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

Unexpected

Epilogue to Out of the Past

by Arianna

With special thanks to
Vonnebear
For your very generous contribution to
Wolfpup's auction to aid
victims and animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina

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

As soon as they entered his office and Sandburg had closed the door, Banks deftly plucked the audio cassette case from his hand. With a wide smile, Simon just gazed at it for a moment and then softly exclaimed with evident anticipation, "This is really something. Angie Ferris' new album before it's released. Wow."

"Um, it usually sounds better if you actually put it in a machine and push 'play'," Blair teased, grinning broadly, thrilled to his boots that Angie had given him the recording.

"Smart ass," Simon growled without ire, turning to slip the cassette into the player on his bookcase. A rich strong piano melody with an earthy, drumming pulse and then Angie's low, husky voice filled the office with a throbbing ballad of love gone bad.

Banks grinned and arched an appreciative brow at Sandburg, who sported a wide, close-lipped smile and already was bobbing his head in time with the rhythm, his whole body subtly moving to the beat. Unable to resist the lure of the music, Simon, too, began to move his shoulders and head, not quite dancing but clearly in the groove. Blair's eyes sparkled, tickled to imagine that they might have finally found some common ground, something they could both enjoy without reservation that might become a connection to help them bridge their generational and experiential differences and allow a deepening of their nascent friendship.

The song soared and they were both unselfconsciously thoroughly enjoying the listening experience. Blair had succumbed completely and was dancing with sensuous grace in front of the desk, and Simon couldn't help but laugh softly at the kid's uninhibited, youthful behaviour. But, just then, Sandburg faltered and missed a step, swayed slightly as one hand jerked up to press against his temple and the other fumbled blindly to grab hold of the edge of the desk for support. He leaned his hip against the furniture and hunched forward, one arm now wrapped around his stomach.

With a startled frown of concern, Simon turned the music down and swiftly moved to his side. "What's wrong?" he demanded, lightly gripping Blair's shoulder.

"I don't know," Sandburg muttered, his voice thin with strain. "Spiking headache." He shuddered and pressed a hand over his eyes. "I feel hot, cold - hot," he mumbled, sounding increasingly vague and confused. "Like waves through m'body."

Banks' eyes narrowed at the sight of sweat bursting upon Blair's suddenly pallid brow.

"I think you'd better sit down," he rumbled, worry sparking in his eyes.

Blair nodded dully, and then moaned as he pressed a hand against his mouth. "Oh, God," he gasped with humiliated urgency, "'m gonna be sick!"

Simon whirled to grab his wastebasket and held it in front of Blair as he looped a strong arm around Sandburg's shoulders to support him. Blair doubled over, the remains of his lunch shooting violently out of his mouth. He gagged and heaved until there was nothing left. "'m sorry," he apologized wretchedly. "'m so sorry." When he lifted his head, Banks could see that his eyes were glassy, unfocused, his pupils so large his eyes looked black against the pallor of his bloodless face; even his lips were white. "S-Simon?" he stuttered faintly, reaching out a trembling hand, and then his eyes rolled up and he sagged, would have fallen if Banks hadn't caught him and lowered him to the floor.

"Sandburg!" Simon called out, deeply alarmed, swallowing nervously when Blair seemed to rouse a bit, though he was clearly only semiconscious.

Jim burst into the office, and reeled back, his lip curling at the overpowering scent of vomit. "What's wrong?" he demanded, aghast when he saw Simon kneeling beside Blair, supporting his head and shoulders.

"Call an ambulance," Banks ordered sharply. "Tell them an officer's down."

Jim lurched hurriedly around the desk, grabbed the phone, punched in 911 and tried to assess Sandburg with his senses while giving clipped directions to the emergency operator.

"Sandburg! Blair! Can you hear me?" Simon demanded, one hand cradling a too-cool, too-pale cheek.

Blair moaned and grimaced, started to shiver. His lips moved but he seemed unable to form words. Though his eyes tracked toward Simon's voice, there was no recognition in his gaze.

Jim slammed the phone down and hastened around the desk to kneel beside his partner. "They'll be here in five minutes," he reported, his voice tight. His attention now focused on Blair, he muttered, "His heartbeat is fast and thready." Looking up to meet Simon's gaze, he asked aggressively, "What the hell happened?"

Simon shrugged helplessly, not really sure. "He was fine. Happy. Dancing, even. And then he stumbled, obviously dizzy, said he had a headache, and his body temperature started to fluctuate radically just before he was violently ill." His jaw flexed as he added meaningfully, "Projective vomiting, Jim. Then he nearly passed out; been like this since. Confused, semiconscious, pupils out of whack. You don't think he's epileptic, do you? Could be a petit mal seizure."

"No," Jim shook his head tightly. Scowling, he grated, "But it's obviously something neurological. Damn it. Could be anything. Aneurism. Stroke. Even a tumor."

Rhonda appeared in the open door way and then wheeled away, returning less than a minute later with a blanket. Jim accepted it with mute gratitude and wrapped it around his friend. "He was fine this morning. Upbeat. Seemed okay at lunch an hour ago," he muttered, his voice and expression flat as he fought to contain the helpless anxiety cramping in his gut. He rested his palm on the top of Blair's head, his fingers tangling in the curls, distractedly combing them back from Sandburg's brow, and that's when he spotted the barely visible dark bruise hidden along the hairline of the kid's temple. Blinking, he frowned and his lips parted. "Shit," he breathed, and then lifted his gaze to Simon's. "The other night, Ray Weston clobbered him twice, knocked him out."

"Did you get him checked?" Banks demanded, his eyes widening.

Jim looked away, stricken by his carelessness. "No. He, uh, he was only out for a couple minutes each time. In the confusion, the fight, then the coroner and the crime scene team ... well, I forgot. But," he rasped with sick defensiveness, "he seemed fine. Never mentioned a headache or anything."

Simon's lips thinned and he frowned heavily. "Has Sandburg ever complained about being hurt?"

Bleakly, his gaze locked on Blair's face, Jim shook his head. "No, sir. He never has," he admitted hollowly.

Banks bit back a curse and stifled his urge to thunder at Ellison that the kid's safety was his responsibility, and that it had been colossally stupid to overlook the possibility of a concussion or more serious head injury. From the expression on Jim's face, the man was already bitterly reprimanding himself for his dereliction of duty - and probably cursing himself viciously for not taking good enough care of his friend.

Distracted by anxious murmurs behind him, Simon looked over his shoulder and saw the doorway filled with evidently worried detectives. "This isn't a peep show," he snapped in frustration. "Somebody see what's keeping that ambulance! The rest of you, get back to work." At the startled reactions, he closed his eyes and reined in his temper. "Look," he said more reasonably, "there's nothing any of you can do and I don't think Sandburg would appreciate being gawked at, do you? So, go on. We'll let you know what's wrong with him when we know ourselves."

Turning his attention back to Sandburg, he murmured soft reassurances, "You're gonna be okay, Blair. You hear me? Help's on the way." Blair blinked and his eyes seemed to lock onto Simon's face; his lips twitched as if he was trying to speak or maybe smile, but then awareness faded away, his wide stare glazed and his eyes closed as he slipped into complete unconsciousness. Banks shivered and drew the slight body closer in a tighter embrace. "God, he's not much bigger than Daryl," he whispered with raw anxiety, as if he'd never noticed, never thought about it, hadn't ever seen Sandburg as someone so young and vulnerable before. Looking up at Jim, his eyes dark and stormy with fear, he asked rhetorically, "He's sinking fast, isn't he?"

Swallowing hard, licking his lips, his gaze dropping away, Jim nodded tightly. Minutes crept by as they kept fearful vigil, wishing there was something they could do, knowing there wasn't. Blair's breathing grew laboured, and their palpable tension increased exponentially. All they could do was hold on to the kid, Simon cradling him in his arms, unconsciously rocking him slightly, soothingly, with age-old instinct, Jim holding fast to one of his hands. So focused were they on Sandburg that neither of them noticed that Angie Ferris' voice was still serenading in the background. "I hear the siren," Jim rasped, giving hope that help would soon arrive.

Another excruciatingly long minute passed before Jim tilted his head, listened intently, and then told him hoarsely, "The ambulance is here. Rhonda's been holding an elevator for them on the main floor. They'll be here any second now."

Banks nodded wordlessly, but they both paled and swore softly when blood began to trickle from Blair's nose.

"His heart's going nuts," Jim grated thinly, as he gripped his partner's hand more tightly. "Hang in there, Chief," he murmured, desperation resonating in his voice.

The EMTs rushed in with the gurney and swiftly took charge. In seconds, while listening to Simon's account of his collapse, they checked Sandburg's vital signs, secured his airway and were giving him oxygen, and had started an intravenous drip to keep a vein open, but kept the flow of fluid to a minimum. Then they lifted him onto the stretcher, bundled him securely and were racing back to the elevator, Jim and Simon following close behind.

Rhonda and the others watched them go, all of them looking shocked by the unexpected crisis and its evident seriousness. When the elevator doors closed behind them, she frowned and turned toward Banks' office. Feeling sick with the memory of having only minutes before been greatly amused as she watched Blair's joyous dancing through the glass of the closed door, she moved across the floor of the bullpen and into the office. Going to the bookcase, she clicked off the tape player, abruptly stopping the pulsing music and Angie's voice. Tears blurred her eyes as she stood mutely staring at the place where Blair had lain unconscious in Simon's arms. Sniffing, she moved forward and bent to pick up and fold the discarded blanket. And then she went to her desk, to pull out Blair's personnel file and look up the number for his emergency contact, hoping to find a quick way to contact his mother, so as to be ready with the information when Simon or Jim realized they'd need to call her.

But the information in the thin file didn't help.

Blair had listed Jim's name and number as his next of kin.

Leafing through the handful of official documents, still hoping to find something useful, she froze when she came across the Power of Attorney. Blair must have slipped it into the folder sometime in the last few months when she hadn't been looking, conveying a kind of unspoken trust that she'd find it, if it were ever needed. Swallowing heavily as she read it, she felt a chill of shock. Closing her eyes briefly, she wondered if he knew, and then lifted it from the file. Slipping it into an envelope, she pulled on her jacket, grabbed her purse and left for the hospital.

God, she hoped he knew.

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

His arms crossed over his chest, a glowering expression on his face masking his deep concern, Simon leaned his back and shoulders against the wall and watched Ellison wear a path in the floor of the waiting lounge. Earlier, he'd caught Jim trying to listen to what was going on in the examination room down the hall, and he'd sharply commanded his detective to cease and desist. The last thing he needed right now was to have Jim lost in a zone. That's when the detective had started to pace like a caged lion, his vehement worry so threateningly oppressive that others in the lounge watched him warily.

Banks glanced at his wristwatch and then rubbed his hand over his mouth. The waiting was always bad, a precarious balancing act between hope and the need to be realistic, to be prepared for the worst. According to Jim, Sandburg's condition had apparently deteriorated even further during the relatively short trip to the hospital. His heart had started to falter, the nosebleed worsened, his blood pressure had fallen sharply and his breathing had become torturous. The doctor had been working over him for the last ten interminable minutes, and it would probably take a while yet before x-rays or other tests could be done to determine exactly what was wrong under all that curly hair. Sighing, he wondered how much longer they'd have to wait for some word about how the kid was doing.

He was surprised to see Rhonda enter the waiting room and hurry toward him, an odd expression on her face. Simon straightened as she approached, puzzled as to why she'd come. If there'd been a problem at the office, she would have called the hospital to have him paged.

"Is there any word yet?" she asked anxiously, glancing at Jim, who seemed oblivious to everyone and everything.

"No," Simon replied, with a resigned shrug. "It might be some time yet before we know what's going on."

She frowned and bit her lip, and then reached into her purse to draw out an envelope. "I checked Blair's file, to see if there was information on where or how to contact his mother," she said quietly.

"Good thinking," Banks commended her, but then grimaced unhappily. "I guess I'd better call her."

"Sorry, but he didn't provide any information on her." Again glancing at Jim, she added, "He named Jim as his next of kin."

"Oh," Simon grunted softly, not having expected that. His lips compressed and he frowned as he, too, glanced toward Ellison. He'd known the men had become friends, but he was still a bit startled by the information. It struck him as odd that the kid wouldn't have named his mother. It told him something about Sandburg, and about how much or how little he could trust his mother to be there for him in an emergency. Sighing, he shook his head. "Maybe Jim knows how to get in touch with her."

"Sir, there's something else," she told him, hesitating, and then handing him the envelope. "Blair must have put this in his file himself, because I never saw it before today."

Noticing that she was avoiding his gaze, he gave her a narrow look as he took the long, thin white envelope from her hand and opened it. His eyes widened and his lips parted in shock as he read the official document.

"I take it you didn't know," she said softly.

Blowing a soundless whistle, he numbly shook his head. "No, no, I didn't. I had no idea," he replied dazedly. His hand fell to his side, and he stared into space, struggling to understand why Sandburg had done such a thing - given him full authority over his affairs, including the decision about maintaining life support if that was ever an issue. Shaken, he took a deep breath and again shook his head in amazement. The trust implied, granted to him; the respect for him, his judgment ... he swallowed and then he bowed his head, unconsciously nodding slowly as he accepted the trust and the responsibility. Carefully folding the document, he replaced it in the envelope and was slipping it into his inside jacket pocket when Jim approached, looking puzzled.

"What's going on?" he asked, frowning as he glanced from Rhonda to Simon.

Glancing around the room, Banks bit his lip, and wondered what Jim would think about Sandburg's decision. "Thank you, Rhonda," he said, dismissing her. "We'll call as soon as we know anything." She nodded soberly, briefly gripped his arm and then walked away.

"Simon?" Jim queried, picking up distinctly uncomfortable vibes along with his superior's elevated heart rate and tight respirations.

"Rhonda checked Blair's file to try to find out how to contact his mother - but Sandburg named you as his next of kin."

"What?" Jim exclaimed, obviously surprised.

"Yeah, well, that's not all," Simon went on. He paused, his jaw tight, shrugged uncomfortably, and then said briskly, "She also found his Power of Attorney giving me decision-making authority over his affairs."

Jim gaped at him, blinked and looked around as if dazed. "Why would he do that?" he breathed. "I mean," he hastened to add, "not that he named you, but that he'd think it might be necessary."

His brows arching, Banks offered sardonically, "Maybe riding a bus that nearly got blown up, being taken hostage by a white supremacist domestic terrorist, being shot at on a semi-regular basis, nearly getting murdered by a psychotic killer, or jumping out of an airplane over a jungle filled with revolutionaries only to be captured by a cocaine manufacturer led him to believe that he might actually be in danger of getting hurt. But who knows? We are talking about Sandburg here. Maybe it was just a crazy whim." When Jim grimaced guiltily and looked away, Simon's expression softened and he gripped Jim's shoulder. "He probably didn't name you because he was sure that if it came to this, you'd've gone down before letting anyone get to him."

"Yeah, right," Ellison replied bitterly, staring at the closed doors that blocked unauthorized entrance to the treatment rooms. "I did a hell of a job protecting him, didn't I?"

Sighing, beyond anger and recrimination, Banks patted his back soothingly. "Blaming yourself isn't going to make anything better here," he counseled soberly. Taking a breath, his gaze darting around the room, he suggested, "Look, let's not buy trouble before we get some facts. I know it looked bad, but ... well...." He hesitated and then straightened his spine, squaring his shoulders as he continued with determined optimism, "We can't give up hope. Like I said, this is Sandburg we're talking about. He has a knack for survival."

Jim grunted, a thin smile twisting the corner of his mouth as he nodded. "Yeah, he does, doesn't he?" he murmured hoarsely, his voice on the edge of cracking. He scrubbed at his face, took a couple of shuddering breaths. "God," he rasped, "he doesn't deserve this. This shouldn't have happened."

Banks studied him, but they both were distracted when a nurse called from the doors to the treatment area, "Is someone here with Blair Sandburg?"

They hastened toward her and introduced themselves. She waved them through and led them to a small office that was cluttered with shelves of medical texts, while drug samples and files littered the battered desk. "The doctor will be with you in a moment."

Simon felt a flare of fear in his gut - why weren't they taken to Sandburg? Why did the doctor need to meet them back here, rather than in the lounge? God. Surely, the kid hadn't ... wasn't....

He saw panic spark in Jim's eyes, and then Ellison's head tilted, an expression of intense concentration on his face. "I can't find his heartbeat," he gasped, looking up at Simon, his face pale with dread. "Simon, I can't -"

"I heard you," Banks told him firmly, struggling to maintain some measure of calm. "Don't lose it, Jim. Not here."

Panting shallowly, Jim gaped at him and then his mouth snapped closed and he nodded stiffly.

A middle-aged, graying doctor in a lab coat, a stethoscope hanging around his neck hustled into the office and closed the door, waving them to a seat as he settled on the far side of the desk. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting," he said gravely. "I'm Dr. Holmes, and I need to talk to you about Mr. Sandburg. We need to reach his next of kin."

"I'm his next of kin," Jim replied tautly. "What's happening? How bad ...?"

Lifting a hand to forestall questions, the physician opened a file on the desk. "Good, I'm glad you're here. While we can proceed with emergency surgery without consent, it's always better to have it." Drawing out a form, he pushed it and a pen across the desk. "If you'd just sign on the bottom line."

"Surgery?" Jim echoed, his gaze narrowing. Ignoring the document, he demanded, "What's going on? Where's Sandburg?"

Glancing at his watch, evidently pressed for time, the busy doctor replied briskly, "Mr. Sandburg has a subdural hematoma that is putting a dangerous amount of pressure on his brain. That pressure has to be relieved immediately, to hopefully prevent or at least minimize possible brain damage. From the bruising and bumps on his head, and the x-rays, it looks like he experienced two head injuries recently and has been suffering a slow bleed inside the skull at the back of his head for days before something tore loose, resulting in a serious hemorrhage. He's already been prepped and taken up to the Operating Room."

"Brain damage!" Jim protested angrily, not wanting to hear it, contemplate it.

Laying a restraining hand on Ellison's arm, Banks cut in, "What are his chances?"

Dr. Holmes sighed. "That's not an easy question to answer at this juncture. We'll have to see how the surgery goes, how quickly the swelling of his brain and the pressure subsides, how long he remains unconscious ... I'm sorry, I just don't know. In a few hours? Tomorrow? The neurosurgeon will be able to give you more information than I can right now." He paused and then gestured at the form. "Please. We need your signature."

Impatiently, Jim scrawled his John Henry and shoved the paper back across the desk. "How long will he be in surgery?" he growled, feeling helpless and hating it.

"Could be several hours," Holmes told him. "If you leave contact information with Admitting, you'll be called when -"

"I'm not going anywhere until I see him," Jim insisted, looking distracted, as if he was having difficulty focusing.

"He'll be taken to Intensive Care when he comes out of Recovery. You can wait there, if that's what you want. On the third floor."

"We'll do that, thank you," Simon said, standing. "Do you need anything else from us right now?"

"No, no." The doctor stood as well. "I hope Mr. Sandburg will come through all right," he said with professional courtesy if not warmth, as he opened the door and then disappeared down the hall.

Turning to Jim, who was sitting rigidly and staring at the desk, his expression strained, Simon suggested, "C'mon. Let's find the cafeteria and get some coffee. Sounds like we've got a long wait."

Jim nodded stiffly and stood mutely to lead the way out of the cramped office.

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

The brightly-lit, noisy cafeteria was thronging with staff on coffee breaks, visitors, and who knew who else. Jim winced at the sensory assault and he tensed with unconscious defensiveness.

"I'll get the coffee, and we can take it upstairs," Banks told him sympathetically, scanning the cavernous room and not seeing any unoccupied tables anyway. "Why don't you wait by the elevator?"

"Fine with me," Ellison muttered, glad to escape the sounds of loud voices, the clang of cutlery and the scrape of heavy crockery plates and mugs sliding against one another as people dropped their used utensils and dirty dishes in plastic bins. The place stank of over-steamed food and Lysol.

A few minutes later, they found the small, quiet lounge filled with ancient furniture and stacks of worn magazines that looked older than they were. But it was blissfully quiet and there was no one else there. Sighing, they sank into padded armchairs facing one another near the window, and sipped gingerly at the steaming coffee in reinforced cardboard disposable cups. They both grimaced at the bitter taste and set their cups down on the cheap imitation wood coffee table between them. Slumping in his chair, Jim stared mutely at the scarred linoleum, a haunted expression on his face.

Simon rolled his shoulders and then pulled off his glasses, to polish them with a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. "We need to let his mother know what's happening," he rumbled. "You got any idea on where she is?"

Jim shook his head. "Not a clue," he replied hollowly. Frowning, forcing himself to think about it, he added, "She called a month ago, maybe. I overheard Sandburg telling her to have a good trip and to call him when she got back. Whether she's contacted him since, I have no idea. She could be anywhere."

"He must have a way of reaching her when he needs to," Banks protested as he settled his wire-rimmed spectacles back on his face.

Shrugging, Jim flicked him a look before returning to his studious contemplation of the floor. "Maybe, maybe not," he replied dully. "Once, when I was giving him static about his candles and incense and meditation, he laughed and said he'd learned how to meditate before he could read. He's also always telling stories, anecdotes, about all the places he's been in the world. Sounded like they traveled almost nonstop and she still does. He, uh, said his mother was 'engaged in a continuous learning process and pursuit of enlightenment'. Said she was 'the original free spirit'. Sounded to me like she's a bit of a fruitcake." Shaking his head wearily, he shrugged again. "Sometimes she tells him where she's going next, but I've heard him muttering to himself when weeks go by without any calls from her and he's wondering where on earth she is. Maybe he knows her friends, who might know where she is. When I go home, I'll check his stuff and see if there are any numbers or contacts we can try."

Simon quirked a brow. "Well, that certainly sheds some light on why Sandburg sometimes seems like one of the original flower children," he drawled. Settling back in his chair, he chewed on his inner lip as he studied his best detective and good friend with concern. "Talk to me, Jim," he urged softly. "What are you thinking?"

Ellison turned his face away, his jaw tight. Then he shifted forward, planting his elbows on his thighs, his head bowed to hide his expression. "Brain damage," he grated.

"Ah, hey, hey, c'mon," Simon objected, also leaning forward intently. "You heard the doctor. It's too soon to worry about worst-case scenarios. The kid might be just fine."

Blowing a long breath, Jim abruptly sat back and leveled a bleak look at his boss. "I hope you're right," he allowed. "God, I really hope you're right." He ran a hand over his head, and kneaded the back of his neck, his other hand lifting in emphasis as he rasped, "I just can't believe I let this happen. If I'd gotten him checked out that night ...."

"Jim, it's not like he's a child," Banks chided, figuring guilt wouldn't help anything. "You said he felt fine - and he's been alert, as hyperactive as ever. Hell, he was dancing in my office just before he dropped." Simon paused and huffed a small laugh. "Dancing in my office," he repeated, bemused. "Only Sandburg." Sobering, he went on, "Look, even if you had taken him into Emergency, there's no guarantee they would have found anything at the time. If he'd felt something was wrong, he's smart enough to have gotten himself checked out."

Jim just looked away and shook his head, evidently not willing to let himself off the hook that easily. "Smart enough," he repeated, as if to himself. He chewed on his inner lip and then got up to pace. "He's so damned smart," he muttered and then turned to face Simon. "His mind is like a steel trap. I don't think he's ever forgotten anything he ever read or heard or saw. And he thinks at light-speed, comes up with these off-the-wall ideas that ... work. Like the other day, when I was having trouble with my senses and he told me to imagine these dials in my head, so I could turn them up or down, like the volume on a radio. Sounds nuts - but it works. I don't know how he comes up with this stuff, out of the blue."

Simon nodded thoughtfully. "I know. In the last few months, I've been amazed at how quickly he picks things up. Oh, sure, he makes mistakes, but never the same one twice. He's observant, pays attention to details, and he's damned good at putting bits and pieces of information and evidence together to come up with workable theories." His voice dropped as he mused, "He'd make a good detective, actually."

Jim scrubbed his face with both hands and turned away to stare out the large, grimy window. "He said that once, when we first got together," he recalled distantly. "That we do the same thing. Investigate scenes, locations, looking for clues to figure out what happened; only he said he's usually working in places that have been a few thousand years vacant." Looking up at the ceiling, he said softly, "I've never known anyone quite like him. He's ... unexpected."

Smiling sadly, Simon nodded in agreement. "You can say that again." He paused and then stated regretfully, "I was wrong about him; he hasn't turned out to be at all what I expected when you first brought him around. I was sure he wouldn't last the week. I thought he was conning you, to tell you the truth. And I thought you were crazy to trust him. I mean, he just seemed so brash and that hair and those earrings, the clothes; a glib, fast-talking, pseudo-intellectual airhead with about as much substance and depth as a marshmallow. Man, I was so wrong." Looking up at Jim, he rumbled, "You'd think I'd know by now that you can't judge anyone based on appearances. He's solid. And too damned brave for his own good."

"Tell me about it," Jim griped. "Sometimes I think I should just handcuff him to the truck - he never stays put. Well," he allowed, grudgingly, "I guess that's not fair. He's no fool and he doesn't take stupid risks. But he ... he doesn't hesitate, doesn't ever hesitate, to follow me into anything if he thinks I need his backup."

"Like jumping into the jungles of Peru," Simon murmured, thinking about how badly Darryl was going to take the news that Blair was hurt. "I've never been as astonished to see anyone in my life as I was to see him in that hellhole. You? Well, I was hoping you'd show up," he laughed humourlessly. "But him? Never in a million years."

"He didn't go to just back me up, you know," Jim said soberly. "I wanted to leave him behind, but he said you were his friend, too, and that he was going, no discussion."

"I know; I figured that out," Simon murmured, absently fingering the Power of Attorney in his pocket. "What I can't figure out is why." Looking up at Jim, he said with a tone of wonder, "I spend most of my time yelling at him, or ignoring him, or telling him to button up because he talks too damned much. But it never seems to faze him. He's the most impossible to intimidate person I've ever met."

Jim laughed at the plaintive tone, and nodded in agreement. "I know. Believe me. I know." His smile faded as he reflected quietly, "At first, I couldn't see why he was so keen to be my friend, either; I mean other than to observe the senses up close and personal. But it's just the way he is. That kid could make friends with a stone. Maybe it's because of the way he grew up. All that moving around, he probably had to learn to get along, make friends on the run, and take people pretty much as they come."

"Yeah, but it's not superficial," Simon replied thoughtfully. "He ... I don't know. He's loyal. Like when he stood with you over the Junos. He was really worried about you." His lips thinned. "I remember how I thought he'd been loose-lipped about what we had on Lash, before we knew who the serial killer was. I mean, he talks a blue streak, yammering about this and that, whatever. I just figured he'd blurted something out to the wrong person. But he's reliable. Trustworthy. He's got integrity."

Restless, anxious, Jim resumed pacing to work off some of his nervous energy. They lapsed into silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Minutes ticked past, and then an hour. Simon went to find a phone to let the others at MCU know what was going on. Jim remembered that he should call the university, to make sure someone covered Blair's classes. Another hour passed and their tension increased. Simon left to go downstairs and outside, to smoke a cigar and work on his own emotional control. Much as he insisted they had to hold positive thoughts, he was deeply worried about the kid and shared Jim's dread that there might have been irreparable damage. The tragedy of such a possible outcome made his chest ache. And the thought that things might be so bad that he would have to make a decision about the continuation of life-support left him feeling sick to his soul.

Briefly, anger flared, that Sandburg had put him in such a position with no warning, let alone discussion. But then he sighed sadly with the realization that, as cheerful, exuberant and outgoing as the kid was, he appeared to be pretty much alone in the world. He probably hadn't known who else to name, just in case; like naming Jim his next of kin, when they hadn't known each other for much more that six or seven months. Might've made more sense to also have given Jim the Power of Attorney, but he really did think that, in Blair's mind, he thought if he'd ever be hurt that badly, Jim would either be dead or in the bed next to him.

At least he'd prepared for such an eventuality, however grim that was. Maybe he'd just seen it as another piece of paperwork, another detail to attend to; Sandburg was good with reports and details. Still, Simon didn't think many men Blair's age would have been so organized, so thoughtful about the dangers and risks, so methodical about ensuring the right legal authority was in place. Hell, most twenty-five-year-olds thought they were immortal. Sadly, he reflected that maybe Blair's experience with Lash had brought the reality of his mortality home to him in a particularly brutal way. But Simon didn't know if that had been the trigger. He'd never talked to Sandburg about that night, about what almost happened. He wondered idly if the kid had spoken to Jim about it all, about how scared he must have been. Grimacing, he doubted it. From what he'd seen of Sandburg, for all his New Age rhetoric about how important it was to be open and to share burdens, the kid tended to tough things out on his own.

When he got back upstairs, he found Jim sitting with his face in his hands, and he felt a shaft of fear that Ellison had gotten bad news while he'd been outside. Moving forward cautiously, he sat down in the chair beside Jim and gripped his shoulder. "What?" he asked. "Has the doctor ...?"

"No," Jim husked and sat up. "I'm just ...." His voice fell away and he closed his eyes. "I'm just ... I don't know what I'll do if ...."

Simon nodded with understanding. "He's helped you a lot, hasn't he?"

His voice strained, Jim whispered, "You have no idea." Taking a breath, he continued, his voice thin and tight, "I'd be a basket-case, Simon, if I hadn't met him. If he hadn't found me." Licking dry lips, he acknowledged hesitantly, "I still need his help, even though he's taught me a lot, and helped me get much better control. But there's always something else; always a new problem or new possibility about how to handle the senses better." He pinched the bridge of his nose, something Banks had seen him do before to constrain emotion, to maintain control. "But ... it's about more than just my senses," he confessed, his voice low. "He's a damned good friend. Made -" Jim stopped and grimaced, very evidently appalled that he'd inadvertently used the past tense. Swallowing, he rasped hoarsely, "Makes my life better. I don't want to lose him. And I sure don't want him damaged by injuries he got by being there for me. To help me."

Simon sat back and wondered what he could say that might help, might bring some hope. "I know he was in bad shape," he allowed. "But we got him here fast. Jim, there was only about half an hour between when he first collapsed and they were already working on him in the O.R. I have to think the odds are good that he got to help in time."

Wordlessly, Jim nodded wearily, wanting to believe the same thing. He leaned his head back against the wall behind his chair and closed his eyes.

Simon glanced at the clock on the wall. They'd been waiting for word for nearly three hours.

God, he hoped they'd hear something soon.

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

It was the better part of another hour before a short, sturdy, casually-dressed man, with wild salt and pepper hair reminiscent of Einstein's, appeared at the entrance to the lounge. "I'm Dr. Iwan, the neurologist who operated on Blair Sandburg," he told them, entering with an air of quiet confidence that was inherently reassuring. "I was told his family was waiting here," he added, looking at them curiously as they stood to approach him, thinking that neither looked much like his young patient.

"I'm Jim Ellison, Blair's partner, and this is our boss, Captain Simon Banks."

He shook hands with both men and then waved them back toward their seats as he apologized, "I'm sorry you've had to wait so long for word of how Mr. Sandburg is doing."

"How is he?" Jim asked tightly, holding his emotional control close. "Will he be okay?"

Herding them gently back into the room, he perched on a chair opposite those they'd been using and waited until they, too, sat down before answering. "He came through the surgery just fine," he told them calmly, reassuringly, "and will soon be brought up from Recovery. You'll both be able to see him then, though of course he isn't as yet conscious."

"So you're saying he's fine," Simon probed, watching the specialist narrowly.

The neurosurgeon lifted a hand for patience. "Let's take this a step at a time," he replied slowly. "You're aware he had a subdural hematoma, and you know what that is? An accumulation of clotted and fresh blood that is putting pressure on the brain? In his case, from what I can tell from the bumps and healing contusions on his scalp, resulting from two blows to the head sometime in the recent past, there has been a continuous slow bleed since, with a more serious rupturing of the venous wall earlier today. Was he in an accident?"

"No, he was assaulted twice by a murderer while he and I were protecting people the killer was stalking," Jim supplied, his expression grim. "It's my fault that I didn't make sure he was checked out that night."

"You're police officers?" Dr. Iwan asked for clarification.

"I am. Blair's a civilian observer who works with me."

"I see," he nodded, appearing intrigued, but he visibly set his curiousity aside. "Well, I'm not sure that even if he had been examined at the time of the injuries, anything would have been detected. There's no fracturing of the skull, just internal soft tissue damage resulting from the multiple concussions. But, because it appears to have been a slow leakage and accumulation of blood before today's more dramatic rupture, I doubt you'd have been given more than the usual drill of watching for headaches, nausea or confusion. I suspect he appeared to be fine until shortly before he succumbed to the building pressure. He might have had a headache, but people tend to ignore mild or transient headaches. All that to say, this isn't a case of fault or blame. In some respects, he's lucky. Slow bleeds can go on for months, doing gradual but irreparable damage, until a person suddenly collapses and expires. The hemorrhage today drew attention to the problem and gave us a chance to fix it before it was, perhaps, too late."

Jim's gaze dropped and he inhaled deeply.

"As you would have observed, there was an urgent need to reduce the pressure on Blair's brain and that's what the surgery was for. I bored two small holes into his skull to drain the hematoma. Using microsurgical techniques, we repaired the tear to stop further bleeding, and we've administered medication to clear the residual clot; I've left in a shunt to allow further drainage over the next day or so, to monitor for any further bleeding. With luck, I won't have to go in to do more corrective surgery." His lips curled wryly when they both winced reflexively. "I've also ordered medication to keep him in an induced coma state for the next twenty-four hours, to allow his brain to rest while the swelling diminishes."

"So, he's in a coma?" Simon murmured, frowning. "When will he wake up?"

"Hopefully, in the next day or so," he told them.

"Hopefully?" Jim challenged, stiffening.

"It's difficult to predict how any individual brain will react to trauma," he explained patiently. "When he was brought into Emergency earlier today, he was in a light coma, only slightly reactive to pain stimuli, his pupils not quite equal and responding sluggishly to light, and his reflexes were also sluggish. The pressure inside his skull at that point had caused a spontaneous nosebleed, and was depressing his autonomic system - his breathing, for example, was very labored. The electroencephalogram readings indicated his brain was in considerable distress. But whether that means there was permanent damage of any kind is difficult to tell, and so long as he's medicated to remain in a coma state, the readings are compromised. So, we can only wait to see how long it takes him to wake up, monitor his EEG results in the meantime, and keep an eye on his blood pressure. Tomorrow, or the day after, I'll have a much better idea of whether he's going to come out of this with no residual effects, or whether more treatment will be required."

"But he will wake up," Simon pushed.

"Yes, probably," the doctor replied. "I know you'd like a guarantee, but right now the best I can offer is that I have every expectation that he will wake within twenty-four to thirty-six hours. He was lucky he wasn't alone when he collapsed, and that we were able to intervene quickly. Now, we just need to be a bit patient and give him a chance to heal."

Simon and Jim stared at him, their expressions flat, carefully devoid of emotion, but their eyes, dark with worry, betrayed them. Dr. Iwan stood. "A staff member will come for you when he's settled. After that, I suggest you go home. He will have no awareness of your presence at least until tomorrow afternoon."

They nodded to indicate they understood and then slowly stood to shake his hand again and thank him before he turned to leave.

Jim called just before he left the room, his voice on the edge of cracking, "Did you ... did you have to cut his hair? He, uh ... he always insists that he's never going to cut his hair."

The surgeon gave him a small smile. "Only a little, here," he explained, touching his head just behind his left ear, "and at the base of his skull. We shaved silver dollar-sized circles on his scalp, but the rest of his abundant curls should cover the operating sites easily."

"Good," Jim acknowledged hoarsely. "He'll be grateful for that. Thank you."

When the doctor had gone, they sagged back down onto the chairs. "We need to be patient," Simon sighed, shaking his head. "But ... he sounded reasonably positive."

"He sounded like he doesn't know how Sandburg will be when, or even if, he wakes up," Jim growled. "Damn it, Simon," he rasped, shaking his head helplessly. "We still don't know a damned thing more than we knew before."

"We know he's alive, that he's gotten the treatment he needs, and that he's probably going to wake up sometime tomorrow or tomorrow night," Banks snapped. "Jim, why the hell can't you be more optimistic?"

Looking away, Jim shrugged. "Being optimistic hasn't much worked for me," he muttered bitterly.

Simon sighed and shook his head. "Well, fine," he rumbled, sitting back and crossing his arms, "I'll just have to be optimistic enough for both of us. I'll be damned if I'll write that kid off so easily."

Stung, Jim whirled on him. "I'm not writing him off!" he protested, half angrily, half appalled that Banks could suggest any such thing.

"Sure sounded like that's what you're doing," Simon challenged, unrepentant.

Jim's jaw muscle flexed and his eyes flashed warningly. "That kid is the most determined sonofabitch I've ever met. He doesn't give up and he doesn't quit."

Arching a brow, Simon studied him and then a slow, smug smile grew on his lips.

Realizing he'd just been maneuvered into expressing strong hope for a positive outcome, even a belief that Blair would fight his way back and be fine, Jim grimaced. Snorting, he rolled his eyes and sat back. "You happy now?" he groused.

"Well, happier, anyway," Simon allowed complacently. "You can be prickly at the best of times, but when you're morose you're really rotten company." Thinking of the document in his pocket, he went on more softly, reflectively, "I'm worried, too. But I have to believe he's going to wake up, and that he'll be okay. I have to believe that."

Something in his tone caused Jim to gaze at him searchingly. Understanding dawned in his eyes, and his own expression softened, for the first time really thinking about what it would mean for Simon if Blair either didn't wake up or if he'd suffered permanent damage. Swallowing heavily, he nodded as his gaze dropped to the floor and they both settled back to wait some more.

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

Nearly another hour had passed before they were allowed entry to the Unit and shown to the glassed-in cubicle assigned to Sandburg. When they saw him, there was no chance of pretending that he was only sleeping, that his condition wasn't still precarious. Machines monitoring his brain activity, heart, blood pressure and respirations blinked, hummed, beeped monotonously and projected continuously-changing linear graphs against green screens. The ventilator pumping oxygen through the tube down his throat whooshed softly in the corner on the far side of the elevated bed. Intravenous lines snaked from bottles filled with clear fluids down long, flexible tubes to the needles inserted in the back of his left hand and wrist. Other tubes looped out from under the single white sheet covering him to his shoulders to containers hung under the bedframe, carrying away the waste of his body.

A broad, white swath of gauze was wrapped around Blair's head, holding the dressing and drainage tube in place, and the thick padding behind his left ear showed small splotches of blood that was leaking through the dressing. His long curls tumbled out over the top of the bandage and were spread on the pillow over his head. He was still ghastly pale, and his eyes were half-open, the pupils dull, unseeing. Except for the rhythmic, machine-driven rise and fall of his chest, he looked dead.

Neither man said anything as they moved to stand on either side of their comatose friend, but the stark grief and fierce concern on their faces spoke volumes. Jim glanced at the screens of the machines, wishing he could meaningfully interpret the data, but it was all just squiggled lines to him. His senses told him more, letting him know that at least Blair's heart was no longer in distress, but was beating strongly and steadily. One positive indicator of improvement to grasp onto - the only one there seemed to be.

Sighing, Jim reached out to grip Blair's right wrist with his left hand, and he leaned closer to lightly trace his fingers down his partner's cool cheek. Swallowing, he murmured softly, "Not sure if you can hear me or not, Chief. The doctor says you should wake up tomorrow. He says he thinks you'll be just fine." Again looking helplessly at the machines, wires and tubing, he shook his head. "They've sure got you wired for sound, kid." Shifting his gaze back to Blair, he said, "Simon and I are both here, but they won't let us stay. They say you need complete rest and no distractions, no stimulation, to let your brain heal. So, um, I guess we'll head home, but ... but if you need anything ...."

His voice caught and he hauled in a ragged breath. Glancing at Simon, and then away, he muttered, "God, this is hard. I feel like leaving is the same as abandoning him."

"Yeah, I know," Banks grumbled, feeling the same way. "But he's got the best of care, and he does need some time to heal. We can't do him any good by being here."

Jim nodded grudgingly, intellectually knowing Simon was right. But it didn't feel right. A nurse came to quietly tell them it was time to leave. Jim gave her a resentful look, but nodded. Returning his attention to Blair, he again lightly caressed his friend's cheek and his gaze narrowed. Sandburg felt too cold, and the kid just hated to be cold. "I'm going to stay," he decided. "I can doze in the lounge, and come in and check on him as often as they'll allow. Maybe he doesn't know, hear or feel anything right now - but maybe part of him does. Maybe ... maybe deep down he's scared and he needs to know he's not alone." When he flicked a glance at Banks, expecting an argument about how he should be sensible and go home, he was relieved to see Simon simply nod in understanding.

On their way out, Jim asked the nurse to cover Blair with a warm blanket, to keep him from getting a chill.

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

Simon decided to go back to the office before heading home and Jim, deciding he could use some fresh air and exercise, accompanied him down to his car. After his boss drove off, he set off on a brisk walk around the block, hoping to settle himself down and get a rein on his overwrought emotions. Normally, he thought of himself as a rock, almost literally, the chaotic storms of what he had to deal with nearly every day crashing against him but having no real impact. What profound feelings he did have, he kept buried as best he could, so that he'd reveal no vulnerabilities. But he'd been too close to losing it in that small glass cubicle, and that unnerved him.

It was just that ... hell, the kid looked like death. It was shocking to see anyone be so pallid and still. So seemingly empty. Somehow, though, for Jim, to see the normally vibrant and enthusiastic Sandburg like that was even worse than shocking. He felt as if his foundations had been rocked by some massive upheaval. In just a few short months, the kid had really gotten to him. Had ignored the walls Jim usually erected to keep others at a distance as if they didn't exist. Had seen Jim lose it when Danny had died, been murdered - and Ellison couldn't remember when anyone else had ever seen him give way to such furious, livid grief before. Blair had seen him at his most vulnerable, and not just emotionally, but physically as well. Like the first day they'd met, when anger and helplessness had swamped him, driving away his control and he'd violently slammed Sandburg against the wall of his office; and only minutes later, when he'd zoned in the middle of the street and Blair had pulled him out of danger.

Over the past months, first when Sandburg had been caught in the building by the Sunrise Patriots, and later been hustled onto a helicopter by Kincaid, then when Lash had come so close to murdering Blair, Jim had begun to feel a growing degree of protectiveness toward him. Not unusual, given that he was responsible for the kid's safety, and needed Blair's help with his senses. But especially after Sandburg had moved in with him, and their friendship had blossomed, he'd come to really care about the grad student.

And he'd begun to take him for granted.

Blair was so resilient, bouncing back from whatever the latest trauma had been. No matter what else was going on, he remained ever and always focused on Jim's needs in terms of his senses - up to and including 'sentinelizing' the loft with hypoallergenic, natural products. And he'd been absorbed in learning, as quickly as he could, how to conduct himself during investigations, how to navigate in the law enforcement environment - all while keeping up his own responsibilities at Rainier. Only now did Jim realize he'd come to think about Blair as a cop, sort of. Oh, not in the sense of regulation and procedure, of carrying a weapon, but as his full partner whatever the situation they were walking into. Grimacing, he acknowledged to himself that he'd been expecting a lot, and Blair had been delivering on those expectations, one of which was that Sandburg would be able to handle himself in dicey situations. Was he putting too much pressure on Blair? Was that why Sandburg had refused to get checked out after he'd been clobbered by Wilson the other night? Or, if Blair had had a residual headache, had he just shrugged it off, thinking Jim would consider him a wimp if he'd complained? Grimacing, Jim told himself he'd have to take more notice in the future, keep better track of how Blair was doing with all the challenges, make sure he did get checked out whenever he was injured, and ensure that it was damned clear that Blair had to tell him if he was hurt.

His chest tightened when he thought again of how Blair had looked in that hospital bed. He was assuming that there would be future challenges because, like Simon, he couldn't bear to conceive of any alternate reality, one in which Blair had suffered brain damage or ... or didn't wake up at all. God, it cut deep to see Sandburg looking like that, being kept alive by a machine, his vital signs being monitored by other machines. Looking empty. Bereft of spirit and energy and laughter and motion and brilliant intellect. Looking so fragile and vulnerable, so lifeless.

Determinedly, Jim reminded himself that Sandburg was in an induced coma to allow healing. If not for that, he might already be at least semi-conscious. There was no reason to dwell on how bad the kid looked. He was getting the treatment he needed. And ... and he was probably going to be just fine, back to talking nonstop and perpetual motion, back to laughing, his eyes sparkling, or 'processing', his expression intense as he pondered problems and possibilities, back to teasing irreverently, back ... just back. To being himself. To being fully alive.

Glancing at his watch, he decided it was time to return to the hospital for his next short visit with the kid. On the way, he shouldered into a convenience store to stock up on munchies and soft drinks, so he wouldn't have to return to the cafeteria during his vigil. He wasn't all that hungry, but he needed something to do, something to distract himself for fifty-five minutes out of every hour. He also picked up the latest Ken Follett thriller for the same reason. He didn't want to be alone for all that time with only his thoughts for company, and he sure didn't want to be grappling with his emotions all damned night.

Back in the lounge, he had just dumped his stash in the corner beside one of the more comfortable chairs when the nurse came to let him into the closed unit for his next five minute visit.

Except for the blanket now covering his friend, Blair looked just the same. But at least his cheek was a little warmer, and Jim tried to take some comfort that he'd done something, however trivial, to help at least a little.

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

Seventeen five-minute visits later, Jim felt raw with worry when he entered the cubicle and still saw no change. "Maybe that's a good thing," he muttered wearily as he moved toward the bed. "At least, you're no worse."

He'd taken to talking during his visits; pretending Blair could hear him allowed him to believe his friend was there, present, not just an empty clay vessel. During the night, he'd talked mostly about what they'd do when Blair was better. Like go fishing. And to a Jags game. Or spend a weekend in a cottage on one of the beaches south of the city. And they'd spend some time doing some basic self-protection workouts, so Blair wouldn't be so vulnerable when they ran into trouble. And they'd take in a movie, maybe a few movies. And rent some videos, order in Chinese when Blair got home, just to relax and take it easy. He suggested Blair might like to meet his cousin, Rucker, a Coast Guard officer who lived and worked on a small island in the channel. Seventeen five-minute visits, fifteen of them suggesting stuff they'd do together for fun in the future.

Simon had stopped by on his way to the office two hours before and had brought Jim a change of clothing and his toiletries. He'd joined Jim for that short sixteenth visit, and had seemed determined to be phlegmatic, to not be disappointed or sorrowed that there was no change. "Only a few more hours," he'd said as he left. "Call me this afternoon. Let me know how he's doing."

On the seventeenth visit, Jim had run out of positive things to say, and he'd muttered that when Sandburg woke up, they were going to have to have a talk to make damned sure this never happened again. "You're going to get checked out from here on in, even if it's just a paper-cut," he'd stipulated. "You hear me?"

But, of course, there'd be no response. And Jim's throat had tightened, and his eyes had begun to burn. "Damn it," he rasped, standing to cup Blair's cheek. Looking into those flat, dull, sightless eyes tore him apart. "You in there, Chief?" he whispered, his voice cracking. "I know ... I know you're not supposed to wake up for at least another five or six hours, but it's ... it's hard seeing you like this." The nurse had appeared to escort him out, and he'd swiped at his eyes before turning to face her. But he figured he still must've looked bad because she detoured to the staff kitchen to pour him a cup of coffee to take with him back to the waiting lounge.

Now, it was the eighteenth visit. Jim stood by the bed and shook his head like a weary, stunned ox, too strong and stubborn to fall to his knees in despair, but suffering badly. He took Blair's hand and squeezed, wishing for a response, just the slightest twitch, but there was nothing. He squeezed his partner's shoulder reassuringly, even though he had no idea if Blair even knew he was there. "I'm scared, Chief," he admitted, his voice very low and hoarse. "I want you to wake up and be okay, you know? God, you have to be okay. I, uh, I kinda hope you aren't aware of anything right now. I'd hate to think you're trapped somehow, inside your head. You'd hate that. But I also ... I also hope you know you're not alone. I'm here, Chief. Whatever ...." His voice caught and he had to clear his throat, fight for composure. "Whatever happens, I hope you know you won't be alone. Whatever help you need, buddy. You got it." He sniffed and swiped at his nose. "I, uh, I just wanted you to know that."

He drifted his fingertips along Blair's cheek, seeing and feeling the heavy stubble. Looking around the room, he spotted a disposable razor on the shelf over the sink. Filling a basin with warm water, he dumped in the small bar of soap, grabbed the razor and a towel and took everything back to the bedside table. Carefully, gently, he lathered Blair's face and then shaved him with unconscious tenderness. When he finished, he looked up to see the nurse waiting by the door signaling that it was time for him to go.

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

Four more five-minute visits came and went, and the minutes in-between dragged slower and slower. He called Simon to tell him there still was no change, and Banks tried to reassure him that none could really be expected. Jim nodded, his gaze roaming the dreary hallway. He knew that, too, intellectually. Emotionally, it had gotten harder and harder to accept. "I'll call you when he wakes up," he said dully. "No point in coming back here until then."

"How are you holding up?" Banks asked, sounding concerned.

"Me? A bit tired," he replied, unwilling to admit to more.

"You're not trying to listen in, or anything, are you?" Simon probed. "I know it must be tempting, but -"

"Don't worry," Jim cut in sharply. "I won't risk a zone."

"Okay," Simon sighed. "If you want company or need anything, just call. I'll stop by on my way home."

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

Twenty-four hours after Blair's surgery, Jim tried not to hope for too much when he strode down the hall for his next visit. But profound disappointment still surged when there was, as yet, no change. "You're supposed to be waking up," he chided, trying for ironic humour but thinking he only sounded pathetic. "C'mon, Chief, the drugs have to be just about out of your system. They told me you were getting your last shot at ten A.M. - that was eight hours ago!" Pinching the bridge of his nose, taking a breath, deciding the kid didn't really need to be given any grief, he sighed. Taking Blair's hand in both of his own, he murmured, "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. About all of this."

When his allotted time drew to a close, he leaned down to press his lips to Blair's brow. "It's time, Sleeping Beauty," he whispered. "It's time for you to wake up."

But Sandburg slept on.

Jim straightened and cupped Blair's cheek. "I need you to wake up, Chief. I ... I need you in my life."

Wearily, despondent, he turned to go. Realistically, he knew it could be hours yet, that Sandburg might not wake up until the next day or even the day after. But he'd hoped, really hoped, that Blair's innate energy and determination, his resilience and inability to remain so still would have drawn his partner from his coma as soon as the drugs dampening his consciousness had lost their impact. The fact that there was no change scared him more than he'd ever want to admit, because it could mean that it wasn't going to be easy, wasn't going to be simple - might mean there had been damage. And that fear left him reeling.

God, he hated to walk away, to be always walking away, the sound of Sandburg's unchanging heartbeat and the blips and beeps and swish of the machines in his ears. But another nurse was signaling it was time to go. Resignedly, he nodded and followed her into the hall.

But then he paused, his head tilting, and he turned back toward the little room.

"Detective?" she queried, frowning. "You have to go."

He lifted a hand to still her demands. "In a minute." Walking back into the room, he strode to the side of the bed to grip Blair's hand and cup his face. "Chief?" he rasped, afraid to hope, but certain the heartbeat had changed, was speeding up. "Blair? Can you hear me?"

Fingers that had been lax for hours twitched against his own, and the breath caught in his chest. "C'mon, Sandburg," he cajoled softly.

Blair blinked heavily, grimaced at the tube in his mouth and throat, moaned softly in protest.

"Easy, Chief," he murmured, squeezing Blair's hand. "You're on a respirator. Don't fight it, okay?"

"Hmmph," Blair grunted, opening his eyes and squinting as he tried to focus. His gaze found Jim's, and his hand and fingers flexed, took hold. He frowned in confusion and anxiety flared in his eyes as his gaze darted around the room and back to Jim's.

"Your head isn't as hard as we thought," Jim told him sardonically, unable to resist a grin of profound relief. "Those whacks that Weston gave you caused some bleeding inside your skull. But ... but you're gonna be okay." Looking up at the nurse who had followed him into the cubicle, and was checking monitors and Blair's vital signs, he asked, "When can he get that tube out of his mouth?"

She smiled. "Dr. Iwan said as soon as Blair woke up we could remove it." Turning her attention to Sandburg, she began to loosen the tape holding the mouthpiece in place. "It's a little uncomfortable coming out," she told him, "but it's quick, and you'll be more comfortable without it."

"Mm-hmm," Blair agreed irritably, encouraging her to get on with it, as best he could.

She told him to cough and, when he did, she deftly, smoothly, pulled the tube from his throat. He gagged, and rasped, "Oh, God," and made an inarticulate sound of disgust, grimacing at the discomfort.

"What's your name?" she asked, going through the drill.

"B-Blair Sandburg," he husked hoarsely. "He's Jim Ellison," he continued, anxious to prove he was lucid. "I'm in a hospital. I've got a headache and my throat hurts."

"Okay, you'll do," she grinned, noting no signs of paralysis or speech impairment, and that his eyes were bright and alert. "I'll get you some ice chips and then let the doctor know you're awake."

"Thanks," he rasped, trying for courtesy but looking impatient. When she bustled out, he turned to Jim. "What the hell happened?" he demanded huskily, wanting answers. "You look like shit. How long have I been here?"

"What's the last thing you remember?"

"Uh," he thought about it. "Angie ... she'd just gone into Simon's office."

"Not bad," Jim replied with a soft smile. "That was about twenty-eight hours ago." Blair's brows jumped in surprise. "After she left, you collapsed a few minutes later in Simon's office, while you were dancing to the cassette of her new album."

Blair's eyes widened and he gaped at Jim. "Dancing? In Simon's office?" he squeaked and then his mercurial expression changed as he breathed, "Collapsed?"

"Yeah," Jim nodded, frowning at the memory of finding Blair on the floor, Simon holding him. "When you got here, they hustled you into surgery, to drill a couple holes in your head to relieve the pressure."

Blinking at that, Blair's hands flew up to touch the bandage around his skull, and he felt around. "My hair?" he gasped.

"Don't worry," Jim chuckled. "It's mostly all still there."

Heaving a sigh of relief, Sandburg visibly relaxed. "Oh, man," he huffed. "You scared me there for a minute."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. Before he could think of a suitable response, Blair murmured, "Twenty-eight hours?" Giving Jim a piercing look, his eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me you've been here ever since."

Shrugging with a feigned air of nonchalance, he replied, "Well, someone had to keep an eye on you."

Blair's gaze softened, and then a small, shy smile played around his lips. "Thanks, Jim," he said simply, his voice laden with meaning. "I, uh ... I really appreciate that." His gaze grew distant for a moment and a small frown puckered his brow. "Were you talking to me?" he asked, refocusing on his friend. "I thought I was dreaming about how we were going to do stuff, like go fishing and to a Jags game."

Looking away, embarrassed by the warm glow of gratitude and expectation in Blair's eyes, Jim's expression was noncommittal as he considered taking the Fifth.

"Rucker," Blair said. "We're going to visit someone named Rucker."

Giving up the pretense of maybe not have talked Sandburg's ear off, Jim shrugged again. "My cousin, a Coast Guard officer on his own little island."

"So I did hear you talking," Blair grinned.

"It was a way to pass the time," Jim disparaged, like it had been nothing, a passing thing, not his desperate, quiet rambling for what felt like forever with the profound hope that the sound of his voice would help hold onto Blair, help draw him back.

"Yeah, right," Sandburg snorted. But then his eyes widened again. "I was dancing in Simon's office?" he exclaimed, as if that had just fully sunk in. "Please tell me that's not really true. That you were just pulling my leg," he pleaded, mortified.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim smiled winningly, the haggard lines of worry and exhaustion on his face melting away. "All too true." He waited a beat, and then added, "You puked in his wastebasket, too."

"Oh, man," Blair moaned, genuinely horrified. "Just when I thought we were making some progress. You know, that Simon was beginning to take me seriously."

Jim's teasing smile faded, and he felt badly for hassling the kid. "Believe me," he said soberly, "he took it very seriously when you ... well, he was pretty worried about you, too."

Blair gave him a look of troubled skepticism, but whatever he saw in Jim's face, in his eyes, chased his doubts away. Looking chagrined, he again delicately touched the bandage around his head. "So, this was, uh, pretty serious, then?" he asked tentatively.

"It could have been," Jim allowed uneasily. "I should have brought you to the hospital that night, the night Weston pistol-whipped you twice."

"But, honestly, I didn't feel too bad," Blair protested. "I thought I was fine."

Giving his partner a level look, Jim reached out to lay his palm over his partner's brow, and said solemnly, "Next time? We don't take any chances, okay, Chief? I'd, uh, really rather never again put in another twenty-eight hours like the last ones."

Blair held his gaze, realizing in that moment all that Jim hadn't said about the hell those twenty-eight hours had been, and how truly serious his injury might have been. Slowly, soberly, he nodded. "Okay," he agreed, subdued. Jim gave a single, tight nod of acceptance and drew his hand back. Their gazes broke away, both of them feeling suddenly awkward, the intensity of the emotion between them both palpable and uncomfortable, foreign to their more habitual pattern of humour and easy affiliation. Both were too deeply moved by what they'd seen in the other's eyes, the raw, unvarnished reality of the depth of their friendship, and what it meant to both of them, to have a clue about what to say next.

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

Simon looked into the cup of ice chips the nurse had given him to bring to the room when she'd let him into the unit. For the last few minutes, he'd been standing just beyond the threshold, giving the two friends time to connect again. And to give himself time, as well, to regain his balance after the swamping surge of staggering relief he'd felt at seeing and hearing that Sandburg seemed to be just fine. They'd gotten lucky. Very lucky. Looking back at the two men, he sensed their sudden self-consciousness, understanding full well that the heightened emotions had left them both ill at ease. Time for him to help them relax, give them a bridge back toward normalcy. Taking a breath, he stepped over the threshold and drawled, "Oh, I don't know, Jim. I'm not sure it was Weston who caused all this trouble."

They both looked up, startled, as he walked confidently into the room and continued with apparently very considered seriousness, "I think the forbidden thrill of dancing in front of my desk went to Sandburg's head and blew a few circuits loose."

They gaped at him, and then Blair started to giggle and Jim tried to suppress his laughter, but a snicker broke loose and he was soon chuckling openly. The relief of their hilarity built until both were laughing until they were nearly breathless, Simon's arched brow and stern expression setting them off all over again every time they looked at him.

When they'd finally settled down, Simon shook his head, as if he couldn't quite believe their adolescent behaviours. He handed Blair the cup of ice chips. "I'm glad to see you're looking better," he observed dryly, while Sandburg gratefully tipped the cup to slide several of the cool chips into his mouth. "Just to be sure we don't have any similar problems in the future, let's just agree - my office is not a dancehall and you will never succumb to the temptation to dance in front of my desk again."

Blair nearly choked on the ice chips.

"It's just not dignified," Simon went on sternly, giving Jim a quick wink. "Nor particularly respectful, either, I might add."

"Okay, okay," Blair capitulated, unable to hold back another giggle. "No more dancing in the Captain's office."

"Good," Simon said, sounding well satisfied.

"I just have to ask, though," Blair continued impishly, a twinkle in his eye. "Was I the only one dancing? I mean, what were you doing?" When Simon looked away with an air of perfect innocence, Sandburg hooted. "Oh, man, I know you love Angie Ferris' music as much as I do - you were dancing, too, weren't you!"

"I most certainly was not," Simon retorted, doing his best to sound aggrieved. But they both gave him narrow looks of outright disbelief. "Well," he allowed, unable to sustain the pose of stuffy martinet any longer, "maybe just a little." When Jim and Blair again burst out laughing, he shook his head and chuckled warmly. "It's good to have you back, Sandburg," he said with a smile, his voice rich with fond indulgence. Fingering the document inside his jacket, he added emphatically, "Real good."

finis

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