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

A huge debt of gratitude to my cyber sis, Lory, for the beautiful illustrations. Her pictures bring words of mere black and white to life. Thank you so much for sharing your gift and for your friendship.

Power Struggle

by JET

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

It was dark. So dark that even the eyes of a sentinel could not overcome the blackness. He was floating, weightless and still in the ebony emptiness. He had no memory of who he was or where he was or why he found himself floating in the black void, but it didn't bother him. For in this place, there was no pain, no desperate feelings of loss, and no fear. He was content to float. To rest. There was no hurry to find the answers, to try to leave this nothingness. Perhaps later... For now there was only peace.

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

Sometimes, the world can end in a heartbeat.

As Blair Sandburg sat beside his best friend's hospital bed, he thought about the cruel irony of the day's events. Jim wasn't even supposed to have been on duty. It was his day off. He should have been safe in the loft, enjoying the rarity of a quiet day at home. Instead, Rafe needed to leave town for an aunt's funeral, Henri was at home with the flu, and Jim had volunteered to fill in so Major Crimes would not be left short handed.

The irony didn't end there. Jim had been on his way home, his shift over, when he decided to stop by the bakery. Blair had commented at breakfast that he hadn't had any fresh raisin bread in weeks. He was at the bakery, damn it. The bakery. Off duty. Almost home. He should have been safe.

But, he wasn't.

Jim literally ran into the purse snatcher as he walked out of the bakery. With the old woman's black handbag over his arm, and the gray haired grandmother tugging at his arm with fierce determination, the desperate three time loser whirled around when he heard Jim's shouted warning to stop. He fired only once. With the old woman dangerously close to the perp, Jim Ellison never had time to get off a shot.

The paramedics found Jim lying crumpled on the sidewalk with the bloodied bag of raisin bread clutched in his hand, the elderly lady attempting to stop the flow of blood as she sobbed. He never regained consciousness.

Now, it was only a matter of time. At least, that was what the doctors had told Blair. Although his head told him that they were probably right, in his heart, Blair still could not accept their diagnosis as truth. Jim couldn't be dying. To admit that would be to admit that his very world was ending. Dying little by little with every weakening beat of Jim Ellison's heart.

A coma, they said. That much Blair could believe. The proof was lying motionless before him, and beyond all the medical jargon, that alone convinced him of the seriousness of Jim's injuries. Detective Jim Ellison was a man of movement, of action, a take charge and get it done kind of man. People called Blair a whirlwind, but he knew that the same description could apply to Jim. maybe his partner wasn't as hyper, but Jim Ellison was a man always on the go, always in the thick of the action. The man lying motionless in the small hospital bed wasn't Jim. It was merely his living shell, breathing only with the assistance of the rhythmic respirator.

All night, Blair had waited. First, in the ER waiting room along with the frightened friends and relatives of other unfortunate patients. Too much experience with hospitals had taught him that those brought into the ER in the middle of the night were usually those in critical condition. Anything less serious could wait for morning. After Jim had been moved to the ICU, Blair's waiting merely shifted its focus. The doctors, all too familiar with the tall detective and his young partner, had waived the stringent visitation restrictions, allowing Blair to remain at his friend's bedside 24/7. As night flowed into dawn, he waited, the droning sound of the respirator marking the slow, voiceless seconds.

There was another ironic twist, Blair had realized, sometime in the long hours between midnight and dawn. It was ironic that he was here at all, sitting beside Jim's bedside, gripping his hand like a lifeline. In fact, perhaps it was the ultimate irony that Blair Sandburg, child of Naomi, eternal drifter, seeker, and free spirit, should find himself so grounded. That was exactly what he was, after all. Grounded. Rooted. To Cascade. To this life. To this man lying so near death. That he had chosen the life of a cop's partner, filled with violence, cruelty, and death still surprised him at times. But, when he thought about it, it really hadn't shouldn't be a surprise. For, in the final analysis, there had been no choice at all.

No choice. Not from the moment he first saw Jim Ellison and realized that here was his sentinel. He smiled softly. More irony. For it was in a hospital that his roller coaster ride first began. Then, slowly, Blair's smile faded. For it was also in this hospital that the carnival of action and excitement and magic which had become his life might all too likely end.

He stroked his partner's hand with his thumb, kneading the soft skin reassuringly. "Jim," he whispered. "I know you're in there, man. I need you to wake up. You're kinda scaring me here, buddy, and I just want to know that you're gonna be okay." He swiped the back of his free hand over his eyes to wipe away the moisture. "I mean, you don't have to stay awake for long. I know you need to rest and all. Just let me know that everything's gonna be okay in the end. That eventually you'll come home, and we'll have our life back again. Please, man. Please wake up soon." Blair bent low, close to the sentinel's ear. "Please, Jim," he murmured. "I need you, man. More than you know. You think you're the one dependent on me, don't you? Well, I got news for you, buddy. It works both ways. Come back to me, okay? I'll wait as long as it takes, I promise. Just come back to me."

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

Deep in the darkness, the sentinel floated. He listened to the voice as he had been listening for a long, long time now. Perhaps, for an eternity. Somehow, that voice struck a chord of familiarity deep within him. Although he could neither recognize the syllables nor arrange them to construct words, the voice's mellow timbre spoke to him of safety...of home...of love. This time, however, there was such a depth of sadness weighing down the voice. A tiny seed of fear appeared within him and began to grow, slowly taking root and becoming stronger. With a small sigh of despair at the thought of what he was leaving behind, the sentinel began to struggle. He began to fight his way up out of the darkness toward the voice.

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

Blair's eyes were heavy with sleep. Sliding his chair closer to the side of the small hospital bed, he curled his arm beneath his head and rested there on the mattress beside Jim. Blair's other hand gripped his partner's firmly. As sleep quickly overtook him, his fingers relaxed, but they stayed wrapped protectively around the hand of his injured sentinel.

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

Dawn brought nurses to record Jim's vital signs and doctors to poke and prod the unconscious man. Blair took up residence in a corner of the room to stay out of the way as the hospital staff went about its daily routine.

There had been no change in Jim's condition. Blair stood up, once more holding Jim's hand, the one without the IV, and stretched wearily. No matter how many hours, how many days, how many weeks, spent in this morbid ritual of waiting, it never became easier. Especially, when there seemed to be so little left to hope for.

He had talked for hours, hoping that somehow Jim could hear his voice, could follow it home. Jim had to be able to hear him. Jim always heard him. It just might take longer this time, that was all. He wouldn't give up. He couldn't give up.

Now, it was early evening, already dark outside, and the sounds of dinner dishes being collected from patients' rooms echoed down the quiet hallway outside. The door behind Blair opened without a sound, and a familiar figure stepped through. Simon Banks wore a scowl of displeasure, and for an illogical instant, Sandburg wondered what he had done this time to anger the captain. Then, he realized that the object of Simon's wrath was following behind him.

His features set in a grim mask, William Ellison strode into the room. Almost instinctively, Blair sidled even closer to Jim, tightening his grip on his friend's hand, as if his partner could shield him from his father's disapproval as he had done in the past.

His mind flashed back five months. To Thanksgiving, and what had been meant to be a reunion dinner of sorts between Jim, Steven, and their father. Jim's fears that the result would be pure chaos had been realized, and he had ended up defending his partner against his father's cutting words. That day, his Blessed Protector had been in fine form.

But, this time, Blair was on his own.

Jim's father and brother had been contacted immediately after the shooting. Steven was out of town on business, and until that very moment, William Ellison had remained silent and invisible. Now, however, he was most definitely making his presence known. "Banks, I expect you to do your duty." The elder Ellison's voice was dripping ice as he glared over his son's bed at Blair Sandburg.

Simon kept his voice low, but his barely restrained anger was obvious. "I will, sir, but give me a moment to speak with Blair first."

Confused, Blair looked from one man to another. He tightened his grip on Jim's hand and sank back down into the chair he'd pulled as close to the bedside as possible. Brushing his disheveled hair back from his face, he asked, "What's going on, Simon? Mr. Ellison?" He looked back at Banks for answers. "What is he talking about?"

William Ellison moved to the corner of the room and leaned against the wall. He reminded Blair of a cobra steadily staring down its prey, and his blood ran cold. Whatever Jim's father had in mind, it was definitely not going to be good.

Simon took a deep breath, then moved to stand beside Blair. "How is he?" He reached down and pulled the sheet higher on Jim's shoulders, barely covered by the pale green hospital gown.

A weak smile tugged at Blair's lips. "He hates those gowns, y'know. Bet he'd be glad to get into his own boxers and robe about now."

Simon chuckled. "Yeah. Jim and hospitals don't exactly mix, do they?"

An impatient cough from the corner of the room brought Simon's attention back to the problem at hand. "Blair..." His normally controlled voice trembled slightly. "I'm not sure exactly how to say this..."

Abruptly, Jim's father interrupted. "Would you rather I explain it to him, Captain Banks?"

Simon glared across the room as he snapped, "This is my job, Mr. Ellison. I'd appreciate it if you would remain silent and let me do it."

"Simon?" Blair stared at him in confusion. "What's happening here? Is there something about Jim's condition you haven't told me? Oh, my God! That's it, isn't it? What have the doctors...?"

"Stop it, Blair," Simon quietly said. "There's nothing new with Jim. You know everything I do, I promise. It's...his father. He's managed to get power of attorney for Jim. He wants you out of Jim's room."

"And out of his home," William Ellison added with an almost celebratory smile, a smug tone in his voice.

Simon retorted, "I've already told you, there's nothing you can do to make Blair leave the loft. As long as Jim's alive, he has the right to stay there. It's his home, too. Your authority extends only to his treatment here in the hospital."

Blair shook his head in disbelief. "No. That can't be right. Jim gave me power of attorney a couple of months ago. You remember, Simon. It was right after that ambush shooting in the alley over on Bracken Street. He said he wanted me to make decisions for him, if... If anything should happen to him." Blair's large blue eyes begged Simon for confirmation. "He's wrong, Simon. Tell him!"

Simon moved to the window and stared out at the rain. "Seems there was a problem with the paperwork. You know Jim's attorney passed away, Blair, not too long after he signed those papers. Apparently, things weren't being run the way they should have been there at the end. It was a small, one man office, and..." Simon brushed his hands across his hair. "Oh, hell, Sandburg, the papers were never filed with the courts." Turning around, Simon threw a glance at William Ellison and shrugged. "He's Jim's father, his legal next of kin. That's just the way it works. A judge granted him power of attorney this morning."

Blair stared down at the face of his partner. "No... That's not what he would have wanted. You know that, Simon." He turned to look at William Ellison. "You both know that. Mr. Ellison, please," Blair beseeched the older man.

Only a cold stare met his pleading eyes. "You've overstayed your welcome, Mr. Sandburg. The staff has orders that you are no longer allowed in Jimmy's room. I'm asking you to leave gracefully. If not, I will call hospital security. The choice is yours." His mouth curled in a small smirk.

Blair's lips moved silently. He ran his thumb along the underside of Jim's wrist as his fingers tightly gripped his partner's hand. "No," he whispered. "Please... Jim needs me."

Simon's eyes locked with William Ellison's. Jim's father nodded toward the door. You cold bastard, Simon raged inwardly. You know I'll do this myself rather than subject Blair to the indignity of being thrown out by strangers. One day, you'll pay for this. Mark my words. One day, you'll pay.

Turning to the stunned young man at his detective's bedside, he said softly, "Blair, you have to go now. I'm sorry."

"Simon?" The desperate look in Sandburg's eyes tore at the seasoned captain's heart.

Laying his hand on his shoulder, Simon Banks shook his head. "Sandburg, I'm sorry."

Blair released Jim's hand and jumped to his feet. "No! I won't go!" He strode closer to Jim's father, and his voice rose in desperation. "Mr. Ellison, please! You can't do this, man. I mean, I know you think you're looking after Jim's welfare, but, believe me, this is like so wrong! You..."

"Stop it!" Ellison bellowed. "Don't you dare presume to tell me what is wrong, young man! You..." He gestured vaguely toward Sandburg, his eyes burning with contempt. "You with your long hair and charity offering clothes. What would you know about family responsibility? About what my son needs?"

Before Blair could overcome his shocked surprise, the older man glared at Simon and asked, "Security is waiting right outside. Apparently, you are unable to complete this task, Captain Banks, so I will..."

"Give me a minute, Mr. Ellison. Please." Simon wrapped an arm around Sandburg's shoulders, drawing him away from William and to the window beside Jim's bed. His voice was little more than a whisper, and he could feel the angry tremors in the muscles beneath his arm, still resting lightly across Blair. "Sandburg, we've got no choice here. No tonight, anyway. Tomorrow, we can go see an attorney, find out what our options are, but for now..." Simon took a deep breath, then released it slowly. "Blair, you have to leave. Now, you can go quietly, without making a fuss, or that man over there will have you thrown out forcibly. Don't give him the satisfaction. Jim wouldn't want that, and you know it. Do you understand me?" His steady brown eyes held Sandburg's, searching the troubled blue depths for a hint of what the younger man was feeling.

At last, Blair nodded his reluctant acceptance, then he looked over at Mr. Ellison. "May I have a minute alone with him?"

His impatience was clear, but William Ellison nodded briefly. "A couple of minutes, then I will send security to bring you out. Is that understood?" The two older men left the small room.

Blair sank back into the chair in stunned silence, his heart pounding violently. This was impossible; it couldn't be happening. He had to do the one thing he was certain he could not do. Leave Jim here alone in the darkness of his coma. Perhaps, leave him here to die alone.

A choked sob shook his shoulders, and his desperate eyes darted to the door. He knew his time was almost up. Lowering the bedrail, he carefully perched on the side of the narrow mattress. He leaned over, placing both palms on the sides of his partner's face, carefully avoiding the tube which was helping him breathe.

"Jim?" he whispered. "Jim? I gotta go, man. I know I promised I'd be here, no matter how long it might take. I know..." His voice cracked, and he shut his eyes tightly in pain. "I am so sorry to have to do this, but I have no choice." Gathering his strength, he forced himself to be strong. For Jim. "But, you gotta keep fighting, Jim. Don't you dare give up! I want you to wake up, buddy. Wake up and show your father the truth, okay? I don't know why he hates me the way he does, but right now, I really don't give a damn, you know? I just want you back, man. I want my life back, and you're the only one who can give that to me."

He heard the door open behind him and knew without looking that Simon and William Ellison were waiting there. Realizing that it would only feed the fire of hatred burning in Jim's father, but not caring, he bent low over Jim. "So, you keep fighting, James Ellison. You can hear me. I know it. You keep fighting until you come back to me. Understand?" Blair gently pressed his lips to the side of Jim's mouth, right above the tape anchoring the respirator tube. In a whisper loud enough to be heard by all in the room, he promised, "I'll be back, Jim. It may take awhile, but I will be back. I love you, man. You remember that. I love you."

Tearing himself away, Blair carefully adjusted Jim's covers and lifted the rail again. His chin quivered as he took a last, long look at his friend. Finally, he turned, and with a lingering, challenging stare into William Ellison's livid face, he walked from the room.

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

The soothing voice was gone. Vanished without warning. Deep in the all encompassing blackness, the sentinel stretched out his hearing, listening, probing, searching for the thread which had bound him to whatever lay beyond the darkness. Nothing. He heard other voices, other heartbeats, but they were meaningless to him. The one voice, the one heartbeat that mattered was gone. But, it would be back. The voice always came back. He relaxed, content to bide his time in the peaceful void, to wait for the voice to return and guide him home.

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

His cold blue eyes watched the hospital door as it closed quietly behind Blair Sandburg. "Your services are no longer required here, Captain," William Ellison told Simon with a nod obviously meant to dismiss Banks. "I can handle my son's care from here. Of course, if Mr. Sandburg chooses to return, it may be necessary to call your department in once more."

Simon fought to hold back his rage. How the hell could Jim Ellison be this man's flesh and blood? Of course, Jim had been known to have his cold, aloof moments, even to wound those closest to him on occasion, but Jim's heart was good. Hell, it was easier now that he'd dealt with the father to understand why the son had problems with trust and found it difficult to let people get close to him. It must have been hell on earth growing up with no mother and a cold SOB like William Ellison for a father. It was a wonder Jim had turned out to be the honorable, decent man he was.

"I'm leaving, Mr. Ellison. I would like to come back and visit Jim, if I could. We're friends as well as co-workers, you know." It galled Simon to be forced to request permission to visit his friend, but for now, the elder Ellison was firmly entrenched in the driver's seat.

The merest of nods granted permission. "Of course, Captain Banks. You understand, however, that my son doesn't need frequent visitors, regardless of how close they consider themselves to be to him." The older man turned toward the window, staring out into the rain with no further comment. Obviously, he considered the conversation ended.

Simon watched him for a moment in disbelief. Looking at Jim, he shook his head sadly. He moved to stand beside the bed. "I'm sorry, my friend," he said softly, not caring that Mr. Ellison was certain to hear. "I know this is not what you would have wanted. I'll take care of Sandburg, I promise you that. You can rest easy, Jim. He'll be all right." Reaching out, he squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I'll be back."

With a last look at the two figures in the small room, one cut off from the world through no fault of his own, the other by his own choice, Simon closed the door quietly behind him.

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

As he stepped from the warmth of the hospital into the early spring rain, Simon drew his jacket more tightly about him. Damn, it was cool tonight. Looking about, his eyes froze on a single car, parked away from the rest in the hospital parking lot.

Blair's Volvo.

He jogged over to the vehicle, looking in through the driver's window. Empty. "Where the hell did you go, Sandburg?," Simon wondered aloud. Scanning the half filled lot, he saw no sign of the young anthropologist. Not knowing what else to do, he hurried to his car, cranking it immediately and hoping the heater warmed up soon. He pulled out of the lot and headed in the direction of the loft.

The heavy clouds and rainfall lent an aura of winter to the city. Simon drove slowly, peering into store fronts and up alleyways, searching for some sign of Blair Sandburg.

Then, he spotted him a block away, walking on the right hand sidewalk, the dull streetlamp spotlighting him briefly before he trudged once more into shadow. As the car drew closer, Simon's heart swelled with pity. Sandburg was the picture of dejection, plodding through the rain with his head down, his lank hair dripping wet, hands stuffed deep into his pockets. Poor kid didn't even have on a coat. He'd obviously torn out from the loft when he got the call about Jim, not bothering to dress for the cool, nighttime weather.

Simon pulled up beside Blair and rolled down the passenger side automatic window. "Sandburg," he called, unlocking the door. "Get in."

The wet, forlorn figure didn't acknowledge him at all. Blair kept on trudging slowly through the rain, head down, his shoulders slumped. "Sandburg!" Simon called again, with a tone of authority. "Get in this car."

This time, the damp head turned, and sorrowful blue eyes met brown. Blair moved to stand beside the car, leaning in the window. "Simon? What are you doing here?"

Checking the traffic in his rear view mirror, Banks snapped, "I'm blocking the street right now, Sandburg. Would you just get in the damn car?"

Offering no resistance, the drenched young man slipped into the passenger side, slamming the door behind him. Simon turned the heater up a notch, then pulled away from the curb.

"What the hell are you doing, Sandburg, walking in the rain like that? Trying to catch pneumonia on top of everything else?" His voice held no trace of impatience, in spite of his harsh words.

The younger man shrugged. "Volvo wouldn't start again. I've been meaning to take it in to get checked out, but..." He chuckled softly, a sound which was suspiciously close to a sob. "You know, my first thought was to call Jim for a ride, but then, I remembered why I was standing in the hospital parking lot in the first place." He closed his eyes and let his head drop back against the headrest. "Oh, God, Simon," he said in a small, lost voice.

"What am I supposed to do now?"

"Right now, Blair, you need to rest. You've hardly slept since Jim was hurt. There's no way you can think straight in this condition. You'll get some sleep, then we'll figure out what our options are." Simon glanced over at the young man sitting next to him. Blair's face was far too pale, and the hands resting on his sodden jeans trembled slightly. "Blair, would you like to come home with me tonight? I mean, there's plenty of room, and you wouldn't have to be alone."

Opening his eyes, Blair turned to look at the gruff captain. "Thanks, Simon. I mean it. But, I think I want to be home in the loft tonight. I... I've got some thinking to do, y'know?"

Banks nodded. "Would you like me to stay with you? I don't mind. Daryl's with his mom this weekend, so I'm free."

"No, man, but thanks. I really kinda want some time alone." Blair tried to grin, but the smile was a mere shadow of its usual brilliance. "I'll be okay. Really."

"If you're sure." For a long moment, Simon was silent. Then, he added, "Just so you know that you're not alone, kid."

Blair swiped the tears away before they could overflow. "Thanks, Simon. I know. It's just that..." His voice faded away.

Banks reached over and patted the trembling hand resting on the seat between them. "I know, Sandburg. I know. You need to be with Jim. He needs you there, too. I'm sorry."

Shrugging, Blair murmured, "Not your fault, man."

They pulled up in front of the loft. Blair got out, then leaned back into the car. "Thanks again, Simon. For everything."

"No problem, Sandburg. I'll call later and check in. You promise to let me know if you need anything?"

Nodding, the young anthropologist closed the door and stepped inside the entrance to 852 Prospect.

It was going to be a long night.

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

Sandburg stared around him at the empty loft. It was too silent...too quiet. He'd spent many evenings alone here since he'd moved in with Jim. Sometimes, his partner was operating undercover; sometimes, he was out on a date or working late on a case with Simon. Tonight, there was a difference. On this rainy, cold evening, Blair knew that Jim might never be coming home again. This time, the silence might be permanent.

No. He would not allow himself to think that way. Jim was still alive, and where there was life, there was always hope. He moved into the kitchen, realizing suddenly that he had not eaten all day. At least, not since the stale donut and weak coffee one of the nurses had brought him early that morning.

He went through the motions of heating up some soup with the stiffness of a robot, even though every motion seemed to take a monumental effort of will to accomplish. Take the soup from the refrigerator. Get a soup mug. Nuke until hot. Strange how even the most mundane of tasks becomes an effort when your heart is breaking.

Exhausted, Blair set the steaming mug on a dishtowel and carried it into the living room.

No eating away from the table, Sandburg.

Jim and those damned house rules. Blair shook his head to drive away the inner voice, which sounded suspiciously like Jim Ellison, which warned him not to eat his meager dinner on the couch. He was tired. He wanted to sit where it was comfortable. Jim wasn't here anyway, so what did it matter? What did anything matter?

He sank down onto the soft cushions of the couch with a tired sigh. The soup was hot, and he stared into the rising steam for a few minutes, nearly hypnotized by the sinuous motion. Then, lifting the mug to his lips, he took a sip.

"Damn!" Blair fought to swallow the scorching liquid. He felt it blistering his throat as it sizzled its way down. In real pain now, he jerked the mug away from his face, then lost his grip. Hot vegetable soup fell to the couch and onto the floor, pieces of carrots and peas and potatoes spilling out as if from a disrupted cornucopia. He leapt to his feet.

Blair stared at the chaos in disbelief. A red stain spread slowly out on the couch cushion beside him as a large puddle of soup formed on the wood floor.

Damn it, Chief! How many times have I told you not to bring food in the living room? Now, look at what you've done!

"I'm sorry, Jim!" Blair shouted before realizing that the voice he'd heard was only in his head. Tears welled up in the wide blue eyes, then flowed unchecked down his cheeks.

Blair rushed into the kitchen to grab paper towels and a wet dishcloth. Stumbling back into the living room, he fell to his knees and began desperately to wipe up the bits of vegetables and as much broth as the towels could hold.

As his trembling hands wiped furiously, he murmured under his breath. "I'm sorry, Jim. Oh, man, I am so sorry. I knew the rule. I knew it, and I just ignored it, and now look at what's happened. It's ruined. Everything's ruined. Everything..." He wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, then stared at the stained fabric of the couch. "Oh, God, Jim. You've only been gone a day, man, and already everything's falling apart. I'm feel so lost here. What the hell I am going to do without you?"

Collapsing on the floor in a small, huddled heap, Sandburg buried his face in his hands as the sobs wracked his body. They came in waves, at first, violent in their intensity. Then, as the wave crested, the sobs lost some of their fervor and waned for a time, only to regain momentum once more, building and building until they peaked again with an strength that shook his entire body down to his very soul. Finally, after what seemed a lifetime of tears, the heartbroken cries calmed to mere moans which faded into quiet snuffles. At last, Blair's breathing slowed, and curled up on the soup stained floor, he fell into a restless, dreamless sleep.

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

"Sandburg! You in there?" Simon Banks pounded again at the door, trying to listen for any sound from within. With a frustrated sigh, he shook his head and removed his keys from his pocket. Jim had given him a spare key years before, but he only used it in emergencies. Considering Sandburg's state of mind when he'd dropped him off at the loft, Simon figured this constituted an emergency.

He had tried phoning at least a dozen times in the past hour, beginning at ten P.M. No answer. The answering machine picked up, and Simon winced each time he heard Jim's recorded voice, alternating with Blair's, on the message.

"You've reached Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg..."

"We're not in right now..."

"So, leave your message..."

"And we'll get back to you."

Would Blair have the heart to change that message? The thought of Sandburg dealing with all the small, mundane things which would have to be done if Jim didn't make it broke Simon's heart. The kid was strong, of that he had no doubt, but those things demanded a strength Simon wasn't sure Sandburg possessed. Blair nearly idolized Jim Ellison. How would he find the courage to go on without his sentinel?

The door to the loft opened without a sound. Simon smiled as he remembered a night not so long ago. He'd arrived early for the ritual poker game, bringing with him the chips and dip. The elevator doors opened to reveal Sandburg, perched on a small step ladder, carefully oiling the hinges of the front door.

"Sandburg, what the hell are you doing?" Simon bit back a smile at the sight of the young man's intensity as he squirted the top hinge with the small can of oil.

Blair glanced around guiltily. "Simon! Didn't hear the elevator, man."

Patiently, the tall captain repeated his question. "What are you doing, Sandburg?"

With a self conscious grin, the younger man squirted on a drop more oil, then climbed down from the ladder. "Oiling all the hinges on the doors. I've already done the ones inside, and I was just finishing this one when you got here. Didn't expect you so soon. Jim's not even home yet, and..."

Simon interrupted. "Is this how you spend your free time, Sandburg? You own part interest in a machine oil company or something?"

Blair tested the motion of the door and nodded with satisfaction when not a single squeak sounded. "About once a month, yeah. See, Jim hears the squeaks before they're even audible to normal ears. He says it's kinda like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. Drives him crazy." He placed the small plastic cap back on the can and motioned Simon inside the loft, then closed the silent door behind them.

"So, you oil the hinges." Simon gazed thoughtfully at the door.

The younger man grinned. "Yeah. I oil the hinges. Jim doesn't even realize I do it, I don't think he does anyway. maybe he can smell the fresh oil, though." Blair paused a moment, considering the possibility. "Anyway, it makes him more comfortable, so I do it." He chuckled softly as he replaced the oil can in the kitchen cabinet they used for storing small household hardware items. "Part of the guide job description, I guess."

Simon's eyes were serious as he turned to Blair. "I hope Ellison appreciates all you do for him, Sandburg. Oiling the hinges..."*

The small smile faded abruptly as Simon entered the loft and remembered the purpose for his visit. He sniffed the air. Vegetable soup?

"Sandburg?" Simon looked around the loft, his eyes falling immediately to the form huddled on the floor. "Oh, God, Sandburg," he murmured.

Kneeling beside the younger man, Simon reached out and shook his shoulder gently. "Sandburg? Blair? It's Simon. Sandburg!"

Startled blue eyes flew open, and Blair jerked to a sitting position. His eyes flew around the loft, quickly taking in Simon's presence and the darkness outside the large windows. "Wha...? Simon? What time is it, man? Why are you here?" Suddenly, Blair's voice filled with fear and he reached out, gripping Simon's shirt in his trembling fingers. "Oh, God, it's Jim, isn't it? What's happened, Simon? Please, don't say that..."

Banks hastened to reassure him. "No, Blair, no. I haven't heard anything from the hospital since we left. As far as I know, there's been no change in Jim's condition. I tried to call you, but you didn't pick up the phone. It's after midnight now, and I was getting worried. Figured I'd come over here and check on you." He glanced at the soup stained dishcloth and dirty towels. "From the looks of it, you must have had an accident here."

Blair's eyes flickered to the stained couch. "Yeah," he muttered, rubbing his tired eyes. "Guess you could say that. I must have dozed off..."

Sharp eyes, trained in observation, took in the tear tracks and matted lashes. Cried yourself to sleep looks more like it, kid. Aloud, he said softly, "It's okay, Sandburg. Nothing a little elbow grease won't fix. Why don't you head to bed? I'll clean up this mess and crash here on the couch tonight. I really don't want to drive back across town tonight anyway."

This time, Blair didn't reject the offer. "'Kay, Simon. Guess I am a little tired." He yawned, then stood up and stretched. Blair moved slowly toward the small bathroom, then glanced up the stairs toward Jim's room. A stab of pain at the emptiness there made him physically wince and he paused, his hand resting lightly on the railing.

"Sandburg? You okay?" Simon's concerned voice reached him through the fog shrouding his mind.

Blair disappeared into the bathroom, calling softly from behind the closed door. "Yeah, Simon. I'm just fine."

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

After his exhausted nap on the living room floor, sleep now eluded Blair Sandburg. Outside his door, from the couch, he could hear Simon's rhythmic snores. At least one of us is getting some sleep tonight, he thought bitterly. How was he supposed to rest when he had absolutely no idea how Jim was doing, lying in a coma half a city away from him? Away from his best friend and guide?

Suddenly unable to lie still a moment longer, Blair sat bolt upright in bed, leaning back on his hands and staring at the French doors to his room. Light from the windows filtered dimly through the glass, illuminating his room with a muted glow. His nervousness increased, and he swung his legs over the side of his small futon bed. His eyes fell on the framed photograph on the nightstand.

The picture had been taken on one of their camping trips with Daryl and Simon. Daryl had received a new camera and was anxious to try it out. He'd coaxed Jim and Blair into posing with the mountains behind them as a backdrop. Blair's long hair blew gently in the breeze, and Jim's arm lay casually across his friend's shoulders. The looks on their faces were those of two men totally at ease with themselves and each other, two men who had found their place in the world - and it was at each other's side.

"No!" Blair whispered. "This just isn't right!" Placing the photograph carefully back in its place, he left the warmth of his bed and proceeded to get dressed again.

Simon never heard a sound as the loft door quietly closed a few minutes later.

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

It was nearly two in the morning by the time Blair arrived at the hospital. As he slipped out of the elevator on the fifth floor, he glanced cautiously around. Nobody was in sight. The muted sound of a television drifted from the small waiting area across from the nurses' station. He could see the top of a brown haired head bent over a computer, but the nurse didn't look up. For once, the intercom was silent. Blair crept silently down the long corridor.

Luck was with him. As the door to Jim's room eased closed behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief. Nobody had seen him.

He moved quickly to his sentinel's side, sliding the one chair provided for visitors up close to the bed. Automatically, he reached out, recapturing the hand he'd been forced to abandon earlier in the day.

"Jim," he breathed. "I'm back, man. Sorry I had to go away there for a while, but I'm here now. How're you doing, huh? Miss me?" He reached out and brushed a stray lock of hair back into place. "I missed you, buddy. Your daddy's not real wild about me, you know that?" He sighed sadly. "I just don't understand it, man. What's not to like?"

The minutes ticked into hours, marked by the rhythmic pulse of the respirator. As the stars moved overhead in their silent dance, the guide whispered to his sentinel.

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

The soothing voice had returned. The sentinel's sensitive ears picked up the low, caressing tones immediately, and turned toward the beckoning light which seemed to accompany the voice. It seemed so long since he had heard it, but now that it was back, he fought his way closer. That seemed important, somehow, getting closer to that light...to that voice. During its absence, he had been content to float in the liquid darkness which surrounded him. He thought vaguely of the voice and the light, wondered briefly where they had gone, but once vanished, they no longer haunted him with their siren's song. The darkness was safe. The void was enough. But now, it called to him again, that voice, and the sentinel was unable to resist its hypnotic pull. With a small twinge of regret, he once again abandoned the safety of the abyss and struggled to reach the light. And the voice.

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

When the door swung open abruptly, the glare of the light from the hallway stunned Blair with its intensity. Instinctively, he brought one hand up to shield his eyes as he stared toward the approaching, dark shadow figures, silhouetted by the light. His other hand gripped Jim's more firmly.

"What the hell do you think you're doing here?" William Ellison's voice boomed from the foot of the bed. He turned to glare at the security guard beside him. "I thought I gave strict orders that this man not be allowed in my son's room. Under any conditions." The disgust in the older man's voice was matched by the furious glare in his eyes.

Blair turned for a moment to look at Jim's still face. You would never want this, would you? Remember how you stood up to him at Thanksgiving? Man, I wish you could do that now. But, it's only me, isn't it? With a heavy sigh, he turned to face the wrath of William Ellison.

The security guard moved to Blair's side. In a half-apologetic voice, he told him, "You'll have to come with me, sir."

Ignoring the command, Blair held Mr. Ellison's eyes with his own. "Why do you hate me so much? I mean, what have I ever done to you?"

The older man never flinched, his eyes never wavered. "To me? Nothing, personally. It's my son you've done something to, Mr. Sandburg." He glanced at the guard. "Wait outside. He'll be right out."

Acknowledging the air of established command in the voice, the security guard nodded and left the room.

Blair waited, never relinquishing his hold on Jim's hand. Mr. Ellison's eyes took in the sight, and he grimaced. "That's what I'm talking about," he muttered, jerking his head toward their joined hands. "Before my son met you, he never would have approved of such behavior." Ellison turned and stared through the slats of the blinds into the dark night. "He was a tough kid. Always. Nothing fazed Jimmy. Even when the bigger kids picked on him, he never showed fear. Stood right up to them. Sure, we butted heads. A lot. But, even though we disagreed on almost everything, I always admired Jimmy's courage."

He turned his disapproving gaze back on Blair. "Do you really have any conception of what kind of man my son is, Mr. Sandburg? He was a star player on his high school team, a decorated captain in the United States Army, a member of the elite Special Operations forces... Has he ever shown you his medals? I'm sure not. You wouldn't comprehend their significance."

The words came faster now, as if William Ellison was spitting out a distasteful flavor. "I know your type, Mr. Sandburg. All rhetoric and flowery phrases about peace and brotherhood and unity. Well, let me tell you something. It's not *your* kind who make this world a better place, a safe place to live. It's men like my son. Brave men. Men who don't mind risking their lives on the field of battle."

Ellison snorted in disgust. "Look at you! Holding his hand like he's a child. He's not! Jim's a grown man. He doesn't need you, Mr. Sandburg. He's an Ellison. Jim can stand on his own two feet and look after himself. Ever since you butted into his life, I've seen him change. He's not as tough now, not as disciplined. I don't see him often, much thanks to you, I am sure, but it's obvious to me that your influence has softened him. Soft men don't get far in this life, Mr. Sandburg."

William Ellison moved quickly to stand beside Blair's chair, towering over him in his anger. "You've had your way in my son's life long enough. I'm in charge now, and even if I have to hire around the clock, private protection, I intend to see to it that you never see Jim again." He pointed toward the door. "Now, get the hell out of my son's life!"

For long moments, the two men's eyes remained locked. Finally, Ellison moved to the door. "Guard!"

Immediately, the security officer came back into the room.

Blair stood up, carefully placing Jim's hand back on the covers and patting it affectionately. Then, he turned to face his best friend's father.

"You're wrong, you know. About a lot of things." Blair was surprised at how calm his voice sounded, when inside, his emotions were raging. "Jim wasn't the stoic little boy you describe. He hurt growing up. A lot. Only, you wouldn't let him show it. You wouldn't listen to his pain. So, he learned to hide his feelings, Mr. Ellison, learned to be the kind of son he thought you wanted. Jim learned never to show his emotions, not to let anyone see when he was hurt. Oh, you were an excellent teacher, sir. Believe me, I know. I've paid the price for Jim's upbringing." He chuckled bitterly. "I've died for it, in fact."

Sandburg took two steps forward quickly, then stared directly up into the blazing blue eyes. Eyes which reminded him so much of Jim's, but which lacked the warmth, the humor, and the affection he saw reflected in those of his friend. "But, you know what? I've never given up on him, and I never will. Because I see what you've tried so damned hard to kill, Mr. Ellison. What you tried to kill and bury in your son. Of course, I see his courage, his strength, his devotion to duty. But, there's a hell of a lot more to your son than that. I see his humanity, his vulnerability, his fears, and his weaknesses. Yeah, that's right. Your son is all those things, Mr. Ellison. All the things you hate."

Blair's voice rose, and he jabbed a finger against the taller man's chest. "But, I don't hate him because of those qualities. But, you do, don't you, Mr. Ellison? Some small part of you actually hates your own son, because of who he is. Because of what he is."

"You know what Jim is, right? You've known for a long time, ever since he was a little boy, and you tried as hard as you could to crush that part of him. That part of him that was different...special. Jim is special, Mr. Ellison, very special, but instead of nourishing his gifts, you hated him for them. See, that's where we're different, you and me. I could never hate Jim, no matter what. Because I need him, just as much as he needs me. And he does need me, no matter what you believe."

"I love him." Blair's eyes held a glimmer of challenge as he spoke his next words. "And he loves me, Mr. Ellison. Not in the way you think, but it's love just the same. I feel sorry for you, man, 'cause you could never understand what we have. You've never cared for anyone that much, have you, sir?"

Blair laughed now, a real, from the heart, Sandburg laugh. "You and all your money..." He shook his head, a smile still lighting his face. "Your precious status and money. They haven't bought you a damn thing that really matters, have they? Your wife left you. Your oldest son despises all you stand for, and your youngest son tolerates you only because he fears you."

Blair laid his hand against Jim's face for a moment, then he straightened his shoulders, turned, and walked to the door. He hesitated, then looked back at the furious William Ellison. "I pity you, man. I may not look like much, and I may not have two nickels to rub together, or a car that will run, but I have two things you'll never earn. Your son's love and respect. You may be able to keep me out of this room, but you sure as hell can't keep me out of his heart."

With those words, Blair Sandburg closed the hospital door behind him and walked out into the night.

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

The loft was bathed in the brightness of early morning. Simon rolled over on the narrow couch, his eyes mere slits as the glare struck his face. With a low moan, he managed to sit up, rubbing his sleep filled eyes while reaching for his glasses.

Stumbling into the kitchen, he looked for the coffee and put on a pot to brew. Then, Simon moved into the bathroom and shut the door.

When he emerged, his face still damp from rinsing it off in an effort to awaken, he stopped in front of Blair's room. "Sandburg," he called in a low voice. "You awake in there yet?"

No response. "Sandburg? You hear me?" Slowly, Simon pushed open the French doors.

The room was empty. The covers of the futon were strewn about the floor, as if the occupant of the bed had been in a rush to get away. Simon cursed under his breath as he hurried to dress. "Damn it, Sandburg. Where the hell have you gone now?"

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

By the time he walked through the hospital doors and into the cold rain, Blair was shaking like a leaf. Holding it together during his confrontation with William Ellison hadn't been that difficult. He was defending Jim, and whenever Jim's welfare was at stake, Blair had learned long ago that he was capable of greater courage than he had ever imagined.

Now, however, the adrenaline had worn off, and the emotional aftershocks were setting in. He took a deep, shaking breath, then looked around the deserted street. It was the middle of the night. His car wouldn't start. He had taken a cab to the hospital, but he'd only had enough cash to get him here, not enough to return home.

Home. Where the hell was home now anyway? Home was with Jim, and that was the one place he was no longer free to be. Shivering a little from the cold, Blair crossed his arms in front of him, tucking his hands under his folded arms to try to stay warm. For the first time in his busy life, he had nowhere to go. For once, he wanted to stay put, to put down his roots in one chosen spot and remain firmly planted there forever, but now, the choice was no longer his.

A sob caught in his throat. Ducking his head against the cold drizzle, Blair turned his back on the hospital and disappeared into the mist.

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

"He's flat lining! Get the crash cart in here! Now!"

"I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to leave the room!"

Roughly, William Ellison was pushed toward the door of his son's hospital room. Two nurses rolled in a cart of complicated machinery, designed, he surmised, to save Jim's life. Other medical personnel rushed into the room, and as the door opened and closed, William could hear the long, droning tone which indicated heart failure.

No heartbeat. His son's heart had stopped beating. Suddenly, without warning, it had just ceased.

He backed against the wall, staring at the hustling scene in the room.

Then, there was a presence in front of him, blocking his view. The face of an angry Simon Banks loomed in his face.

"What the hell's happening here? The nurse down the hall said they're losing Jim!" Simon's wide eyes were filled with a mixture of disbelief and fear.

William Ellison shook his head distractedly. "I...don't know... He seemed fine, and then... When Mr. Sandburg left, he..."

Simon broke in. "Sandburg was here? When? How long ago? Where is he now?"

Again, Jim's father blindly shook his head. "I'm not sure. Maybe twenty minutes..."

"You threw him out, didn't you?" Simon straightened to his full height, enraged now at the man before him. "Do you know what you've done, Mr. Ellison?"

Tear filled eyes lifted at last. "No... I was only trying to protect my son. You're a father, aren't you, Captain Banks? Surely, you can understand..."

"I'll tell you what I understand, mister. You just sent away your son's best shot at survival."

"What are you talking about? That hippie's not a doctor. He's..."

Simon erupted at last, no longer able to control his fury. "No! That's not what I'm talking about!" Grasping the other man's arm, he roughly pulled him into a small waiting room. Jerking Ellison around to face him, he spoke firmly, anger coloring his voice.

"You know what Jim is, don't you? Jim told me that you knew from the time he was a child. Maybe you didn't know the right words, but you knew he could see things, hear things, that a child shouldn't see or hear. Well, your son's a sentinel, and Blair Sandburg is his guide. Maybe you don't understand what that means. They need each other to survive. Jim needs Blair to control his gifts, to use them for the protection of his tribe, to protect Cascade."

Simon stared intently into the blue eyes, so familiar, yet so different from those of his son. "Those two are connected, Mr. Ellison. Connected like no two human beings I have ever seen. When one hurts, the other cries. When one triumphs, the other rejoices. Blair has this...way...of reaching Jim, no matter how far away he is or how badly he is hurt. You think your son is a tough, macho, show no emotion Ellison, just like you, don't you, sir? Well, let me tell you something. I've seen your son cradle that young man in his arms when he nearly died from a powerful drug overdose, speak to him more tenderly than a father would a son when he lay injured, and scream his grief to the heavens when he thought he had lost him forever to the hatred of another sentinel."

William Ellison's eyes were wide, his mouth slightly open in shock, but he didn't interrupt Simon as he continued. "The bond they share is something neither of us can fully comprehend, but I assure you, it is as real as the hair on your head. Yes, Jim needs medical help if he is to survive this, but he needs Blair Sandburg just as much. Maybe even more. Jim literally brought Blair back from death once, and Blair might be able to reach Jim, even now, but you'll have to agree to let him back in that room." Simon gripped the older man's shirt collar, pulling him closer and staring into his face with intent, brown eyes. "Will you allow him in?"

Before the older man could answer, a voice spoke from behind them. Steven Ellison stood at the open doorway, staring at his father. "Dad, what's Simon talking about? My secretary paged me at my conference, and I got the first flight out. Is what Simon said true, Dad? Did you throw Blair out of Jim's room?"

Simon dropped his hand from the abused shirt collar and backed quietly away to the side of the small room. Steven moved to stand in front of his father, a familiar look of determination on his face.

William Ellison looked around desperately, but there was no escaping his younger son's pointed stare and direct question. Meeting his eyes steadily, he replied, "Yes, Steven, I did."

"Why the hell would you do something so stupid?" Steven was shouting now, not caring how his voice carried through the hospital corridor. "I know you don't approve of Blair, Dad, but you have no right to interfere in Jim's choice of friends! Didn't what happened at Thanksgiving teach you anything?"

The famed Ellison temper showed itself at last. Taking a step closer to his son, his blue eyes flashing, William said angrily, "Damn right I learned something that day! I learned that Blair Sandburg has far too much influence over my son! Hell, Jim doesn't see anything negative about him. He doesn't see how that little vagabond is using him. Using him for a free meal, a cheap roof over his head, and heaven only knows what else! It wouldn't surprise me if he already has his hands on Jim's investments and the deed to that dump he calls his home! What hold that little bastard has over him, I'll never know!"

In a flash of movement, Steven's fist slammed into his father's jaw, sending the older man sprawling backwards into one of the waiting room chairs. Stunned, the father stared up into the furious eyes of his youngest son.

"Dad," Steven began softly. "I have never stood up to you before in my entire life. I saw the way you pitted Jim and me against each other, always manipulating us for your own purposes, and I let it happen. I let you drive us apart. I doubt that we will ever be truly close, not the way brothers should be. There's too much water under the bridge for that...too many years gone by. We're closer now, thanks in no small part to Blair's influence, but we won't ever be the brothers we should have been. I should have said something at Thanksgiving, but I didn't have the nerve. It's different now, Dad. There's far too much at stake for me to remain silent any longer."

Steven leaned over his father, placing his hands on both shoulders and staring intently into his eyes. "You may have destroyed my relationship with Jim, but I swear I will not allow you to do the same thing to Jim and Blair. You *will* rescind that order keeping Blair Sandburg out of my brother's room, and you will do it now." He took a deep breath, and his voice grew deeper. "If you don't, and Jim dies, then you've lost both your sons, Dad. Think about it."

There was only a brief hesitation. Then, slowly, William Ellison nodded. "Yes..." He looked down at the floor. "Please, believe me. I never meant to do anything that would interfere with Jim's chances of survival. All I've ever tried to do is protect my family...my sons." Looking back at Banks, Ellison spread his hands out in supplication. "What can I do...?"

Simon wheeled around and headed for the door. "I'm going after Sandburg! Best thing you can do right now is pray that it's not too late for Jim!" Without looking back, Simon left Jim's father and brother and sprinted down the corridor after the missing guide.

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

The darkness had won at last. In the end, it was a victory by default. When the familiar voice ceased for the final time, the sentinel surrendered to the void, delving deeper and deeper into its emptiness. Somehow, it was comforting to be lost there in that blackness where nothing was expected of him, no one could be disappointed in him, and those he loved could not die. For, in that shadowy place, he was alone. Not even alone with his memories, for they, too, had ceased to exist. Like the light which had beckoned him with its voice, they had disappeared. The sentinel was more alone than he had ever been, hovering there in the abyss between life and death, yet, he welcomed the solitude. Without the voice, without the light, there was no reason to strive to escape the darkness. There was no more reason to hold on, and so, he let go...falling...falling...falling, until there was nowhere else to fall and no place at all to land.

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

Somehow, Blair Sandburg found himself back on Prospect, across from the loft. He had no memory of any conscious decision to return home, and now that he was there, he wasn't sure he could even go inside. The previous night had been difficult enough, even with Simon's presence. How the hell was he supposed to face the barren loft alone? But, he was tired from walking across town from the hospital to Prospect, and all he really wanted was the chance to rest.

Blair shivered. The morning sun had failed to penetrate the blanket of clouds covering the city, and what little warmth it offered was quickly overcome by the fine mist which drizzled incessantly down. Staring up at the windows of the loft, he thought about going in, getting warm, maybe even trying to sleep, at least for a while.

But, the hurdle was still too high. Try as he might, Blair could not convince his body to take that first step toward the warmth of their home. Instead, he moved toward Jim's truck. He experienced a moment of disequlibrium as he wondered why the familiar blue and white truck was in front of the loft. Jim? His heart soared with hope for a split second before crashing back to earth with a vengeance. Simon must have returned the truck. Jim was in the hospital. Probably dying. Without him.

For a moment, his legs felt weak, and he gripped the door handle of the truck for balance. Blair stood there, wavering on his unsteady legs, for a few moments before realizing that the truck door wasn't locked on the passenger side. Jim would pitch a fit. Opening the door, he reached for the lock.

Jim's overcoat lay folded neatly on the passenger seat. Tentatively, Blair reached out, fingering the fabric gently. He picked up the coat, held it to his chest, then lowered his head, inhaling the familiar scent which lingered there. Jim...

The scent summoned a flood of memories, and they all came crashing down upon Sandburg at once. Jim...too strong...too close...too far...Jim...Oh, man.

Once again, his legs threatened to buckle beneath him. He collapsed on the bench seat of the truck, his face still buried in the folds of his sentinel's coat. As his tears flowed, he could feel the wetness growing in the crumpled fabric beneath his cheeks. He became aware of passing footsteps, which slowed in curiosity as they passed the truck. What must he look like, crying into an overcoat on a cold, rainy spring day?

Abruptly, he felt an overpowering need to escape the prying eyes. He lurched out of Jim's truck, locking the door securely behind him. Still clutching the coat, he dashed across the street, without thinking to check for approaching cars.

The blast of horns and the squealing of brakes on the wet pavement barely penetrated his consciousness. Pushing himself back from the closest vehicle which slammed to a screeching halt, mere inches away, Blair tripped over the curb on the opposite side of the street. Barely regaining his footing, he stumbled on, blinded by his tears and the clutching pain seizing his heart.

He wasn't sure how long he had been running when he found himself panting so hard in his struggle for air, that he was forced to stop to breathe. Blair bent over, gasping, Jim's coat draped over one arm, and braced his hands on his knees. The breaths came fast...too fast... and suddenly, he felt nauseous. He had to rest. Looking up, he saw the gates to the park near their home. The park where he and Jim enjoyed spending many of their off hours. Slipping his arms through the long sleeves of Jim's coat, he stumbled through the entrance of the park.

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

Simon pounded his fist on the steering wheel as he leaned forward, peering into the misty rain. It was dawn now, not that there was much difference between night and day on a rainy morning like this one. Still, he held out hope that the dim light might make his search just a little easier.

He'd tried the loft first, then the station, and finally, Blair's office at Rainier. No trace of the young anthropologist. Now, he was driving aimlessly, sending out fervent prayers to whatever deities watch over injured sentinels and their heartbroken guides that he might stumble upon Sandburg.

If it wasn't already too late.

Please, God, don't let it be too late.

He had been afraid to even glance at the small clock on the dashboard. Jim had still been in cardiac arrest when he rushed from the hospital. Was there any chance at all that he was still alive, and even if he had survived the first heart failure, would he be able to hang on until Sandburg arrived? Assuming, of course, that the young guide's presence would be enough to pull Jim back.

Jim's cries were enough for Blair...

He held on to that thought.

He had been tempted to phone the hospital, to find out the status of his friend, but each time he reached for the phone, his hand had frozen in mid-air. Maybe if he didn't know, he could keep the small flicker of hope alive.

Somehow, he found himself driving by the loft once again. Still, no lights burned in the windows, and the officers in the police cruiser he'd ordered parked across the street reported no sign of Sandburg.

Simon groaned in frustration. Where could he look next? He pulled away from the curb, and drove aimlessly down the street.

Not far from the loft, he parked at the side of the street and stared out into the dim dawn light. His gaze traveled across the street to the park which adjoined the waterfront. Jim likes the hot dogs they sell here. Junk food king, that's Ellison. Simon smiled at the thought. They'd had some good times in the great outdoors, that was for sure.

He frowned in concentration. Could it be...?

Bolting from the car, Banks ran across the street and through the entranceway to the park. "Sandburg!" he yelled as he ran, looking to the right and left of the narrow footpath. "Sandburg!"

At first, he thought he was imagining the voice. "Simon?"

"Blair! Where are you?"

Then, he saw him. Seated beneath a large oak tree was a small, very wet, figure, huddled beneath one of Jim's overcoats. As Simon approached, he could see that Sandburg's hair was soaked; the kid must have been out in the misty rain for hours.

Jim's coat dwarfed his smaller partner, enveloping him in its folds. Simon's heart lurched at the image of Blair grabbing the coat for comfort and running away into the rain. But, there was no time for sympathy.

"Blair, let's go. I've got to get you back to the hospital." Simon reached down, taking his elbow.

The younger man jerked away. "Why? There's no point. Mr. Ellison won't let me..."

Impatiently, Simon interrupted. "Jim went into cardiac arrest, Blair. They were trying to revive him when I left. Steven showed up and...convinced...his father to let you in the room."

Blair's already pale features blanched another shade whiter. He jumped to his feet, clutching Simon's arms in a desperate grip. "Jim...? Is he...?"

Banks shook his head. "I don't know, Sandburg. I didn't wait to find out. I knew Jim needed you there, so..."

Turning around, Blair Sandburg took off at a full run, the long coat flowing out behind him like a heraldic banner. Knowing better than to stand there and incur the wrath of a desperate guide, Simon ran to catch up.

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

The ride to the hospital was quiet, the stress of the situation making casual conversation impossible. Finally, to break the tension, Banks glanced over at Sandburg and asked, "What were you doing sitting by that tree in the rain anyway? As damp as you've been the last few hours, you'll be lucky not to land in the hospital yourself." His attempt at a smile failed miserably.

Blair's head was tilted back, and his eyes were closed. A flicker of a smile briefly touched his lips, but lasted less than a moment. "That's our tree, man. Our witness tree."

Simon shot the younger man a look that clearly expressed his total confusion. "Your tree? The two of you just get stranger and stranger, kid, you know that?"

He nodded briefly. "Yeah, I guess you might think that, Simon." Blair fell silent... remembering...

Lash was pursuing him again...chasing him through the loft...overturning furniture...breaking glass...he was terrified...'I can be you...' he was going to die and Jim wasn't coming and he would end up just like the others with a yellow scarf around his neck, floating in a bathtub or pond somewhere with his dead eyes wide open and staring...

Suddenly, his eyes flew open at the same instant he cried out. Looking about wildly, he saw the peaceful green of the park instead of the depressing darkness of the old warehouse. He covered his face with trembling hands as shuddering sobs wracked his body. Tears flooded his eyes, then rolled down his cheeks to fall into his hands like rivers to the sea.

It had been a month since Jim rescued him from that maniac's dentist's chair, and the nightmares refused to disappear. He knew that it was getting late, that Jim would be looking for him soon, but Blair could not face going back to the loft. Not yet. Not like this.

Jim Ellison was so brave, so stoic. Although they had not been working together that long, already Blair knew, that without a doubt, his newly discovered sentinel was the most courageous man he had ever encountered in his lifetime. The bravest man he could ever hope to know. How could he go home like this...a sobbing, nervous, paranoid wreck?

Then, there was a presence beside him...a strong arm wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him close. Drawing him nearer to the warmth and the strength and the safety of his partner's body.

Jim had found him.

For an instant, Blair was mortified. Jim would think he was nothing but a coward, a big baby who couldn't seem to shake the haunting presence of a psycho dead now for weeks. Blasted away by five shots from a sentinel's gun. Half expecting Jim to push him away, to make one of his teasing remarks about toughening up and not letting your emotions get in the way of the job, Blair risked a glance at the older man's face.

To his amazement, Jim's eyes were filled with tears. Tears which threatened to overflow at any second as he gazed into the frightened, blue eyes of his guide.

Those tears were Blair's undoing. He leaned slightly toward Jim, then, as the arm wrapped around him pulled him closer, he fell into his embrace, his tears falling freely again. Ellison drew him in, holding him as close as he could manage, tucking his head beneath his own, then resting his cheek against the curly hair.

"That's it, Chief," Jim whispered. "It's time to let it out, to let it go. You're safe now, buddy. Go ahead and cry. It's all right."

Blair tried to speak, but the tightness in his throat choked down the words. All that emerged was another broken sob.

Jim's arms tightened even more, holding him close in a fierce hug. "Blair...Shhhhh... You don't have to talk, okay? Just listen."

He took a deep breath, and Blair felt Jim's cheek nuzzle his hair and his breath against his scalp. "A few weeks ago, you called me your Blessed Protector. Chief, I know you were kidding when you gave me that title, but it's been on my mind ever since. There's something about you, Blair..." He hesitated, struggling for the right words. "Something about me, maybe, that makes me want to protect you. When I got your page that night and saw that 911, it terrified me." Jim's arms tightened around Blair, drawing him even closer into his embrace. "It was all I could do to stay in control. Not only of my senses, but of my emotions. Then, when I saw the loft, saw the evidence of the struggle you put up, it was almost too much for me to handle, Chief. It was only the hope of finding you alive, of knowing that you needed me and were waiting for me to get to you, that kept me from going insane."

Gently, Ellison pushed Blair back away from him so he could look directly into his partner's eyes. With a trembling smile, he tucked a wayward strand of curly hair back behind one ear. "Chief, I don't make promises lightly, but I'm going to make you a promise tonight. I will never stop trying to protect you, to keep you safe."

Jim lowered his head for a moment and his eyes closed. "I couldn't blame you if you wanted out after this. Most people would have had their bags packed that night. I can't promise that bad things aren't going to happen to you if you decide to stay with me. Terrifying things which you'd rather not see. Things you never would have seen if you hadn't joined up with me. I'm too much a realist to promise that. But, I can swear to you that I will do everything in my power to protect you. Or die trying."

He lifted his head to gaze into Blair's face once more. "Will you stay, Chief?"

Reaching out, Blair laid his hands on Ellison's shoulders, then leaned forward to rest his head on the broad chest. Suddenly, the weight pressing in on his chest had lifted, and he could breathe again. "Jim... I promise you that I will do everything in my power to help you learn to live with your senses and to learn to use them as a sentinel is meant to use his senses. I'm not always sure what I'm doing here, you know that, but I promise I'll never give up. If it takes forever, I'll find the answers for you, my friend. I'll stay as long as you need me, Jim. I promise."

He looked up again into his sentinel's face and read the acceptance there and the promise reflected in his clear blue eyes. As Jim drew him close once more, Blair felt the chuckle rumbling from deep inside the broad chest. "You just signed a lifetime contract, Chief. Hope you know that."

Blair laughed through his tears. Tears of joy, now. "Do I need a witness to that, Ellison?"

The sentinel drew a deep breath. "No witnesses needed, Chief. Just us. I think that's enough, don't you?"

Leaning back against the roughness of the towering tree's bark, Blair felt Jim's lips brush against his hair. "It's enough," he whispered to his sentinel. "It's enough."

"Our witness tree," Sandburg whispered brokenly.

When Simon glanced back at the younger man, he saw the tears leaking from his eyes. "Hang in there, Sandburg," he said softly. "Just hang in there."

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

Blair ignored William Ellison as he jogged down the corridor to the door of Jim's room. Steven was standing in front of the room, leaning back against the wall.

"Steven, is Jim...?" Blair didn't have the courage to complete the question.

Steven Ellison looked down into the pleading blue eyes of his brother's best friend. "They managed to get his heart started again, but..." The taller man shook his head sadly. "They haven't been able to stabilize him yet. It still doesn't look good, Blair."

Not willing to waste precious time in response, Sandburg pushed open the door and slipped inside.

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

In the darkness, there was a small tremor. Barely discernable, it rippled across the ebony layers, hardly disturbing the serenity of the void. Yet, as infinitesimal as the ripple was, the sentinel felt it. He chose to ignore it, sinking instead further into the consuming void. He floated...weightless...motionless...without pain...without conscious thought. But, the tremor refused to be ignored. It tapped away at the deepest recesses of his awareness, demanding acknowledgement. At last, the sentinel gathered his strength, and with an act of extreme will, focused on the tremor. His heart leapt. The voice had returned, and with it the light. Merely a pinprick now in the distant darkness, but the glimmer was there. But, it was too late; his strength was gone. He was too tired, too used up to fight any longer. Sadly, the sentinel turned his sight away from the light and closed his ears to the voice. Once more, there was only darkness and silence and solitude. Then, he felt it. Warm, wet, and sliding down his face, over his cheekbones down to his still lips. Salty...with an underlying essence which stirred his sleeping soul. BLAIR... The name rose unbidden, echoing joyfully in the sentinel's heart. His eyes opened, and the sound of the voice filled him, resonating in every pore and sinew. In the distance, the light grew brighter, more lustrous, beckoning him with its radiance. Renewed, he began the fight to reach that beacon.

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

Blair was nearing exhaustion. It had been hours since he had entered Jim's room, and in that time, he had not ceased his constant murmuring. If there was a single chance, no matter how small, that Jim could hear him, he would talk for all eternity. And beyond.

He was so very tired. Since receiving the news that Jim had been shot, he had been riding an emotional roller coaster. Add to that his lack of sleep and food, and Blair teetered on the edge of collapse. Slowly, one tear slipped from his eye, followed by another, then another. Blair leaned forward, burying his head in his hands as he leaned on the edge of the small mattress.

Then, he felt it. A sudden surge of energy swept through him, like an electrical current. Wiping away his tears, Blair lifted his head, staring at the still features of his best friend.

"Jim?" Blair whispered. Something was different; something powerful...mystical. He could feel a difference within Jim and within himself. There was no movement from the sentinel, but inside Blair, life was stirring.

"Jim?" he repeated, reaching out to grasp the still, cold hand. "Jim, I think you can hear me now, can't you? Listen to me, man. Focus only on my voice and reach for it. I'm here, Jim, right here with you."

As Blair talked, he failed to notice the hospital room door open slowly and three silent figures slip inside. Simon, Steven, and William Ellison lined the far wall of the room, watching the drama playing out before them.

The low, soothing voice chanted on. "Jim...Jim... Listen to me, man. Focus on me. Follow my voice back to me, please, Jim. C'mon, man. Please, come back to me now..."

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

The light was growing brighter...closer...more intensely beautiful... The voice was more than a whisper now. The sentinel could understand words now, even sentences, and the memories came flooding back. This was Blair's voice... His guide was summoning him back from the abyss, cajoling and pleading and enticing him to leave the safety of the darkness. Just as powerless to resist that voice on the brink of death as he had been almost from the day they met, the sentinel responded - driving himself upward toward the beckoning light. As he fought against the blackness, he found himself growing stronger as his desire to reach his guide grew more potent. The light was almost within reach. Summoning his will and marshalling his strength, Jim Ellison made one final, desperate surge forward. Into the light...

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

Fervently, Blair Sandburg whispered, "C'mon, Jim. That's it, man. You're getting closer; I can feel it. Don't ask me how,'cause I don't have a clue, but I know you're gonna make it. Keep fighting, Jim. Don't you dare go without me! Don't you even think about it, do you hear me?"

The hand Blair gripped so tightly twitched in his. Once. Then again. And again. Sandburg stared at their entwined fingers. "Jim?" He was almost afraid to look.

Slowly, his wide blue eyes found Ellison's face. And he found himself gazing into the unfocused sea blue eyes of his sentinel.

"Jim..." he breathed, scarcely believing his own vision. "Jim..."

William Ellison took a step toward the hospital bed, but Simon's arm shot out, holding him back. "Not yet," he commanded in a near whisper. "Not yet."

Trying to speak, Jim's lips moved around the tube in his mouth, but no sound emerged. His eyes bore witness to his frustration. Reading the emotion clearly, Blair reached out, gently running his fingers across the sentinel's brow to ease the small wrinkles of worry which had appeared. "It's okay, man. Relax, Jim. Don't try to talk yet, okay? We've got time...plenty of time, now." Blair leaned closer to his partner's face, whispering constant, loving reassurances. Tired blue eyes locked onto his darker ones, refusing to release their hold.

Steven Ellison turned to his father. "We should go now, Dad. We'll come back later, when Jim's stronger."

The elder Ellison opened his mouth to protest, but the look on Steven's face froze the words in his throat. He merely nodded, then followed his younger son from the room.

Simon approached the bedside. He stood across from Sandburg and laid his hand lightly on Jim's shoulder. The sentinel's eyes flickered over to his captain and friend.

Simon squeezed the muscular shoulder firmly. "Glad to have you back, Jim. We were getting pretty worried about you for a while there. You get some rest now. Major Crimes needs you back soon, Detective. Our closure rate's not the same without you and Sandburg on the job."

Ellison nodded and a small smile touched his eyes briefly.

Simon cleared his throat. "I'll be going, Jim." He looked over at the younger man sitting on the edge of the bed. "Sandburg, you call me if you need anything. Understood?"

Blair smiled up at their captain, his deep blue eyes glowing with happiness. "You bet, Simon. And...thanks. For everything."

Reaching across Jim, Simon tousled the dark curls. "No problem, kid. You both get some sleep. That's an order."

Snapping a smart salute, Sandburg quipped, "Sir, yes, sir!"

Banks moved toward the door. "Smart ass kid," he muttered under his breath, fully aware that the sentinel and his guide, could hear. Then, he turned to wink at Ellison. "See you in the morning, Jim."

Ellison lifted one hand in farewell, letting it fall weakly back to the bed. Before Sandburg could speak, the door opened again, ushering in a tide of doctors and nurses, hurrying to check on the revival of the patient they had fully expected not to survive another few hours.

By the time the furor eased, darkness had once again descended upon Cascade, enveloping the city in its shadowy blanket. Blair settled back on the edge of Jim's bed with a satisfied sigh. Careful not to jar his resting friend, he reached out once more for the sentinel's hand. He was surprised when long fingers curved between his, entwining their hands as one.

"Thought you were asleep," Blair whispered, his eyes smiling softly.

"Just...resting..." The breathing tube had been removed, and Jim's hoarse whisper bore witness to the length of its presence in his throat.

Blair grinned. "It speaks!" Then, his expression turned serious. "How are you feeling, big guy? Really."

Ellison studied his friend's features for a few moments, then the corners of his lips turned up just enough to relieve Blair's concern. "Okay, Chief. I'm...going to be okay." His eyes blinked sleepily. "Think I'll...get a little rest now. You...go on home. You look like something the cat dragged in..."

Playfully, Sandburg swatted his arm, but the touch was more caress than reprimand. He let his fingers drift down the sentinel's bare arm, ending up pressing down on their joined hands. "A cat, Jim? Or a jaguar?"

He was rewarded with one of Jim Ellison's blinding smiles, only slightly dimmed by all he had been through. "I never...dragged you in, Junior. You found me...remember?" Even though his speech was still hesitant, there was an undeniable warmth in his tone.

Blair's voice grew soft...contemplative. "Maybe... I think it was more that we found each other, man. Just when we needed this most." He squeezed his partner's hand with both of his own. "If you don't mind, Jim, I think I'll hang around here a while with you. The loft's been way too quiet recently."

Lifting his hand to run sensitive fingertips along Blair's arm, Jim smiled. Then, his hand fell back to the bed. Ellison's eyes closed slowly, and his words were mere whispers. "Stay, Chief. Rest."

The guide watched his sentinel sleep until his own eyes would remain open no longer. Then, he pulled the chair up next to the hospital bed. Resting his head against his own arm on the pillow beside Jim, he stared for long minutes at his friend's profile.

Thoughts of what he had gained in the years since he had found Jim Ellison - or they had found each other - tumbled through his mind like stones washed along a creek bed. Friendship...partnership...brotherhood. Good words, but none came close to describing the bond he and this man had forged. Blair smiled. It was not a bad analogy. For this relationship *had* been forged...two iron wills...struck with brute force at times...exposed to the fiery heat of the furnace. Yet, the very flames which might have destroyed them had tempered them both, molding them and shaping them into what they were today. Two bodies sharing one heart...one spirit...one soul. Yet, despite all they had endured, some voice deep inside whispered to Sandburg that the twin processes of creation and re-creation were not yet over, that there were even more changes to come.

"Let the fires come," Blair murmured as his tired eyes closed at last. "Let them come..." Their hearts beat as one, and their breath mingled with each slow, steady exhale. Soon, sleep claimed the guide as he rested close at his sentinel's side.

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

Four weeks later...

"C'mon, Chief! Jump for it!" Jim Ellison's shout rang down the nearly deserted beach.

The bright sun warmed the sand beneath their feet, and the roar of the surf provided a background symphony. Shirtless, his bare legs covered with sand, and his worn denim shorts still damp from an earlier swim, Blair Sandburg leapt high into the air, his right arm outstretched toward the spinning circle of color heading directly toward him. His fingers closed over the plastic, and he touched the earth with the red Frisbee safe in his hands.

Ellison clapped his hands in approval. "Good catch, Sandburg!"

The younger man trotted over to him. "You getting tired, man? We can rest a while..."

"Yeah, maybe. How about some of that lemonade you stirred up? Something cool sounds good."

Blair fell in step beside his friend as they walked up the beach toward their blankets and supplies. He glanced up at Jim's profile, studying his sentinel carefully, looking for any sign that the day's activity might be too much too soon.

Catching his partner in the act of Jim Watching, Ellison reached out to cuff the back of Blair's head.

"Ow! What was that for, man?" Sandburg rubbed his head and rolled his eyes in mock protest.

"For carrying the 'mother hen' act to a new extreme, Sandburg. I'm all right. Really."

They reached the blankets and eased down on the warm fabric. Jim reached into the picnic basket and pulled out a large thermos of freshly made lemonade. Pouring them each a cup, he handed one to Blair.

"I'm sorry, man." Sandburg glanced over at his friend. "It was just so damned close this time. Guess I'm still a little freaked by the whole thing."

Ellison's eyes remained fixed on the breaking waves beyond the shore. He took a sip of his lemonade. "It's okay, Chief. Believe me, I do understand the feeling." His voice dropped until Blair had to strain to hear the next words. "After...the fountain...I never wanted to let you out of my sight again." He threw a quick glance at the younger man. "Still don't, if you want the truth. But, trust me on this one, Blair. I'm all right."

Sandburg nodded. "I know. It'll get easier. Just cut your overprotective guide a little slack for a while, will ya?"

Reaching over, Jim tugged on a curl. Then, he turned his attention back to the breakers. Amazing. He followed a single droplet of water as it rose to the crest of a wave, paused for less than a heartbeat on the apex, then plunged over, only to be submerged on the other side. The sun bore down, warm and soothing, on his bare back, and the gentle spring breeze caressed his face. The healing scar on his chest tingled, as if being tickled by the molecules of oxygen brushing by.

A soothing blanket of contentment enveloped him, and he considered drifting into the luxury of a zone out. Sometimes, he welcomed those out-of-touch, floating excursions into nothingness. That was something he'd never shared with Sandburg. His guide considered it the cornerstone of his duties as Jim's guide to prevent the zones, and somehow, Jim had never had the heart to reveal to him that, at least occasionally, he might welcome one. Maybe one day... But, not today. It was too soon. Too soon after the nightmare in the hospital. He could not risk frightening Blair right now by zoning. He focused on the scent of suntan lotion, sea water, and sweat wafting over from his guide, trusting those smells to keep him from drifting away as he watched the waves.

A shadow blocked the sun.

Sandburg had closed his eyes, resting in the calmness of the day. As the sun disappeared, Blair glanced up. Straight into the face of William Ellison.

Without a word, he reached over and squeezed Jim's arm. His reverie broken, the sentinel glanced over at his guide, then up at the man standing over them.

"Dad?"

The elder Ellison smiled slightly. "You're looking good, son. Really good. I'm pleased to see it."

Jim looked curious. "How'd you find us? We just decided this morning to come out here."

"I called Captain Banks when you didn't answer your phone. Told him that I had something urgent to tell you. He told me you had the day off, and he let me know where you were."

Jim nodded. "I usually fill Simon in on our plans. You said something urgent. Is something wrong? Is Steven okay?" His blue eyes took on a veil of concern.

"No. Nothing like that." William Ellison glanced at Sandburg. "Could we talk, Jim? Privately?"

Ellison bristled. "There's nothing you can't say in front of Blair, Dad. We..."

"I know that, son. It would just... It would be easier for me to say this without an audience."

Blair stood up. "It's okay, Jim. Really. I thought I'd go for a swim anyway." He flashed a grin at his partner. "We guppies need our exercise, y'know."

William Ellison saw the affectionate look in his son's eyes as he laughed.

"Thanks, Chief. Go ahead and enjoy your swim." He winked at the younger man. "Just watch out for sharks, kiddo. I don't think your Blessed Protector's quite one hundred percent yet, okay?"

"You got it, man. No sharks." Turning toward the ocean, he glanced away. Looking back once over his shoulder, he whispered to his sentinel, "It's okay, Jim. Just remember to keep your cool. Don't let him push your buttons, okay?"

He saw the wave from his friend and grinned. Then, Blair dove through a wave into the surf.

Jim stared up at his father. "Sit down, Dad," he invited.

For a moment, it seemed William Ellison would refuse to join his son on the blanket spread out over the sand. He glanced at his immaculately tailored suit, then down at his polished shoes. At last, with a mighty sigh, William Ellison settled himself on the blanket beside his son.

Jim watched with hidden amusement. "It's the beach, Dad. Relax."

His father's eyes regarded him curiously. "I'm not very good at relaxing, Jimmy. You should know that."

The younger Ellison snorted. "Yeah, Dad. I know that. Just thought you might decide to lighten up a little, that's all."

Jim turned his eyes to Sandburg. With long, sure strokes, Blair propelled himself through the water. His hair flowed behind him, a proud standard proclaiming to the world his very unique style and personality. Jim smiled softly. Glad that damned fountain didn't spoil your love of the sea, Chief. We were spared that at least. Do you have a clue how beautiful you are or how special? No, you don't. If you did, you wouldn't be the same unassuming, open person you are. God, I'm lucky to have you in my life.

Jim slowly became aware that his father was staring, not at the ocean before them, but at him. He kept his own eyes focused on Sandburg, ignoring for the moment, his father's presence.

A voice broke into his reflections. "You're taking this better than I thought you would, Jimmy."

Turning curious eyes toward his father, Jim asked, "Taking what, Dad?"

Shrugging, the older man answered, "You know... The hospital thing and all."

Jim felt a cold chill creeping up his spine, in spite of the sun's warmth. "The hospital thing." He didn't elaborate. Give him enough rope...

With an impatient sigh, William gestured toward Blair. The young anthropologist was standing waist deep in the ocean, stretching his arms up toward the rays of the sun. The light shining through his damp hair turned it into burnished copper, and his brown skin glistened in the sun.

He looks like an ancient god, Jim thought irreverently. Some old Chopec vision of the perfect guide.

His father's words distracted him once more. "You know I didn't mean anything by not letting Mr. Sandburg see you, son. I was only trying to look out for your interests. I can't say that I understand the relationship between the two of you, but I suppose there's nothing I can do about it. Anyway, I came here..." His words faded for a moment, then he turned to look at Jim. "I came here to say that I am sorry for the way I behaved. If Steven hadn't made me realize that I was wrong...and your Captain Banks... Well, you could have died, Jimmy. You have to believe that I never wanted that, never wanted to hurt you."

Ellison's voice was flat. "He never told me."

William stared out at Sandburg. "You... You mean you didn't know? I assumed that he would..."

Jim interrupted, his voice still quiet. "You assumed wrong. That's what you don't get about Blair, Dad. He would never do anything to hurt me, even if that means taking some awfully heavy loads on his own shoulders." Jim felt a rush of affection for his friend squeeze his heart. "I don't need your apology, Dad. It no longer matters to me what you think or what you do."

He watched Blair dive once again into the sea, then emerge moments later, his body dripping. The young man tilted his head back, plastering his wet curls back out of his face. Jim focused his sentinel vision on those curls, grinning when several immediately slipped free to curl upward again.

"See, Dad, I've moved on. I've left my childhood behind. All the unhappy memories, the uncertainty, the feeling that I could never be good enough for you...they just don't matter now. Simon did mention that my power of attorney was a slight problem, due to the death of my lawyer, so I had that taken care of immediately. "

He looked over at his father's surprised face. "I'd like to have you in my life, Dad, if we can get past your need to try to control my life and your dislike for Blair. If not..." Jim shrugged. "You're my father, but I won't sacrifice our friendship for anyone or anything. You want to see me; you'll have to deal with both of us. It's your choice. Ball's in your court."

The older man was silent for long minutes. "I said I was sorry for my behavior in the hospital. I'm just not sure that I can handle the rest of it. I'm grateful for whatever it was he did to bring you back, Jimmy, don't get me wrong. But, the closeness you share...the way you choose to live your life...it's very difficult for me to deal with. Can you understand that at all?"

Blair was floating on his back, his long hair drifting around his face. Ellison could see the small, half smile teasing his friend's lips. His eyes were closed, and the expression on his face was one of pure bliss. Apparently, his guide was not concerned about the interaction between father and son. Then, Jim saw his lips move and heard his guide's voice whisper to him. Whatever he says, Jim, whatever he does, it doesn't touch us. Got that, man? He can't touch us.

The sentinel closed his eyes briefly, listening to his guide's breathing. The sound rose above the crash of the surf and the music of the wind. Yeah, Chief. I got that. He opened his eyes to see a single gull drifting lazily high above on a current of air, then he looked back to earth and found his guide's face. Blair was standing now, looking at him and smiling. Jim's heart soared even as his guide's love kept him firmly anchored to the earth below.

Without looking at his father, Jim said softly, "No, Dad, I really can't understand that. Maybe one day, you'll be able to understand me a little better. Or, if you can't understand, at least accept."

William Ellison stood up, brushing invisible grains of sand from his dark trousers. "Maybe, Jimmy. Maybe." He turned to leave, then looked down at his son once more. "Take care of yourself."

Jim nodded. "You, too, Dad. You too."

He watched until the distant figure of his father disappeared over the row of dunes behind them. Then, the sentinel went to his guide.

The sun was lower in the sky now, tinting the sand and sky a pale peach. Jim waded into the surf, then, as he reached deeper water, plunged into the center of a strong wave, emerging on the other side to stand beside his friend.

Blair regarded him carefully, appraising what he saw written in Jim's expression. The sentinel's eyes were calm, his face relaxed. At peace.

"You okay?"

Ellison stared out to sea. Beside him, Sandburg swayed slightly on his feet with each swell, the water up to his chest. He leaned into Jim for balance, holding his arm lightly.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Blue eyes, the color of the sky, gazed down into those the shade of the sea's depths for answers.

Sandburg shrugged. "Didn't see the point. Simon told you to straighten out the legal stuff, and all the other... It was water under the bridge, man. Why put you through it?"

A large swell rocked them both. Jim instinctively reached out to steady his friend, grasping his shoulders firmly. "You should have told me, Chief. I have a right to know when my father's being a bastard."

"Yeah. I know. You were so sick, though, Jim. I just didn't want to add more crap when everything was over. It didn't matter any more."

Suddenly, Blair found himself pulled through the water to face his friend. Angry eyes stared into his own, and the grip on his shoulder tightened almost to the point of pain.

"You listen to me, Sandburg, and remember this, because I'm only going to say it once. You matter to me. Very much. When you hurt, it's important to me, and I want to know about it. No matter what the reason." Jim held Blair's gaze silently for a moment. "You've got this over inflated view of family, Chief. I know you'd like my dad, Steven, and me to be close, something out of 'The Waltons'. But, it's not going to happen. Not like you think it should. Steven and I are closer now, and maybe one day, my dad and I will be able to tolerate being in the same room together. But, not yet. That's not the point anyway."

Blair gazed down at the water swirling around his chest, then he felt a strong, gentle hand guiding his head upward until his eyes once again held those of Jim Ellison.

"You are my family, Blair. Don't you ever forget that. Like you said, he can't touch us. Nobody can, not unless we allow it to happen. I don't plan on ever letting that happen again. You got that?"

Blair's smile outshone the sun. "Got it, Jim."

Jim's serious expression faded into a wide grin. Eyes twinkling, he looked down at his smaller partner. "You look hot, Chief."

For a second, Sandburg didn't comprehend what his partner's grin meant. Then, he began to slowly back away, holding his hands out in front of him. "No, Jim. C'mon, man, don't. My hair's just getting dried out here!" He turned away, trying to run through the water to avoid the long arms reaching for him.

With a sudden dive, the sentinel surface directly behind his fleeing guide. Wrapping strong arms around his best friend, Jim ducked them both into the cool ocean water. He only remained submerged a moment, remembering not to frighten the younger man with memories of being helpless under water.

When they surfaced, Jim pulled Blair to him in a loose hug. Dropping his head so that his lips brushed the wet curls, he whispered, "Thanks, Chief."

The voice against his chest was muffled as Blair's arms encircled his back. "For what, man?"

"For showing me what's important. What matters in my life. For helping me keep my perspective. Not to mention my sanity."

He could feel Blair smile, his face slightly sandy and cool. Jim allowed his senses to stretch out, drawing into his own body the warmth of Blair, the rhythm of his heart, the feel of his bones and muscles as they flexed and shifted, the small puffs of air as he breathed just a little harder than usual from their tussle in the sea. Life's too short, Dad, too precious to waste on hatred and resentment. If he's taught me one thing, it's to treasure each and every moment. To appreciate what I have.

Sandburg's quiet voice rose above the sound of the sea. "That's what family's for, isn't it, Jim? To give our lives balance. Perspective. Maybe I'm not the world's greatest expert on families, but that's the way I see it."

Brushing a kiss into the salty, damp hair, Jim turned his head to rest his cheek against his chosen brother's head and held him closer. "You've got it right, Chief. You've got it right."

A comfortable silence fell between the two men as they listened to the sounds of the power which surrounded them and watched as the day drew to an end. At last, as the sun settled into its ocean bed, sentinel and guide emerged from the sea.

United...friends...brothers...family.

Finis...

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