Disclaimer: No they are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN & Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thank you: A huge thank you to Bobbie and StarWatcher for your beta skills, advice and friendship. I feel my stories have improved over the years because of your contributions and your willingness to discuss storylines and characterizations with me. I have to add a thank you to Arianna for letting me go over those last couple of points with her as well. *g*

And not to forget Wolfpup for giving my stories such a great home.

Notes: This story was written for Donna who won this story in the Katrina auction and who wanted me to expand on my very first story -- Home for Christmas. While I have left the premise of many scenes intact (as I didn't want to change the story on Donna too much) I have completely rewritten part one as well as adding a part two.

Warnings: Since I believe that giving a warning for this story may give away part of the plot, I have placed it at the very end of the story. Please scroll to the end to read the warning, if you wish. Oh, and yes there is hurt/comfort and angst, and there is swarm *g*

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au



Jess Riley

Part One

There must have been an angel on your shoulder that day, Chief. "Because I can't, for the life of me, think of any other reason why you're still here." Seated on the edge of the sofa cushion, Jim Ellison brushed the palm of his hand across Blair Sandburg's brow, his light touch causing not so much as a glitch in the healing sleep that was a major part of the younger man's life these days. He gave a half-hearted smile. "Or maybe I can, and the word stubborn doesn't even begin to cover it."

Content just to sit and keep watch for a while, Ellison's thoughts drifted, as they tended to do of late, back to the night when Blair's life had almost come to a sudden, jarring end.

Four Weeks Earlier

The call came across the police radio at around ten on a bitter, rain-drenched November evening. Off duty and, realistically, too far away from the scene to be of any use, Jim half tuned out the operator, his concentration more actively focused on getting home to a hot meal, a beer and the chance to finally just hang out with a roommate who had been as elusive and hard to pin down as Harry Houdini. Trying not to fix his attention too intently on the fast-paced swipe of windshield wipers as they struggled against the driving rain, his blood suddenly ran cold. The updated information now being relayed by the operations centre sent an instant, icy spike straight to his heart. The accident scene that minutes before had involved some random and nameless soul had suddenly become intensely personal. It was Blair's car; there was not a shred of doubt in his mind about that.

With the lights of the Ford F-150 barely penetrating the thick layer of fog that had drifted in from the arctic waters of Cascade Bay, Jim, for once in his life, gave blessing for his enhanced senses. Pushing his eyesight further than he'd ever attempted by himself, he broke through the heavy stratum of mist until the roadway in front of him revealed itself with one hundred percent visibility. By the time his truck screeched to a halt at the corner of the slippery intersection, the accident scene was alive with the hustle of frantic activity. Emergency services swarmed over the crumpled Corvair like bees buzzing over a hive. Although attempts were made, there was not one man on the scene with enough gumption to stop his dogged determination in getting to his partner. Reaching Blair's side, it only took a moment for reality to crash into him with a sickening thud. Death had waved its hand through the air and had its finger pointed directly at this partner.

Unable to draw enough breath into his lungs to even rasp out a whisper, Blair somehow still managed to seek him out. The instant the kid's eyes locked onto his, he knew what he needed to do. Sandburg was fighting and fighting hard, blocking death's every move with his own dogged determination, but the kid was also telling him something else. He was telling him he couldn't do it alone.

Without a moment's hesitation or ounce of scepticism, Jim dove headfirst into the ruckus, prepared to follow Sandburg to hell and back, if that's what it took. "We fight this together, Chief, okay?" he said. Although Blair never answered him with words, Jim somehow knew that, as long as he held on, Blair would do the same.

It took six hours to save Sandburg's life that night. Massive internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen and hemothorax left the anthropologist in critical condition and his doctors extremely cautious as they delivered their prognosis. A broken forearm, a shattered clavicle and a hip that had to be surgically relocated added to Blair's list of injuries, and in turn kept pushing the bar that he needed to clear higher and higher. But despite the insurmountable odds that seemed to be stacked against them both, Jim somehow knew that this was not the end of their partnership, but rather the beginning. A long, arduous road would lie ahead but, just as promised, they would tackle it -- together.

Forcing the memory of that night to the back of his mind, Jim studied Sandburg's face. "It's been one hell of a ride, Chief," he said. "But then, I've never known you to back away from a wild ride yet, Junior."

Pulling the blanket down to Blair's waist, Jim watched the steady rise and fall of the younger man's chest. The current deep, even breathing was a vast contrast to the shallow, desperate breaths of the night of the accident, and a most definite improvement over the continuous hiss of the ventilator that had kept Sandburg alive for the week he lay in a drug-induced coma. The drunk driver who had been the sole reason that his partner lay so still and unmoving had passed away during that week without ever knowing the carnage he had caused.

Reaching out, Jim tousled Blair's hair, gently coaxing him awake. "Time to brush 'n flush and hit the sack, Junior."

Sandburg stirred slightly, before blindly reaching out to pull the blanket back up.

"Chief, time for bed." This time, Ellison flicked the blanket completely off, letting it fall to the floor.

"Go away, man," Sandburg grumbled. "I'm comfortable here."

"I know you are, but," Ellison took hold of Blair's good arm and pulled him into a seated position, "Bonanza starts in fifteen and you're hogging the sofa."

Groaning as he was pulled up, Sandburg let his head flop forward onto Ellison's shoulder. "Jim, you've already seen every single episode back to front, front to back and side to side," he yawned. Pushing back, he cracked his eyes open, taking in the expression on the detective's face. This was going to be one of those no-win situations. Sighing, he gingerly swung his legs to the floor, pausing for a moment to give his stiff hip time to get used to the change in position. "You know, I'm starting to wonder if you maybe need some professional help here, man." Sandburg hooked Jim's arm, letting the older man do most of the work as he was eased upward. "This whole 'Hoss' thing you've got going could actually be the start of some weird, big-guy fetish."

"Hey, don't knock the Hoss man, little Joe. They don't make 'em like that anymore."

"Much to the relief of every horse out there, I bet," Blair muttered.

A smile cracked over Ellison's face. "You ready to do the grandpa shuffle?"

"Grandpa shuffles and nana naps are my world, man."

Leaning heavily on Jim as they made their way to the bathroom, Blair wondered, and not for the first time, just how fair he was really being. The plain fact was that if it weren't for Jim's willingness to play chief nursemaid and bottle washer, he'd still be in the hospital. Sure, he might have come a long way in the past four weeks, but there was still a hell of a long way to go until his life would return to any semblance of normal. There'd been times since he'd been home when he had felt so tired and spaced out on the pharmacy of drugs that were still being pumped into him that he honestly didn't know whether he was coming or going. And, although Jim never said anything, Blair also suspected that there had been times when his roommate had cared for him in ways that no friend should ever have to. Fleeting memories were all they were, but even fleeting memories were born from some amount of truth. But, although he'd tried to put this jumbled mass of recollections into some kind of order, they remained tightly interwoven with scenes from the hospital, making it hard for him to be certain what had happened where.

While Blair's conscience told him that the right thing to do would be to admit that maybe he had left the hospital too early, his conscience didn't understand that it was only a few days before Christmas, and there was nothing he wanted more right this moment than to be home for Christmas.

"Hey, you okay?"

Jim's question brought Blair back from his reflections. "Yeah, I'm good." Stifling a groan as he was lowered to the closed toilet lid, he avoided Jim's gaze. "How about you?" he asked.

"How about me what?" Ellison answered.

Sandburg hesitated for a brief moment, knowing that if he continued along the thin line he was treading, he might very well be walking himself straight back to the one place he so desperately wanted to avoid. "I was just wondering how you're coping. I'm thinking this can't be easy for you."

"Now I can see a major problem right away, Chief." Jim leaned over and pulled Blair's toothbrush from the cabinet. "You and thinking... not a good combination at the best of times." He squirted a liberal amount of toothpaste on the brush and tilted back Blair's chin. "Open wide, Junior."

Blair jerked his chin out of Jim's hand and snatched at the toothbrush. "Gimme that," he growled.

"Just trying to help," Jim smiled.

"I know." This time Sandburg levelled his gaze at the detective. "And maybe that's something we need to talk about."

"Are you gonna brush, or are we gonna be in here all night?" Jim tapped his watch. "Bonanza, remember? Ten minutes, Chief." Before Blair had a chance to respond, Ellison backed out of the room, leaving the door slightly ajar. "Just yell out when you're done, unless," he said, "you need Uncle Jim to help you."

Language, some of which the detective hadn't even heard before, drifted from the bathroom, but it was the almost silent muttering of the last sentence that confirmed Jim's suspicions of what Blair had been edging towards only a few minutes earlier. "And I bet it's not the first time since I've been home that you've had to."

"And it probably won't be the last, either, Chief." Ellison's words were quiet, remaining unheard through the partially-closed door. "But I'll do it a thousand times over if it means keeping you at home."

A sudden hiss of pain had Jim's senses on alert. Concerned with what he heard, he rapped on the door, not bothering to try and stop it as it swung open.

"Geez, Jim, can't you give a guy some privacy?" With a quick flush of the toilet, Sandburg closed the lid, before shuffling around to face the detective.

"What's wrong?" Ellison asked.

"Nothing's wrong. I just leaned too heavily on my leg, that's all," he lied.

"You sure?"

Blair's inner voice was back. Now is the perfect opportunity, it told him. Tell him that you think you might have a urinary tract infection. Tell him that it would probably be best if you checked yourself back into the hospital. You'd be doing the guy a favour... you know you would.

"No, actually, I'm not sure."

"What'dya mean, you're not sure?"

"I think..." Blair hesitated for a moment, fully aware that he could once again find himself flat on his back on the third floor of Cascade General. "I think I might have a urinary or bladder infection or something." He looked directly at Ellison. "It burns when I take a leak."

"When did this start?" Ellison reached out to steady the younger man as he made his way over to the basin. With one arm immobilised in a sling and a leg that wasn't exactly too happy about the prospect of any kind of forward motion, Sandburg didn't have the best grasp on balance.

"Yesterday." Blair turned on the water faucet. "And yes, I know, I should have told you sooner."

Without even thinking, Jim reached down and soaped up Blair's hand, "Yeah, you should have." Restrained and calm, Ellison resisted the urge to give voice to the rant building inside. Sandburg should have told him the minute he'd suspected something was amiss, but he couldn't really blame Blair's motivations in keeping it to himself. He was just as worried about the prospect of another hospital stay as Blair, and it was for that very reason Sandburg needed to be vigilant with every aspect of his health. The kid was teetering on the edge as it was, and it wouldn't take much to knock him flat on his ass again. Putting on a positive front, Jim adjusted the water temperature. "Look, Chief, you've got a doctor's appointment tomorrow anyway. Chances are that a round of antibiotics will knock whatever it is in on its head."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Why don't we wait for the doc's verdict before we invite the harbinger of doom over for a three course meal, okay?"

"Jim, I think it might be time to face the fact that maybe my doctor was right. Maybe I should go..."

"No." Guiding Blair's hand under the spray, Jim reached for a towel.

"No... that's it? You say no and the conversation ends?"

"Yep." After drying Blair's hand and hanging the towel back on the bar, Jim laced his arm around Sandburg's waist. "You ready?"

Blair remained silent until his backside was deposited safely onto the futon. "You know, Jim, just because you like to avoid things, doesn't mean they actually go away."

Ellison gave Blair one of his best sardonic smiles and shrugged. "It's always worked for me in the past and you know what they say -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it." He shook several tablets into the palm of his hand. "Red first, yellow second, and then the crowd favourite, the blue one."


Ellison sighed. "Blair, give it a rest, just for tonight, please? Once you've seen the doc tomorrow, we'll discuss whatever it is you want to talk about." Doesn't mean I'll agree with you, though, he added silently. As the melody of the Bonanza theme song drifted in from the living room, Jim nudged the younger man's knee. "So what'd ya say, Little Joe, work with me on this one?"

Sandburg couldn't help but smile. "You're a jerk, you know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, but you gotta admit, I am kinda cute."

Sandburg rolled his eyes before accepting the glass that had been shoved in front of his face, and swallowed the first two tablets that had now been literally forced into his mouth. He hesitated briefly before reaching for the blue one. "You don't know how glad I'll be when I'm off this one." The blue tablet was a slightly milder dose of the intravenous painkillers he'd been taking in the hospital. Trouble was that, even though his pain levels had decreased to a level that he considered bearable, going cold turkey off the drug was not an option. "How can a drug that you have to wean yourself off of, be classified as legal?" he asked.

"And it's being handed out by a cop," Ellison quipped.

"I'm serious here, man. You have no idea the LSD flip-out I get from this one."

"And how would you know what an LSD trip is like, Junior?"

Blair squirmed back onto the mound of soft pillows that lay scattered against the headboard of his bed. Letting Jim ease his legs up onto the mattress, he deliberately refrained from answering the question.


The grad student closed his eyes. "I believe the word is called 'avoidance', Jim," he smiled.

"Smart ass," Ellison growled. Although most of the time he was ninety-nine percent sure when Blair was pulling his chain, there was still that one percent of uncertainty that always left him wondering exactly what kind of past the kid did have, and how much of life he really had experienced.

Untangling the blankets, Jim let his question slide. "Sweet dreams, Chief."

"Tangerine trees and marmalade skies, man," Sandburg mumbled.

One day, Chief, one day, I guarantee you that I will work out exactly what makes you tick. Ellison stood silently for a few moments, once again content to watch Blair as he drifted off to sleep. "Kaleidoscope eyes, my friend," he whispered, "are one way that I hope you've never viewed the world."

Ellison was tired, with a weariness that couldn't be fixed by a good night's sleep or a couple of days holed up with nothing more pressing to do than decide whether to watch the movie network or the sports channel. His exhaustion was bone deep. It had culminated from weeks of tension and stress, and had left him so completely doused that not even a roaring inferno would have any hope of rekindling his flame. Unfortunately, this tiredness would hang around until its source no long plagued his every conscious and unconscious thought. Ellison would be tired until the day that Blair was pronounced one hundred percent fit.

Jim had barely slept while Blair had been in the hospital, and the situation hadn't improved very much since he had come home. Although most nights he managed to stumble up to bed at a reasonable hour, the sleep he'd been getting was never deep enough for his body to reap the full benefit. Sandburg was at the forefront of his mind whether he was awake or asleep. Even when he had managed to fall into a slumber that was heavier than a doze, his senses seemed to adopt a will of their own, seeking out Blair and bombarding his already overloaded system with the total and complete essence of the kid. While he'd always been peripherally aware of Sandburg, that perception had been minimal unless he'd intentionally set out to focus on him for a particular reason. But ever since the accident, things had changed, and he had become so intently attuned to what was going on with Blair that he actually felt like he was wearing the kid like a second skin. He couldn't explain it and, right now, he had no intention of sharing the information with Blair. He knew the minute he opened his mouth, Sandburg would be popping blood vessels left, right and centre as he tried to figure out what was going on. Only this time, the chances of the resident 'Sentinel psychoanalyst' actually popping something wasn't metaphoric, and he wasn't prepared to take the risk.

Somewhere between the saloon brawl and the following gunfight, Jim finally fell asleep. With his long legs stretched out over the length of the sofa and a bottle of beer perched precariously on his stomach, his subconscious mind was only vaguely aware of the sounds around him. Whiskey bottles shattering on the edge of the bar, bullets blazing from an old Colt, and the thundering of hooves pounding clay were mingled with something far more familiar. Blair was restless and, although exhaustion was nagging at him, lulling him away from the sound of the television, his sentinel instinct was too strong for it to lure him away from the distress of his guide.

By the time the bedside lamp had clattered to the ground, Ellison had bolted upright, and when the pitcher of water tumbled to the floor, Jim was already through the French doors, squatting down beside the bed before his tired senses even had a chance to fire up.


Sandburg looked up.

"Hey," Ellison said gently. It only took a single look into Blair's glazed, dilated eyes to tell Jim that Sandburg wasn't completely with him, and it left him wondering if he'd be able to push through the haze that encumbered the kid's night-time world to find out what was wrong. Reaching out, he stroked Blair's pale cheek. "What's up, buddy?"

"...need to..." Blair licked at his dry lips. "need to get up."

Jim gave a sideways glance at the plastic jug that had been knocked over. He moved the lamp out of the path of the water as it snaked slowly toward the wall, and turned his attention back to Blair. The floor wasn't the only thing that was wet, and it hadn't been caused by the fallen pitcher of water.

Sandburg tried again to articulate his words, but couldn't quite get his thoughts into order. "I didn't know," was all he could manage.

"I know." Jim squeezed Blair's knee. "And it doesn't matter. We'll have you cleaned up and back into bed in no time flat."

Sandburg's boxers, as well as the bottom part of the grey flannel t-shirt he'd worn to bed, were soaked through. So was the mattress. "Chief, you think you can support your arm for a second while I get this sling off?" Jim asked.

Blair nodded, but Ellison wasn't certain how much had registered.

"Okay then, let's do this quick and easy," he replied. Guiding Blair's good arm under the injured one, Jim worked on the two clasps that held the sling in place. "Hold it steady, just for a minute, Chief," he encouraged as he snapped the back clasp apart. Placing his own hand over the top of Sandburg's to add extra support, he pulled the sling away. "Now for the tricky part," he muttered, more to himself than to his partner. Moving to sit on the bed, Jim placed himself behind Blair so the younger man's back was against his chest. He removed Sandburg's hand from under the cast, wrapping his own arm around Blair's body to act like the sling he'd just removed. With his free hand, he managed to manoeuvre the uninjured arm through the sleeve. "You doing okay?" he asked with concern, feeling Blair's muscles tense against his chest.

Blair nodded awkwardly again.

"Nearly there, kiddo," he reassured gently. Getting the shirt off the injured side of Sandburg's body wouldn't be a problem, thanks to Mrs. Rudd in apartment 204 and her expertise with the sewing machine. It was just a matter of pulling apart the Velcro strips that had been placed on the separated seams. But he still had to get the shirt over Sandburg's head. Bunching up the wet material in an effort to keep it as far away from Blair's face as possible, Jim pulled it off as quickly as he could. Sandburg's breathing was a lot heavier than it had been a few minutes earlier; even though the painkillers were probably taking the edge off, the kid still felt it. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered.

"Need to lay down, Jim," Sandburg panted. His eyes were now closed, his body growing heavier as he leaned back into the rock solid wall of Ellison's chest.

With Blair's physical state rapidly declining, Jim knew that he really didn't have many options open to him. The chances of Sandburg making it to the bathroom and standing under the shower were starting to fall under the category of 'let's move to plan B'. While he could always grab what he needed and give his partner a quick bed bath, he couldn't leave him lying on a wet mattress all night long. "Looks like the only choice is up, Chief."

Gently easing Blair off his chest, Ellison worked the sling back around the injured arm and shoulder. "Blair, you think you can make it onto your feet?"

Sandburg didn't answer. He sat mutely on the bed with his head forward and his hair covering much of his face.

"It'll be just for a minute, Chief, and then you can lie back down." Placing Sandburg's arm over his shoulder, Ellison eased them both off the bed. He slipped the wet boxers down Blair's legs and lifted him slightly off the ground to untangle his feet from the underwear before kicking it away with his foot. "Nearly there, Chief," he promised, snagging a towel and securing it as best he could around Blair's hips.

"Can't do this, Jim." Blair's voice was strained and it was evident that his pain levels were on the rise.

"Yes you can. You're invincible, remember?" With Sandburg's arm still around his shoulder, Jim slid his arm under unsteady knees. He knew that his next move needed to be done quickly and in a way that would minimise the stress on Blair. Only problem was that the kid was hurt in so many places that he doubted he'd find a completely pain-free way to get him up the stairs. The best he could hope for was that the blue pill that Blair hated so much would do its job. Lifting Sandburg off the ground, Jim strained under the weight. "You been pigging out on hot biscuits again, Little Joe?" he ground out.

By the time the two men made it out into the living room, Blair was feeling the strain. The tender muscles around his hip twitched against Jim's stomach and the sentinel was half inclined to stop and lay the younger man down on the sofa. But just a few more steps gave promise of a place where Sandburg would be warm and comfortable and also a place where he'd be safe. And in the recesses of Ellison's mind, keeping Blair safe was beginning to turn into an obsession.

The same moment that Ellison's foot hit the second floor, Sandburg cried out in pain. Even though Jim had done his best not to jostle him on their way up the stairs, Blair's hip simply couldn't cope with the pressure or the position it had been forced into.

"Nearly there, Chief. Just a few more steps," Jim breathed out heavily.

"...gonna be sick."

"No, you're not." Briefly balancing Blair on his bent knee, he cradled him against his own chest, while roughly pulling back the covers. "Breathe in through your mouth," he ordered. Grunting, with one last effort, Ellison lifted Sandburg again and placed him on the bed. With the only towel in the room not really looking or smelling the best, he grabbed one of his old sweat shirts out of the dresser and bunched it up under Blair's head. If the kid was going to be sick, then at least the bed would be saved, and beds were quickly becoming a scarce commodity. "Deep breaths, Chief. Deep breaths and you'll be fine," he encouraged.

Sandburg complied, breathing deeply in and out through his mouth until the nauseous feeling in his gut slowly abated. Keeping his eyes closed, he lay still and supine, hoping not only to shut out the pain, but to also shut out the sentinel. If he let himself be drawn into the actuality of what was going on around him, he'd also have to come to terms with the reality that this wasn't a dream. He'd have no choice left but to finally face up to the fact that, once again, he was imposing on and placing a friend in an awkward, uncomfortable situation.

And on a level that hit closer to home, he'd also have to deal with his own humiliation and embarrassment and attune himself to the realisation that he was totally dependent on another person. He'd been separated from being dependent for such a long time that he honestly didn't remember what it was like to be truly cared for.

While Blair may have become accustomed to Jim's protective ways and had learned to accept the care, and even the love, that was shown toward him, their relationship had never reached the level of intimacy that had now been forced upon them both because of the accident. When all was said and done and he was once again a whole and functional human being, Blair wondered how Jim would look at him. Would he be viewed as he was before, or would Jim's eyes now see a man who was weak and fragile? The longer he let their relationship go on like this, the more he felt that he was losing his dignity and the respect of the best friend he'd ever had. The situation was slowly tearing him apart.

Jim had always been skilled at monitoring, observing and assessing both people and the environment around him. And ever since his senses had come on line and Blair had shown up in his life, he considered himself to be even more highly proficient in these abilities. The one exception was Sandburg. When it came to assessing the grad student, things always managed to become clouded, throwing his balanced and professional perspective completely off kilter and often leaving him with more questions than answers. Right now was one of those times.

"You still with me here, Chief?" Even though the drugs coursing through Sandburg's veins were strong, Jim had an inkling that they just might have loosened their grip enough to give Blair some idea of what was going on. But if he knew, Sandburg wasn't giving any signs away. With his eyes closed and his arm thrown over his face, he didn't so much as flinch when the cold air hit his body. There was no movement or sound when the warm washcloth ran over his groin, under his buttocks and down the inside of his legs. No hiss of pain or even an intake of breath as the bandages that covered the wounds on his abdomen and chest were removed and replaced. And when clean boxers were slid up the length of his legs and worked over his severely bruised hip, Blair continued to remain lax and uncommunicative.

Having no intention of intruding any more than was necessary, Jim made no attempt to remove Sandburg's arm from his face as he tucked the quilt around the unmoving body. Privacy was acutely lacking in Blair's life at the moment, and if the gesture and the childish notion of 'if I can't see you, then you can't see me' wielded even a small amount of comfort for Sandburg, then so be it. If Blair needed to hide, then hide he would until he was ready to come out and face the world once more.

Jim lightly patted Blair's leg through the thick layer of fleecy blankets. "Try and get some rest, Chief. I'll be downstairs if you need me." The side of the mattress sprang back into shape as Ellison wearily got to his feet. Trudging with heavy footsteps down the staircase, he resignedly went about cleaning up Blair's room.

Finally, with the last load in the washing machine and several blankets and a mattress now drying by the fire, it was well after midnight before the exhausted detective plodded back up the stairs and crawled into bed. Pulling the blanket up to cover his own bare shoulders, he turned over to face Sandburg, letting his senses confirm what he already knew. Blair had fallen into a deep sleep. If the ordeal of the night's events still troubled his partner, it was no longer evident in his body language.

It was, however, evident in the single tear that had escaped from behind closed eyelids and tracked a lonely path across a stubbled cheek, leaving a trail in its wake that was visible only to sentinel eyes.

Unable to hold back, Jim reached out and laid his hand on top of Blair's head, carding his fingers through the younger man's hair. "I promise it'll get better, Blair," he said. "I can't tell you when, or give you a guarantee that you won't have to go through this again, but I can and I will promise you that things will get better."

Finally closing his tired eyes, Jim surrendered to the exhaustion that was urging him to rest. Breathing in a deep lung full of air, he let go of his senses, letting them flow without restraint over the man he'd come to think of not only as his closest friend, but also as his guide.

With his senses no longer encumbered by the burden of distance, Jim let the feeling of Blair wash right over him and, for the first time in a very long time, the sentinel slept deeply and well.

Blair awoke dizzy and disorientated. Dawn had barely made an impression on the morning landscape, but it was enough to leave him wondering why he could see the colours of pink and mauve swirling above his head.

"You okay, Darwin?"

It was a simple question, comprised of only a few short words, but it took all of Blair's mental faculties to try and deduce.

"Chief, do you need a trip to the bathroom?"

The answer was on the tip of his tongue, relayed to him by a bladder that was blissfully empty but, nevertheless, the words he needed to convey this answer remained elusive. The picture perfect sky was still there, meandering lazily across his line of vision and confusing him to the point where he wasn't even sure whether he was awake or still dreaming.


This time the words came accompanied by the touch of a hand that lightly brushed against his side. The reaction was instantaneous and the floodgates of verbal communication burst open.

"Jim?" Blair turned his head to face the detective. "What happened? Why am I up here?" His eyes grew wide with bewilderment. "Why am I in your bed?"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down there, Pony Express, before you go lame and I have to ship you off to the slaughterhouse." Jim's hand came to rest on Blair's chest, his outstretched palm feeling a heart that was pounding a million miles an hour.

"Oh, god." Sandburg's arm once again came to rest briefly across his eyes before his fingers pinched the bridge of his nose. He vaguely remembered Jim taking off his shirt and running a washcloth across his chest, but the rest was a totally blank page. "Jim, what did I do?" Flinging his hand away, Blair's piercing blue eyes locked with those that lay a mere foot away. "I didn't barf all over the place, did I?"

"No, you didn't puke." A teasing smile graced Ellison's lips. "This time."


"You knocked over a pitcher of water, Sandburg." Since there was obviously no urgency in Blair's condition, and therefore no reason to leave the warmth of the bed just quite yet, Ellison punched his pillow and settled back down. "Your mattress got wet and so did you." Jim closed his eyes, his hand remaining where it was. "Go back to sleep, Chief. It's too early to get up and," he yawned, "there is absolutely no truth in that rumour about birds and worms." Plus, he thought as he drifted back to sleep, ...absolutely no reason to jog your memory.

As the hand that remained on his chest grew heavy and lax, Blair took the opportunity to study Ellison's sleeping face. There was a certain peacefulness to Jim's tired features. A tranquil aura that he hadn't felt coming from the sentinel for such a long time now surrounded Jim, and it gradually occurred to him that he was not the only one who needed to heal. While Jim had been doing the bulk of the physical work taking care of him, he'd never considered that Jim had also been wounded. His wounds might not have been visible and, knowing Ellison, would probably never be, but it didn't negate the fact the Jim was still hurting. And, like his own mental wounds, they would take time to heal.

Snaking his arm under the blanket, Blair latched on to Jim's warm hand. "Sleep well," he whispered, before his own appointment with the sandman swept him away.

Rolling back on the heels of his feet, Simon's smile was radiant by the time Jim opened the door. "Huh, gotcha." He landed a resounding slap on the sentinel's shoulder as he pushed through the doorway. "Getting slow in your dotage, detective?" he grinned.

"Make yourself at home, Sir," Jim responded with an elaborate wave of his arm.

Simon's grin grew impossibly smug. "Don't mind if I do." Walking further into the apartment, Banks' eyes automatically swept his surroundings before coming to a stop on the retreating back of the police observer. "Hey, Sandburg, how you doing?"

"I'm good." Blair's answer was short and succinct.

Catching Ellison's attention, Banks raised his eyebrows and asked quietly, "Jim, should he be doing that by himself?"

Ellison waited until Blair's unsteady and laborious gait finally took him over the threshold and into the privacy of his room. His answer should have been 'no', but with Sandburg's reaction to everything he'd tried to help with this morning, the answer was a most definite 'yes'.

"It's been a difficult night, Simon."

"Why, want happened?"

Jim immediately blew off the question. "Just some stuff. Nothing important." Simon was a good friend, but what happened within the walls of the loft, stayed there. "He's just had a rough time of it, that's all." Changing the subject, Jim rounded the bench and waved the coffee pot in Simon's direction. "Coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks." Simon accepted the mug, wrapping both his hands around the cup as he leaned back on the counter, his eyes never straying from Sandburg's door. "Do you think maybe you should call the doctor and try and make an earlier appointment?"

"Simon, considering the original appointment's in forty-five minutes and it's gonna take us at least thirty to get across town to the hospital..." Jim stopped and gave his captain his own smug smile. "Logistics registering anywhere here at all, sir?"

"No one likes a smart ass, Ellison," Banks growled. "Especially when that 'one' happens to be your boss."

Jim laughed, raising his hands in defence, "Just honing my fine detective skills, sir."

"Yeah, well don't. It's aggravating."

"If I didn't know better, Simon, I'd say that you might be developing a soft spot for Sandburg."

Banks roughly placed his coffee mug on the countertop, his finger poking reckless holes in the air as he made his point clear. "You know perfectly well that soft spots and I have absolutely no association with each other, least of all when it comes to a certain super-charged, annoyingly verbose anthropologist with a tendency to talk first and ask questions later." Simon's grimace quickly turned back into a look of confused complexity. "Don't ask me why, but because of Sandburg, I now know the complete history of the penile clamp."

"What?" Jim asked, in surprise. "Where the hell did that come from?"

"Where and why is the question I've been asking myself for the past year now, Jim. Every time I close my eyes I get this monstrous image of a huge kipper bag about to grab hold of my manhood, with no intention of letting go."

"Simon, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, let alone what the hell a kipper bag is, but for the sake of our friendship, maybe we should keep certain things to ourselves." Pouring his remaining coffee down the sink, Jim rinsed the cup. "Why don't I go and hurry up Encyclopedia Brown while you bring the car around to the front door."

"You know, Ellison," Banks called out as the detective disappeared into Sandburg's room. "You wouldn't be so blase if you knew the complications associated with a piece of rubber hanging off the end of your wise old man for weeks on end."

Jim rolled his eyes as he approached the bed. "Sandburg, have you been messing around with the captain's head again?"

Blair shrugged his shoulders, not really interested in the conversation that had been taking place in the kitchen.

"Chief, can I do anything to help?" Jim squatted down on his haunches. By the looks of things, Blair had been trying to perform the simple, everyday task of putting a shoe on his foot but, with his injuries, the simple task had become as rigorous and arduous as climbing Mount Everest.

Blair meekly let the other man, once again, take charge of the situation. With the way he felt this morning, he'd finally reached a point beyond caring.

"Hey, Sandburg, why the massive attack of the doldrums?" Simon nudged Blair's arm as they sat side by side in the outpatients' room, waiting for Ellison to return from the pharmacy. "From what Jim said, the doc told you that as long as you're vigilant and keep up with your medication, the infection should clear up in a week or so."

"I guess so," Sandburg shrugged.

"Blair!" Simon tapped his finger under Sandburg's chin, forcing the younger man to look at him. "What's up?"

What's up, Blair thought. Now there was a loaded question if I ever heard one. There were so many things that were up and down on a daily basis that he didn't even know where to begin. While his state of mind, as well as Jim's, was on the top of the list, it was a subject that wasn't open for public discussion.

But, knowing that Simon wouldn't leave it alone if he didn't get some kind of answer, Blair mentally scanned his list, opting to go with something else that had been on his mind of late. "Simon, before the accident, I ordered Jim's Christmas present from a jeweller's at the mall and I need to get it picked up. I can't ask Jim, because that kind of defeats the purpose, and I was wondering, if it's not too much trouble, if you'd be able to swing by and pick it up for me?"

A plan of action was formed before Simon even opened his mouth. "Hey, I tell you what," he said, tapping Blair lightly on the knee. "I've got nothing pressing on my agenda this afternoon, and unless you're hooked on daytime soaps, I'm guessing you wouldn't say no to a trip to the mall." Plucking his cell phone out of jacket, Simon began dialling information. "I'll arrange a wheelchair from mall management and if you feel up to it, we can grab some lunch at the new restaurant on the top floor. I hear they do a wicked pepper steak."

By the time Simon disconnected the phone, Sandburg's initial elation had deflated somewhat. While the idea of feeling like he was about to embark on an afternoon that was at least halfway normal was enticing, there was still a major obstacle to overcome -- and that obstacle came bearing a protective urge that had long ago blown the top off the scale. While Jim was neither his keeper nor his boss, he still felt like he owed him, and if respecting Jim's wishes for the time being went even a small way toward paying off the debt he owed, then he felt he had no other choice. "Simon, I really appreciate the offer, man, and while I have to admit that I'd love nothing more than to take you up on it, I can't see Jim being all that comfortable with it, can you?"

"Tell you what, Sandburg, why don't you leave Ellison to me? He might have a hard head, but I've cracked plenty of nuts tougher than his in my time."

Before Blair could say that he really didn't want or need the conflict at the moment, Jim appeared, pushing an empty wheelchair in front of him. "You guys ready to hit the road?"

Standing to his full height and puffing out his chest to maximise his authority, Banks launched straight into doing what he did best. "There's been a slight change of plans, Jim. Sandburg and I are going to the mall and then to lunch. While you're quite welcome to join us on certain parts of this little outing, there will be times when your presence won't be required." Banks plucked his keys from his jacket. "Or, if you prefer, I can drop you off at home on the way."

It took a full three seconds for the shit to hit the fan. If it hadn't been for the fact that it was proverbial, patients on the other side of the room would have been ducking for cover. "Simon, you have to be fucking joking! Sandburg can barely walk two feet without doubling over in pain or stopping to catch his breath. How the hell is he gonna manage to deal with a crowded mall two days before Christmas?"

"Do you think I became Captain by being stupid, detective?" Banks snapped back. "And if you don't watch that temper of yours, I'll have you run downtown for creating a public nuisance." Banks lowered his voice in an effort to defuse the situation. "Look, Jim, I've organised a wheelchair from mall management and what we need to do won't take that long. But whether you like it or not, I am taking the kid shopping and then we are going to have lunch, which by the way, you are quite welcome to join us for." Simon stood his ground firmly, with the intent of leaving no room for bargaining. "So my only suggestion to you at this point is find a way to deal with it, because it is going to happen."

Like two pit bull terriers sizing each other up before all hell broke loose, Blair could tell that a full-blown pissing contest was about to take place. "I'm staying," he whispered, before the dogs were set free.

Jim's head whipped around quicker than a whirlwind on a summer day and, from the very second he laid his eyes upon the younger man's face, he realised the he'd just inadvertently pushed Blair into making a decision that he'd been trying so desperately to avoid. "Crap," he swore under his breath. "Simon, you think you could maybe bring the car around to the front? If we don't get a move on, it'll be dinner time before we've even had lunch."

"I'm not going." Blair's tone left no room for negotiation.

"Why don't I give you guys a few minutes?" Simon patted Jim's arm with a look of apology. "I'll go grab a coffee."

"Hey." Jim moved to stand in front of Blair before squatting down. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking and I was totally out of line." Cautiously, he reached out and touched Blair's knee, feeling a small measure of relief when his actions weren't met with any resistance. "I guess that sometimes I let everything that's happened get the better of me and I forget that you're quite capable of making your own decisions. I really am sorry," he said again. "I promise it won't happen again."

"I know it won't." Sandburg fixed his gaze on Jim's face. "It won't happen again because I'm finally making a decision that I should have made a week ago. The doctor said that he'd prefer it if I were on IV antibiotics and I'm about to make him a happy man."

"Blair, why?" Ellison could feel his heart thumping against his chest as it rapidly picked up speed. "Chief, you also heard him say the 'but' word. But, as in being that as long as you managed the dosage correctly, got plenty of rest and came back for a follow-up appointment, then he couldn't foresee any further complications."

Blair scrubbed his hand wearily over his face. "What about the complication of a grown man pissing his pants because he's too spaced out on drugs to know any better? Why don't we talk about that, Jim?" Blair hissed angrily.

"Chief, look..."

Sandburg held up his hand, stalling the conversation. "No, you look. While I may not remember every single detail, I remember enough to know that I don't ever want to have to put you or myself through something like that again."

"Put me through what, Sandburg? I wiped you down, stripped the bed and did some extra washing. It was no big deal and it certainly wasn't the first time I've seen you naked. And besides, when the hell did you become such a prude, for god's sake?"

"You seeing my dick on the odd occasion is a hell of a lot different than having to wipe urine off it like I was a two-year-old flunking potty training."

"Would you do it for me?" Ellison asked directly. "If I was in a situation where my back was up against the wall, would you do it for me?"

"Of course I would, but one has nothing to do with the other."

"What, so your dick's been suddenly dipped in gold leaf and only good enough for an audience with the Queen of England?" Jim's tightened his grip on Blair's thighs. "Okay, Professor, explain your little bit of genius to me, because right at this moment, this dense detective has no idea where you're coming from."

Jim could feel the eyes on his back from the elderly couple on the other side of the room, but he honestly didn't give a shit. They needed to have this conversation and they were going to have it, eavesdroppers be damned.

"How about my little bit of logic coming from the viewpoint of looking at things through your eyes for a change." Sandburg's voice dropped; so did his gaze. "I don't ever want to lose your respect, man, and from where I sit, the longer I let this go on, I don't see how I can keep it." Blair rubbed a rough hand across his eyes. The medication that he was on was not only wreaking havoc with his system, but also playing a game of volley ball with his emotions. "After everything that's happened, I honestly don't think I could cope with that," he said roughly.

"Ah, Chief." Grabbing the wheelchair, Jim pulled it close and took a seat, scooting it forward so their knees touched. "You've got as much chance of losing my respect as you do getting the keys to my truck." He smiled, reaching out to hook the back of Sandburg's neck with his hand. "It just ain't going to happen, Squirt."

"Jim, I'm being serious here, man."

"What, and you think I'm not?" Ellison's smile grew even wider. "You know, Chief, at times you can be a major pain in the ass, but you're my pain in the ass and I've kinda grown used to having you around."

A glint that had been missing in Blair's eyes sparkled for the briefest of moments, making Jim laugh. "Don't even think about saying what I know you're gonna say, Sandburg," he warned. "You know exactly what type of ass pain I'm talking about."

Ellison's expression grew suddenly serious. "Look, Chief, I've never said this before, because I figured you'd already worked it out, but you're my best friend and I do love you, you know?"

"I know you do. And that's why I need to stay." Blair squeezed Jim's forearm. "I'm not going to let your sense of duty push you into a corner, man."

"Is that how you see our friendship, Blair? A sense of duty?"

"No!" Sandburg panicked, realising immediately how Jim could have interpreted what he'd just said. "I didn't mean it like that, man."

"Well, what did you mean?"

"What I meant was that there's only so much a friendship can take before it snaps in half." Blair stopped, swallowing hard as he tried to get a fix on his emotions. "Look at me, for Christ's sake. On a good day I'm lucky if I make it from my bed to the sofa without you having to carry me half the way; and on a bad day..." He lowered his voice a notch. "I don't think I have to remind you what I'm capable of doing on a bad day."

Sandburg's emotions suddenly scored the winning point and he was unable to stop the tears welling in his eyes. "I'm scared, Jim. I'm scared to death that I'm playing around with something that's one of the most precious things in the world to me, and at any minute it'll just slip from my hand and shatter all over the ground."

"You know what you need, Chief?" Jim rasped out, his own emotions taking a rapid downhill slide.

"A tissue," Blair quipped, as the tears rolled down his cheeks.

"A hug." Drawing Blair into his body, Ellison wrapped his arms around his best friend and held on tight, needing the closeness and the connection more than he cared to admit.

"Do you understand why I have to stay, Jim?" Blair whispered into Ellison's neck as he returned the embrace.

"I do, Chief, I really do, but I don't think you understand why I can't let you." Pushing back, Jim knew he now had no alternative but to bring out the big guns. Although the timing was premature, if he was going to have any chance of changing Sandburg's mind, then he was going to have to start with being honest about what was going on with his senses and, at the same time, hopefully get through to Blair that their friendship was most definitely a two-way street. "Chief, you asked what I saw when I looked through my eyes. Well, to be honest, I see a man who is balancing on the edge."

Sandburg's expressions dropped like a man who could taste defeat.

"But you know what? The only way I can see this man is to look in the mirror." Ellison urgently cupped Sandburg's cheek, his voice growing rough. "I'm struggling here, buddy, and the only thing keeping me from taking a swan dive over the edge, is you."

Sandburg's brow's knitted together. "Why, what's wrong?" He shuffled forward slightly on the chair. "I knew it! There's something up with your senses, isn't there?"

"Only when you're not around," Ellison answered honestly. "When I can reach out and feel you, either physically, or with my senses, they're fine, but when you're not around, they do the old 'mission control, blast off' number and the only way I can bring them back down to earth is to reconnect with you." Jim shrugged his shoulders "So, you tell me, Sandburg, who's the dependent one in this relationship, because at the moment, I'm not walking, I'm crawling."

"Jim, why the hell didn't you say something?" Blair hissed, in disbelief.

"Because for once, this is not about me, it's about you."

"More like being about both of us," Blair muttered, the wheels in his head already spinning.

"I think I just heard the sound of a penny dropping," Jim remarked. "And I also recall something about going down this path together."

A look of awareness spread across Blair's face. "Point taken," he conceded.

A sense of relief wash over the sentinel "So," he smiled. "Now that we seem to be on the same page, you wanna take a look over my shoulder and see if those eyes boring into my back have done any permanent damage?"

With his own mood lightened, Blair peered over Jim's shoulder and studied the couple who both had to be pushing pretty close to eighty. He grinned. "Nah, man, I think their eyes are too busy rolling across the floor for that."

"Good, then I won't give the old-timers a heart attack when I do this." Leaning forward, Ellison placed a quick, rough kiss smack bang on the centre of Sandburg's forehead. "So, what do you say, Junior," he winked, mischievously. "Help keep an out of control Sentinel sane and come home with him?"

Blair's smile was bright and radiant. Jim hadn't realised, until that moment, how much he'd missed it.

"How could I possibly refuse an offer like that, big fella?" Sandburg laughed.

Knowing full well that there was one reason and one reason only why Blair was coming home with him, Ellison pushed himself out of the wheelchair, not caring if his every move from now on in would be under the scrutiny of one very observant observer. "Your chariot, my good sir."

"Hey, Jim?" Blair accepted help as he eased himself out of the hard plastic chair and down onto the padded cushion of the wheelchair. "Do you think that, given the circumstances, you might wanna ditch the Squirt nickname? I might be a cripple, man, but I do have a reputation to think of."

Ellison shrugged, casually wheeling Sandburg past the elderly couple, whose eyes were still glued to their every move. "Sure thing, Chief." Stopping, Jim gave the elderly man a brief wave, before tapping Blair on the shoulder. "Say goodbye to the nice folks, Piddles."

Sandburg lowered his head to his hand and sank further down into the chair. "Oh, that's classy, man. Real classy."

"So, which way, Sandburg? Stores, or do you want to go see Santa first?" Banks chuckled.

Blair rolled his eyes at the captain, before his gazed locked with Jim's. "You gonna be okay, man?"

"It's a mall Sandburg, which in my world equates to being one of the most frustrating places known to man and therefore should give you your answer."

"Jim, cut the bull."

Ellison knew that no matter how blase or laid back he tried to act, Blair wouldn't buy it. "I'll be fine, Chief." Bending down he released the brake with his hand, giving himself a brief moment to quietly reassure the younger man that he needn't worry. "I'll just go find a peaceful corner somewhere and have coffee."

Blair touched his hand. "You promise you'll give Simon a call on his cell if anything starts to act up?"

"Scout's honour."

Standing back up, Jim tapped the chair handle. "Simon, I pass the responsibility of the invalid over to your hands." He spun the chair around. "Good luck, sir, because shopping with Sandburg can be like a constant toothache... dull, aggravating and unbearably annoying."

"Hey," Blair complained, "I think that comparison's a little harsh."

"Don't worry, Jim. If I can survive a shopping trip with the ex-wife, I'm sure I'll be able to survive Tiny Tim."

"You know, guys." Blair swivelled around as best he could to face the two men as Simon began to push him away. "I do have a name!"

"You hear something, Jim?" Banks teased, calling back over his shoulder.

As Blair disappeared into the crowded mass of people, it took all of the Sentinel's willpower not to succumb to his instinct to go after his Guide. When Blair was no longer within the range of his sight or his hearing, Jim slowly turned away. The only thing keeping him moving in the opposite direction was knowing that Blair was with the one man, apart from himself, who would move heaven and earth to keep his partner safe.

Keeping his promise, Ellison found a quiet corner in the back of a coffee shop and waited for Sandburg's return.

"Simon, do you have the time to drive past the tree lot?" Exhaustion, combined with the painkiller that Blair had taken during lunch, had the grad student dead to the world in the back seat of Simon's sedan, and Jim realised that now might be his only opportunity to pick up a tree. "I thought I might order a Christmas tree this year."

"Well, that's a first," Banks stated with a small measure of surprise.

"Yeah, I guess it is." Ellison shrugged. Although he didn't avoid Christmas, he'd never really bothered to get too involved in the celebration. Christmas as a kid had revolved more around pomp and ceremony than actual fun. The few years that he'd spent Christmas Day with his ex-wife's family had pushed his stress factor so high over the limit that, for the last couple of years, he'd volunteered to work through the holidays. It was only last year, when he'd spent part of the day with Sandburg, that Christmas had started to regain some of what he'd always imagined the day should be about.

"Jim, do you even have anything to decorate a tree with?" Simon asked, knowing that Ellison could be the original 'bah humbug' when he wanted to be.

"I think there's still a couple of boxes of unused decorations stored in the basement somewhere."

"Why unused?"

"Carolyn bought them the first year that we were married, but we both got so busy with work that we never ended up getting around to a tree." As the sedan slowed to a stop, Jim pulled his jacket collar up against the cold and opened the door. "I won't be long," he said.

Watching the detective as he moved across the car park and disappeared into the forest of pine trees, Simon shifted his attention to the sleeping man in the back seat. "I'd give my right arm to know how you managed to do that, Sandburg," he said. "How the hell did you turn GI Jim into the Sugar Plum Fairy?"

"Rise and shine, Sleepy-Eyed Joe." Pulling open the back door, Jim was quick to replace his hand to support Blair's head from where it rested against the car window. Sandburg's eyelids fluttered a couple of times, but didn't actually open.

"Come on, Sandburg." Jim tapped him on the cheek until he began to stir.

"You need some help?" Simon asked.

"He'll be fine, once he gets going... won't you, Junior?" Unlatching the seatbelt, Jim eased Blair's body around and shifted his legs so his feet now touched the pavement. "It's just sometimes the getting going is harder than others."

"...we home?"

"If you get your lazy backside out of this seat, we will be," Ellison answered. He laced Blair's arm over his shoulder and, with Simon's help, managed to coax Sandburg to his feet. With Banks taking the lead, opening doors and brusquely moving on any nosey passer-by that strayed across their path, it wasn't long before they were through the front door of apartment 307 and heading toward Blair's room.

"...bathroom." While the day may have been exactly what Blair needed, it didn't stop the aches and pains that were beginning to bite through the painkillers. Of all of his injuries, Sandburg's hip was the one that plagued him the most. It bore the brunt of pretty much constant pressure and there weren't too many positions that helped alleviate the strain on his bruised and battered muscles. Unfortunately, time, and a lot of it, would be the only cure.

Standing behind Sandburg with his arm wrapped around his waist, Jim loosened his grip slightly to see if upright was going to be achievable. "Think you might have to tackle this one sitting down, Chief," he said, as Blair swayed to one side.

"While my brain might agree with you, man, my hip's kinda vetoed that idea." Blair gritted his teeth. "It's not doing so good at the moment, Jim."

With one hand still place firmly around Sandburg's middle, Ellison gently probed Blair's side with the other. Muscles twitched and convulsed beneath his touch and his immediate thought was thank god the kid hadn't fought him when it came to taking a painkiller earlier that day. "Chief, we still on the same page with this togetherness thing?"

"Don't really have much choice, do I?" Sandburg answered solemnly. "I mean, you let go and I hit the deck with a whopping big thud, and as much as I'd like to take a seat, so to speak, I can't manage that."

Ellison tightened his grip. "I only wanna help, Chief. I never intended to take away your choice."

"You didn't take my choice away, Jim. The accident managed to do that all by itself." Snapping open the buttons on his jeans, Blair reined in his embarrassment and tried to make light of the situation "Betcha ten bucks I could piss further than you could." Doubling over as a line of pain burned a path all the way from his bladder right down his urinary tract, all Blair could do was to ride it out and hope like hell that Jim didn't let go. The second he was finished, his boxers and jeans were adjusted back into place and he found himself practically floating over the bathroom tiles, across the living room floor and straight into his room.

Simon had just finished tending to the fire when the pair came barrelling out of the bathroom. Before he could ask what he could do to help, Jim began barking orders. "Simon there's some massage oil and a heating pad in the basket by the sofa. Zap the pad for two minutes in the microwave, will you, and I need that oil in here."

"Jesus Christ." Simon appeared in the doorway and tossed the oil to Jim, getting his first real look at the extent of Blair's injuries. "If I didn't know better, and only had the colour of his ass to go by, the kid could very well be my brother."

Jim flicked a towel over Sandburg's lower body with one hand and caught the massage oil in mid-flight with the other. "Easy, Chief," he comforted as he warmed the liniment between his palms and worked his hands under the towel. "Just try and relax for me."

Sandburg breathed hard in and out of his mouth as Ellison began to very gently knead and work the tight muscles around his hip joint. Blair's fingers snagged the edge of the pillow, digging in hard as he tried to manage the sharp, biting, pins-and-needles pain.

"Is it easing any?"

"A little," Blair gritted out, still in obvious pain.

"Jim, what can I do to help?"

Ellison took his eyes off Blair for a brief moment. "There's some Marcela tea in the kitchen cabinet above the sink..."

"I'm on it," Simon answered, springing into action before Jim could even finish his sentence.

"Not too hot, Simon," he called out. "He needs to be able to drink it quickly."

"I'm not taking any muscle relaxants," Blair insisted, his voice hitching in pain as Jim touched a particularly tender spot.

"Sorry, Chief," Ellison apologised. He moved his hand away from the bony junction of Blair's hip. "I've got Simon making some of that tea stuff you said helps." Although Blair had been prescribed muscle relaxants, the side effects he'd suffered from the tablets weren't pleasant and he had refused, point blank, to take any more. While the tea wasn't as effective, it was far gentler on his stomach.

"Thanks, man." The tension in Sandburg's shoulders released slightly, as did the strain in his voice, and he began to relax into the massage.

The kettle boiled, the microwave pinged and the kitchen cupboards opened and closed. Footsteps resounding with only one purpose approached, and the light from the living room was momentarily blocked out by Simon's 6-foot, 4-inch frame hovering in the doorway. "I boiled the jug, but added some cold water from the tap, so it shouldn't be too hot." He quickly rounded the bottom of the bed and placed the mug on the bedside table. "Here's the pad... two minutes, just like you asked." While Simon's exterior may have been imposing, the look in this eyes and the uncertainty in his voice told Jim that his captain was way out of his comfort zone.

Almost as if he needed to stop his fidgeting, Banks handed over the heating pad and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "What else can I do?"

"Simon, why don't you go grab us a couple of beers. I can handle the rest."

"No," Banks replied a little too quickly. "You might need my help." Foolish didn't even begin to describe how he felt, and knowing that Jim could see right through him wasn't making the situation any easier. "So, what else can I do?"

A sceptical look was thrown in Banks' direction before Jim turned his attention back toward Blair. "Chief, you think you can sit up for a bit and drink some of this tea?"

With a grunt of pain, Blair rolled onto his back and reached out for Ellison to take hold of his hand. Simon tentatively added his own hands to lessen the strain.

"Simon, thanks for the great day, man," Blair said quietly. He sagged back and Banks was quick to slip in behind him. "It was just what I needed."

"You're kidding, aren't you?" Simon blurted out. "If I had of kept my big mouth shut, you wouldn't be going through this now."

A hint of a smile crossed Blair's face. "Yeah, I would've. Spending another day couped up with Jim and Days of our Lives as my only source of mental stimulation is a pain far worse than this."

"Hey, you want me to pour the rest of this tea down your throat?" Jim threatened, good-naturedly.

Blair let out an amused smirk before closing his eyes. The pain was beginning to dull and so was his world.

"Think it might be Junior's naptime."

"Think Junior agrees," Blair murmured, his head becoming heavier against Simon's shoulder.

"Pills first."

Swallowing tablets had become second nature to Sandburg and they went down as easily as the remaining tea.

"Down we go, Chief."

Resting, once again on his side, Blair snaked his hand up under the pillow.

"That still warm enough?" Simon asked, as Jim picked up the heating pad. "You want me to give it another zap?"

Jim pulled away the towel and positioned the pad so it spread over the width of Blair's hip. "No, it's still holding enough warmth." He shimmied Sandburg's boxers up and over the bulk of the pad. "Simon, pass me that pillow will you, and can you shove those other two up against his back to stop him from rolling over?" Angling Blair's leg slightly, Ellison placed the pillow in the space that was created by the action. The pressure on Sandburg's hip always seemed less intense when his leg was bent and, while not a perfect solution, as long as Blair slept soundly, the pillow would help keep it that way.

Pulling up the covers, Jim tucked the blankets in around Blair's shoulders. "Don't know about you, Simon, but I could really use that beer."

"Amen to that." Simon lightly touched Blair's foot. "Sleep well, kid," he whispered. With a mixture of both guilt and relief, Simon backed out of the room, giving Jim time alone to say his own goodnights.

If Simon Banks were ever to be thought of in comparative terms, Atlas would have been a perfect match.

Perched on the edge of the sofa and staring morosely into the fire, Simon looked like a man who had just had the whole world dumped squarely on his shoulders.

Tossing the massage oil back into the basket on the floor as he headed toward the kitchen, Jim asked, "You okay?"

"Huh?" Simon looked over at Ellison, completely oblivious to the question he'd just been asked.

"Are you alright?" Jim asked again. "By what's left of that beer bottle label and the condition of my floor, I figure that you've got something on your mind."

Banks looked down at the tiny bits of paper that were scattered by his feet. "Oh, sorry, didn't even realise." Bending down, he made a half-hearted attempt to clean up the mess.

"Leave it," Jim said nonchalantly. "I was planning to vacuum tomorrow anyhow." Plucking his own beer out of the fridge, he leaned against the counter. "So, what's up?"

"Do you ever wonder how tentative this whole thing is?"

"By this whole thing, I'm assuming you mean life?"

Simon nodded. "Not just life, but death as well."

"It's something I try not to dwell on too much."

"You know, Jim, when the accident happened and I got the call from the hospital, not once did the notion that Blair could actually die ever cross my mind." Simon moved back and settled against the sofa cushion. "I mean, I knew it was serious and I knew that he was hanging by a thread, but all throughout those first couple of days, all I could think of was -- this is Sandburg, there's no way in hell he can die... not like this."

"So what's different now?" Jim rounded the sofa and took a seat at the other end.

"I don't know," Simon shrugged. "Maybe seeing him tonight, lying in there like that, burst the bubble of the fantasy world I'd created and gave me a glimpse of what he's really been through... of what he's still going through." Simon's fingers glided over what was left of the label, "Or maybe just spending time with him today made me realise how very much I'd miss him if he weren't here." Simon chuckled at Jim's expression. "Now don't get me wrong, I've still got a list a mile long of all the ways I could strangle the kid and walk away scott free." He laughed again. "Today's little episode, for example, is a prime reason why any jury with an ounce of sympathy would find me innocent."

"What did he do to you this time?" Ellison asked, curious not only to find out what Blair had been up to, but also glad that Simon was opening up.

"Well," Simon began, "in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, I decided to take the kid over to the Santa line, suggesting that a little visit to St. Nick might be exactly what the doctor ordered. The next thing I know, he's insisting that we stay in the line; much to the displeasure of at least fifty little micro devils on a sugar high, I might add. Then when we finally get to the front, he proceeds to tell the guy in the Santa suit that I'd suffered a major emotional trauma at the hands of a Christmas elf when I was a child and that reliving my fears was part of my ongoing therapy."

"Ah, yep, that sounds like Sandburg," Jim smiled.

"But do you know what the worst part was, Jim? All of a sudden he decides to ditch the conversation with the big guy in the suit, which leaves me discussing my childhood with a psych 101 wannabe in front of a whole line of disgruntled mothers who are getting more murderous by the minute, while he starts chatting up Santa's little helper. Then, to make matters even worse, in no time flat, Santa's helper, who by the way, had legs up to her armpits, is handing over her phone number to Sandburg.

Ellison burst out laughing. "Now that definitely sounds like my table leg." Jim took a healthy swig of his beer "You know, for the sake of your mental health, Simon, you really should try and avoid the Sandburg zone."

"And therein lies the problem." Simon's face once again took on a faraway look. "I'd miss it," he said quietly.

"Well you're in luck, my friend, because he's not going anywhere," Jim stated, emphatically.

"He's good for you, you know." Simon glanced toward Blair's bedroom. "Good for both of us."

Curiosity got the better of Jim once again. "In what way?"

"Keeps us human."

While Jim had never thought about his friendship with Sandburg on those terms before, he realised that Simon was right. While the ilk of mankind may have forced them to check their humanity at the door a long time ago, humanity and Blair Sandburg still walked side by side, forming the definitive partnership. Blair really was good for him... good for them both.

The smell of pine wafting in from the hallway was a timely and welcome distraction from the oppressive mood that had suddenly become all encompassing. "Simon, when was the last time you decorated a Christmas tree?"

"Last year," Banks answered sarcastically, as if the question was already self-explanatory.

Ellison yanked opened the door, making the delivery guy jump. "Well then, I guess you won't mind doing it again this year."

"Does the job come with double peperoni, cheese and mushroom?"

"Hey, buddy, watch the wall." Jim scowled at the delivery man, who couldn't have been more than five-foot-five, and was struggling with the eight-foot tree.

"Put it down over there," Simon ordered, deciding then and there to take charge of the situation. "Ellison, you go get the decorations and," he rubbed his hands together, "I'll sort out this tree and order the pizza."

An hour and a half later, the lingering odour of peperoni finally gave way to the clean, crisp smell of pine needles and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The once bare, empty space in front of the balcony doors had been transformed into a veritable Christmas wonderland, leaving Simon thoroughly content and Jim wondering where the police captain got his panache for indoor decorating.

"So," Ellison said casually, as the tiny bulbs of multicoloured light bounced off every reflective surface in the loft, "I gather you've done this quite a few times before?"

"Yeah," Simon drew out in satisfaction. "Nothing like lights to put you in the Christmas mood, is there?"

"I'll get back to you on that once next month's electricity bill comes in."

Banks rolled his eyes. "So, Ebenezer, you given any thought to what you and the kid are doing on Christmas Day?"

Ellison shrugged. "Not really. I figured I'd cook up a roast or something and we'd spend the day watching TV."

"I gather by that statement that Blair still hasn't heard a peep from Naomi?"

"Not a word," Jim said flatly. Although he tried not to show it, especially in front of Blair, the anger he felt toward Sandburg's mom was racking up some pretty high odds and, when she did finally put in a call to her son, she was definitely going to be given a taste of the Ellison temper. "Do you realise it's been over three months since she's been in contact with him? The woman's only child could very well be laying six feet under, and she'd be none the wiser." Jim shook his head. "But you know, Simon, in his own way, Blair's just as bad as her."

"How do you mean?"

"Remember in the hospital when he became coherent enough for it to sink in that we'd been trying to track Naomi down, he was adamant that we stop looking."

"I never did get a reason for that out of you."

"That's because I didn't get one myself. Every time I venture too close to things he doesn't want me to know, the old bells and whistles go off and deflection becomes his middle name." Jim toed off his shoes and rested his feet on the coffee table. "One day I'm going to push past all the bullshit he feeds me and find out just exactly what kind of a childhood he had."

"Well, Jim, I sincerely hope you leave it until he's up to pushing back. The kid's been through enough lately without you rattling any skeletons he might be harbouring in his closet. Besides, did it ever occur to you that it's none of your business in the first place?"

"No," Jim answered in all seriousness.

"Stupid question," Simon muttered. He glanced at his watch. It was getting late and time he hit the road. "If you two don't end up making any plans for Christmas Day, why don't you come up to the cabin? Daryl and I are on our own this year and I know he'd be glad for Blair's company." Simon stretched out the kinks in his back as he got to his feet. "I have to head home the day after Christmas and Daryl's flying to Florida with Joan, but there's no reason why you can't stay as long as you want." He reached for his jacket that had been lying over the back of the sofa. "I know that Blair doesn't do too well with sitting in one spot for too long, but it's only an hour's drive to the cabin and the nearest doctor's not more than fifteen minutes away, if needed."

"You know, Simon, that almost sounds too good to refuse." Picking up the pizza box and clearing away the empty beer bottles, Jim was really tempted to say yes. "Tell you what, you add a home cooked turkey dinner with all the trimmings to the deal and you'll have Blair chomping at the bit to get there."

"You trying to tell me that the kid prefers the company of a dead bird over mine?" Simon asked. "On second thought," he chuckled, holding up his hand, "don't bother answering that." Shrugging on his coat, he rummaged through his pocket for the keys. "I'll give you a call tomorrow."

"Night, Simon." Ellison locked the door and did a brief tidying up before checking on Blair. Although he knew with one hundred percent certainty that the kid had barely moved, he still needed that visual confirmation that he was okay.

Fussing unnecessarily with blankets and pillows, Jim decided to stay, just for a while... just in case Blair needed him.

Before long, one man was asleep under the covers and the other on top. All that mattered was that Sentinel and Guide were together, as nature had intended.

"What are you grinning at?" Blair leaned heavily against the elevator wall as it made its descent to the lobby. "You've been acting weird all morning," he stated, eyeing Jim closely.

"Now that's a subliminal statement if ever I heard one," Ellison shot back.

"You're too funny for you own good, man," Sandburg retaliated. "And mine."

The elevator doors opened with a clunk, revealing a Christmas Eve morning that was surprisingly sunny and temperate. Limping heavily, Blair's progress was slow as they made their way out onto the busy street.

"You okay to wait here while I bring the car around?"

Sandburg waved Jim away and leaned against the brick exterior of the building. "I'll just prop up the wall while you're gone."

Ellison adjusted Blair's jacket before giving him a quick tap on the side of his cheeks. "Good idea," he smiled. "And stay out of trouble."

While Jim had had some initial reservations in taking Simon up on his offer to spend Christmas at the cabin, when it boiled down to bare bones, there were no airs and graces that needed to be upheld and, knowing Banks as well as he did, Daryl would have been well and truly drilled in the importance of letting Blair get the peace and the rest he still needed.

"You didn't rent a car, did you Jim?" Blair pushed himself off the wall as Jim hopped out of a latish model Volvo wagon. "I would have managed in the truck, man."

"I didn't rent it." Jim weaved his way through the stream of pedestrians that crowded the normally quiet sidewalk and hooked his hand under Blair's elbow.

"Who'd you borrow it from, then?"

"No one."

"As nice as the thought may be, man, it wasn't conjured up by some genie with a fixation for metallic blue Volvos."

Ellison took a deep breath. "It's yours. Merry Christmas, Chief. I'd give you the keys, but there'd be no point, 'cause I'm driving." The sentence was a babbled stream of words that flowed so quickly it was difficult, if not near impossible, for Blair to comprehend what was just said.

"Come again?" he asked.

Ellison braced himself, ready for his balls to be separated painfully from his body. "The car's yours, Sandburg." While his latest statement may have been far more articulate, there was no mistaking the trepidation that had crept into his voice.

"Mine," Blair pulled his elbow from Ellison's grasp. "Feel like sharing any more details here, Jim?" he asked with a definite edge to his voice. "I mean, I know I've had a few knocks to the head over the last month or so, but I could have sworn you said that the car was mine."

"Chief, how well does the idea of Santa sit with you?"

"Not very." Sandburg raked his hair behind his ear. "Jim, please tell me you didn't buy me that car?"

Ellison sidestepped the question. "In practice yes... but in theory, no."

"No puzzles, man. Please." A feeling of helpless vulnerability crept into Blair, unsettling the dust on insecurities that he'd thought he buried long ago.

"Chief, look." Jim paused, trying in vain to find the right words. "While the car technically might be yours, I bought it more for myself than I did for you. To tell you the truth, Chief, this is the most selfish thing I've ever done in my life."

"I said, no puzzles."

"Fine," Ellison ground out. "You want it straight up? Then straight up is what you'll get." Jim scrubbed his hand coarsely through his hair. "I bought the car because the idea of you getting back into some rusting heap of junk made out of nothing more than recycled aluminium cans which would crumple at the first sign of bird shit, would kill me." This time Jim's eyes carried their own vulnerability. "It would kill me, Blair... it's as simple as that."

Sandburg was silent for what seemed like a lifetime, before finally reaching out and drawing Jim into his body. "Thank you," he whispered.

Ellison returned the hug with a small measure of consternation. "That's it?"

Blair pushed away and gave him a wry smile. "What else were you expecting?"

"Oh, I don't know. How about you throwing one of those major-sized Sandburg tantrums where the teddy's not just thrown out of the cot, but actually dents the wall on the other side of the room?"

Blair squeezed Ellison's arm. "You spoke from your heart. I can't ask for any more than that. Besides," he grinned, pulling open the passenger door, "you're the one with the monopoly on tantrums, not me."

Still wary, Jim helped Blair settle into the front seat before taking his own seat behind the wheel. He turned the key just as the word 'but' rolled off the grad student's tongue.

"I knew it," Ellison said, slapping the steering wheel. "Lead me into a false sense of victory before shooting me down with the 'but' word. Alright, Sandburg, what's the condition?" he asked reluctantly.

The smile no longer shone from Blair's eyes. It was instead replaced by a sadness that Jim knew had nothing to do with the car. "I'll pay you back, Jim. One day, I promise that I'll pay you back."

"This is not about money, Chief. You and I have never been about money and we never will be."

"I know, but it is about owing a debt."

"Sandburg." Ellison sighed, "I thought we'd already got to the bottom of this."

"This has nothing to do with you, Jim." Blair leaned his head against the cushioned seat. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just tired, man... really, really tired."

Reaching back, Ellison pulled his jacket off the back seat and tucked it around Blair's shoulders. "Get some rest, Chief."

Firing up the ignition and pulling out into the busy street, Jim knew in his heart that Blair's tiredness wasn't a symptom that simply stemmed from the accident. Something else was going on with his partner, and he was willing to bet dollars to donuts that Naomi would turn out to be his primary suspect.

By the time the hustle and bustle of the city was a distant memory, Blair was fast asleep and Jim's mind was working overtime. Both the friend and the detective inside of him had merged together as one as he tried to piece together the events of a life that, in reality, he knew very little about, but had every intention of uncovering. Tenacity and curiosity weren't qualities that belonged solely to Sandburg.

Christmas Eve had come and gone, leaving a legacy of laughter and memories that would always be recalled with a smile and a measure of good cheer. And while Christmas morning was technically upon them, it was still a few hours away from what would be considered a respectable time to get up. Nevertheless, Jim could no longer sleep.

Sharing a room where the distance between his bed and Blair's was no more than a small side table away, Ellison should have felt more at ease than he currently did. With his sentinel instinct loose and on the prowl, he decided to follow the direction in which it was guiding him. Although Sandburg was still hovering on the edge of sleep, something was definitely wrong, and he was determined not to let Blair suffer through the same embarrassment that he'd endured a few nights ago.

Shucking off the covers and pulling on his robe, Ellison moved across to the other bed. He brushed Blair's tangled hair away from his face. "Chief, you wanna wake up for me?"

Sandburg stirred under his touch and a few more gentle encouragements was all it took before Blair's eyes were staring back him.

"I think a trip to the bathroom might not be such a bad idea, buddy."

Sandburg blinked heavily. It was obvious that his level of understanding was not yet up to speed. Taking the initiative, Ellison peeled back the blankets and eased Blair's legs to the floor, steadying him as he fell forward when he pulled him up. "Feel sick," Blair breathed.

Concerned, Jim gently rubbed his back. "Do you want to lay back down?"

Blair shook his head, swallowing hard against the nausea that rumbled in his gut. "No. Up's better."

"That's easy for you to say, Junior. You're not the one looking down the barrel of a puke covered shoulder." Despite his words, Ellison drew Blair closer to his chest, his hand reaching to massage the back of his guide's neck. There was nothing else either of them could do, but to sit and wait it out.

It wasn't the sensation of the tightly banded muscles, taunt beneath the pads of his sensitive fingers that began to carry the sentinel away. Nor was it the tingling, hot breaths that pumped in short, sharp bursts against his shoulder. The mechanism that triggered Jim's zone had more to do with the warmth of the body that was nestled so close to his own... so close he could almost reach out and immerse himself in the spirit that resided within. The Sentinel was lost within the life force of his Guide.

It didn't take Blair long to realize that something was wrong. The hand that had been working the tension away from his neck was now still, and the sound of the voice that had been talking about nothing in particular was now silent.

Lifting his head, Blair knew that the sentinel had zoned.

"Oh, man," Struggling with the task of keeping Jim from toppling over, Blair mirrored their positions. The sentinel's entire upper body weight now rested against his chest. "Jim," he wheezed out painfully as the more tender regions of his body protested against the pressure. "I don't know if I'm up for this, man." He pressed his cheek against Ellison's temple. "You think you might do us both a big favour and come on back?"

There was no response.

"Who was it that said payback's a bitch," Blair muttered. Weaving his hand inside the front of Ellison's robe, Sandburg snaked it around to the back. Skin to skin, he'd found, worked far more effectively than the tactile response through a layer of clothing. "Can't say as I blame you, though, and even you'd have to admit that it's your turn to take some serious time out." Pushing his own aches and pains to the side, Blair ran his hand up and down the length of Jim's spine. "Just relax and don't push it," he murmured. "You'll come back when you're good and ready."

It took a full thirty minutes for Jim to come around and, by the time he'd started to respond to the stimuli that Blair was providing, Sandburg was actually feeling a lot better.

The moment Ellison stirred against his shoulder, Blair encouraged him to take responsibility for his own weight. "Welcome home," he jibed, as the last remnants of the sentinel's zone faded away. "I'd love to hear about your trip, if you're in the mood for sharing?"

Panic struck, even though Blair appeared to be no worse for wear. "Christ, Blair, are you okay?" White patches, caused by the constriction of blood flow, mottled the area just below Sandburg's shoulder. While they may have been inconsequential, the reason why they were there disturbed Ellison. "I can't believe I did that." His face drained of colour. "Shit, I could have seriously hurt you, Chief."

"I'm not made of glass you know," Sandburg responded. "Besides your little trip into the unknown actually took my mind off losing what's left of my dinner all over your toes."

"I guess I owe you a thank you, then," Ellison deadpanned.

Covering his mouth, Blair suppressed a yawn. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"It's just after four."

"Hey, Merry Christmas, man," Blair grinned.

Ellison smiled back. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"So, what time do you think teenage boys surface on Christmas morning?"

"I'd say, five-thirty, six at the latest."

Blair moved forward on the mattress. "Are you going back to bed?"

Ellison shook his head.

"Well in that case, do you think you could help me with a shower before anyone else wakes up?" Although Simon had already had a first hand glimpse at his inability to cope with everyday tasks, he felt unsettled by the idea of blatantly putting his inadequacies up for public display, especially in front of Daryl.

Jim sniffed the air. "Yeah, you are a bit on the ripe side," he teased.

Stretching out joints that had spent far too long in one position, Jim slowly got to his feet. "Let me go and get a few things organised first." He swiped Blair on the side of the head. "Try and stay out of trouble while I'm gone."

"And the pot calls the kettle black, again," Blair muttered. "You know, I'm not the one whose insurance policy payment is so high that it could fund an entire third world country."

"All hearsay, Chief," Ellison called back with a chuckle. "All hearsay."

The soft crackle of embers from a fire that needed to be stoked and the quiet conversation behind a locked bathroom door did little to disturb the sleeping occupants of the cabin. While still uncomfortable with the level of dependency that controlled his life, as Blair sat, naked as the day he was born, on a chair within the confines of the shower stall, he realized that while the accident may have temporarily taken away his choices, it had given him back a part of his life that he'd never thought he'd fully regain.

On a morning that represented new life and new hope, the consequences of his mother's ignorance, and of her neglect, began to fade, becoming nothing more than an ephemeral memory, which no longer wielded any power over the man he had become.

Eggnog -- with a meagre dash of brandy -- was the first indulgence of Christmas day. The second was the elegantly wrapped box Ellison now held in his hand. "Do you think we should wait for the rest of the troops?" he asked.

"Open it," Blair said quietly. There was more than a hint of nervousness in his voice.

Jim shook the box. "Well, it's not ticking. That's gotta be a good start." Working the edges of the tape, Ellison took his time, doing as little damage as possible to the wrapping.

Blair's excitement, nervousness and frustration bubbled over. "Will you stop being so pedantic and just open it?"

"Now, now, where's that Christmas cheer?" Jim chided.

His smart mouth resulted in the detective receiving a solid slap to the shoulder.

"Alright, alright," he conceded. "Patience is certainly not one of the guppy's virtues."

Prying open the lid that read, 'Harrison Fine Jewellery', Jim was speechless. "Chief, I don't know what to say."

"Saying you like it would be a good start." Even though he was limited to the use of one arm, the child and the anthropologist that resided within the younger man could no longer be contained. He plucked the box from Jim's hand and flicked the watch out of it casing. "The panther and the wolf symbolises you and me." A sudden veil of embarrassment shrouded Blair. "I mean, I know it sounds kind of lame," he said, quickly backtracking. "But if you really understood the meaning of what these two animal spirits represent, then maybe you can see the connection."

Jim took the watch from Blair's hand. It was sturdy and practical and had all the functions that he could ever ask for in a watch, but the most significant feature, the mark that set it apart from a generic store brand to that of an intensely personal gift, was the delicate etching of the wolf and panther that stood shoulder to shoulder, on equal footing and in equal partnership.

Jim had no words. Speaking with actions, he pulled Blair into a hug and held on tight.

"I gather you like it then."

"It's perfect, Chief, thank you."

Blair pulled back and his smile was radiant. "So, you interested to know what the animals represent?"

For probably the first time since he'd hooked up with the kid, Jim listened intently as Blair's voice took on the tones and resonant sounds that reflected the true teacher that he was. And when Sandburg was finished, Jim had no doubt that he could retell, word for word, syllable for syllable, exactly what had just been said.

Settling back on the sofa and feeling more content than he had in a long time, Blair eyed the packages that covered every inch of the floor underneath the Christmas tree. "Boy, Simon sure goes all out on Daryl."

"Ahh, yep," Jim took a quick sip of his eggnog. "Maybe we should have a quick chat about what's under the tree."

"Jim," Blair warned. "If any of that belongs to me, being stuck up shit creek without a paddle will be the least of your problems." He twisted sideways. "Equipment and bodily orifices. Just take a moment to ponder that before you answer."

"Chief, can I at least explain, before you haul out the thumbscrews?"

"I'm all ears, big guy."

"Well, for a start, most of it is just bits and pieces I picked up while you were in the hospital." Jim suddenly found the contents of his mug very interesting. "And in my defence, most of it was bought because it gave me something to do." Still unable to meet Blair's eyes, Jim continued, "Every time I was kicked out of the hospital, I'd go to mall, and every single time I'd end up buying you something. I know that I was supposed to be home, getting some sleep, but home just wasn't the same, so instead I shopped." Jim leaned down and picked up the first of the packages. "Everything under this tree meant only one thing to me, Blair." This time their eyes met. "It meant that you would, without a doubt, be coming home for Christmas."

"How do you do that?" Blair whispered.

"Do what?"

"Make me feel like I'm important."

"That's the easy part, Darwin." Jim's smile grew impossibly wide. "Getting you to keep the drains clear of that mop you call hair, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter."

Their conversation was interrupted by an excited squeal and heartfelt groan coming from the larger bedroom. Within seconds, Daryl came barrelling out into the main room and Christmas suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

Papers, boxes and their contents lay strewn from one end of the room to the other. Electronic gadgets and the latest in 'cool' fashion seemed to be the flavour of the day for Daryl and, thanks to Simon's forethought, a small, portable television complete with video player had been hooked up and had the kid smiling like a hyena after a lion kill.

Turning his attention to the last remaining present still under the tree, Daryl scrambled under the limbs and pulled it out. "Blair, it's for you." Instead of handing it over, he began tearing at the paper. "I'll open it for you, 'cause of your arm and all that." Not bothering to wait for an answer, he excitedly attacked the paper. His nose scrunched up in confusion. "Why would someone give you an electric toilet brush cleaner?"

"Because," Jim said, extracting the brush from Daryl's hand. "Maybe someone is holding out hope that someone else might decide to put it to good use once in a while."

"Hope dies last, man... or so they say," Blair laughed. "And somehow I think you'll be long gone before your hope comes to fruition."

Daryl's attention switched from Blair's present to the watch that now adorned Jim's wrist. He squeezed in to sit beside the detective. "That's such an awesome watch, Jim," he said, studying it closely. "Why does it have a panther and a wolf on it?"

Before Blair could get a word in edgeways, Jim began to retell the meaning behind the animal spirits.

Daryl listened intently as he was told the tale -- how the wolf stood for patience, ingenuity and for teaching and guiding one through life's journey, and how the panther stood for harmony and balance and served as a protector of all those it surrounded.

"Wow, that's so cool." Daryl turned his attention back toward Blair. "What animal spirits do you think Dad and I would have?"

"Well," Blair began after a moment's thought. "I could see your dad most definitely as a cougar."

"Why?" Daryl asked.

"Well for a start, some shamans believe that a cougar represents a man who has great strength and power but uses his leadership power wisely, without any ego involved."

Daryl moved to sit by his father. "What about me?" he asked.

"If I had to choose an animal spirit for you, Daryl, I'd say without a doubt it would be the unicorn."

"A unicorn," Daryl whined, somewhat crestfallen. "But they don't even exist."

"Just because they don't exist now, doesn't mean they didn't. The myths and legends about unicorns date back so far that it's quite possible they simply became lost in time."

Daryl thought about what Blair had said. "What does a unicorn represent?"

"A unicorn carries with it something that every adult out there wishes they still had."

Daryl's brow knitted together in curiosity. "What's that?"

"You, my young friend, are the keeper of the spirit of purity, innocence and childhood. It's something you should always do your best to hang onto, Daryl."

Daryl scrunched up his nose again prompting Blair to add a few more details that he figured would be more to the teenager's liking. "And as a unicorn you have a special connection with the spirits of the forests, plus being a relative of Pegasus is kinda cool."

The expression on Daryl's face changed, showing that he was now more than impressed with Blair's interpretation. "How do you know all this stuff, Blair?"

Taking his cue, Simon tickled his son's ribs. "Because he listened at school."

Father and son wrestled for a few moments, before Daryl cried 'uncle.' "Dad," he said, with all seriousness, "do you think that maybe one day you and I could get a watch like Jim's? One that had our animal spirits on it?"

The gift that Daryl had just given his father was more precious and important than any of the material presents that lay scattered over the floor. Pulling his son into an embrace, Simon kissed the top of the boy's head. "I can't think of a better suggestion, son," he whispered.

Daryl's stomach rumbled, breaking the intensity of the moment.

"Who's for breakfast?" Simon bellowed.

"I won't say no to a round of bacon and eggs." Jim drained the last of his eggnog before pulling himself off the sofa. With Simon's attention momentarily fixed on hooking up the TV so Daryl could play "Attack of the Mutants," he turned to Blair. "Do you ever wish that you could have been a unicorn?"

"Sometimes," Blair responded quietly. He brushed his hand briefly against Jim's. "But 'sometimes' was an awfully long time ago."

As Jim turned and headed toward the kitchen, Blair's answer wasn't the one he wanted to hear, but it was the one he knew held the truth.

A completely enclosed deck with a potbelly stove adorning the corner was probably one of the most aesthetic features of the cabin. A person could sit on a winter's night in relative warmth and still get a spectacular view of the moon bouncing off the glistening waters of the lake.

With a steaming mug of hot chocolate in one hand and a beer in the other, Jim slipped under the blanket that lay across the sofa, sharing the warmth of the cosy nest Blair had created for himself.

"Do you know if he had a family, Jim?"

Ellison didn't need to ask a name to figure out who Blair was referring to. "I honestly don't know," he answered. "I never asked. I mean, I guess I should have, but I didn't." Jim shrugged his shoulders. "Does it make a difference?"

"If he left behind a wife and kids, then, yeah, I think it does."

"The only difference it should make, Chief, is what level of selfish bastard he rates in at." Ellison's emotions were still very raw and close to the surface when it came to the man he knew only as motor vehicle fatality number 1189-AD. "I don't care how callous this sounds, but I don't regret for one moment, family or not, that he's dead and you're not."

Blair didn't say anything; he just gazed out at the stars.

Breaking the silence, Jim knew that now was as good a time as any to get off his chest what had been bugging him since the day Sandburg had regained consciousness. "Chief, can I ask you a question?"


"Why did you ask me to stop looking for Naomi?"

Sandburg's focus point didn't change. "Because there was no point."

"No point, as in I wouldn't find her, or no point, as in her not needing to know?"

"Jim, it's complicated, man." Blair smiled briefly at the rowdy explosion of laughter coming from Simon and Daryl, who were still inside, fighting over who was going to be supreme ruler of the universe. "Naomi's complicated."

"Complicated or not, Chief, she's still your mom," Jim responded. "Don't you think she would have wanted to know?"

"That depends on where and who she's with at the moment, Jim. Look, man," Blair sighed, scrubbing a tired hand over his face. "There've been plenty of times in my life when Naomi wasn't there for me, and I've survived pretty well up until now without needing to hold onto her skirt tails. She just wasn't the kind of mom that always did what mothers are supposed to do."

"And what's that, Chief?"

"Jim, it's Christmas. Let's not spoil the mood, okay?"

This time it was Jim's turn to stargaze.

"I'm not hiding anything from you." Jim's stoic expression was impossible to miss, prompting Blair to add a little more. "But this story is for another day, not now." He rested his head back and sank further into the sofa. "I just wanna be able to look back on this day and remember it as one of the best Christmases I've ever had. The best Christmas I've ever had.

Closing his eyes, it didn't take long for Naomi's face to encompass Blair's vision. She'd once told him that the strength of a mother's love didn't weaken with distance or fade with the time spent apart, and for a very long time he had believed her. But while dragons may have lived forever, little boys didn't. Just like Jackie Paper, when the boy inside of him was no more, his world of painted wings and giant rings quickly disappeared and became forever lost within the autumn mist.

And when he no longer had the heart of a child, the sounds of his mother's footsteps walking away became just as hollow and empty as her words. He realised then that Naomi just didn't detach with love... she simply detached.

Part Two

"Sandburg, do you think that maybe you're missing the subtly of the word 'no'?" Ellison swung open the door to the lobby, waiting for Blair to hobble into the foyer, out of the cold, grey February day.

"She's not saying no, Jim," Blair retorted. "She's just waiting until she's no longer bound by her professional oath."

"Think it might be time for a reality check, Stud." Jim replied. "Not only have you completely dive bombed, you've also crashed and burned, big time."

"Now that's where you're way off base, big guy." He slapped Ellison on the chest. "I'm totally irresistible, man, and while at times it may be a curse, it's something that I've had to learn to make the best of." Blair was fully aware that his physical therapist was a happily married woman and had absolutely no interest in him, except on a professional basis -- but Jim didn't and, for that very reason, he saw no point in bringing it up. With his arm no longer encumbered by a heavy cast and gradual movement coming back to his damaged shoulder, Blair's spirit, as well as his body, was on the mend.

"Come on, come on," Stabbing the elevator button once again, his shoulders slumped. "It's out, isn't it?"

Ellison nodded. "You gonna be okay with the stairs?"

"They don't call me twinkle toes for nothing, man."

The second Sandburg's foot touched the bottom step, Jim's sentinel instincts spiked and the detective was on full alert. "Hang back a minute, Chief."

Blair gave the detective a perplexed look. "Why, what's up?"

From the moment they'd stepped into the building, Ellison had been aware that there was another person in the stairwell. While there was nothing particularly suspicious about that, as several residents often used the stairs instead of the elevator, what did cause him concern was that the figure hadn't moved an inch while they were in the lobby and, as soon as Blair's foot hit the step, the guy's heart rate was all over the place.

A quick yank on Sandburg's shirttails had Blair stumbling back and Jim moving to stand in front of him. With his gun already unclipped and his fingers firmly positioned around the butt, he had no intention of second guessing the man's motives. As the figure moved into view, Ellison levelled his weapon, while behind him a startled gasp escaped Sandburg's mouth. "Callum?"

The man's voice was monotone. "It's been a long time, Blair."

Ellison didn't move a muscle, the aim of the gun not leaving its target. "Sandburg, you know this guy?"

"Yeah, Jim, I know him." Sandburg pushed his way past the detective, his piercing blue eyes just as formidable as Ellison's weapon. "What do you want, Callum?"

"Morrison's back."

"And I should care because, why?"

"Because your mother is with him." This time the voice was no longer void of emotion. "Blair, I'm sorry, but we really need to talk."

Blair shouldered his way past the man known to him since he was fourteen as Callum O'Dowell. "It's okay, Jim, you don't have to shoot him." As he rounded the corner onto the second flight of stairs, the sentinel also heard a distinctive, "Not yet, anyway."

"Does someone want to tell me what the hell is going on?" With Blair facing away from him, staring out the balcony windows, and the unwelcome stranger looking decidedly uncomfortable as he stood, planted in the middle of the living room floor, Ellison took charge. "You sit," he said with a forceful stab directed toward O'Dowell. "And Sandburg, you start talking."

Taking a deep breath, Blair slowly turned around. "Jim Ellison, Callum O'Dowell... Callum, meet Jim."

"And the significance being?" Ellison asked, sarcastically.

"The significance being that I lived with Callum for around six months after he took me away from Naomi."

"This guy kidnapped you?" The pent up tension inside of Ellison was just about reaching the snapping point.

"Not exactly." Blair hobbled toward the kitchen. The story he had to tell wasn't going to be easy, and, knowing Jim, the abridged version wouldn't come anywhere close to making the cut. Putting a new filter into the coffee maker, he wrestled with how to approach what needed to be said. If luck went his way, he'd find out what Callum wanted this time, and get him out the loft as quickly as possible. What he needed to say to Jim didn't need an audience -- even if that audience already knew the story's end.

"Thanks" O'Dowell accepted the coffee Blair placed in front of him. "What happened to you?" he asked, still acutely aware that Ellison was scrutinising his every move.

"I was involved in a car accident just before Christmas," Blair answered in a nonchalant manner.

"Are you okay?" Callum studied the sling that still supported Blair's arm, and he hadn't missed the pronounced limp that plagued the young man's gait.

"I'm fine." It had been five years, nearly to the day, since the last time Blair had laid eyes on Callum, and he had to admit the guy hadn't changed much. A couple more lines around the eyes maybe, and a fleck or two of grey creeping into his sandy coloured hair, but other than that, Callum looked as Callum always had -- tanned, healthy, and if you didn't know what lay beneath the exterior, his appearance was that of a middle aged man who seemed not to have a care in the world.

Roughly scrubbing his hand through his hair and beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable, Sandburg stated what was on his mind. "Look, Callum, I don't mean to sound inhospitable here, but what do you want?"

"Naomi and Morrison are in Nebraska. What I want, Blair, is for you to arrange a visit."

"Hey, buddy, just back up just for five minutes, okay?" Ellison interrupted. He was already on his feet and looming larger than life. "Sandburg's just getting back on his feet after a major trauma, and if you think he's gonna drag himself halfway across the country to visit a mother who couldn't give a rat's ass about how he's doing, then I've got something to tell you."

"Jim!" Blair held up his hand, forestalling anything else Ellison may have wanted to say. He turned his attention back toward O'Dowell. "When you say visit, I assume you mean check a few things out for you."

Reaching into his jacket pocket, O'Dowell pulled out a photo and handed it to Blair. "Maddie's five and Josie's... she's the same age you were."

Two beautiful, captivating faces of innocence stared up at Sandburg and he knew in an instant that the choice had once again been taken out of his hands. "What time do we leave?" he asked quietly.

"Plane leaves tomorrow at noon."

"I'll be there."

Jim watched, dumbstruck, as O'Dowell moved toward the door and slipped from the apartment. "Blair, what the hell just happened, here?" he asked, stunned.

"You ever heard of a place called Honah Lee, Jim?" Sandburg turned and once again stared out the balcony doors. "You better take a seat, man. This may take a while."

He understood the circumstances that surrounded Sandburg's nomadic childhood and he grasped the concept that Naomi, at times, had been a less than impeccable mother. He was even able to rationalise how, for the better part of his childhood, Blair had had no option but to home school himself. But he couldn't fathom -- simply could not understand, no matter how hard he tried -- how a mother could be a party to giving her son LSD.

"Jim, man, would you just please stop pacing and sit down."

Ellison stopped dead in his tracks. "Sandburg, you've just told me that Naomi... your mother, gave you LSD when you were fourteen years old and you want me to sit!"

"She may have given it to me, Jim, but she didn't force me to take it. I was the one who said yes. It was my choice, not hers."

"Chief, you were fourteen." Jim slumped down into the chair opposite Sandburg, who was now perched on the edge of the sofa. "It should never have been a choice that was there for you to make."

"I know," Blair agreed quietly. "But it was, and I did."

"Can I ask why?" Ellison needed to hear an answer. Even at fourteen, he couldn't imagine Blair ever willingly taking drugs.

"Because I was lonely and for once in my life I just wanted to be someone who fit in." Sandburg tracked his familiar path back to the balcony, knowing that the time for secrets had long since passed. "The longest time Naomi ever spent with a man was with a guy called Morrison. I'm not entirely sure what she saw in him, but it must have been something pretty powerful to make her want to hang around for the length of time that we did."

"How long was she with him?" Jim asked.

"Two years." Blair answered. "He had a pretty sizable piece of land on the outskirts of a little town in Idaho and his place was always an open house. You know the images painted by the media about communes in the early sixties... well, the early eighties was the updated version. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, but not so much of the love, peace and one with nature."

"So, how many people lived at this place, Chief?"

Sandburg shrugged. "It depended. People came and went all the time, but it was the ones with the kids who Morrison seemed to target and embrace as family."

"Blair, are you telling me that this guy, Morrison, was a child abuser?"

"Directly, I can't say for certain, but indirectly, yeah, I guess he was."

"How do you mean, indirectly?"

"When you were a kid, did you ever dream of a life with no rules and no boundaries that you needed to live by?"

"Sure, that's every kid's fantasy, isn't it?"

"Maybe, but while Morrison was making sure that we lived our fantasies, he also took away our rights to have a normal childhood." Blair scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Can you imagine what it's like growing up without a code of ethics, or not being taught a sense of right from wrong? Lord of the Flies had nothing on some of the things the kids in Morrison's big, happy family used to get up to; and while it may not have been abuse, it certainly bordered on neglect."

"I'm thinking that since you said you were lonely, you didn't exactly run with the pack?"

Blair faced Ellison and gave him a half-hearted smile. "The eternal goody two shoes nerd, man, that's me." His expression grew dark. "Except for that one night the nerd broke free and became that kid with kaleidoscope eyes." Blair turned back to gaze out over the bay. "There's a lot of things I should have done differently on that day, but I didn't. Unfortunately, you can't change the past."

Blair felt the pressure of a hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "Chief, what happened?"

"Even though mom and I lived under the same roof, I didn't really see that much of her. That particular day I went to find her to see if she wanted to hang out with me for a while. There was a large entertainment room at the back of the house and that's were I found her -- flying high with the rest of the adults." Blair paused to grapple with his thoughts. Even to this day he still couldn't quite comprehend how he'd let his anger toward his mother push him into making the decision he made. "There was a bowl of sugar cubes on the coffee table, laced with LSD, and Morrison asked if I'd like to try one. I looked over at mom, hoping that even in her drugged out state that some kind of motherly instinct might escape, but do you know what she said to me, Jim?"

The detective simply shook his head.

"She said, 'Go ahead, Sweetie, it'll help loosen you up a little'." A sad laugh escaped. "So I did and I liked it. Liked it, that is, until the next morning when I woke up, stark naked, puking my guts up on the lawn by the back door."

Not giving the sentinel a chance to interject, Blair continued, "Don't ask me what happened to my clothes, Jim, or whether or not I had sex, or if I was molested, because I honestly have no idea. But what I do know is that whatever I did, or whatever was done to me, happened in front of my mom and to this day, that thought still makes me sick to my stomach."

Jim's hand tightened its grip on the younger man's shoulder. "How does O'Dowell fit into all this?"

"Callum was one of those dudes out to find himself," Blair answered in a cynical tone. "He'd been at the house for about five months, I guess, and whatever his own personal demons were, he was doing a pretty good job of vanquishing them with a daily cocktail of drugs and alcohol. I didn't know him all that well back then, but I do know that he was in the room the night that I had my first and last trip."

Ellison was surprised by Blair's statement. He'd spent enough time in vice to know that a good trip usually led to another trip and, while LSD may not have been as habit forming as some other drugs, for most users it had a certain allure that kept them coming back. "You mean you only ever took it once?"

"Throwing up part of your stomach contents through you nose kinda does that to a guy," Blair joked feebly. "But the main reason I didn't take it again was that I never had the chance. The next thing I knew, Callum had talked Naomi into letting me go with him on a cross country trip, and that was the last I saw of mom for at least nine months."

"I thought you said you were only with him for six months?"

"I was." Needing to find some space, Blair moved away from Jim and from the hand that was still on his shoulder. "The remainder of the time I stayed at St. Sebastian's, while Callum went off on his own personal crusade."

"What about Naomi?" Jim asked. "Surely she contacted the authorities after you didn't come back?"

"Right," Blair drawled out. "You obviously haven't heard the story about my mom and the three little pigs," he muttered. "Naomi did eventually catch up with me and she came and went a couple of times before finally deciding that the brothers at the monastery were pretty cool guys. So I ended up staying there until I got my scholarship to Rainer and rest is history. I have a sporadic relationship with my mother based on her needs and her wants, and me finally coming to the realisation that sporadic was and is all that I can deal with."

Exhausted and emotionally wrung out, Blair sank heavily down onto the sofa. Jim's back was now toward him, but even so, he knew exactly what kind of expression was drawn on the sentinel's face. "Jim, I know what you're thinking and believe me, man, it's gone through my mind more times than I'd like to admit. Callum hardly knew me and there was no reason for him to do what he did, unless he was trying to reconcile his own guilt."

Ellison's body language remained tense and almost ramrod straight. "And you still went with him, even though there is every possible chance that the man molested you?"

"Smart as I am, man, I was only a kid. It took a while for me to come up with that theory. And besides, during that six months that we travelled around, he never once gave me cause to doubt his intentions."

"He's your debt, isn't he?" Jim stated, turning around to face Blair. "Callum O'Dowell is your debt."

"He is," Sandburg confirmed.

"Sandburg, why?" No matter which way he looked at it, Ellison couldn't quite grasp the concept of Blair thinking he owed O'Dowell a debt of gratitude.

"Jim, despite what may or may not have happened that night, if it weren't for Callum taking me away and paying for my keep for the entire time I stayed at the monastery, I wouldn't have the life I have today."

Ellison clenched his jaw. "What is it exactly he's expecting you to do tomorrow?"

"Nothing more that he's ever asked me to do. Just poke around, get to know the kids a little and find out if there's need for concern."

"And if there is?"

"If there is, he intervenes."

"You mean he breaks the law?"

"Sometimes," Blair answered truthfully. "It depends on the situation."

Jim jabbed his finger in Blair's direction. "I'm coming with you, no arguments."

"No arguments from me, as long as this whole thing does not turn into a witch hunt against my mom."

"Blair, if Naomi is involved in something illegal..."

"No, Jim, I'm serious. In the past Naomi has been into drugs, and there's every chance that she's into them again. If you feel that you can't, in your capacity as an officer of the law, ignore that fact, then I don't want you along."

The line had been drawn and the choice was simple -- the gilded badge in his wallet, or friendship.

"What time do we leave?" Ellison, asked.

Understanding and grateful, Sandburg gingerly eased off the sofa. "Guess I should go ring mom and let her know to set another place for dinner."

"Hey, hang on a minute there, Sherlock." Jim sprang into action, moving to stop Blair in his tracks. "Apart from somewhere in Nebraska, how the hell do you know where to reach her?"

Sandburg lightly patted Ellison's chest. "She may be on another astral plane, but she still has a cell phone." Moving around the detective, Sandburg headed toward his bedroom. "Distance not only makes the heart grow fonder, but in my case, keeps me sane."

"I can't fault you there, Chief," Ellison murmured, pulling his own cell phone from his jacket. Sandburg wasn't the only one intent on making a few phone calls. He had no intention of being left in the dark when it came to O'Dowell. As the phone connected, Ellison unlocked the balcony door. "Brown, it's Jim... yeah, he's good. Hey, listen, I need you to track down some information on a guy called O'Dowell... Callum O'Dowell."

"Blair, I'm not sure that having him coming along is such a good idea." With final boarding still ten minutes away, O'Dowell made a last minute effort to try and ditch the detective. If Ellison did come along, then he'd have to seriously rethink how he was going to play this one.

"You wanna try and change his mind, be my guest." Looking around and finally spotting the restroom, Blair excused himself. "Play nice, Jim," he said, limping toward the doorway.

"Don't speak, just listen," Ellison warned as soon as Sandburg was out of earshot. "I know what you did to him, and even though I'm finding it very hard to resist the urge to put your head through the nearest brick wall, I am willing to make a deal with you."

The colour drained from O'Dowell's face. The memory of that night and of what he had done to Blair would always haunt him and he knew he'd be taking that memory with him to hell.

"Obviously, I've hit a nerve," the detective spat, as the other man made no attempt to defend himself. "When this is over and done, you release Sandburg from whatever debt he still thinks he owes you. Clear and paid, no negotiation and no exceptions." Ellison moved closer, crowding O'Dowell's personal space. "If you don't, I will ride your ass until I find something that will put you where you should have been put twelve years ago." At this point, the detective's threat was an empty one; Brown had only turned up a few minor drug and traffic offences on the guy.

"He didn't have much of a childhood." Meeting Ellison's angry gaze, Callum spoke with complete honesty. "I tried to make it right when I took him away, but I knew that I never could; and in the end my guilt turned into an obsession. An obsession I've been dragging him through ever since."

Not interested in hearing a confession, Ellison picked up his overnight bag as the boarding light flashed.

"Ellison." Callum picked up his own bag and reached down for Blair's. "After this, Blair won't hear from me again, I promise you that."

The detective snatched the well-worn, leather pack from the other man's hand. "For the sake of your health, O'Dowell, it's a promise you'd better make sure you keep."

"He's not only still alive, but still in one piece," the sentinel heard the grad student say as he made his way back down the corridor. "I'm impressed."

Jim smirked and handed Blair his pack. "I do have my moments," he answered.

You do at that, Blair thought, and if you'd only been there twelve years ago, we wouldn't be standing here now.

Reluctantly moving to join the back of the line, Blair found himself flanked by two men who, despite being polar opposites, were bound to him by a common thread. To his left was Callum, a man who had taken him away from what could have become a potentially destructive lifestyle and given him opportunities that he would never have had if he'd stayed with Naomi. But the man was also a master at manipulation and, somehow, he'd managed to take his guilt and shift the burden of culpability from his own shoulders to lay it at the feet of a teenage boy. And, as time went by, Callum's liability had slowly become his debt. Even though, deep down, he knew that he was being played, to this very day he still couldn't bring himself to walk away from his obligation, whether justified or not.

And, to his right was Jim, a man who... and that's where Blair stopped, affronted and feeling utterly stupid that he'd managed to get it so completely wrong. "I don't owe you anything, do I?" he said suddenly, as the realisation of exactly what their relationship entailed sank in. Gripping Ellison's elbow, he pulled the detective aside, letting the other passengers move past them. "Between us there is no debt, and there never has been, has there?"

It had taken Sandburg a while to get it, but at this moment it dawned on him that there was no common thread that existed between Callum O'Dowell and Jim Ellison. Callum's gift of a better life had been weighed down with conditions, whereas Jim had given him nothing less that unconditional friendship -- no strings, no limits, no restrictions.

Shaking his head, Ellison looped his arm casually around Sandburg's shoulder and guided them back into the line. "And the Sensei teaches the grasshopper another lesson in life," he intoned smugly.

"He's becoming a pretty wise guy, this sensei," Sandburg responded.

"Yeah he is," Ellison agreed. "It's just a shame the grasshopper's a little slow on the uptake." Lifting his arm from Blair's shoulder, Jim playfully whacked the back of Sandburg's head.

"Hey," Sandburg complained. "I'm thinking that the sensei might just need a lesson in paradoxical behaviour?"

This time, the whack to the back of his head carried more weight. "Is that paradoxical enough for you, Chief?" Ellison asked.

Sandburg winced, reaching up to rub the back of his head. "Yep, think that's pretty much proved the theory," he laughed.

Handing over their boarding passes, Ellison pushed Blair toward the gate. "Anything to be of help, Sandburg," he grinned.

While the mood may have been momentarily lightened, Jim knew Blair better than he knew himself; he knew that it was taking every ounce of Sandburg's strength and courage to board that plane ... and it was taking every ounce of his own stamina, to let him.

Blair had been kissed and hugged and 'sweetied' to within an inch of his life. His reunion with his mother had been marred by her quick judgement and scathing criticism of Jim although, as always, she never once faulted her own shortcomings or inadequate nurturing skills. Knowing that the sentinel would be listening intently to every conversation, Blair hoped that Jim would not only see the hypocrisy in Naomi's words, but would take in the pretence behind the claims he made about how he'd struggled to deal with his recovery with a minimal amount of help. If he played into her hand, if he set the scene correctly, his mother's history for quick fix solutions would be repeating itself, and if there were drugs in the house, he'd know about it soon enough.

While Naomi abusing drugs was actually quite nominal from Blair's point of view, the safety of the kids wasn't. If the line was crossed and a minor was coerced into experimenting with a substance any stronger than beer, then he'd act. One Sandburg allowing history to turn full circle was more than enough.

Taking time out, after managing to escape the clutches of not only Naomi's smothering bosom, but her academy award winning performance, Blair managed to get a handle on pretty much everyone in the house: six women, three men, including the ever charming Morrison, and four children ranging from twelve months to fourteen years of age. Gaining the trust of five-year-old Madison Elwood had been easy, as the child was a veritable chatterbox, and had latched on to her newfound audience with great verve. Her sister, Josie, on the other hand, was as reserved as Maddie was verbose.

With true childlike trust, Madison had managed to reveal to Blair her entire life history in exchange for a push on the swings. Josie rated high in the topic of conversation, as her sister's changing demeanour was having an obvious effect on the five-year-old.

"Blair, are you hungry?" Maddie asked, digging her feet into the dirt to stop the swing.

"I wouldn't say no to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

A toothless grin spread over the youngster's face. "I know how to make those."

"Well, you know what?" Blair replied, finding himself being drawn in to Maddie's charm. "I like mine with an extra helping of jelly."

Scooting off the swing and running across the brown, patchy lawn, Madison turned around, unleashing another bright, luminous smile. "Me too," she said.

"Hey, Mad," Blair called, before she disappeared into the house. "Have you seen your sister around anywhere?"

The little girl shrugged her shoulders. "Nope, but she could be in the shed. She goes there a lot."

"Shed, shed," Sandburg muttered, looking around for anything that resembled a shed. When he'd arrived, he had taken note of two buildings that were detached from the main house, but they looked to him more like bunkhouses, rather than sheds. But in the world of a five-year-old, a shed could be anything from a chicken coop to the Taj Mahal.

Deciding to make the most of Maddie's absence, Blair headed off in the direction of what he assumed to be Madison's shed. If he could find Josie and manage to start a conversation with her, then maybe he'd be able to ascertain whether the change in her personality was drug-related or simply just a case of teenage angst. If she chose to shut him out, then he'd still have tonight to observe the members of the house and get a handle on whether or not the kids were being put at risk. "So, Jim, I'm assuming you caught all that?"

Unfortunately, Blair's assumption couldn't have been further from the truth.

Seven hours, nineteen minutes and forty-three seconds, exactly. That's how long it had been since Blair stepped through the front door of the sprawling home deep in the heart of Nebraska cattle country. And Ellison had been on watch for the full seven hours, nineteen minutes and forty-three seconds. With the only suitable vantage point along the western border of the home, the sentinel had to make the best of what he had to work with. The position didn't offer an extensive view of the premises, but it did provide enough cover for him to enter the rear of the property without the likelihood of detection.

"Coffee?" Ignored, and not for the first time that day, O'Dowell nudged Ellison's elbow. "You want coffee... a sandwich, maybe?" he asked again. "I've got ham and cheese, or chicken and lettuce."

"This is not a fucking picnic, O'Dowell," Ellison hissed, angry at the unwelcome distraction.

"And it's not exactly an FBI stakeout either," Callum retaliated. "Look, Jim," he sighed, hoping the use of the detective's first name might at least foster some civility. "Blair hasn't exactly been thrown into the middle of a pack of hungry wolves, you know. All he's doing is gathering some information and then leaving. I've never asked him to do any more than that and I've never once put his life in danger."

"Is naivete something you were born with, O'Dowell, or is it something that grows along with stupidity?" With his concentration now divided, Jim's focus was drawn unintentionally away from Blair and the five-year-old girl who had latched on to his partner. "You said yourself that you're ninety-nine percent sure that there's drugs in that house, and being a former drug addict, you should know first hand how volatile that makes a situation." Jim's anger mounted the more he thought about what Sandburg had been coerced into and how he'd let it go this far without intervening. While O'Dowell may have had good intentions, it was the method behind them that worried him the most. The man's blatant disregard for the law put the safety of the kids he was so resolute in protecting on very shaky ground. From Jim's standpoint, O'Dowell's vigilante operation was nothing more than a ruse to help him forget the sins of his past.

Callum's normally calm and even-natured temperament finally began to crack. "You know what, Ellison," he fired back, "I'm really starting to tire of your self-righteous, holier than thou attitude. Okay, I made a mistake, a big one, and I've been paying for it ever since, but maybe, just maybe, the kids that I've been able to take away from situations like this will make up for what happened in the past."

"I was right the first time. You are pathologically stupid," Jim spat back. "Nothing you do will ever make up for what you did, or can atone for what you're still putting Sandburg through."

"Maybe not," Callum agreed, quietly. "But what I'm doing just might make a difference to the kids behind that fence."

"No more of a difference than what the local police will achieve when they show up with a search warrant." Ellison glanced at his watch. Before they'd left Cascade, he'd given Simon a rundown on what was happening and, although interstate cooperation between authorities required a certain finesse, his trust lay with his captain's power of persuasion.

"You really put that much faith in the law?" Callum asked. "Surely someone who lives within the confines of red tape every day can see how limiting it is when it comes to the rights and the protection of children." O'Dowell shook his head. "And you call me naive."

For the first time since he'd he meet O'Dowell, the man actually had made a compelling point, but Jim had no intention of validating it with an answer. While the legal system might not be perfect, he would do his best to make sure that the kids behind that fence got the protection they deserved.

Being brought up in an unconventional world, Blair's outlook often advocated the same philosophy; when it came to life, his tolerance was as broad and far reaching as the places he'd visited and as abundant as the cultures he studied. But, as in everything, tolerance had its limitations. When he rounded the corner to lay eyes on a teenage girl, meticulously soaking and arranging small tabs of LSD-laced paper on a rickety old card table, Blair Sandburg's tolerance reached its limits and his world suddenly became profoundly conventional.

"Hey, dude, everything cool?"

It wasn't the abject stupidity of the question asked, or even the sinless tone injected into the deep, male voice now behind him that incited Blair's reaction. What made him snap, what made him become a man who suddenly found violence far more satisfying than the use of words, were his memories. At fourteen he had said yes, but at twenty-six, he would not be letting Josephine Elwood reach the same decision.

The punch that landed on Morrison's jaw carried with it enough weight to send the man sprawling back into the dirt, but it was not powerful enough to keep him there. Bolstered by the combination of drugs running through his system and his own capricious personality, Morrison snapped. Upright and on the move, he slammed his entire weight into the anthropologist before Blair had a chance to move out of the way. Landing heavily and smashing through the table that had helped incite his violent reaction, a coursing pain ripped through Sandburg's body as the tendons in his healing shoulder once again struggled to keep their tenuous grip on bone.

In the background, a five-year-old girl screamed and a detective was on the move.

If the sentinel had to admit to one mistake he made that day, there would be no denying that it would have been letting his concentration be drawn away from his guide. And if the detective had to attribute a similar mistake, his would have been that his concentration was too intently focused on Sandburg.

The pain on Blair's face was evident the moment Ellison spotted his fallen partner and the rage on Morrison's was unmistakable. With his gun drawn and levelled, Jim's eyes dared the man to make a move as he inched closer to the scene. Naomi's harsh intake of breath grated on his still elevated hearing, as did the shrill of her panicked voice as she rushed to the aid of her injured son.

"Don't move," Jim ordered, acutely aware of the dangerous nature of the man. "Turn around and face the house." Reaching back, Ellison pulled out his cuffs and, for a split second, he turned his attention toward Blair. "Chief, are you okay?"

A split second was all that it took for Jim and his world to come crashing down.

One minute he was on his feet, strong, agile and capable, the next he was on his knees, dazed and struggling, the skin of his face infused with liquid fire. The minute after that he lay on the ground, convulsions ripping his body and soul apart.

He'd known it was coming. He'd seen it in her eyes and heard it in her screams, but his body had been too slow to react and now the sound of terrified voices was all that Blair could hear. The hysterical, incoherent high-pitched shrieks coming from a teenage girl whose singular action had wrought more damage than she could have ever imagined. And his mother's voice, wild, angry and laced with fury, but still no rival for the booming, thunderous shouts from Morrison, who was yelling at her to step aside and move out of the line of fire that was aimed directly at her son.

Then, an explosion, as the madman fired Jim's gun. The screams disappeared, leaving nothing but the screech of tyres and a whisper in their stead -- a whisper that left Blair's world shattered and divided.

Shot by the man she loved, Naomi lay in a pool of blood, pleading for her only son to come to her side, begging him to allow her some atonement, some recompense... some forgiveness.

But, as Naomi's life stained and soaked into the parched, brown earth, Blair ignored her, because under his hands and beneath his lips lay the only thing that mattered in his world. As he forced another breath into his sentinel's starving lungs, his mother took her final one. At that very moment Naomi's son contemplated the bitter realisation that, if love was measured by those you aid when they are fallen, then his love for his mother had just come in at a very deadly, second place.

Sandburg didn't hear or acknowledge Callum as he skidded to a halt beside the fallen detective. Nor did he hear the wailing of sirens on the far off country road. All he could hear and all that he'd been praying to hear was the tiny, shallow puffs of air that now struggled weakly, in and out from Jim's pale lips.

When I can reach out and feel you, either physically, or with my senses.

"Reach out, Jim," Blair pleaded, as the sentinel's words came back to him. "Please man, all you have to do is reach out and find me." Engulfing Ellison's hand within his own, Blair lent down and rested his forehead against Jim's. "Just as you promised me, I'm promising you that I will not let go." He squeezed Ellison's hand harder. "Together, Jim," he said with determination. "We fight this together and we don't give in. Neither one of us gives up on this, you understand!"

As the paramedics stabilised Ellison and loaded him into the waiting ambulance, Blair kept his promise and Jim kept fighting for his life.

"I've never seen anything like it, and to be totally honest, I'm at a loss to find any medical reason for Detective Ellison's current condition.

"Ellison has a very sensitive system when it comes to chemicals. This is not the first time he's had an adverse reaction." A glass window and a stark, white slatted blind were the only things separating Simon from Ellison and Sandburg.

"That may be the case, but he didn't ingest any of the LSD and skin contact alone with the drug doesn't explain his symptoms." Dr Gerald Hewson closed Ellison's file. "We're running more tests at the moment, so hopefully will turn up something we've missed."

"Is he stable?" Banks asked.

"Apart from a short period in the ER, he's been unconscious since he was brought in and he's still having difficulty breathing on his own, which is why he's on a respirator. But, at this moment, yes, he is stable and we're doing everything we possibly can to keep it that way." The middle-aged physician scrubbed his hand roughly over his greying hair. "I am, however, concerned about the physical and mental condition of your other detective."

Bank's raised his eyebrows. "My other detective?"

"Detective Sandburg." Dr. Hewson nodded toward Blair. "I haven't pushed the point as yet, because I suspect that the young man is going through a lot more than he is letting on with the death of his mother and the condition of his partner, but now that you're here, I'm hoping that you can convince him to let me examine his shoulder."

Simon hadn't noticed it before, but the sling that he'd become so accustom to seeing no longer supported Sandburg's arm, and there was a definite awkwardness to the way in which the kid held his injured limb. "Thanks doctor, I appreciate you letting him stay and I'll see what I can do about getting him to let you check him over."

"Captain Banks, there's another reason why I haven't had him removed from the room." Dr Hewson turned his eyes back toward his patient, and to Blair. "I've been in this game long enough to know the value of family members and friends when it comes to aiding the healing process, but what I've seen here is something quite unique."

"How so?"

"While it's true that Detective Ellison is stable at present, his condition has and does fluctuate during the times he's had no contact with Detective Sandburg."

"The world's a mysterious place, doctor," was all that Banks offered by means of explanation; truthfully, his statement was the only explanation he had. When it came to Ellison and Sandburg, their world and the connection he'd seen between the pair was a mystery that reached far beyond his realm of understanding.

Pushing through the door and stepping quietly into the room, Banks raked his eyes over Jim's body, feeling a sense of unease as he took in the amount of equipment his detective was hooked up to. Walking over to the bed, he reached out and lightly touched Sandburg's back. "Blair," he said gently.

Sandburg jumped back with a start. He hadn't even heard the door open, let alone someone behind him. "Simon!"

"Hey, kid."

As Sandburg sprang to his feet, the tension and worry he exuded was so palpable, Banks could almost taste it. "Thank god you're here, man," he said, almost panicked. "So far I've managed to convince them that I'm Jim's partner, but once they find out I'm not, I know that they're gonna try and kick me outta here." Even though Blair was on his feet and his body language was expressive and animated, Simon noted that, while Blair paced around the small space available to him, he did not, at any stage, let go of the grip he had on Ellison's hand.

"Blair, no one is going to try and kick you out." Banks reached out and squeezed Sandburg's good shoulder, hoping to still his agitated movements. "I've spoken with the doctor and he's cleared it for you to stay with Jim."

Like a deflating balloon, Sandburg sank back down onto the chair by the bed. "Thanks, man."

Simon gave the kid's shoulder another squeeze. "How's he doing?"

"I don't know. I honestly have no idea." Blair painfully lifted his injured arm and palmed his temple in an effort to try and give some relief to his pounding headache. "The doctors are doing everything they possibly can to try and keep him stable, but god, Simon, she threw at least a half a quart of liquid LSD into his face. You saw what happened to him when he came in contact with Golden, and that was only a minute trace. But this, the sheer amount alone of what he was subjected to, I mean, even if he does manage to pull through, who knows what the long-term effects will be? He could be permanently blind, deaf... hell, Simon, he might not even come of this zone... ever."

"Blair, just calm down, and let's take this one step at a time," Banks said firmly. "At the moment, Jim is stable and that's what we need to focus our energy on, okay?"

Energy, Blair ruefully thought. As the hours ticked by, stress, worry and the mind numbing pain that burned through his shoulder were starting to take their toll. So was the unthinkable possibility that maybe he wouldn't be able to live up to his promise.

"Alright, Sandburg, you said that Jim might not ever come out of his zone, but are you sure this is what this is and he's not simply unconscious, like the doctor said?"

Sandburg shook his head. "He's in a zone, Simon, I can feel it."

"Okay," Banks replied calmly. "If we work on the assumption that he is zoned, what do you normally do to bring him out of it?"

"I talk to him," Blair said quietly. "I touch him, and I just let him know that I'm there."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Exhaustion wasn't the only thing evident on Sandburg's face and Simon was starting to be concerned about how much pain Blair was really in.

Sighing, Sandburg seemed to sink even further into his chair. "You can help by going down to the morgue and identifying Naomi's body."

"Oh." Banks was surprised and had definite mixed feelings about the request.

"If you don't want to, that's fine," Blair stated, noting the look on Simon's face. "The paperwork will just have to wait, I guess, because I'm not leaving here. Not for anything," he said decisively.

"It's okay," Simon assured him, still a little taken back by Blair's seemly indifferent attitude. "I'll go."

"Thanks," Blair replied, before turning his attention back toward Jim and effectively blocking out not only Simon, but also his feelings.

"Blair, the local police caught up with Morrison."

Sandburg simply nodded.

"Also O'Dowell is out in the waiting room. He wanted me to ask if he could come in and talk to you."

"No." Sandburg eyes bore into the police captain with an intense anger. "You tell him that my debt is paid and that I owe him nothing. Tell him that I've already paid enough... more than enough."

"I'll tell him," Simon answered, having no idea what the hell the kid meant.

"Sandburg, there is one more thing," Banks said, before pulling open the door. "When I get back, you're going to have to let the doctor check out your shoulder."

Met with cold, stony silence, Banks decided not to push any harder; not just yet, anyway. He let the door glide slowly closed behind him. When he returned, gentle encouragement would be the first thing on his agenda and Blair would agree to his condition, like it or not.

As the door click softly closed behind the police captain, Blair closed his eyes, trying to come to terms with how this day had gone so impossibly wrong. His mother's face filled his vision and he wondered how long it would take until that too, disappeared, and Naomi was gone forever.

Blair had given in to the pressure from his captain and the hospital, but with adamant stipulations. His shoulder had been examined, wrapped, and another sling had been supplied -- all without him releasing his grip on Jim's hand. He was simply grateful when the doctor and nurse left, so that he could turn his full attention to his sentinel.

For the past two hours, Simon had been sitting unobtrusively in the corner of the hospital room, watching Blair go through the motions -- talking, touching, patting, more talking -- and waiting for Jim to respond.

But Jim wasn't responding and Blair was beginning to wane; it was time for Simon to take action. An idea that had begun as random musings had grown steadily over the course of the day and finally taken shape as theory. Banks decided that maybe it was time to put his theory to the test.

"Blair, what do think will happen to Jim if you let go of his hand?"

"What?" Sandburg asked, not quite sure he'd heard the question correctly.

"If you let go of Jim's hand... what do you think will happen?"

"Simon, have you gone nuts, man? I lose him, that's what'll happen."

Simon approached the bed. "Are you sure about that?"

"Of course I'm sure," Sandburg snapped. "I was sure when his heart rate skyrocketed when they forcibly threw me out of the ER. I was sure when he started convulsing again and I was dead sure when he stopped breathing for the second time, today."

"And all of that happened because you weren't holding his hand?" Banks hated what he was saying and what he was about to say, but treading lightly wouldn't cut it, for Jim's sake as well as Blair's. "Do you suppose that maybe Jim's reactions were completely drug related and had nothing to do with you at all?"

"Yes, his reactions were drug related, but no, not completely," Sandburg retaliated, his temper beginning to fray. "If they were, how do you explain his improvement the moment I was allowed near him again? You, of all people, Simon, I thought would have understood that." Too tired to fight, too tired to argue and too tired to explain even his rudimentary theories on sentinels, Blair turned away from Simon. "I'm his anchor," he said. "Without me, Jim will drift away. I always thought it was something that you could see. I guess I was wrong."

"I can see it," Simon replied. "I just wanted to be sure you could." Simon hooked Blair's arm, forcing the kid to look at him. "Blair, do you think that maybe instead of keeping Jim steady, you might actually be dragging him down?"

"What!" Blair asked in disbelief, the hurt evident in his eyes.

"Sandburg," Banks began, slipping into captain mode and trying to ignore the emotions coming from the kid. "The doctor said that in the ER, Jim regained consciousness and from my further discussions with him, apparently he did that when you were escorted from the room."

"Where is this going, Captain?" Blair asked, his tone matching Simon's.

"What if, like you said, Jim does need you and does use to you to stabilise his senses?" Banks inched even closer to the bed. "Well, maybe that's exactly what he's doing. Look, given what happened before he was exposed to the LSD, the likelihood is that the trip he's having won't be filled with butterflies and roses. If he is battling demons somewhere in there, then maybe he's using you as a safe harbour, and the longer you're there to anchor him, the longer he stays exactly where he is and doesn't even attempt to come back."

Banks had seen enough drug related trips in his time to know that in many cases, a good one or a bad one was often linked to a person's environment. If this was the case with Jim, then he shuddered to think what the sentinel had been going through. While the zone may have masked the physical aspects of a bad trip, Jim's mental battle would have been no less fierce.

"Blair, you need to let go."

"Simon, I can't." Although there was every chance that what Simon was saying was right, it was still only a theory and he wasn't sure he was willing to bet Jim's life on a hunch. "You know what happened last time I did. I can't take that chance again, man."

"This time it will be different," Banks stated, hoping in vain that his statement wasn't a hollow one. "Jim's vitals are stronger now than they've ever been and enough time has passed for the drug to have started working its way out of his system."

"But he stopped breathing," Blair whispered.

"I know he did, but he's on a respirator now." Standing behind Sandburg, with his chest less than an inch away from the kid's back, Simon reached down and laid his hand over Blair's. "Trust me."

And Blair did trust. For the first time since he'd found his sentinel, he let go and put Jim's life in the hands of another man.

The connection was broken and the bubble was burst. The sentinel had no choice but to push toward the surface, because if he stayed where he was, he would drown and be consumed forever, in darkness.

"No," Simon wrapped his arms around Sandburg and held him against his chest. "Just wait."

Ellison's heartbeat spiked the moment Blair's hand was removed and, with each passing second, it became more erratic and more frantic.

Simon's grip tightened, preventing Blair from moving. "He needs to do this, Blair."

As Jim continued to fight, struggling with everything he had left to try and break through the surface, Simon was fighting a battle of his own. He knew he was hurting the kid, but he also knew that if he let go, he could be very well letting go of Jim. With his own heart feeling as if it were just about to burst, the words he'd had been praying to hear were finally spoken. "He's fighting the respirator."

Jim was awake and Banks let go.

Nobody attempted to move Sandburg out of the way, because his effect on the flailing man was more instantaneous that any sedative could have been. The very moment the sentinel found his anchor, his fight was over. The respirator was removed, blood was drawn and vitals checked; and this time, as Blair sat by the bed, he kept vigil over a man whose dreams were no longer filled with 'the stuff of nightmares'.


"Hey, you're awake." Banks' gesture was almost fatherly as he placed his hand on Jim's brow. "How you feeling?"

Ellison coughed weakly. His throat was raw and itchy and his body felt like it had been run over by a Mac truck... twice. "Where's Blair?"

"Asleep." Simon moved to the side, giving Ellison a clear view of the man in the bed next to his. Dr. Hewson had turned out to be one of the most compassionate, accommodating men Simon had ever had the pleasure of meeting. Hospital policy was nothing more than a coin of phrase when it came to the wellbeing of his patients and, in the doctor's figuring, Jim's wellbeing was weighted heavily upon the presence of Sandburg.

"He okay?" Jim rasped.

"He's fine. The doctor checked him over a couple of hours ago and finally convinced him to get some sleep."

"How's his shoulder?"

"Painful, but nothing that won't heal."

"Did they give him something for it?"

Simon smiled. "Now I know for a fact that you've been doing drugs, Ellison," he said. "Sandburg refused any medication, but exhaustion is acting as a pretty efficient painkiller. He hasn't moved an inch since his head hit the pillow. Speaking of which," Banks added, "maybe that's something you should take heed of as well."

Jim's eyes struggled to stay open.

"Sleep Jim." Simon lightly patted the detective's chest. "It's my turn to keep watch, my friend."

He was doing okay -- not great, but okay. Although the more severe side effects had slowly abated, his body still ached as if he were on the tail end of a particularly nasty dose of the flu, and his lungs still struggled with a congestion that the doctors were yet to explain.

Jim was, really, doing okay, but somehow he didn't think the same could be said for Sandburg. While Naomi's death must have weighed heavily on the younger man's mind, Blair wasn't admitting it, and neither was he talking about whatever else was going on.

They'd arrived on the front step of the solitary beach house two weeks ago to the day. Blair had spent hours scanning the internet and making enquiries until he finally came across what he insisted would be the perfect and only location for Jim's recovery. And, as usual, the kid was right. The solitude, as well as the sheer beauty of the place, had done wonders to soothe Ellison's shattered soul, and the peace and quiet had gone a long way to restoring his senses to a level he was now coping with.

Making his way across the wide expanse of sand that separated their tiny shack from the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, Jim felt that the time had come for the guide to learn how to reach out to the sentinel.

"Give you a penny." Ellison had been watching Blair for the past few hours. Watching the world change around the observer without the observer even noticing. The water's edge, that had been nothing more that a shimmer in the distance when the troubled young man sat down on the white, sun-bleached sand, was now almost lapping at his feet. The gulls that had come and swarmed in flocks at the hope of a free morsel of food had left, their shrills of displeasure being carried away with the afternoon breeze. And yet Blair hadn't heard or seen a thing. "Okay, how about a quarter then?" Jim draped the jacket he was carrying around Sandburg's shoulders. "But anything after that will really start to stretch the friendship."

Blair finally acknowledged him. "Save your money, man. They're not worth it."

"How about you let me be the judge of that?" Easing down slowly, Jim sank onto the sand. "Chief, talk to me. Please!"

For a good while, Blair said nothing. He just sat and stared into the distant horizon. Finally, the silence was broken. "Where did you go?" he asked. "What was it like?"

No further explanation was needed for Jim to figure out the root of the question, and while he hesitated in admitting his fears to anyone, Blair had long ago ceased to be 'just anyone'. "It was terrifying," he answered, truthfully. "Dark, cold and absolutely terrifying." Sandburg's horizon became his focus as he continued. "It was like being sucked down into a dark, swirling pool of water. There was no light, and no air and no sound." Ellison paused. "No sound until the voices started."

"What voices?" Blair asked.

"Whispers, always whispers. Some I could make out, some I couldn't, but the message was the same."

"Which was?"

"To draw me down... down so far that I'd never be able to find the surface again. They were drowning me, Chief. I was dying."

"How did you stop them?"

"I was saved by a bubble."

Sandburg raised his eyebrows.

"It was an apparition, Chief. It's not as if it had to make any sense," Ellison said, feeling slightly embarrassed.

"No, Jim. It makes perfect sense." Sandburg shuffled around so he was now facing the sentinel. "Can you remember what was inside the bubble?"

Ellison shrugged. "Not really. All I remember is that once I was inside, I knew that I was safe. I could breathe, I could see and I was shielded from the whispers."

"Simon was right." Blair sprang up, suddenly, to his knees. "He was right and I could have killed you."


"Don't you see? I was dragging you down, Jim." Now on his feet, Blair resisted the urge to take off full pelt down the beach, away from Jim and away from his guilt.

"Whoa, whoa, hold up a minute there, Darwin." Jim struggled stiffly to his own feet. "What are you babbling on about, this time?"

"Simon said that maybe the reason you wouldn't come to was because you were anchored into the zone. And he was right. You were anchored to me. Can't you see it, man? I was the one holding you down and because of me you might have been lost forever."

"Blair, just calm down," Ellison ordered. "Now as much as I enjoy a good theory," he quipped, sarcastically, "there's just one major problem here, Professor."

"Which is?" Sandburg questioned.

"Which is that even given how stubborn you can be, somehow I don't think you would have been able to hold onto me forever."

"I would have tried," Blair said, naked vulnerability shining in his eyes.

Ellison reached out and latched his hand around the back of Sandburg's neck. "I know you would have, Chief, and lucky for me you did. You may have been holding me down, but maybe you should also consider that it was you who gave me the time and place to get my strength back. If you hadn't given that to me, Chief, I would never have been strong enough to make it back to the surface, and that's something I know for a fact."

Blair broke contact with Jim, his eyes going back to his horizon. "You're all I have left, Jim. I can't lose you."

"I'm not going anywhere, partner."

"It's time, isn't it?"

"Time only when you're ready, Chief."

"I am," Blair answered. "I need to be able to put this behind me."

Ellison moved to stand behind Sandburg. "I'll come with you."

It wasn't often that Blair, in the role of a friend, initiated physical contact. He'd always returned it if it was something that Jim gave first, but it was unusual for Blair to reach out and ask for it. On the rare occasions when he did, it was because he was vulnerable, and because he was hurting. So, as Sandburg leaned back into his chest, Jim didn't move. This was Blair's time, a moment that belonged to him. Standing perfectly still, it didn't take long before Ellison felt Sandburg's hands on his and his arms being drawn across and wrapped around the kid's chest. The moment now belonged to friendship.

On a solitary beach, on the edge of the Pacific ocean, two men stood, knowing that, like the horizon in front of them, the end of their friendship would never be reached.

"I guess this is the time where I'm supposed to say something profound?" The colourfully decorated urn that Blair held in his hands was the young man's final reckoning with the woman who had brought him into this world.

"Why don't you try saying what's in your heart?" Sitting on a boulder, away from the edge of the bluff, Jim had remained quiet, giving Blair the space to say his goodbyes in his own time and in his own way.

"That's the problem, man. There is nothing in my heart."

"Chief, I know you and I know that's not true."

"You're right, it's not." Without a second thought, Blair upended the urn. "It's ironic, isn't it mom? You spent so long trying to push me out from under your skirts tails, the minute you do decided to protect me, it ends up costing your life. I'm sorry I didn't choose you, but when it came down to it, there was never really a choice to make." As Naomi Sandburg was returned to the free spirit of the wind from which she came, her son whispered, "Why couldn't you love me mom? Why couldn't you love me even half as much as he does?"

Jim's heart instantly broke in two and there was not a damn thing he could do about it. He, of all people, had no right to tell Blair how to act or how to feel, especially at a time like this, because he was partially to blame for the way Sandburg now felt. From the moment he'd let the kid into his life, he'd set in motion the wheels that would be Naomi's ultimate downfall. Without knowing it, he'd opened up Blair's eyes to something he'd never seen before. He'd shown him what it was like to have a home, to feel secure and to feel wanted. He'd shown him what it was like to feel loved. And, in doing so, he'd unwittingly given Sandburg the opportunity to see his mother through another set of eyes. But even if he could turn back time, he knew he wouldn't. He was too selfish for that, and Blair was too important to lose.

"I suppose we should get going." Naomi's urn was no longer in Blair's hand; he had placed it under a large, time-weathered pine that jutted out over the edge of the cliff. "I don't want you out in this wind when it starts to pick up."

"You sure you don't want to take that with you?"

"Jim, it's just a pot; what am I gonna do with it?"

The word 'remember' was on the tip of Ellison's tongue, but he kept it to himself. Blair would remember, but he would remember in his own way. And, given time, and when his hurt and his anger were a little less close to the surface, hopefully Blair's memories would make room for the good times he shared with his mom.

"Hey, Jim?"


"If I decided to do something, you wouldn't freak out on me, would you man?"

"Sandburg, if I freaked out at everything you did, I'd be spending my entire life in anger management classes."

The higher ground that Blair was standing on put him on equal footing with Jim, and at the perfect height to plant a kiss on the other man's cheek.

He pulled back quickly, waiting for Ellison's reaction.

A little shocked, Jim asked, "Am I allowed to ask what that was for?"

Sandburg shrugged. "Just to say thank you. Thank you for everything you've done... everything you still do for me."

"Well, you're welcome, then," Jim replied, unconsciously touching his cheek.

"We better get going." Blair slapped Ellison on the arm. "It's starting to get cold."

Winding their way back down the sandy path that had led them up to the bluff, Blair scooted ahead of Jim.

"Hey, Chief," Ellison called out

Sandburg came to an instant halt and turned around, squinting into the late afternoon sun.

"About that kiss?"

"What about it?" Blair replied cautiously. The sun blocked out his vision of Jim's face, but he knew the teasing tone in Ellison's voice far too well.

"It didn't have anything to do with the bed bath I gave you, did it?"

Rolling he eyes, he drawled, "No, Jim."

"I'd understand if it was, Chief, you being a mere mortal and all. It's hard for anyone to keep their wits about them when they get treatment like that from a guy who's got a body like a god."

"Yeah, a god like Buddha," Sandburg muttered.

"Hey, I heard that," Ellison retorted, trying hard to keep a straight face.

"Really, Jim? And here I was trying to be discrete."

Blair turned back around and continued his way back down the path. "The kiss was because I love you, man, and I just don't know how to say it." The words, soft and gentle were carried away by the wind and lost within the sound of the ocean waves.

Lost to all except one man. "I heard that too, Junior," the sentinel whispered.

The End

Warnings: This story contains drug use by a minor and suggested molestation, which are mentioned as part of the past storyline. It also has the death of a minor, but significant character.

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