosis to reverse itself. Tonight, he was going to find out what the hell was wrong with his partner.

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

Blair Sandburg stared at the sign in dismay. He'd hoped maintenance might have managed to repair the elevator by this evening, but the "Out of Order" sign was still in place. With a heavy sigh, he began the long climb, trudging slowly up the steps to the loft.

He had to tell Jim. He'd known that for weeks now, but somehow, Blair just hadn't been able to find the right time...the right words.

How do you ever find the words to break your best friend's heart?

The doorknob felt so cold in his hand. "Hey, Jim. I'm home." Blair tried to force some enthusiasm into his voice as he called out his greeting. Dropping his backpack by the door, he looked around for his partner.

Almost immediately, Blair spotted him. On the balcony. Jim stood at the railing, looking out over the city. The sentinel surveying his protectorate. Blair's throat tightened at the simple pleasure of seeing his friend and sentinel.

How many more times...?

Jim turned and beckoned to Blair. As the younger man stepped out, he pulled his coat more tightly around him. Cold. He always seemed to be so cold these days.

Blair sank into one of the chairs, and Jim turned to face him, leaning back against the railing. "Hey, man. How'd things go at the station? Sorry I never made it in. Had this committee meeting, then a couple of students from my 401 class stopped by to talk about their research projects, and..."

A wave of Jim's hand silenced him. "Cut the bull, Sandburg. What the hell is going on with you, huh?" Unwavering blue eyes stared down at Blair, demanding an answer.

Blair stared into those eyes, gauging his chances for obfuscation. Maybe he could buy just a little more time...

Not a chance, Blair realized seconds later as he stared up at Jim. The man knew something was wrong. With sudden insight, Blair understood that Jim had known for weeks, but he'd waited, hoping whatever was wrong with his guide would just blow over. His patience had worn thin, and now Jim wanted...needed...to know what was going on.

Seeing the concern in those blue eyes, Blair realized the time had come. Jim deserved an answer.

He deserved the truth.

Taking a deep breath, Blair nodded. "Yeah. Right. You'd better sit down, Jim."

When Jim was settled in the chair beside him, Blair leaned back, staring up at the stars. "There's no easy way to say this, man. You don't know how much I wish I didn't have to tell you."

Jim sounded uncharacteristically worried. "You're scaring me here, Sandburg."

You're not making this any easier, my friend. Forcing out the words he'd dreaded saying for so long, Blair said softly, "I have leukemia."

"Blair...? What...?"

There was confusion mixed with a twinge of panic in Ellison's voice and it ripped at Blair's heart. Sandburg wanted nothing more than to scream his own frustration to the heavens. How could this be happening? He focused purposefully on a single, brightly twinkling star. Steeling himself to be strong for Jim, Blair shrugged. "Leukemia. I'd been feeling...lousy...for a while. I went to the doctor about a month ago. He ran the tests and confirmed it."

Blair knew Jim Ellison was reeling inside, but he could not yet look at his friend. It was safer just now to watch the stars, but his left hand reached out to clasp Jim's.

Their fingers linked, Jim gripped Blair's hand tightly. "What kind of treatments...?"

"The best hope's a bone marrow transplant."

Blair felt Jim's hand tighten at that glimmer of hope.

Jim's words were disjointed. "Okay...okay. A transplant. Right. They have donor registries for that, don't they?"

Slowly, Blair explained. "Yeah, but I've been registered since the initial diagnosis. So far, there's no match." The younger man shrugged. "I was going to tell you on Monday anyway, Jim. That's when I have to begin chemo treatments. Hopefully, they'll slow the disease down until a donor match is made."

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

Leukemia. Chemotherapy. Bone marrow transplant.

A blow to the gut couldn't have taken Jim's breath away any more efficiently. Blair was sick. Very sick. Possibly dying. He'd known for a month, and he hadn't said a word to Jim. "Why...?" The words came out roughly, forced as they were past the huge lump in his throat.

Blair's voice was subdued, those blue eyes of his still locked on the stars. "Dunno. I just... Ah, Jim, I guess as long as you didn't know, it somehow...I don't know, didn't seem real. Sounds stupid, I guess, but I wanted to keep some part of my life as normal as possible for just a little while longer."

Jim forced his voice to stay steady, refusing to give in to the emotions boiling inside. "What do the doctors say?"

"That without the transplant, I won't survive. My type of cancer is particularly fast growing. That's why he wants to begin the chemo next week." His laugh was bitter. "Leave it to me, right? I never have been able to do things slowly, y'know. Might as well get it over with."

"Stop it!" Jim bolted from his chair and fell to the floor in front of Blair, grabbing his knees roughly and holding on. His eyes shone with fierce determination. "I'm not losing you to this! Got that? Whatever it takes, Blair. Do you understand me?"

Sandburg's sad eyes misted over and his hands reached out to cover Jim's. "Jim, man..." Helplessly, words failed him.

"Do you understand me, Chief? I cannot lose you. Not like this." Jim knew he was pleading, but he didn't care. He was too desperate to reach his friend, to make him understand that there was only one option here.

Survival.

"A bullet would be easier, y'think?" Blair asked softly.

"Damn it, Sandburg!" Ellison's temper flared. "This isn't a joke!" His mind raced furiously, searching for a solution. "What about Naomi? Aren't blood relatives the best matches?"

"Yeah, but she's already been tested. No match. Apparently my marrow didn't take after Naomi."

Jim's eyebrows arched at the news. "Naomi already knows?"

Blair explained weakly, "She stayed in town at a hotel last week. I...I told her I wasn't ready for you to know yet."

Jim stood up quickly and paced the small confines of the balcony. "Naomi already knew. Who else knows? Simon? Taggart? Rafe? How about Rhonda? Have you told her, too?" Gesturing broadly, Jim shouted, "Why not just announce it to the whole city? Damn it, Chief! When were you planning to share this news with me, huh? Didn't you think I deserved to know the truth?"

"Of course, you deserve the truth! That's what I'm giving you here, man. The hard truth. Like I already said, I guess I was just trying to hold on to the one thing in my life that was still normal - our friendship...my work with you..." Blair spread his hands slightly as he added, "Our...home."

The next words were so soft, only sentinel ears could have heard. "You're right, Jim. You should have been the first to know. I'm sorry."

Ellison's face crumpled at Blair's apology, and he was back at his partner's side in a heartbeat. Kneeling in front of Blair, Jim grasped his shoulders and shook him gently. "No, Chief. Don't you be sorry. I'm the one who should apologize. Here you are dealing with this crap, and my feelings get hurt because you waited to tell me. That's pretty damn selfish, and I'm sorry." When Blair's eyes remained downcast, Jim slipped a single finger beneath his chin and gently lifted his head until their eyes met. "I'm here, Chief. What do you need?"

Those caring words broke Blair's dam of self-imposed restraint. Tears welled in his eyes, not quite spilling over, but lending the blue depths a shimmering luminescence. "I'm gonna fight this thing, Jim. I promise you, but things might get pretty rough before it's all over. I know I have no right to ask this, but..."

Realizing where his friend was heading, Jim interrupted, his voice rough. "Hey, kid. I've already told you - I'm here. For you. Whatever you need, whenever you need it. Got that?"

The tears broke free now, spilling down Blair's face in a flood. Leaning forward, he reached out for Jim, and he sighed brokenly when he was gathered into Jim's strong, gentle arms. "Got it," he whispered against Jim's neck. "I'm gonna need you, Jim. Whichever way this thing goes, I'm gonna need you."

Tightening his arms around him, Jim buried his face against the top of Blair's head, hoping his touch would say what his voice could not at that moment. Pulling gently, he eased Blair down to the floor and cradled him protectively in his arms. Rocking slowly, Jim murmured comforting sounds into Blair's ear. At last, when the tightness in his throat and chest eased enough for words to form, he whispered, "You have me, Chief. Always have. I'm not letting you go, okay? I'm not letting you go."

The night wore on, the city grew quiet then slept, and still Jim held his guide, relieved as he felt the tense muscles relax at last as sleep came.

Jim knew sleep would not come for him that night, not because of the hard balcony floor, but because of the turmoil of emotions in his heart. Wrapping himself more firmly around his sleeping guide, Jim Ellison shivered in the night, but not from the chill in the air. With the morning light, he would allow himself no more fear, no more weakness. There would be no room for it in the coming battle.

But tonight...

Jim breathed in the scent of his guide...gazed in fascination at every minute detail of his sleeping face...stroked the silky softness of his umber curls...rubbed his cheek against the smoothness of his forehead...lightly kissed the edge of his mouth and tasted the essence he had committed to memory that horrible day at the fountain.

His heart surged with emotion. "I won't let you go," he whispered roughly. "Stay with me, Chief. Stay..."

Jim Ellison lifted his head and stared upward at the stars. "Please..."

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

Staring hard at Dr. Elias Murphy, Jim listened to Blair's oncologist patiently explain their options. Combination treatment...chemotherapy prior to transplant...assuming a suitable donor is located...yielded positive results in treatment studies...a 40 - 60% chance of full recovery...important that the transplant be done when the disease is in a stable phase and as early as possible.

As Jim listened to what Blair now thought of as Dr. Murphy's spiel, Blair watched his partner discreetly from the corner of his eye. They were seated side by side on the couch in Murphy's office, facing the doctor, comfortably encased in his wing chair. Jim Ellison sat stiffly, uncomfortable in these stiff, sterile surroundings. His infamous jaw muscle twitched frequently, and Blair hoped he didn't crack a tooth under the pressure.

Easy, man. I know your Blessed Protector instincts are in overdrive right now, but we're going to have to pace ourselves here. Don't wear yourself out before we even get started.

Blair leaned closer, pressing his arm hard against Jim's. "S'okay, man," he whispered. "Chill." In a moment, the pressure was returned, the message acknowledged.

Blair spoke up. "So just because the donor registration lists haven't turned up a match yet, we keep looking?"

"Of course," Dr. Murphy agreed. "New donors are added daily. Your name's on the international lists as well. Encourage your friends, coworkers, neighbors...anyone you know...to get tested. You never know when a match will turn up. What about other family members?"

Jim watched Blair expectantly. Surely there was someone else they hadn't tried.

The younger man shrugged. "Mom's done her part. So have my cousins and my aunts and uncles. That's about it. Pretty small crowd."

"To sum it up, Detective Ellison, there's no reason to think we won't find a suitable marrow donor for Mr. Sandburg. In the meantime, we'll continue his drug protocol."

Jim leaned forward, spreading his hands helplessly. "What can I do? Isn't there something more?"

"Have you been tested? Has everyone you know?" Dr. Murphy stood up. "That's our best hope. You're bound to have lots of contacts. Get on the phone and get them to the lab."

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

Jim's pain filled eyes rose to meet Simon's. Rafe, Henri, and Joel Taggart sat in stunned silence. "So, that's it," Jim finished. "Realistically, his only chance is finding a compatible donor."

Simon shook his head slowly as Ellison's words and their implication sank in. "Why didn't the kid say something, Jim? We had no idea..."

Walking over to the window of Simon's office, Jim looked out at the city. So normal. Everyone living ordinary, everyday lives as though there was nothing wrong. Incongruous, when his own world had ceased spinning on its axis. Without Sandburg, he knew all too well, the central axis of his existence would vanish. He didn't even want to consider that possibility.

"Truthfully, neither did I. You know Sandburg, the master of obfuscation." Jim smiled briefly.

Taggart's eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Sandburg helped me keep my head together and saved my career, even though he scarcely knew me. I want to return the favor, Jim. What can I do?"

Four sets of concerned eyes focused on Jim Ellison expectantly. Each one of the men was ready to help Blair in any way he could, and Jim knew that willingness would extend beyond the walls of Major Crimes into the entire department.

"Thank you," Jim said simply, unable to express his gratitude in any other way. "Anyone might be a possible donor. All it takes is a simple blood test..."

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

Other than the days they dubbed 'chemo dates', Blair could almost pretend his life was normal. He was more tired than usual; sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning was almost more of an effort than he could manage. Still, he was able to work. He taught his classes at Rainier, held his office hours for his advisees, and worked with Jim in the afternoons. By the end of the day, he was exhausted, but he was determined not to scale back his activities. As long as he could keep working, Blair could pretend that his future was still under his control.

On his chemo days, however, it was a different story.

Blair pulled his head back from the toilet bowl with a moan and collapsed against the bathroom wall. "Aw, Jim," he said softly. "I'm sorry."

Ellison wiped his face with the cold, wet cloth, just as he'd been doing for the past two hours. "It's okay, Chief. It's okay. Another hour or so, and it should get better, remember?" Sitting back on his heels, Jim ran the cool cloth up and down his partner's bare arms. "You think you can make it back to bed now?"

"Yeah. Maybe." Tired blue eyes locked with Jim's.

Jim smiled as he stood up, then bent to catch Blair beneath the arms. "Need a lift, Junior?"

When Blair was on his feet, Jim supported him as they made their way slowly toward the small room behind the French doors. Halfway there, Blair tilted his head to rest against Jim's shoulder.

"Just so damned tired, man."

Easing him gently down on the futon, Jim helped Blair lift his legs and drew up the covers. "I know, Chief. But you're doing so good here. Just think," he said as he turned off the small table lamp. "It'll be another week until you have to go through this again."

A tiny smile ghosted the tight lips. "A week. Yeah. Hey, Jim? Think maybe we could ride up the coast one day? Just get out of the city for a while?"

Jim reached down and smoothed a few strands of loose hair back from Blair's forehead, leaving his hand atop his head in a gentle benediction. "Yeah, Blair. I think we could manage that. You get some sleep now, okay? I'll be right outside if you need me."

Before he left the room, a low voice called him back.

"Yeah, Sandburg?" Jim paused at the door then went back to stand beside Blair's bed.

"I heard from Dr. Murphy this morning. Jim...?" Blair looked up into Ellison's blue eyes. "All the people from the department who were tested?" His voice wavered slightly. "None were matches. Including you."

Their eyes remained locked for a long moment before Jim nodded slowly in understanding of the implications. Nearly two hundred men and women, officers and clerical personnel from Cascade PD had volunteered for the blood test that would determine if any of them were matches for Blair's bone marrow. Jim had sent up his own fervent prayer that his own marrow might provide the miracle they needed. No matches had been found among Cascade's finest. They were back to the registries.

Jim nodded slowly, digesting the information. "It's okay, Chief," he said softly, reaching down to squeeze his guide's shoulder. "The donor's out there. We've just got to find him."

Blair looked down suddenly, his long hair falling like a curtain to shade his face. "Probably doesn't matter anyway. I...I heard from my insurance company today. The policy I have through Rainier won't cover a transplant." A sound that could have been a sob as easily as a chuckle broke from behind the chestnut curtain. "Face it, man. The cards have been stacked against me from the start."

Taking a minute to gather his thoughts, Jim reached out to rub the stooped shoulders gently. His hands tightened. "There are other ways, Chief. I don't want you worrying about the money. Leave that to me."

Blair's eyes rose to meet Jim's again, eyes darkened with worry. "Jim, man, that's a nice thought, but this procedure is expensive. Majorly expensive." He reached over to the bedside table and picked up a folded sheet of paper. "This is the projected cost of the transplant."

Jim snatched the paper from his guide and pocketed it. "Forget it. You concentrate on beating this thing, you hear me? Let your Blessed Protector handle the money issue." Seeing the argument forming on his young friend's face, Jim shook his head and squeezed the thin shoulders firmly. "Forget it, Sandburg. That's an order, kid."

The curly head fell again, the chestnut curls once more curtaining the drawn face. "Okay, Jim," Blair said softly. "You win. I can't fight the leukemia and you, too. I don't want to fight you. Especially not now."

Such were the chemo days of sentinel and guide.

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

Jim pulled his truck to a stop and stared up at the imposing mansion before him.

His father's house. How many times had he sworn he would not return to this place? How strongly had he promised himself that he'd never again ask his father for anything?

Yet, here he was.

The sentinel took the folded and creased paper from the seat beside him. He didn't have to look at it to picture the figures clearly in his mind. He had folded and unfolded it often in the week since Blair had produced it. Jim had reviewed every option, every possibility, in his mind over and over. He'd thought of little else for seven days, had lain awake at night, staring up at the ceiling of his room in the darkness, racking his brain for a solution.

His only answer had been to come here.

Taking a deep breath, Jim climbed slowly from the sanctuary of his truck and approached the door of his father's house.

The door opened seconds after the first ring of the bell.

"Mr. Jimmy! It's so good to see you!"

"Sally!" Jim hugged his father's loyal housekeeper warmly. "It's been too long."

"It sure has." Holding him at arm's length, Sally studied his face. "You look tired. Something must be eating at you awful bad to bring you here." Wise brown eyes regarded him carefully. "You think your daddy can help?"

Jim cut his eyes to the wood-paneled office to the right of the foyer. "I hope so, Sally. I know he can help. The question is...will he?"

A voice called from the office. "Jimmy? That you, son?"

Jim smiled wryly at the woman who had helped raise him after his own mother had left. "I'm summoned into the inner sanctum. You take care of yourself, Sally. Call me if you need anything, understand?"

With a grateful nod, the elderly woman hugged Jim quickly, then disappeared into the hallway leading to the kitchen.

Bracing himself, Jim Ellison opened the door to his father's study and stepped inside.

William Ellison sat at his large mahogany desk, his back to his son as he typed at his computer keyboard. "Never could get the hang of this thing." Slamming a file folder down beside the uncooperative computer, William whirled around in his black leather chair. "Sit down, Jimmy." He motioned to the two matching leather chairs facing his desk. "Sit down."

He looks older than the last time I saw him, Jim thought in surprise. Older than I would have expected. He caught the flare of guilt before it took hold. It had been over a year since he'd seen his father in the case that had managed to bring father and son together for the first time in years. The memories of Bud's murder the case had awakened, added to the realization that his father had known about his enhanced senses, yet had still chosen to think of his son as a freak, had been almost too much for Jim to handle. There had been no more contact between the Ellisons.

Settling himself into the leather chair nearest the door, Jim asked politely, "How have you been, Dad?"

The older man's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "I'm well, Jimmy. Blood pressure goes up and down, and my eyesight's not what it once was, but that's to be expected at my age, I suppose. But if you'd truly been concerned about my health, I would have heard something from you in the past year, wouldn't I?"

Jim held his father's gaze steadily. "I suppose I deserve that. It's just that..." Jim paused, then shrugged in regret. "We seem to rub each other the wrong way whenever we spend time together. It's easier to keep my distance. That's no excuse, but..."

His father interrupted him with a chuckle. "You've always been the most honest person I know, Jimmy. You're right. We've both chosen to avoid conflict by staying out of each other's lives." William leaned back in his chair.

"I assume you haven't had a change of attitude, so what is it that brings you here today? What do you want, Jimmy?"

Jim swallowed hard past the tightness in his throat. This would not be easy. He'd never liked having to ask for anything. Instead, he preferred to be independent, to take care of himself. But if Blair had taught him anything, it was that no man could remain an island forever. Jim needed Blair. He could admit that now, and he needed his father to help him save Blair's life. Jim replied, "You're right, Dad. I do need something from you."

"I assume it's important or you would never have come to me for help." The older man's gruffness eased. "Are you all right, Jimmy?"

The tightness in Jim's throat intensified at the thought of just how important his mission truly was. "Yes," he managed to say softly. "It's very important." His jaw muscle tightened as Jim clenched his teeth in his determination to remain in control of his own intense emotions. "You met my friend, Blair Sandburg, last year. He's working on his dissertation and riding along with me as an observer."

"He's also your roommate," William Ellison added pointedly. "I've never quite understood your...arrangement...with him, Jimmy. He just doesn't appear to be the type of person you would normally choose as a friend. It is...curious."

Another contraction of Jim's jaw preceded his reply. He had to remain in control, not allow his father's judgmental attitude to push him into a confrontation. There was far too much at stake. "You're right, Dad. On the outside, I'm sure it must seem strange. But Blair's a good friend, and he helps me in ways you could never understand. I can't give you more of an explanation than that." When his father didn't reply, Jim forged on. "Blair is very sick. He's...dying. He has leukemia. He's on the waiting list for a bone marrow donation, and he's taking treatments to buy him time until a donor is found."

William Ellison's blue eyes never left his son's face. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I may not understand why you care about him as you do, but it's obvious he means a lot to you. Maybe it's better I not understand why." He sighed deeply. "I'm not so sure I could accept that."

Jim smiled bitterly. Why was a strong friendship like the one he shared with Sandburg so difficult for his father to understand? "It's not what you think, Dad. I can't tell you more than that, but it's not what you think."

His father studied his face carefully before replying. "Go on. What do you need from me?"

"Sandburg's insurance from the university won't cover the marrow transplant. I...I've tried everything I can to figure a way I can afford it, but short of selling the loft..." Jim shrugged. "Even if I cashed in all my investments and my retirement account, that still wouldn't be enough, and then we'd be out of a home as well. That wouldn't do Blair any good, to have the transplant and be homeless as well."

"So you've come to me for money," William Ellison said flatly.

Jim nodded, his eyes dropping to stare at a small nick on the edge of the mahogany desk. "I don't have any other options. I need your help, Dad."

"I've barely met the young man, Jimmy. What kind of money are we talking about here?"

Without speaking, Jim removed the creased sheet of paper from his pocket and passed it across the desk to his father. He gazed at the painting hanging behind his father's head as the older man studied the figures. It was well-executed. Every brush stroke was perfect, the colors blending gracefully into a congruent whole. The way the angled lines of the ship led the eye upward toward the sunlight...how the light sparkled on the water, yet the black storm clouds hovered ominously in the distance...the way the bow plunged bravely through the massive waves.

"This is quite a lot of money," the older man said at last, handing the paper back to Jim.

The sentinel folded it carefully and slipped it back inside his pocket. "I know it is. If I had any other choice, I wouldn't ask. I know Steven and I are in your will for much more than this amount, Dad. If you will help me now with this, you can consider it my total inheritance. Give everything else to Steven or donate whatever else you were going to give me to a charity. Whatever you decide is fine. I'll have enough in my own retirement account to be fine when that day comes. The loft's already mine, free and clear. Or I can make payments to you. I can't promise I'd ever get you completely reimbursed, but I'll do what I can. I can take out a mortgage on the loft, cash in my bonds and retirement funds, maybe moonlight in a security job..." Jim took a deep breath and finished. "I'll do whatever you ask, Dad, if you can help us."

"He's that important to you?" There was no emotion in William's voice, and his face gave no clue to his son about how the older man would react to Jim's request.

Jim nodded once in affirmation. "Yes," he said simply. "He's that important. And more."

William folded his hands in front of him on the desk, his fingers linked together as he thought. "You're right about my will, Jim. You and Steven will eventually inherit everything. I've often wondered why. My sons aren't exactly part of my life any more. I see Steven occasionally, but I know it's more out of a sense of duty on his part than any kind of familial warmth he feels. We've already discussed our relationship today. Yet, you are my sons." William tilted his head slightly to the side. "I don't understand why you care so much, Jim, but it's your inheritance. If this is how you want to receive it, then it's your decision. However unwise it may seem to me. You'll still receive the balance of what I was planning to leave you. I have no desire to punish you by withholding the rest. As for paying me back, there's no reason for that. It would be your money eventually. If you'll leave me the account information, I'll have my bank make the transfer on Monday. There are some holdings that must be liquidated first." William thought for a moment, then added, "Does Mr. Sandburg know what you're doing for him?"

"No. I told him to let me handle the financial part. He's in no condition to worry about money right now. I didn't tell him I was coming to you. I'm not sure Sandburg would accept the money if he knew I was giving up part of my own future security for him." The sentinel smiled gently as he thought about his guide's determination to look after Jim's best interests, regardless of the cost to himself. "He's the most selfless person I've ever known."

The elder Ellison jotted a quick note on a tablet lying on his desk. "I'll get started on this right after lunch. I can't say I understand your feelings of responsibility toward this young man, but I suppose you couldn't stand by and watch a friend lose his life for lack of financial resources. You always took your responsibilities so seriously, Jimmy. Maybe that's the one thing we have in common." Glancing at his watch, William asked, "Would you care to stay for lunch? Sally serves promptly at noon, only fifteen minutes from now. Knowing her, I'm sure she's prepared an extra portion for you already."

Jim could almost believe he saw a glimmer of hope in his father's eyes. He pulled out his cell phone. "Let me call the loft and check on Sandburg. My captain's son, Daryl, is staying with him until I get back. Daryl's a great kid, but I don't want him to be alone with Blair too long if Sandburg's having a bad day. He was doing pretty well when I left, though, so I don't think it will be a problem."

William rose from his chair. "I'll go tell Sally we have company for lunch." He headed for the doorway, then looked back at Jim. "I'm glad you came, Jimmy. I'm sorry it was under these circumstances, but it's good to see you." Without waiting for a reply, William Ellison stepped into the hallway and disappeared.

Listening to the older man's slow footsteps as he walked toward the kitchen, Jim smiled a little. Maybe there was hope for a civil relationship with his father yet. He flipped open his phone and began to dial.

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

The routine didn't change much in the next two months. Six relatively normal days followed by one day of hell.

William Ellison had been as good as his word. The money for Blair's transplant, plus a good amount of extra cash to be used for 'incidentals', according to Jim's father, had been transferred into the waiting bank account. With that deposit, Jim had felt a heavy weight lift from his heart. The money was there. All they needed was the donor.

His father called once a week, just to check on Blair's condition and to find out how Jim was handling the stress. While their conversations remained somewhat stilted and formal, Jim had to admit that at last the icy relationship between them was beginning to thaw. It was a bitter irony that even unaware in his illness, Blair Sandburg had served as peacemaker.

On a Tuesday morning eight weeks after Blair's initial chemo treatment, Jim Ellison entered the bullpen, surprised to see his guide already sitting in his chair.

"Hey, Chief," Jim greeted the younger man with a smile. "When'd you get here?"

Blair looked up from his desk as the detective slid into his chair at the neighboring desk. Jim loosened his tie and leaned back, stretching his long legs in front of him. Jim had been in court all morning, waiting to testify in a case he'd broken months earlier. He'd been called at last and had wrapped up his testimony in time for the noon recess.

"About an hour ago," Sandburg answered in a flat voice.

Immediately, Jim asked, "What's wrong? Talk to me, Sandburg."

Sandburg looked around the bullpen at their co-workers attending to their various duties - interviewing witnesses, typing reports, talking on the phone. It all seemed so normal, so routine. He felt a powerful surge of longing for the days when he'd been a part of it all, when his biggest worry had been finding time to grade papers, plan lectures, type Jim's reports, and stop by the market for groceries on his way home. Those days seemed an eternity ago, almost as if they had existed only in a dream.

"Chief?" Jim was leaning forward now, and he looked worried.

Blair realized he hadn't answered Jim's question. What had he asked? Rubbing his temples, Blair searched his memory. Recently it seemed more and more difficult to concentrate. He just seemed so damned tired all the time. That was terribly frustrating. Blair had always had enough energy for two men. Now I can barely make it to lunchtime without wishing I could lie down for a long nap.

Jim's concerned voice brought his focus back to the present. "Blair? Chief? What the hell's going on with you?"

Barely able to summon the strength to reply, Blair said softly, "Can we go some place a little more private, Jim? I've got some news." He sat back wearily and waited for his friend's reply.

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

Jim glanced around the busy bullpen. It certainly didn't offer much in the way of privacy. He felt a strong sense of dread shadowing his heart. What kind of news did Blair have that he couldn't share in the public arena of the bullpen?

"Sure," he said with a quick nod. "Simon's gone for the day. He had to go to city hall for a meeting. Come on."

Jim shut the office door behind him, then moved to close the blinds covering the windows between the bullpen and Simon's office. He turned to find Blair already sitting glumly in one of the chairs facing the large desk. Jim settled into the chair beside him. "Talk, Sandburg."

"I had an appointment with Dr. Murphy this morning." Blair's voice was flat, devoid of emotion.

Jim felt his heart plummet. He couldn't bring himself to ask what the oncologist had told Blair, yet he needed to know. "Blair?" he said at last, reaching over to lay a hand on the young man's arm.

In the same dull voice, Blair said softly, "The chemo treatment's aren't doing the job alone, Jim. There's a new drug he wants to try in combination, but the side effects..."

Sandburg ran one hand through his hair, and Jim could hear him take a deep, shuddering breath. "This is the last shot, Dr. Murphy says, to keep the disease in control long enough to have the transplant. If it doesn't work... Oh, God, Jim..."

Jim's hand moved from Blair's arm to his hand. Threading his fingers with Blair's, Jim held on tightly. "What are the side effects?"

Shutting his eyes tightly, Blair returned the pressure, and his voice remained steady. "Kinda like having the chemo effects around the clock. Severe fatigue...nausea...headaches...abdominal cramping. I...I probably wouldn't be able to keep on working at Rainier...or here." He looked over at Jim for the first time. "Jim...?"

Ellison brought their clasped hands up to his chest and held them there. "Doesn't look to me like you have much choice here, Chief. You've gotta try everything you can to hang on until they find a donor match, right? We'll ask Rainier for medical leave of absence. That shouldn't be a problem. You know getting a leave from the department's no big deal. Simon'll clear the path for that." Pressing his lips to Blair's hand, he said quietly, "The side effects we can handle. Together. Right?"

Blair nodded, swallowing hard. Jim smiled and placed Blair's hand back on his leg with a reassuring pat. "Let's head for home, Chief. It's nearly time to sign out anyway, and things are slow. We'll call Dr. Murphy and tell him you'll take the treatment. Then, we'll have a quiet dinner and watch that movie we checked out last night. Sound good?"

Smiling at last, Blair said quietly, "Yeah, it does. Really good."

Ellison stood up, then reached down to clasp Blair's hand and pull him gently to his feet. Wrapping one arm around the thin shoulders, he guided him to the door. His hand on the doorknob was stopped by Blair's hand on his.

"Jim?" Blair looked up with serious blue eyes. "Thanks, man."

Ellison held his gaze for a long moment. "This is a long way from over, Chief. You remember that. Whatever it takes, we're beating this bastard."

Blair's face broke out in a grin. "I remember, Jim. I remember."

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

Blair began the new drug protocol two days later. At first, it seemed the dire predictions of side effects might have been exaggerated, and Blair seemed more hopeful than Jim had seen him since he'd first broken the news of his disease.

The euphoria didn't last long.

Two weeks into the treatment, the side effects descended full-force. Between rushing to the bathroom to throw up and the pounding headaches, Blair had no life outside of his illness.

Jim did what he could to ease the suffering. He took a leave from work, unable to stand the thought of leaving his friend alone in the loft as sick and exhausted as he was.

Simon came by daily to spell Jim long enough for the detective to grab a fast shower and have a quick meal. Even then, the sentinel kept one ear tuned to the small bedroom beneath his own. He trusted Simon with his life. He just wasn't sure he trusted even him with Blair's.

Three weeks after the onslaught of side effects began, Jim felt something calling him out of the heavy sleep that had claimed him the moment his head hit the pillow. He'd finally eased Blair to sleep a couple of hours before. The younger man had been completely wiped out by the preceding day of vomiting and excruciating headaches. Jim had sat beside his bed for hours, bathing his face and changing the ice pack on his head. At last, Blair had fallen asleep, and Jim had stumbled up the stairs for some much needed rest.

He wasn't sure what had awakened him, but without hesitation, Jim left his warm bed and padded softly down the stairs. Stopping first at the door to Blair's room - the door that was never closed now - he found the small room empty.

Opening his hearing, Jim immediately located his guide. His long strides covered the distance to the balcony doors in seconds, and he knelt on the floor beside his friend.

Blair was lying on his side in front of the sliding door, curled in a near fetal position. His arms were wrapped around his abdomen as he rocked slowly. Jim could see the tiny trickle of blood oozing from his lip where he'd bitten it in an attempt to remain silent.

"Chief?" Jim eased down to the floor beside his partner. "Blair, what's wrong?" Reaching out, he brushed the wayward curls back from the pasty face.

Blair looked up at Jim through half-closed lids and moaned. "Aw, man...didn't mean...to bother you. Sorry, Jim." Another wave of cramping hit, and Blair cried out, curling even harder in on himself in an effort to ease the pain.

Jim's jaw tightened in frustration. So much pain and so little he could do. Gently, he worked both hands under the rigid body and eased Blair up to his chest. Standing carefully, he settled the smaller man against him, shocked to feel how much lighter he felt. How much weight had he lost?

"Just going over to the couch, buddy," he whispered reassuringly. "You're cold. I'll put on the fire, bring in a couple of blankets, and we'll get you warmed up."

A low moan was his only answer.

A few minutes later, Blair was cocooned on the soft couch, and a fire was blazing nearby. Dropping to the floor beside him, Jim began a relaxing massage on the spastic muscles of Blair's abdomen.

"It's gonna be okay, kid," he said softly, looking into the pain-darkened blue eyes. "Try to relax. You're warm now. Just let go of the pain and rest. That's the way. Relax now, Blair. Everything's going to be all right."

The long, slow strokes, the warmth of the fire, and Jim's comforting hands soon yielded results. Blair's eyelids drooped as his breathing grew slower and deeper. Another half hour, and he was in a deep, restful sleep.

Getting up quietly, Jim ran up the steps to his bedroom and retrieved some pillows, his blanket, and the coverlet. Arranging them into a makeshift pallet on the floor beside Blair's head, the sentinel settled in for the night.

Jim knew that standing guard involved protecting his guide from far more than criminals and psychopaths. Those outside dangers he could handle with confidence; they were known and proven territory. The days since he'd discovered that Blair was sick had taught him a difficult lesson. There were times when even the strongest, most protective sentinel could find himself helpless to protect his guide.

Tonight, the best he could do was stay close, to stand guard emotionally, hoping to lend comfort with his presence alone.

Sometimes, the greatest dangers came from within.

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

The morning sunlight was streaming in through the large loft windows when Jim awakened. Groaning softly at the stiffness in his back and neck, he pulled himself to a sitting position and looked behind him at the couch.

It was empty.

Groaning again, Jim stood up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Opening his hearing, he scanned the loft for Sandburg.

Nothing.

Worried now, Jim began checking each room and extending his hearing past the walls of their home to the street below. Then he saw it.

A single piece of white paper lying on the kitchen table. A piece of paper that definitely had not been there the night before.

He picked up the paper and began to read. Jim Ellison stared at the note in disbelief. "No way, Chief. No way in hell!"

He crumpled the paper into a ball and slammed it to the floor in anger.

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

"Simon, his car's still out front, so he must have taken a cab. There's no way in hell he had enough strength to walk, and I've already called his friends and colleagues. No one gave Sandburg a ride last night." Jim paced around the loft as he explained the disappearance to his captain and friend.

"I'll get Taggart, Rafe and Brown on it, Jim. They'll check with every cab company in the city for a pick-up at 852 Prospect."

"I'd like to stay here, sir. Just in case he makes it back home. I'll call the ER, too." Jim's voice faltered for a moment. "If he didn't make it to...wherever he was going...he might have ended up there."

"We're on it, Jim," Simon's clipped voice replied. "I'll get back with you when I know something."

The connection was broken.

Jim stared down at the receiver in his hand. Blair was out there in the city somewhere. Sick and alone and...

Dying.

Anger rose within him, and with it, the bitter taste of bile. "Damn you, Chief!" Jim cried, slamming the phone against the wall of the loft. "Why the hell did you run out on me?"

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

Two hours passed before the phone rang again. Jim used his cell phone to check with the local ER. The portable phone was beyond repair.

Jim snapped open his cell. "Ellison!"

"Where are you, Jim? I thought you were staying around the loft, but the phone..."

"It's broken," he snapped. "What have you found?"

Simon chuckled. "Sandburg, we hope. City Cab picked up a fare in front of your building at 4:00 this morning. Cabby said the guy seemed really sick. Offered to drive him to the hospital, but the man refused."

Jim was already out the door. "Where'd he take him?" He took the stairs two at a time.

"Small hotel over on Eighth Street. The Sleep Tight Inn."

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

Blair didn't remember it being quite so far from the ice machine in the lobby to his room. He drew a careful breath. Breathing too deeply seemed to trigger the attacks of nausea that were a constant part of his life now. His bones ached. Every knotted muscle, every painful joint a reminder of the disease that was slowly stealing away his life.

His soul hurt.

Oh, God, he was so tired.

"Chief!"

Blair physically jumped at the sound of Jim's familiar voice and the cherished nickname. The stabbing pain brought by the sudden, unplanned movement barely registered. Jim had tracked him down, and now, the sentinel was here. Slowly, he turned to face the wrath of his partner.

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

Jim waited until Blair was looking directly into his eyes. If possible, the younger man was even thinner, his face more drawn and gaunt than he'd seemed the night before. Reaching out, he grasped his thin shoulders and shook him gently. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Jim asked, his voice harsher than he had intended.

Blair stared at Jim and shrugged.

Quickly losing his patience and afraid that this time he might shake the young man too roughly, Jim dropped his hands to his side. "Which one's your room?" When Blair nodded toward room 104, he ordered, "Let's go."

Blair pulled the key card from his pocket and slipped it into the lock slot. The green light came on, and Jim followed him into the room.

As soon as they were inside, Blair sat down in one of the uncomfortable motel chairs and waited in absolute silence.

Jim sank onto the edge of the rumpled bed and stared at his friend. "You had no right, Chief," he pointed out wearily.

That got Sandburg's attention. "What do you mean, 'no right'? In case you've forgotten, Ellison, this is still my life! As crappy as it's become, it's still my life!" His face was flushed with anger.

"Like hell it is!" Jim wanted to grab those thin shoulders and shake some sense into his friend. Instead he settled for pounding his fist against the worn hotel mattress. Blair started slightly at the action and at the fury in Jim's eyes. "In case you hadn't noticed, our lives haven't been our own for a long time now, Sandburg! What affects you, affects me! Damn it, Chief!"

Jim ran his fingers through his short hair. "You can't just come into my life, worm your way into my heart, then pick up and leave without a word. Not like this. Not when you're sick, and you need me." Jim pointed a warning finger directly at Sandburg. "And don't you dare tell me that you don't need me right now."

For a long moment, Blair returned Jim's furious gaze with one of his own, equally fiery. Suddenly, as if the wind had died, leaving his sails completely deflated, Blair's shoulders slumped and he buried his face in his hands with a long, shuddering sigh. "You didn't sign on for this," he whispered. "Nursing me...watching me die...never part of the..." His voice broke. "Blessed Protector contract."

His anger evaporated in an instant, and when he spoke, Jim's voice was warm with tenderness. "Blair..."

He reached across the space between them to stroke the soft curls reassuringly. "You're right. When we teamed up, we never discussed the possibility that one of us would get sick...possibly die. You just don't talk about things like that, you know? But hasn't it ever occurred to you that being your Blessed Protector doesn't just include protecting you from bullets and psychopaths?" He tangled his fingers in the thick hair and gently guided his friend's head upward so he could gaze into the tear-filled blue eyes. "Haven't we already decided that this relationship...this sentinel/guide thing...this friendship...is forever?"

Blair remained silent, but he gave a quick, small nod. A single tear escaped to trickle down his pale cheeks.

Jim wouldn't let up. "Then it's like a marriage, right? 'In sickness and in health...'til death do us part'?"

Another nod from the silent young man across from him, followed by another tear.

"I promised you once that I would protect you, that I'd always be there for you. That meant forever, kid." Jim leaned forward, resting his forehead against Blair's. His voice was firm, even though it trembled with strong emotion. "I made that vow because that was what I wanted to promise you. What I needed to promise you. What I love, I protect. No limits. No boundaries. I don't break my promises, and I don't give up on what I love. I won't give up on you, Chief, and I won't allow you to face this alone. Understand?"

Blair broke away from Jim with a small, choked cry and fled across the room to the window. He stood shivering, staring out at the parking lot. "It's...not...fair, Jim," he murmured brokenly. "I don't want you to have to deal with this, man. It's not your responsibility. Let me do this my way. Please? Besides, even if a donor turns up, I can't afford that transplant, and my insurance won't pay, and..."

Coming up behind Blair, Jim placed his hands on the too-thin shoulders and gently turned his guide around to face him. "Look at me, Chief." Slowly, the tear-filled blue eyes rose to meet his. "As for the money, it's taken care of." He silenced the coming question with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about how, okay? Just trust me. It's taken care of. As for doing this your way, I'll leave you alone, okay? All you have to do is one simple thing to convince me that that is really what you want. Look me in the eyes and tell me to leave. Tell me that you want to be alone. Tell me to go, Chief, and I will."

"Jim, I want...," Blair's voice faltered as his gaze dropped to the front of Jim's shirt.

Almost roughly, Jim interrupted him. "No! You look at me! Tell me, Blair. What do you want?"

Blair slowly looked back up at Jim. "I...want to...Aw, Jim, please don't make me...," Blair wiped the tears away, his voice breaking in a sob.

Jim Ellison refused to give an inch. The stakes were far too high to surrender. "You want me gone, kid, you're going to have to say it to my face. No notes, no slipping off when I'm asleep. Look at me, Blair. Look right in my eyes, and tell me to leave."

Sobbing unashamedly, the young man raised his eyes to Jim's once more. He gasped for breath enough to speak. "Jim...please...I...I...want..."

"What, Blair?" Jim pushed. "Tell me. What is it you want?"

"Go...home," Blair gasped, collapsing weakly into the waiting arms of his sentinel. "Take...me...home. Please? I'm...so sorry, Jim."

His strong arms wrapped around his friend's shaking shoulders, Jim held Blair tightly against him. Bending his head, Jim pressed his lips against one curl-covered ear. "It's all right, Chief," Jim whispered. "It's going to be all right now. Shhhh..."

Jim rubbed one hand up and down Blair's back, seeking to ease the powerful tremors with his touch. He tenderly guided Blair to the bed and eased the two of them down to the mattress. Rocking slowly, Jim continued his litany of reassurances. "Relax...shhhh...everything's all right, Blair...I'm here...I'm right here. I've got you. Easy...easy now."

Gradually, the tremors lessened, and Jim could feel Blair relax in his arms. He continued the gentle rocking and the soft murmuring until the younger man's breathing evened out, and he nestled his head more firmly against Jim's shoulder. Two more shuddering breaths, and he was asleep.

Jim monitored Blair's heart rate as it slowed to a peaceful pace. "That's the way, Chief," he whispered. "Rest now. It's all right. Sleep."

He swept the hair off Blair's forehead, then brushed a gentle kiss against his temple. "Shhhh..." Another whisper of a kiss to the forehead, as Jim caressed Blair's face with his fingertips, seeking to ease the tight lines of pain that etched the younger man's features. "You're going to rest for a while, then we'll go home. As soon as you're a little stronger, we'll go home."

Still cradling his sleeping partner, Jim eased himself back against the headboard, resting on the pillows piled on the back of the bed. He had found Blair, and Jim Ellison would sit there forever, if that was what his friend needed.

"Whatever you need, Chief," Jim whispered as he closed his eyes wearily. "I'll be here."

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

Simon glanced inside the loft, then returned his attention to the young man beside him on the balcony. It was a warm day, and Blair had insisted that he wanted to get outside for a while. Ensconced on a plastic lounge chair, covered with a lightweight coverlet, Blair was pale, and in Simon's opinion, far too quiet.

"Why did you run, Sandburg?" he asked.

Large blue eyes found his face. "Look at me. Every day it gets worse. I get weaker. Jim didn't take me on to nurse, Simon. I wanted to spare him that, at least. That's all I wanted to do." He paused a few moments, then added softly, "I wish he hadn't come after me. It's only going to get worse from here on."

Banks shook his head. "There's no way he could do that, Sandburg. Jim loves you. Surely you know that by now." Once again he glanced at the figure of the sentinel in the kitchen, wondering if the man was listening to their conversation. "Jim Ellison could never abandon you. You mean too much to him, Blair."

Blair nodded miserably. "I know. I just didn't want to screw up his life, y'know? Simon? Will you promise me something?"

Simon took a long swallow from his beer bottle. "Depends on what, Sandburg. I don't make blind promises."

Blair's voice was serious. Dead serious. "If I don't...If they don't find a donor, and I don't make it, look out for Jim, will you? He likes to think he's got his senses under total control, but he doesn't. Things can still sneak up on him. My tapes and my notes are in my room under my bed in a blue box labeled 'Research'. You'll need to read them, Simon. Maybe we can start meeting a couple of times a week, let me show you some ways to bring Jim out of a zone, just in case..."

Suddenly the sliding door opened with a powerful push, and Blair looked up into the face of one very angry sentinel. "Stop it!" Jim commanded. "Don't you talk like that, Sandburg."

Knowing when his presence was not needed, Simon slipped quietly inside the loft, pulling the abused door closed behind him.

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

"Jim, I..."

Waving his hand impatiently, Jim interrupted, "I don't want to hear it, do you understand me? This isn't over, Chief. Remember?"

Gently, Blair tried to reassure his friend. "I know, Jim. I just want Simon to be able to help you...in case. I'm not giving up hope, I promise." Worried blue eyes begged his friend for understanding. "I just want to know you'll be all right, man, if I'm ever...not here."

Jim knelt down beside the lounge chair, his face set in chiseled stone. "If anything happens to you, I won't be 'all right', Sandburg. Understand? No matter what you try to arrange ahead of time, I can't promise that I'll ever be all right again."

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

The six-month mark approached with no sign of a donor. Blair's reactions to the combination of chemotherapy and the new drug never abated. The miserable days were taking their toll on both sentinel and guide.

For Jim, the sensory input was staggering. The loft was filled with malodors - sweat mixed with vomit combined with the harsh chemical scent that was Blair now, another side effect of his medications. After the first few weeks, Jim set his scent dials near zero and left them there.

The sights and sounds were not so easily escaped.

Jim could see Blair deteriorating before his eyes. According to his blood work, his white count remained fairly stable, a good sign that the disease was not progressing at least, but beyond that, Jim couldn't find much of a silver lining in the dismal cloud hovering around them. Blair was drained of energy, and even worse, seemingly of hope. His pale skin was nearly translucent now, and Jim feared if he fell, his bones would snap like a pencil.

The young man faced it all stoically. During the day, even at the worst of times, he hardly complained. It was a night that his misery found voice.

Jim lay awake almost nightly, listening to the sounds of suffering from the small room below his. In his restless sleep, Blair would whimper and moan, sometimes awakening from the torment of his dreams with a small, stifled scream. Jim would leave his own bed then, and carrying his pillow and blankets, spend the rest of the night at Sandburg's side.

There was no way to turn down his sight and hearing, not and be adequately aware of Blair's need. So the sentinel suffered right along with his guide.

Almost six months to the day his new drug treatments began, Blair caught Jim's hand just as the older man was leaving him for the night.

"Jim?" Eyes that were too wide in the pale, thin face stared up at Jim, almost pleading. "I can't do this anymore, man."

Ellison perched on the side of the small mattress. "What are you talking about, Chief?"

Blair shut his eyes tightly and shook his head. "This isn't living, Jim, and you know it. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? I...I've decided to tell Dr. Murphy that I'm ending the chemo and the drug treatments. Let the disease run its course. At least I'd be able to enjoy whatever time I'd have left."

With a sinking feeling, Jim understood what his friend was telling him. Blair was giving up, conceding defeat.

"No."

One single word, but the force of emotion behind it opened Blair's tired eyes.

When his guide was once more looking at him, Jim laid his palm against a pale cheek. "I know you're hurting, kid. Believe me, I know. I hear you...see what you're going through, and it tears me up inside. Just don't give up yet, Sandburg. Please."

Seeing the doubt and hopelessness reflected in the pools that were Sandburg's weary eyes, Jim struggled for the words that would convince him to keep up the fight. "Blair? Give it another month. Another four weeks to find a donor. I swear I'll get out there and beat the bushes for every person I can find to be tested. We'll find your donor, I promise you."

Leaning into Jim's palm, Blair shook his head in exhausted frustration. "You can't promise that, man. I know you can do almost anything, Jim, but that...? Don't make me promises you can't keep."

Determination surged in Jim's veins. "I'll keep it, Blair. Believe that. You just promise me you'll continue the therapy another month. Okay?"

More to ease his friend's pain that from any true sense of belief, Blair forced a smile. "Okay. One month. I promise."

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

Simon took a long swallow of the beer Jim had brought him and leaned back into the comfortable cushions of the couch. The story Jim had told him of his conversation with Blair an hour earlier had unnerved him more than he would like to admit. Sandburg was considering giving up? Impossible. Regardless of how the young anthropologist sometimes irritated him, Simon would never accuse Blair Sandburg of being a quitter. Hell, he'd managed to live with Jim Ellison for nearly five years. That took real guts.

Simon watched Jim pace the living room like a frustrated tiger. A jaguar would be more appropriate, I guess. Isn't that what Jim's able to see? His best detective looked completely exhausted - physically as well as emotionally. Blair's illness had taken its toll on Ellison as well. Small lines of worry were permanently etched around his eyes, and Simon hadn't seen Jim smile in weeks.

"Sit down, Jim," Simon suggested carefully. Then in a moment of inspiration, he added, "All that pacing's bound to wake up Sandburg."

That did it. Jim eased down into one of the chairs clustered around the warm flames of the fireplace.

Leaning his head back against the cushions, Jim's eyes closed wearily. "I'm going to lose him, Simon. He's slipping away from me a little more every day. What am I going to do?"

The helplessness in that voice touched Banks' heart. Jim was hurting in the deepest part of his soul. The truth could not be denied. He was losing Blair - slowly - a little bit more each day, and it was killing Jim.

"What do the doctors say?" Simon asked gently.

Jim's reply was little more than a whisper. "The disease is stable. With the chemo and drugs, it hasn't progressed. But Blair's not willing to keep on with this - existence. He gave me a month, Simon, then he's giving it up. He'd rather...die... than live like this."

"Can you blame him?"

Simon saw the visual effects of his words in the flinching of Jim's muscles, almost as if from a blow. "He's not living, Jim. He's existing. There's a huge difference. I hate to say this, but maybe..."

"No!" Jim's strong denial echoed from the tall loft ceilings. "There has to be another way!"

Seeing the determination in the blue eyes now wide open and staring at him in challenge, Simon nodded in approval. Jim was angry now. Angry enough to fight on. He looked at his friend with a level gaze. "Then find it, Jim. Do whatever it takes to save your partner."

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

Jim wasn't surprised that Naomi Sandburg came to Cascade only a day after he'd requested to see her. All it took was a phone call to the mother of his best friend up the coast at the friend's home where she had retreated after her last visit in an effort to 'process' her son's illness. When Jim called to tell her he thought a visit with his mom might do Blair a world of good, Naomi had been on the road within the hour.

She stayed at a hotel not far from the loft. Jim hadn't offered his home this time. He knew he wasn't up to dealing with Blair's mother in such close quarters. While he didn't doubt that Naomi had Blair's best interests at heart, the woman's combination of hippie style and New Age philosophies could get under Jim's skin in an unbelievably short time.

When Naomi arrived, she called Jim from her hotel room. Ellison asked her to wait there for him, then phoned Simon to tell him that he was needed at the loft to stay with Blair.

Jim had already told his captain about his plan, and the older man agreed that it was the only option Jim had left. Simon arrived quickly, and Jim left for Naomi's hotel.

Blair's mother greeted Jim with a hug and tears in her eyes.

"I'm so glad you called, Jim," she said in a voice choked with tears. "Blair needs his mother, now, wouldn't you agree?" Before Jim could respond, Naomi breezed on. "I brought some new herbal remedies my nutritional advisor recommended for Blair. These are the latest things in holistic medicine. I've also arranged a place for Blair - and me, of course - at the most wonderful commune run by some friends of mine from years and years ago. It's on the island of..."

Jim stared out the window as Naomi prattled on. The sun was nearly beneath the horizon, and all over Cascade lights were flickering on. In the room beside them, he could hear a couple arguing about which restaurant to try for dinner, and across the hall, a child cried over a broken toy. Life was going on all round him, and yet, his own world was spinning wildly on its axis.

It was time to reestablish some control. Even if he had not been able to prevent the disease that had stricken his partner, he would be damned if he'd just stand by and watch him die.

Jim whirled around to face his best friend's mother. "Naomi! I don't give a damn about your herbal cures and holistic medicine or your healing communes! This is cancer we're dealing with! All that crap you're talking about won't help Blair!"

"Oh, Jim," Naomi protested, smiling tolerantly. "You just haven't studied the healing properties of..."

Jim didn't allow her time to complete the sentence. "Damn it! Blair is dying, Naomi! Whether or not you want to hear it, we're losing him. He's giving up. Last week he told me he wants to stop his treatments. He wants to let the disease run its course. Blair is ready to die, Naomi, and some damned herb is not going to change that. I'm not willing to stand by any longer and allow that to happen!" On the last word, Jim drew back his arm and without hesitation, plunged his fist through the sheetrock wall. His hand disappeared past the wrist, but he jerked it out as if from a soft pillow. A flurry of dry wall floated to the ground. He turned to glare at Naomi, then took a step toward her.

Naomi backed away several quick steps from Jim in fear. She had never seen fury in anyone's eyes of the magnitude she saw at that moment in the angry blue eyes of James Ellison. Tears built up in her eyes, then spilled over to flow down her cheeks. "I don't know what you want me to do!" she cried. "I've had the blood tests! I don't believe that this transplant is the wisest course, but I tried to help! What more can I do?"

Stepping forward, Jim gripped her arms tightly. "Forget your natural cures, damn it! The bone marrow transplant is Blair's only hope. We've exhausted the donor registries in this country and abroad. Everyone I know has been tested, but we haven't found a donor. We're running out of options, but there's one chance left." Jim's voice dropped to a low, soft pitch as he shook her gently. "Tell me who his father is, Naomi. Tell me."

The blue eyes so much like Blair's widened in surprise. "Jim! I can't! I don't know. I..."

"Damn it, Naomi!" Unable to control his anger any longer, Jim shoved the terrified woman against the wall. Pinning her in place with one hand on each side of her head, braced against the wall, his voice rose again in anger. "You do know! I've always known that you know. You just don't want Blair to find out his name for some idiotic reason only you could possibly understand. Believe me, Naomi, I don't care who Blair's father is or what happened in your life over thirty years ago! Blair is dying, and that man's his only chance to survive!"

Jim's voice shook with fury. "You've popped in and out of the kid's life whenever you felt like it. You want him in your life - you show up for a while, play at being his mother, then head off for parts unknown. It's time I let you in on a little secret, lady."

Eyes blazing, Jim leaned in even closer. "You might trade off your son for whatever cause or fad you latch onto next, but Blair's place in my life is non-negotiable. I'm there for him - today, tomorrow, for as long as he wants me there. You can't come in here now that he's dying, offering some damned herbs and an out of touch commune on some isolated island! I won't settle for that! Not when it's Blair's life at stake!"

Jim paused a moment, biting down hard, a bit of cheek tissue wedged between his tightly clenched teeth. He tasted blood, but the sensation wasn't unpleasant. It seemed ironically appropriate, somehow. The tone of his voice was nearly flat when Jim next spoke, yet there was an underlying, unmistakable ring of danger. "I'd take a bullet for him in a heartbeat, but I can't protect him from this. The way I see it, there's only one thing left I can do to save Sandburg's life, and this is it. You will tell me the name of his father, and you'll tell me now, or so help me, Naomi...!"

Eyes wild with anger and sheer desperation, Jim bent closer to the frightened woman as he gripped her arms. "Tell me!"

Tense seconds ticked by as blue eyes locked with blue. At last, Naomi's shoulders slumped in surrender. "All right, Jim," she said quietly. "Sit down and let me explain. But first, I'd like a glass of water." She drew a deep, ragged breath, then broke out in tearful sobs.

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

Jim excused himself from the room and took the ice bucket down the hall. While he was gone, Naomi Sandburg splashed cool water on her face and tried to recover her composure. She prided herself on being a strong woman, someone not easily intimidated by any man. but her confrontation with Jim Ellison had frightened her to her core.

By the time Jim returned, Naomi was sitting on the small couch, her face calm and composed. She'd broken once; she'd be damned if she would let him see her lose control again. Naomi sipped the ice water he brought her and leaned back into the softness of the couch cushions, willing her body to relax.

She was absolutely exhausted, more so emotionally than physically. It seemed almost too much effort to draw breath. It was like being in shock, Naomi reflected, and perhaps that was an accurate description. She was a woman of peace, and the Jim Ellison she had just encountered had been far from peaceful. In her visits to Cascade, Naomi had witnessed Jim's gentleness with Blair, but this experience had been so different. Naomi had seen for the first time the awesome power of Jim's love for her son, and the violence of the experience left her shaken. How could this man possibly be her son's best friend? His 'brother of the heart', as Blair had once explained it to her?

Naomi watched the man as he sat stiffly on the hard-backed chair opposite her. In her observation, Jim had not relaxed one iota. He obviously remained focused on the task he'd set for himself - finding the one remaining chance to save his friend's life. Naomi realized there would be no apology from the steel-jawed man who waited for the revelation of her deepest, most fiercely guarded secret. His mission was not yet complete, and Ellison obviously had no intention of letting up until it was.

Realizing delay would only postpone the inevitable, she surrendered. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Naomi began her story. "You're right, Jim. I've always known exactly who Blair's father was. I was so young, only seventeen. I'd left home a few months before for reasons we needn't get into here. I found myself out in Arizona living on a ranch with a bunch of other kids. We were all dedicated to peace and setting up our own version of Utopia. It was the late 60s, and we were still so idealistic." Naomi had begun to relax now as she become more involved with her memories. Her blue eyes glowed, and a soft smile graced her face.

"It must have been mid-June when he came walking down the road, carrying his guitar over his back. We could tell right away that he was new to the movement." Naomi laughed gently. "His hair was so short, and his clothes...!" She shook her head affectionately, and her long red hair swayed gently with the movement. "Let's just say he stuck out like a sore thumb among the rest of us."

Jim interrupted abruptly. "What was his name? C'mon, Naomi, this little trip down memory lane is fine for you, but I don't want to hear it. Blair doesn't have the time to waste."

Naomi stared at Jim with wide blue eyes, then she smiled a little sad smile. "Sorry, Jim. You really don't care about all this, do you?"

Jim shook his head. "It's your son I care about. I just want to get in touch with this guy and find out if he's a match."

Naomi dabbed delicately at her eyes with a tissue. "I'm sorry for taking so long. It's just that all this is something I thought was behind me, in my past. Now..." She looked up at Jim, a haunted look in her eyes. "Will Blair have to know? That the donor is...is his father?"

"No. If there is a match, he can be an anonymous donor, if that's what he wants. But you have to realize that his father may want to have contact with Blair."

She laughed bitterly. "No, Jim. I don't think there's much chance of that. I just would prefer not burdening Blair with any of this right now. He has enough to process as it is."

For the first time since he'd arrived, Jim Ellison smiled. "I agree with that, Naomi. I promise you that if I possibly can, I'll make sure Blair has no idea who the donor is, assuming there is a match."

Naomi nodded, grateful for that promise. "Thank you, Jim." Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes, then spoke in a whisper. "Mark Bennett. Blair's father is Mark Bennett. You'll find him in Boston."

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

Two days later...

Jim dreaded the task before him as much as he had dreaded any task in his lifetime. As a result, he had procrastinated as long as possible. At least, as long as he would allow himself, given Sandburg's condition. His flight left in three hours, and Naomi would be arriving in an hour to stay with Blair while he was gone, but he had yet to tell his friend he was leaving.

From the kitchen, Jim monitored Blair with hearing and sight. The younger man lay on the couch, alternating between a light, restless sleep and wakefulness. Jim could literally taste the salt of Blair's sweat in the air. The experimental drug he was taking kept him perpetually hot, quite a change for the normally cold-natured man, and the chemo treatments had changed his body chemistry to the point that Blair no longer had the familiar scent Jim had imprinted so long ago.

The sentinel could hear his labored breathing and the soft moans Blair could not quite hide. Probably more muscle cramps, another side effect of the drugs. Blair had become frighteningly weaker the past few days, unable to keep anything more than the blandest food in his stomach. Suddenly, Jim was anxious to leave the loft and be on his way to Boston. The faster, the better. Blair certainly didn't have time for him to waste. The one month deadline was looming ever closer.

Moving from the kitchen into the living room, Jim called softly, "Hey, Chief. How you doing, kid?" He gently eased Blair's feet up enough to slide down on the end of the couch, then he settled the sock covered feet into his lap. Absently, he rubbed Blair's arches, working his way to his toes.

Blair's lids fluttered open, revealing the weak blue eyes beneath. "That feels good, man. Thanks."

"You didn't answer my question, Darwin. How are you?" Jim's voice was soft by design, hoping to calm the young man with the low tone.

Jim felt, rather than saw, Blair's shrug. "About the same. Lousy." As though the four simple words had sapped the little strength he had remaining, Blair's eyes closed again, and he sighed shallowly.

Wishing he could let his friend sleep, but knowing they had to talk, Jim patted Blair's leg beneath the afghan. He began a firm massage on the tightly-knitted muscles in Blair's calves. "Chief? Stay with me, buddy."

"Mmmmm?" Tired blue eyes found Jim's face once more. "Jim...?"

Quietly, Jim explained, hoping Blair would somehow understand what he was about to tell him. "Chief, I have to go out of town for a little while."

Confusion clouded Blair's face. "You're...leaving?" The hurt in his guide's voice stabbed through Jim's heart like a knife.

Don't buckle, Ellison. You have to do this. For his sake.

Leaning sideways, Jim rested one arm on the back of the couch and squeezed Blair's shoulder with his free hand. "Blair, I'm sorry. It's just for a day, I promise. My flight leaves tonight. I'll come home late tomorrow. Naomi's on her way to stay here with you. I swear, Chief, if there was any other way, I'd never leave you like this. You know that's true, right?"

A hint of a smile ghosted across the young man's lips. "Yeah, man. My Blessed Protector..." His eyes closed, and for a few moments, Jim thought he'd drifted away again. "...come back tomorrow?"

Unable to stop his voice from breaking, Jim brushed Blair's hair back from his brow and whispered, "Tomorrow, Chief. I promise."

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

"Mr. Bennett? Your 10:00 appointment is here."

Jim watched the secretary as she announced his arrival to the still unseen Mark Bennett. He resisted the urge to listen to the man's response with his sentinel hearing. He'd be meeting Bennett soon enough and could form his own opinion about the stranger who was his best friend's father.

"Mr. Bennett will see you now." The secretary smiled pleasantly, and Jim followed her through the huge, glossy wooden door bearing the plaque with the words, "Mark Bennett C.E.O.".

With observation skills honed by years of practice, Jim quickly took in his surroundings. Dark mahogany paneling...rich tanned leather chairs and couch...tall bookcases lined with leather bound volumes...a well stocked bar...entertainment center with state of the art sound system and video equipment...an antique partners' desk complete with computer system...two diplomas from Harvard on the wall, along with photos of an attractive blonde woman and three handsome young adults, two boys and a girl, obviously his children...discretely framed awards and certificates.

It was obvious that Mark Bennett was a man of accomplishment and means.

Jim Ellison entered his domain prepared to do battle.

The man behind the impressive desk rose to his feet, his hand outstretched in greeting. There was an unmistakable reserve in his tone, and his expression was impossible to read. Slightly over six feet, Blair's father had salt and pepper hair and a face well tanned from hours in the sun. Probably on the golf course, Jim mused. His kind blue eyes crinkled into well-defined laugh lines when he smiled in greeting.

"Mr. Ellison. Mark Bennett. Please, have a seat."

After their handshake, Jim sat in one of the comfortable leather wing chairs facing Bennett's desk. "Thank you for working me into your schedule."

For the first time, Mark Bennett smiled. "With the message you left, I couldn't say no. Naomi Sandburg..." He shook his head. "I haven't heard that name in years."

Jim smiled. "I thought that might get your attention."

"You were right. Would you like a drink?" Bennett walked over to the bar and poured himself a brandy. "I know it's early, but somehow I have a feeling I'm going to need this."

"No thanks," Jim said. "But you're right. You may need that drink, Mr. Bennett."

Returning to sit beside Jim in the second wing chair, Bennett added, "Call me Mark. I tend to be a lot less informal than these rather stuffy surroundings might suggest." Taking a sip of his drink, he asked, "Now, would you mind telling me why you're here?"

Jim leaned back and studied the face before him. He could see something of Blair there, especially when Mark Bennett smiled. The way his eyes warmed...the curve of the mouth...the shape of his face.

"First, let me explain that Naomi didn't want me to come here, but there was no other option. It's about your son...Blair."

The man's eyes softened immediately. "Is that his name? Blair? I never knew what she called him. In fact, I never knew if the baby was a boy or a girl."

Jim nodded. "Blair Jacob Sandburg." Feeling the time might be right, he slipped the photo of Blair from his jacket pocket and handed it to Bennett. "This is his picture."

Mark Bennett gazed at the photo carefully. "He has his mother's eyes. Quite a handsome man." Turning his attention back to Jim, he asked, "Let me ask again, why are you here?"

The time had come for bluntness. "Blair is very sick, Mark. He was diagnosed a few months ago with leukemia." Jim had told the story again and again in his head, trying to obtain the emotional control he knew he would need when the time came to talk with Mark Bennett. "The doctors have tried every treatment possible, and to this point, absolutely nothing has worked. He's getting weaker every day. The only chance he has for survival is a bone marrow transplant. None of the donor registries has turned up a match to this point, and none of us has compatible marrow either. The best chance is with a relative, but Naomi's test wasn't close enough."

"So you've come to me," Mark Bennett said softly.

Jim nodded. "Naomi was hesitant, but she realized that you were Blair's last hope. She wants no contact with you, but she gave me your name. I used my sources to track you down."

"Does Blair know you are here?" Bennett stared at the photo in his hand.

"No. He has no idea I know who you are. Naomi's never told him who his father is, and Blair seems accepting of that decision. I told him I needed to be out of town for a day, and he didn't question that."

Bennett turned back to Jim. "How do you know Blair?" he asked curiously. "Is he a cop, too?"

Jim laughed. "No, definitely not. Blair is a doctoral student at Rainier University in Cascade."

"So, how does he get to be friends with a detective? That's not your usual combination - a grad student and a cop."

Jim reached over and took the photo from Mark Bennett. He stared down at the familiar face of his friend. "No, it's not, is it? Blair...is the best friend I've ever had in my life. He's an observer with the department, and he's my partner." Jim looked up to meet Mark Bennett's eyes. "I'll do whatever it takes to save his life."

Bennett's expression grew thoughtful. "How much did Naomi tell you about me? It's important that you understand why this is not an easy thing you're asking of me."

"Not much," Jim admitted.

"Got a few more minutes? I'd like to explain."

Jim smiled. "I've got as much time as you need."

Mark Bennett leaned back in his wing chair and closed his eyes as he began his story.

"It was the summer before my senior year at Harvard. My family is what's considered 'new money'. My father made a fortune in banking, but it was all relatively recent. In Boston, where I grew up, that means you'll never really be admitted to the upper strata of society. That takes old money."

Bennett sipped his drink and glanced over at Jim Ellison. The detective was quiet, listening intently. "That's where my father's plan came into play. We had close ties with one of the oldest families of Boston, the Chamberlains. Their daughter, Michelle, was close to my age and attending Bryn Mawr. It was a perfect match. Her family, as well connected as it was, no longer had the...funds...it once had. My family had the money, but not the name. By combining the old name with the new money, both families would benefit."

Jim spoke up for the first time. "Did you love her?"

Bennett chuckled bitterly. "Love? To quote Tina Turner, 'what's love got to do with it?'. He shook his head. "No. Not then. Now? We respect each other...are fond of each other. We have three children together." He shrugged. "Anyway, that was the plan. I realized that after I graduated the next spring, I'd go to work with my father, marry Michelle, and settle down into the life of a successful Boston businessman married to a socialite. I decided to have one final summer of freedom before that happened."

"I hitched out west and ended up in Arizona. I met some guys who were living on a farm with a bunch of other kids. They were raising their own food...making crafts to sell to the shops in town...doing odd jobs in the area. That sort of thing. It sounded great, so I moved in."

"And that's where you met Naomi," Jim said, making it more a statement than a question.

"Yes. She was sitting on a rock formation doing some sketches of the desert when I first saw her. She was wearing one of those white peasant dresses, and her hair was long and soft." Bennett shook his head at the memory and smiled softly. "I fell in love at first sight."

"The summer of '68. The best, most memorable three months of my life." Bennett looked over to Jim. "You know Naomi. Is she still that enchanting?"

Taken slightly off guard, Jim hesitated for a moment before replying, determined to be as honest with Blair's father as the man was being with him. "She's one of a kind, Mr. Bennett. Enchanting? Yes, I can see that. She's also the most irritating woman I've ever met, but then, we're just about as opposite as two people can be."

Curiously, Bennett regarded Jim frankly. "Is Blair like her? If he is, then how can the two of you be so close?"

Jim took a deep breath. "He's very much Naomi's son. Free spirited...gentle...open minded. And yes, Blair can also irritate me like no other person can. On the other hand, he makes me laugh like no one else...makes me prouder than I've ever been of anyone." Spreading out his hands helplessly, he added, "Don't ask me to explain it. I can't. It just...is."

Mark Bennett accepted Jim's explanation with a smile. "It's okay. Matters of the heart are seldom logical, I've observed."

Jim prodded him a little. "Go on with your story, please. What happened when the summer came to a close?"

A little sadly, Mark Bennett smiled. "I knew I had to return to Harvard for my senior year. I had told Naomi up front that my being there was only temporary. She said that we can't ever know what the future would hold, to just enjoy the moment and let the future take care of itself." He shrugged. "So I did."

"A few days before I had to leave, I brought up the subject with Naomi. I explained that I had to complete my degree, that I owed it to the family to enter the family business with my father after my senior year. She looked at me with those huge blue eyes and asked if I wanted her to go with me." Bennett stood up and paced over to the large wall of glass overlooking the city of Boston. Crossing his arms, he stared out at the view. A full minute passed before he turned back to Jim.

"What could I do? I was pledged to Michelle. Naomi Sandburg never would have been accepted into Boston society." He laughed bitterly. "If my family and its new money weren't fully accepted, I wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in hell with Naomi. Can you understand that?"

Jim's level gaze was cool. "Was that more important to you than the woman you say you loved? Not to mention the child that must have been on the way?"

"I didn't know about the baby!" Bennett strode back to his chair and sat down heavily. "She didn't write me until months later with the news that a child...Blair...was coming. No return address. No phone number. Absolutely nothing. She wrote that she felt I needed to know about the child, but she didn't want anything to do with me. She wasn't asking for money or to see me again. She asked me not to contact her, not to try to find her. She was merely telling me that she and I were bringing new life into the world." He looked helplessly at Jim. "What was I supposed to do?"

It sounded exactly like something Naomi would do. Jim believed the man sitting across from him in that plush office, could see the emotional turmoil in his eyes. Mark Bennett's heartbeat was elevated, and his face was slightly flush. Obviously, the old memories had upset him quite a bit.

"I think you did all you knew to do at the time. You were young and facing a pretty heavy future. The question now is - will you help save Blair's life?"

Bennett rubbed his face roughly in frustration. "I have three children! Michelle knows absolutely nothing about Naomi! If she found out... I'd lose my wife...my children...everything I've built over all these years."

Jim leaned forward, his blue eyes intense. "It can all be absolutely anonymous. The only one's who need to know are Blair's oncologist, Naomi, and the two of us. Trust me, Naomi won't say a word. She was dead set against this, but it was our last resort. I'll never breathe a word to Blair. I don't like to keep secrets from him, but this time, the stakes are high enough to make it worth it. I promise, no one will ever know."

"It's such a huge risk," Mark Bennett said quietly. "I could lose it all."

"Blair could lose his life!" Jim fought to control his frustration. "Look at him again!" He tossed the photo back to Bennett. "How can you not help him?"

"I...I just need some time to...think about all this," Bennett stammered. "How long will you be in town? Where can I reach you?"

Jim pulled out a card with his cell number. "I'm catching a flight back to Cascade late this afternoon. I promised Blair I'd be home this evening. He's...vulnerable right now. I don't want to leave him too long. You can reach me at that number any time. If you feel you need to verify any of this, call Simon Banks at Cascade P.D. He's my captain and friend. I've told him that if he gets a call from you to verify what's going on with Blair. He knows who you are, and he won't ask any questions. He's a very good friend to us both." Jim stood up and shook his head as Bennett silently held out the photo to return it. "You keep it. He's your son. You should have at least one photo."

Walking to the door of the office, Jim turned to face Mark Bennett. "He's very special, Mr. Bennett. Please think about this very carefully. You hold his life in your hands. Literally. If you have any questions, you know where to find me."

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

"Jim...?"

Naomi quickly set down the cup of tea and hurried into the small bedroom and took a long, calming breath. This was the fourth time since Jim's departure that Blair's sad cry had brought her running to his side. "Blair? Honey?" Perching on the edge of the futon, she reached out to brush back the sweaty curls. "I'm here, sweetie. I'm right here."

Confused, bloodshot eyes peered up behind long, salt-laden lashes. "Jim? Where's Jim, Naomi?"

Swallowing her hurt, Naomi forced a smile. "He's gone, sweetie. Remember? Jim had to leave town for a while. We've already talked about this." She took the damp cloth from the bedside table and gently ran it across Blair's forehead then down to his cheeks. "I'm here, now, and I'm going to make everything so much better, baby. I promise."

Blair shook his head forcefully, then winced at the pain the sudden movement induced. "No. Jim needs me." Dampness welled up in the liquid pools of blue. "I want Jim. Call him for me, please, Naomi? He'll come if he knows I need him." Hope shone brightly behind the veil of tears.

"Blair? Jim can't come right now. He explained everything to you, remember? Right now, you don't need to concern yourself with taking care of him." Naomi knew her voice sounded far less patient than it should, given her son's circumstances. It was the combination of drugs making Blair so needy, so uncertain. "Jim's a big boy, and I'm certain he is very capable of taking care of himself. You need to just relax..." She took a long, deep breath herself and released it slowly. "Relax and let me look after you." Smiling brightly, she added, "It's just the two of us again, sweetie. Remember how it used to be, Blair?"

His voice shook, but whether it was from the pain or from his emotions, she couldn't tell. "He needs me, Naomi. You just don't understand..." Slowly, the heavy eyelids drifted closed, and Blair's breathing became slower and deeper.

A few quiet minutes passed, and Naomi hoped that her son had fallen asleep again at last. Just as she was about to try slipping from the room, his lids flew open again and disoriented blue eyes darted nervously around the tiny room. Plaintively, Blair called out, "Jim? Jim, where are you? Jim...?" When there was no answer, Blair shut his eyes, and a single tear slipped from behind the closed lids.

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

Jim dropped his duffel at the front door and headed for Blair's room. Naomi emerged from the bathroom and caught his arm before he reached the French doors.

"Did you see him?" she whispered anxiously.

"Is he all right?" Jim asked quietly, nodding toward Blair's door.

Naomi followed his eyes. "I suppose. Lots of nausea. Headaches. And the muscle cramping has been horrible. He's asleep finally, though."

Jim moved toward Blair's room. "Let me look in on him. I'll meet you on the balcony. We can talk there without disturbing him."

Expanding his vision to see clearly in the darkened bedroom, Jim moved quietly to his guide's bedside. A narrow shaft of silver moonlight cast its radiance on Blair's face, transforming his pale skin into a luminescent glow. If not for his sunken cheeks and the small pain lines etched around his mouth and eyes, Jim would have sworn his best friend was healthy and sleeping peacefully.

As if recognizing the nearness of his sentinel, Blair's eyelids fluttered open. "Jim...?" His left hand slipped from beneath the covers, reaching blindly toward Jim.

Knowing Blair couldn't see him clearly despite the moon's soft light, Jim said softly, "Right here, Chief." He caught Blair's hand and held it firmly. "Miss me?"

The corners of Blair's mouth turned upwards. "You were gone?" he quipped with a small chuckle. A moment later, the facade slipped. "Glad you're home, Jim. I did miss you."

Squeezing the cold hand he grasped in his own larger hand, Jim laughed quietly. "It's good to see you, too, kid. Sorry I had to go, but..."

Blair interrupted him. " 'S'okay. You're home now. That's what matters, and..." A broad yawn interrupted his words. "Dr. Murphy sent over some new kind of muscle relaxants. Makes me sleepy."

"At least you're getting some rest." Jim guided his hand back beneath the covers and checked to be sure the blankets were tucked in. "You sleep. I'll go visit with your mom a while, okay?"

After another wide yawn, Blair nodded. "Sure. Talk about me behind my back."

Jim ruffled the top of his friend's head. "Sleep, Chief. Call if you need me."

Blair was asleep before Jim left the room. He picked up the new portable phone as he passed through the living room.

Out on the balcony, Naomi was waiting impatiently. "What did he say?"

Jim closed the sliding doors behind him, automatically dialing up his hearing a notch to monitor Sandburg. Suddenly tired from his busy cross-country journey, Jim pulled up a chair and sat down gratefully. Vaguely annoyed at her quick inquiry, he commented, "Blair's sleeping peacefully." Jim stretched his tired shoulder muscles, rolling his neck carefully from side to side. "Those new meds seem to be working." He didn't know what to make of Naomi's small huff of disbelief.

"Are you going to tell me what he said?"

Jim surrendered. He might as well get this over with so he could get some rest. "He said he'd think about it and let me know."

Naomi stared at him. "That's it? You meet my son's father - a man I haven't seen in over thirty years - and that's all you say?"

Jim raked his fingers through his hair. Patience was not one of his greatest virtues, and somehow when he had to deal with his best friend's mother, the supply dwindled quickly. "No, Naomi, that wasn't all. He told me the rest of the story of how you two met, and he told me why he had to leave you and return to Boston."

Deciding to get it all over with at once, Jim took a deep breath and told her the rest. "He has three kids, and he and Michelle are still married. He's successful and seems content with his life. I think he regrets how things ended between you, and I'm pretty sure there's a part of him that wishes things could have been different."

Naomi leaned back against the balcony railing, her expression thoughtful. "Do you think he'll give a blood sample?"

"I don't know. Maybe. He certainly didn't rule it out, and..."

The phone rang, and Jim snatched it up on the first ring. "Ellison."

"Jim, it's Simon. Thought I'd let you know that Mark Bennett called just now. He wanted to know about you and Sandburg and about the kid's illness. I told him everything, just like you said."

Renewed hope surged through Jim. "Did he say anything?"

Simon's voice sounded hopeful as well. "Not anything specific. He certainly didn't rule it out, though, Jim. My impression is that he's seriously considering it." Banks added, "Are you okay there tonight? Need me to come over?"

"We're fine here, Simon. Thanks. I'll let you know when I hear anything."

Jim clicked off the phone and laid it thoughtfully on the table beside him. He didn't have to look at Naomi Sandburg to know she was on pins and needles about the call.

He looked up at her. "Mark Bennett called Simon to confirm what I'd told him. Simon thinks he's considering it. That's all I know, Naomi." Jim stood up and stretched wearily. "I'm tired. I'm going to check on Blair again, then turn in for the night. You're welcome to sleep here tonight if you want."

Blair's mother shook her head. "I think Blair still wants to keep things as normal around here as possible. I'll go back to the hotel. He's given me his car keys so I can avoid the cabs late at night."

They walked inside, and Jim saw her to the door.

"Thank you, Jim, for doing this," Naomi said as she stood in the open doorway. "I...don't know if I could have faced him again, even to tell him about Blair and ask his help. You forced me into this, but I know it was the only option left. I do appreciate your being the one to contact Mark."

Jim nodded. "It's okay, Naomi. I'll call you in the morning and let you know what kind of night we have."

After Naomi was gone, Jim checked Blair and found him sleeping peacefully. At least the muscle relaxants had eased his discomfort, making sleep a possibility. Jim slipped out the door, grateful for the chance of a good night's sleep for them both.

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

The call came the next day shortly after lunch.

When Jim answered and heard the caller identify himself, he shot a quick look at Sandburg. The young man was resting on the couch, watching an old movie on TV. He slipped out onto the balcony and pulled the door closed behind him.

"Thanks for calling, Mark. I'm away from Blair now, so we can talk freely."

"How's he doing?" There was evident concern in the other man's voice.

Jim leaned over the rail and stared out at the city. His protectorate. That's what Sandburg called it.

"No change really. The doctor's given him a new muscle relaxant that's helping with the cramping, but it's also making him extremely drowsy." Jim decided not to come right out and ask the question that was burning in his heart.

"I've decided to have the blood test."

Jim restrained himself from shouting in relief. Forcing his voice to remain calm, he asked, "Have you spoken with Dr. Murphy?"

Mark Bennett replied, "I just got off the phone with him. He explained the procedure for testing and what would happen if I turn out to be a suitable donor. I...can't refuse to try, Jim. You knew that when we met, didn't you?"

Jim leaned heavily against the wall of the loft's balcony in relief. His legs felt weak, and it was a moment before he could speak. "I hoped. I hoped you wouldn't say no. Thank you."

"I can have the blood work done here. Then..." There was hesitation in the reply. "I'll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. We should know something in a day or so. I'll call you then, Jim, and let you know."

"Mark?" Jim wished he could let the conversation end without asking, but he had to hear the words. "If you are a match, you are going to go through with this, aren't you?"

Only a moment passed before the answer he'd prayed for came. "Yes. I'm not sure how I'll work it out and still keep it from my family, but I'll find a way. I'd do this for a total stranger, Jim. How could I not do the same thing for my own son?"

"Thank you," Jim breathed as he slid down the wall and onto the balcony floor. He leaned back and closed his eyes, so relieved now that he could not longer stand. "Thank you."

After the connection was broken, Jim looked up into the blue sky. "Hang in there, Chief," he whispered. "Just hang in there a little longer."

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

At his desk in the bullpen, Jim looked up from the file he was reading. Blair was with Naomi at the loft, and Jim had taken the opportunity to come in and complete some paperwork on a couple of old cases that were now officially closed. His eyes locked on Blair's image in the photo on his desk.

The picture had been taken the year before at the loft. Simon and Daryl had been over, and they had grilled steaks out on the balcony. After they'd eaten and had a fire blazing in the fireplace, Blair had entertained them all with stories of his exploits in exotic places all over the world. At some point, Daryl had snapped a candid shot.

Blair was seated on the floor in front of the fire, trying to stay warm as usual. He was looking up at Jim on the couch, his hands and face animated as he described some exciting adventure. The firelight reflected off his long hair, turning it a burnished shade of copper. His blue eyes sparkled in the firelight as he looked up at his friend. Jim was watching Blair with an expression of bemused affection. His mouth quirked up in a small smile, almost as if he was harboring a secret he was unwilling to share with anyone in the world, except perhaps Sandburg. It was a picture of two hearts beating in a perfect rhythm of friendship.

Jim stared at the photo, then ran his fingertip across the image of Sandburg's face. Could they ever feel that peaceful or that happy again?

The shrill ring of the phone broke his reverie, and Jim snatched it up, his eyes still captured by the image of the photo. The voice on the other end stopped his heart for a beat.

"Detective Ellison? This is Dr. Murphy. Can you come down to my office this afternoon? We have a donor."

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

"I'll need to call Blair in later today, of course," Dr. Murphy explained. "But this is a rather unusual case. I thought perhaps we should straighten out the specifics of how the transplant will occur before we talk to Blair."

Jim nodded and relaxed into the soft leather of the wing chair facing Dr. Murphy's large mahogany desk. The walls of the doctor's office were almost completely papered with diplomas and certificates of achievement. Jim had thoroughly researched the man's credentials and was satisfied that his best friend was in highly capable hands.

"Thank you, Doctor. I'm not sure what Mr. Bennett will want to do about coming to Cascade for the donation procedure or if he'd prefer to have it done elsewhere."

"That's why I arranged this meeting." Dr. Murphy tapped a button on his desk phone. "For a conference call. Mark Bennett is on the line from Boston. From this point on, he'll hear everything we discuss."

"Hello, Jim," Bennett's pleasant voice sounded from the speaker phone.

"Thank you, Mark," Jim greeted him sincerely. "You don't know how much this means to all of us."

Dr. Murphy broke in. "Mr. Bennett and I have already discussed his options, Detective, but let me summarize for you."

The doctor leaned back in his chair, a serious expression on his face. "Even though we've all been hoping for this news for a long time, you must know that the transplant procedure itself is very risky for Blair. First, he must undergo a massive series of radiation and chemo treatments to destroy all of his existing, diseased bone marrow. Once that's done, we're at the point of no return. He would die without new marrow. However, not all patients even survive the intensive pre-transplant chemotherapy and radiation."

Jim felt his heart skip a beat. He'd known this whole thing was serious, but to actually hear the words brought home the gravity of the situation. The doctor was still talking, and he forced himself to focus.

"Mr. Bennett's job is far less dangerous, although as with any surgical procedure, there are always risks. He will be given either a regional or general anesthesia. A portion of his healthy marrow will then be removed from the back of his pelvic bone using a sterile needle and syringe. His system will replace this marrow completely in several weeks. While he'll feel no pain during the actual procedure, he'll be quite sore for a time, almost like he's been kicked by a horse in the back. The donation can be done close to home, if he prefers, or here in Cascade. That's the part we need to discuss at this point."

Jim interrupted. "Before we get to that, I need to know what will happen afterwards...with Blair."

Dr. Murphy smiled kindly at Jim Ellison. "I'll go over all this later today with Blair, but if you'd feel better knowing going in, that's fine."

"Blair will receive the donated marrow intravenously in a procedure similar to a blood transfusion. It will travel through his blood stream to marrow spaces where the marrow will grow and provide healthy new blood cells. This process takes between three and four weeks. During that time, Blair will be extremely vulnerable to infection and will remain hospitalized in isolation."

"There are other risks as well. Blair's body might reject the donated marrow. He might experience non-engraftment - the donated marrow just doesn't 'take'. There's also Graft Versus Host Disease, or GVHD. That's when the new white blood cells produced by the donated marrow fight against the patient's own body." Murphy's serious gaze locked with Jim's. "And of course, there's the possibility of relapse - a reoccurrence of the disease itself."

Jim took a deep, shuddering breath. "And if he doesn't try the transplant?"

The doctor's reply was quick and without hesitation. "Blair will die. The chemo and drugs he's been taking only slow down the progression of the illness. This is his only realistic hope for long-term survival."

Jim wanted nothing more than to bolt from the room, to avoid hearing the terrible descriptions of what awaited his guide, but that was not an option. This was reality, and his job was to support Blair through it. If he needed to fall apart, it would have to be done in private. Forcing out the words, he asked, "What's the probability of success?"

Dr. Murphy smiled. "Pretty good, actually. Somewhere around 40 - 60%. We have several factors working in Blair's favor. First, he's young, and the donor is in good health. Second, Blair's disease is at a stable point and is in a relatively early phase. Third, we're using a related donor, and that increases the likelihood of success. I think Blair has a very good chance at beating this thing, Detective."

Jim released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He had the facts he needed. It was time to move on with the mission. "Mark? Where do you prefer to have your procedure?"

There were several beats of hesitation. "I can't do it here. This must remain between us, Jim. My family cannot find out. I...thought I'd come to Cascade."

That was unexpected. "Do you...are you planning to see Blair?"

Mark Bennett's voice was uncertain. I'm...not sure. Maybe. Can we make that decision a little later? When I get there, and we have time to discuss it face to face?"

Jim had to admit that he wasn't in a rush to deal with the question either. "Certainly. When do you plan to arrive?"

Dr. Murphy broke in. "There's no need for Mr. Bennett to come to Cascade right away. We'll need at least two weeks to complete the radiation and chemo treatments to destroy Blair's diseased bone marrow."

Mark Bennett's voice added, "In the meantime, I'll set up a 'conference' that I must attend in the Cascade area. My wife's accustomed to my traveling frequently on business. It won't be a problem for me to be gone for a week or so."

The sound of another voice in the background interrupted him. "I have to go. I have a meeting in ten minutes across town. Jim, please call me when you can and keep me posted on Blair's condition as he undergoes the treatments. You have my cell phone number."

A moment later, the connection to Boston was broken.

"Can you have Blair here at 3:00? I need to go over all this with him, and there are some forms he must sign." Dr. Murphy stood up behind his desk.

Jim stood and shook the doctor's hand. "Thank you for helping keep this confidential, Doctor. I'll have him here at 3:00."

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

It was a quiet drive back from the hospital and the meeting with Dr. Murphy. Jim stole short glances at his friend as he drove them home to the loft. Blair had listened intently to the doctor's facts and statistics, but he'd seemed vaguely removed - cut off somehow from the reality of what was being said. Now he was staring out the window in silence, not speaking to Jim beyond a simple 'yes' or 'no' response to Jim's questions. Not only was Blair removing himself from the doctor and his medical terminology, he seemed to be drawing away from Jim as well. That isolation had his sentinel worried.

When it came time to turn left toward the loft, Jim had a sudden flash of inspiration and headed to the right.

"Jim?" Blair asked, looking back at the turn they should have taken. "Aren't we going home?"

"A few weeks ago you mentioned wanting to get out of Cascade for a while, taking a drive up the coast. We haven't done that yet, so..."

Blair's voice sounded infinitely sad. "Afraid we won't have the chance after tomorrow and the beginnings of the treatments, Jim?"

"No! That's not it at all. It's just that..." Jim turned onto the highway leading along the coast. "You're going to be in the hospital for a while, Chief. I thought you'd enjoy getting outdoors a little. If you feel up to it, that is."

Blair sighed and rested his head back on the seat of Jim's truck. "I'm okay. Haven't had chemo in five days, and there's been no nausea today at all. Sure. Why not? Where are we heading anyway?"

Jim reached over and patted Blair's leg. "I've got something in mind. Let me surprise you, okay?"

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

As darkness blanketed the forest with a veil of black, the air took on a definite chill. In the bed of Jim's pick-up, Blair shivered. The tiny shudder brought an immediate reaction from his sentinel.

"Here, Chief," Jim offered, tucking a third blanket around Sandburg's body. "Don't want you to get chilled out here."

The truck was backed up to a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Below them, waves broke against the rocks, their thunder drifting upward to the two men above. From all around came the sounds of the night - owls gliding silently by...insects droning their steady song...whispering pine boughs dancing in the breeze.

Settling in beside Blair, Jim leaned back against the cab of his truck and smiled contentedly. He loved the outdoors, always had, long before the entire sentinel experience changed his life forever. Even as worried as he was about Blair, just being in the forest so near the sea brought a sense of security and hope.

Sandburg moved closer to the warmth of Jim's body. Ellison lifted his arm so his friend could burrow nearer, then closed it around the thin shoulders. Blair made a little sound of contentment, and Jim's smile broadened. He'd hoped that being here would help Sandburg unwind, and already he could feel the tense muscles relaxing.

"Why are we here, Jim?"

Ellison turned his head slightly to see his friend's face. Blair was staring up at the heavens, at the multitude of tiny pinpricks of light illuminating the ebony velvet above them.

"Does there have to be a reason?" Jim asked in a soft voice.

Sandburg slowly shook his head. "No. It's...nice. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather spend tonight, just in case..."

The thought lay heavy in its incompleteness.

Several minutes passed before Ellison spoke. "Sandburg? Blair? Do you trust me?"

There was not a trace of hesitation. "You know I do."

"Then close your eyes."

Jim could feel the confusion emanating from his friend. Bringing his hand up from around Blair's shoulders and reaching over with the other hand, he gently covered the younger man's eyes. "Relax," he whispered.

Blair took a deep breath. Slowly, Jim could feel his body relax more deeply into his own, and the curly head rested more heavily against his shoulder.

"That's good, Chief," Jim reassured him in a voice barely audible over the sounds of the waves. "You've always tried to figure out what it is that I'm hearing, what I'm seeing, how the world appears to me. Tonight I want to help you experience just a little of what it is to be a sentinel. I want you to just listen...concentrate on the sounds of the waves...try to weed out everything else except the water below. Listen to the water, Chief. Let the sound of the sea wash over you and through you. There is nothing else."

Jim fell silent. As the minutes ticked by, he knew Sandburg was still awake, still listening. He felt the motion of Blair's eyes against his palms, the feather light tickle of soft lashes against his skin.

At last, Jim whispered, "Now move past the sounds of the waves. Find the insects. There are hundreds of different sounds. Try to distinguish each one. There is no more sound from the sea...no more breeze...just the sounds of all those insects around us. Listen, Chief."

Long minutes drifted past before Jim asked softly, "Do you hear them?"

Blair nodded, then parted his lips to speak, but Jim interrupted him.

"Shhhh...don't say anything. Not yet." Jim looked up into the sky and smiled. "Blair, I want you to tilt your head toward the sky and open your eyes."

When he felt his friend comply, Jim gently removed his hands. "Look," he said simply.

Across the blackness, light streaked through the night sky. A fiery cascade of flames flowing in long, slow arcs overhead. Like fireworks on the Fourth of July the streams of bright yellow soared, then without warning, vanished into darkness as more flames followed behind.

"The meteor shower," Blair breathed, his eyes glowing. "Aw, Jim, just look at it."

"I wanted to remind you that there's still beauty out there, Chief. There's still a hell of a lot of reasons to live. And where there's beauty, there must be hope." Jim Ellison watched the enraptured face of his partner. "It's not going to be easy, I know, but you can do this, Blair. I'm going to be with you every step, I promise. If it gets too hard, if you think you just can't hold on another minute, I want you to remember tonight. Promise?"

As the meteors illuminated the inky skies, Blair turned his head on Jim's shoulder to look up into his sentinel's eyes. "I'll remember, Jim. Always. I promise you."

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

In the waiting area, the cloud of worry hung low and heavy in the air. In her long, bright orange cotton skirt, Naomi fluttered about like a butterfly, bringing cups of hot tea she brewed in the nurses' break room, offering well-intentioned, but too-bright words of encouragement. Her flight slowed only long enough to make a series of quick phone calls to her friends throughout the world, asking for their 'positive energy' on this day.

Naomi Sandburg was driving Jim Ellison to the edge of insanity.

Simon Banks watched the occasional interplay between Jim Ellison and his best friend's mother. When Naomi would pause in the chair beside Jim, lighting there occasionally like a resting monarch, Jim would visibly wince, his jaw muscles contracting violently.

Simon understood the reason for his friend's reaction. In times of crisis, especially when Sandburg was in the hospital, it was Jim's nature to withdraw. A nearly impenetrable wall would go up, insulating him from all outside distractions. Simon suspected the sentinel was listening during those times, reaching out his sense of hearing in an attempt to monitor his best friend's condition. If not, then at the very least, Jim wanted to be left alone with his worry and fears.

Naomi Sandburg refused to allow Jim the privacy he needed.

Jim and Naomi had arrived at the hospital early in the morning to check Blair in for the pre-transplant treatments. Simon had followed less than an hour later. The oncologists had decided on a course of intensive chemotherapy combined with high dosages of radiation. Simon had seen the devastated look on Blair's face as he heard the confirmation of what he had already known. The young man's hand had traveled unconsciously to finger a lock of curly hair. By the time the battle was over, his treasured locks would fall victim to the doctors' aggressive attempts to save his life. Simon had felt his heart tighten with emotion as Jim reached over to snag the hand fingering the curls, clasping it securely in his own and holding on tightly as he guided it down to Blair's side.

Jim understood. It was obvious to Simon that on a soul-deep level, Jim Ellison comprehended his partner's mind-numbing fear and knew to offer him the only real gift he had to offer - his presence and absolute, unquestioning support.

In contrast, Naomi flitted around with huge tears in her bright blue eyes, cooing to her son, and offering words of empty comfort. As Simon watched the morning's hurried preparations, he could see Blair seek out Jim with his eyes, even as his mother fussed over him.

Only a short time before, as they settled Blair into his hospital room, Jim had caught his guide's worried eyes. The sentinel stopped what he was doing, held Sandburg's gaze and smiled, his head lowering in a barely perceptible nod. As Naomi prattled on about positive energy and visualization techniques, Blair acknowledged Jim's silent support with a slight smile. He had whispered something in a voice only his sentinel could hear, and immediately Jim asked Naomi to go to the nurses' station to bring back some inconsequential item. When she returned, Jim had taken her place at Blair's side, one hand strong on his shoulder, talking to Blair in a low, gentle voice. Simon had watched as Naomi's eyes narrowed and the words died on her lips. Blair's mother had retreated to the far corner of the room without another word, but her wide blue eyes missed nothing.

Sandburg was receiving his first dose of the powerful drugs at that moment as the three waited down the hall from Blair's room. Simon already knew how much Blair hated his regular chemo treatments, how the drugs viciously burned their way through his blood stream, and the severe nausea that accompanied each treatment. The series of dosages he would now receive would have to be even more powerful, strong enough to destroy every bit of his own bone marrow.

Dr. Murphy had told them that morning that only one family member would be allowed access to Blair after his treatments today. In an attempt to prevent the infections that would be his mortal enemies until his new marrow could produce white blood cells, only a limited number of medical staff would have access to Blair Sandburg. The same rule would apply to visitors. Only one.

Simon dreaded the moment when Blair's decision about who that person would be would be announced.

As Naomi fluttered down the hall for yet another cup of tea that no one would drink, Simon moved to sit next to Jim. The sentinel was staring out the small window, seemingly oblivious to anything within his view. "You okay?" Simon asked as he eased his long frame into the too-small plastic chair.

"Yes, sir." Jim's voice was flat. Emotionless.

That wasn't good, Simon decided. This was no time for Jim to retreat into his tough, unfeeling cop routine. Wanting to be alone to monitor Blair was one thing. Shutting down his emotions and withdrawing completely was another.

"She means well, you know." Simon knew that observation was bound to elicit a reaction, and he wasn't disappointed.

Jim bolted from his chair to pace across the small waiting area, then turned back again to stop beside the window. "I know that, sir. She's just so...damned frustrating!" Ellison leaned wearily back against the wall and shut his eyes tightly.

Inwardly, Simon Banks smiled. At least Jim had dropped the hard-assed veneer of isolation. Any emotion, even angry frustration, was better than the cold, emotionless silence. He listened as Jim vented his pent-up emotions.

"Always moving around...jabbering constantly - usually about nothing, you notice - going on and on about these strange, exotic cures you know are a load of crap!" Jim's jaw clenched in a rapid-fire motion as his eyes flew open. "I just don't know how much more of her I can tolerate, Simon!"

Softly, Simon asked, "Remind you of anyone?"

For a long moment, Jim's eyes remained locked with the soft brown ones of his captain and friend. Slowly, a humorous light glowed in the blue depths. "Like mother like son?"

Banks nodded. "Those traits in Blair used to bug the hell out of you, too, Jim. Now..." Simon shrugged. "You can't condemn her completely. Remember, whatever kind of life Naomi provided for Blair when he was growing up, it helped mold him into the man he is now. Don't you think you should cut her a little slack?"

The sentinel didn't answer. He turned away to stare out the window.

When Naomi returned, Jim took the offered tea with a grateful smile that no longer seemed quite as forced.

During early afternoon, the now-familiar oncologist, Dr. Murphy, arrived in the waiting room. Jim, Simon, and Naomi rose to their feet simultaneously.

"Sit down, sit down, please," the doctor urged them. "Everything's proceeding according to schedule. There's no need for concern."

When the three had resumed their seats, Murphy settled in a chair across from them. "The first doses of chemo and radiation have been completed. By the end of the week, all of the diseased bone marrow will have been destroyed, and Blair will be ready for the transplant. I've spoken with...the donor...and he will arrive in Cascade on Thursday. We'll harvest the healthy marrow Friday morning and perform the transplant the same day."

"How is he?" Jim's clipped words reflected his concern for his partner.

Dr. Murphy regarded Ellison carefully, glancing from the big detective to Naomi Sandburg. "He tolerated the treatments reasonably well, considering the high doses of chemo and radiation he was given today. He's experienced the usual side effects - nausea...cramping...alternating chills and sweats."

"When can I see him?" Naomi asked breathlessly. "My poor boy needs his mother with him during this...torture...you doctors insist will cure him."

The doctor shot a quick look at Ellison. "You remember that I prefer only one family member have contact with Blair during this time? We want to control the chance of possible infection."

"Of course," Naomi shot back immediately. "When will I be allowed to see him?"

Murphy continued as if Naomi had not spoken. "It's my policy to allow the patient to determine whom his visitor shall be." He hesitated for a moment. "Blair has requested that Detective Ellison be the one allowed to visit."

Naomi Sandburg stood up, glaring at Jim with undisguised contempt. "I hope you are satisfied, Detective. Not only have you succeeded in luring my son into following you into danger daily in your work as a cop, but now you've managed to turn him against me as well." She gathered up her large tote bag with its teas and incense. "I'll be leaving Cascade now. There seems to be no reason for me to stay any longer. It's just as well. I had no desire to see...him...anyway." Turning around quickly, Naomi hurried down the hallway.

Jim and Simon stared at each other for a moment, then Jim turned his attention back to Dr. Murphy. "When can I see Sandburg?"

Standing up, the doctor gestured down the hall in the opposite direction than Naomi had fled. "Now, if you're ready."

Before they left, Jim turned to Simon. "Would you...talk to Naomi? Try to explain?"

Knowing that what his friend asked would not be easy, Simon nodded. He squeezed Jim's arm in quiet support. "Go on. Go be with Blair. Let me handle Naomi."

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

Simon caught up to Blair's mother in the parking lot where she was looking around in confusion. "I can't remember where I parked Blair's car," Naomi said in a shaky voice as she looked around the lot in confusion. "I know it was in this parking lot, but I just can't remember."

Spotting a wooden bench beneath a shady tree, Simon caught her arm gently. "Come here, Ms. Sandburg. We need to talk." With a final look back at the parking lot, Naomi followed without protest.

When they were seated, Simon asked, "Are you okay?"

Naomi's laugh was almost a sob. "How did he do it, Captain Banks? Blair and I were always so close. How the hell did Jim Ellison manage to steal my son from me?"

In a gentle, yet firm, voice, Simon pointed out, "Jim didn't steal Blair from you. I think you know better than that. Blair loves you. You're his mother."

"Then why did he choose Jim? Why didn't he want his mother with him? Jim Ellison's not even family!"

"He is most definitely Blair's family." Simon gathered his thoughts quickly. He couldn't do anything to help Sandburg right now, but maybe he could manage to convince his mother not to blame Jim for what she perceived as a threat to her relationship with her son.

"Blair knows he can depend totally on Jim, knows that he won't leave him. Jim is a very capable man, Ms. Sandburg, although you might not want to admit it. He's a good man to have around in a crisis, but beyond that, Blair trusts him. Implicitly. When he's at his weakest and most vulnerable, he trusts Jim to do what's best for him. To protect him and keep him safe. I've seen that trust, and frankly, I've never known two partners who are closer - who trust each other more. No offense, Ms. Sandburg, but I don't think that's something Blair's experienced often in his life. That feeling of complete trust, complete faith in another human being."

"Especially finding he trusts another man," Naomi said softly. "That's what you're really telling me, isn't it? You're saying that Jim has become the father I deprived my son of ever knowing." She laughed bitterly. "I'm sure that's how you must see it."

Simon Banks shrugged as he idly studied a group of teenagers talking on the far side of the parking lot. "It isn't my place to pass judgment on your life, but yes, in some ways, Jim has become a father figure to Blair. But he's also a brother...a best friend...his teacher and his student. They have a friendship that exists on many levels all at the same time. I couldn't put a label on it, and I won't try, because that would only serve to trivialize it. I've never seen anything like it before in my life, and I know I never will again. If Blair requested that Jim be the one he sees over the next few weeks, it wasn't because he didn't want you there, Ms. Sandburg. It was just that he needed Jim more."

Her eyes brimming with unshed tears, Naomi nodded but said nothing.

"Will you stay?" Simon asked kindly. "I'm sure Blair would like to know that you're nearby."

Naomi shook her head sadly. "There's no need, Captain Banks. My son doesn't need me, and I'm afraid my...negative energy... might hinder his recovery." She stood up. "I'll leave his car back at the loft and take a cab to the airport. I have some friends on Maui who have invited me to stay with them when I was ready to leave Cascade. I believe I'll take them up on their kind offer. I could use the peace of the ocean for a time, I think."

She turned to go, then looked back at Simon once more. "You'll tell Jim that I couldn't stay until the end of the week? He'll understand why."

Simon agreed. "I'll tell him. But are you sure Blair will understand? Don't you think he would want you to stay?"

Laughing lightly, Naomi replied, "My son understands that I cannot tolerate places of sickness and death for long. I'll write him soon and explain. Thank you, Captain Banks, for your concern and for caring about my son." She smiled gently. "You may fool a lot of people, but you do care about them both. I can see that, and I'm grateful for it. I think you're a good man to have around in a crisis, too."

Before Simon knew what was happening, she bent quickly and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. Then, with a last smile, Naomi turned around and disappeared into the maze of vehicles in the hospital parking lot.

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

The isolation room at Cascade General had an observation window on the wall across from the nurses' station, giving it an open, light feeling. As he walked past with the nurse escorting him, Jim quickly glanced inside, but the privacy curtain was drawn around the single bed in the room. Before Jim was allowed entrance, the nurse showed him the proper procedure for scrubbing his arms and hands, then provided him with a set of hospital scrubs, including paper slippers to cover his feet and surgical gloves for his hands. A surgical cap and mask soon covered his head and face.

As the sterilization precautions continued, Jim could feel the heavy dread building inside. Even though Dr. Murphy had explained in detail exactly how serious the transplant procedure would be, the full implications only hit Jim as he found himself being dressed in the green surgical gown, cap, gloves, and mask. The knowledge that a simple infection could kill his best friend was quickly becoming real in a way he'd never expected.

To enter Blair's room, Jim first had to pass through an outer chamber, containing disposal containers for the contaminated gowns shed by hospital staff and now, for Blair's single visitor.

Nurse Sylvia Gooden peered at Jim over her own green mask. "You understand that you may not remove your gloves or mask at any time?"

Jim nodded silently, staring through the glass door. The privacy curtain around the bed was open on the end facing the outer chamber, and he could clearly see the small figure lying in the room beyond.

Drawing Jim's attention back to the process at hand, the middle-aged nurse asked, "Do you have any questions?"

His eyes still focused on Blair, Jim asked absently, "How long may I stay?"

"Dr. Murphy has left orders that you may visit for a half hour at a time every three hours. I'll come for you when the time is up."

With that, she held open the door, and Jim was escorted inside.

Except for the bed and a single chair, along with the assortment of medical instruments hooked up to the lone patient, the room was bare. There was no sound from the young man lying so still beneath the blankets.

"He's under heavy sedation," the nurse explained. "His nausea was quite severe after the chemo, and Dr. Murphy wanted him to be as comfortable as possible."

Jim moved to stand beside the bed without responding.

"I'll leave you alone now." Nurse Gooden patted Jim's shoulder reassuringly. As she left, the glass door opened and closed silently.

Looking down, the sentinel ran an automatic check of his guide's condition. Blair's heart rate was within normal boundaries, although his respiration seemed too fast to Jim. Laying one hand gently across Blair's brow, Jim checked his temperature, not trusting the digital read-out on the machine beside him. If anything, he seemed cool, perhaps even slightly clammy.

At Jim's touch, heavy lids struggled to part, revealing the tired blue eyes beneath. "Jim...?" Blair whispered.

Letting his fingers stray to the soft curls, Jim gently stroked his friend's hair, hoping the gesture would serve to relax Blair and provide his own heavy heart with some much needed reassurance. He missed feeling the velvet texture against his fingers, as the surgical gloves dulled the familiar feeling of comfort touching his guide normally provided. "Hey, Chief," he said tenderly. "I'm here."

A touch of a smile teased at the dry lips. Seeing a jar of Vaseline on the nightstand, Jim scooped a bit on the tip of his latex-covered finger, then smoothed it lightly across Blair's lips. "Better?"

"...mmmmm," Blair murmured. "Yeah." After a short silence, he asked, "Naomi? Bet she's pretty mad at me." He lifted one eyebrow quizzically.

Jim grinned wryly. "Let's just say I'm not exactly at the top of her list of favorite people right now. She's not angry with you, though, buddy." Jim hesitated a moment before adding, "I think Naomi blames me for taking you away from her."

Blair shook his head weakly. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean to cause problems between you and my mom."

Jim's hand moved to cup the pale cheek. "Not a problem, Chief. I just thought... Thank you for wanting me here."

A flash of his old good humor shone in Blair's blue eyes. "You expected maybe I'd ask for Simon and his sunny disposition?" Despite the humorous words, his voice was weak and raspy.

Gently patting his cheek, Jim grinned. "You sound kinda dry, Chief. There's some ice water here. Care for a sip?"

Blair took three eager sips of the cool water, lifting his head weakly from the flat pillow with Jim's hand behind it for support.

"Easy, there, kid. Not too much too fast. We don't want your stomach turning back flips on us." Setting the glass down, Jim pulled the chair up to his friend's bedside, and his expression turned serious. "So...how're you feeling?"

Blair turned his head to the side so he could see his friend's face. "Not too bad. Yet. Dr. Murphy said the effects of the radiation take longer to kick in, but at least nausea's not a side effect with it." He fell silent for a moment, then reached out his left hand, the one not attached to the IV, as his eyes closed.

Jim met him halfway, grasping Blair's hand with his own. He wound his fingers tightly around Blair's, once again cursing silently at the interference of the latex gloves. He hoped his friend would still find some comfort in his firm grip. He searched Blair's face, seeing the worry in the light blue eyes. "What's wrong, Sandburg?"

Blair's eyes opened, and they were moist with tears. "Other than the fact that they're killing off my bone marrow? That the most innocuous germ could kill me? That in a few days I'm going to have some stranger's marrow floating around inside me, and it may or may not produce the white blood cells I need to survive?" Blair's voice was soft, almost a whisper, but its quietness couldn't mask the underlying fear. He squeezed Jim's hand tightly as his blue eyes rose to meet his friend's own. "I'm scared, Jim. Every time I try to sleep, I..." He took a deep, trembling breath. "I dream...I dream I won't wake up."

Unable to bear the hopelessness in that voice, Jim lowered the rail on the hospital bed in one quick movement and eased himself carefully onto the thin mattress. Looking his friend straight in the eyes, he said in a low, firm voice, "You listen to me. It's natural to be afraid, Chief, but you are not going to die, do you hear me?"

Reaching over with his free hand, he covered Blair's other hand, mindful of the IV and the tape holding it in place. "Want to know how I know that? Because this is not over. We're not over, Chief. Not by a long shot. Not yet. I still have so much to learn about being a sentinel, about how far these senses can take me. I need you to teach me, to help me find the answers." Swallowing hard against the tightness in his throat, Jim leaned forward, staring intently into Blair's eyes. "I need you. Do you understand that? I can't even remember the last person I said that to, but God help me, I need you. So you've got to fight this thing. You've got to be tough and hold on, not only for yourself - for your life - but for me. For us."

After a lingering moment of intensity, Jim smiled fondly at his friend, releasing Blair's left hand to cup his cheek once again. "Whew...I'm not used to making speeches, Chief, but do you understand what I'm saying here?"

Their eyes held for a long moment. "Yeah, Jim," Blair said at last. "I understand." He hesitated a fraction of a second, his eyes cutting shyly down, then Blair looked back up as he added, "I love you, too, you know."

Jim was aware of the waver in his voice, but it couldn't have seemed less important. "I know, Junior. I know." His hand found Blair's shoulder and rested there firmly, glancing at his watch. "They're letting me in here every few hours for about thirty minutes at a time. The nurse will be coming back to get me soon. Anything you need before I go?"

"You...you're leaving?" Blair's eyes widened. "I thought..." His hand sought Jim's again quickly, as his voice grew agitated. "I didn't think you'd have to go so soon!"

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed, as he gently kneaded the palm of Blair's hand. "You need to sleep, and I promise I'll be right outside. I'll come back in a few hours, after you've rested, then we can talk some more. If things get really bad, I'll talk to Dr. Murphy, and we'll see what we can work out, okay?"

After a few deep, centering breaths, Blair nodded once, seemingly resigned to the situation. His eyes darted toward the door as Nurse Gooden slipped back into the room. "Jim? Thanks, man."

Smiling gently, Jim squeezed his hand. "No problem, kid. You rest now. I'll be back soon. I promise."

Blair closed his eyes as he said softly, "I'm holding you to that, man. I'll be waiting."

His breathing evened out, and Jim knew it would not be long before Blair drifted back to sleep. He got up quietly and followed the nurse from the room and began to count the minutes until he could once more return to his guide.

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

"How's he doing?" Simon asked when Jim returned to the waiting area.

Jim sat down in the chair across from his captain. "Not too bad. Yet. I saw Dr. Murphy in the hall when I left his room, and he said the next few days will get progressively worse. They've got him on some pretty powerful pain meds, so he's resting at least." Jim changed the subject. "Did you talk to Naomi?"

Simon raised his eyebrows slightly. "I saw her. I talked to her. She's still going. Says there's no need to hang around. Something about hospitals and bad vibes, I think." He took a sip of the coffee he'd been holding. "I don't remember the exact words, Jim. Who knows what Naomi Sandburg is talking about half the time?"

"Not me, that's for sure," Jim agreed. "Blair was worried that she was angry at him. I think I managed to convince him it's yours truly she'd like to throttle right about now." He grimaced as a smile simultaneously teased at the corners of his mouth. "At least we'll have a little more peace and quiet now."

Glancing at his watch, Simon stood up and stretched wearily. "You can't go back in to see Blair for a couple of hours, and you need something to eat. Let's run down to the cafeteria."

Hesitating, Jim looked down the hall toward Sandburg's room. "I don't know, sir..."

Simon grasped Jim's elbow firmly, steering him toward the nurses' station. "You can tell the charge nurse where you'll be. They'll call if there's any change. This is an order, Ellison," he added in his sternest captain's voice.

Unwilling to argue, especially after Simon had tried to smooth things over with Naomi, Jim reluctantly followed his captain and friend. Even as they entered the elevator, he was already stretching out his hearing to monitor Sandburg's steady breathing as he slept.

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

There was little variation in the days that followed, and Jim found it was easy to slip into the too-familiar 'waiting at the hospital' routine. The only changes were in Sandburg himself. With each passing day and with each powerful treatment, Jim watched his friend grow weaker and sicker. As Blair's bone marrow was destroyed, the powerful drugs and radiation relentlessly battered the rest of his body.

The young anthropologist alternated between a raging fever and severe chills. Even though all his nourishment came from the IV, nausea still wracked his exhausted body, and the dry heaves left his stomach sore. Perhaps most heart-breaking of all for Jim to watch, long, dark curls began to come loose in huge chunks, falling mercilessly to his pillow like dark leaves against white snow.

Within days, Blair's cherished hair was gone.

While the loss of his hair nearly broke Jim's heart, Blair didn't seem to notice. He was wrapped in a blanket of pain, only vaguely aware of his surroundings. There was only the pain and the alternating heat of his fever with the bone-chilling cold.

On Wednesday, Dr. Murphy came out of the isolation room to find Jim Ellison standing at the glass observation window, staring at the shivering figure of his best friend. Murphy stopped beside him and waited.

"He's not good, is he?"

The doctor reassured him quietly. "This is all to be expected, Detective. He's being given massive doses of chemo and radiation. Blair is simply reacting to the destruction of his marrow and the pharmacological assault on his body. He..."

As Jim listened to the drone of the doctor's voice, he watched his friend through the glass that separated them. Suddenly, Blair's head jerked to the side, his eyes wide and staring directly at his sentinel. "Jimmm...? His hand came up slowly, the palm pressing against the sterilized air toward the window separating him from his sentinel.

Even though the glass prevented the doctor from hearing Blair's cry, Jim heard it all too clearly. Instinctively, his hand came up to press against the glass, unconsciously echoing his guide's gesture. "He needs me." Jim turned to the doctor. "Please. Let me go in there. I know it's not time yet, but he's hurting so much. Please..."

After a long look at the pleading eyes of his patient, the doctor relented. "All right. He's not resting anyway, despite the pain medications. Perhaps your presence will help calm him. I'll tell the nurse to meet you in the scrub room."

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

By Thursday, Jim Ellison looked nearly as exhausted as his partner. While he wasn't still allowed in Blair's room except on the scheduled visits, he kept watch almost constantly at the glass observation window. That evening, Simon Banks came by after work and was startled by the detective's appearance.

"How's he holding up?" Simon looked through the window where Sandburg lay tossing restlessly. The young man's hair was completely gone, and Simon's heart lurched at how pale and gaunt he looked. Almost like one of those newsreels of Jewish POWs from World War Two, he realized with a jolt.

Jim's eyes never left his partner. "I just wish...I wish he didn't have to be so...alone. He shouldn't have to go through this alone. They're..."

Haunted blue eyes turned to Simon. "They don't want me to go back in until after the transplant when his body starts producing white blood cells again. Dr. Murphy says it's too big a risk. He wants to...limit...his exposure to two nurses and himself. To reduce chances of...of infection." Jim's words sounded disjointed, as if the sentinel was almost too tired to form a coherent sentence.

"Maybe it's better that way, Jim." Simon tried to think how he could possibly relieve Jim's anxiety about not being able to see his friend at all during the next several long days and weeks. "If Sandburg was to pick up an infection..."

Nodding slowly, Jim agreed, "I know...I know. It's just...hard. He'll look at me sometimes through the window, and he seems...so lost, Simon. So alone." Jim's deep emotions were echoed in his husky voice. "He's slipping away, Simon."

Simon rested a reassuring hand on Jim's shoulder. "No, he's not, and he's not alone, Jim. Blair knows that. He knows you're with him." The tall captain touched Jim's chest right over his heart. "In here. Blair knows you're always there."

When Jim didn't answer and turned his eyes back to the restless figure of his best friend, Simon suggested, "Look, Jim, you have to get some rest. Let me drive you to the loft. Spend tonight there. Tomorrow, Blair's...the donor...arrives, and you'll be busy. You need some sleep, a hot meal, and a shower. I'll pick you up again in the morning and bring you right back here. I know once they perform the transplant on Friday you won't want to leave for a while."

Jim shook his head. "I can't leave him, Simon. What if...what if he looks for me, and I'm not here?"

"What if you end up collapsing yourself, Jim? Blair needs you to be healthy and strong, not this wrung out, exhausted shell you're turning into now." Grasping his friend's arm firmly, he insisted, "Go home. Get some rest, and I'll have you back here first thing in the morning."

Reluctantly, the exhausted sentinel agreed. With a final look back at his partner, Jim followed Simon out of the hospital and toward his sedan.

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

Simon Banks emerged from the small kitchen, drying his hands on a dishtowel. "You sure you don't want me to hang around, Jim? I can run by the house after I drop you off in the morning, make a quick change, and be at the station with no problem."

Jim Ellison sank down on his couch, biting back a sigh of comfort at the feel of the soft, familiar cushions. "I'll be fine." He waved vaguely toward the door. "Go. Get some rest yourself. I can drive to the hospital in the morning. No point in your..."

At that, Banks drew the line. He tossed the dishtowel on the kitchen counter and moved into the living room. "No way. You don't need to be behind the wheel right now, Jim. You've barely slept this entire week. One night's not going to make up for that kind of sleep deprivation. I'll be here at 8:00 sharp. I expect your ass to be ready and waiting, Detective."

Jim grinned wearily at the air of mock command in his friend's voice. "Understood, sir. I'll be ready."

Satisfied, Simon opened the door, then he turned back to look at Jim. "There's some soup heating on the stove. Blair had it ready for you in the freezer." Simon chuckled. "That kid has enough meals frozen for you not to have to cook for a solid month, Jim."

"That's Sandburg." Jim smiled fondly. "Always looking after me even when he's not around." The catch in his voice was impossible to miss.

"See you tomorrow, Jim. Get some rest," Simon said pointedly. He closed the door quietly behind him.

Once Simon was gone, the silence was deafening.

Jim opened his hearing for a few minutes to take in the sounds of life all around him. The couple in the apartment next door preparing dinner together. The little girl upstairs playing with her older brother on their Nintendo. Old Mrs. Hagen moving slowly up the stairs with her one small sack of groceries. He was not truly alone; the building was filled with life. Still, Jim had never felt quite so isolated.

He dialed down his hearing, unwilling even in his loneliness to intrude on the sanctity of others' lives. Listening to the normal lives of others couldn't relieve the unsettling quietness of the loft. The life-sounds he yearned to hear were three miles away at Cascade General Hospital, and even sentinel hearing could not reach so far.

For several minutes, Jim seriously considered taking a quick shower, changing clothes, and driving back to the hospital. He ultimately abandoned the idea; he had promised Simon he would not return there tonight. Simon Banks was not a man accustomed to being disobeyed, even by his good friend, Jim Ellison. Jim was too exhausted to face his captain's wrath should he find out that his detective had broken his word.

Rising slowly from the couch, Jim tried to ignore his protesting muscles. Long nights spent in uncomfortable hospital chairs hadn't done his forty-year-old bones any good. He had to admit, a soft bed would feel very good, at least for one night.

He wandered into the kitchen and stirred Blair's special vegetable soup. It smelled delicious, and most comforting of all, it reminded him of his roommate. He could see Blair clearly, puttering around in the kitchen, washing and chopping vegetables, cooking the lean beef, and simmering the ingredients on the stove while adding his special blend of seasonings. Sandburg always took such care in preparing their meals, making sure nothing in the ingredients would trigger an overreaction of Jim's sensitive taste buds or sense of smell. Jim was certain that his own mother couldn't have prepared his meals with greater love.

If only he'd known her long enough to remember.

Realizing he was flirting with an even deeper depression, he drove such thoughts from his mind. Jim busied himself with finishing his preparations for dinner. He poured a large glass of milk, then dipped a bowl full of Blair's soup and carried it to the table. Jim sat down and began eating.

Alone.

He stopped.

Something wasn't right.

When he realized what was missing, Jim left the table. Picking up a box of matches from one of the kitchen cabinets, he moved slowly around the loft, lighting one candle after another. When he was done, Jim stood for a moment, reverently watching the dancing flames. Somehow, the loft seemed a little less empty with the light from Blair's candles filling the darkness.

Jim sat back down at the table and forced himself to eat.

He couldn't help remembering the days before Blair entered his life. Back then, he'd almost always eaten alone and hadn't thought anything of it. Now, despite the glow of the candles, Jim missed the lively conversation, the entertaining stories his friend would share about his day. He even missed the nights when - for whatever reason - there was no conversation between them, just the comforting knowledge that Blair was there when he did feel the need to talk.

Oh, God. I just miss Sandburg.

After he'd finished, Jim stared at the empty bowl. He should carry the dishes back to the kitchen. He should clean up the mess.

He didn't have the energy.

Jim stuck the saucepan with the leftover soup back into the refrigerator, put his dirty dishes in the sink, ran some water over them, and turned off the light in the kitchen.

It was barely eight o'clock. He stood in the living room staring at the dark television screen, weighing his options. He could put in a movie. He could check the TV Guide to see what was coming on.

Once again, the temptation arose. He could go back to the hospital and spend the night staring at Blair through the glass panel separating them.

As alluring as the thought was, he'd promised Simon that he would rest. He only wished he could do that somewhere other than their too-quiet home.

Sighing, Jim abandoned the idea of watching television and wandered into the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, then ran through a fast shower. It did feel good to be clean. Finding a clean pair of boxers in the laundry basket at the foot of the steps, Jim slipped into them. Still unwilling to face the long climb up to his bedroom, he snagged his robe from the back of the bathroom door and wrapped it around his body, grateful for its enveloping warmth. Jim padded into the living room, then stopped and looked around.

His memory flashed back to the loft of six years ago before Blair Sandburg had entered his life. His home had been more a convenient place to sleep, a good investment for the money he'd been paid by the Army for his time in Peru, than a comforting haven at the end of the day. It certainly wasn't a home.

If he was honest with himself, it hadn't been a home even when Carolyn lived here during their brief marriage. She had been too busy with her own career to take much interest in decorating. The few feminine objects she'd brought in and placed around hadn't had any emotional connection for Jim.

The entire loft hadn't had emotional meaning for him. It was where he slept. Where he came at the end of the day because he had nowhere else to be.

Now, wherever he looked, there were memories. Blair's artifacts, each one placed with loving care and a story for Jim about their importance in Blair's life. Their books filled the shelves, Jim's poetry and novels standing side by side with Blair's thick tomes on ancient civilizations and history. Beside the stereo were rows of CDs, some Jim's jazz and rock, others Blair's 'jungle music', as Jim called it. Music that he'd become much fonder of than he'd ever imagined. Then there were the photographs.

Jim wandered idly over to stand before the collection of frames, each one a snapshot of friendship, captured forever like a fly frozen in amber. The settings varied from mountains to beach, from metropolitan to rural, but the message delivered by the images never changed. They spoke of a friendship evolving, strengthening through the years until it emerged in the last few years as an almost living entity.

Powerful. Enduring. Undeniable.

Jim stared at the images of himself and Sandburg. Simon was in some; Daryl appeared in others. They were good memories, and Jim smiled as he studied the photos, even as his heart winced in pain.

Turning away but taking one photo with him, Jim moved to the wide glass windows overlooking the city. The loft was a home now. His home and Blair's. There could not be one without the other; he understood that now. Looking down at the framed image in his hand, he lightly traced the outline of Blair's face.

"Come home, Chief," he whispered. "I never realized before how lonely this place is without you. How lost I am without you."

Jim was unbearably tired. Carrying the photograph with him, he moved toward the steps leading to his bedroom. Before he could reach them, however, the small bedroom to the left called to him. Hesitating only a moment, he opened the French doors and stepped inside. The reminders of his guide swept over him in a tide of sense memory. If Blair's presence was undeniable in other parts of their home, in his room, it was nearly overwhelming.

Blair's essence, uncontaminated by the powerful chemicals that had filled his body, surrounded Jim unexpectedly. He staggered backward, reeling as if from a blow to the gut. In the hours and days spent in the hospital, he'd nearly forgotten the scent of his guide without the underlying foreign odors of sickness and medicine.

Of encroaching, impending death...

The cruel thought stunned him.

Moving weakly toward the bed, Jim sank down on the narrow mattress. Rumpled and unmade just as Sandburg had left it, the bed still bore the imprint of his body, and two long, curly mahogany hairs clung to the soft pillow as if dropped there from the heavens.

Jim reached out and carefully gathered the two long hairs, caressing them slowly with sensitive fingertips. To his sentinel's touch, they were as fine as silk and satin-soft. He could feel the minute ridges and imperfections in each as his fingers slid across their surfaces. An image of his partner's sorrowful face as his hair began to fall out flashed through his mind, and Jim's eyes brimmed with tears.

He tried to blink them back, to deny those traitorous tears escape. Jim shook his head once hard, hoping to banish the outward symbols of his grief. The battle for control was too much for the exhausted sentinel. He had refused to allow himself the luxury of tears almost from the moment Blair had told him about the cancer. He'd had too much to do for Sandburg's sake to allow himself a moment of weakness.

Staring down at the picture still clutched in his hand and holding onto the hairs like some cherished talisman, Jim let the tears fall at last.

Tonight, with Blair miles away in the hospital, his beautiful hair gone, and his strong body tortured by powerful chemicals, Jim could be a rock no longer. Collapsing onto his side, he buried his face in Blair's pillow, drinking in the lingering scent of his best friend and guide. The second pillow he clutched to his chest, wrapping his powerful arms around it tightly as he tried to muffle his cries in its softness.

There was a very real chance that Blair would never return to this room, never sleep again in this little bed. The reality was that Sandburg could easily die in Cascade General, either from an infection or from rejection of the donated marrow. For months, Jim had pushed those shadowy possibilities into the farthest recesses of his mind, refusing to allow them to solidify in the glaring light of day.

But on this night, alone in the silent loft, tired, frustrated and frightened, Jim could hold the demons at bay no longer. His worst fears flew from their banishment in the darkness into the glaring forefront of reality.

Into the muffling pillow he groaned, a guttural, animal sound, his tears flowing as if the well held an unlimited supply. As the night dragged on, the sentinel cried in the emptiness of his home, unable to control his imagination or emotions. With no guide to comfort him, he slipped deeper into his own mind until, in the early dawn, he lost all touch with reality and slipped away into the dark comfort of a zone.

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

By the time he had knocked three times on the door and called to Jim with no response, Simon Banks knew there was a problem. He glanced over at Joel Taggart in concern, but the former bomb squad captain only shrugged.

"Maybe he's a hard sleeper?" Taggart suggested.

If only you knew how wrong you are, Simon thought bitterly. Jim had zoned. Or worse.

Simon fished in his pocket for his key ring containing the spare loft key Jim had given him years before.

Just in case, the sentinel had told him. Simon had known what he meant without asking. Cops never know when they might not make it home at night. Ellison had wanted Simon to be there for Sandburg, to have access to their home, and he had trusted his captain and friend enough to provide the key Simon now held in his hand.

Stepping into the loft, both men immediately began searching for Jim Ellison. After checking the balcony visually, Simon jogged up the stairs to Jim's room. The bed was neatly made. There were no signs it had been slept in the night before. He hurried back down the steps.

"He's not in the bathroom either," Joel commented as they moved as one toward Sandburg's room.

They stood frozen at the sight.

Jim was there, lying curled on his side facing the wall. A pillow was clutched loosely in his arms, and his eyes were closed, the lashes matted with dried tears.

Joel covered the distance to the side of the bed in a few long strides, Simon right behind him.

"Jim? Jim, wake up," Taggart called, reaching down to shake Ellison's shoulder.

There was no response.

Worried brown eyes turned to Simon. "You don't think he...? He wouldn't have taken something? Would he?"

Simon didn't take his eyes off Ellison as a flash of fear made his blood run cold. The sentinel had zoned.

His mind ran around in circles. What was it Sandburg had said? If Jim goes too deeply into a zone, he might stop breathing...his heart could slow down...slower and slower until it stopped completely. How long had he been like this? Since the night before? Damn it, Sandburg! What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Joel was shaking Jim again, harder this time. He moved toward the living room at a near run. Simon caught his arm as he passed.

"No."

Taggart stared. "What do you mean, 'no'? We've gotta call 911! Maybe he did take something. Maybe the kid's condition just got to be too much for him, and..."

Simon interrupted him. "That's not it." His voice was flat, his eyes still locked on the still form of Jim Ellison.

Slowly, Joel Taggart turned back to the small bed. "You know what's wrong, don't you?" He studied Simon's still face. "It has something to do with...whatever they are, doesn't it?"

For the first time, Banks looked at Joel, his eyes wide. "You...know?"

Taggart shrugged. "I don't know what I know, Simon. We all know there's something different about Ellison. We know Blair has a lot to do with that and with the man Jim has become. I know Jim sees things he shouldn't. Hears things he can't possibly hear." At Simon's expression, Joel chuckled. "I'm a pretty damn good detective myself, Simon. Give me a little credit for my powers of observation here."

Simon nodded. "I can't tell you..."

"Don't want to know. Don't need to know." He indicated Jim with a jerk of his head. "Can you help him?"

Moving to stand beside the bed, Simon stared down at Jim's motionless body. "I don't know, Joel. He needs Blair."

"Blair's not here. He can't be here right now. It would kill him." Joel gripped Simon's arm. "You must know something about all this, Simon. You have to try."

It really was that simple. He had to try.

"Wait outside," Simon ordered flatly.

When the doors had closed, Simon Banks pulled up the single, wooden chair. Sitting down close to the bedside, Simon stared down at his friend.

How does Blair do this? He talks a lot, but then Sandburg always talks a lot. But when he talks to Jim, it's...different ...somehow. His voice changes. His body language becomes more...intimate. His eyes look at Jim like he's the only living thing in Blair's world. He touches him. I've never seen anyone dare touch Ellison so freely, but Jim responds to that touch. Like it's calling him back from wherever it is he's gone. Damn it all to hell, Sandburg! This is your reality, not mine. Jim really is your responsibility, isn't he? I don't know if I can do this, kid.

Taking a deep breath, Simon reached out and squeezed Jim's shoulder. "Jim?" He tried to lower his voice, to mimic the soft, caressing tones he'd heard Blair use. "It's Simon. I know I'm not Sandburg, and I really don't have any idea what I'm supposed to do here, but you've got to listen anyway. You need to wake up now, Jim. It's Friday morning, and I'm afraid you've been in this - what do you call it? - this...zone...a long time now."

No response.

What had Sandburg told him once? That when Jim zoned, he tried to figure out what sense had triggered the zone and use a different sense to bring him out? That sounded familiar somehow. Didn't it?

Simon called out, "Joel!"

Almost immediately, the concerned face of Joel Taggart appeared at the door. "Did you do it? Is he...?" Seeing that there was no change in Jim, Taggart's question faded away before it was completed.

"Bring me a wet washcloth. Cold water."

A minute later, the cloth was in Simon's hand and the door was closed firmly once more. Banks began running the cold cloth over Jim's pale face. "All right, Jim," he began softly. "It's time to wake up now. Blair needs you."

The minutes ticked by so slowly.

An hour later, Simon was close to panic. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, stretching his neck. When a powerful hand closed around his wrist, he jerked in surprise.

Jim Ellison was looking up at him, a bemused expression on his face. "Simon?"

Relieved, Banks stood up, dropping the lukewarm washcloth to the floor. "You zoned," he said flatly, still taken by surprise at Jim's awakening.

Ellison slowly sat up, sitting on the edge of Blair's bed, obviously allowing his head time to clear. "You brought me back?"

Simon nodded. "I guess. Hell, Jim, I didn't have a clue what to do. I just tried to do the things I'd seen Sandburg do - talk to you. Use some other kind of input to activate a different sense. Guess it must have worked." After a second, he smiled rather proudly.

Jim stood up. "Thanks, Simon. You make a damn good substitute guide. I'll have to tell Blair."

Shaking his head firmly, Banks ordered, "Not a single word. I'd never hear the end of it. By the way, Joel's outside. He...knows something's going on."

Jim stared hard at his captain. "He knows?"

Quickly, Simon reassured him. "He doesn't know everything, Jim. Just that you and Blair are...special." He shrugged. "People who've been around you two as much Joel are bound to notice things. You know Taggart, though. He's a good man. He won't say anything."

At last, Jim nodded his agreement. He moved toward the French doors. "Let's get moving. Mark Bennett's plane arrives at 11:30. I told him I'd meet him at the airport and drive him to the hospital."

Grabbing Jim's arm, Simon grinned. "Don't you want to put on some clothes first?"

Momentarily confused, Jim stared at his attire. The shorts he'd donned last night...his comfortable robe...bare feet. His blue eyes turned to Simon. "Yeah, right. Clothes, then we go."

On his way out the door of Blair's room, Jim waved briefly at a relieved Joel Taggart. "Hey, Joel! Be with you in a minute." Jogging up the stairs to his bedroom, the sentinel suddenly felt filled with renewed energy.

His guide was waiting for him.

And for the stranger who was his father and held their only hope within his body.

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

By 1:00, two figures stood before the glass observation window, looking into the small isolation room.

Jim watched Mark Bennett from the corner of his eye. He could see traces of his friend in the older man's face. There was something around the eyes, a softness...a kindness...there that definitely spoke to him of Blair Sandburg. The way his mouth curved upward at the corners even when he wasn't smiling, the tiny laugh lines crinkling at the edges of his eyes...the father's features were echoed in those of the son.

"He looks so weak," Bennett said softly. "I guess I didn't expect him to be so...vulnerable."

Jim's eyes focused on his friend, seeing all too clearly the pasty whiteness of his skin, the lines of pain etched into his face even in sleep, and the wasted body, so thin now and so very weak. "The chemo and radiation treatments have brought him down fast. Even last week, he was so much stronger."

"But it's necessary, right?" Mark Bennett asked. "To destroy the diseased marrow?"

"Yes. His system must be absolutely clean before they can transplant your marrow into him. It is necessary...but that doesn't make it any easier to watch." Jim leaned forward, resting his palms against the glass. "Hang in there, Chief," he whispered. "It won't be much longer."

"I'd like to see him."

The words took Ellison by surprise. He turned slowly to face Bennett. "You want to tell him...?"

"No," Mark Bennett quickly clarified. "He cannot know. I can't risk my family finding out the truth...knowing I lied all these years. I just...would like to talk to him...once. Even if he doesn't have a clue who I really am." Hopeful eyes studied Jim's face. "Would that be all right?"

Ellison shrugged. "You don't really need my permission." He cut his eyes back to the young man lying in the room beyond the glass, his concern evident.

"Yes, I do." Mark Bennett tried to explain. "You're...responsible for him. It has to be your decision. I wouldn't do anything you thought might not be best for Blair." He laughed softly. "Believe it or not, I do care about him. Even if we never meet as father and son, I care about him. I always did."

Jim scrutinized the sincere face. He didn't know this man, not really. Naomi had made the choice to keep Mark Bennett from her son's life, never to tell Blair the name of his father. Did he have the right to allow Bennett access to Sandburg, even under the conditions the man had specified? Would it be a deception - a lie - to let Blair's father see him...talk to him...yet not reveal the truth?

Yet, Bennett was here. He was willing to undergo this procedure, to lie to his own family, in order to give Blair a chance at life. Didn't he deserve the opportunity to at least be in the same room as his son once in his life?

What would Sandburg want?

Jim thought about his kind-hearted friend. Blair was the most compassionate, most forgiving person he'd ever known. Would he deny this man the small favor he asked?

His decision made, Jim smiled at Mark Bennett. "I think that would be fine. We can't go in now, though. Until the marrow has begun to produce white blood cells, only the doctor and two designated nurses are allowed in."

"I understand. Maybe once he's on the road to recovery, I can fly back. Find a way to be in there for a few minutes?"

Jim smiled at the hope in the other man's voice. "Sure. I think that can be arranged." He turned to see Dr. Murphy coming down the hallway toward them. "I think they're ready for you. It's time to harvest some healthy bone marrow."

Mark Bennett looked back at the still body lying in the bed. "Let's just hope and pray this works, Jim."

"Amen to that," Jim said fervently. "Amen to that."

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

The procedure for harvesting Mark Bennett's healthy marrow was relatively simple. Given a general anesthetic at his request, the donor was totally unaware of the hypodermic needle inserted into his pelvis to suction out the life-giving marrow. Within two hours of being put to sleep, Mark Bennett awakened in his hospital room, sore, but relieved that the procedure was over. He would remain in the hospital overnight.

Jim Ellison knocked softly on the door, then quietly eased it open and stepped inside the room.

"Hello," Bennett greeted him.

Jim smiled. "You seem none the worse for wear."

Bennett grimaced as he raised the head of the hospital bed. "They're right. It does feel like I got kicked by a horse. Small price to pay, though."

Nodding his agreement, Jim said simply, "Thank you."

Their eyes locked for a long moment, both men understanding the importance of the gift one had bestowed upon the other.

The gift of life.

"Listen," Jim said. "You can't go back home right away, not as sore as you're going to be for a week or so. No point in your staying in some hotel. I'm spending most of my nights here anyway, so why don't you stay at our place? Even if I do come home for a few nights, there's enough room."

Bennett hesitated. "I don't want to be any trouble."

Jim laughed at the irony. "After what you've done for us, believe me, it's the least I can do. Please. There's not a lot I can do to repay you. I can do this."

At last, Bennett smiled. "Thanks." He added conspiratorially, "I hate hotels. So impersonal. I'd really appreciate staying in your home - a real home instead of a hotel."

A real home. Once again, the irony of the words struck him. "It was Blair who made it a home," he admitted quietly. "It's as much his home now as mine. You're welcome to stay there as long as you need to."

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

By late afternoon, the bone marrow harvested from Mark Bennett's body had been transplanted into that of his son. If the harvesting procedure had been relatively simple, the transplant was even simpler. The healthy marrow was infused into Blair through an IV. The young anthropologist was scarcely aware of what was occurring.

Jim stood alone at the observation window staring intently as Dr. Murphy worked. This had to work. It must work. Blair was too weak now to endure waiting for another donor if it did not. Not to mention the stress of being in such strict isolation. He knew his friend was lonely and afraid, and Jim yearned for nothing more than to be allowed to go to his and comfort him. Yet, he understood the reasons for his banishment. They could not risk the dangers of infection. Even a simple infection would be a death sentence.

It was done.

Within three to four weeks, tests on Blair's blood should show an increase in the production of healthy white blood cells. If that happened, then the transplanted marrow would have been accepted. They would have an excellent chance.

If not...

Jim wouldn't allow himself to consider that alternative.

This was going to work.

It had to.

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

Simon opened the loft door and gestured for Mark Bennett to step inside. He flipped on a light and slipped his keys back into his pocket. "Here's the kitchen." He jerked his head to the left. "Jim's room is up those stairs. Blair's is behind the French doors. Jim said you could take Blair's or you're welcome to the couch. Either's fine."

Mark lowered his bag to the floor. "The couch is fine for me." He grimaced as he straightened up. "Don't think I'm going to be getting much sleep for a few nights anyway." He stepped over to the wide windows and looked out at the city of Cascade. "Besides the view in here is great. I'll be fine. I just appreciate Jim letting me stay."

"Jim said there's some lasagna in the refrigerator. I'll put on a plate for you to heat."

While Simon was in the kitchen, Mark wandered slowly through the loft his son shared with the big detective, Jim Ellison. It was not what he'd expected, although he couldn't put his finger on exactly what was different. He looked past the French doors into Blair's room. Comfortably sloppy, he observed with a smile. Blair must have inherited that trait from Naomi. The small bookcase was crowded with thick tomes and a variety of pottery and other miscellaneous artifacts added to the cheery clutter. There were three photos on the shelves as well.

Moving closer, Bennett studied the framed photographs. One showed Blair in his early twenties. Apparently he was on some sort of dig. He was bare-chested, dressed only in cut-offs and old boots. His skin was tanned and his hair long. Blair was holding up a large piece of pottery, his face wreathed by a huge, proud smile. Mark nodded in understanding. His son obviously enjoyed his work. That was good.

The second photo was of Naomi Sandburg. His heart tightened involuntarily at the sight of her. She was still a stunning woman. Her youthful attractiveness had not dimmed with age, but she had matured into a woman with a deep inner and outer beauty.

Mark allowed himself the rare luxury of contemplating what his life might have been like if only...

If only. Are there two sadder words in the universe?

There was no point dwelling on the impossible. At his core, Bennett was a practical man. It had been that practicality that had driven his decision to return to Boston and his arranged marriage in the first place. It was that practicality now that gave him the discipline to turn away from the photo of Naomi now. It was over. He'd been given the opportunity to touch his son's life, at least, in a very vital way. It would have to be enough.

The third framed photo was of Blair and Jim Ellison. If his heart had tightened at the sight of Naomi, it leapt as he studied the faces before him now.

He had no idea where the photo had been taken. Obviously, a great explosion or fire had occurred there. Half of a brick warehouse smoldered and flamed in the background, lighting up the night sky with its tongues of orange flames. Jim Ellison must have been in the thick of the action. The tall detective's face was blackened with soot, and his shirt was ripped in several places, revealing the redness of the skin beneath. His shoulders were stooped, as if overcome by great weariness or pain.

Blair was reaching up to him, one of his hands cupping the older man's face with obvious tenderness while the other hand wiped away blood. Blair's face was soft, his eyes bright with unshed tears. He stood close to his friend, their chests almost touching, as he ministered to a bleeding gash across Jim's cheek.

But it was the look on Ellison's face that stunned Mark. In the short time he'd known the detective, Jim had seemed the epitome of control. Even while describing Blair's condition, the man remained stoically calm, his emotions always carefully in check.

In this photo, however, Jim's expression was one of pure emotion. The stark love on his face as he gazed down into Blair's eyes was unshielded, open and raw. What the hell had happened there on that night to trigger such feeling in a man such as Jim Ellison?

"He almost lost him that night."

Mark jerked around to find Banks standing behind him.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

Simon took a few steps forward and looked at the photo. "I haven't seen this in a while," he commented in a tight voice. I think Blair likes to keep it around to remind himself of what almost died that night." He paused, obviously moved by the memories. "A reporter snapped that right after Jim came out of the warehouse. It made him furious. He insisted that it couldn't be published, that he wanted the negative right then and there." Simon chuckled. "I think that poor reporter was in fear of his life. Jim Ellison is definitely not a man you want in your face. He handed over the film, and Blair had the print made from it later. He's kept it out ever since."

"There was a fire," Mark prodded gently.

"Yeah. I'll say there was. Destroyed five warehouses down at the docks. It was arson. A firebug saw the chance to set his dream blaze, and it almost took Sandburg up with it."

"How?" Mark was confused. "I thought Blair stayed with Jim or at Rainier University most of the time. How'd he end up in a burning warehouse?"

"He was helping a student with a study of the homeless. Those old warehouses are popular with those who have no other place to sleep, especially in the winter. This was about mid-February. Blair and the girl - I think her name was Amelia - were up on the fifth floor talking to an old man when that dry wood began to go up in flames. Blair called Jim on his cell phone and reported the fire, but the reception wasn't good, and the call was dropped. Jim couldn't get him back on the phone."

Simon's voice was distant as he stared at the photo. "By the time Jim and I arrived, that warehouse and three others were fully engulfed. Jim knew which one they'd been in, and just as we got out of the car, the roof collapsed, taking the top three floors with it. I'll never forget the look in his eyes." Simon shivered involuntarily. "Before I could stop him, Jim tore right into the building, through those flames and into that thick, black smoke." He shook his head. "I never thought I'd see either of them again."

"He brought them out?"

"Not them. Just Blair. A couple of minutes later, Jim emerged from those flames with Blair in his arms. He was staring straight ahead, like he wasn't even aware of the fire, totally focused on getting Sandburg to safety. The kid was okay, just some smoke inhalation. He'd been knocked out by a falling chuck of the ceiling, but somehow he'd found the only spot in the whole building that wasn't burning. The old man and Amelia never made it out."

Reaching out with one hand, Simon reverently touched the image of the two friends. "Blair was awake and talking within minutes. Jim had cut himself somehow, and all he could think about was taking care of Ellison. We couldn't get either of them into the ambulance, not until they were sure about Blair's student and the homeless man. The EMTs were too busy to worry about two men who obviously weren't badly hurt. A dozen people died in those fires and another dozen were seriously injured. Jim and Blair were the lucky ones. Anyway, Blair saw that cut and insisted on wiping off the blood and taking care of him until the EMTs could take a look at it. That's when the reporter snapped the photo."

Looking at the expressions of mixed concern and love on the faces of Jim and Blair, Mark nodded slowly. "Thank you for telling me, Captain Banks. This photo says a lot about them, doesn't it?"

Simon studied the other man carefully. "Yes, it does," he agreed. "What you see right there...that's who they are. That's what they are." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "Thank you for not letting that die. If he lost Blair, I think it would be the end of Jim as well."

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

Over the next two weeks, Jim virtually lived at the hospital. He returned to the loft at night, long after visiting hours were officially over. He would rest at home while he could. Once he could be with Blair again, he didn't plan to leave his side for a long time.

Mark Bennett departed for Boston after a week, with a promise to return when Blair was allowed visitors once more. The loft was silent again.

On the fifteenth day after the transplant, Jim stood in his usual spot at the observation window, studying his friend's face. Was he only imagining the hint of pink in the sunken cheeks? There was a fine covering of downy curls covering Blair's head; his hair was beginning to return.

"He's looking better, isn't he?"

Dr. Murphy's words were guarded. "He's stronger. His color is better. We're seeing a steady hold in the number of white blood cells, but those aren't being produced yet by Blair's body. I'll feel much better when we get an increase. That will mean the marrow's producing them for him at last."

"How much longer should it take?"

Murphy shrugged. "Any time now. If we don't see results within a week to ten days, I'll start to worry."

The doctor's pager went off. Checking it, he turned to leave. "I have to check on a patient up on six. Go home. Get some rest. We'll call if there's any change."

A week. Ten days.

It seemed an eternity.

As Jim stared into the small room, Blair's eyes turned toward the window. When he saw his sentinel there, a weak smile brightened his face as their eyes locked and held.

"I'm gonna be okay, Jim," Blair said quietly, but the sentinel heard him clearly through the glass. "I'm gonna be okay. I can feel it inside. I'm getting stronger."

His heart jumped with hope. Could Blair really tell that he was getting better? Deciding to allow himself the luxury of hope, Jim grinned at his friend and gave him a 'thumb's up'. Their eyes held for a long minute.

"I'm kinda sleepy, Jim. It's late. Go home, man, and sleep, okay? See you tomorrow?" At Jim's answering nod, the young man's eyes slipped closed again.

The sentinel stood for several minutes, watching him sleep. Then Jim went to call Naomi, provide his daily update, and go home.

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

The phone rang before seven the next morning. Jim awakened immediately, his mind sharp and clear, the result of his military training. He reached over to the nightstand, grabbing the receiver and checking the time simultaneously.

"Ellison."

"Good news, Jim," Dr. Murphy's voice announced. "We have new white blood cells."

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

Jim blew through the entry doors of the isolation ward with the power of a typhoon. "Can I go in?" he asked quickly.

Dr. Murphy chuckled. "Don't you want my medical update first?"

"He's making white blood cells, right? The transplant has taken. He can fight infection now?"

At the doctor's nod, Jim added, "Then can I see him?"

"You still need to wear the scrubs and mask..."

"Not a problem," Jim called over his shoulder as he jogged to the smiling nurse waiting at the scrub area.

Within minutes, he was stepping into the small isolation room, the green mask hiding the huge smile on his face.

"Hey, Chief," he said softly.

Startled blue eyes flew open. "Jim!"

Above the mask, Jim's own light blue eyes twinkled in joy. "So you haven't forgotten your old sentinel?"

"What...? What are you doing in here? How...?" the younger man stammered in confusion.

Jim ran his hand lightly over the soft down that barely covered his friend's head. "The blood tests show an increase in white blood cells, Darwin. Looks like the transplant's working."

His quivering chin was the only sign of the strong emotions Blair was experiencing. "I'm...really going to make it?"

Nodding, Jim ran his fingers up and down Blair's bare arm in a tender caress. "It's looking good. Dr. Murphy wouldn't let me back in here if it wasn't."

"Oh, man!" Blair's eyes danced. "That's great! That's unbelievable!" He stopped suddenly, staring up at Jim. "Oh, man, it's good to see you!"

Jim laughed at his partner's whirling emotions. Grasping Blair's hand between his gloved palms, he leaned down closer and whispered, "It's good to see you, too, kid. Damn, I missed you." Waiting a beat, he added, "But if you let that get out around the station, you're scrubbing the bathroom floor for a month."

The younger man chuckled. "Your secret's safe with me, man." The smile lingered for a moment, then Blair's expression became solemn. "I know what you mean. I missed you, too. It hurt so much, Jim, and I was so cold and so scared. I thought...I thought I was going to check out for good this time, man. I...needed you."

Jim's head bowed for an instant. "I'm sorry. I wish..."

"Hey," Blair interrupted. "No guilt, you hear me? This is totally not your fault. Understand? It's over now. I'm getting better, you can come in here again, and soon, I'll be going home and life can be normal." The joy in Blair's voice was unmistakable. "At least, what's considered 'normal' for the two of us."

"Hold on, Chief," Jim said with a chuckle. "You've got a ways to go yet before you'll get out of here. Be patient, okay?"

His energy nearly depleted, Blair laid back heavily on the pillow and closed his eyes. "Okay, Jim. I'll be patient, I promise. For a while, anyway." Tugging at their joined hands, Blair guided Jim's hand to his chest. "Stay awhile?"

"I'll be right here. Rest."

Within moments, Blair's breathing deepened and his heart rate slowed in sleep. Content to wait beside him, Jim watched the slight fluttering of his lashes, the minute movements of his eyes as he dreamed.

"Welcome back, Blair," he whispered. "Welcome back."

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

Each week that passed found Blair stronger. He began to gain weight and came off the IV feeding tubes. He moved to a regular room, and he was no longer limited to a single visitor. His blood work results continued to improve as his body's supply of white blood cells steadily increased.

Naomi returned near the end of the first month, popping in for a visit on her way to the east coast and a retreat in the mountains of Vermont.

"You look positively wonderful, Blair!" she gushed as she kissed her son's forehead. "I can't believe how strong you are!"

Blair shifted in the hospital chair. He'd been determined to meet his mother sitting up, not in bed. "I'm fine, Naomi. Getting stronger every day. I'll be able to go home in a few days, Dr. Murphy says." He flashed his mother a huge smile. "Can you stay?"

Naomi glanced quickly at Jim Ellison.

"You're welcome, Naomi," Jim assured her. "You're always welcome in our home." The look of gratitude in Blair's eyes was reward enough.

"Thank you, boys, but I just couldn't stay. I've been registered for this retreat for nearly a year now. It's going to be positively wonderful! The leader is..."

Jim and Blair's eyes met across the room. Blair winked, and Jim had to bite back a laugh. His partner was back. Life was definitely good.

The door opened and four men in white coats entered. Dr. Murphy greeted his patient, then Jim and Naomi. "I have some medical colleagues here, Blair. Do you mind if they observe?"

"Fine with me," Blair agreed readily.

Jim's eyes were locked on the tall doctor in the rear.

Mark Bennett wore a doctor's white coat and a stethoscope hung around his neck. His nametag was missing, but no one seemed to notice the omission.

Jim looked at Naomi. Blair's mother looked like she had seen a ghost, her face gone suddenly pale, her eyes wide and staring.

Perhaps she has seen a ghost, Jim thought. A ghost from her past.

Blair didn't seem to notice his mother's reaction to the doctors' entrance. He answered Dr. Murphy's questions easily, his eyes sparkling.

"I think you're making remarkable progress," Dr. Murphy said, closing his notebook and preparing to leave. He looked at the other men gathered around Blair in a semi-circle. "Any other questions?"

The tall doctor spoke up. "Are you ready to go home?"

Blair's eyes locked with Mark Bennett's. For an instant, he didn't answer, only studied his questioner carefully. Slowly, a huge smile broke across his face. "Oh, yeah. Home..." Blair looked at Jim and his smile grew softer. "There's nowhere on earth I'd rather be."

"Then I hope you get to go there soon." With a farewell nod, Bennett joined the doctors as they left the room.

Naomi and Jim exchanged glances. Ellison could see the nervousness in her eyes and in her hands as they fluttered like small birds.

"Chief? You ready to lie back down?"

Blair nodded. "I guess. I'm a little tired."

Jim moved to help his partner, giving Naomi time to regain her composure. As Ellison guided her son across the floor to his bed, she stood at the window, staring out, but seeing nothing.

"There you go," Jim said, tucking in the thin blanket and sheet. He brushed a hand across his friend's soft hair. "Won't be long until you'll be wearing a ponytail again, Chief," he teased, his voice warm with affection.

Naomi moved to her son. "I have to go, sweetie. I promise I'll stop back by and see you soon."

Long used to his mother's lifestyle, Blair smiled. "Have fun, Naomi." He turned his head for her kiss on the cheek. "I'll cook dinner for you at the loft when you get back."

"It's a deal, sweetie." Naomi straightened with a smile. "Jim? Walk me out?"

From the other side of the bed, Jim agreed. "Go on to sleep, Chief. I'll be back in a few minutes." He patted the thin shoulder beneath the blanket.

"Go on, you two." Blair made a shooing motion with his head. "I'm sleepy. Get out of here." His warm smile belied his words.

Jim flipped off the lights on his way out.

Once they were outside, Naomi turned to look up at Jim Ellison. "Did you know he would be there?" she asked in an accusing tone.

Jim bit back a sharp retort. "No, Naomi. I didn't have a clue. He did tell me that he would like to meet Blair, but that he had no intention of telling him who he was. I didn't know he would be there today."

After a moment, Naomi nodded, accepting his answer as truth. She took a deep breath. "Perhaps it is just as well. I've seen him. It's over." Smiling, she turned toward a cab waiting in front of the hospital, signaling him to wait for her. "Jim. Thank you."

Ellison understood. "Take care, Naomi." He bent to brush her cheek with a light kiss.

"You'll call me if there are any problems?"

Jim smiled. "You know I will. He's going to be fine."

Nodding, Naomi Sandburg turned to leave. "Jim? While you were gone to find Mark...?" She stopped, her voice tentative.

Curious, Jim stepped closer. "What? What happened, Naomi?"

Sighing, the woman continued. "I just thought you should know. Blair...needed you. Not me. He was in such pain. So weak. He kept calling for you. Crying for you. I know he was glad I was there, but it was you he needed. I don't understand why, but Blair loves you so much, Jim." Confused blue eyes, so like her son's, gazed up at Jim. "Why? How can my son - my sweet Blair - feel so close to you? No offense, Jim, but you're...a cop. You have a life filled with violence. With cruelty and ugliness. Why would Blair want such a life? That's not how he was raised."

Jim wasn't sure how to answer. He couldn't explain the truth - that Blair was his guide, that he was her son's sentinel. His personal Holy Grail. "Life's strange, Naomi. If you'd asked me if I'd be sharing my home - my life - with Blair, I'd have laughed in your face. I never needed anyone like this before. Ever. Not until your son came into my life. We give each other things neither of us has found before. Isn't that enough for you? Can't you just accept it for what it is? Be glad that he's happy?"

Naomi Sandburg's face softened. "I hear that, Jim. You love him, too, don't you?"

He couldn't deny the greatest truth in his life. "I do," Jim said simply. "You can believe that, even if you don't believe another word I say, Naomi. I'll protect him, I promise you, or I'll die trying."

She smiled tremulously. "I've seen that for myself. I've realized something during all this...upheaval. As much as I dislike what you stand for, as much as I despise your methods of getting things done, I understand now that Blair's lucky to have you in his life. Especially during the past few months. You're the kind of friend he needs - someone who can see what needs to be done and knows how to get results. You really didn't care who you had to hurt to save him, did you? Even his mother. Somehow, knowing that does help."

Straightening her shoulders, Naomi turned to go. "Keep taking care of him, Jim. I know he'll take care of you."

Jim watched the cab until it disappeared from view, then he returned to the side of his partner and guide.

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

One Year Later...

Blair leaned back against the cab of the truck and stared up into the black canvas of the night sky, punctuated with thousands of sparkling diamonds. Jim was sprawled beside him in the truck bed, both of them covered with their unzipped sleeping bags for warmth. Beneath them, a pile of heavy blankets insulated them from the cold metal of the truck bed. They'd returned to the forest overlooking the sea where they'd sat over a year earlier, just as Jim had promised. "I can hardly believe it, man. Dr. Murphy gave me my twelve month all-clear!" Blair grinned broadly and stretched his arms above his head then tucked them beneath the warmth of the sleeping bag. "I'm gonna beat this. I really am, aren't I, Jim?"

Chuckling, the sentinel reached over and ruffled the new curls that already reached past the tops of Blair's ears. "You sure are, kid. Didn't I tell you?"

"No meteors tonight, but this is nice, Jim." He leaned closer to Ellison and smiled when he felt Jim's arm loop around his shoulders, drawing him close. Relaxing back against the hard shoulder, Blair closed his eyes. "Thanks, Jim," he said softly.

Ellison shifted a little, reaching up to ease Blair's head back to rest once more against his shoulder. "For what? Coming back here tonight?"

"No, not for that," Blair said with a small smile. "For making Naomi tell you. For finding my father."

Jim looked quickly at his friend, his startled blue eyes widening immensely. "What did you say?"

"You heard me, you...sentinel," Blair teased, swatting Jim's leg beneath the cover of the sleeping bag. "I said thanks for finding my father, man. For talking him into being my marrow donor." Blair waited patiently for Jim to recover his equilibrium. He stared up again at the sky. It was so clear up here. So brilliantly beautiful. So perfect. Just like tonight.

When he answered at last, Jim's voice was so soft Blair could barely hear him. "How'd you find out? How long have you known?"

"I figured it out on my own. It just all fit, man. No donors, and I was running out of time. And running out of hope. Then Naomi shows up, and suddenly you have to go out of town for a day. Then, not even a week later, a mysterious donor appears out of nowhere. A perfect match." Blair laughed lightly. "I haven't been hanging around detectives for the past four years without learning something, man." Blair nestled his head deeper into the warm curve of Jim's neck, feeling the chill of the night air on his bare skin. Maybe it wouldn't be too much longer until his hair grew back to its former length, he thought idly. He sure missed the warmth its cover provided his neck.

"I...I don't know what to say, Blair. I didn't mean to deceive you...to lie to you. He asked..."

Blair interrupted him. "No, stop right there, man. You didn't deceive me. You saved my life." Tilting his head, Blair looked up into his sentinel's eyes, warm with affection and concern for him. "You did what you had to do to save my life, Jim. That's all."

Jim sat silently for a few minutes. "What do you want to know, Chief? About him, I mean."

Blair's answer was fast and without hesitation. "Nothing."

Jim's confusion was evident in his voice. "What are you talking about? You've waited your whole life for this, Sandburg. To find out who your father is."

Beneath the sleeping bag, Blair sought and found Ellison's hand. Squeezing it firmly, he sighed heavily, as if releasing the weight of a lifetime with a single breath. "It doesn't matter any more. Once...yeah, I would have given anything to find out, to know who he is. It just...isn't important anymore."

"Why, Chief? What's changed?"

"I don't know. Me, I guess. What I see as important in my life, and what's not," Blair said simply. "I have a real home now. A life. A place I belong. Naomi never really gave me that, and I guess I thought that if I found my father, he might. But I didn't need him to give me those things, Jim. All those years, it wasn't my father I needed to fill the empty spaces in my life. It was you."

Jim's other arm came around Sandburg's shoulders, drawing him into a tight hug, but he didn't speak. There were times when words only cheapened what was worth most, and Blair did not need his friend's words to know Jim Ellison's heart.

Blair felt Jim's cheek lower to rest against his head. Lifting his eyes, he looked back into the starry sky. A flash of light caught his eye...then another. "Look, man," he whispered in awe.

Against the velvety blackness, a meteor fell, followed by another, then another, their fiery paths blazing in the darkness.

"In some cultures, a meteor foretells disaster. In others, they're a sign of good fortune to come," Blair said softly. "What do you think, Jim?"

"What do the meteors foretell for us?" The sentinel tightened his arms around his Blair and smiled. "I wish I could say the signaled only good, Chief. That from this point on, there'll be only good fortune ahead. More likely though, our lives will be as they always been, a mixture of terrible lows and amazing highs." The sentinel's arms tightened around Blair again, this time in an almost protective gesture.

After a moment of thought, Blair nodded. He checked the sky, but there were no more flashes of brilliance, so he shut his eyes again. Jim was right. The best they could hope for was that the highs would be breathtaking enough to outweigh the lows. So far in their partnership, that had been enough.

"Are you okay with that, Blair?" Jim asked at last. "That we'll probably never have the quiet, routine lives others manage to live?"

In his voice, Blair could hear a trace of concern, of the old fear that somehow, something would drive Blair from his life. Jim had never believed that mere cancer would be able to take Blair from him, but he feared so deeply that he himself might be the instrument of their friendship's destruction. Turning his head slightly, Blair brushed his lips across Jim's neck, the skin still soft and smooth from the shower and shave he'd had before they'd left. "I'm more than okay with that, Jim. It's what I've waited my entire life to find, remember?"

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

The stars overhead shifted imperceptibly in their eons-old dance, and the thundering tide rose bravely to its full, magnificent height, then began its inevitable decline. Sentinel and guide remained together through the long night, content to draw warmth and security from each other. Blair drifted to sleep sometime during the hours after midnight's mark and those before the dawn, but Jim could not - would not - sleep. It was more important somehow to experience each second of this blessed night, to immerse himself in the blissful feeling of holding that healthy, precious life in his arms. If he could have wished and had the night endure forever, Jim had few doubts he would have done so. As it was, reality dawned too soon. The first rays of dawn were just beginning to drive the brilliance of the stars from the sky as Jim lowered his mouth to Blair's ear and promised, "I'll remember, Blair. It's what I've waited for, too. Always."

Finis...

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

Thank you to Delilah for this link. If you are interested in being a marrow donor, here's where you can find out more information. Who knows, perhaps you can save a life!

US National Marrow Donors Association

WARNING and NOTES:

While one of the characters in this story does battle leukemia and suffer greatly, I don't do death stories. At least, I haven't written one yet. I very seldom say 'never'.

I realize that anytime an author deals with a major disease, she leaves herself open for criticism. I did quite a bit of medical research for this story, but I'm certainly not a medical expert. (My title of Dr. is in education, folks. *g*) To those of you in the medical field, please forgive my errors. I'm sure there are some remaining.

Leukemia is a terrible disease. Many, many people still lose their battle with this form of cancer. However, great strides have been made in recent years, and I chose to let this story end on a positive note. This in no way lessens the struggles faced by leukemia patients or the heartbreaking losses suffered by their families.

To all who live with this disease, to their families, and to all involved in its treatment, I send my heartfelt admiration and respect.

This story is for you.

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