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

This story is dedicated to StarWatcher, who not only is my wonderful beta-editor, but who is also a speech therapist - she provided me with invaluable expert content advice and gave me an ending I could live with. In many substantive ways, this is her story as much as it is mine.

Note: This story was requested by Romanse, who gave me the scenario and some good reasons to write it…not least of which is that a person is whole and can live a full and satisfying life regardless of what some of us might consider a 'disability'.

This story addresses hearing impairment as well as I, as hearing person, can. I've used italics to demonstrate when speech is not oral but transmitted in some other way, whether electronically with a palm pilot, through sign language or even by the printed or written word, to highlight when alternative communication is required in a silent world.

The Quality Of Silence

by Arianna

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

"Stay in the truck, Chief," Jim directed briskly as he tossed his partner his cell phone. Sandburg's cell had been destroyed in his recent dip in the ocean when he'd jumped from the helicopter to help capture Ventriss. He'd been so pissed about the student who had raped a fellow student and murdered another man - not to mention buying term papers and generally acting as if his money gave him carte blanche through life - that unimportant matters like cell phones hadn't even registered. Neither man had had time to buy a new one since.

"But…"

"Stay in the truck!" Jim grated with a hard flash of cold blue eyes. There was no time to convene the Ellison/Sandburg debating society on this one. Roger Rossner was a cold-blooded killer with a penchant for blowing things up and Jim didn't want his partner anywhere near the guy. They'd set up a sting operation and knew that the arsonist for hire had a contract on this building and that he was likely to strike sometime this week. Jim only intended to circle around the building to ensure no innocent victims were at risk - like the watchman who'd died in the last fire-bombing, shot in the head with a .45 caliber weapon before the fire had had a chance to kill him - or the three homeless people who had died of burns in the one before.

He also wanted to run a quick listening check as he walked the perimeter of the building to determine if Rossner, himself, had shown up yet - and the chance was good that the ruthless bomber was already there or would be before the night was over. It was exactly the kind of weather the guy preferred. His incendiary materials were uninhibited by rain, and the foggy, stormy darkness was perfect to obscure his getaway. So, Ellison and Sandburg were staking the place out, just as they had the four previous nights. There was no sign of the black SUV but that didn't mean Rossner wasn't in the neighbourhood. The place was just too damned big, with too many possible entrances and exits, to risk spooking Rossner before backup arrived - and no way did Ellison want to lose him this time. They needed to catch him the act.

"Yeah, fine, and call for backup if I see anything suspicious," Sandburg muttered, aggrieved. "Don't do anything stupid before the cavalry gets here," he added sharply even though Ellison was long gone, loping in a half crouch through the shadows along the side of the dilapidated warehouse. There was no doubt in his mind that Jim could still hear him, but the grumble was more for effect than seriously meant. He knew Jim well, and trusted his judgment. He also knew Ellison wanted this guy and wouldn't take any chances that might let the criminal slip away before the net was in place. Punching the speed dial of the cell, he called in to report that they were on site and to let Simon know that Jim was conducting a reconnaissance on foot. Banks assured him that the uniforms would be there in under five minutes as soon as they gave the word.

Sitting back against the seat, Sandburg shivered as he peered out the windows of the truck that were already beginning to fog up. It was another cold and wet Cascade night, with a heavy, not quite icy drizzle that had started just after dusk. He sniffed in disgust as he reflected it had been raining on and off every day for the last couple of weeks. Even bundled up, with a dark blue woolen hat pulled down low over his forehead and ears, thick mitts on his hands, and both a sweatshirt and a sweater under his heavy coat, he still felt the chill. Rubbing his arms, tense and alert, his jaw tight, Blair knew that part of the chill he felt was from trepidation as much as the miserable late fall weather. It was like a game of cat and mouse, only this mouse was armed to the teeth and knew the enemy.

While he waited, he couldn't help going over the facts of the case in his mind. In the last four months, there had been eight serious fires, seven of them costing lives either in the buildings that had been blown or in neighbouring establishments. It was suspected that Rossner had been busy throughout the whole of the northwest for years, sometimes venturing further south along the Pacific coastline, but he'd been careful and smart. It hadn't been until the Fire Department and Homicide had bowed to public pressure and the direct orders of their respective Commissioners, that the case had been kicked up to Major Crimes, three weeks ago. Since then, Jim had gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb, his special sensory capabilities on full focus, 'dials full up', as Blair had teased, even as he remained close, keeping Ellison grounded so that he'd not zone when in periods of such intense concentration.

"Human Crime Lab Extraordinaire," Blair muttered to himself as he reached over to turn on the ignition and crank up the heat and defroster, casually discounting his own active role in the research and correlations of sparse information.

And, in Sandburg's not so humble opinion, Jim had done good. Real good. As Blair waited, hunched in the truck, shivering, he tried to distract himself by listing off the bits and pieces of evidence Jim had found that they then started to weave into patterns:

· A partial tire track with samples of mud that could be traced to the sand flats on the coast, fifty miles south of the city.

· The peculiar chemical signature of the inflammatory ingredients, and a watch on the businesses that sold such materials along with other building and contract supplies in the area around the sand flats.

· The type of structures that were routinely hit, and the pattern of the hits.

· Searches of classified ads for obscure, suggestive advertisements.

· A deeper analysis of the insurance claims and particularly the adjusters…including examinations of their financial records, some of which showed suspiciously generous deposits not long after insurance had been paid out on one major fire or another.

· Crosschecks of witness reports and a follow-up on a mysterious black SUV that had been noticed in some of the target areas before the fires had broken out.

· A drive down to Calinas, the small village near the sand flats, and an informal stakeout on one of the cottages out there by the sea where the owner had a black SUV.

· The owner of said SUV and cottage had turned out to be a guy who did private contracting for lots of business people, like insurance adjusters and factory or warehouse owners, so did business with the same firms who supplied the inflammatory materials. All suggestive, all circumstantial, but it had given them a name. Roger Rossner, former military demolitions expert, semi-retired and ostensibly living comfortably on his pension. Very comfortably.

And now they also knew what the probable suspect looked like, having managed to capture several telephoto shots of him while they'd staked the cottage out. Rossner was a big man, over six feet tall, in his late fifties. He had a thatch of dirty blond, graying hair, a weathered face and brown eyes that for all their depths of intelligence seemed coldly flat and empty. Blair shivered again whenever he thought of those eyes, and not from the damp chill of the night. They didn't have enough to get an official search warrant of his residence or the shed in back, though Jim had picked up the scent of the chemicals they were watching for. Nor had they wanted to spook the guy by talking to anyone who knew him on his home turf. It had become a bit of stalemate, and Jim had been frustrated by having to wait until the guy struck again.

They'd almost got him at the last scene, based on a probability model Blair had devised to predict the next target, and Rossner seemed to know the net was tightening or at least the bombings stopped after that. The media hadn't helped, hyping his crimes and tagging him as 'The Torch' - an unfortunate slander, in Sandburg's opinion, of the noble comic book character with the same moniker. Newscasters delighted in reporting that Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department's Major Crimes Unit, three-time winner of Cop of the Year, was on the case and would no doubt soon be making an arrest. Jim had grimaced and rolled his eyes when he'd seen that on the local news, and had cursed bitterly when it got picked up nationally. This bastard was arrogant and such publicity could only make it a duel in his mind, a game to beat the crack detective; Jim didn't need that kind of complication.

Blair didn't need Jim to be under that kind of threat.

Ellison had snorted derisively when Sandburg had expressed his concerns when he'd been the first one to make the analysis that the media could end up making this personal - a kind of grudge match where the master criminal pitted himself against the master detective. But the anonymous note with the cut out letters spelling out in black bold print, 'BOOM!' sent to the private and personal attention of Detective Ellison, MCU, Cascade PD, hadn't done much to quell Sandburg's concerns.

"I'm telling you, he's after you, man," Blair had warned grimly, his eyes dark with concern.

And Jim had to reluctantly agree that maybe his partner's assessment had some merit.

So, they set up an irresistible scenario to provoke action in a controllable situation by engaging the cooperation of Joshua Markham, a local businessman. Markham was planning to have an old warehouse on the docks demolished anyway…contracting with an arsonist to have it done legally at no real cost seemed a good deal to him, and he got to pretend he was civic-minded at the same time. Contact had been made using the ad Sandburg and Ellison agreed was likely the anonymous post office box link to Rossner. A series of negotiations had begun, the crafty firebug using a cell phone that bounced through satellite connections all the way to China and back, taking the long way through Europe, so there was no chance of a trace. But the deal had been struck and this warehouse was the target. The only thing that Rossner hadn't been willing to commit to specifically was the date, only going so far as to confirm the job would be done by the end of the month…which was now only two days away.

Nervously, Blair's gaze flickered up and down the alley Jim had parked in, choosing the same spot he had every night of the last week. It was next to one corner of the warehouse, deep in the shadows and the truck was camouflaged, sort of, by a row of big metal dumpsters, while still permitting visual surveillance of a good part of the external structure. Theoretically, at least. Unfortunately, with the rain and fog, visibility was next to nil. Sandburg shivered again as he shook his head. He hated this part; the waiting, knowing action was inevitable. Oh, he didn't hate it as much as the action itself, when Jim was literally in the line of fire, but the waiting stretched his nerves and gave him too much time to imagine all the things that could go wrong.

"C'mon, man, where are you?" he muttered, but he knew Jim had not yet had enough time to walk the perimeter of the building. This was just the preliminary check for possible innocents, to ensure the area was clear. Rossner wasn't likely to show for another couple of hours yet, if he turned up at all that night. Part of his MO was that he didn't hit until after the witching hour.

"I gotta tell you, Jim," he murmured again, confident that his Sentinel could hear him, "I got a bad feeling about this."

The cell phone buzzed and he flipped it open. "Sandburg," he replied, his voice low.

"Sandburg, get Ellison," Simon snapped, his tone harried and urgent. "We just got a call that Markham's body was found - shot in the head."

"Dammit!" Blair cursed, now absolutely certain that the setup was blown and the mouse had just become the hunter. "Ah, sorry, Simon…he should be just around the corner, coming this way. I'll let him know."

"Fine, keep your heads down," Banks ordered briskly. "Backup is on the way."

The 'stay in the truck' order now moot, Blair started talking even as he was opening the truck door, intending to race along the alley to give Ellison backup, such as it was, given he wasn't a real cop. But the rules of the engagement had just shifted and Rossner was likely lying in wait. Jim was good, but even he didn't have eyes in the back of his head. Given how long he'd been gone, he'd either be coming around the corner of the building any second, or he was already in trouble. If Rossner had been stalking them instead of the other way around, he'd know about the stakeout, where Jim usually tucked away the truck and the routine walkabouts. True, they'd arrived a little earlier that night than usual, but only by about fifteen minutes, and Rossner could be taking a bead on Ellison's back as he slipped silently through the shadows.

"Markham's been murdered, Jim," he called out sharply, not caring if Rossner heard him - the need to warn his partner overrode all other considerations.

As he began to move away from the truck, heading toward the far corner of the block-long building, he saw Jim step briefly out of the shadows at the far end to wave Sandburg back as well as to indicate he'd heard the warning, loud and clear. Blair paused in relief, but his eyes scanned the tops of the buildings around and behind Jim, searching the shadows…

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

Ellison stopped walking to concentrate his attention on the same survey of his immediate environment, his senses on full alert, his own instincts telling him that this had gone from a setup to a trap. Cautiously, he started back to the truck, cutting a quick glance back at Blair to ensure his partner was turning back to get under cover. Though he wasn't entirely surprised, he grimaced to see that, to the contrary, Sandburg was waiting for him; indeed, was edging slowly closer. Much as Ellison appreciated his partner's concern on his behalf and Sandburg's determination to give him the best backup possible in the circumstances, he'd be a lot happier if the kid was inside the vehicle with his head down. Jim was just about to yell at Blair, to tell him to go back to the relative safety of the pickup, when all hell broke loose.

From the dumpster at the far end, next to the truck, there erupted a tremendously powerful explosion that burst blindingly white light and searing heat into the night. The shock wave of the blast caught Ellison and blew him backwards, his fully open senses of hearing and sight automatically shutting down just as Sandburg had painstakingly taught him to do in situations of sudden overload, leaving him momentarily deafened and blinded.

His last memory of that night, just before the wall of sound and light hit him, was the horrific sight of Sandburg being flung toward him, like a helpless rag doll, as the dumpster behind him along with the truck went up in a roaring sheet of bright orange flames - a nightmarish scene straight out of Dante's Inferno.

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

"Mmnngg," Ellison moaned against the pain that flared through all his aching, strained muscles, bruised and abraded skin, and very sore head.

"Easy, Jim," Simon soothed, though the gentle calm of his voice was belied by his rigidly composed features and anxious eyes. "Just, uh, turn it down. You know how, I know you do."

The words were right but the voice was wrong, as well as muffled somehow, and there was no steadying touch on his arm. Alarm flared, stronger than the pain, undeniable and urgent. Ellison struggled against the dull heaviness in his head that wanted to drag him back down to sleep as he fought off the pain, having no time now for it. Swallowing convulsively against the scratchy dryness of his mouth and throat, frustrated by the way the light burned his eyes when he blinked, he struggled his way back to consciousness.

"Sandburg?" he rasped, squinting reddened, irritated eyes as his gaze sought Simon's. "Where?"

"He's alive, in ICU," Simon answered, direct and to the point. He knew there was no purpose to be served by avoidance.

Relief that his partner was alive mingled with fear at the guarded look on Simon's face. Afraid to ask, needing to know, Jim rubbed at his ears to clear away the blocked feeling that was muffling sound, as he demanded, "How bad?"

"Not as bad as it might have been," Banks replied, his shoulders slumping wearily as he looked away. Sighing, he turned his attention back to Ellison's intent glare as he continued, "His layers of clothing, the thick hat and mitts, all protected him from the worst of the initial blast. He got badly singed but the rain helped to smother the sparks that caught on his clothing and hair."

"What else?" Jim prompted, knowing full well that people weren't kept in ICU because they'd been 'badly singed'. He disregarded his slightly impaired hearing, unsurprised by it given the loud explosion and knowing the effects were most likely temporary, compensating for it by turning up his sound 'dial'.

"Cracked ribs, broken arm, inhalation burns, not too serious but he's on a respirator," Simon continued. "He banged his head pretty hard - hasn't woken up yet." There, that was the worst, the most dangerous injury, Simon thought grimly, his lips compressing tightly for a brief moment before spelling it out clearly. "Sandburg's in a coma, Jim."

Ellison grunted and began to push himself up, thwarted by stiffness and a residual dizziness that slowed him enough that Simon had a chance to push him back down before he was even fully sitting up. "Slow down, Jim!" Banks snapped, not quite at full bellow volume. "You've been semiconscious yourself for almost twenty-four hours."

"I need to see him," Jim ground out, furious at being held down, more angry at the weakness that let Simon get away with it.

"Fine, you can see him, just not this minute," the Captain hedged. "Let me get them to call your doctor. Once you've been given the okay, I'll take you to him myself."

Ellison glared at him, wordlessly seething at the delay, but Simon hoped he could take silence as acquiescence and turned to the door. However, no fool, he turned back to check and caught Jim again trying to struggle up. "Either you stay put," Simon growled, pointing a stern finger, "or I'll have you restrained. And that's an order. Are we clear, Detective?"

With ill grace, Jim hesitated but then gave a short, sharp nod as he turned his head away. Clutching the anger and the pain to him like a lover, he fought to use them to hold his anxious fears at bay. Whether he closed his eyes or kept them open didn't seem to matter - all he could see was the image of Sandburg being flung high by the blast, the sheet of flame rising behind him.

Respirator. Head injury. Coma.

It had been a trap and he'd missed it, hadn't sensed the bomb, and it had caught the wrong man. Wouldn't have caught anyone if Jim hadn't insisted that Sandburg stay with the truck. Why the hell hadn't he sensed the bomb, dammit? He'd been so close…he should have sensed it. Guilt warred with fury, fear with pain.

Guilt and fear won, combining to form a vise that tightened around his heart and made it hard to breathe.

"Ah, Jesus, Chief," he grated hoarsely past the lump in his throat while he fought the burn in his eyes.

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

Much as Jim struggled by the force of will to remain conscious, his body mutinied and took his will captive, silencing it by the simple expedient of dragging it back into the darkness of unconsciousness. So it was almost noon the next day before he was awake and alert enough, long enough, for the doctor to permit him to be wheeled down to the Intensive Care Unit. As good as his word, Simon was the one who took him.

Sandburg was in a corner cubicle behind a wall of glass. Though his burns weren't serious and were already healing well, they were extensive and warranted precautionary isolation care to avert any chance of infection. When they tried to restrict Jim to looking at his partner through the glass, he growled menacingly. Only his concern to not disturb Sandburg restrained him from yelling his head off at the imbeciles that thought they could keep him from his best friend any longer. Simon, ever tactful when required by circumstances beyond his control, mediated a solution, which involved them both gowning up with masks and gloves, so that Simon could support Jim into the room without the help of the wheelchair.

Lapsing back into grim silence, while Banks worked out the details and then helped him don the long, wraparound surgical gown, Jim kept his gaze trained on Sandburg. His partner lay perfectly still but for the measured rise and fall of his chest as the respirator pumped oxygen into his body. EKG leads were hooked up to a monitor in the corner that no doubt also connected with the nurses' desk, and the contraption on his left index finger tracked his blood pressure. But for a linen cloth that covered his loins, the bandages that tightly wrapped his chest and back and the cast on his left arm, his skin was bare, most of it sorely reddened with angry second degree, and some first degree, burns. His hair had been singed, Jim could smell the burned residue, but most of it looked to be intact, a halo of burnished curls on the pillow. Swallowing, Jim focused in on his partner's heartbeat, letting out his breath when he found it steady and strong, if a bit fast.

"He's waking up," Jim murmured as Simon steadied him into the room, one strong arm around his back, and guided him to a chair by the bed.

Startled, Banks looked from Jim to Blair and back again. He couldn't detect any change from the last time he'd looked in, just over an hour before. "How can you tell?" he asked quietly.

"His heart rate is up," Jim replied, his voice tight with hope. "It's usually slower when people are under deep."

Nodding, Simon moved to drag the other chair over to sit by Jim. "That's a good thing, then," he observed, also wanting to hope this nightmare would soon be over. Already on the way to the warehouse after Markham's body had been found, more than a day before, he'd seen and heard the explosion, and had been sick to arrive and find both his men down. He hadn't been able to tell if Jim was zoned or unconscious, and the soaked, burned scraps of Sandburg's clothing had sickened him. He'd been furious and frightened - and he'd cursed Rossner and his own helplessness in equal measure while he waited for the ambulance to arrive. "They say, the sooner the patient wakes up from a coma, the better the prognosis."

"Yeah," Jim grunted as he reached for Sandburg's hand, glad it wasn't burned so badly he couldn't hold onto it. "C'mon, Chief," he called softly. "Time to show me those baby blues, okay?"

When Sandburg remained still and silent, Jim closed his eyes briefly, fighting the nausea that roiled in his gut and the fear that continued to fill his chest. His jaw rigid, his eyes cold, he asked with a tone of deadly calm, "What are we doing about Rossner?"

Banks sighed. "Nothing much has changed; it's all still circumstantial. But now that he's gone after a cop, the administration is taking it personally. I got a warrant to dig into his finances, to search his residence and vehicle and there's a 'round-the-clock' tail on him. We'll get him, Jim. He won't get away with this."

A cop, Jim thought bitterly, shaking his head, knowing that he was the 'cop' Simon meant. After all, Sandburg wasn't a cop, was he? Just another innocent civilian caught in the crossfire. They'd be lucky if the brass didn't pull his observer pass - as they'd threatened to do after the last time Blair had been hurt, hell, murdered. Only at Blair's own insistence that he had no intention of suing, as he had asserted every other time he'd been hurt, and he had signed piles of official waivers, had the higher-ups backed down. Sandburg had held to his story that he was working on his dissertation and needed to ride along for his research.

The same dissertation he'd told Jim he had enough material to write three times over, more than a year ago.

"C'mon, Chief, wake up," Jim called again hoarsely, tightening his grip. "You're scaring the hell out of Simon."

Banks snorted and shook his head. Yeah, right. You're scaring the hell out Simon, Banks thought with mingled compassion and derision. But he didn't say it aloud as he laid a strong, supportive hand on Ellison's shoulder. He figured, if the kid had heard the comment, he'd see through the pitiful obfuscation, too.

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

It was another three hours before Sandburg finally struggled up through layers of black cotton to a semblance of consciousness, and from his hiss and grimace of pain, it was pretty clear he would have preferred to still be out cold. He could feel the respirator clogging his throat, and his skin stung like he'd gotten a bitch of sunburn - he wondered vaguely if he'd fallen asleep on a beach somewhere. Did sunstroke require a respirator? Gradually, he became aware of the pressure of someone gripping his hand, and he smiled faintly, reassured. It was Jim, he could tell. Jim was okay…

Wondering where that thought had come from, and more about the surge of relief that came with it, he tried to remember what had happened, why he'd thought Jim might have been hurt - and why he was in a hospital - again. Too tired to figure it out, he finally decided it would be less work to wake the rest of the way up and let Jim just tell him what had happened. Blinking, he moaned a little at the harshness of the light and the way the room tilted around him. Swallowing hard against the sudden threat of nausea, he tried hard not to fight the respirator, knowing that would only make things worse. His memory flickered and then flinched away from how he knew that bit of hospital trivia-he didn't like to recall being dosed with Golden and going nuts in the PD Garage, trying to shoot 'fire people' with Jim's spare gun, until he'd collapsed.

The grip on his hand tightened and he flinched in pain, so that it loosened very quickly. Frustrated, he blinked away the tears of strain from the light and again tried to look around the room. Keeping his head still, he moved his eyes slowly to let them focus so that the dizziness and nausea wouldn't be so bad. He saw Simon first, standing stiff and looking very worried, and then he found Jim, sitting beside him and, yep, holding his hand. Weakly, he returned the grip, the only reassurance he could give what with his mouth being out of action. Frowning a little in concern, he took in the abrasions on Jim's face as he noticed that his partner seemed to need Simon's help to stand and stay standing by the side of the bed.

What the hell had happened?

Blinking again, he saw Jim's lips moving but he couldn't hear the words. Not funny to torment a guy when he's down, he thought bemusedly, thinking Jim was teasing him, playing games. But the anxiety deep in Jim's eyes didn't go with a humorous prank and he frowned again, trying to understand what was going on. Vaguely, in frustration, he tried to wave the hand Jim wasn't holding toward the respirator, but his arm was so heavy and it hurt to lift it. He wanted to signal that he'd really like to be rid of the tube in his mouth so that he could ask what was going on or tell Jim to speak up, or something, but couldn't come up with a way to get that message across. And Jim was still talking as if he was trying to explain something but though Sandburg tried to concentrate, he just couldn't make out the words.

Too weary to make sense of it, Blair slipped back to sleep.

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

"Something's not right, Simon," Ellison grated as his boss pushed his chair back to his room on three floors above. The staff wouldn't let Jim stay with Blair for more than ten minutes at a time, citing that they both needed rest, so Ellison was grateful to have even been present when his partner woke, however briefly. Not that the gratitude got in the way of his irritation to be told his time was up a few minutes later.

"He's just waking up from a coma, Jim," Banks replied stoically, long used to Ellison's moods and not taking them personally. "Give the kid a break. Once he gets a little more rest and that tube comes out, you'll see - he'll be fine. Or as fine as he's ever been."

"Not funny," Jim growled, not in the mood for Sandburg jokes. Simon rolled his eyes as he rumbled a "Sorry," as he reached to push open the door to Jim's room.

"It was his eyes," Jim muttered as Banks helped him maneuver back into the bed. "He didn't understand a word I was saying…he wasn't connecting."

"He was barely conscious and confused," Simon sighed. "He'll be better the next time he wakes up. Relax, Jim. You're both alive, not too badly hurt - give him a little time."

Jim shook his head, sincerely hoping that Simon was right and he was being overly concerned. But the confusion in Sandburg's eyes haunted him. Something wasn't right.

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

For the next twenty-four hours, Sandburg was asleep far more than he was awake, but the doctors were encouraged that it was normal sleep and the fears they'd had about a possibly serious head injury dissipated. And, Blair's burns were healing so well that the isolation order had been lifted. But, Jim was frustrated because each time he visited seemed to be 'nap time', so he couldn't assure himself that Blair was as fine as they seemed to think, though he tried to take solace from the confidence of the medical practitioners. As Sandburg's designated 'Emergency Contact', Ellison insisted upon his rights about being kept well informed of his partner's condition. When he learned that they planned to remove the respirator late that afternoon, he made a point of telling the nursing staff he'd be back then, figuring Blair would certainly wake up when they pulled that invasive tube out of his throat.

Jim was relieved to feel much stronger than he'd been the day before so that he no longer needed the wheelchair to get around. In fact, he felt well enough to be released from the hospital if he could convince the doctor that he was fine despite all the bruises and a lingering stiffness. Once he was released, he could argue his rights to spend as much time as he wished at his partner's side. Pulling on his robe, anxious to finally be able to talk with his best friend, Jim headed downstairs. But, the elevator doors had not yet opened before he knew something was definitely wrong. Sandburg's heart rate was through the roof. Very worried, his own bruised and aching muscles forgotten, Ellison pushed through the doors as soon as they started to open and jogged down the corridor to Blair's room. He could hear the doctor ordering a sedative as he turned the corner and pushed open the door.

"Listen to me!" Blair was croaking desperately, his rough voice barely more than a whisper that it seemed no one was paying the least bit of attention to - the doctor and two nurses were all too busy reading the machines, worried about the explosive increase in his heart rate and blood pressure, and his hyperventilation that was getting worse as he struggled to get their attention. He'd reached the point of physical agitation, and they were actually holding him down as one turned to leave to get a syringe full of happy juice.

"Back off!" Jim bellowed, furious at their behaviour and the frenzy of terror he could see in his best friend's eyes.

"Detective, you'll have to leave…" the doctor tried to order, recognizing Jim, but backed off and shut up at the dangerous light in Ellison's eyes as the detective moved swiftly into the room - in full 'intimidation mode' that was no less impressive for all the fact that he was in his robe and pajamas. Gabbling a little, trying to regain control, the physician stammered, "He became agitated when we removed the endotrachial tube. Panicked. It's not uncommon…"

Jim could hear Blair rasping in pleading tone, "Jim…" as the kid desperately held out his hand toward his Sentinel, and Jim grated, "Shut the hell up and listen to him!" to the doctor as he took Blair's hand and leaned over him, his other palm on Sandburg's brow. "Shh, easy, buddy, just breathe, okay? I'm here and we'll get this sorted out."

But Blair's eyes just widened in renewed panic, and he panted even more desperately as he held onto Jim's hand as if it were his only lifeline. One of the nurses wordlessly passed Jim a brown paper bag, which he quickly bunched up to place over Sandburg's nose and face as he said firmly if kindly, "You're hyperventilating, Chief. Here, breathe into the bag. Relax, okay. You're fine."

Blair puffed obediently into the bag, his eyes locked on Jim's face, eyes wide with such fear that it approached terror. Gradually, though, his breathing evened out. "Get me some ice chips or something for his throat," Jim snapped to one of the nurses.

"I have some here," she replied quietly, holding out the cup of ice fragments that was standard operating procedure when respiratory tubes were removed.

"Thanks," Jim acknowledged, reaching for a calm that the throbbing muscle in his jaw belied. Putting the bag aside, he took the small plastic cup and finger-fed Sandburg one chip and then another as he said, "Don't even try to talk until these melt."

Blair blinked hard and took a deep breath, wincing at the pain of it, but he stopped trying to talk and just held Jim's hand tightly until the ice had melted. In the silence, Jim stroked his partner's hair back from his forehead, as he said quietly, "You're going to be okay, you hear me? You've got some burns and bruises, a broken arm and ribs, but nothing that can't heal. Relax…"

Blair watched him intently, a frown of concentration on his face. Finally, he licked his lips, his voice still hideously raspy and weak as he whispered, "Jim-I can't hear you."

"What?" Ellison demanded, and then shook his head as he raised his voice, "Must be the effects of the explosion, Chief…sometimes they take a few days to wear off. The blast was pretty loud."

But Blair shook his head, his eyes on Jim's mouth before they lifted to his friend's eyes. "Can't hear…anything," he grated hoarsely, his voice catching with fear. "Nothing. Jim, I'm scared…"

Nothing? He couldn't hear anything? It had been two days since the blast had almost blown Blair to Kingdom Come. Sure, the shock of the blast could dull hearing, make it seem like he was in a deep well, everything muffled, like Jim's hearing had been dampened when he first woke up…but nothing?

Jerking his gaze to the doctor who hadn't yet left the room and was monitoring Blair's still elevated vital signs, Jim demanded, "Did you hear what he said?"

"Sorry, no," the doctor replied, defensively. "His voice is too faint, no one could make out…"

"He said he can't hear anything…nothing!" Jim cut in with abrupt impatience. "What's wrong with him?"

Startled, the doctor moved to the other side of the bed, cupping Blair's face to capture his attention and turn Blair's head face him. "Mr. Sandburg," the doctor enunciated clearly, "you say you can't hear anything?"

"Or for the love of…" Jim muttered, as he turned to the nurse who was still there and demanded, "Do you have a pen and paper on you?" Busily, he began writing as the doctor turned and ordered a consult with an ear and hearing specialist, as well as an MRI and another skull series.

When the doctor left, Jim turned back with his note and handed it to Blair who squinted at it. "Glasses," Jim muttered, "Sorry." He rummaged around in the bedside table and found the spare set Simon had thought to bring in earlier, having known the pair Blair had been wearing the other night were smashed in the explosion.

Sandburg took them gratefully and then looked at the note. You were caught in an explosion two days ago. You had a severe concussion and only woke up yesterday for short periods of time, but you seem fine now. You've got fairly minor burns, cracked ribs and a broken arm. The hearing loss is just a short-term result of the impact of the blast. They have a specialist coming to see you, and more tests.

Blair nodded as he read and visibly tried to calm himself. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Jim, scowling at the spectacular bruises on his friend's face. "You okay?" he rasped, sentinel soft.

"Yeah," Jim said, then remembered to nod as he took Blair's hand. "I'm fine."

But inside, he wasn't fine. He was sick and scared to think that maybe Blair was hurt really badly.

"Rossner?" Blair whispered, wincing with the effort to speak.

The nurse having left the note pad with him, Jim wrote out, Under surveillance. Don't worry, we'll get him. Blair nodded as he read it, and then leaned back into his pillows with a sigh. It hurt to talk, and he couldn't hear. His breathing hitched as he again gripped Jim's hand hard, conveying his fear.

"Don't buy trouble, Chief," Jim murmured as he reached to stroke his friend's brow, realizing Blair couldn't hear him, but would understand the sentiment. The words were as much for his own benefit as Sandburg's anyway. This was only temporary. Blair was going to be fine.

Had to be fine.

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

Blair tried not to panic, tried really hard. His skin felt dry and papery, tight and itchy so it was hard to rest, as if rest was something he could even begin to contemplate. His left arm ached, as did his ribs, and he had to be careful not to turn or shift his body too suddenly or spasms of pain added to his misery. But the worst, the absolute worst, was the utter silence. He'd never experienced anything like it before, and for the first time was conscious of the way sound informed everything. Sound was a backdrop to being alive, like the drawing in and exhalation of breath, or the timbre of his own voice. The scratch of fingernails on the sheet that covered him, the hum and beep of machines that monitored his vital signs, the swish and footfalls of the nurses as they padded up and down the hall outside his room, the low hum of the heating system, the soft announcements on the hospital intercom system…all things he could no longer hear. Just as he could not hear the doctor's voice, or Jim's - oh, God, he longed to hear Jim's reassuring voice.

They moved him to another room now that he no longer needed to be in Intensive Care. He couldn't hear the voice of the orderly who waved him onto a gurney, and wasn't sure where he was being taken. He couldn't hear the squeak of the wheels or the whoosh of the elevator doors, or the ping when they opened again. He figured out what was going on when he was waved onto a freshly made bed - and he tried to see the move as a good sign, that he was getting better.

But the silence was overpowering, relentless. It stretched out with no end, infinite. There was no way around or under or over it. It just was. He wanted to scream, and would have, if he weren't in a hospital where he'd disturb others. Scream his heart out, just to see if he could hear something of his own fear, and not just feel it eating him alive. He couldn't close his eyes, couldn't rest, because when he did, the whole world was gone and there was only infinite black silence. He wouldn't know if someone approached until they touched him, would have no warning. So, he had to stay awake, afraid to be so vulnerable. The exhaustion magnified his discomfort and his terror, until it was all he could do to hold on and go through the CT scan and MRI, and the endless auditory tests that he could only respond to with increasingly desperate negativity - he could hear nothing. They tried various devices, hearing aids he thought, to increase the volume of sounds but nothing helped. Nothing!

Blair tried to tell himself it was only temporary, just the effects of the hideous, earth-shattering blast that had numbed or bruised his eardrums. They were damaged, that was all. They'd heal. It would just take some time, just a little more time. Please, God, this couldn't be the way life would be for all the minutes and hours and days and years to come!

He could still speak, he knew that, though the knowledge was an intellectual reality, as he could not hear himself. And, once or twice too often, he noticed the staff wincing when he spoke to them, lifting their hands to their ears and one wrote a note to tell him he was shouting at them. He'd been mortified…and suddenly realized he had no idea how to control the volume of his voice when he couldn't hear himself speak. So, he was increasingly nervous of talking, unsure of how he sounded, if he was enunciating or slurring his words, shouting so loud it hurt others to hear him, or whispering so softly that they were unsure of what he was trying to say. It was unnerving, and frightening for a man who loved words, and who needed to communicate in words to be himself, to be whole. It was beyond sickening for a man who loved all that life and the world had to offer, loved the sounds of the earth, the voices of others, singing, music, birds chirping, wind rustling in the trees, the laughter of children, the ringing of bells, even the sound of steady traffic in the city that spoke of life and motion, horns honking, warnings of danger like alarm bells, or the annoying ring of the telephone. Gone, lost, sucked into an infinite eternal void…

It was a kind of hell.

Dear God, it couldn't be forever…

So he continued to summon up smiles for the nurses, the technicians, for Simon and Jim, but he couldn't bear to see any others from MCU, though their desire to visit him was made very clear. It was too awkward to try to visit like this, and it was only temporary, right? In another day or two, he'd be able to visit properly. He continued to hold onto hope, and was grateful when Simon brought two palm pilots to his room, so that his visitors could 'speak' with him by typing in their messages for him to read. It was even kind of fun to play with the gadgetry and he wondered idly how much they cost as they'd be handy for keeping notes to himself or to be in contact with Jim when he was away from his desk. He'd never realized just how useful it was to be able to transmit wirelessly to others in the same room. It sure beat passing paper back and forth, or even typing on the laptop and letting others read the message. Blair snickered to himself, though, as he recalled his perennial problem just remembering to keep a cell phone charged and handy…a new little machine that could send email across town as easily as it sent it across the room wasn't likely something he'd remember to carry around.

But, Jim, especially, was worried when he took to using the little handset to fashion his own words. However, Blair quickly typed in his explanation that it was only because, for now, until he got better, he couldn't trust his own voice, couldn't regulate it and didn't want to be shouting unconsciously and disturbing others. He continued to banter with them electronically, telling them to enjoy the peace and quiet while they could because it wouldn't last forever. And they teased him back because, as he could see in their eyes, they also needed to hope that this was just a temporary thing, not permanent, not for a lifetime…

For three days, three interminable days, the mysterious silence went on as he underwent test after test. Three days…and three virtually sleepless nights, until his body defeated his will to remain awake and alert, with eyes wide open to watch the world around him. Finally, exhausted he'd slip into a restless sleep to dream of a world with sound, filled with voices and laughter and music…

…only to awake again to the silence.

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

Jim was there when Dr. Matthias, the hearing specialist, arrived to convey the results of all the tests. Conscious of his patient's right to privacy, the physician suggested that Ellison leave, but the detective only tightened his grip on Sandburg's shoulder and Blair indicated he wanted Jim to stay.

Sighing, Matthias nodded and handed a sheet of typewritten paper to Sandburg. Taking it, Blair struggled to focus his attention on the words, holding the paper angled so that Ellison couldn't read it with him, needing to know first, before sharing whatever it said with his best friend. Jim's jaw tightened, but he waited, seeming to understand Blair's need and simply stood tensely by his friend's side, one hand reassuringly gripping the younger man's shoulder. Sandburg had been watching the specialist closely, had read all the nonverbal messages of eyes filled with compassion, the absence of any smile, the stiff way the doctor held his body as if readying for attack - and he knew instinctively that the news wasn't going to be good. Very afraid to read the message that he now gripped tightly in his trembling hand, his throat dry, he took a deep steadying breath and looked down.

Mr. Sandburg,

First, let me explain briefly how hearing works. We all have a spiral hollow (the cochlea) within our skull, which is lined with miniscule hairs and filled with fluid. Sound causes movement of the fluid, which in turn joggles the hairs, which send electrical signals through the auditory nerve to the brain.

The three small bones of the middle ear (incus, malleus, stapes-or hammer, mallet, stirrup) transmit the movement of the eardrum (vibrating when sound hits it) to that cochlear fluid.

The hairs and attendant cells are quite fragile, and easily damaged. In a concussive blast like the one you survived, hearing is lost because the shock and/or volume of sound kill the hair cells. Since you cannot hear your own voice, or any other sounds despite the magnification of sound with aids, it's clear that these hairs have been destroyed in your case. Examination indicates that your eardrums are badly traumatized, and the small bones may have been shattered as well. However, even with that degree of damage, if the hairs were intact, you would at least be able to hear your own voice through 'bone conduction' - that is, the sound of your voice would travel through the bones of your skull; that vibration can also stimulate the cochlear fluid and hair cells. But, you can't hear your voice, so I'm afraid the diagnosis, as well as the prognosis, is clear. Damaged hair cells do not regenerate.

In short, the concussive blast of the explosion resulted in very serious damage to your ears. The bottom line is that as a result of the injuries sustained, your hearing loss is permanent and its nature is such that there are no hearing aids that can mitigate the damage. I'm very sorry. We need to discuss next steps…I have made arrangements for you to begin training to sign, lip-read and also for speech therapy. I would also suggest that you see a psychologist, as a sudden severe injury such as this is a significant and difficult life transition. Do you have any questions?

Blair went very still, his face expressionless and pale, as he absorbed the message. Jim, shocked by the look on Sandburg's face, needing to know how bad it was, reached to pull the document from his partner's lax fingers to read it quickly - and then he sank onto the chair beside the bed, his hand fumbling to grip Sandburg's arm.

It was a long moment before Blair could bring himself to look up at the doctor, and even then, all he could do was mutely shake his head. No, he had no questions. To have questions, you needed to be able to think, to react - to even begin to imagine the future. But all that was beyond him in that moment. He felt numb, wanting only to believe that there had to be some kind of terrible mistake, but the compassionate sorrow in the doctor's eyes told him that it was the truth - the wretched, immutable truth. Vaguely, he was aware of the doctor's lips moving, but he didn't take it in, didn't care what else the man might have to say. Finally, after briefly gripping his shoulder in sympathy, the specialist turned away and left the room.

Blair blinked as he tried to assimilate the information, but he couldn't wrap his mind around it. A few seconds. That's all it had taken to rob him of his ability to hear - a few terrible seconds that could never be undone. Trembling, he turned to Jim, needing comfort and reassurance, but all he could see in his friend's eyes was guilt - and worse, pity. Something flared in Blair then, the fear and anger he'd been holding at bay for days finally erupting; he pulled his arm from Jim's grip as he blurted, his voice breaking with the pain of it, "I don't want your pity, and I can't deal with your guilt, man. If that's all you've got, then get out! GO!"

And then Sandburg rolled over onto his side, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest as he panted for breath and struggled for control. What did it mean? Beyond the fact that this silence was absolute and unending? What about his work at the University? Oh, God - what about Jim? How could he continue to work with Jim? Anger quickly gave way to despair as a sob built in his chest; an ever-growing bubble of hopelessness that rose to his throat, choking him, now that all hope had been stripped away. Tears burned in his eyes as they gathered remorselessly, despite his efforts to blink them away, and spilled down his cheeks. With a low moan, he stopped fighting the wrenching grief of it, and shook as he let the sob break and the tears fall, stricken by the realization that he couldn't hear himself weep.

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

Ellison was in shock - a knife could not have cut him so deeply as had the unvarnished words on that flimsy piece of paper. He'd felt dizzy and had had to sit down, shaking his head as he tried to recover from the massive blow that had rocked his world. Reaching out to grip Blair's arm, he'd only been able to think about how this was his fault for having had Blair with him that night, and then for leaving him unprotected in the truck rather than take the kid with him when he checked out the warehouse. His fault, and now Sandburg would pay for the rest of his life for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Blair had only been there because he'd wanted to be of help. Jim thought he might lose his breakfast, little as he'd been able to eat so fraught with worry had he been. But he'd forced himself to eat, just as he'd forced himself to believe that the damage wasn't permanent; had refused to even consider what the reality of Blair's life would be if the injuries were untreatable. But, now, after reading the clinical words and hearing the doctor's cool, deliberate judgment, the hope he'd grimly held to was gone and he could barely face Blair, so certain was he that Sandburg would blame him for this.

But Blair's stricken words blasted him out of his own well of horror and forced him to see that this wasn't about him. Wasn't about his guilt or even his grief to see his best friend so badly hurt. This was about Blair, and about what happened next - about helping and supporting Sandburg, no matter what.

So, when Blair pulled away, Jim stood up, uncertain of what to do. Words, damned words, never his strong suit, were useless now. But when the younger man turned away to roll onto his side and curled up into himself, shaking like a leaf, Jim quickly moved around the bed to face him. And when that moan of utter despair tore through his partner's soul, and Sandburg began to weep as if something inside was dying, Jim reached out to grab him and pull him into a strong, tight embrace - holding onto Blair as he wept, giving him a foundation in a world that had just shattered into pieces around him.

Jim bent his head, tears in his own eyes when Blair clutched onto him like a lifeline, hoarsely whispering his name, over and over, and then Blair raspily admitted he was scared, and that he didn't know what he was going to do…

Ellison shook his head wordlessly. He didn't know what they were going to do either, didn't know what was required or what would help. But as he stroked his friend's back and tried to soothe Blair with his touch, he vowed to himself that whatever was needed, Sandburg was not going to face this alone. Gradually, Blair quieted, the tears spent.

But Jim continued to hold Blair safe and secure, reluctant to let him go. It was in those moments of wordless communion that Ellison realized that touch, always important to him, was now almost his only, and certainly most important, means of really letting Sandburg know how he felt about the younger man. Sure, he could write out words, but they lacked warmth and tone to give meaning and nuance when they stood on their own. Words alone, printed on a screen or page, though necessary, could never convey the profound depth of personal emotions, let alone the unconditional commitment, Ellison felt toward his friendship and partnership with Sandburg. Words could be forgotten, misused and mistrusted - but Ellison desperately hoped that the immediacy and power of his touch, of his strong embrace as a bulwark against the world, would say more than faltering words ever could about Sandburg's place in his life. In the silence between them, Jim hoped Blair 'heard' certain messages loud and clear - that Blair could always turn to him, trust him and lean on him for the help and support Sandburg was going to need in the days and weeks and months, even years, ahead.

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

Once the tidal wave of emotion had receded, and Blair was able to slow his breathing, he was humiliated to have broken down like a baby. God, sure it was terrible news, but he felt a fool for having fallen apart. Little shudders rippled through his body, as he took deep, centering breaths and tried to wrestle with his new reality. Embarrassed by his outburst of emotion, he attempted to move apart from Jim, but his partner wouldn't let him go, not yet. So, supported by the warmth and the strength of that embrace, resting within it, he began to tally up the blessings of his life to find a way to face his new reality. He was alive. He could still speak if he had to. He could think and reason, his mind was intact, so he could still function. Lots of people went through life deaf. It wasn't the end of the world. There were things he could learn, like the doctor had indicated, sign language and lip reading that would help him communicate again. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't impossible, either. He swallowed hard, trying desperately to come to terms with the silence, to accept it and not rail futilely against it. Fighting it, denying it, resenting it, none of that would do him any good, and he knew that, though it was hard to quell the anger, hard not to feel it was all so massively unfair. He had to try to hold onto his calm and his determination to move forward, to find a way to accept the emptiness…

But - he didn't know how he could continue to ride along with Jim, how he could be of any use as his Sentinel's Guide, and that thought threatened to unman him again. So, he pushed it away to be dealt with later, when he was stronger, when he'd had time to think it all through.

"Sorry, man," he said, hoping his voice was soft and not shouting, again struggling gently to free himself. "I'm alright, you can let go…"

Jim loosened his grip enough to slip his hands to Blair's shoulders as he leaned back to gaze down into his best friend's eyes. The sorrow there, overlaid with determined courage, choked him and Ellison had to look away lest he lose his own fragile control. Sighing, he reached for the palm pilot on the bedside table and typed in, No matter what, Chief, we're in this together, every step of the way. Understand?

Blair read the message and nodded. "Thanks," he whispered, barely a breath of air, so painfully uncertain of what he sounded like now, wanting to be easy on Jim's ears. But he wasn't really sure how Jim could help him with this. Nor was he sure that a man who could hear the fragile flap of a butterfly's wings, or the sound of his partner's heartbeat, could ever begin to truly understand what the quality of silence really meant. Poignantly, Sandburg reflected honestly that he didn't really know himself, not yet - but he had the rest of his life to find out everything there was to know about living in a silent world.

Suddenly exhausted, he rolled onto his back to stare up at the ceiling while Jim sat beside him, firmly gripping his arm, a silent message of support and friendship, the only kind of message he could now 'hear'.

But as silent as it was, the message was strong and absolute, and for that, Blair was grateful beyond the capacity of words to express.

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

Sandburg's first priority, even before he was released from hospital, was to cajole even a short session with a speech therapist. He desperately needed to know he could rely upon his own voice, that he was still capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of his teaching fellowship, so that he wasn't in any danger of becoming dependent on welfare. Technology would help him receive messages from other people and he'd max out his credit cards if necessary to buy a supply of palm pilots for his classes, so that his students could still pose him questions; and for his office, so that he could still counsel others. But he needed to be able to talk with some degree of confidence.

The therapist, Judy Tessler, agreed to see him, though she could only spare fifteen minutes of what she'd intended to be her lunch break. Middle-aged with short, salt and pepper hair, a robust woman a good couple of inches taller than Blair, she projected a crisp manner of good common sense that was reassuring.

"Come in, Mr. Sandburg," she enunciated clearly when she looked up at the knock on her office door and then waved to give a visual signal of her greeting as she gestured toward a chair on the far side of her desk. As Blair entered, she studied the young man with hair pulled firmly back, noting his weary pallor and large, troubled eyes as well as the slight anxious tremor in his hands. He was dressed in jeans and a loose fitting flannel shirt worn outside his belt, sleeves rolled up, his left arm in a sling, even though she knew he was still a patient and had expected to see him in a robe and slippers. So - a man who was taking charge of himself, desperately trying to convey a sense of normalcy and structure in his life. Good, she could work with courage, which she hoped she was seeing, and not denial. She'd also noted that he'd opened his mouth as if to respond to her greeting, but then hesitated, uncertain, and fear flashed in his eyes. Her lips tightened, wondering who had castigated him for shouting when he'd not intended to, so that now he was afraid to speak at all. Well, that was the first thing to address or he'd render himself mute as well as deaf.

He'd come prepared and as he sat, he reached out to hand her a palm pilot, to ease their communication. She thought it a useful tool and a sign of thoughtful preparation for their meeting, but she was wary of him becoming dependent upon it. Taking it but setting it aside for the moment, she held his eyes with her own as she gestured, pointing at him, then moving her fingers in a talking signal, before drawing a question mark in the air before waving at her office, she asked, "Tell me, why are you here?"

He swallowed and took a breath, looking like a deer in the headlights as he replied, his voice raspy from disuse and so soft she could hardly hear him, "I can't hear myself talk anymore, and I need to know I'm not shouting…"

"Why?" Judy asked again, drawing another question mark in the air.

"Because I'm a teacher, and I need to give lectures and counsel students," he explained, flushing a little with nervousness. "My voice is my most important tool…"

"No," she replied, shaking her head and making a fast slicing motion, and then pointing first at her head and her heart and then at his, "our most important tools are our minds and our hearts." But then she smiled and nodded as she added, "But I understand."

He frowned a little in confusion, not quite getting her message, but taking encouragement from her softening features, he smiled tentatively and shrugged self-consciously. Ah, so he was the type to try to fake it until he understood, she thought, reaching for the handset as she typed, If you don't understand something, say so. There's no shame in needing clarification.

He read the note and sighed, nodding with a slightly chagrined expression. Busted. And he'd only been there for less than two minutes. Looking up at her, he asked, "Can you help me?"

Judy nodded briskly as she stood to move around beside him, tapping in a message as she moved. The muscles and vibrations in your throat will let you know if you are speaking softly or at a normal level or shouting. I'm going to show you, but you must be willing to shout to notice the difference. Don't worry, this office is soundproofed and you won't disturb or alarm anyone.

He read the note and nodded, a real smile dancing on his lips this time as he lifted eyes filled with hope. Standing in front of him, she took his right hand, the left still bound in a cast, and placed his fingers over his larynx, while she gestured with her other hand, indicating that he should say something.

"I'm not sure what to say," he replied, nervous, wondering what he was supposed to be feeling with his fingertips.

Nodding, the therapist briefly tapped in, That was a whisper. Now try to shout, as if you're trying to get someone's attention.

Blair paused for a moment, closing his eyes briefly and taking a breath. Then he called out, "Hey, I'm over here!"

And then he smiled brilliantly, the light of comprehension glowing his eyes. Judy grinned back as he babbled, no longer shouting, but more than a whisper as he experimented with different volumes, "I can feel it…the vibrations in my fingertips and the muscles work differently, closer to my jaw, when I'm shouting!" All the while, he held his fingers to his throat, excited to learn it was this simple to know approximately how loud his voice was.

"You're a quick study, honey," she murmured to herself, pleased.

"But…" he paused, worried again, "Am I enunciating clearly? Or am I slurring words?"

Leaning against her desk, Judy picked up the palm pilot to answer. You have been talking for your whole life, so you know how. Properly forming words has become unconscious for you, so your mouth, lips and tongue just do what they need to do. You speak clearly, if quickly, so don't worry about word clarity. Just talk as you always have…over time, though, your diction may slip, so check in with people to see how you're doing. If they say you're starting to slur words, come back and see me and I'll help you with that. Okay?

"That's it?" he replied as he finished reading her message. "As easy as that?"

She nodded with a reassuring smile as she tapped out, Just try not to whisper - you have a beautiful voice, so don't be afraid to use it…let people enjoy it.

He blushed as he read her note, pleased. "Thanks, Mrs. Tessler. I needed to know that I can still speak," he said then, his fingers on his throat to monitor his modulation as he looked back up at her.

When are you going to begin speech reading and sign training? she tapped out.

"Next week," he replied orally. "I have my first appointment at the Institute for the Hearing Impaired on Tuesday."

She studied him, reflecting on the anxiety that again flooded his eyes, but also upon the determined set of his jaw and voice tone. He was scared, but he was game. Touching his shoulder, she pointed first at his eyes and then drew his gaze to her lips. "Watch the mouth when people talk to you," she said aloud as he concentrated on trying to understand.

Again turning to the palm pilot, she tapped in, Watch the movement of lips, the teeth and tongue and think about how your own mouth is working when you talk. Watch, as well, expressions and body language to pick up clues and it helps if you have some idea of what the conversation is about. You'll soon pick out basic words and phrases, but don't get discouraged when it takes a little while to do this without thinking consciously about it. Lip reading is not as easy as the term suggests, and as various TV shows would have us believe. Many sounds look alike, for example, //p, b, m// all look the same on the lips, as do //sh, ch, j// and //t, d, n, l//, which are also easily confused with //s and z//; //k and g// look the same and are almost completely invisible, 'hidden' in the throat, //h// is invisible, and //r// is almost so. So - lip reading is more 'speech reading' using the context of body language and subject matter - and it takes time to get comfortable and confident with it. Encourage people to keep talking to you, even when they write out what they are saying. Also, encourage people who are closest to you, family and friends, to learn sign. There are two different versions of sign that you'll learn about as you go along. It can be a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. Many people treat it like the 'secret codes' they played with as kids - that same kind of excitement - and pick up the basics very easily.

He read her note thoughtfully, hesitating for a moment, and she was pretty sure he was worried about needing to ask others to learn sign with him. The independent ones always thought it was some kind of burden they were imposing on other people to accommodate their special needs, which was why she pointed out that it wasn't all just hard work but could also be enjoyable to learn something new. He nodded finally, if a little reluctantly, and then looked back up at her.

"I really appreciate your help," he said then, his voice tight with emotion. "Thanks for fitting me in."

"No problem," she said, mouthing the words clearly, and then she tapped in one last message before giving the handset back to him along with one of her business cards, which had a TDD number imprinted upon it. "You are going to be fine, Blair," she verbalized as she wrote. "But there will be times when you will get very frustrated, and so might others who need to write out what they want you to 'hear'. The TDD number on my card is for a telephone device for the deaf…get yourself one of those as soon as you can and call me to let me know how you're doing."

"I will, thanks," he replied, reading the message and then taking the card from her as he stood, holding out his hand to shake hers. "I really mean, that - thanks. At least I'm not…not so scared to talk now."

His honest and open sincerity touched a cord deep inside and she felt a lump form unexpectedly in her throat. There was something so brave about him, in his eyes maybe, and yet so very vulnerable. Surprising herself as much as him, she ignored the hand he was holding out and moved to hug him quickly but tightly. Pulling away, she kept a hand on his shoulder and moved with him toward the door, giving him a warm smile to send him on his way.

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

Blair's ribs were still sore, his left arm was in a sling, and he felt utterly exhausted, but he was more than ready to get out of the hospital. He hadn't confided his fear of closing his eyes to Jim, but somehow, he just thought he'd feel safer and be able to rest better once he got home to the loft. Jim was taking it all badly enough without also being bothered by neurotic fears. Or at least that was the excuse Sandburg gave to himself for not being particularly forthcoming about how the silence weighed upon him, like something huge and physical and impossibly heavy.

So when Jim arrived early the next afternoon, just after lunch, Blair was dressed, his few belongings packed and he was more than ready to get into the mandatory wheelchair with nary a complaint. Ellison looked pleased to see him so happy to be going home. The bright smile almost looked normal, if one ignored the shadows of uncertainty in the huge sapphire eyes and the lines of exhaustion etched into a too pale face.

"Ready to go?" Jim asked, and then tried not to flinch at having unconsciously voiced the question, as if Blair could actually hear him.

But, his fingers on his throat as he slipped off the edge of the bed, Sandburg replied enthusiastically, "Man, I am like SO ready to go home!"

Jim was becoming used to what was fast becoming a compulsive gesture, and understood completely why Blair was monitoring his voice volume. But he would have liked the kid to just relax around him, to just talk and not worry if he was shouting or whispering or whatever. The important thing to Ellison was the sound of Sandburg's voice and he didn't want his best friend to be self-conscious around him. Still, he let it go, figuring that it was one important way in which Blair was taking back some measure of control and building confidence in his new reality of silence.

Neither man spoke until they had reached the entrance, and then Blair thanked the nurse before she turned to go. She smiled back but didn't say anything, knowing he couldn't hear anyway, but Jim noticed the shadow of a frown on Blair's face when she wordlessly turned away. Sandburg looked up, catching his expression of perplexity, and explained quietly, almost sadly, "People need to still talk around me, Jim. Just cause my world is silent, doesn't mean everyone else's has to be. And I have to learn how to lip read. I can't if no one talks to me…"

"Okay, buddy," Jim replied, wondering if Blair could understand him at all. Gesturing with his hands 'to wait', he continued, "Wait here and I'll go get the car."

Blair nodded and sank down on a bench near the entrance. But he was surprised when Jim drove up in his Volvo. It was the first time he realized that Jim's truck must have been damaged in the blast.

Once they were on their way home, Jim got the first taste of how hard this was going to be. In the hospital, they'd used the palm pilots, but when he was driving he couldn't tap out messages at the same time. Even if Blair was looking at him, he knew the kid couldn't lip read yet, so rambling on about stuff would just be frustrating for both of them; and when Blair was looking at something else, there was no way to get his attention except to touch him. So, Jim flipped on the radio and surreptitiously kept an eye on Sandburg as he drove home.

What he saw with his quick, sidelong glimpses made him ache inside. Sandburg was watching the world like a starving man stares at a banquet table, longing to dive right in but afraid to touch. His head was tilted, as if he was trying to hear the normal sounds of the street, unconsciously struggling against the impossibility of that ever happening again - and he looked sad, so very weary and sad. Swallowing hard, his jaw clenched, Ellison was unaware of the sorrow in the depths of his own eyes.

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

When they got home, Jim said, as he mimicked laying his head down on his palm-pressed hands, "Chief, you look wiped out. Why don't you lie down for a while?"

But Blair shook his head, understanding the gesture and what Jim was likely saying. "No, I'm fine, Jim," he replied quickly, his fingers at his throat. "Really. Let's put on the television, maybe have a beer?"

Jim frowned at the idea of a beer and pointed at Blair's ribs and arm as he asked, "What about pain meds? Can you drink?"

Knowing well his roommate's concern about mixing even beer with meds, catching the drift if not the words, Sandburg replied, "I've got some meds if the pain gets too bad, but I'm okay. A beer would be good."

Jim nodded as he turned toward the refrigerator to pull out two bottles while Sandburg eased himself down on the sofa. Twisting off the tops, Ellison studied his best friend, and shook his head. Blair didn't look like he'd slept since he'd awakened five days ago, and much as Sandburg tried to act as if everything was just fine, even normal, his heart was tripping along at too fast a rate to be healthy. Crossing the floor, Jim handed his partner one of the bottles, noticing the slight tremor in Blair's hand, and then picked up the remote to click onto the afternoon's basketball game.

Settling in his own chair, though he seemed to be engrossed in the game, Ellison was monitoring Sandburg closely. Gradually, the younger man relaxed as he found he didn't need sound to watch the plays and his heart settled down as he eased back against the cushions of the couch. After a while, Jim got up to shake a bag of chips into a bowl which he brought back to set on the coffee table, in easy reach for both of them. Blair was apparently engrossed in the game, but was almost eerily silent - very unlike the way he'd been… before. Sighing, Jim sat down and settled back, trying to allow his own tension to ease.

When the game finished with another disappointing loss for the Jags, Jim automatically changed the channel to catch the news. It was a minute before he noticed Blair's heart rate had hitched up again and he cut a quick look to see Sandburg hunched tightly, his eyes glued to the screen as he watched it with an intent expression of frustrated concentration.

"Damn," Jim sighed, a hollow feeling in his gut. Blair couldn't hear the newscaster, couldn't possibly understand what was being said, and sure couldn't hear the disembodied voices over the shots of the President speaking at some event, followed by a huge smash up as a result of fog in New York City, and the cut away to the most recent bombing in Jerusalem. Feeling sick, he snapped off the television and Blair jerked at the sudden loss of the picture, looking around quickly to ensure the lights were still on, and then he turned to Ellison, awareness growing in his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim grated, unable to sustain eye contact as his gaze fell away. Damn it, he couldn't even apologize, couldn't explain why he'd just shut off the TV. Simple, every day communication, the give and take of their banter, just plain didn't work anymore. Jim couldn't remember when he'd felt so helpless, so lacking in any idea of what to do, well, except for those terrible minutes by the fountain at Rainer, but the detective flinched away from those memories.

He heard Sandburg sigh, and then his roommate said, "Jim, put it back on. Just cause I can't hear it, doesn't mean you can't watch it."

His jaw tight, Ellison clicked the television back on. Chewing on his lip, he decided that the next day, he was going to get a television that provided closed captioning. It wasn't much, but maybe it would help. Blair got up to fetch his pack by the door, and then went to his room. Jim bowed his head, his fists clenched as he fought the burning in his eyes. Losing it, getting all emotional, wouldn't do Sandburg any good.

Once the news was over, he shut off the television and went into the kitchen to pull the take-out advertising brochures from one of the cupboard drawers. Going to Blair's room, he knocked unconsciously on the open door, but Sandburg didn't look up from his computer screen. Moving into the room, Jim lightly touched Blair on the shoulder, sorry when his friend jerked in sudden surprise. Both of them were embarrassed then, but Sandburg recovered first.

"Sorry, man," he said, his fingers at his throat. "I was just, uh, startled. Did you want something?"

Trying to ignore the compulsive gesture as he held out the two food delivery menus, Jim asked, "Pizza or Chinese?"

"Pizza would be good," Blair said with a small smile, appreciating the gesture of being asked though he knew it was no big deal really, nothing more than they'd done dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before. But he could sense Jim's feeling of awkwardness about having had to come into his room to use the pamphlets as props to pose the question.

Jim nodded as he turned to leave the room, thinking they were going to have to find a way to communicate that was faster and simpler than having to write every damned thing down. His gut roiled as he reflected on how often in the past Blair had badgered him to talk, to express himself. Now that Sandburg couldn't hear a word he said, he found himself wishing he'd talked more to the kid when he'd had the chance. Fury flared inside, impotent anger, that there was nothing he could do to make this right, nothing but wish to God that if the damned bomb had had to harm one of them that it could have been him.

Blair watched Jim go, easily reading the lines of tension in his best friend's body, and then sagged back in his chair. It was so hard to adjust, hard for both of them.

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

After they'd eaten, they headed again to the living room and this time, Jim had the palm pilots in his hand as he plopped down on the sofa beside Blair instead of moving to his usual chair across the room. He handed one to Sandburg, and then tapped in, We need to figure out how I'm going to communicate with you and what you need.

"Okay," Blair replied as he read, his fingers again on his throat.

Jim winced at what was becoming an all too familiar gesture. Unable to stop himself, he reached out to gently remove Blair's hand from his throat. Sandburg looked confused by the gesture, and immediately protested as he pulled his hand away from Jim's grasp to again place his fingertips against his larynx as he said, "You don't understand. I have to do this. The speech therapist, Mrs. Tessler, showed me how I can monitor the volume of my voice this way."

Sighing, Jim shook his head. Turning back to the gadget in his hand, he wrote, I do understand. But, this is your home. I don't want you worrying about how loud or soft you're talking here. I want you to relax here. I can hear a whisper and a shout won't bother me. I just want to hear you talking, okay?

Blair read the message and then looked up to meet Jim's earnest gaze. A tremble swept through him and he had to swallow hard, his jaw tight as he fought the emotion that suddenly surged through him. Home. A place to relax. A place where he didn't have to fight the silence but could just be. A place that was safe. Blinking hard, he swiped at his nose as he sniffed and then murmured (he hoped), his hands resting on his thighs, "Thanks, Jim. I appreciate that."

Ellison graced him with a soft smile of gratitude and then spontaneously threw his arm around the younger man's shoulders to draw him into a quick, sideways, hug. Bereft of words, he resorted to dropping a light kiss on Sandburg's brow, and then released him, just as quickly as he'd grabbed him.

Though surprised by the spontaneous and unexpected gesture of affection, Blair was smiling through tear-glazed eyes as he sat back and lifted the palm pilot. "So, 'talk' to me, man," he said.

Nodding, Jim bowed his head to laboriously tap out a long message with the small pick. First thing tomorrow, we'll go to the dealership to pick up my truck, and then we need to buy some new equipment for the loft. I want to get a new TV with the closed caption option, and we should get a phone with the TDD option I've heard about. I need to fix the smoke alarm, too, so that it'll blink the lights when it goes off. What else do we need to buy? And, how do I learn to talk to you? Can I take the sign language training with you? Or do we buy a book or something and you teach me?

"Oh, whoa, man!" Blair muttered as he read. "I can't afford a new TV right now, cause I need to buy a bunch of palm pilots for my classes, and that'll max out my credit card. I need to get on the 'net and see if there're programs that help with the costs of all this stuff…"

Jim touched his arm to get his attention and he looked up to see Jim shaking his head as he pointed to Blair and then moved to point at the television and phone and then to himself.

"I can't let you lay out money just because I can't hear…" Blair began, but Jim's expression darkened, his jaw clenching as his eyes narrowed in barely suppressed anger. "What?" Sandburg blurted. "What's wrong?"

Spitting out a frustrated curse, Jim again punched out his message, irritated that this form of communication took so damned long and was so inefficient. You got hurt on the job, backing me up. I'll damned well help out any way I can so don't give me a hard time about it.

"Jim, this wasn't your fault," Blair replied.

Sure in hell wasn't YOUR fault, Chief, came the reply.

Sighing, Blair closed his eyes and then immediately opened them again, unable to take the darkness and the silence at the same time. "Okay," he finally replied, "but I'll pay you back for my half as soon as I can."

Jim looked away, wanting to fight about it but it was too hard to argue when he had to pick out his words electronically. Nodding tightly, he decided he just wouldn't accept Sandburg's money the day he tried to 'pay his half'. Turning back to Blair, he waggled his fingers in the air as he lifted his brow in a questioning look, reminding Sandburg of his questions about learning how to sign.

Blair smiled, his eyes twinkling, as he teased, "You're pretty good at this non-verbal communication stuff, Jim, but then, I guess I already knew that."

Ellison whacked him lightly on the head, and then waggled his fingers again with the same interrogatory look.

"I've got an appointment next week at the Institute for the Hearing Impaired," Blair replied. "I'll ask about lessons, okay? And, thanks, Jim, I appreciate you wanting to learn."

Jim rolled his eyes and then began tapping again. When's the appointment? I'm going with you. As soon as we both learn more about how to deal with this, the better.

"Jim, look, you don't have to rearrange your whole life to accommodate me. This isn't your problem…" Blair began to protest as he read, worried about how much of a burden it looked like he was going to be.

But his words were cut off by Jim's fingers on his lips - a light pressure, not harsh, but effective in stopping his words. Lifting his eyes to Jim's gaze, Blair was shocked to see the depth of pain in the sky blue eyes. Jim's lips were moving, but he couldn't begin to make out the words and he shook his head helplessly, not understanding. Jim's mouth stopped moving and an expression of poignant sorrow flashed across Ellison's face as he took a deep breath and bit his lip. Swallowing, he turned to again begin tapping out a message, a long one, as Blair waited.

You're my best friend, my Guide and my partner not to mention my roommate. This is as much my 'problem' as it is yours, Chief. I need to be able to 'talk' to you. I want to learn how as quickly as I can. I can't imagine how hard this must be for you, and if I could change what happened, or change places with you, I would. But the best I can do is learn to talk with my hands as soon as possible. I'm sorry, Blair. I'm so sorry this happened to you. Please. Let me help. Let me do everything I can to, damn, nothing will make it any easier on you…but let me do what I can.

Finally, he hit the send button, and waited while Blair read the message, watching the younger man intently as he gripped Sandburg's shoulder. A slow tear trickled down Blair's pale cheek, almost hidden by the curls that had fallen forward when he bent his head to read. When Blair's gaze left the gadget in his hand to stare into space as he swallowed convulsively, Jim shifted to face him and reached to tilt up his chin and gently turn his face so that he could see it fully. Unconsciously, Jim's thumb moved to wipe away the errant tear and when Sandburg's eyes lifted to his own, he whispered, "Please?"

Sandburg nodded as he replied, "Thanks, Jim." He hesitated a moment, his gaze dropping away, and then continued softly, "I'm sorry, but I'm scared, man. Really scared. I'm afraid to even close my eyes because then it's dark as well as silent and I feel like I'm absolutely helpless…as if someone could approach and I'd never even know it. I can't explain it. It's just all so empty, the world feels empty, but at the same time so full of stuff I'm completely unaware of and the silence just goes on and on - It surrounds me and I feel so lost, so alone…"

Once again Jim touched Blair's face to lift his chin, fingers solid against his friend's cold cheek. When the troubled eyes, dark with emotion, lifted to his, Ellison held Blair's gaze, trying to convey what he felt - that Blair wouldn't ever be alone so long as he was there. He shifted his grip, so that he was holding Sandburg's shoulders firmly and then he gradually drew Blair toward him into a hug, moving one hand to hold Blair's head against his shoulder while his other hand stroked Sandburg's back. At first, Sandburg stiffened against him, but he wouldn't let the kid go, so finally Blair relaxed, his eyes closing as he wrapped his arms around Jim and held on. Safe. Silent tremors shook his body while Jim held on, rocking him a little until he quieted. And still Jim wouldn't let go, so Blair rested against him, relaxed his need to be ever-vigilant and, in his exhaustion, finally slipped off into sleep.

Jim leaned back against the support of the sofa, and shifted his grip a little to hold Blair more comfortably in his arms. Bowing his head to lay his cheek on Blair's tousled hair, he closed his own eyes and listened to his Guide's soft breathing and steady heartbeat, unaware of the tears on his own face.

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

The next morning, Ellison called Simon to confirm his day of leave still wasn't a problem, and then after they'd eaten, they set off by cab to the Ford dealership. Sandburg had thought that maybe Jim's truck had been in the repair shop at the back for some bodywork, so he was surprised when they pulled up in front. But, maybe the truck was going to be brought around to them. He followed along as Jim waved to a salesman and the three of them headed to the middle-aged guy's office. Jim signed some papers and the balding man handed him a set of keys. Frowning, Sandburg thought that they looked different from the keys Jim usually carried for his old blue and white pickup.

Heading back outside, the salesman led them to a brand spanking new, midnight blue, Ford Expedition. Blair's mouth dropped open in surprise as he looked from the vehicle to Jim. "What happened to Sweetheart?" he asked, his voice unconsciously loud.

Jim turned to face him, a wry look on his face. The older man threw up his hands as he mouthed, "Boom!" and then shrugged.

"Oh, man, I'm sorry," Sandburg replied, looking devastated. "You loved that old truck!"

An odd expression flitted across Jim's face, astonishment mingled with sorrow, as he reached to give Sandburg a quick, one-armed hug and ruffled his hair. "It was just a truck, Chief; nothing really important," he murmured, wishing Blair could hear him. Not important at all in the scheme of things. A truck could be easily replaced, not like a friend who might so easily have been killed - or the friend's hearing that had also been destroyed by that damned bomb.

Blair didn't hear the words, but he felt the message. He nodded as they separated, and he then noticed the salesman looking at them strangely. Jim must have noticed something too, because the two older men exchanged some words and then the stranger looked at Sandburg with a pained expression of pity in his eyes. Feeling a stab of resentful irritation, Blair turned away with a shrug. He didn't want anyone's pity, dammit. Didn't want anyone, let alone perfect strangers, feeling sorry for him.

Jim shook the man's hand and then the two of them climbed into the new vehicle. Blair whistled at the leather seats and console that looked like something from a science fiction fantasy. "Very nice," he said with a grin as he rubbed a hand along the dash. "Try not to crash this one anytime soon, okay?"

Chuckling, Ellison reached out to give him a light smack, but with the skill of long practice, Blair ducked away, laughing. Shaking his head, Jim started up his new truck and steered in out of the busy lot and onto the street, heading to their next stop - the electronics store.

Half an hour later, while Jim selected the new television, Blair got an armload of palm pilots. They met at the cash register, but when Blair reached for his wallet, Jim lightly grabbed his arm, shaking his head when wide eyes looked up into his. Ellison handed over his own credit card, chewing on the inside of his lip while he refused to acknowledge Sandburg's embarrassment.

"Jim, I could have paid for those," Blair said as they drove around to the loading dock for the boxed up television.

Ellison, his hands full of steering wheel and no palm pilot handy, just shrugged.

Their next stop was the Washington Telephone and Telecom shop to pick up a TDD unit. After they'd been shown how to use it, and realized it only worked directly when Blair could connect with another unit, Jim picked up two more, one for his desk at MCU and another for Blair's office. The clerk dutifully explained that sets on either end of the call weren't required. An operator would process the verbal communication into written language and send that to the TDD handset as well as reinterpret written responses orally back to the caller - but Jim wanted better security than that. Too much of what they might have to say to one another really couldn't be trusted to a third party, however impartial, objective or discreet. Maybe either the PD or Rainier or both would reimburse the costs for an instrument that was now necessary as 'reasonable accommodation' for a disabled staff member, but Jim didn't really care. The important thing was to be able to communicate with Blair. When the saleswoman pointed out cell phone options that included the capacity to receive or send printed messages, Jim picked up a couple of them, too, for both of them.

"Man, you'd think it was Christmas or something," Sandburg muttered as they climbed back into the SUV.

Christmas? Jim thought, feeling suddenly so sad that it filled up every crevice inside. Getting your hearing back would be 'Christmas', Chief. But I guess we don't get miracles like that anymore.

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

Blair cut Jim a look as his partner steered them back toward the loft. Thinking back over all the stuff Jim had bought, Sandburg felt almost overwhelmed with turbulent emotions. He didn't want to be dependent, especially now when he felt so vulnerable. But the look on Jim's face when he'd tried to pay, and the firm strong grip on his arm, had made it pretty plain that his friend hadn't wanted to argue about it, not in the stores anyway. But over the vague irritation, another emotion swelled. Gratitude. So much gratitude that Jim wanted to do this, do anything and everything he could to help. As if he were family, someone whose needs were something personal to Jim, too. Family. They were close, sure, but Sandburg would never have dreamed that Jim would act like this, like it was a simple imperative that he do whatever was necessary to make Blair's burden easier to bear. But, close behind the gratitude, anxiety pressed in. Was it really that Jim felt they were like family? Or, was it that Jim felt guilty for what had happened and was doing all this because he felt he owed Blair somehow?

Family, helping out of love, was good. But actions motivated by guilt were bad, very bad - and led to other bad things like resentment. Sandburg sighed. Damn, he wished they could talk to one another. There was a hollowness in his belly as he remembered Jim's frustration at how difficult it was to 'talk' now and he ached to be able to hear Ellison's voice. A wry, bitter smile flitted around his lips as Sandburg thought about all the times he'd tried to get Jim to open up, to just talk to him and Jim had pushed him away. It was ironic, now that Jim almost desperately wanted to talk, Blair couldn't hear him anymore.

Rain suddenly pelted the truck, runnels of water shimmying on the side windows while the wipers flipped back and forth monotonously. Sandburg stared at them, almost mesmerized by the mechanical clearing of the windshield, thinking how odd it was to not hear the swish and slap, the slight squeak of rubber on glass. Who knew he'd miss the sound of windshield wipers? Crossing his arms to hold in his grief, swallowing hard at the sudden lump in his throat, Blair turned his head to stare out at the dull, rain-swept street. He wondered if he'd ever get used to it - ever stop being ambushed by odd moments like this when it hurt so much all over again to know he'd never hear another sound for the rest of his life.

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

Insistent banging on the door woke Jim early Sunday morning. Groggily, he looked at his watch and saw it was only 7:45 am, but even so he was chagrined that he'd not heard anyone approach. He'd just been too deeply asleep and it hadn't helped that he'd not dropped off until almost 4:00 am. He just hadn't been able to stop thinking about the profound sadness on Sandburg's face, and in his best friend's eyes, since they'd been given the news about Blair's permanent loss of hearing. Hadn't been able to quell the guilt that threatened to choke him. Sighing, he got up and pulled on his robe, calling out, "I'm coming!"

But as he shuffled down the stairs, his olphactory sense kicked in and he froze. Sage and thyme? Oh, God, it was Naomi. Calling again to buy time, "Just give me a minute," he scrambled to write a note and dashed to Blair's room to wake his roommate. When Sandburg startled into wakefulness, Jim thrust the note in his hand and turned back to the front door.

"Good morning, Jim!" Naomi chirped brightly with a brilliant smile as he stepped back to allow her entry. She had a single carryon bag over her shoulder, and she looked a little rumpled.

"Hello, Naomi," he returned wearily, his throat dry at what he had to tell her before Blair stumbled out of his room. He would have much preferred to have more time to break the news to her gently, and he sure wished there'd been time for a cup of coffee to bolster his energy and concentration.

"I've only got a half hour, at most," she burbled on. "I'm just passing through, coming back from Tibet and on my way to a retreat in Oregon, but I thought I'd route through here and surprise my baby." Looking around, she asked with wide eyes, "Where is Blair?"

Forbearing the urge to point out it wasn't even 8:00 am yet on the one day in seven set aside for rest, Jim relieved Naomi of her bag and set it on the floor. "Still in bed. He'll be out in a minute. Naomi," he continued, licking his lips as he sought in vain for the words to soften the blow, "I have some bad news. Blair's been hurt, in an explosion."

She blanched and whipped around, evidently intent upon dashing into his room, but Jim caught her arm. "Wait, you need to know," Jim told her quickly, "he's deaf, Naomi. Completely deaf."

Horror filled her green eyes as she stared up at him, her mouth agape. Finally, stuttering a little, she gasped, "But-only temporarily, right? He'll be fine…"

But Jim shook his head, pain filling his own eyes. "No, I'm sorry. It's permanent," he told her bleakly.

For a moment, she just stood there in stunned silence. And then she shook her head, as if trying to clear it before looking back at him, accusation now written in her eyes. "It's your fault, isn't it? He was working on something with you and you failed to protect him!"

"I'm sorry," Jim murmured again miserably. He couldn't argue - he did believe it was his fault.

But the words had scarcely left his lips when she slapped him hard across the face, and then was shrieking at him. "Sorry? You're sorry? Oh, that's just GREAT! You're 'sorry'. One sorry son of a bitch is what I say. Damn you! I told you, years ago, I told you he'd get hurt if you didn't stop dragging him along behind you! But did you listen? No, oh, no. Not the great Jim Ellison! Not the cop of the year, year after year after year. You just have to go after the really dangerous ones…oh, who cares what you do? But you took my baby…"

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

Blair blearily looked down at the note, his heart sinking as heavily as the Titanic as he made it out. Naomi is here.

"Oh, God," he muttered as he rolled off his bed to haul on jeans and a sweatshirt, fumbling a little as he cursed the cast for making him awkward and slow. He hastened out of his room in time to see Naomi smack Jim hard, staggering the tall man. Shocked by the scene, unable to hear, all he could tell was that his mother seemed to be yelling at Jim, waving her arms and pushing at his chest with a rigid finger, while Jim just stood there, looking utterly destroyed.

Racing to the entryway, Blair grabbed Naomi's arm and twisted her away from his best friend. "What's going on here?" he demanded, his eyes dark with confusion and anger.

She stopped yelling and cupped his face tenderly with her hands as her eyes filled with tears. Her lips moved, though he couldn't know what she was saying. And then she was clinging to him and weeping as if her heart was broken.

Blair held her in a tight hug as his stricken gaze lifted to Jim's. Ellison shook his head sadly, his face pale and his eyes haunted. And then he slowly made his way to the counter to pick up a palm pilot. Laboriously, he tapped in the words, I told her. Not the details, just that you're deaf now. She's only here for a half hour. Between planes from Tibet to Oregon.

Returning to Blair, he held up the gadget so that Blair could read it and then he turned away to put on some coffee.

Blair murmured, "Shh, Mom, hey, it's not the end of the world. Shh, please don't cry."

Sniffing, she pulled back from him and brushed the tears from her face. Casting Jim an evil look, she snapped, "You've finally done it. I hope you're satisfied. You've hurt him so badly he can't be healed this time."

Blair didn't understand the words, but the furious expression on his mother's face and the look she was directing toward Jim told him enough. "Mom, stop. This wasn't Jim's fault!" he exclaimed. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad luck. Blaming him is wrong."

She turned back to Blair, again laying a hand gently on his cheek, her lips compressed in a thin, angry line. Shaking her head with frustration, she sighed, "I love you so much. I can't stand to see you like this. I'd give anything if you hadn't met this cop, or if you'd just finish your dissertation so you could be somewhere else, teaching, and safe. Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry this happened to you."

Blair looked confused at the stream of words and lifted his head to glance at Jim, wordlessly asking for help.

"He can't hear you, Naomi," Ellison said quietly. "You have to write your words down for him."

"I don't need you to tell me how to communicate with my son," she ground out, cutting him an ugly look but she broke away from Blair's embrace to snatch the palm pilot from Jim's hand.

Blair sighed as he followed her toward the kitchen and reached out to squeeze her arm. "Mom, look," he said, his voice deliberately as calm as he could make it, "I can see you're angry with Jim. But don't be. He's doing everything he can to help me. And I'm grateful to him…"

"Grateful?" she spat out as she tapped furiously, and then handed the gadget to him.

I'll help you pack right now, and you can come with me to Oregon. It will be peaceful and you can adjust to this in a healthier place than this apartment. You can travel with me again, like we used to. Please, baby, let me take care of you.

Blair's jaw clenched for a moment as he read - finding the idea that he 'had to be taken care of,' as if he were a helpless child, objectionable in the extreme. But he knew his mother was only trying to help, in her way, so he looked up at her with compassionate eyes. "I'm sorry, Mom, but I can't go with you. My job is here. This is my home now. Jim's going to learn sign language and, well, I'm fine here. Really. Hey, why don't you stay for a while? You can go to Oregon later."

"Home? Here? With him?" she grated, shaking her head. But when she caught her son again looking over at the man she despised for help in understanding her, something snapped inside. How could Blair still look at that man with such trust and concern? How could he not want to come with her immediately, be with her, let her care for him? How had that damned cop managed to alienate her so far from her only, much beloved, child? Suddenly, she felt lost and empty, betrayed somehow. None of this made any sense. It was all so wrong.

Pulling away from Blair, she shook her head as she stared at her son, but her words were for Jim. "Congratulations, Detective. It seems my son looks to you for help rather than me now, despite what you've done to him." Blowing out a breath of defeat, she swallowed, her voice breaking as she turned to pick up her bag, and said hoarsely, "The cab's waiting downstairs. Tell Blair I'll send him an email as soon as I find an Internet café in Oregon, but it might be some time as the retreat is in a remote location. Tell him…tell him I'm sorry but I can't stay. I can't…"

And then she was gone.

Blair stood as if bereft, his hands lifted toward her even as she turned away and the door slammed behind her. Jim bowed his head, squinting and blinking against the burning in his eyes, struggling to breathe slowly. He wanted to rage at Naomi for breezing in, upsetting Blair and breezing right on out again, but he couldn't. He felt too responsible, and too helpless to do anything to make anything better, to blame her for her very natural anger. But when he looked up and saw Sandburg just standing there, looking devastated with tears glimmering in his eyes, Jim moved around the counter and took his friend in his arms. Blair had to know that his mother might have just walked out in anger, but his friend was still right there, and would always be there, for him.

Blair stood stiffly in Jim's arms, trying to come to grips with the fact that his mother had just walked out on him, angry and hurt that he'd chosen to face his life rather than run away from it with her. He knew he'd made the right decision - but that didn't stop the pain of knowing she couldn't bear to stay and deal with him as he was now.

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

There was another very bad moment later that evening, when Jim finally got up the nerve to break the news to Sandburg that he wouldn't be allowed to drive until he was retested, had the Volvo's mirrors checked to the code for hearing disabled drivers, and updated his insurance coverage. Jim added the fact that Blair had a broken arm meant that he really shouldn't be driving anyway until the cast came off - certainly, he should wait to be tested until he was healthy. Once he received his new license, he'd also receive a state card to be handed to police if he was stopped, indicating he required questioning, assistance and the reading of his rights in a manner that he could understand.

"What?" Blair had exclaimed, his eyes flashing with astonished denial when he finished reading the note. "I'm deaf, not blind! Why can't I drive without being retested?"

Aching inside, Jim punched in the message on the palm pilot that had virtually taken up residence in his hand. You won't be able to hear sirens or horns or alarms like at railroad crossings…that makes you a risk on the road and your safety awareness of that has to be verified. Sorry, Chief - it's the law. And your insurance rates are likely to go up, at least for the first year or two. Look, I'll drop you off at Rainier in the morning and pick you up later, no sweat.

Blair stared at the message in his hand, feeling as if the world was closing in on him. He couldn't drive? Until his cast came off and he could be retested? That meant he couldn't do the grocery shopping when Jim was too busy on a case, couldn't just head out on an open road when he felt a need for space, would be limited to going where buses and his feet could take him, unless he wanted to spring for expensive taxi rides, for weeks. The fact that it was the cast on his arm that was more the problem than his lack of hearing didn't really register. He didn't have to be retested because of the damned cast. And his insurance rates were likely to go up? Damn - he could barely afford the coverage he had now.

Anger flared and surged up, swamping him as he bounded off the sofa and threw the innocent palm pilot hard against the brick wall, smashing it, as he quivered with helpless fury. Wasn't it enough that his hearing had been taken from him? God DAMN it! Now he couldn't drive, at least for a while. And it was another monetary cost he couldn't really afford. What else was going to blindside him next? Furious, he stood shaking as he stared sightlessly at the wall, his heart hammering and his jaw gritted against the urge to scream in rage at what had happened to his life. But screaming held no release when he couldn't hear it. Panting for breath, trying to regain his increasingly fragile grip on his emotions, he clenched his fists and shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Dimly, he knew he was over-reacting, but he'd been fighting off the anger for so long that his rage hadn't needed more than a slight spark to be ignited.

Jim rose to go to him, not sure what to do. He could understand the rage, and had wondered when it would surface, because Blair had to be angry at everything that was happening, but this was disproportional to what amounted to a minor inconvenience. He'd never seen Sandburg like this, standing so silent, shaking with fury and underlying fear, like a cornered animal.

Jim reached out to grip his roommate's arm, but Blair shook him off, not wanting comfort, unable to receive it. There was no comfort, no solace…just this stinking, horrible reality of a life made silent and curtailed every which way he turned by that silence. Gradually, Sandburg got his temper under control as he hauled in deep, cleansing breaths. Finally, he headed toward his room, calling over his shoulder, "Don't worry, I'll take the damned bus!" before he slammed the door.

Jim heard Blair pound his fist against the wall of his room, the muffled, "Oww, damn it, that was stupid," and then the creak of the futon as Sandburg threw himself down upon it. Sighing, Ellison cleaned up the bits of broken palm pilot and tossed them in the trash. Wearily, he ran his hand over his head and kneaded the base of his neck as he reflected on how Sandburg had taken it all so far. There'd been denial in the hospital, when he'd refused to even consider that his hearing loss would be permanent until the specialist had killed all their hopes. Grimacing, Jim admitted to himself that Blair hadn't been the only one in denial. And there'd been fear and sorrow, great sorrow, that Blair had tried to hold inside but had finally shared the other night. He'd been withdrawn since his mother had left that morning, unwilling to accept solace. But there'd been no anger, not until now, and that had been unnatural. How could he not be angry? How the hell did he seem to just accept it without blaming Jim or the Fates or without even mentioning Rossner's name? So, the anger was good - it had to come out, be dealt with. Shaking his head, Jim figured the counselors at the Institute would be able to help Blair work it all through. But, how could the kid ever accept it - ever learn to live with the silence as if it were normal?

Grinding his teeth, Jim wondered when and how he'd be able to let his own anger go…or if he'd ever be able to accept what had happened to Blair without feeling sick all the time.

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

Standing in front of his first class of the day, Sandburg hoped that he didn't look as desperately nervous as he felt. Once everyone was seated and was looking expectantly at him, some frowning as they took in the fading bruises and burn on his face as well as the cast on his arm, he licked his lips as his fingertips lifted to his throat. "I was hurt a week ago, and as a result, I've lost the ability to hear. To put it bluntly, I'm completely and permanently deaf. So…I've brought these palm pilots," he explained with a gesture to the gadgets on the table beside the lectern. "I'll pass them around the room, and if you have a question or comment, ask for the nearest one, type it in and hit send. The 'to' addy for my set is written on the board behind me. Just wave your hand in the air to signal me that you've sent a question or comment."

They stared at him, eyes wide with shock and from the open mouths, he suspected a few had commented in shock. Swallowing, he began to hand out the handsets, and then returned to center front. "Okay, today we're going to talk about the importance of ritual in the expression of spiritual beliefs…"

As he carried on, he became less self-conscious as he got caught up in the subject. It was hard to remember to keep one hand on his throat when he was so used to waving his arms in gestures to emphasize his points or just to clown around, but he managed, glad that he'd thought to ditch the sling. He still roamed the classroom, his palm pilot in his hand, as he posed questions and encouraged discussion, though that was really hard to follow - but some exceptionally alert and empathetic students helped by tapping in notes to let him know what others who were caught up in the debate were saying. When hands waved at him, he checked his palm set, and answered the question or reflected on the comment offered. It wasn't ideal and sure didn't lend itself to spontaneous free-ranging discussion with several people in the class at once, but it wasn't as bad as he'd feared it might be. The kids were taking it all like troupers, adapting to meet his need more readily than he'd thought they might and helping him when they could. Finally, the exhausting hour was over, and he told them, "Okay, read chapter six before our next class. My office hours are the same as usual."

They dropped off the palm pilots on the way out…or at least, most of them did. With a stab of bitterness, he noticed he was one gadget short and wondered who'd decided to take it home. Grimly, as he gathered up his notes and stuffed them along with the remaining supply of palm pilots into his backpack, he guessed that was something else he'd have to get used to. There were some people in the world that didn't hesitate to take advantage of the disabled…some people who could live with the shame of that. Wryly, he figured it might even be a compliment of sorts - maybe the petty thief hadn't even thought about his disability, maybe they'd just stolen from him like they'd steal from anyone, given the chance. Shouldering his pack, he told himself it didn't matter. The main thing was he could still teach - he'd just proven that. So his life at the university could continue.

And that realization gave him a surge of much needed confidence that brought a relieved smile to his face.

Now, he thought, the smile fading, if I can just figure out what to do about my life as the backup to an over-achieving police detective and Guide to a Sentinel, things will be great, or at least as great as they'll ever be again.

When he finally got home later that day, he whipped up a stir-fry and sipped on a beer while he waited for Jim to come home. They hadn't talked about what Blair's injury meant to their partnership. Sighing, Sandburg wished with all his heart that he could think of a way to make it work. But how could he give Jim the backup his partner needed if he couldn't hear Jim's commands, or questions, or even his answers when Blair tried to figure out whatever problem might arise with his senses? Tapping out messages on a palm pilot wouldn't work in a dark alley in the middle of some bust.

He was still pondering the problem, pretty much knowing it was hopeless but unable to face the finality of that assessment, when Jim came in. The detective looked tired and irritated, his face lined with frustration, as he shrugged out of his coat and hung it by the door. Blair had risen to get a beer for him and as he handed it to Jim and then also passed him a palm pilot, he asked, "What's wrong? You look like you'd like to punch someone out."

Jim's jaw muscle flexed but he took a sip of beer and then tapped in, Rossner ditched his tail and disappeared over the weekend. Nothing we're trying is turning up a sniff of him, dammit.

Blair winced as he read the message. He knew how badly Jim wanted Rossner, especially now that it had become personal for the detective. The younger man nodded and then pushed his fingers through his hair. "He'll turn up eventually," he replied dispiritedly. Catching the criminal might make Jim feel better, but it wouldn't bring his hearing back. And thinking about Rossner just flamed the rage that Blair was trying so hard to keep locked down. He hated the man, hated him with a cold fury, for what Rossner had done to him. But anger and hate wouldn't get him anywhere so he shut it away as he changed the subject. "Look, dinner will be ready in about ten minutes. Why don't you have a shower and relax a little."

Wearily, Jim nodded as he headed past Blair to the bathroom, lightly squeezing his partner's shoulder on the way. "I'm going to get him, Chief," he growled aloud. "I promise you that," he vowed, needing to hear the words even if Sandburg couldn't.

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

The next day, Jim drove Blair to the appointment at the Institute for the Hearing Impaired. The first thing Ellison noticed, when they walked into the simple, plainly furnished lobby, was the almost eerie pockets of wordless noise in the large, open reception area. Sure, the people behind the reception counter spoke to each other as needed, and answered the telephone, but they were just as apt to speak silently with their fingers. And in the waiting area, sitting around in old plastic chairs or standing in small groups, some folks were chatting away with their hands, adults as well as children, but some of the kids were a lot noisier than Jim was used to in other reception areas, like the hospital, or his doctor or dentist's offices. Jim wondered if the kids even realized that they were making noise as they kicked with bored monotony at the legs of tables and chairs. And then, thinking about how Sandburg couldn't recognize the volume of his voice, the detective wondered if some of the kids were shouting to take advantage of whatever limited hearing they had, or if they just didn't know how very loud they were.

Uncomfortably, as they waited their turn at the reception counter, he noticed that many of the deaf, when signing with their fingers, were making unconscious sounds, grunting and tongue clicking, and he wondered if they were aware that their voices were engaged, even if no words were formed. It appeared that they used their whole bodies in expressing themselves as they grimaced or made broad gestures in an exaggerated pantomime of emotion and ideas. It was a little unnerving to watch and to hear.

Frowning thoughtfully, he didn't know what he'd expected. Complete silence, maybe? But he found that a room full of deaf people was not nearly as quiet as he would have supposed. Finally, they reached the counter and a young woman with short, very straight, black hair looked up, smiling as she signed and spoke at the same time, "Hello. Can I help you?"

"Uh, hello," Blair replied to what he presumed were her words, fingers at his throat, wondering if she could hear or if she was reading lips. "I'm Blair Sandburg and I have an appointment. This is my friend, Jim Ellison."

Nodding amiably in recognition of his name, she waved toward the elevator and handed him a card with the name and location of the counselor he was scheduled to see as she said aloud. "You're scheduled with Kerry Castleman, up in Room 302. Mr. Ellison, perhaps you'd like to take a seat and wait here."

Jim stiffened at the suggestion but Blair hastened to interject when he saw her waving Jim back toward the chairs in the waiting area, "No, ah, I'd like Jim to come with me. We're roommates and so we both need to learn as much we can…"

Smiling in understanding, warmly this time as she approved of Jim's interest in being part of Blair's adjustment, she simply nodded and waved them both to the elevator.

Upstairs, they found Room 302 across from the elevator, the door standing open. Blair knocked reflexively, but the thirtyish man at the desk didn't look up, and Sandburg realized he probably couldn't hear. Uncertain of what to do, he paused in the doorway, but Jim gave him an encouraging push, so he walked in until they were both standing in front of the desk. The dark haired man looked up, starting a bit in surprise and then smiled as he stood, holding out his hand. "Mr. Sandburg? I'm sorry; I didn't hear you come in. I'm Kerry Castleman."

Though Blair didn't hear the words, he caught the gist of it, and as he shook Kerry's hand, he said, "Please, call me Blair," Kerry nodded and then cast a curious look at Jim. Sandburg made the introductions, explaining that Jim wanted to sit in on their meeting because he, too, was interested in learning sign language.

"That's fine," Kerry nodded with a smile as he waved them to the wooden chairs in front of his desk. Once they'd settled, he passed Blair a note he'd just finished, and Sandburg read, with Jim reading it from his chair. I see from your referral that you were injured in an explosion. Sudden hearing loss is a difficult adjustment, and you likely find communicating with others frustrating.

Jim nodded as he replied, taking care to enunciate his words carefully, "Yes, you could say that. I'd really like to learn sign as fast as possible…"

Blair, not hearing Jim replying, talked at the same time, "It is hard. We've been using palm pilots…"

Kerry seemed to take the dual responses in stride, his eyes darting from one to the other. He didn't miss the pain in Ellison's eyes when he glanced at Blair, knowing his partner hadn't heard him talking, and he was a bit surprised that the older man had been able to read the note from where he was sitting. "Alright, we'll go over the class schedules and get you set up with times that work for you both," he said aloud for Jim as he wrote another note for Blair. "It'll take a few weeks before you feel any degree of comfort with sign, but I assure you, it will help. Blair, I also want to set you up with speech reading sessions as soon as possible. Once you can interact with people around you, you'll feel better. The fact that you can speak makes it so much easier." He passed the note to Blair, who had been watching him speak to Jim and feeling oddly resentful. They were talking about him and it bugged him that he couldn't hear what was being said. But he relaxed when he saw the note and realized Kerry was just letting Jim know what it said.

"Are you, uh, reading our lips or can you hear us?" Blair asked, feeling awkward.

"A little of both," Kerry replied as he wrote out his words. "I can hear some things in the lower sound register, so I can make out some of your words." While Blair read that, the counselor pulled out some brochures and handed them over, clearly the schedule for sign and speech reading sessions. Sandburg and Ellison both examined the schedule. There were early morning sessions that wouldn't conflict with his classes at Rainer, so Blair pointed to them. When Jim nodded, Blair confirmed the times verbally with Kerry and that they'd start with the session scheduled for beginners on the following Monday; and then he chose a time immediately after the sign sessions for training in speech reading. Figuring that was it, Blair made to stand, but Kerry waved him back to his seat. Puzzled, Sandburg asked, "Was there something else?"

Nodding, Castleman said as he wrote, "Oh, yes, quite a bit more. I have information on the next sheets I'll give you about adjustment counseling that's recommended, and some basic suggestions for handling people who don't know you can't hear. You also need to talk about what's happened to you with someone who can help you come to terms with the changes in your life. What do you do for a living?"

The counselor handed Blair the note, and followed up with a folder full of documents.

Replying to the note, Blair explained, "I'm a teaching fellow in Anthropology at Rainier. The University has a reasonable accommodation policy, so there shouldn't be any problem about my job. I can still teach and counsel students."

"That's good," Kerry said as he scribbled another note, and then picked up a book to pass along with it. "Here's a basic guide to sign language, so you both can familiarize yourselves with the two different 'languages' between now and Monday. You'll need to tell the therapist which version you want to begin with."

While Sandburg was reading the note and flipping through the book, Jim said, "Blair also works with me. I'm a police detective and he's studying the closed society of law enforcement for his PhD dissertation. He really needs to be able to keep riding with me."

"When you go out after criminals?" Kerry asked, evidently surprised by this latest information. "I don't know if that's a good idea. Not yet, anyway. Maybe never…the dangers…"

Blair had looked up and realized they were talking again. "What?" he asked, looking from one to the other, worried about the frown on both their faces.

Jim pulled his palm pilot from his pocket and tapped in, Blair leaning closer to read it as he wrote, I just told him about you backing me up for your closed society diss. He doesn't think it's a good idea for you to ride with me.

"He's right," Blair said, his face bleak. This wasn't how he'd imagined having this 'conversation'.

Jim gave him a narrow look, and then tapped in, I need your help, Chief. This doesn't change that.

"Let's talk about this when we get home, okay?" Blair replied, casting a look at Kerry who was watching them closely. "Jim and I are roommates as well as friends and partners," he explained.

The counselor looked from one to the other. Finally, he started writing again as he said, "I'd suggest putting the dissertation activity on hold at least until you can work out your communication barriers. When do you want to see a therapist about adjustment issues?"

Blair read the note and sighed. He didn't have to look at Jim to feel the tension emanating from the man sitting beside him. "Um, I think I'd rather wait to see someone after we can communicate more easily, either until I can read sign, if the therapist uses that, or I can lip read."

It was pretty clear that Kerry didn't think that was a good idea, but the set of Blair's jaw and the repressive look in his eyes indicated that protesting the decision would be a waste of time. Nodding reluctantly, he wrote, All right, it's your decision. Call when you're ready. In the meantime, here's a list of social services that are available to you. And you might want to join the group of hearing impaired students at the university-they get together to exchange information, socialize, stuff like that.

Blair took the note and another folder of information. Once he'd read it, he nodded, castigating himself for not having remembered that Rainier had a club of sorts made up of the hearing impaired students on campus. Passing the note to his curious partner, Blair stood as he said, "Thank you for your time today and all this information. I really appreciate it."

Castleman nodded as he stood to shake hands with both of them before they left.

On the way home, Blair leafed through the book on the two sign languages, and frowned thoughtfully as he reflected aloud, "This sign stuff is a lot more complicated than we thought, Jim. The version preferred by the deaf themselves has its own grammar and structure that are different from the version of sign learned by people who can hear. It's not just a matter of learning how to finger spell words."

He glanced up to gauge Jim's reactions to that bit of news. His partner just shrugged and Blair understood. However hard or difficult, it was something they had to learn as quickly as they could, or Blair didn't have any hope in hell of playing an active role as Jim's Guide.

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

Time rolled on, days into weeks and weeks into months. The cast came off and he went through his license retesting, heaving a sigh of relief when he was handed his new driving permit. Jim had made certain the Volvo met the specs with respect to proper mirrors on both sides of the old car. He and Jim went to the sign classes together and then Blair carried on alone with his speech reading sessions. He taught his classes, counseled his students and tried his best to act like everything was just fine-like he was fine, as if he was still a 'normal' person. He buried his anger and resentment, held tight to any feelings of frustration and fear, and kept smiling at the world so no one would know how much he was hurting inside.

Despite Jim's repeated reminders that the MCU gang wanted to see Blair, Sandburg kept putting off any suggestions for getting together. It was just so damned hard to communicate and he knew people got frustrated having to write out every damned word they wanted to share with him. He'd already experienced some of that at faculty meetings. The University had an 'accommodation' policy, and he knew everyone meant well, and felt bad about his disability, but who had the time to write everything down? An effort had been made to include him, with a written agenda for every meeting and more than the usual handouts outlining the subjects under discussion. And the folks sitting next to him jotted down some of the key points of the discussion as it went along, when they thought about it and weren't caught up with making their own points. But, long before the meetings were over, Blair would be sitting silently frustrated at not having a clue about what was being said or decided. The only upside was nobody volunteered him for anything, so there was some benefit in being physically 'present' even if he was more or less invisible in every other respect. He had to learn how to 'speech read'-it was his only real hope of communication 'cause sure in hell everyone in the whole world wasn't going to learn either version of sign to accommodate him.

Early on, he'd made contact with the group of hearing impaired students, but he couldn't communicate with them either, not yet anyway. They'd been sympathetic and started out writing out short messages to clue him into their silent communication, but they, too, had got caught up in their own practices and fast way of 'talking', forgetting that he wasn't getting it. So, he didn't return after his first introduction.

He felt like an outcast in both worlds, adrift in silence. He'd never felt so isolated in his life, and after a while, he found that he stopped talking except when he had to, in class or when counseling a student, in the cafeteria to order his food or at home with Jim, because Jim insisted that he talk. It was just easier, after a while, to be invisible-except with Jim-but his heart ached with his need to interact with people. He was a social creature and the isolation was killing him.

But he just kept telling himself that he could learn sign and he could learn to speech read - he was already good at reading body language and expressions. He just had to work harder, practice more, with Jim, in front of mirrors, with the therapists. It was hard, like learning a whole new language, more than one of them, all at the same time. And he felt so awkward…it was exhausting. But he didn't have any choice. It was learn or go crazy, awash in despair and lost in depression.

The worst of it was, he could see that Jim was tossing helplessly on the same sea of frustration and despair. Ellison's written notes had become very abbreviated as he jotted down only the most essential points or words to get his message across, appearing increasingly weary each time he picked up the palm pilot until he looked like he was beginning to loathe the gadget. And if Jim lost all patience, then Blair knew he would be completely alone in his silent world.

But, in fairness, he knew Jim was trying hard, too, to learn the signs they needed and though it was awkward and slow, Sandburg tried to take hope from the fact that they were making some progress. It was funny how they were both learning how to sign faster than he was learning how to read sign. Blair figured it was because the 'speaker' had time to think about and fashion what they wanted to say, but the 'listener' or 'reader' as he was learning it was called, had to understand whatever was sent, with no time to struggle over unknown or unclear 'words'. Since he was doing the 'reading' while Jim only had to learn how to 'speak', Jim got frustrated when Blair didn't understand and wondered what he was doing wrong. So then there was a need to reassure Ellison that he wasn't doing anything wrong, but that just left Blair feeling stupid, slow and inadequate. Once again, it was his fault that he couldn't 'hear'.

It all just took so damned long that he wondered when, if ever, he'd be able to function in a manner approximating 'normal' again…

To give himself another arena for practice and to force himself to accept that he was 'different' in more ways than simply having a rather bohemian appearance, Blair returned to the meetings of the Hearing Impaired Student Society. Many of the students had been deaf from birth, or from a very early age as a result of congenital conditions or severe complications from disease or accidents, so they had no recollection of ever being able to hear the world around them. They used ASL-American Sign Language. It had its own rules and internal structure, which was very different from written and spoken English, and many words were modified by body posture instead of other qualifying or descriptive words. There were also elements of pantomime that he noticed, like when one of the others was describing a new pup she'd just acquired, but instead of signing 'little dog', the sign was for 'dog' and the word was modified by the student scrunching down and in upon herself to show 'small size'. As the dog stories continued, another student revealed she'd been scared by a big Doberman by throwing her hands up with a look of fear mimicked on her face.

It was, well, very different, and though Blair could be expressive and willing to join in the pantomime to convey and colour meaning, he wondered with an internal shudder about how it would go over in the conservative environment of a faculty meeting, or worse, in the police department. And, as someone to whom grammar came easily, was a part of how he thought, the fact that many words were simply not signed because they were understood by context, words like 'a', 'the', 'to', 'for', as well as plurals, possessives, and word endings like 'ing' or 'ed'', left him feeling uncomfortable and off-balance. Wearily, as he struggled to understand and participate, he thought that unless a person had grown up deaf, and ASL was the only communication means they knew, the language would always be very tough to assimilate.

And it didn't help that ASL was very different from the 'Signed English' that he and Jim were learning, because the latter symbolic 'language' was what the 'hearing' are more comfortable with. There was a sign for every word, and added movements to signify 'ing', 'ed', plurals, and the like. So a hearing person would speak-and-sign, "I will go to my grandma's house tomorrow," while a deaf person might sign Me tomorrow grandma house go. When he signed using the 'Signed English' language, the students laughed at him and teased that he was still thinking like a 'hearing', not like one of them.

At first, he didn't understand the edge to their humour, or the thinly veiled contempt he could see in their expressions when they talked about the 'hearing' and told him with abrupt, blunt signs to get with the program. Finally, a masters student in sociology, Kit Charmers, took pity on him and sat him down to labour over the explanation of what was going on, having to write some of it when Blair's understanding of sign floundered amidst the subtleties. He was told that no one who was disabled felt disabled and the labelling by others who saw themselves as normal was deeply resented. The bottom line message was that if Blair felt disabled, it was his problem, an attitude of mind that the other students in the group didn't appreciate and, in point of fact, resented. Sure, being 'deaf' might be 'different', but 'different' wasn't a synonym for 'disabled'.

It was one more message that told Blair that his problems coping were his own fault.

Unfortunately, it was a message he really didn't need to 'hear', not when he was feeling as exhausted, as overwhelmed, as isolated and alone and as hopeless as he'd ever felt in his life.

How the hell was he supposed to feel 'normal' when he still remembered the sounds of laughter, or of a woman moaning with passion at his touch, or of the glory of music whether man-made or of a bird bursting with the chorus of life? How could he feel anything but 'disabled' when he couldn't communicate with anyone except awkwardly by the written word or fumbled hand signs, half of which he didn't understand readily when someone signed back at him? When he didn't belong anywhere, 'fit in' anywhere, not really, not any more? He didn't want to forget what it felt like to hear voices or the wind, or the ripple of water in a creek rushing over stones, or the plop of a fish jumping on a still mountain lake. He sure in hell didn't want to forget the sound of someone he loved tenderly whispering in his ear, 'I love you'…

He didn't want to live the rest of his life in a soundless void, cut off and 'different'. He didn't want this to be 'normal'.

And he suddenly began to seriously wonder if he even really wanted to live like this for the rest of his life.

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

Jim felt frazzled and then some. Despite all his efforts, and those of his colleagues in MCU, Roger Rossner seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. For all anyone knew, the bomber could be in Rio or Timbuktu. Every time Ellison looked at Sandburg, he felt his failures again, his failure for not bringing Rossner to justice, and his greater failure for having failed to protect Blair from harm. And, God, he missed having Sandburg with him at the station and when he went out to investigate crimes or conduct long, dreary surveillances. His senses were acting up, spiking or disappearing with little warning leaving him feeling vulnerable and helpless to their feckless, uncontrollable meanderings around his internal dials. His clothing felt itchy and he couldn't tolerate even the most lightly spiced foods without fearing some fiery backlash sometime during the meal. The least smell nauseated him, and stinking alleys challenged his control to the limits. So far, he hadn't embarrassed himself at a crime scene, but he wasn't sure how much longer he was going to be able to manage on his own. Light bothered him; whether office lights during the day or streetlights at night, both made his eyes burn and water. And his headache, well, that had taken up permanent residence in his skull, feeling like ten thousand jack-booted soldiers clumping around endlessly. He was having trouble sleeping, and when he slept he either dreamed of calling out to Sandburg who was in mortal danger only to realize the kid couldn't hear him, or he was caught in endless, frustrating signing drills because his fingers just wouldn't cooperate.

He wanted, needed, Sandburg with him, though his fear of the added danger Sandburg would be in, now that he couldn't hear, twisted in his gut. And it was a selfish need, one he couldn't reconcile when Blair was struggling to keep going, juggling his responsibilities at Rainier with the daily classes at the Institute, and just trying to carry on as if everything was fine.

But Jim knew that Blair wasn't 'fine'. He was very far from 'fine'.

Though his best friend tried to hide his discouragement behind a cheerful smile, there was no light, no sparkle in Sandburg's eyes. He looked tired and drawn, pale and he was 'way too quiet. It was as if he was being sucked into the soundless void that surrounded him, losing the energy to keep going, running out of strength to keep fighting back to some semblance of happiness and comfort in himself and his world. And he was avoiding anything to do with the role he'd played for the last three years as Jim's partner. There were no 'tests' of Ellison's sentinel abilities, and Jim shook his head to think he was actually thinking that was a bad thing. There were no questions about current cases, though he'd pay attention when Jim tried to tell him what was going on, either jotting down a few points or fumbling to sign the message, and sometimes Blair would even offer an observation that was helpful. But Sandburg never initiated those 'conversations'. He didn't initiate any conversation any more. And he refused to even consider going down to the PD or meeting up with the gang somewhere for a beer, or even a poker night. All the kid did was work on stuff for his classes or on signing or speech reading. He didn't go dancing any more because he couldn't hear the music. Didn't go to movies because he couldn't hear the dialogue. Hardly watched TV because, as it happened, not all that many shows had closed captioning. Hadn't had a date since before… well, before Alex, who represented more memories Jim could scarcely bear to think about. They'd never talked about any of what had happened then, and now it seemed too late to even try.

Jim felt as if Blair was fading away in front of him and he didn't know what to do to stop that from happening. Ellison thought that was the worst thing of all, that slow fade of his young and so vibrant friend into dull weariness - until he got home late that night after a stakeout, wanting only to hit the shower and then his bed - and walked into a nightmare.

At first, he didn't realize anything was wrong. The place was quiet, as was the norm now, and dark but for a single lamp burning in Sandburg's room, the glow visible through the curtained French doors. He frowned when he saw stuffed shopping bags outside the door of the room, and wandered over, wondering if Blair had been doing some cleaning in his room. Not that the clutter in there couldn't stand some sorting, organization and culling. But he frowned when he saw that the paper bags were filled haphazardly with CDs, tapes and old, classic albums. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and sighed. Another painful milestone - Blair was accepting that he'd never again be able to listen to them. Had probably left everything here for Jim to go through in case there was anything he wanted before getting rid of them.

God, Jim felt so sad as he stared down at the detritus of Sandburg's former life. Blair loved music so much - had always had something playing on the radio in the loft or his car, wild music pulsing with life or soft, sentimental ballads. It killed Jim to even try to imagine what it cost Sandburg to move these dearly loved possessions out of his life, to confront the fact that music was lost to him. He almost turned away, figuring Sandburg would need his privacy to 'process' this new acceptance of his silent world, but then he just couldn't stop himself from reaching out with his senses to have some contact, however distant, with his Guide and best friend, as well as to check on how Blair was doing.

With a sense of forlorn helplessness, he smelled salt; well, that would be tears. No wonder the door was closed. Blair liked privacy when he fell apart at the seams. Who didn't? The kid's heartbeat was really up though, and Jim didn't like the sound of his breathing, as if he were on the edge of hyperventilating. But, then, another faint scent tickled his nose and he frowned, trying to place it in the context of Sandburg and his room - something that didn't belong. A scent that should never be in Blair's room!

Gun oil.

He cursed as he turned the knob to push open the door…

…and stopped dead, frozen in appalled horror at the scene in front of him. Blair was sitting cross-legged on his bed, holding Jim's spare revolver loosely in his hands, and was just staring down at it. Everything in the room had been packed up. Files and books were in boxes, and a couple of backpacks and sports bags were stuffed with crumpled, hastily packed clothing. The laptop was in its case on the floor. The bookcase was bare as was the desktop. As if Blair had packed up his whole life…a desperately hideous parody of being ready to move on - a last, poignant consideration for the one who would be left to clean out all his belongings, that shattered Jim's heart.

Moving cautiously into the room, Ellison deliberately cut through the soft beam of light from the lamp on the desk so that his shadow moved on the bed, alerting Blair to his presence. Sandburg jerked and looked up, and his grip tightened reflexively on the weapon. Reddened dull eyes awash with tears stared up at Ellison, and they were so full of pain that Jim felt his gut clench as his throat thickened in mute sympathy.

What are you doing? Jim signed carefully, almost afraid to breathe, wishing to hell Blair could hear his voice. But if Sandburg could hear, then this wouldn't be happening.

Sandburg looked past him, as if staring into infinity, looking lost and in utter despair. "I can't do it anymore, Jim. I can't…" he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "It's too hard. I'm…I'm invisible. I don't really exist any more. Nothing…nothing is working. I'm sorry, man…really sorry…"

Ellison took a step closer but stopped when Sandburg froze, his eyes coming back to Jim's gaze, warning him to stay back. Lifting his hands in a calming gesture, Jim signed with harsh, abrupt moves, So, you're just going to blow your brass out in front of me?

Blair frowned and tilted his head, then shook it. "You mean 'brains', not 'brass', right? No, I couldn't do that. Go away, Jim…just go away," he said, his voice hollow now, as if he'd reached the bottom of a very deep, dark well.

"NO!" Jim signed as he shouted, having to give voice to his fear and sick realization that Sandburg was serious. Ellison's face was stark with desperate frustration, wondering how to get through to the kid when words were useless. He couldn't beg, or plead, or reason. He couldn't sign well or fast enough to pour out everything he felt, or how hideously wrong this was. Couldn't begin to express what it would do to him if Blair did this. He couldn't manage his senses without Sandburg's help; his own life would be hell. And, more, he really didn't think he could live with the fact that his failure to protect had ultimately driven his best friend and partner to take his own life; knew he wouldn't even want to live with that reality.

Ellison couldn't say any of that in any articulate way. Panting for breath, his lips twisting in a grimace of a pain so sharp that he thought he might well be having a heart attack, his eyes burning with helpless emotion, Jim cursed himself for being so useless to Sandburg when his friend needed him most. Deaf or not, Blair had so much to offer, so very much to live for. And how could he make Blair understand what this would do to him, as selfish as that thought was?

And then, he knew what he had to do.

With a cold wash of sudden calm, he knew exactly how to tell Blair what his death would mean. Slowly, reaching one hand behind his body, Jim grasped his own weapon and drew it to hold against his own temple.

The last vestige of colour fled Sandburg's face as he gaped up at his best friend, a man he would die to protect, and his eyes widened in horror as he cried out, "What are you doing?"

Jim gritted his jaw and stared into Blair's eyes. And then he pointed at the gun in Sandburg's hand and held up a hand in mute helplessness. Finally, he set his own gun down within easy reach on the end of the bed and with trembling hands and uncertain but determined gestures, he signed slowly, If you do this, I'll kill myself. If you can't live with it all, neither can I. So, go ahead, if that's really what you want to do. I'll be right behind you. Jim then picked up his weapon and held it, ready for use should he find the need of it.

Blair's lip trembled and then his whole body started to shudder as the tears brimming in his eyes spilled over onto his blanched cheeks. Shaking his head, unable to force words past his throat, he laid the gun down and then pushed it toward Jim. "D-d-don't, J-J-Jim," he finally stammered and then curled forward, hugging himself hard in a vain effort to hold the pain inside.

Ellison reached forward to snap up the weapon and checked the safety, holstering his own as he tossed the spare revolver out of the room to clatter on the floor in the hall. Then he moved forward to crouch on the edge of the bed as he drew Sandburg into his arms, holding him tightly. Blair fisted his hands in Jim's shirt and held on for dear life as the pain and hurt, the hopelessness and despair poured out of him in muffled sobs and broken words.

"I just...just feel so lonely, so useless," he stuttered. "It h-hurts so b-b-bad. I d-don't want to l-l-live in this v-v-void. I c-c-can't…can't b-be who I was. I d-d-don't belong…anywh-where, not anymore…I m-m-miss voices and m-m-music and p-people laughing. It's too h-hard."

Jim couldn't use words, so he let his body speak for him. A hand stroking Sandburg's back to soothe him, and signal he was listening, that he understood. A tight embrace to tell the kid he wasn't alone. And tears, to show that he felt the pain and grief of it all, too.

They clung to one another until Sandburg's voice stammered into silence, only the shuddering of his body and the falling tears mute testament to his anguish, until they, too, stopped, and he rested limply in Jim's arms. Ellison eased him back to lie upon the bed, and then stretched out beside him, continuing to hold Sandburg curled against his body, secure in his strong embrace. Finally, both of them emotionally wrung out and completely exhausted, they slept.

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

When Blair woke the next morning, still cradled tightly against Jim, he wasn't sure whether he was more embarrassed or grateful to find his best friend still there and still holding onto him. As soon as he stirred, the warm embrace loosened, and Jim pulled away a little, to brush the hair back from his face.

A brow quirked in question and anxious eyes asked how he was.

"I'm okay, now, I guess," Blair replied hoarsely, scarcely able to make eye contact. "Sorry, man. I guess I really lost it last night."

Jim studied him for a long moment, and then leaned forward to press a kiss against his forehead before releasing him as Ellison rolled to sit up and then stand by the bed. Quirking a finger to indicate he wanted Blair to follow, Jim led the way to the living room, picking up the palm pilots on the counter on the way. Pointing to the couch, he waited until Blair had sat down, and then sat beside him.

"Don't you think we should have some breakfast and coffee first?" Sandburg asked, wanting to delay for as long as possible having to talk about what he'd been thinking about doing. Now, in the cold light of morning, he just felt stupid and weak and completely inadequate.

Jim shook his bowed head, already busy tapping in a message.

Blair looked down at his set and read, Are you really okay now, or should I arrange some counseling for you?

Sighing, Blair pushed his unruly mop of hair back behind his ears as he studied the coffee table intently. "I'm okay. I guess hitting rock bottom means there's no way to go but up," he replied, his voice low and embarrassed. Cutting Jim a quick look, and then turning his face to study Ellison, he continued anxiously, "But, um, I'm not the only one who had a gun in his hand last night, Jim. Maybe we need to talk about that, too."

Ellison narrowed his eyes as he studied Sandburg, weighing the truth of Blair's words, suspicious of his friend's habit and skill of misdirection and obfuscation. Turning to his palm pilot, he tapped in, Were you really going to kill yourself?

Blair bowed his head as he read the question. He remained stiff and silent for a long moment, and then sighed, "I don't know, to tell you the truth. Oh, I don't think I could have done it here, with your gun. I couldn't do that to you. I sat holding it for a long time last night, thinking about how else I might…well, kill myself. Honestly? I don't really want to die - but I don't think I want to keep living like this, either."

Jim closed his eyes and shuddered at the pain in Blair's voice, a suffering so terrible that living with it was overwhelming. The fear that Sandburg might yet decide to commit suicide clenched at his heart and made his gut roil with nausea. Should he force Blair into counseling? Or would that just make things worse? Sighing, not sure what to do, afraid of doing the wrong thing, he began tapping into the palm pilot, Promise me, if you ever feel that bad again, you'll talk to me before you do anything.

"Would you really have killed yourself, too?" Blair asked, lifting his gaze to study Jim intently, needing to know the answer, and trusting Jim to tell him the truth, before he made any promises that might be very hard to keep.

Jim nodded, his expression chillingly certain.

Blair felt his throat tighten as he reached out to grip Ellison's arm, "Okay, Jim. I promise," he vowed. "I don't ever want anything to happen to you. I sure don't want you hurting yourself because of me."

Ellison relaxed marginally. As much as he didn't like to threaten Blair by holding his own life hostage to Sandburg's good behaviour, he'd needed to hear that promise. Down deep, he knew Blair wouldn't ever do anything to risk his life. Satisfied that he'd made his point, and achieved a baseline for further discussion, Jim tapped in, Okay, breakfast now, and then we talk about everything. I'll make the eggs and you put the coffee on. And with that, he stood as if it were a normal day and went to the kitchen to begin preparing their meal.

Blair gazed open-mouthed at Jim's back for a long moment. And then it hit him. Jim trusted him, trusted that he'd keep his word, no matter what or how awful he might be feeling. Trust was a very big deal for his Sentinel…so the signals just given mattered a lot. Unable to shake the memory of Jim standing with a gun to his temple, Blair shivered as he stood and went to make the coffee. If killing himself meant that Jim would take his own life, then suicide was definitely out. Somehow, he was just going to have to find a way to live with the horror he felt his life to be.

And, later, as Jim had 'said', they'd talk. It seemed there was a whole lot more than Blair had realized that needed to be talked about. As he measured out the coffee grounds, Blair shook his head, appalled at what Jim had been prepared to do. It made his gut churn to think about how close it might have been, what a waste - he was staggered that his life or death could mean so much to Ellison. More, he was sick to think that he'd been so caught up in his own pain that he hadn't seen how much Jim was also suffering.

Watching his best friend out of the corner of his eye, Blair noticed what he knew he should have seen long before now. Jim looked haggard, worn right out. He'd lost weight and his shoulders were bowed as if he was carrying a thousand pounds on his back. And he had a pinched look around his eyes, always a clear indicator of a raging headache that had been going on for far too long.

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

They managed to choke down breakfast, each watching the other to make sure he ate; each one wondering how to talk about what needed to be discussed forthrightly despite the difficulties presented both by their awkward manner of communicating and the emotional pain neither was comfortable dealing with openly. Their tension was palpable, like the frisson in the air just before a thunderstorm. Finally, the food had been consumed and Jim rose to quickly clean up the kitchen, while Blair poured them fresh cups of coffee. With a meaningful look at one another, they headed back into the living room, where Jim picked up his palm pilot. This conversation was too important to struggle through with the added awkwardness of trying to sign his words.

What did you mean that you're 'invisible'? Ellison asked.

Raking his fingers through his hair, Blair shrugged. "I don't know how to explain it, Jim. I go through the motions, but I feel cut off from everyone except, well, except you," he said quietly, his eyes downcast but his hands lifted listlessly as he spoke. "I don't know what's going on in meetings. I don't fit with people who can hear, and yesterday I found out that I don't fit with people who can't hear. I'm not part of anything any more."

Ellison frowned. And he tapped out, But, you're giving your classes, right? They're going okay? And you still coach and counsel individual students, right?

Blair nodded as he read but didn't say anything.

Grimacing a little, hating what he was about to write, Jim tapped the message, It seems to me that maybe you're focusing too much on what you don't have and not enough on what you've still got.

Sandburg stiffened and blinked as he read that blunt assessment, and then he felt a spark of anger flare as he turned to face Jim, his eyes flashing, "You don't understand what it's like - you can't! I miss so many sounds, all the sounds of the world. And I'll never hear them again!"

Nodding, Jim wrote, I know - I can't imagine it. But, Chief, you still have so much. You have friends, if you'd just let them back into your life. You have your incredible mind. You can still see, and feel, taste and touch, write and talk - you can't hear, but that doesn't mean life is worthless, does it? When he finished, he turned his earnest, concerned gaze upon his friend.

Blair read the message and then looked up, his mouth a little agape. "Damn it's hard to fight with you when you make sense," he sighed.

The response was so unexpected and so like something Sandburg would have said before his life went to hell in a hand basket, that Jim was surprised into a small smile. Tilting his head, he just kept listening.

Blair rubbed the back of his neck and then turned to look out the balcony doors at the sky and the glimpse of sea that he could see in the distance. For once, clouds weren't shrouding the blue sky, and sunlight glittered on the distance swells. As he stared into the horizon, he thought about his students, who still came to his classes and drank in the knowledge he had to share. He thought of Simon, Joel and the others, who were his friends at the PD, not to mention all the other people in his life who cared for him, his friends and colleagues at Rainier, and his mother. His gaze shifted to look around their home, at the small comforts, like the afghan Jim had draped over him one night years ago when he'd fallen asleep on the couch, and which had been ready to hand ever since. And the larger comforts, like the new television that Jim had bought to help him connect with the world. He thought about all the hours they'd spent here together, sharing meals, discussing everything under the sun, working on tests to help Jim refine his control of his senses, teasing. Laughing.

Finally, his gaze turned back to Jim, his best friend - a man he'd willingly die to protect. The man who had brought him back to life just a few short months before. How could he begrudge that gift? How could he do less than live the gift of life that had been given to him, however difficult or challenging that life might be? God, if not for Jim, he'd be stone cold dead and wouldn't have the chance to even think about all the things about living that he still treasured.

Gazing at Jim, his Sentinel, the embodiment of all his dreams, only better - not a concept, but a man who had become his best friend, who had opened his home and given his affection and trust. A man, for all his faults, who was the person Blair knew he admired and respected, hell, treasured, most in the whole world. Sandburg finally realized that when all was said and done, even counting the silence, living to protect Jim didn't seem such a bad deal…more than anything else, wasn't that the most important and wondrous purpose of his life? Wasn't that, ultimately, why Jim had been able to bring him back from the dead just a few short months ago? What right did he have to turn his back on that purpose, on Jim, to throw away the gift of life that had been given to him? Could he protect his friend, still? Even deaf as a stone, wasn't he still Jim's Guide? Maybe it was time he remembered that and started acting like a Guide again, instead of like a child who had had their favourite toy taken away. "I'm sorry," Blair said simply. "I guess I just got really lost for a while and forgot what's important."

When Jim's tentative smile grew a bit broader, Blair studied his friend. "You know, you look like shit. What's going on with you, man?"

Startled, Ellison's gaze dropped and he shrugged.

"C'mon, we're both baring our souls here, so spill," Sandburg said, his tone somewhere between cajoling and commanding.

Blowing out a breath, Jim began writing, I haven't wanted to bother you, but I really need you on the job, Chief. My senses are driving me crazy and I'm beginning to lose it. Almost threw up at a crime scene yesterday because the smell was so bad.

His nose wrinkling in empathy, Sandburg shook his head. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Sighing, Jim grimaced, and then tapped out, You have so much on your plate right now, and you look so tired all the time. I guess I just didn't want to add more pressure.

Reaching out, Blair gripped Jim's arm and gave him a shake. "You know better than that! Damn it, Jim. You know you come first, don't you? Man, I'm sorry, I should have noticed. I've just been feeling so damned sorry for myself; I guess I've been pretty useless lately. But you have got to tell me when you're having problems!"

Ellison scratched his forehead and nodded. So will you start coming back to the PD? he wrote.

"I'll need a lot of help, Jim," Blair murmured. "I won't understand anything anyone is saying, or what's going on…"

I'll help, Jim signed, the gesture easier and faster than writing the words out. With a sudden frown, though, he turned back to the gadget in his hand. I have to admit that I'm scared to take you back on the streets with me. It could be dangerous if things go bad and you can't hear any warning. I don't know what to do about that, I really don't. I wish I didn't need you so much that it puts your life in danger.

Blair's jaw tightened as he read the message. Damn, he should have been talking to Jim about this long before now - they'd both been worried about the same things, but had suffered alone in silence. It would be dangerous, as Blair well knew. He was no fool. Looking up at his partner, he said finally, "We'll work something out, some signals and I'll just have to stick right beside you so we don't get separated. I'd rather face the risks than have you get hurt because I'm somewhere 'safe'."

Jim just took a deep breath and nodded. What could he say? Words could never be enough to express what it meant that Sandburg was prepared to take such chances to protect him. Reaching out, he squeezed his friend's shoulder, hoping Blair understood how much Jim cared for him. He wondered if Blair really knew how badly he wished that he didn't need to put him in danger - or how very grateful he was for the unconditional support, even after all that had happened.

Blair bit his lip at the raw, naked emotion in Jim's eyes and had to look away before he was overwhelmed by it. Again the memory rose of Jim with his gun to his temple and Blair shivered. Surely, he couldn't really mean that much to the older man. 'Cause if he did, and if he got killed someday while backing Jim up, what then? He lifted his gaze, pinning Jim with a wide look of profound concern. "Why did you say you'd kill yourself last night?" he asked.

Ellison just stared at him, as if surprised that Sandburg didn't know the answer and had to ask. Finally, he turned his attention back to the palm pilot. Lots of reasons, he wrote slowly. I saw you dead once, and I never want to see that again. I can't manage these damned senses for any length of time without your support. I failed you, failed to protect you and now you have to live with the consequences of that - if you'd killed yourself because of that, I know I couldn't live with the guilt. Lots of reasons.

"Ditch the guilt, man," Blair said sharply after he'd taken a couple of steadying breaths, Jim's candour having seared him to his soul. "This," he waved at his ears, "was NOT your fault. Rossner did this, not you. As for your senses, I don't know. We're going to have work out a way to communicate better, a kind of shorthand for ourselves," he punned, as he waggled his fingers in the air. "Something we can use anywhere, any time. I've let things drift too long." Pausing, he looked down again at Jim's message, printed so starkly on his palm pilot. And then he turned to face his best friend, "Thank you for caring whether I live or die - for making me see my life matters. But don't you ever pull a stunt like last night again. If you ever hurt yourself because of me, I'll kick your butt from here to infinity. You got that?"

A small grin played around Jim's lips, but he nodded solemnly as he held out his hand, and Sandburg took it - and they shook on their commitment to their partnership, come what may. One way or another, they'd find a way to work things out.

And then he pulled Blair into his arms for a solid hug. Blair hugged him back as he murmured. "Thanks, man. I love you, too."

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

Clearing the air didn't magically make all the problems and frustrations disappear, but their perspectives had changed. Jim knew that Blair wanted him to live more than Blair wanted to die, and given how despondent Sandburg had been feeling, how much the kid had been hurting, that said a great deal. And Blair knew that his life wasn't over, that he was still needed and that he still had something, maybe a lot of things, of value to offer. The silence wasn't any easier to live with, but if he paid more attention to other things, no longer allowing the silence to rule his life or his definition of himself, maybe he'd find a way to make peace with it.

Once they'd cleared the air, they got to work on putting Blair's room back to something approximating the sublime chaos that it had been. When they'd finished, Jim looked at the bags of tapes, CDs and some vintage records. Sandburg just shook his head sadly and turned away from them, muttering something about finding them a good home. Ellison caught his arm and turned Sandburg back to face him, and then signed that he'd take care of disposing of them, maybe to a second hand store. Sandburg nodded gratefully - it was one thing to pack them all up, another to actually hand them all over to someone else. But Jim found he wasn't ready to give up the jungle drums and other music he'd become accustomed to - that he associated with Sandburg. So he picked the bags up and carted them up to his room, intending, some day, when he was ready to let go and accept the silence of Blair's life, to sort through them, keeping the ones he wanted, and selling the others for Blair.

Next on the agenda was getting Jim's senses back under control. Blair's voice and touch remained the two most important tools for keeping Jim grounded, but Sandburg joked that he felt like a modern day version of the three monkeys who covered mouth, ears and eyes, as he adapted quick movements that Jim could silently use to signal what senses he was having trouble with at any given point in time. Jim chuckled in relief when he heard Blair's laughter - he hadn't heard it in far too long and he'd missed it. But then he settled down and helped his partner devise signs they could use in crisis situations.

"We're going to have to do something about the fact that, sometimes at least, like when you're holding a gun, you can only sign with one hand," Blair mused. Sign normally required both hands to create the symbols used in everyday communication. But, as they practiced, both of them found that they hadn't given themselves enough credit for how much of the sign language that they'd learned. More, as they played with it to develop their own private subtext, it gave their practice more purpose and made it somehow more personal. Working it out, devising simple gestures that Jim could employ with his left hand, gave them both a sense of building something that was theirs alone, special to their unique partnership and friendship. Stay here became a flat palm out and then a finger pointing to the ground. Get down was a fast slash downward. Call for backup or get help was a pantomime of holding a phone to the ear. Look out was a fast sideways slash. Simple gestures - ones that would be easy to remember in a crisis.

What do we do if it's too dark for you to see me? Jim tapped out.

Blair looked away - and finally shook his head as he turned to gaze earnestly back at his partner. "We can only do our best, Jim. Even when I could hear, there were times when it would have been dangerous to yell out a warning. I'll stick as close to you as I can, and try to keep my eyes on you, but you have to accept that, if, well, if something happens, it's not your fault. I want to work with you - that's the most important thing in my life. So, I'll stick as close as I can, closer than your shadow, but if something goes bad one dark night, or even one bright sunny day, remember - I'm only doing what I really want to do."

Jim chewed on his inner lip, not liking the lack of control or the possibility of anything going wrong. But he couldn't see any way around it. Reluctantly, he nodded. But he reserved the right, silently to himself, to make his own choices and decisions about what he'd do if 'something', as Sandburg so euphemistically put it, went really bad. And then he tried to set his fears aside. Things had gotten pretty hairy in the past, but somehow they'd found a way to manage. He had to think positively about this, or the risks and his fears would drive him crazy.

When they decided that they needed a break, they went out for a walk, to enjoy the fine weather that held for the whole weekend. Jim carried his palm pilot in his coat pocket for emergencies, but he really worked at using sign language as their primary communication process. A palm pilot would be useless on the streets…it was just too slow. He found, as he used the language more and more, that he understood better the pantomiming he'd seen at the Institute, because he felt a need to give more expression, more colour or something - to provide the 'tone' and 'pitch' that was absent from the bare signs themselves. He surprised himself with his knack for playing the clown, reducing Sandburg to helpless laughter with his antics, and deep down, that laughter made him feel really good.

At one point, as they sat on a park bench eating hotdogs, Jim noticed Blair studying the children at play, smiling wistfully, his head unconsciously tilted like he did whenever he was trying to remember sounds, or was maybe superimposing his memories of sound upon the scenes playing out before him. Blair looked up suddenly, and caught the deep look of sadness in Ellison's eyes. Reaching out a hand to grip Jim's arm lightly, he said, "Hey, it's okay. I just like to remember sometimes, you know? Remember how kids sound when they're laughing completely unselfconsciously or," he added, waving his hand at the trees, "how the wind sounds when it rustles through the leaves. As long as I remember, then I haven't lost it all. Don't feel bad, Jim. Remembering doesn't bring me down - it gives me a warm feeling inside."

Jim thought about that and then signed, his expression painfully serious, So, the next time you're bitching about how cold it is on some stakeout, I should just tell you to remember a sunny day in the park - and then you'll feel warm?

Blair narrowed his eyes and then wagged his finger under Jim's nose. "You're teasing me, aren't you? Not nice to tease the deaf guy, Jim," he tried to reply sternly. But then he lost it and laughed as he patted Jim's shoulder, snickering as he added, "Funny, Jim…actually, that was pretty funny."

When they got back home, they decided to take a drive along the coast for dinner at one of their favourite Thai restaurants that looked out over the sea. During dinner, Blair regaled Jim with one of his stories about being on a 'pilgrimage' with Naomi when he couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old, and how he'd first learned to eat with chopsticks. Jim was laughing so hard at one point, he almost choked on his food and had to beg Sandburg to give it a rest. "I kid you not, Jim - that's exactly what happened," Sandburg replied, looking angelic though they both knew he'd spun a pretty tall tale. His eyes were sparkling with mischief, like some imp, and then he launched into another story, even funnier than the first one.

It was a great evening and it was only when he was driving them home that Jim realized that he'd been signing without really thinking about it - and it had all felt natural, easy, like old times. And that was the moment he knew, for sure, that they were going to be all right.

The weekend passed quickly, and it was the most 'normal' they'd been in terms of activities and ease with each other that they'd experienced in long, dreary months. When they turned in on Sunday night, they both felt as if something had healed inside, and between them, as well.

Before he left for the station Monday morning, Jim exacted a promise from Blair that Sandburg would come down to MCU once he'd finished his classes. They'd go out for lunch, and then Blair would read up on the files Jim was working on so he could get back into action as Ellison's unofficial partner.

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

Blair was nervous as he parked in the underground garage and hitched his pack over his shoulder. Aside from Simon, he hadn't seen any of the other members of MCU since the night of the explosion, almost three months before. Taking a deep breath, he strode inside to the elevator and punched the button for the sixth floor. Pushing his hair behind his ears, straightening his shoulders, he watched the buttons light for one floor after another. When the elevator stopped on floor after floor, he watched who entered, and when people greeted him with surprised smiles, he smiled in return, stammering out suitable greetings in response to what he thought he was reading in their speech. Finally, an eternity later, the elevator arrived on the sixth floor and he took a deep breath as he stepped out into the hall.

He tried to look casual as he ambled into the MCU Operations Room, but his mouth gaped open in surprise when he saw the big sign hanging over Jim's desk.

Welcome back, Sandburg!

And then they were all gathering around him, smiling-and signing! Sure, some were awkward and missed some signs, but the messages were crystal clear. H was saying, Yo, Hairboy, been too long, man, while Rafe simply said, Missed you. Megan signed, Sandy, good to see you, while Rhonda cut a grin at Jim as she signed, Jim's been a bear! Joel was smiling broadly as he signed, It's good to have you back, son. And even Simon was unsuccessfully trying to cover his smile with a mock scowl of gruffness as he sauntered out of his office and signed, Bout time you came back to work, Sandburg.

Jim was standing to one side, grinning, well pleased at the happy look of absolute astonishment on his partner's face.

Good Lord, they really had missed him! And they'd all worked hard to learn enough to make sure he knew he was a part of this team - to ensure they could include him in what was being said, and what was going on. It was overwhelming - and, without a doubt, the most touching display of affection and inclusion that he had ever experienced in his life. Blair was afraid he might burst into tears, so he laughed instead.

"Thank you," he said, his fingertips on his throat to monitor his volume. "But I can see you guys had 'way too much time on your hands while I've been gone. How did you all learn…?" They laughed at his pun as he looked toward Jim, wondering if his friend had been coaching them all, even as he was learning himself. And he suddenly he knew with a rush of understanding why Jim had seemed to be developing a faster facility with the language than he'd been managing. God, they must have all been practicing as part of their ongoing conversations in the office for months.

But Jim shook his head and pointed at Joel, who explained with signs slow enough for Blair to follow, My sister is deaf, so I learned how to sign as a kid. When everyone wanted to learn, well, I just showed them what I know. Joel's signing was an interesting mixture of ASL and Signed English, in that he employed the active pantomime expressions and gestures but used regular grammar and sentence structures. Sandburg couldn't help but chuckle as the big man scrunched into himself, emphasizing the when I was a kid comment and then let his chest puff out with pride when he signed, I just showed them what I know.

"Hey, that's really great, Joel," Blair replied sincerely as he moved to hug the older man, and then turned to wave, including all of them. "You don't know how much I appreciate you all doing this for me."

Simon, spotting the compulsive action to monitor voice volume that Jim had told him about, moved forward as he said, "Okay, the kid's back…and there's work to be done. Get to it, people."

Blair grinned, figuring he knew pretty much what Simon had just said. Shrugging, he was turning to wend his way to Jim's desk, but found a very tall Captain in his way, pointing toward the inner office. His brows lifting in silent query, Sandburg shifted direction and preceded Simon into the Captain's lair. Simon waved him to a seat, and then handed him a couple sheets of paper and signed that he should read them. Bowing his head, Blair read the handwritten note.

I'm glad you're back-everyone's glad about that, as you could see. But we need a few ground rules. First, I need you to sign a waiver absolving the department of any responsibility if you are hurt in action because of your disability. I'm sorry to insist on that, but I can't otherwise allow you to continue to partner with Jim - my superiors think I'm nuts to even consider allowing your 'observer status' to continue. But we both know Jim needs your support, so we'll all just have to be extra careful, that is, if you agree to take the risks in the first place. The waiver is the other document I just gave you.

Blair paused immediately to flip to the official, typewritten document, and pulled out his pen to sign it without a word and no regrets. Then he turned his attention back to the rest of the note.

Next, I don't want you taking ANY stupid chances on the streets. I have to trust you to know what you can and cannot do - don't make me regret this, okay? Also, anywhere, any time, if you don't understand what we are saying or what's going on, you are to say so, straight out. And, finally, lose the fingers on the throat routine when you're just around us. We want and appreciate your contributions and if you're shouting, we'll let you know - though you were never the quietest member of this team to begin with. If we can't hear you, we'll tell you to speak up. Understood?

Blair's lips tightened to still the incipient tremble, and he swallowed hard as he blinked before looking up into Simon's direct gaze. There were so very many positive and affirming messages in those few brief lines, so much that he needed to hear and was sincerely grateful for. "Understood, Simon, thanks," he said seriously as he stood. "I won't betray your trust in me, I promise."

Simon nodded, but it was clear in his eyes that he was worried about Sandburg. However, like Jim and Blair themselves, Banks knew they didn't have a whole lot of choice so long as Ellison needed Sandburg's support. He solemnly took the signed waiver when Blair held it out to him, but was surprised when, before he could turn away to put the document on his desk, Blair stepped forward and caught him in a hug. Sandburg snickered when Banks acted all flustered and pushed him away, shaking a finger under the kid's nose, but the big man was unable to resist a grin of his own. Pointing to his door, Simon said, "Get to work, Sandburg."

Getting the message, smiling brightly, Blair flipped Simon a salute as he sauntered out to do just that.

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

Working in a busy, open office, wasn't the same as concentrating in his private office at Rainier. Blair had to get used to people touching him, almost constantly, as they passed by and either just wanted to see how he was doing, or ask if he wanted a coffee or, often enough, to give him more reports to add to the files he was studying. At first, he jumped, his heart in his mouth, every time he was touched to get his attention. It really was unnerving to not hear anyone approaching, especially when he was lost in a file, and then to be touched out of the blue. But, the very clear desires of Jim's colleagues to include him, and their subtle concern for him, vastly outweighed the sharp, sudden bursts of shock; and he gradually got used to the unexpected touches, mostly because he knew there was no one there who would ever harm him, so there was no danger to be nervous about.

But what surprised him, and reminded him of how hard they were trying to make his transition easier, was when they apparently noticed how he'd start uncomfortably when they touched him unexpectedly when his mind was elsewhere. One day, everyone started either knocking on his desk first, or sometimes stamping their foot right beside him and he was surprised to realize he could feel the vibrations. The new approach gave him a chance to respond more naturally when people wanted his attention. It was a courtesy he hadn't expected, and wondered how they'd come up with the idea. Jim told him that Joel had suggested it because he knew his sister didn't like being startled and could feel such subtle vibrations. It was neat, in a way - discovering his ability to feel such sensations - and Blair thanked Joel, as well as the rest of them, for their thoughtfulness and for having taught him something new about his abilities.

The group discussions in the Ops Room and staff meetings presented their own challenges. Sandburg was getting better all the time at speech reading, especially when he had a clue about the subject to begin with, but he had to be able to actually see the speaker's face. While everyone tried to remember to sign, it wasn't long before a discussion would be moving too fast or require vocabulary that outstripped their skills, well, except for Joel, and the physical language would stop flowing. And it was only to be expected that people would turn away, when talking to someone at the other end of the room, or conference table.

At first, frustrated and feeling his heart sink at how this really wasn't going to work after all, Sandburg sat back, like he did when he got lost during the faculty meetings. But in MCU, he wasn't allowed to become 'invisible'. The first time Simon was present during one of the fast moving discussions and noticed that Blair had been left behind, he held up his hands and signed to Blair, I thought you said you understood the note I gave you the first day back?

Blair straightened, all eyes suddenly on him as he thought back to remember just what the note had said even as he nodded to indicate that he had understood it.

Then why are you sitting there and not getting clarification? It's pretty clear that you've gotten lost, Simon signed back awkwardly, but his message clear.

Flushing, Blair replied, "Oh, well, I didn't want to interrupt…"

When Banks just stared at him and waited, Sandburg continued, "I lost track after H turned his head to answer your question, and I don't know what he said."

Fine, Simon signed and turned to H with a wave to indicate he should repeat the information for Sandburg. But H frowned, not sure if he could remember all the signs fast enough to cover what he'd said. Jim picked up the slack and, his fingers flashing, brought Blair up to date.

"Thanks," Sandburg acknowledged and nodded to Simon who signaled the others that the discussion could now continue.

It was…uncomfortable. Blair felt as if he were slowing them down, being a nuisance, but after that first incident, no one would let him get away with just sitting back, out of the way. To their credit, not one of them, ever, seemed to resent having to replicate virtually everything they were saying with a mixture of signed and written words.

Blair gradually relaxed into the supportive environment they created for him, and he found if he asked for clarification right away, less time was lost in having to repeat lengthy bits of conversation to him. Within a week, no one thought twice about it, least of all himself, when he jumped in to say, "Sorry, I missed that last bit…"

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

Before long, Blair and Jim had settled into something that had approximated their former routine. Sandburg did his work at the University, and then joined Jim at the office, going with him to crime scenes and backing him up on stakeouts. Sandburg found himself growing comfortable in his new reality, sometimes forgetting for long periods that he couldn't hear anything. Having found his confidence with the MCU crowd, he spoke up at faculty meetings if he missed something, and reclaimed his active membership in those settings amongst his academic colleagues. He bought more palm pilots for his classes, so that students could jot down the points they wanted to make while awaiting their opportunity to join in discussions, so the flow of conversation in his classes evened out. And if he 'lost' the odd palm pilot from time to time, he wrote it off as a matter of course.

But he didn't go back to the group of hearing impaired students. Their experience of life and his were too different. He was a 'hearing' who couldn't now hear. But he remembered sounds and he was more comfortable around those who had been his original group of friends and colleagues. He adapted, they adapted, and life went on.

And, one day as he was checking a reference text out of the library, the pretty new tech passed him a note. Hi. My name is Ellie Winston. Would you like to go for a coffee?

Flustered, he looked up to see her cocking an enquiring brow while smiling steadily, even hopefully, at him.

"Well, um, sure, Ellie, but, ah, it's hard to, you know, carry on a conversation with me," he stammered, mentally kicking himself for his lack of social aplomb. Somewhere along the line, he'd lost his easy charm and flirtatious manner.

But she just reached under the counter and pulled out her own palm pilot, cocking her head a little to the side, her eyes twinkling. She'd evidently already thought about how to overcome the obvious difficulties.

Smiling in response, Sandburg looked up into sparkling green eyes as he replied, "Did you say coffee? Sure, great. And, um, maybe over coffee we could talk about having dinner sometime soon?"

As she stepped gracefully around the counter to join him, and he took in the long legs under the short skirt and the slim figure that went with the short blond curls, peach complexion, brilliant eyes and alluring smile, Blair realized that he felt happy, not nervous or afraid, just happy. Like hearing an old, favourite song whose lyrics he'd begun to forget and was very glad to hear again.

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

"Dammit," Jim muttered as he slammed closed the cover on the latest useless report on the failure to track Rossner down. Sitting beside him, and attuned to his Sentinel as he was to no other person, Blair felt the frustration emanating from his partner.

"What?" he asked, looking up to see disgusted frustration on Jim's face.

Rossner, Jim signed. There's still no trace of him. He must have had an account somewhere we didn't find - must have had plans to disappear if the need ever arose.

Sandburg chewed on his lip as one brow quirked. "Well, at least he's not blowing up any more buildings," he offered as modest consolation.

That we know of, Jim snapped back, the signing brittle with anger.

Frowning, Blair debated whether to verbalize his suggestion or not. He'd had an idea for some time about how to smoke Rossner out, but had hesitated to raise it because it could put Jim in danger. Finally, he decided that if there was a way to catch this guy, they had to chance it, regardless of the risks. Jim was right, the guy could be working somewhere else in the States, and innocent people could still be dying in his fires. "Ah, I might have an idea of how to draw him out," Sandburg offered tentatively.

Jim went still as he gazed at the grad student. How? he signed, willing to try just about anything.

Blair nervously scratched his cheek as he replied, "Well, you know how he was seeing it as a contest between him and you? Well, the guy has an ego as big as a house, right? So, um, what if the press made a big deal that you seem to have scared him out of Cascade? It would be a kind of challenge to him. And, uh, if we could put out information about someone suitably dirty needing 'private demolition services', like the ads he used to place, maybe we could set up another trap for him."

Ellison bit his lip. Like we tried the last time? he signed and Blair nodded as he replied, "He wouldn't likely expect us to try it again, not after, well, he figures he's won."

Jim's eyes went out of focus as he thought about it. Almost five months had passed since that terrible night. Maybe it was enough time for The Torch to figure the cops had decided he was gone for good. A newspaper headline to that effect would help reinforce that belief. And, Sandburg was right; the guy had made it personal, a kind of competition between them that Rossner, dammit, had to figure he'd won. He wouldn't like the idea that his disappearance was being interpreted as a defacto loss. Slowly, Jim nodded. It could work. Snapping his gaze back to Sandburg, he crooked a finger to follow as he headed toward Simon's office.

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

Sandburg's idea had merit, but the specifics weren't that easy to work out. First, there was no reason for the news media to do them any favours with a broad headline that came out of nowhere. If The Torch wasn't blowing something up, then he wasn't news - so why would the press run a story? Simon chewed on his lip for a moment as he pondered the problem. Then he seemed to have thought of something that made him smile but he didn't reveal what it was, just said that he'd take it up with the Chief, and left it at that. As for getting a known hood to cooperate by placing an ad for 'private demolition services', Banks thought that might be a bit easier. Reaching for his phone, he called the DA's office to ask them to consider a deal with Carl Rankin, a shady businessman who had rented out space to an arms dealer. Rankin hadn't been directly involved in the gunrunning, but had been recently swept up in the net that had caught the bigger fish. In exchange for this favour, his sentence might be significantly reduced.

Jim was anxious to get on with the plan, but he didn't have any choice but wait for the powers that be to put the ideas into motion. Blair just hoped he wouldn't ultimately be sorry for having brought his idea to Jim's attention. Rossner was bright, and careful. He was also ruthless and wily. He'd figured out their last sting and had been waiting for them, stalking them, maybe for several nights. He'd determined their routine, ambushing them with the bomb that he'd planted in advance and, as forensics had finally figured out, had then waited somewhere in the area to trigger it so that he could witness the evidence of his handiwork.

Blair remembered with a chill the analysis he'd read of what had happened that night in the report of the 'incident'. According to reports written by Joel and Megan, who had been the investigators assigned to the case, if Ellison and Sandburg had arrived at the stakeout at their usual time, then Rossner would have likely detonated the bomb immediately. But they'd been early that night, and the detectives had speculated that Rossner had missed his opportunity; maybe he had only just set the bomb in the smelly bowels of the garbage dumpster and was still on his way to wherever he planned to lie in wait, when Jim had left the truck immediately to do his walkabout. As there'd been no residue of a timer mechanism found in the remains of the explosion, it was thought that Rossner had apparently been watching until Jim had returned to the truck to set it off - only Sandburg's warning had waved Ellison off. So he'd triggered it to at least take out Ellison's partner before disappearing in the confusion. Blair realized, as he read, that the smell of the garbage had likely covered any slight trace of the C4, and the lack of a timer meant there'd been nothing for Jim to hear. He'd been right all along - none of what had happened that night was Jim's fault…and Blair immediately pointed those facts out to his Sentinel. Setting the report aside, Blair had shuddered as he'd reflected how close they'd both come to being killed that night.

As they waited for progress to be made on engaging the media in their subterfuge, and for the deal to be negotiated with Rankin, Ellison and Sandburg carried on with their routines, and continued to perfect their own version of sign language to ensure they could communicate in potentially hazardous situations. Jim was still worried about how they'd manage if they were caught in the dark and somehow separated. He couldn't shout out a warning and Blair wouldn't be able to see gestured signals in the dark. Blair understood his partner's concern, even shared it, but shrugged it off. There were only so many things they could do to mitigate his deafness. They'd just have to be careful and hope for the best. When Jim seemed to be getting really bent out of shape over the problem, and his fears, Blair stilled his agitated fingers, stopping the oft-repeated worries from being spelled out again.

"We have to trust that we're meant to work together," he said earnestly to his Sentinel. "I died at that fountain, but you brought me back. I could have been killed in the explosion, but I was only left deaf, not dead. There has to be a reason for all that, Jim. Nothing happens randomly, man, nothing. We'll be okay."

Jim wasn't at all sure that he believed in such an intentional and benevolent universe, but he nodded and hoped his Guide was right.

It was ten days after Sandburg had made his suggestion about how to trap Rossner when the two partners found themselves dressed to the nines and once again sitting at the MCU table during the annual Law Enforcement Awards ceremony. The usual chicken dinner was as rubbery as it was every year, the vegetables as soggy, but while Jim pulled irritably at his tight collar and shifted restlessly, wishing the evening was over, Blair ate quietly. The grad student was watching the main participants talking privately amongst themselves on the dais, a smile growing as he put his 'speech reading' into practice. Cutting a look at Simon, he found the tall Captain gazing up him, a brow quirked in amusement, and Sandburg realized he'd been caught out. But Simon just lifted his forefinger to his lips in the classic, 'sh' signal, and Blair grinned, his eyes sparkling with delight.

Finally, the hotel staff cleared the remains of the meal away, and the diners settled back with their coffee and tea to watch the main events of the evening unfold. There were any number of awards given that night, from 'Most Valued Beat Cop', to 'Best Undercover Disguise' - a big, black detective from Vice, who looked like a linebacker, winning for having successfully and very convincingly posed as a transvestite prostitute. As the wolf whistles and laughter settled down, the Commissioner rose to replace the Chief at the Podium, to announce the two top awards of the evening.

"Every one of you has done a really fine job this past year," Commissioner Buchanan told them proudly. "Arrest records rival any in the country, and you are all to be commended for helping to keep our citizens safe. It's my pleasure tonight to present the award to the unit with the best record for successfully closing and prosecuting cases. Captain Simon Banks, would you please step forward to accept this award on behalf of all of the Major Crimes Unit."

Their table erupted in cheers as Banks stood to make his way to the front of the hall, smiling at the honest applause of his colleagues and their teams.

"Thank you, Sir," Simon said formally, taking the inscribed plaque and moving to the microphone as the Commissioner stepped back to give him room. The hall quieted as Simon gazed out over the gathered assembly of his community. "This award means a great deal to us, but we have never seen this as a competition. All of us in the Cascade Police Department do our best every day to protect and serve, even to putting our lives on the line. My detectives and I know that we couldn't do our jobs without the backup and support of those of you in uniform, or forensics or those who secure evidence for trial, or those who painstakingly ensure our systems and records are effective, complete and efficient when we need them. I'm proud of my team, but I can speak for all of us when I say that we are all equally proud to be members of this fine Force. So, thank you, Commissioner," Simon said sincerely, "for this honour. But we have to share it with all of Cascade's Finest." With that, Simon turned and presented the award to the Chief of Police, as the official representative of all the men and women in the banquet hall.

Hands clapped and feet stamped as everyone in the room rose to cheer Banks' words and gesture, grateful to have been acknowledged for the support they had given throughout the year to their star unit. The Commissioner patted Captain Banks on the shoulder as the big man turned to leave the dais empty-handed, but glowing with pride as he looked at the men and women at his table.

Once Simon was again seated and the cheering had died down, Commissioner Buchanan again addressed the audience. "And now, for our final award of the evening, 'Cop of the Year'. I am delighted to recognize that individual who apprehended the most criminals, very often against great odds and in the face of significant personal risk. For the fourth year in a row, I'm proud to present this award to Detective James Ellison, Major Crimes Unit!"

Again the hall erupted into applause and cheers, the gang at the MCU table on their feet to slap Jim on the back as he stood and pulled down his jacket, mortally embarrassed by all the fuss. Sandburg was grinning from ear to ear as he cheered with the rest of them, quickly checking his throat to ensure he was as loud as he could be as he joined in the jubilation.

His head bowed, blushing painfully, Jim made his way to the front, shaking hands along the way. After he'd accepted the plaque, he stepped to the podium, setting the award down as he cleared his throat. As he started to speak, he raised his hands to sign as he spoke. "Thank you for this wonderful recognition. As Captain Banks so rightly said, no one, no unit and certainly no single cop wins an award like this without a lot of help. I've had great support from my colleagues in Major Crimes, from Captain Banks and from a great many of you sitting here tonight, and I'm grateful to all of you. But, most of all, I have to acknowledge and thank my partner, Blair Sandburg. I guess all of you know that Blair is a civilian observer working on his PhD dissertation, and when he started more than three years ago now, none of us thought he'd last a day. But he stuck with me, and I have to tell you all, no one ever had a better partner than I've got. So, tonight, I accept this award on behalf of both of us. Thanks Blair, for everything you'd done to make this possible."

Thank you, my brother, Sandburg signed as their gazes locked, just before Jim turned to leave the raised platform. Everyone else was clapping and cheering as Jim made his way back to their table, but Blair sat, astonished at the tribute Jim had just given him, blushing with embarrassment but smiling broadly with joy. He knew as well as anyone the kind of mockery Jim had endured through the years for having such an unconventional shadow trailing along behind him; and he could guess at what a lot of them thought about Jim's stupidity at allowing a man who was now deaf to continue to work along side him. Nobody but the two of them, and Simon, knew why Jim did it. There was sure no need to draw attention to their odd partnership in front of the whole department or to acknowledge that Blair wasn't just an annoying tagalong, but that he genuinely helped with more than just the senses. Such publicly expressed esteem from the 'Cop of the Year' meant the world to Sandburg and he was profoundly grateful.

Later, the press took endless photos while the TV cameras recorded the sound bites, not just of the winners, but of those they gathered into the picture with them, as Jim drew Blair in, one arm slung around the younger man's shoulders, both of them smiling happily.

The next day, the newspapers and the news reports on television and radio announced to the world who was 'Cop of the Year' in Cascade, Washington, detailing a number of his successful cases, including the fact that he'd run The Torch out of town. And most of the coverage gave a human interest sidebar on the cop's 'partner', who was a civilian working on his PhD in Anthropology at Rainier University; and who was still determinedly riding along with Ellison to complete his dissertation research, despite having been permanently deafened by an explosion some months before. All of the coverage included a shot of Ellison holding his award, with his arm slung around Sandburg's shoulders, both men smiling jubilantly.

Two days later, Carl Rankin posted a personal advertisement in the national papers for a 'private demolition expert'.

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

Over the months since Sandburg had returned to work with Jim, they'd had to make adjustments in potentially volatile situations, so that now Blair usually stuck closer than a shadow as he trailed Ellison through darkened alleys or crowded warehouses when they were chasing down a suspect. It was hardest for Jim, who wanted more than anything to leave Blair safe in the truck, but Blair wouldn't stay behind. And given the last time he had, Jim wasn't prepared to leave him alone. So, once they'd called for backup, they'd both take off after a runner, or stealthily enter a building where the suspects were holed up. Sometimes, though, when things were really rushed, like a guy was disappearing down an alley the truck couldn't negotiate, Jim would have to take off while Blair called in the need for backup, using his connection to the TDD at the 911 desk so he'd get a typed response indicating how long it would be before a uniformed unit arrived. Then Blair would call out how long it would be, knowing Jim could still hear him, and that he was on his way. And then he'd take off after Jim, being very careful to keep low and against walls or in the shadows until he'd caught up, trusting his partner to be keeping track of him by using his senses even while chasing after the bad guy.

All in all, they both figured things were working out okay. Sure, it was trickier, more dangerous without a doubt, now that Blair couldn't hear, but they compensated for that and so far, so good. Sandburg didn't say anything about one odd thing he'd recently noticed, because he figured it was mostly his imagination; but he found that he was so attuned to Jim's body language that it was like he could actually feel when Jim's alarm spiked even before the detective signed him to drop or duck. Whenever he puzzled over that once the danger was over and only the mopping up remained, Sandburg wrote it off to the fact that he was getting really good at 'speech reading' - Jim's anyway.

The sign language actually proved a benefit, allowing them to communicate silently with ease, and when Jim gestured to 'duck', Blair dropped to the ground without a second thought. After the third such episode, while dabbing ruefully at the filthy mud on his clothing, Sandburg wondered if Jim wasn't being a tad too careful, making him hit the deck when maybe it wasn't entirely necessary, but he wasn't about to argue. He had to trust Jim's instincts about the degree of danger they faced, and he wasn't about to forget his promise to Simon to be careful.

Two nights after the award ceremony, Blair was once again chasing after Jim, trying to catch up as quickly as he could. It was a miserable night, dark and drizzly, without even the uncertain glow of the moon to light his way through the alley filled with broken wooden crates and cardboard boxes piled around the dumpsters. He was quickly picking his way forward as carefully as he could, squinting to try to spot Jim in the shadows ahead, when he felt a sudden surge of fear and he dropped without thinking.

A black shadow swished over him, barely missing his head as he fell to his knees and rolled away. Twisting to look back, he saw a dark shadow raising something, a length of wood from the broken crates, and kicked out as he scrambled back, keeping low. The guy kept coming as Sandburg looked around desperately for something with which to defend himself, grabbing up a trash can lid as an impromptu shield. The guy swung his heavy wooden weapon, smashing the battered metal lid out of Sandburg's hands, and then raised the wooden slab with the intent of bringing it down on Blair's head - when he suddenly jerked and staggered back, dropping the improvised weapon and clutching his arm as he fell onto his back. Unsure of what to do, Blair grabbed up the jagged remains of what had been a 2x4 and kept watch on the wounded man, certain that Jim had shot the guy but having no idea where Jim was, only that he must be close.

"I've got this one," Blair whispered, "You can go get the other one if you think you're okay without me in this stygian darkness. Use sight and sound to anchor one another so you don't zone." Blair kept up a low murmur of encouragement to his Sentinel while he stood guard over the fallen man.

A few minutes later, just as the wash of the red and blue lights swirling on the arriving cruisers began to reflect off the rain-washed walls and puddles of the alley, Jim came out of the shadows behind him, pushing a somewhat battered and bedraggled, cuffed man, in front of him. Blair heaved out a sigh of relief to see that Jim was okay.

Once the uniforms had taken the two men into custody and waited while an ambulance came to take the injured one in to have his gunshot wound attended to, Jim and Blair headed back to the truck. Blair pushed his rain-soaked hair back from his face as he watched Jim, who turned toward him to sign, That was too close, Chief. I didn't think you'd seen me signal you that that guy was behind you.

"I didn't," Blair admitted, frowning as he thought back over what had happened.

Jim just stared at him and then signed, Then how did you know to drop out of the way? Did you see a shadow or something?

Shaking his head, rubbing his arms to work off the chill he felt, Blair replied, "I felt your warning."

What? Ellison snapped back, scowling.

Sandburg bit his lip as he stared back at Jim. "I know, it's weird. But I've noticed it before - I just didn't think it meant anything," he babbled while Jim narrowed his eyes, trying to understand. "I've felt this surge of alarm the last few times, just before you've signaled me to duck, but I figured I was just picking up on your body language or something. But tonight, I swear I didn't see you, didn't have a clue where you were. I just felt this - this feeling wash over me, cold and scared, and so I dropped. I didn't even think about it."

Jim's face could have been chiseled from marble for all the expression he showed as he stared at his partner, and thought about what Blair had just said. He shook his head. It didn't make any sense. It was impossible. Sure, he'd heard two heartbeats behind him, and had looked back just in time to see the guy lift the wooden club to knock Sandburg's brains out, had signaled desperately…but, if Blair hadn't seen him… how could the kid just feel the warning? It was impossible.

Blair was shaking his head, his own eyes narrowed in thought as he shivered and stared sightlessly into the darkness while he tried to make some sense of what had happened. Filling the silence between them, he said with that tone of bubbling excitement he only had when he'd discovered something new about his precious Sentinel, "Maybe it only makes sense, when you think about it. I mean, Jim, think about it! In the jungle, the sentinel and guide wouldn't always be glued to one another's shadow. They had to have a way to communicate if there was danger - the sentinel would have to have a way to warn the guide and vice versa. I never considered that there could be some kind of extrasensory perception thing that could exist between us. Maybe it doesn't always exist. Maybe when you brought me back from the dead, we established some kind of emotional or mental bond of some kind. Maybe, maybe because I'm deaf, I'm more aware of this other stuff? Maybe I just didn't notice it before because of too much other sensory input. Oh, man, we have got to test this out!"

Jim had been gaping at his ramblings until he heard the word 'test', and then he groaned as he whacked his enthusiastically distracted partner lightly on the head to get his attention.

"What?" Blair demanded, not well pleased to have his excited train of thought interrupted.

Don't tell Simon, Jim signed sardonically. And let's not have to 'test' this weird stuff too often, okay, Chief? I'm not sure I want to trust that it works all the time.

Blair had grinned at the mention of their boss, only too well aware of how Banks would react to a new bit of really weird stuff between the two of them. But he didn't miss the anxious look in Jim's eyes as his partner signed the rest of his message. Jim had been really scared for him earlier - he'd felt that jolt of raw fear, and he sobered, understanding the anxiety he was now reading in his partner's wary gaze. "But, you do believe me, don't you, Jim?" he asked, uncertain. "You believe that I felt your warning?"

Ellison sighed as he nodded and signed, Yes, if you say it happened, then it did, even if I don't understand how.

Blair smiled. 'Thanks,' he said quietly, touched by the unconditional faith Jim had in him.

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

"Rossner's taken the bait!" Simon told them as he slapped a file down on Ellison's desk, signing his message for Blair's benefit.

"You're sure it's him?" Jim demanded as he flipped open the file to read the report detailing the contacts Rankin had had with a bomber to arrange the destruction of one of his warehouses as Blair stood to read over his shoulder while also trying to watch Simon's response.

"As sure as we can be," Banks sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "The MO is consistent in terms of how the contact was handled, the bouncing satellites to obscure the origin of the phone call, the demand for an electronic transfer of funds to a specific account, but we're having the taped phone conversation analyzed to match the voice print we got the last time. We'll know for sure later this afternoon."

"When's it supposed to happen?" Sandburg asked as he unconsciously laid a protective hand on Jim's shoulder.

"Next Monday night," Simon replied, watching to see if Blair needed the message signed, but the graduate student nodded, having understood from reading Banks' speech.

"Well, if he's consistent, and it is him, he'll be sending Jim a message of some kind before then, to make sure Jim knows he's back, and to rub it in that there's nothing Jim can do to stop him," Sandburg said, wishing he felt better about having suggested this idea in the first place.

"Yeah," Jim murmured, signing without thinking about it. "And we need to be real careful with the stakeouts between now and then, so that he doesn't realize we're on to him this time."

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

Tension ran high that weekend as Cascade PD put their plan to capture the master bomber into action. H, Rafe and Megan teamed with guys from the Bomb Squad to masquerade as security guards on duty 24/7 at the warehouse, while uniformed patrols in unmarked cars kept a wary eye out for any suspicious vehicles parked in its general area. They all knew Rossner didn't have to actually be present to blow a bomb on a timer or with a remote trigger, though his usual MO wasn't to put it in place until the contracted night of the fire. Still, nobody wanted to take any chances that this time he might plant it early and use a timer.

But, nothing happened and Monday dawned according to the clock but it was hard to tell, the day was so dark with overcast clouds and cold bursts of rain showers. Blair headed out with Jim, to go Rainier to give his usual class, promising to meet Jim downtown later as they parted to go their separate ways. They figured Rossner was likely watching Jim, so they'd been staying well away from the warehouse since the deal with Rankin and Rossner had been confirmed, leaving others to keep watch so as not to tip their hand. There was really nothing for them to be doing until later that night, when garbed in black, they would be prowling the warehouse personally.

"I told Ellie I'd meet her for lunch today, but I won't be late, promise," Blair called out as he unlocked his car.

"Ah, the fair Ellie," Jim mouthed deliberately, a teasing look on his face. Waggling his eyebrows, he said, "Have fun," before he turned to climb into his SUV, grinning at the sound of Blair's chuckles. Jim watched his partner drive off, genuinely glad to know Sandburg had finally gotten back into the dating scene. It was another signal that his best friend had stopped allowing the silence that surrounded him to be a barrier to living a good and fulfilling life.

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

Sandburg skipped down the steps in front of Hargrove Hall, his backpack over his shoulder, and jogged through the light, incessant drizzle, along the walk beside the drive toward the Library, smiling when he saw Ellie emerge and come toward him. But just as he loped past the vehicles in the short-term parking spaces, the door of a dark van opened and a man stepped half in front of him, blocking his path.

Blair skidded to a halt, staring in unfeigned surprise at the big man dressed in a black leather jacket and black pants who loomed in front of him, mostly gaping at the gun held close to the dark-clad body but pointed straight at him. There was no mistaking that sun-leathered face or the thatch of dirty blond hair and Blair knew he was looking at Roger Rossner. Lifting his hands, his fingers twitching as if afraid, he asked, "What do you want?"

Rossner didn't say anything, just gestured with the gun and his hand to motion Blair to follow him into the van as he backed in and slid to the passenger seat as Sandburg climbed in to drive.

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

Ellie stopped in confusion when she saw Blair suddenly put his hands in the air after stopping to talk to a guy who'd gotten out of the van beside him - it looked like he was being held up. But she caught the twitching fingers, frowning in concentration as she tried to remember the signing alphabet Blair had been teaching her. CA-- JI- -OSS---. It was enough. She knew Blair worked with his roommate, Detective Jim Ellison. Swallowing hard, she watched the van pull away, taking note of the model and trying to decipher the muddied license number, and then she ran back to the Library as if all the hounds of Hell were on her tail.

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

"Ellison," Jim snapped as he cradled the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he kept typing on his keyboard.

"Jim Ellison?" came the breathless female voice.

"Yes, who's calling?" he asked, only half listening.

"This is Ellie Winston, Blair's girlfriend," she gabbled quickly. "I just saw someone kidnap Blair."

"What?" Jim shouted as he grabbed hold of the receiver, his computer report forgotten. "Slow down. Tell me exactly what happened."

"I couldn't see the man very well, but he was big, and blond, I think," she babbled on, terrified. "He made Blair get into a dark blue van, a Ford, but I don't know the model. Anyway, the license plate was covered in mud, so I could only make out W-53. I couldn't see the other numbers, I'm sorry. I think maybe he had a gun, because Blair put his hands up. And Blair knew I was coming to meet him, he'd seen me, and so he signed that I should call you. He also signed something else, six letters, but I couldn't make it all out. Something with 'o' and then 's, s'. I'm sorry, Detective…I didn't know what to do…" She was crying now.

"It's okay, Ellie. You've done everything right. I'm going to come to the University - I'll be there in about twenty minutes. Can you meet me where you saw Blair taken?" Jim replied, trying to maintain a calm tone though his own heart was racing.

"Yes, sure. It was between Hargrove Hall and the Library, on the drive…" she sniffled.

"Okay, I know where you mean. See you soon," Jim cut in and then hung up as he stood and grabbed his coat before loping to Simon's office.

"Simon, I just got a call from Sandburg's girlfriend. Rossner took Blair outside Hargrove Hall. He's driving a dark blue van, probably a Ford, partial license W-53," Jim said in a rush, already turning toward the exit as he finished, "I'm heading over there now to see if I can pick anything up."

"Damn!" Simon snarled as he scribbled a quick note as Jim was speaking, calling out after Jim who was already racing away, "I'll put out an APB and send backup to meet you there!"

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

Jim stood beside Ellie, desperately trying to pick up some clue. But the rain had started falling heavily again just before he'd arrived, washing away any trace of scent or oil, anything that might have given him even the slightest clue of where Rossner had taken Blair or of how to follow the van.

"Which way did the van go when they left?" Jim asked the shivering young woman beside him.

"Toward town," she replied. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, and her green eyes were reddened with tears. "You'll be able to find him, won't you?"

"Oh, yeah," Jim vowed hoarsely as he briefly gripped her shoulder reassuringly, "I'll find him. One way or another, I promise you that."

She nodded and turned to head back to the Library, the uniformed cops following her to take her statement, while Jim headed back to his truck.

Once inside, he pounded the steering wheel with his fist, frustrated and scared. Damn it! It hadn't occurred to anyone that that bastard would go after Sandburg. They'd all figured the bomber would be watching him, the 'great detective'.

Swallowing hard, willing himself to be calm, as if that were possible, the 'great detective' wished he had a clue of where to start looking for his partner. The only thing he could think of was that Rossner planned to take Sandburg to the warehouse with him, and then blow his partner up with the building.

But what if he was wrong?

Jim heard the APB repeated as he started up the SUV to head back downtown.

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

Blair had watched for any opportunity to make a break for it, but Rossner kept the gun trained on him relentlessly. The guy had definitely prepared, and sure knew he was deaf, because Rossner had a card prepared with the address of where he wanted Blair to drive. Sandburg's eyes widened, recognizing the address only too well, but he did as he was directed, hoping all the while that Ellie had been able to read his signed message. Once they'd arrived at their destination, Rossner grabbed a backpack from the wheel-well at his feet as he gestured for Blair to precede him inside, and then they'd climbed up the stairwell to the roof.

Sandburg was just hoping that the plan, whatever it was, didn't include him being ordered to jump off the roof. He was preparing to fight in case that's what Rossner had in mind, when he felt a hard blow to the back of his head that made him stumble to his knees, the world spinning as stars spangled in the sudden darkness. Not quite unconscious, he felt Rossner dragging him across the roof, and he tried to struggle but his arms and legs weren't paying any attention whatsoever to his muzzy mind. He was dimly aware of being gagged, his hands being shackled to something above and behind his head, and of his ankles being bound together. The rain, usually the bane of his existence, helped revive him, as he blinked against its cold pinging on his face. He realized he was on his back, looking up at the clouds and Rossner, who was kneeling beside him, pulling stuff from his pack.

Blair twisted sharply, pulling on his arms as he tried to kick or knee Rossner with his bound legs, but his arms were held tight by something, and Rossner swiveled on him, backhanding him viciously. When he snapped his head back to glare at the felon, Blair found himself staring down the barrel of the gun. Eyes wide, suddenly very still, he looked past the weapon to Rossner who was staring down at him with hard brown eyes, his head tilted just a little in query. The offer was pretty clear: settle down or be shot in the head at point blank range, the decision was Blair's.

He settled down.

Nodding, smiling coldly, Rossner began looping sturdy wire cords around Blair's body and then attached them to little toggles in the top and bottom of a metal box he then secured tightly to Sandburg's chest so that the wires on either end of the box were taut. Rummaging again in his pack, he pulled out a small wireless transmitter and a card with block printing on it. When Rossner held the card in front of his face Blair blinked against the rain that was soaking him to focus on the black letters.

Do more than breathe and this will blow immediately. Stay still, and maybe someone will find you before it goes off.

Sandburg's breathing hitched as he looked past the card to the bomb secured to his chest and then looked back up at Rossner, who was clearly laughing at him. Helpless rage surged through Blair's chest, but there was nothing he could do. Rossner patted his cheek and then stood, pointing the transmitter at the bomb and pushing a button. Reflexively, Sandburg winced but then realized that Rossner must have just been arming the thing - he couldn't turn it 'on' until he'd finished wiring it to Blair's chest. The bomber bent to put the transmitter back into his pack, then pulled out a cell phone and punched in some numbers. Grinning at Blair, he started to talk, and Sandburg's heart sank as he 'read' the gist of what Rossner was saying.

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

Jim hadn't gotten back to the police station before his cell buzzed. Hoping Simon had some good news, that maybe the APB had produced results already, Jim pulled the small phone from his pocket and snapped it open as he kept driving. "Ellison."

"Ah, the mighty cop of the year," the harsh voice said.

"Who is this?" Ellison demanded. "What do you want?"

"Why, I'm The Torch," the voice replied with a cold chuckle. "Sound familiar? You know, the guy you supposedly 'chased out of town'? I just wondered if you have any idea where your partner is?"

"If you hurt him, I'll…" Jim growled, only to be cut off.

"Trust me, in the position he's in, your threats don't do him much good," the voice drawled, sounding vastly amused at the alarm in Ellison's voice. "Serves you right for all those boasts about chasing me away. Now we get to see how great a detective you really are. Tell you what. I'm a sporting man - I'll give you a clue to work on. When this bomb blows, you will lose everything you really care about. But you might want to hurry - Sandburg here doesn't have a lot of time. Good luck, detective."

Jim strained to hear all he could before the connection was broken. There was rain pinging on something, and the distant sound of traffic - and he could hear ragged breathing and the pulse of his partner's heart as well as Rossner's. But, then, Rossner laughed nastily and the sounds were all cut off. Jim's attention snapped back and he found himself parked on the side of the street, where he'd automatically pulled over as soon as he'd heard Rossner's voice. The muscle throbbed in his jaw as he desperately went over the sounds in the background of the call.

Rain pattering - and enough information to know Blair was still alive.

But it wasn't enough, dammit. It wasn't enough!

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

Jim stalked into MCU and headed directly to Simon's office.

"You get anything?" Banks asked immediately, looking up hopefully, but his hope died at the haunted look on Ellison's face.

Jim shook his head as he sank down upon one of the chairs facing Simon's desk. "At the scene, no. I was hoping you'd have heard something by now on the APB."

Jim wasn't quite making eye contact and Banks' eyes narrowed as he studied his detective. "Nothing so far," he replied, and then asked, "What aren't you telling me?"

Ellison's eyes flashed to his and Banks almost recoiled from the icy glare of blue fury. "The bastard called me, Simon," Jim snapped. "Must've had the call relayed through dispatch to my cell. He called me 'the mighty cop of the year' and told me this was about what we'd said about me driving him out of town. He said he was 'a sporting man' and he'd give me a clue," Ellison went on to say bitterly. "Said this time when the bomb blew, I would lose everything I care about."

Jim's voice cracked on the last words and he looked away, his body rigid with tension and his struggle for control.

"Jesus," Banks muttered as he closed his eyes. But then he quickly pulled himself together. They didn't have time to react like normal people, with appalled shock and horror. "Anything else?" he asked.

Jim swallowed as he dipped his head and rubbed his mouth. "Yeah," he finally grated. "He said Sandburg didn't have much time. And he was with Blair, Simon. I could hear Sandburg's heart beat, so I know he's alive. And I heard rain hitting something, sounded like gravel, so he's outside someplace. Someplace in town, because I could also hear traffic noise in the background."

Banks leaned back in his chair as he thought about the meager clues. "We know he's supposed to blow that warehouse tonight. What are the chances he's stashed Sandburg there, or nearby? On the roof, maybe?"

"I wondered that myself," Jim sighed. "We don't have much else to go on," he added bleakly.

Simon grabbed his phone to call Megan on her cell, as she had the day shift at the warehouse. "Connor," he said, striving to sound as if he was calm and in control, "Rossner has grabbed Sandburg…yeah, I know. We think he may have stashed him on the roof of the warehouse…I know you didn't see anything or you would have called in. Look, just go up and check, all right? Be careful - sounds like he's got a bomb either rigged to Sandburg or nearby…yeah, call me right back."

Jim had risen to pace to the window during the call, and now stood staring out into the rain. "It never occurred to me that he'd go after Sandburg," he murmured, his voice strained with emotion. "God dammit, Simon, if something happens…"

"We'll find him, Jim," Banks cut in, wishing profoundly that that would prove to be true. But he knew as well as Jim did that Sandburg could be anywhere, his final seconds of life ticking away. Rossner hadn't told them how much time they had - and if the kid wasn't at the warehouse, they didn't have a clue as to where to start looking for him. Cascade was a big place. Searching for him would be more hopeless than trying to find the damned needle in the proverbial haystack.

It was a long ten minutes before Simon's phone rang, and he snatched it up like a lifeline, only to sag as he listened to the words, watching Jim and knowing the Sentinel was listening, too.

"Sorry, Sir," Megan reported bleakly. "There's no trace of anyone or anything on this wretched roof."

"Thanks, Connor, we'll keep you posted," Banks said hollowly as he hung up.

Jim crossed his arms and bowed his head as he once again played the call from Rossner over in his mind, desperately searching for something, some sound, that would help narrow the search down. Squinting in concentration, he thought about the 'clue', and wondered how Rossner knew that Sandburg was 'everything' that mattered in his life.

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

Blair blinked away the rain that pattered into his eyes, and stifled a low moan of fear as he stared alternately at the box and then up into the clouded sky. He was wet clear through and achingly cold, desperately fighting off the urge to shiver as he concentrated on breathing shallowly. His head pounded from the pistol grazing the back of his skull earlier, and he was very afraid. His arms were practically numb from being pulled tightly over his head and he assumed he was tied or cuffed to a post near the edge of the roof because he could see the overhead wires for telephone and electric connections. He knew exactly where he was and what would happen if the bomb on his chest went off. Tears of helplessness burned in his eyes as he wondered how much time he had left, and if Jim would grasp the clue and find him in time.

Blair's eyes scanned the sky, praying to the nameless power of the universe to guide his Sentinel, to help Jim - and, if his friend was unable to save him, if this was his time to go, that that power give his partner strength to deal with grief and guilt, to go on and not give up, as Blair was terrified Jim might well do. He couldn't shake the memory of Ellison with a gun to his head, and he begged silently, in his silent world, that, if he had to die, Jim wouldn't choose to end his own life, too.

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

Ellison was wound tighter than a spring, his muscles coiled to attack, but he was helpless to do anything but wait for the damned APB to get them something to work on. The hours passed with excruciating slowness, and his senses flared erratically, driving him to distraction. His breath felt tight in his body, and his mouth was dry, his lips tight as if being pulled apart. He felt fear and great sorrow curl in his chest, and his arms ached. Cold shivered down his spine so that it was all he could do not to shiver. His eyes burned as if he was about to weep, but he was too angry and afraid to cry. Stiff and sore, he paced endlessly, prowling around MCU, biting his lips, wracking his mind over the damned stupid clue that told him nothing of use.

Simon watched him warily and wondered how much Jim could take before he lost it. Wondered what Ellison would do if they didn't find Sandburg in time. Wearily, Banks pulled off his glasses and raked his hand over his eyes, before setting his spectacles on his face to look up at the wall clock. Four thirty…four hours since Sandburg had been taken. His jaw clenched, his gaze wandering to the window, Simon stared out at the darkening night, dusk coming early with the lowering clouds and intermittent rain.

When his phone rang, he jumped on it, practically shouting, "Banks," as Jim wheeled and strode to the door of his office, listening, hoping, the APB had finally come up with something. They both stiffened as Simon listened to the report that a dark blue Ford van with the partial plate had been spotted parked about two blocks from the warehouse but no one fitting Rossner's description had yet been seen in the area. An unmarked patrol was maintaining surveillance on the van.

Jim was turning to go when Simon slammed the phone down. "Ellison, wait," he called as he stood and moved around his desk. Jim turned back, his posture rigid with his need to go, to search, and Simon held up his hands, asking wordlessly for calm and to be heard. When Jim nodded tightly, Banks said, "Our best bet is still that Rossner has Sandburg close by the warehouse. He likely doesn't know that a witness spotted the van and the partial plate, and he doesn't know we know about his target. He's likely casing the warehouse before moving in later tonight. Catch him and you can find out where he's stashed Blair. Go home; get into your dark clothes, just like we planned, so he doesn't have a hope of spotting you in the shadows. I'll come with you…I can borrow some of your clothing and go with you to the warehouse district. It's our best hope, Jim - and you know you're going to need my backup when you're listening hard to try to hear Sandburg."

Ellison stared at Simon as he fought his instinct to go directly to the damned warehouse, but his boss was right. Striking out in a random search pattern through that maze of alleys wouldn't get them anywhere. He had to focus on getting Rossner, and much as he wanted to do nothing so much as kill the bastard, he had to take the bomber alive. That meant stealth and concealment, so they could sneak up undetected, close enough to be certain they would capture him once they spotted him.

"Okay," Jim grated finally, and Simon grabbed his coat, the two of them heading out on the run.

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

Simon drove, and Jim figured that was a good thing the way his senses kept spiking. The closer he got to the loft, and the farther away from the warehouse district, the more he felt like he could hardly breathe, as if there was something heavy on his chest. Too wired to wait for the elevator once they reached his building, they loped up the stairs to the loft, Jim fumbling for his keys, hastily opening the locked door when they arrived on the third floor.

Moving inside, the two men headed straight up to Jim's room, to raid his closet for dark clothing. Simon was glad that he'd at least worn a black suit that day so he wouldn't have to worry about Jim's pants being too short for him. Ellison was pulling black sweatshirts out of a drawer in his dresser when he stopped, his head tilted to one side.

"C'mon, Jim, hurry up," Simon mumbled as he pulled off his jacket and tie.

But Jim raised his hand for silence, his mouth slightly agape. Wordlessly, he looked down toward the small bedroom directly below, a frown on his face as he muttered, "I hear Sandburg. I hear his heart beat."

"Oh, God," Simon groaned, thinking Jim was imagining things, so desperate to hear Sandburg's heart that being in the loft was creating a kind of sonic mirage. "Don't lose it on me now, Ellison!"

"No," Jim replied tightly, his eyes lifting to the roof. "He's up there. On the roof!" And then Jim was plunging back down the steps as he yelled, "Call Joel!"

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

Jim slammed through the door and out onto the roof, running toward the far corner, over the loft. He staggered when he saw Blair laying there, a shadow in the dusk, and then hurled forward.

"NNGGGHHH!" Blair shouted through his gag, the sound garbled but desperate, enough to stop Jim from reaching out to grab him as Ellison slid to his knees beside his partner.

Blair's wide eyes stared up at him and then darted to the box strapped to his chest as he struggled to be understood. "ONNNTT…CCHHH. NNNTT…OOVVV."

Don't touch, don't move, Jim signed quickly in response. Blair blinked and dipped his head in a miniscule nod. Ellison swallowed and turned his attention to the bomb, licking his lips as he studied how it was bound to Blair, his sight focusing to see through the smoky plastic covering the mechanism. Blowing out a long breath, he turned back to Blair and signed, It's okay. We've got an hour yet, before it blows. Joel's on the way.

Blair exhaled a soft moan of relief as his lips trembled around the gag. Simon raced out onto the roof, calling, "Jim!"

"Over here," Jim yelled back as he pulled out his pocketknife and carefully slipped it between the gag and Blair's cheek, cutting the grubby rag off.

Sandburg rasped, "He said if I moved, it would go off."

Jim briefly laid a trembling hand on his Guide's forehead and then he signed, It's okay, Chief. Joel will know how to get it off you. You're going to be okay.

Simon squatted down across Sandburg's body from Jim, his eyes first taking in the bomb and then tracking up to see how Blair had been secured to the roof. "Jim, support his arms while I get these cuffs off," he ordered, "and then we'll help him lower his arms down beside his body so that we don't jostle that thing."

Though he tried to bite it back, Blair couldn't completely constrain the low groan of relief as his arms were lowered to his sides. He clenched his teeth to keep from shuddering as blood coursed back down into his numb, prickling hands and fingers. Jim turned away to cut the bindings around his ankles and then he and Simon eased his stiff legs apart to a more comfortable position.

"Thanks," he mumbled, grateful for the relief of being in a more sustainable position. It had taken all he had during that dark afternoon to not give in to the muscle cramps that had assailed him in his arms and legs, terrified that if he moved at all, he'd blow up.

Jim heard the approaching siren before they did. "Joel's almost here. Won't be long now," he said as he signed. "Simon, could you go back downstairs and bring up a couple of blankets? Blair's soaking wet and chilled to the bone."

"On it," Banks replied as he rose and loped away.

By the time Joel and two members of the Bomb Squad had raced up the steps, Simon had returned and he and Jim had carefully covered Sandburg's legs with a warm, woolen blanket, and had gently, very carefully, draped another over his upper chest and down over his arms. As Joel and the men with him loped across the roof, Jim shifted to make room, moving around to kneel by Blair's head, his hands cupping his partner's cold, rain-wet face.

"What do you think, Joel?" Simon asked quietly, his face deliberately turned away so that Blair couldn't read their lips.

Taggart chewed on his lip, his face scrunched with concentration as he studied the diabolical mechanism. "I don't know, Simon. This doesn't look good. One slip and that baby is going to blow. I think everyone but me and Blair should get off this roof, and you need to evacuate the building," he said darkly as he locked gazes with Banks.

"Shit," Simon cursed and then nodded. "I'll call you when the building's empty and we'll be down on the street if you need anything."

"I'm not going," Jim grated, having heard the muted exchange.

Banks turned to Ellison, compassion on his face and in his voice as he said, "Jim, there's nothing you can do up here. Blair wouldn't want you…"

"I'm staying," Jim growled, his hands tightening reflexively around Blair's face.

Sandburg's gaze fluttered from Jim's face to Simon and then to Joel. He saw the other two men head away as they left to begin evacuating the building. "What's going on?" he gasped, turning his gaze back to Joel.

Taggart signed, I won't lie to you, Blair. This is going to be tricky. I've told everyone to get off the roof and to clear the building while I work on defusing this monster.

Blair blinked and swallowed. Looking up at Jim, he said firmly, "Go."

"No," Ellison replied and then cut a sharp look at Joel. "Get started. We don't have any time to waste."

Simon shook his head, but didn't protest further as he turned away and loped to the stairwell.

"Jim, please," Blair begged, his eyes dark with fear. "It's bad enough that Joel has to take the risk."

Ellison stroked through his partner's wet hair, drawing it back from Sandburg's face. "I won't leave you," he said simply, mouthing the words clearly.

Joel twisted away to open the case of tools he had carried onto the roof, first pulling out a miner's hat with headlamp and a portable battery pack. Donning the hat, he switched on the lamp, so that he could see clearly despite the dim light. Rifling around some more, he pulled out a small coil of wire and some wire cutters that he set on the ground beside him. Finally, he found the small screwdrivers and a pair of tweezers that he also needed to open the bomb and defuse it. Then he sat back to wait for Simon's 'all clear' call, his hand reaching to grip Blair's arm through the blanket, careful not to notice the tears that leaked out of Sandburg's eyes as he gazed up into Jim's.

"You're going to be okay," Jim murmured softly as he stroked Sandburg's cheek. "You're going to be just fine."

Joel thought long and hard as he waited for Simon's call, weighing the options, not liking any of them much. Long minutes later, when the call finally came, he said into the cell, "Simon, get the bomb disposal people to haul up one of the portable units. I think we're best to not fuss with this thing too much but to detonate it up here. Let me know when they start up the stairs."

When he put the phone away, he studied the bomb again, wishing there were a better way to go about doing what needed to be done. Finally, he looked up at Jim. "Good thing you stayed. I'm going to need your help."

Taggart explained to Jim what they were going to do as soon as the portable unit was delivered to them. Blair watched his face, squinting to read his lips through the glare of the bright lamp and didn't like what he was seeing. "You guys are going to blow yourselves up!" he hissed. "If that's the only choice, maybe you both better go and just leave me here."

Joel smiled at that, slow and easy, and he just shook his head. As if leaving Sandburg to die was ever an option either man would ever have considered. Blair moaned, sick at the thought of the risks they were taking for him.

Finally, the call came that the unit was on its way upstairs and would be there inside of five minutes. Joel had Jim practice what he had to do with the length of wire, once more drilling the detective on the steps they would follow. Two men appeared on the roof, hauling the heavy portable disposal unit between them on a low, wheeled cart. It was shaped like an old square vault, made of almost solid tempered steel but for the space in the middle in which a bomb could be gingerly placed before the lid was closed, sealing it in.

"The problem here," Joel was saying, sounding as calm as he could, as if he was simply lecturing a class, "is that the bomb is unstable. The payload isn't that great, enough to maybe bring down the floor beneath us and the one below that, but not enough to take out the whole building."

"Just enough to kill my partner and destroy my home," Jim grated, finally understanding the clue Rossner had given him, that he'd lose 'everything' he cared about.

"Uh huh," Joel agreed, watching the other two men disappear down the stairs. Once he judged that they were far enough away to be out of danger, he said, "Okay, Jim, here we go."

Jim shifted around to Sandburg's side, kneeling down and making certain of his balance, as he reached to very gently, very carefully, grip the wire that was attached to the top of the box containing the bomb with his fingers and thumb. "Got it," he murmured.

Nodding, Joel picked up the wire-cutters and, as they all held their breath, clipped the wire about six inches from the point Jim was holding. Jim held the tension in the wire steady as Joel quickly attached one end of the wire he'd pulled from his toolkit.

"Okay," he breathed. "Keep maintaining the tension on that one while you grip the wire on the other end."

His jaw tight, Jim nodded and reached out to secure the bottom wire, allowing Joel to clip it and attach the other end of the spare bit of wire, both of them chewing on their lips as Joel stretched the new wire carefully and snugly over the box, and then very gingerly tied it off tightly, trying his best to ensure it would be tight enough to sustain the necessary tension once Jim let go. Blair watched them, scarcely daring to blink, and only too aware of the sweat that was pouring off his body despite being wet and cold.

"Okay," Joel sighed again. "Now, you keep holding those two wires tight, while I lift it away from Blair. We're going to have to slowly make our way over to the disposal unit, holding it as steady as we can, and set it inside. Once I say, 'now', I want you to let go real fast and lunge away while I drop the lid on this sucker. The wire I've attached should, hopefully, hold the tension long enough for me to seal it before it blows. Ready?"

"Ready," Jim replied, his voice tight with tension.

Joel got a solid grip on the box and then said, "Lift." Together, slowly and steadily, they moved in tandem, lifting the bomb away from Sandburg's chest as they carefully stood. Both men blinked sweat and rain from their eyes, willing their muscles not to tremble, as they eased the box along Blair's body beneath them, to the disposal unit that had been set up about five feet away. As they took one slow step after another, Blair hauled himself up to sit, watching them, pretending he hadn't understood the earlier instruction that Joel had given him to get the hell off the roof as soon as he was clear of the bomb.

"Easy," Joel crooned. "Almost there." Another step and then another…and then they were standing over the unit. Taggart took a deep breath, and then directed, "Alright, down we go, keep the tension steady."

Carefully, the two men eased the bomb down, careful not to jiggle it in any way. "Good, that's good," Joel said softly as he felt the bomb settle against steel. "Ready?" he checked again as he lifted his hands away to begin lifting the hinged top of the unit.

"Ready," Jim replied, his muscles tensing to jump away.

"NOW!" Joel called, the lid as far up as he could bring it while Jim's arms were still in the way. Ellison let go and leapt sideways toward Blair, as Joel slammed the lid of the unit down, knowing it would lock automatically as he jumped back and clear.

The sturdy unit, as strong as a bank vault, lurched into the air as a loud, low, 'whummpppp', signaled the bomb exploding inside. The disposal unit crashed down onto its side-and three very frightened men hauled in a deep breath of profound relief.

Joel looked up to see that Jim had landed on Blair, squashing the younger man into the roof to protect the kid with his body if the blast had failed to be contained, and Taggart couldn't help it-he started to laugh. Great, rollicking belly laughs as he tried to push himself up onto his feet, but he was laughing too hard, so he plumped down on the roof and held his sides as he tried to regain some semblance of control.

Jim could feel Blair trembling beneath him, but when he heard Joel start to laugh, he rolled over to the side and pulled Sandburg up to hug him tightly with one arm while pointing at Joel with his other hand. Blair's eyes tracked along, and when he saw Joel practically rolling with the hysterical laughter of relief, he started to giggle, and then he was laughing, too, Jim joining in, unable to resist.

The three of them howled in joyful hysterics until tears rolled down their cheeks, and they were sobbing for breath.

Gradually, the hysteria passed and they dragged in air as they stood, Jim helping Blair to his feet, unable to let him go. Joel managed to pull out his cell phone and punched in Simon's number. "It's okay," he called jubilantly. "It's all over. Everyone's fine. Send up the cleanup crew."

Cheers broke out from the street below as Sandburg moved to hug Joel, drawing Jim along with him, until all three men were embracing one another. "Thank you," Blair stammered brokenly. "Oh, God, thank you, both of you."

The three men, arms still around one another, finally broke apart enough to make their way across the roof to the stairwell. On the way down, they met Simon on the way back up and the big man pulled Blair into his arms, hugging him tightly, not giving a damn who might see or what they might think. When they pulled apart a long moment later, Simon looked up the stairwell at Jim as he said, "Okay, now let's get changed and go after that son of a bitch."

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

Simon called the Chief while Jim toweled the rain off as he headed upstairs to change. Continuing with their ruse to keep Rossner off-balance, it was agreed that the media would be approached to put out 'up to the minute' radio news bulletins about a mysterious explosion that had partially destroyed a business and apartment complex on Prospect Avenue. Jim shivered a little as he listened to Simon's discussion with their superior, thinking how very close it had been.

Insisting that he was going with them, Sandburg had headed straight to the bathroom to take a hot shower to drive the chill from his bones. By the time he came out, Jim was back downstairs and Simon had gone up to change out of his white shirt. Jim heated up lots of soup and a large pot of coffee, some to eat and drink quickly before they left, and some to take in thermoses on the stakeout with them. It could be a long night before Rossner showed up to blow the warehouse and Jim was all too conscious of the fact that Sandburg, at least, was still in a state of shock, chilled both by the icy rain that had drenched him, and fear. Eating wouldn't take long, but they all needed the nourishment to keep their energy up and their attention sharp. Once Rossner heard the news, and none of them doubted he was listening for it, the bastard would likely be full of self-congratulation, certain that he was winning his deadly game. He had no way of knowing that they knew who he was and what his next target was.

It was 7:00 pm by the time Simon called Rafe, who had the evening shift as a watchman at the target, to tell him they were on their way. They took Simon's car, figuring there was less likelihood of Rossner spotting it, and they parked several blocks away from the warehouse in a dark alley. Given that Rossner's vehicle had been spotted three hours earlier, they knew he had to be somewhere in the neighbourhood, likely casing the warehouse from some safe vantage point to be sure it wasn't under surveillance. Keeping to the shadows, they made their way silently to their destination. Jim had his senses wide open as he searched the night with both his eyes and his ears, and they paused whenever he lifted his hand. Once, it was a workman heading out of the area that attracted his attention. Another time it was a wino, sleeping it off over a grate by a dumpster. Unmarked patrol cars ghosted past, looking like regular traffic, but signaling that the police were keeping a close watch on the area.

Finally, in the lee of a building across the alley from one of the side entrances into the warehouse, they paused again while Jim looked and listened. But he could detect no other presence but theirs and the sounds of the two 'security guards' inside the building, Rafe and one of the guys from the bomb squad.

Quickly, they snuck across the alley and into the darkened interior of the warehouse, only relaxing once the door was firmly shut behind them. And even then they didn't speak, in case Rossner had some kind of directional sound receiver monitoring the place for unusual activity. Once again, their common knowledge of sign language served them well as they decided first to make contact with Rafe, and then take up their stakeout in the middle of the building, where Jim could listen for any activity outside or any unlawful entry through the many doors and windows that could allow Rossner access to the interior.

Rafe, when they found him, smiled broadly at the sight of Sandburg, and signed that he was glad Blair was all right before letting them all know that, so far, there'd been no sign of Rossner. When they headed back to the center of the building, Rafe went to quietly tell his fellow 'security guard' that reinforcements had arrived.

And then they all settled down to wait.

Minutes trickled into hours and the security shift changed, H and another bomb disposal expert coming in to replace Rafe and his partner for the charade of being watchmen. H and Tom Higgins, from the bomb squad, knew that if they saw or heard anything, they were to call Simon, whose cell phone was set to vibrate mode.

Midnight came and still nothing.

They were all tense with the waiting by the time Jim lifted his hand forty-five minutes later, and pointed to the southwestern corner of the building. Simon pulled out his cell to call H, speaking softly to alert his detective of action at the far end of the building, knowing H would alert Tom. Then Banks stealthily followed Jim and Blair along the high row of shelving, the whole place only dimly lit by soft orange emergency lighting.

Jim could hear someone, he assumed Rossner, padding very quietly along the wall, coming toward them. Signing to Simon, he directed his superior off down a side row of shelving, while he and Blair continued toward Rossner, until Ellison knew he had the man between his position and Simon's. Edging his back along the high row of shelves, Jim paused and then quickly looked around the edge to place Rossner precisely. From tracking the sound of Simon's, H's and Tom's movements, he knew they were all in position, H and Tom on the catwalk a floor above.

His weapon in his hand, Jim signed, Stay here. Then, arms locked straight in front of him, he swung around the corner, calling out clearly, "Freeze! Cascade Police. Drop your weapons and put your hands up!"

Rossner lunged to the side, rolling and twisting at the same time to bring up the gun in his hand to shoot at Jim.

But Ellison was already ducking away and dropping to one knee as he leaned back to sight along the line of fire, while Simon called out, "You're surrounded. Drop your weapon NOW!"

Rossner whirled toward Simon's voice, snapping off more shots and Jim squeezed his trigger. The racketing sound of gunfire stopped when Rossner screamed as Ellison's bullet tore through his gun arm just above the elbow.

Banks and Ellison cautiously approached the moaning man who had dropped to his knees, while H and Tom kept their weapons trained on him from above. Roughly, Jim pulled the backpack from Rossner's shoulder and handed it to Simon, and then he cuffed the felon, not caring a whit how much it hurt the man's shattered arm. "Roger Rossner," Jim intoned, "you have the right to remain silent…"

"At least I got your little partner," Rossner snarled. "You weren't good enough to stop me!"

"Oh, yes, he was," Simon replied with understandable satisfaction as he waved Blair forward.

Jim kept reading the bomber his rights while Rossner jerked his head up at Simon's words, and then twisted his head to look past Ellison. He gaped as Sandburg stepped into full view and walked toward him, the younger man's face void of all emotion.

"NO!" Rossner screamed, shocked. "You're dead!"

Blair just shook his head as Simon signaled H to call in the mobile unit to haul Rossner downtown to the hospital to be treated and then to the infirmary at the jail. Tom came downstairs to take possession of Rossner's backpack, checking quickly to ensure the explosives inside weren't armed.

Rossner was still spewing curses when the uniforms arrived short minutes later to take him away.

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

Simon dropped them off at the Police Headquarters so that Jim could pick up his truck. As the two men made their way across the dark and nearly deserted underground parking lot, Ellison was aware that his partner was teetering on the edge of exhaustion. He lightly touched Sandburg's arm, and then signed, You okay, Chief?

"Yeah, just very tired," Blair replied as he moved around the vehicle and climbed in. Resting his head against the back of the seat, he stared pensively into the night as Jim drove home. After they'd gone about a mile, he said quietly, "You know, if we'd caught him right after it happened, I think I would have really hated him for what he'd done to me. But so much has happened since, I don't know, it doesn't seem personal anymore." Turning his gaze toward Jim, he continued, "Don't get me wrong. I'm really glad we caught him. Rossner is one scary dude, and I sure hope he's held without bail. Hell, I hope they lock him up and throw away the key. But I guess I finally realized it wasn't me that he wanted to hurt, not me personally, not with the original explosion or even today - it could have been any cop. He just wanted to show that he was better than we were - are. But we showed him how wrong he was, in so very many ways."

Jim shook his head tightly and as they pulled up at a red light, he signed sharply, But you're not a cop.

"I know that, but I'm not sure he did," Blair replied, and then yawned. "Whatever. I guess what I'm trying to say is, well, you asked me back in the garage if I'm okay. And, yeah, you know, I am. I really am. I'm alive, thanks to you and Joel. And, I'm okay with the silence. I couldn't have handled it alone, but you've been there for me, every step of the way. Not just with dealing with the deafness, but in not letting the deafness change who you see when you look at me, who you know me to be. That, more than anything else, is what saved me, Jim. When I thought I didn't exist anymore, when I lost track of me, you were my rock. And the guys in MCU, man, they've been amazing. Through it all, we've discovered some pretty incredible things, like how I can feel how you feel when we're in danger. I mean, that's like a major 'wow', man." Turning to look out the window, Sandburg repeated, almost to himself and with no little trace of wonder in his voice, "I really am okay."

Jim cut his partner a look of respect and not a little awe. It took a strong man to be as resilient and positive as Sandburg was, despite the challenges his life posed. More - it took a wise one, to be able to stand back and let the anger and resentment go. Jim wasn't sure he'd be able to manage it as well. It had taken every shred of his integrity to not kill Rossner back in that warehouse for what he'd done to Blair. It would have been so easy. Wrong, but so damned easy. In truth, he'd felt a kind of guilt that he hadn't exacted such retribution but Sandburg's words soothed him and reminded him that he'd done the right thing. The man sitting beside him expected no less of him and he knew full well that part of Sandburg's reflections and assurances were meant to tell him that it was okay that he hadn't killed Rossner - that it wasn't personal and shouldn't be. It was humbling to realize that this grad student in anthropology was probably, in every way that mattered a damn, the best cop he'd ever known.

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

The next day over breakfast, though the sun was well past the yardarm, Jim told Blair about Ellie calling to report his kidnapping. Sandburg grinned, proud of her for having remembered some of the signs he'd only begun to teach her, and for keeping her head in a pretty scary situation.

"I'm going to have to take her out for a very nice dinner," he decided.

Oh, like that'll be a hardship, Jim signed with a smirk. Sandburg just laughed.

There's something else I have to tell you about, Chief, Jim told him then. Your ability to feel what I'm feeling in crisis situations seems to go both ways.

"What?" Blair demanded, his eyes narrowing in surprise.

Yeah, most of yesterday afternoon, I thought my senses were out of control, Jim replied. I felt as if I had something heavy on my chest, and my arms ached. I had muscle cramps, and one hell of a headache. I didn't realize it right away when we found you, but thinking about it, I'm pretty sure I was feeling what you were feeling up on the roof.

Sandburg pursed his lips and blew a low whistle of amazement, his eyes going out of focus as he thought about what that could mean. "Wow," he sighed, shaking his head as he grappled with the idea. "That's like, wow." His gaze focused again on Jim as he said firmly, "We have to find a way to test this."

Ellison rolled his eyes. What? You want me hire some thugs to put you in mortal danger so that we can see if it happens again?

"No, wait, just listen, man," Blair jumped in, intense and caught with the possibilities. "What if, I don't know, what if you could track me with those kinds of feelings? Huh? Like, did they get stronger as you got closer to the loft yesterday afternoon?"

Ellison looked away as he thought about that, frowning a little, trying to remember. He'd been so distracted by worry, but now that Sandburg mentioned it… Yeah, as a matter of fact, the sensations did get stronger.

"And, think about this, Jim," Blair continued. "Maybe I could warn you of danger from a distance, you know, if I was really scared for you. I'm telling you, we have to find a way to test this. It could be really important."

Jim crossed his arms and looked at his partner skeptically, one brow cocked, and Blair nodded, understanding. "Yeah, yeah, I know, it only seems to happen when one of us is really in trouble. Okay, how about this? When it does happen, we don't ignore it, okay? We try to use it…and see where it takes us."

Ellison nodded - that was an idea he could work with. And if it meant that the next time Sandburg was in trouble that he could track his Guide using this unlooked for sensory advantage, then more power to it.

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

Jim had been asleep the next Saturday night when he was awakened by the sound of Sandburg's key in the lock. Glancing at his watch, he groaned, amending his thought that he'd been asleep early Sunday morning when his roommate's return from his date with Ellie had awakened him. Rolling over, he was planning to go right back to sleep when he frowned. Sandburg's heart was racing!

Fearing that something was wrong, Ellison was up and halfway down the stairs before Blair had hung up his jacket. When Sandburg turned and saw him, he jumped a little, and said, "Oh, man, you startled me. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

S'okay, Jim replied as he continued down the stairs, his senses taking note of Sandburg's barely contained excitement. He looked radiant, his eyes sparkling and he was slightly flushed. Looks like it was a great date, Junior, Ellison observed. You're still flying.

"Oh, man, you wouldn't have believed it!" Blair exclaimed, too wired to hold the news inside. "We went dancing!"

Dancing? Jim repeated, surprise on his face.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I didn't think I could ever dance again. I mean, how can you dance if you can't hear music, right?" Blair babbled, his hands skipping through the air as he moved lightly, bouncing with giddy delight, across the floor to stand in front of his partner. "But, after dinner, Ellie suggested we go to this new club. And, well, I wasn't all that keen, but she wanted to go so bad, and she's been so great, well, I thought at least she could listen to the band. I mean, we have to do stuff that she can enjoy, even if I can't, right? But when we got there, I could feel it, Jim! I could feel the beat, like it was thrumming through my whole body! I could dance!"

Ellison's face broke into a jubilant smile at the joy that was radiating from his best friend. That's great, Chief - really, really great.

"Yeah, it is," Blair sighed, smiling so brightly he lit the night.

Jim's heart ached with sheer, undiluted happiness as he basked in the warmth of Sandburg's joy, and not just because his best friend had discovered that he could dance again. As his initial sharp concern had faded, Ellison's other senses registered their own inventory of Sandburg's well being - and Jim knew Blair had done more than dance with Ellie that night. A little embarrassed, feeling he was invading the kid's privacy, he unconsciously brushed at his nose and turned away, but not before his smile softened with fond if private relief. Sandburg hadn't been with a woman since before the explosion - well, actually, since before he'd died at Alex's hands. It was very good to know that Blair was, finally, really all right, in every respect.

But Blair, long used to reading his Sentinel, caught the unconscious gesture when Jim brushed his nose, as if brushing away the knowledge it had brought him - and he also saw the fond warmth of Ellison's smile and in his eyes before he'd turned away.

"It's all right, Jim," he said quietly, amused and not in any way offended. "I know I don't have any privacy around you - I got used to that a long time ago."

Jim just shrugged as he cut a wry glance at his partner. But the expression on Blair's face captured his attention - the younger man had a faraway look, his lips parted as if he'd discovered some great truth.

As Jim watched, Blair's attention returned to his best friend as he shared in soft murmur something of what he'd experienced that night. "When you're with a woman, making love with her, and you haven't got words, or even sounds, you discover other ways of communicating, of understanding - of giving and receiving. It was…beautiful. So very beautiful. And I would never have known." Looking up at Ellison, he continued with a note of wonder in his voice, "I thought at first, and for a long time, that this silence was a curse. But, you know, I'm beginning to think it's a really weird kind of blessing."

I'm glad, Chief, Jim signed, his expression almost painfully sincere. Really glad that you're so happy.

"I know," Blair replied, his voice slightly hoarse with emotion. "Thanks, Jim."

Ellison gripped Sandburg's shoulder - and one man thought poignantly of how odd it was for him to care so deeply about another's happiness, that it mattered to him more than his own - while the other man marveled, with a kind of awe, that his happiness could mean so much to someone else.

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

It was two weeks later, when they arrived home late one evening after chasing down leads in their latest case, when Sandburg grabbed the mail from their box in the entry lobby and followed Jim up the steps as he idly leafed through the varied assortment of bills, flyers, enticements from fortune tellers and one unexpected large envelope addressed to him.

Pizza okay? Jim asked, when Sandburg looked up as they entered the loft and shrugged off their jackets.

"Sure, Jim, fine," Blair replied absently as he dumped the rest of the mail on the table and moved into the living room with the envelope. Sinking onto the sofa, he wondered, with not a little dread, if it was some unexpected bill for something his insurance hadn't covered.

Ellison called in the order and then pulled two beers from the fridge, uncapped them and carried them into the living area, holding one out to Blair. But his roommate was oblivious to him. He just sat there, a blank look on his face as he stared at the letter in his hand. Frowning, Jim put the beers down on the coffee table and sat down next to Sandburg to lightly touch him to get his attention. When Blair looked up at him, Ellison saw the shock in his eyes. Worried now, Jim signed, What is it? What's wrong?

"Wrong? Nothing - I just never expected…" Blair stammered, uncharacteristically incoherent.

Never expected what? Jim signed anxiously, cutting a look down at the letter.

"This," Sandburg replied, holding up the letter in one hand and some printed attachments in the other. "It's from Dr. Matthias, the hearing specialist at the hospital, remember?" When Jim nodded, Blair went on, his voice hollow, "He says that there's a new procedure that can give me most of my hearing back, and this other stuff is what it's all about."

Jim looked down at the letter and the other documents, not sure how to react. Inside, he felt a thrill of delirious happiness, but Sandburg's reaction wasn't that of a man who has just received the greatest news possible. Are there risks? Jim asked, and then held out his hand, hoping Blair would share the information with him.

"Yeah, some," Sandburg replied, sounding dazed as he handed the documents over. "The usual, I guess, when the surgery involves working so closely to the neural connectors to the brain. But the documentation says they've been getting excellent results with this procedure in trials around the country, as much as a ninety-five percent return of previous hearing capacity."

Jim's eyes narrowed as he skimmed through the information and then looked back at Blair, who was staring at him. Chief, I don't get what's bothering you about this. It sounds like a miracle.

"Maybe," Blair replied. "But, what if we lose what we've gained? What if we lose that capacity to sense one another when there's danger?"

Ellison shook his head. What if we do? Isn't getting your hearing back more important?

"I don't know," Sandburg replied quietly. "I've gotten used to the silence. We're managing really well now. What do you think?"

What do I think? I think I'd like you to be able to hear me shout when it's too dark to see, and someone is about to nail you. But this isn't about me, Chief. This is about you and what you want. Don't you want to hear again? Jim signed, not sure how Blair could even consider not taking this chance provided the risks were only marginal.

Sandburg frowned as he retrieved the papers from Jim to read them in detail. "I don't know, Jim. I have to think about this," he murmured, his head bowed so that he didn't notice the dark concern Ellison's eyes.

Sighing, Jim quietly took each page of information as Blair finished reading and passed them over so that he would understand as much as Blair did about what was involved.

When they finished reading, Sandburg turned to Ellison, and said, "From what I can gather it's, basically, a hearing aid with internal components that would stimulate my auditory nerve directly, bypassing the damaged hair-cells - the cells that were shattered by the blast, according to what Dr. Matthias told us at the hospital - so that the brain perceives sound via its 'natural route'. A line of 22 electrodes is inserted into the cochlea. A small indentation is made in the mastoid bone and a small receiver-electrode-thingie is permanently implanted on the bone, under the skin."

Jim nodded, wanting to encourage Blair to give serious consideration to this amazing option, as he signed, Yeah, and then on the outside, you'd have a box, which picks up sounds, like a normal hearing aid. If I understand it right, this box in an external transmitter, which would be held in place behind your ear by means of magnets. It says here that the box would stick to the receiver under your skin, so it couldn't be very big or uncomfortable. The transmitter and receiver use radio waves to stimulate the line of electrodes, which makes sense, and they, in turn, stimulate the auditory nerve, which leads to the brain, so you can 'hear'. Sounds pretty incredible to me.

Blair bit his lip as he pulled one of the sheets of paper from Jim's hand. "I don't know, Jim. According to this, once the whole system in place, it has to be 'mapped' or programmed, to make certain sounds stimulate certain electrodes, which gives perception of pitch and loudness. Then I would need to practice, to make the connection between the sounds I used to hear, and the way they would sound with the artificial implants." Blair frowned as he reflected, "It all sounds pretty complicated and might not give me 'real' sound anyway, I mean, not what I was used to."

Chief, Jim countered, this method of hearing might not be the same as what you were born with, but it's apparently far better than externally-worn hearing aids - it's got to be better than hearing nothing at all, isn't it? This claims that you would be able to understand ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of speech without resorting to speech reading, backup signing, or writing - that sounds miraculous to me. Your enjoyment of music might be a little diminished, sure, but environmental sounds - like hearing warnings, or checking out your surroundings - would be back. Right?

Blair nodded as he studied Jim for a moment, not missing Jim's continued preoccupation with him being able to hear shouted warnings. For all that he'd learned to live with the risks of his deafness, it was clear that they still haunted his friend. It was all so unexpected that he didn't know what to think - and he just felt numb, as if it was too good to be true. Gathering up the documents, he folded them and put them back into the envelope just as the pizza arrived.

Jim paid the delivery boy and put the pizza on the table, while Blair set out the plates and pulled two more beers from the fridge. But neither man had much of an appetite. Jim was blown away by the idea that Blair might be able to hear again, almost normally, and very worried that Sandburg hadn't just jumped at the idea. He couldn't understand what the hesitation was about.

Finally, Jim thought he might have part of the reason for the fact that Blair wasn't jumping for joy. The next time Sandburg glanced his way, Jim waved to get his attention and signed, Are you worried about what it might cost? The operation? Is there a problem with your insurance covering it?

Blair blinked at that. "Actually, I hadn't even thought of that possible problem yet. But, you're right, I've got to check into it," he replied, his shoulders sagging. God, even if he decided he wanted this, maybe it was beyond his reach financially.

But Jim held up his hands and quickly signed, Stop right there, Junior. Money is not going to be any kind of problem. I don't care what it costs or if the insurance covers it or not - we'll figure out a way to pay for it, if this is what you want to do.

"Jim, this is a lot more than buying a television or some TDD units, man!" Sandburg protested. "We could be talking fifty or a hundred thousand dollars, maybe more."

The loft is paid for. I'll just get a mortgage. Money is not going to be an issue. Am I clear? Jim signed back, his expression stiff. We're talking about your life, here, Chief.

Blair blew out a breath as he sat back in his chair. He had to look away from Jim's compelling gaze and bite back on the emotion that filled him. Jim was willing to put his home on the line for him, if need be. Were there no limits to what this man would do for him? As he lifted his eyes back to Jim's, he realized that, no, there weren't limits, any more than he'd put limits on what he'd do for Jim. His throat too thick to speak, he nodded and gave his friend a tremulous smile. Taking a deep breath, shaking his head in wonder, he finally managed to say, "You're really too much, you know that? God, Jim - I don't know what to say. And I don't know what to do, you know? I just didn't ever expect this, none of this."

I know, Jim signed. You need to talk to the doctor, and get a good idea of what the risks of surgery are, even though it doesn't sound dangerous. And maybe you need to talk to some other people, too. Like that Kerry at the Institute, or the woman you saw at the hospital, what was her name?

"Tessler. Judy Tessler," Blair replied, nodding thoughtfully.

Yeah, Mrs. Tessler, Jim continued. They can tell you if they've heard of this, and how it worked out for people who went through with it.

"And, I can check on the insurance coverage," Blair murmured, lifting his hands in surrender at the glare Jim sent toward him. "No, wait, just to see if it will be covered. Not as a decision point, okay?"

Ellison nodded as he stood and started clearing the table, Blair moving to help him. When the kitchen was cleaned up, Jim turned to Blair to grip his shoulder, and then signed, Whatever you decide, do what's right for you, not what you think is somehow best for the sentinel thing. I know you're excited about this new connection we have - but I don't think it's worth you going through life in a silent world if you have a chance to be whole again.

Blair stiffened at that, though he understood, but he had to explain, "I can be 'whole' without hearing, Jim. I've learned that, maybe slowly, but I have learned that. I am happy now. We're working well together again, I've got my work at school - hell, I can even dance. I don't feel less than I was, just…different."

A glint of sadness flickered under the understanding in Jim's eyes as he nodded. I understand, he signed back. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that because you can't hear, you're somehow less. Not at all. I just want what's best for you, that's all.

Blair smiled at that and moved in to hug the older man. "I know," he murmured. "You always do, my brother."

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

That night, Jim slept restlessly, his dreams filled with nightmares of calling out to Blair, who couldn't hear him…

And Blair dreamed of a silent world, one in which there was no sound…and he awoke in a sweat, realizing he was beginning to forget what life sounded like.

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

Over the next several days, Blair thought long and hard about this new possibility in his life as he set about learning more about what was involved. He met with Dr. Matthias, and was reassured that the surgery was relatively safe, much of it performed using microsurgery methods. They would go in behind his ear, the brain case never having to be opened, and Sandburg found that reassuring. The specialist told him that the procedure had been in trials for five years, and he would be the first person in Washington to undergo it, if he agreed. Blair also learned that it could be scheduled fairly quickly, as Dr. Matthias candidly revealed that he hoped Blair would only be the first of many new patients choosing this option once it had been introduced in the state. He explained that he'd chosen Blair as the first candidate because the research had showed that the best results were with people who had suddenly lost their hearing not long before.

Blair nodded, understanding that the specialist hoped to get rich, well richer than he was already, but that was all right. If the man could make the deaf hear, he deserved to be well rewarded for it. And Sandburg felt a spark of hope at what Matthias had just shared about best-case scenarios for the procedure.

The insurance company balked a bit, but Dr. Matthias had anticipated that, given that it was a relatively new procedure, and had provided Sandburg with documents attesting to the necessity of the operation. The physician made the claim that Blair wasn't deaf by birth but only recently disabled, and so would benefit greatly by being able to return to virtually fully normal functioning with little personal trauma or socialization implications. According to the specialist, Sandburg was lucky that he was covered by a broad commercial plan through the University as commercial health plans, such as Aetna, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Prudential, were likely the best payers for cochlear implants. Finally, after several days of consideration, the insurance company representative advised Sandburg that his insurance would cover the costs of the procedure.

Blair met again with Kerry Castleman, who indicated he knew of the procedure, and that reports indicated that it was quite successful. However, the counsellor very evidently wasn't all that enthusiastic about it, indicating that people functioned perfectly well with partial or no hearing. He wondered if having to recalibrate the hearing aid components wouldn't get to be a drag after a while, but emphasized that it was clearly Blair's decision.

Judy Tessler agreed to meet with Blair and greeted him with a smile when he arrived at her office. She was curious about his progress, and insisted that he bring her up to date on how he'd been managing, smiling brilliantly when she heard how his colleagues in the police department had risen to the challenge. "They sound like wonderful people," she observed approvingly. "As amazing as it always seems to me, I know of families who have never learned sign and I just can't imagine it. How can people not do everything possible to communicate with a loved one?" Blair just shook his head, astonished and deeply touched again by the efforts made by the people in his life.

As their general conversation progressed, Tessler was pleased to see the anxious young man she'd first met seemed now to be fully confident and very functional with his speech reading. She shook her head a little at his competence, as it hadn't been all that long, really, since he'd lost his hearing, and she knew how hard he must have worked to be as good as he was.

'So, why did you wish to see me?' she asked after she'd gotten him to bring her up to date on how he'd been managing.

"I've been advised by Dr. Matthias that I can undergo surgery to have electrodes planted in my cochlea, so with an external transmitter and an implanted receiver, I could hear up to ninety-eight percent of what I used to hear," he explained. "I wondered if you'd heard of the procedure and what you thought of it."

Judy couldn't contain her very real delight at the news. "I have heard of it," she replied enthusiastically, "and I'm frankly thrilled to know it's been cleared for general application. I've read the reports of the trials and they have been extremely positive." When Sandburg looked away and shifted a bit in his chair, as if uncomfortable, she waited until he looked back at her and then asked, "Why? Are you thinking of turning this opportunity down?"

He shrugged a little, realizing from her perspective that any hesitation must seem more than a little crazy, just as it seemed to Jim. Licking his lips, he replied, "I've gotten used to the silence. It was hard, but I've learned to live with it, not just exist. I'm doing okay this way. And, uh, well, when I spoke with one of the people at the Institute, he wasn't all that enthusiastic about the procedure. Said the need to get recalibrated from time to time could be a hassle…"

"I see," she murmured, tapping her fingers on her desk as she studied the young man in front of her. Leaning forward, she asked, "Are those glasses in your shirt pocket?"

Startled, Blair unconsciously touched his glasses and nodded.

"Do you think it a hassle to get your prescription updated from time to time? Or do you think that it should always just be correct?" she enquired.

"Well, of course I have to get it modified from time to time," Blair replied, like it was obvious. And then the parallel hit him. "It would be the same sort of thing with the hearing calibration, wouldn't it?"

She nodded. With a thoughtful expression, she explained, "Blair, within the hearing impaired community, there is considerable resistance to any suggestion that they are somehow deficient. In part, it may date back to the prejudices of decades ago, when the deaf were often treated as if they were mentally as well as physically disabled. It's become a kind of cultural defence and is largely unconscious. No one wants, or indeed does, think of themselves as disabled or less than whole. Because, inside, we are all whole. We feel the same things; need the same things, as human beings. But, in my view, and I recognize that I'm speaking as a hearing person, anything that can help us better enjoy and participate in our world in a good thing. I don't think people who have difficulty seeing should be denied glasses; any more than I think those who are deaf, or partially so, should be deprived of hearing aids. I'm glad if you've found that life without hearing can be full and satisfying - but I would personally hate to see you pass up an opportunity that would restore the ability to hear to you."

Blair fingered his glasses again as he thought about what she'd said. Certainly, he'd experienced a little of what she'd alluded to in his interactions with the members of the Hearing Impaired Student Society. It made sense of how Kerry had reacted - and, he had to admit, how he'd reacted himself to Jim's comment the other night.

Nodding thoughtfully, he looked back up at her. "Thank you," he said. "I really appreciate your candour. It helps put things into perspective - and even helps me understand how I've been feeling about this."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad if I've been some assistance," she replied. Standing, to walk him to her door, she added, "Whatever you decide, I wish you good luck and happiness. You've adapted incredibly well from what I can see, so whatever you decide, I'm sure you'll manage just fine."

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

Later that day, in class, Blair watched how his students assiduously tapped their questions and comments into palm pilots. Only three had withdrawn from his classes, stating that they didn't feel it was appropriate to waste their time with a guy who couldn't really communicate fully. The rest had settled in to work with his limitations. But he was conscious that a certain spontaneity had been lost and the atmosphere of his classes lacked the energy they'd once had. And he wondered if he didn't owe it to his students to do all in his power to give them a full learning experience.

At lunch, Blair spotted the student in sociology who had explained to him that his limitations as a deaf person were only in his head. And, Sandburg reflected, he'd learned the guy had been right. After paying for his salad and juice, he ambled across the cafeteria to join the younger man.

Mind if I join you? Blair signed. You're Kit, right?

Yes, I am and no, man, I don't mind if you join me. Have a chair, the student signed back with a flourish toward the chair and a grin. How's it going?

Good, actually. I wanted to thank you for being so straight with me the last time we met. I found it hard at the time, but you were absolutely right that my problems coping were in my head, more than they were real, Blair signed back with a look of chagrin, followed by a warm smile.

Great, Kit signed. Glad to hear it.

Hesitating for a moment while he fiddled with his salad, Sandburg finally signed, I've been offered a chance to get my hearing back…

Kit shrugged and went on chewing on his last bite of hamburger. But, as he studied Sandburg, he frowned and then asked, You're not going to bother, are you?

Well, yeah, I'm thinking about it, Blair returned. Why? Don't you think it would be a good move?

Kit favoured him with a look of disgust mingled with astonishment. I think it's a stupid idea, about as useful as tits on a bull, he signed, his expression scathing. I thought you said you had wrapped your head around your problems? Seems to me you're still thinking like a 'hearing' - that somehow it's better to hear. Why? Who cares? he continued, his expression increasingly disparaging. What? Are you still buying into the 'hearing' crap that a person can't be happy or whole unless we can hear the way they do?

No, Sandburg signed back, vigorously shaking his head. No. I've realized that life is great either way. It's just that I used to hear and know what it's like, and well, I think I'd like to be that way again.

Snorting, Kit signed, You used to be five years old and believe in Santa Claus, too. So what? Life goes on, change is natural. I can tell you, personally, I have no interest whatsoever in being able to 'hear'. I get along just fine, thank you very much. And so do my parents and my friends. Man, the way you act, it's like you think you're broken or something. Nuts to that idea.

I know you feel completely whole, and I'm glad, because you are whole, Blair signed back, a placating expression on his face. But, I used to be able to hear, and I guess, even though things have been going great lately, maybe deep down I do still feel a little 'broken' inside. I wear glasses to read, why shouldn't I wear a hearing aid or whatever, to hear, if that would help me?

Kit flushed with anger as he snapped off impatiently, You don't get it, man. You obviously don't understand anything at all.

Oh, I think I do, Sandburg signed back. Really, I do. I understand that you have to do what feels right for you, and I have to do what feels right for me. My feelings are no less valid than yours.

Shaking his head, Kit stood, signing abruptly before he picked up his tray to walk stiffly away, You do whatever you have to do, man. It's your life.

Sandburg wanted to feel he was right, that going for the operation only made sense. But Kit's reaction left him feeling sad and unsettled. Sighing, he gathered up the remains of his own lunch and headed back to his office.

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

That night, Blair tossed restlessly in his bed as he struggled to sort out his thoughts and feelings. Why was there such a core of resistance deep inside to the idea of getting his hearing back? A few short months ago, he knew he'd've been delirious with joy at the possibility.

Sighing as he stared up into the darkness, he thought about how Kerry and Kit had reacted, and how he'd felt almost a traitor or something for even suggesting he might want to hear again. And he thought about what Judy had said, explaining something he hadn't really thought about in terms of the defensiveness, well earned, that hearing-impaired people might feel about the whole conversation about what was 'normal'.

It was like being taken hostage, in a way, he thought, as he grappled with his feelings. The silence had taken him an unwilling hostage, but over time, he'd learned that the silence wasn't necessarily an enemy. In some ways, the silence was a very good thing, even an unlooked for gift. He and Jim had discovered something truly amazing about their innate capacities - what if they lost that if hearing again interfered with whatever heightened awareness or sensitivity he'd become aware of in the silence? And he remembered how it felt to be with Ellie, how magical it could be. And the sheer love he'd experienced from his friends in their efforts to include him was something he would never have known if not for having to learn to live in a silent world. Turning his back on the silence felt like a kind of betrayal, a rejection of the gifts it had given him. Like the Stockholm syndrome resulted in captives aligning with their captors, identifying with their aims and coming to care for them as people. Was that what he was now? A hostage to silence?

Was he afraid to hear again? God, that made no sense at all. Hearing had been as natural as breathing, something he'd taken completely for granted before he'd lost it. What the hell was there to be afraid of? So he'd have to undergo surgery, big deal. And as Judy had pointed out, any recalibrations of the hearing apparatus over time was only to be expected, like getting new glasses.

Signing, he pushed agitated fingers through his tangled curls and rolled onto his side. What did he miss most about not hearing? The rush of responses to that silent thought surprised him, and left him trembling with unexpected emotion. He missed so much, even though he'd really thought he'd adapted completely. The sound of Jim's voice. Laugher. Music. Birds. Waves rushing to shore and crashing over the rocks.

God, he didn't know what Ellie sounded like. And he realized he wanted, very much, to hear the sound of her voice.

And, finally, he thought about Jim, about his Sentinel. Sure, they'd learned how to adapt sign to manage. But what if Jim zoned at a really bad time? What if they were surrounded by danger, and he couldn't hear whatever bad guys might be threatening them? Or they could be doing something as simple as camping. If Jim got hurt, how hard would it be to get someone to help? How much time would be wasted writing notes to communicate everything a doctor would need to know about Jim's sensitivities?

What if something happened to his sight, so that he was blind as well as deaf, which was pretty much what it was like in the wilderness when the clouds covered the moon and the stars? What if Jim needed him and he couldn't even find his best friend, because he couldn't hear Jim calling for him? That thought chilled him to his soul…

…and he told himself he was being an idiot to even think about not having the surgery.

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

The next morning as they prepared breakfast, Sandburg was conscious that Jim was watching him with a slightly guarded look, just as he had for the last several days. Blair smiled inwardly, grateful that his friend had been trying so hard to leave the decision solely to him, but it was pretty clear what decision Jim hoped for.

As they sat down to eat, Blair said with studied casualness, "I've decided to go ahead with the surgery."

Jim froze in the act of raising his coffee mug to his lips, and then set the cup down carefully. For a moment, he just stared at Blair, his lips slightly parted, and then he started to tremble. Not a lot, just a little, but he looked away quickly and raised a hand to swipe at his eyes and then cover his lips as he fought for control of his emotions.

Shocked, Blair gaped at him and then rose quickly to round the table to place a steadying hand on his friend's shoulder. "Hey, Jim - what's wrong?"

Ellison shook his head as he swallowed convulsively, overcome with such profound relief that it had swept over him like a tidal wave. He'd been so afraid Blair would decide against the possibility. And he'd wanted so much for Sandburg to have his hearing back, for so very many reasons. He blinked again to clear the burning in his eyes, and finally looked up at his partner. Nothing's wrong, Chief, he signed with a tremulous smile that grew stronger. I'm just so damned glad.

"Oh, man," Blair murmured, bending to hug Jim around the shoulders. "You are such a good friend to me. The best anyone could ever have…"

"Works both ways, Chief. I love you, buddy," Jim whispered as he lifted a hand to ruffle Blair's curls, knowing his friend couldn't hear him.

But he would. Blair would hear him again someday soon, and that was a miracle Jim had thought would never happen, a miracle he'd never cease to be thankful for.

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

Blair called Dr. Matthias' office to confirm his interest in the surgery, and things proceeded quickly after that. Since it wasn't brain surgery, but only a fairly limited procedure in terms of invasiveness, the operation wouldn't even require Sandburg to remain in hospital over-night. Within a week, the specialist had him come to the office for a detailed explanation of what would be happening during the surgery and after, as well as to show Sandburg the external and internal implements that would eventually allow him to hear. He knew it was silly, but Blair was relieved to know that his hair wouldn't have to be cut off for the operation; only the hair directly around the incision points behind his ears would need to be shaved away. After that, a small depression would be created in the mastoid bone to hold the receiver so that it would be flush with the skull.

Using a plastic replica of a skull, Matthias explained that he would be drilling through the mastoid bone to the inner ear and the electrode array would then be inserted into the cochlea. After the receiver was secured to the skull, the incision would be closed with stitches, which would be removed about two weeks after the operation. There was no reason for Blair not to return to work virtually immediately, as soon as he felt well enough recovered from the general anaesthetic, though he was warned that he might experience some dizziness. If it persisted, Sandburg was told in no uncertain terms to call the specialist immediately. The doctor then explained that he wanted the incision to heal completely before activating the implant, so it would be from four to six weeks after the surgery before they could begin calibrating Sandburg's hearing.

Blair was a little disappointed that he'd have to wait so long for the implements to be 'turned on', but he supposed it was little enough time to wait. He was more disappointed when Dr. Matthias explained that the phenomenal improvement in hearing ability tended to be reported by those who were wearing hearing aids before the surgery, and so they were able to hear that much better afterwards. In Sandburg's case, he'd be regaining seventy-five to eighty percent of his hearing, but Matthias added that that would improve more over time. He'd be able to hear people speaking on the phone, if the environmental ambient noise was low, and he'd be able to make out voices in conversation, hear music (though he'd lose some of the extreme ranges and detail of sound) and he'd certainly be able to hear his own voice again - which meant he would no longer need to be worried about either shocking people by shouting at them or annoying them by speaking so low they could scarcely hear him.

While there were some associated risks with the surgery, Matthias assured him they were both minimal, for the most part, and very rare. Any general anaesthetic carried certain risks, but Sandburg was young and healthy, so there was no need to worry unduly about it. There could be some temporary, or even permanent, facial paralysis, but that only occurred with inexperienced surgeons. Though Matthias hadn't performed this operation personally before, an experienced colleague from another State would be assisting him. Any pain following surgery would be minimal and short in duration. Infection was always another possibility, but Sandburg would be briefed on how to care for the wounds before being discharged from the hospital. There was some possibility that he might experience some taste disturbances, such as a metallic taste in his mouth, but that was typically temporary, when it occurred at all. Finally, there was a possible association between cochlear implants and meningitis, but Matthias hastened to assure Blair that the FDA had not found any definite proof of that, and the cases where it had occurred were with patients who had been deafened by meningitis in the first place.

Finally, Matthias showed him the actual implants and external receiver and speech processor. The implements were small, the processor resembling any other hearing aid that would fit behind his ears. There were no external cords, as everything worked on radio wave transmission. Inside his skull, the electrical impulses would be transmitted to the correct electrodes, the intensity of the impulse mimicking volume. The implant would rest against his eighth cranial nerve, which would transmit the impulses to the brain for interpretation.

That's where the 'calibration' came in a month or so after the surgery.

Blair would need to learn to distinguish sounds again but it seemed it didn't take long for the brain to accomplish that. He would most likely find that speech sounded as if it were coming from underwater, muffled to that extent, but it would be understandable.

Sandburg felt as if his head was spinning from all the details, but nothing he'd heard had alarmed him in terms of risk elements. And, so what if his hearing wouldn't be quite as good as he'd originally hoped? In comparison to his current state of being totally deaf, the degree of restoration still sounded very good.

A week after that, Jim dropped him off at the hospital. Though the detective had wanted to wait at the hospital until Blair was given clearance to go home, Sandburg just laughed and told his friend to go to work. The hospital would call when he was ready to go home. Jim reached out to slide his hand over Blair's hair, gripping the back of the younger man's neck for a moment, his expression conveying how very much he hoped everything would go well. Blair smiled with warm understanding, and then got out of the truck, waving as Jim reluctantly pulled away.

Once he'd been through Admitting and was shown up to the day surgery ward, Blair changed into a patient's gown, securing his own clothing in a locker. He climbed into the bed indicated by one of the nurses, his mouth and throat dry with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. He was on his way - on the road back to a world of sound.

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

Jim had difficulty concentrating that day, and was sorry they'd decided not to say anything to anyone else until at least the surgery itself was over. He would have liked to talk to Simon about how much he hoped this was going to work. But, though they were both hanging on tight to everything Matthias had told them, as well as what Sandburg had found on cochlear transplants on the Internet, both were also cautious enough to want to be sure the transplants did work before raising any hopes beyond their own. So, for all anyone knew, Blair was just working at Rainier that day.

Finally, the hospital called and Jim was only too glad to shuffle papers into a file, lock it up in his desk, and take off to pick up his partner.

Blair was a little groggy from the anaesthetic, and a bit dizzy, but not too bad, when Jim arrived. The former medic insisted upon being told how to properly care for his best friend's wounds, and then helped Sandburg to dress. There was the mandatory wheelchair ride to the exit and then Jim helped Blair up into his truck, where the grad student sank gratefully back against the seat as Jim secured his seatbelt.

"Sorry, man, I'm a little spaced from the meds," Blair explained with a yawn when Jim climbed in behind the wheel.

No problem, Chief, Jim signed and then briefly gripped his friend's shoulder before adding, You're going straight to bed when we get home.

"No argument from me, Jim," Sandburg agreed woozily as he closed his eyes.

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

Life continued with its normal routines for the next five weeks, until the day came for Blair to start working with Matthias on the calibration of his hearing devices. Jim could see that Blair was nervous that morning at breakfast; the usual smile a bit brittle and forced. Well, that just makes us even, Jim thought as he concentrated on not burning the eggs.

"He said I should be able to make phone calls, even after this first session," Blair said as he sipped on his glass of juice. "I think I'll call Naomi when we get home."

Neither of them had spoken of Blair's mother's reaction so many months ago. Jim knew his partner had been in touch with Naomi often via email; well, relatively often, whenever she was electronically accessible. Ellison figured she still blamed him, as well she might. Since he didn't know what to say or do to alleviate her natural anger, he'd stayed out of it. But at Blair's words, Jim looked around from the stove as he replied orally since both his hands were fully occupied, knowing Blair could read his speech, "She'll be very glad to be able to talk to you again. This has been hard on her."

"Yeah, I know," Sandburg acknowledged. But he looked earnestly up at Jim as he added, "She was wrong to blame you, just as you were wrong to blame yourself."

Ellison shrugged uncomfortably and turned his attention back to finishing up the eggs in the skillet. What had happened had happened and couldn't ever be undone. Though it was hard for him to understand, Jim accepted that Blair hadn't found it an entirely bad experience. And even the whole department had benefited in an unexpected way. The Chief had been so impressed with the MCU capability of signing to one another, thereby exponentially augmenting their ability to communicate in hazardous situations, that an instructor had been hired full time to teach other cops how to sign. The spin off benefit of that decision was they now had someone on staff to work with hearing-impaired victims or suspected perpetrators, rather than having to call in a consultant from the outside.

But, still, Ellison could wish it had never happened. Could wish even more that the hearing Blair would have after today would be closer to what he'd lost. But he wasn't going to rain on Sandburg's parade. The good news was Blair would be able to hear again. And that's what mattered most to both of them.

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

Jim had insisted upon waiting for Sandburg at the doctor's office, however long the first calibration session took. There was no way he could concentrate on his job until he knew the implant was working.

So, he'd been leafing through magazines without seeing any of the print or pictures, pacing from time to time, and rigorously guarding his own sense of hearing from intruding into the room beyond. Sandburg had been very clear that he didn't want Jim listening in to the session.

Finally, after almost two hours, the door opened and Blair emerged. Jim rose to his feet, a look of desperate hope on his face, but fear still lurking in his eyes. Blair gave him an enigmatic smile as he thanked the doctor and moved toward his best friend. Stopping in front of Jim, Blair simply looked up at the taller man for a moment, and then deliberately turned his back.

"Say something, Jim," Sandburg commanded, though his voice was soft.

Taken aback, Jim looked panicked as he tried to think of something to say. Finally, he stammered, his voice thick with emotion, "I don't know what to say, Chief, but I sure hope you can hear me again."

Blair turned back with a bright smile, though his eyes glimmered with moisture and his lip trembled a little as he replied huskily, "It works, Jim. I heard you loud and clear." Reaching out to steady Ellison, who looked like he might actually collapse in relief, Blair added, "But - you have to know, through it all, you were the one person who always did make sure I could 'hear' you, one way or another. You were always there for me, Jim. Always. Thank you, my brother, for allowing me to be whole. Whether I could hear the world or not - I could always 'hear' you."

Jim's lips trembled as he drew Blair into a tight hug, and a single tear slipped down his cheek. "Works both ways, Chief," he said hoarsely, so very glad to know Blair could hear him say the words this time. "I love you, buddy."

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

Ellison and Sandburg strode into MCU, smiling like cats that had gotten all the cream.

"Bout time you guys showed up," Banks growled as he came to the door of his office. "Where have you been? And since when do you have to hold one another's hand for a simple check-up at a doctor's office?"

"Well, this appointment was special, Captain," Jim replied with a broad smile as he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders and looked down at his partner.

Blair was looking up at Jim, away from Simon, as the Captain asked warily, wondering what was going on, "Oh, yeah? What was so special about it?"

Without turning to face Banks, Blair pushed his hair back behind his ear to reveal the word-processor attachment. "Because I was getting this thing, and the one on my other ear, calibrated with the special thingamajigs implanted inside my ears, so that I could hear you again, Simon."

Only then did Sandburg turn to look at the tall man, who stood expressionlessly, scarcely daring to believe his own two ears. "Did you say, 'hear' me, Blair?"

"Yes, Simon, I did," Sandburg replied as a smile danced around his lips, "And I can."

Aware that the others around them had lapsed into shocked silence, Sandburg looked around to include all them as he explained, "My doctor recently advised me of a new procedure to artificially replace the damaged hair-cells inside my inner ears. The sound isn't perfect, but I can hear all of your beautiful voices again…uh, that is, if you actually say something."

The two partners had expected wild cheering and excited questions, but Blair thought he might well weep at the reaction his words had. They all looked pole-axed, and then they all, every last one of them - from the rowdy H to the flamboyant Megan, to the thoughtful Rafe, and efficient Rhonda, to the kind Joel and their sometimes irascible boss, Simon - every last one of them looked like they were going to cry.

"Hey, I thought you'd be happy about this," Sandburg stammered, uncertain.

Simon moved forward to wrap his arms around the smaller man and hug him tightly. "Oh, we are happy, Sandburg," he murmured hoarsely. "The kind of happy that takes a while to sink in - it has to go through wonder and awe and gratitude and amazement and then take a side trip through overwhelming relief, before we all go crazy with excitement."

"Damn straight, Hairboy," H sniffed and then stood to hold out his hand to draw Blair into a tight hug of his own. "My God, this is the best news ever!"

And then they were all laughing and hugging, wiping away mostly unshed tears - they were tough cops, after all, not given to weeping in public - as they clapped Blair on the back and eagerly demanded information that Jim and Blair were both only too glad to provide.

Simon dropped back to stand beside Jim, who was standing silently with his arms crossed loosely. Resting a hand on his best detective's shoulder, Banks observed, "It's a miracle, Jim. A miracle that he, and you by the way, coped so well - but an even better one to get him back whole."

"We all 'coped', and everyone here was really wonderful to support him the way you did. But, he was always whole, Simon," Jim replied quietly with a fond smile as he gazed at his evidently very happy partner. "But, I have to agree with you," he continued with heartfelt sincerity, "I'm really, absolutely, deliriously, happy, and he is too, that he can hear life again."

Blair looked up just then to turn his gaze on his partner, his sparkling eyes and the radiant smile on his face lighting up his world - a world that was no longer silent but rich and vibrant with sound.

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

Later, when they finally got back to the loft after a long evening of celebration with their friends, Jim headed up to his bedroom, while Blair made himself a cup of tea. Smiling to himself, content with his world, he decided that, since it was so late, he'd wait until the next night to call Naomi - good news didn't go bad and he was looking forward to surprising her.

Short moments later, Ellison came back down the steps, carting bags full of CDs, tape cassettes and old, classic albums.

Blair looked up and saw the bags, recognizing them instantly. His lips parted in surprise as he had thought that Jim must have disposed of all his music months ago - certainly, Jim had given him money for the collection, so Sandburg had assumed it had all been sold.

Setting the bags down underneath the stairs where he'd originally found them, Jim looked up and winked as he said, "I expect you to pay me back what you owe me for these, Chief."

Shaking his head, Blair swallowed convulsively as he blinked and sniffed, swiping at his nose as he stared at his much beloved music collection. "Oh, man," he sighed tremulously, "I'll never be able to pay you back for everything I owe you."

Shrugging, Jim smiled as he replied, "Tell you what, how about you give me a few 'get out of a test free' cards, and I'll call us even."

Rising to the bait, Blair immediately pulled out his wallet. "Oh, no, Jim, no way," he protested as he held out all the bills he had. "I don't have enough here, but I'll get the rest out of the bank in the morning."

Jim couldn't help it; he burst out laughing.

And, equally delighted that they could banter again so easily, Blair laughed right along with him.

Finis

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Note: If you'd like more information on cochlear transplants, please refer to:

http://clerccenter2.gallaudet.edu/KidsWorldDeafNet/e-docs/CI/ModuleG.html