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Take the Long Way Home

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Introduction: Decisions made:

Blair sat on his bed, staring unseeingly at the slim folder in his hands as he tried desperately to make some sort of sense of the myriad conflicting thoughts and emotions circling his mind. It was late morning, and the loft was quiet, Jim having returned to the PD to take care of business in the aftermath of the night shift from Hell. However, Blair had cried off on account of having a class later on, and besides which, he wasn’t entirely sure right now that his presence would be welcome anyway. And at the moment, that was the most pressing problem in his long list of such problems, and for the life of him he couldn’t seem to make a decision one way or the other.

The whole disaster had centred on the contents of this innocent-looking folder, but he still couldn’t reconcile Jim’s extreme, hostile reaction with his own conflicting feelings of guilt and righteous indignation. It wasn’t his fault, but you’d have thought that he had personally set out to destroy the best friendship he’d ever had on purpose. It just wasn’t fair, and if Jim had kept his promise, none of this would have happened.

Sighing deeply, he turned his attention back to the folder, flicking idly through the pages as he recalled the whole sorry episode in cruel detail.

His dissertation committee had been on his back for some time now about his lack of progress, and although he had most definitely been deliberately dilatory, he knew that he had to make some sort of effort to hand in at least his opening argument. The trouble was that, as he’d previously admitted to Jim, he was in no hurry to leave the rollercoaster of police work with Jim to return to the merry-go-round of academia even though he had data enough for several papers. But something had to be submitted if he wasn’t to lose his grants, and possibly even his job, so he had reluctantly prepared his introductory chapter for consideration later today.

Of necessity, the outlined proposition was cold and clinical; cloaked in ‘anthro-speak’; its tone and content bearing little resemblance to what the finished paper was intended to reveal. It was what it was, and, taken out of context, would undoubtedly appear harsh and judgemental, which was why he’d asked his friend to promise not to read it yet. Because that was the whole point of it. The ensuing chapters would argue, dissect and discuss all the relevant data, and Blair was certain that Jim would have been pleased with the end result. He had, after all, promised Jim that he could read the completed paper before it was submitted, because he knew that the sentinel wasn’t happy to be the subject of Blair’s diss anyway. And what had Jim done? Yep, he’d read it, and been so hurt and infuriated that he had accused Blair of calling him a coward and betraying him. He had even gone so far as to say that he wanted a partner he could trust, and he plainly thought that Blair no longer fulfilled that role.

But it was so unfair! It wasn’t Blair who had betrayed Jim, but the other way round. Why the hell couldn’t the man have controlled his morbid curiosity? And because the rest of the shift had gone from bad to worse, there was little chance for them to have it out properly between them until it was almost too late.

A wry, sad smile pulled at Blair’s full lips as he contemplated the events of the night. It had been something else for sure, what with Megan trying out her hand at crocodile-wrestling – or was it ‘gator baiting’? – and him getting grabbed yet again by the bad guy. No surprise there, then, he thought sardonically. That’s me. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time. No wonder Jim says I’m a trouble magnet!

But Jim had saved him again anyway, with a little help from the errant reptile, and they had come to some sort of understanding. But it was little more than an attempt to paper over the most recent and damaging cracks in their relationship. Blair had offered to destroy his notes in the cause of remaining friends, and Jim had turned the offer down. But still, the awkwardness and unease was there between them now, and for the life of him Blair couldn’t decide how to proceed to make it better.

At that point, he couldn’t help but recall the homeless guy he had befriended at the PD. The man – Gabe – had been totally fascinating to the anthropologist, and remarkably perspicacious. Even Jim had said something to that effect. But then he had been shot, and Blair couldn’t help but experience a pang of real sympathy and pain on his behalf. In the grand scheme of things, the incident made Blair’s predicament look minor in comparison, so he straightened his spine and told himself to get a grip and stop with the pity party. And within minutes he had made a decision. One which he prayed would fix things once and for all between him and Jim, because he so didn’t want to leave the best friend he’d ever had, and the only place he’d ever thought of as ‘home’.

He realised now that Jim was never going to be happy about the ‘Sentinel’ paper. He had only grudgingly agreed to be Blair’s subject because he had needed the help the grad student could offer in understanding and controlling his hypersensitivity. So although the topic was still dear to Blair’s heart, he knew he could never submit it as his dissertation. But, as long as he could persuade his committee to agree, there was another solution. He could always fall back on the ‘Thin blue line – closed societies’ alternative he had first posited as his excuse for riding with Jim. He had plenty of data for it after all, and had even done a rough draft simply for his own satisfaction. He wouldn’t give up on the sentinel paper, but once he had achieved his doctorate, he could publish it as a sort of ‘self-help’ manual without the necessity of revealing Jim’s identity. It would be something for his own gratification, and for Jim, if Jim chose to read it. It might even be of benefit for others who might wonder if they were suffering from the same ‘condition’.

Feeling much better in himself, he shoved the papers into his backpack, and stood up. He would go to Rainier right away and see if he could meet up with Eli first. Dr Eli Stoddard was his hero and mentor, and despite having turned down the man’s offer to accompany him on that Borneo trip in favour of going with Jim to rescue Simon and Daryl, they were still on good terms. If he could be persuaded to back Blair’s decision, Blair was certain his committee would agree to the change of subject. Actually, they’d probably be overjoyed, because they’d been getting more and more antsy about Blair’s lack of progress with the ‘Modern Sentinel’ topic anyway.

Grabbing his coat and car keys, Blair left the loft, his heart lighter now he had a plan. As the Volvo pulled away from the kerb, Blair was smiling, fondly imagining Jim’s reaction when he heard the good news later today. It was for the best, he was certain, and the closer he got to Rainier, the more his happy anticipation sharpened.

He never arrived.

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Part 1: An Unforeseen Consequence:

Same morning, Simon Banks’ office:

A speculative frown on his face, Captain Simon Banks studied his subordinate, who slumped gracelessly in the chair across from him. Jim Ellison looked exhausted, as he had every right to be after last night’s protracted fiasco. But it was more than that, as the man’s expression and uncharacteristically careless demeanour suggested, and as both friend and superior, Banks needed to get to the root of the problem.

“So, Jim, where’s your shadow? Is Sandburg coming in today?”

He was taken aback by the pained grimace that flitted unexpectedly across Jim’s sculpted features before the detective regained his rigid control.

“No, boss. He has a class later, so I told him I’d go on ahead. He might turn up later today, but I wouldn’t bank on it. I think he’s supposed to be meeting his dissertation committee also, and doing other routine school stuff.” The man’s tone was more than weary. It was almost resigned, and to Simon’s mind, that didn’t bode well.

“Are you sure that’s all there is to it, Jim? He’s not staying away on purpose?” Simon queried, fixing the other man with a stern gaze. “After all, the kid managed to get himself into trouble again, but not before you two had had that – um – ‘disagreement’. Hell, man, you said some pretty cruel stuff to the kid. Did you mean it?”

Jim looked up sharply, a deep frown creasing his brow. Simon could almost feel him going on the offensive, which to tell the truth, was pretty much SOP as far as his irascible detective was concerned. Jim never did take any sort of criticism lying down, implied or otherwise.

“It’s none of your business, sir, if I may say so. Yes, we had an argument, but it’s between me and Blair. I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Correction, Detective!” Simon snapped, reasserting his authority. “If it’s going to affect your performance now and in the future, I do need to know. So, give!”

For a long moment, both men locked eyes, neither willing to give way, but eventually Jim averted his gaze, knowing that his boss deserved an explanation even if it was going to be painful to relate. Despite what he had told Blair in his anger, he knew deep down that he had been in the wrong, and had initiated the argument by breaking his promise. But hell, how on earth could the kid justify what he had written about Jim? It was hardly surprising that Jim had been cut to the quick, after all.

“Look, Simon, I’m sorry, OK? But after reading what Sandburg wrote about me, what do you expect? Dammit, he virtually called me a coward! Fearful of intimacy! How on earth was I supposed to take that lying down?”

The reaction he got from Simon was so far from what he expected, he sat back in shock.

The big captain rubbed a large hand over his face, as if trying to expunge what he had just heard. And when he looked up to meet Jim’s frowning gaze again, his words were anything but accepting and reassuring.

“Shit, Jim, what the hell did you expect? If I understand it correctly, Sandburg was going to let you read the finished diss before he submitted, right? So why the hell did you read his opening argument, man? You did, didn’t you?” And when Jim had the decency to look embarrassed at the assertion he continued, his tone and expression both exasperated and resigned. “Dammit, Jim. OK, I think the kid’s a flake sometimes, and I tell him often enough that he’s not a cop, but when it comes down to academic stuff, he knows what’s what. Even I know enough about dissertations to know that the opening argument is nothing more than a working hypothesis. You should never take it out of context unless you’re not concerned with the conclusion. That’s why the kid didn’t want you to see it, man! He knew you’d take it the wrong way. It’s what you do!”

That hit Jim where it hurt and for a moment he didn’t know whether to hit back in angry rebuttal, or ask permission to go seek Blair out and apologise.

Unfortunately, neither route was open to him, as just then, a call came in on Simon’s phone, and everything thereafter became moot. And not in any good way.

As soon as Simon picked up the handset and identified the caller, he glanced up at Jim, tapping his ear as a tacit invitation for the sentinel to listen in. It was going to be bad, and it would save time and explanations if Jim heard for himself.

The caller identified himself as Sergeant Briscoe, a uniformed patrolman with whom both Jim and Blair were familiar. He was calling from Cascade General’s ER, knowing that his news would impact on Major Crimes, and on Jim in particular.

It turned out that he and his partner had been amongst the first responders at the scene of a traffic accident close to Rainier campus, and he had immediately recognised one of the victims as Blair Sandburg. According to eye witnesses, a large SUV driven by a student had run a stop sign and T-boned Blair’s Volvo at speed. Although sturdily built – a factor which had undoubtedly ultimately saved Sandburg’s life – the classic had suffered major damage, and had ended up crushed against a telephone pole. The student had gotten away with minor bruises and scrapes, and had already been taken downtown for booking on suspicion of dangerous driving. However, Sandburg’s injuries were severe, according to the EMTs on the scene. Briscoe knew he wouldn’t be able to learn anything from the ER staff, so had taken it upon himself to let Simon – and therefore Jim – know what had happened.

After thanking the man for his thoughtfulness, Simon looked up to meet Jim’s horrified gaze. The man was white with shock, and Simon was left in no doubt that Ellison was deeply concerned for his roommate, whatever their argument had been about. “Come on, Jim. Let’s get on over to the hospital. And I’ll drive, man! I want to make sure we get there in once piece!”

And he wasn’t joking in the least, knowing just how the awful news must be affecting his subordinate and friend.

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Shortly afterwards, the two grim-faced men strode purposefully into Cascade General Hospital’s ER, intent on seeking out Sandburg as soon as possible. Indeed, Jim had already located his friend and guide, having reached out with his senses of hearing and smell, only to be temporarily restrained by Simon’s grasp on his forearm as the captain took a moment to thank Sergeant Briscoe and his partner before sending them on their way.

Beneath his hand, Simon could feel the tension in Jim’s muscles, and despite his carefully controlled expression, the depths of distress and pain in the cornflower blue eyes betrayed the man’s real concern for Blair. “Easy, Jim,” he murmured soothingly. “We can’t just storm into his treatment room, so let’s see if we can find someone who can give us an update, OK? Don’t worry, man. If I have to throw my weight around to get results, that’s exactly what I’ll do!”

Jim turned to meet his gaze for a moment, his own eyes telegraphing his gratitude. “Yeah, OK, Simon. Thanks. But I will see him…!”and he faced forward again, desperate to reach Blair’s bedside to see for himself just how badly the little guy was hurt. The smell of Blair’s blood was almost overwhelming, and that, mixed in with the usual hospital smells of antiseptic and industrial disinfectants was almost enough to turn his stomach.

Reaching the reception desk, Simon pulled out his ID and explained their presence to the harried-looking nurse on duty. He emphasised the fact that Blair was ‘one of his own’, and that seemed to be enough to convince her to cooperate.

“He’s in cubicle three, Captain. The doctor’s in with him now. I can’t tell you anything more about his condition, but if you’ll both take a seat in the corridor, you’ll be able to see Doctor Simms as soon as he’s done. If Mr Sandburg is admitted, which I think is most likely, he’ll be able to tell you where he’ll be taken.”

Thanking her graciously, Simon virtually towed Jim over to the seating area, pushing the distracted man down into the nearest chair.

“Come on, man, snap out of it,” he hissed worriedly, afraid that the sentinel might be on the verge of zoning on his partner’s scent and heartbeat. “I know it’s hard, but we have to be patient. For Blair’s sake.”

Too wound up to speak, Jim simply nodded sharply, and turned to stare at the cubicle’s curtained doorway again, his face a mask of dismay as he listened to the slow but steady beating of his friend’s heart. Sandburg must be unconscious, but whether that was a good or a bad sign had yet to be ascertained.

Suddenly, the heartbeats surged to an erratic gallop, and frantic activity could be heard from within the cubicle. “Shit, Simon! He’s seizing!” Jim gasped, leaping to his feet with every intention of pushing his way into the small examination room. Once again, however, he was forcibly restrained by Simon, who stood before him, gripping his upper arms for all he was worth as he demanded Jim’s attention.

“No, Jim! You can’t go in yet! You’ll just be in the way! Let them do their job, man!” For a fraught moment, he thought that his detective was going to actually try to fight free, but then Jim deflated, still desperately anxious, but the light of battle fading from his eyes.

“OK, sir,” he muttered distractedly. “They’ve sedated him. They’re going to take him to the OR once he’s had a full set of scans. They’re talking serious injuries here, Simon.”

As he spoke, the curtains were pulled aside, and the gurney bearing a now comatose Sandburg was quickly wheeled past them and down the corridor to the elevators. As the tired-looking young doctor followed, Simon reached out hurriedly and took his arm.

“I’m sorry to delay you, Doctor Simms, but Mr Sandburg is one of my men. I’m Captain Simon Banks, Cascade Central PD Major Crimes Unit. Can you tell us anything about his condition? Is he about to be admitted?”

Plainly irritated by the interruption, but containing it with commendable restraint, the physician replied, “I’m sorry, Captain Banks, but I can’t give out any details about Mr Sandburg’s condition to anyone but his close family or whoever is his medical emergency contact. All I can tell you is that he is being taken to the Radiology Department as we speak, then to an OR, and will eventually go up to the ICU. It’s on the third floor, if you want to go up and wait, but it could be some time, and I can’t tell you more than that. I’m sorry. Patient confidentiality--”

“That’s OK, Doctor. Detective Ellison here is Mr Sandburg’s police partner, and is also his emergency contact. We’ll go on up, and perhaps then we can find out more?”

The young man nodded; weariness apparent in the slump of his shoulders.

“Fine, sir. I’ll see you in a while then, as soon as Mr Sandburg is settled,” and with that, he walked away, two sets of worried eyes watching his departing back.

-------------------------------------

Several hours later, Cascade General ICU:

Jim sat in the ICU’s waiting area, elbows on his knees as he massaged his forehead, trying vainly to ease the headache that sat obstinately between his brows. He knew his exhaustion and pain was due to stress and anxiety, but that didn’t help at all. It had been hours since Blair had first been brought in to the ER, and yet Jim still hadn’t been able to see him. Certainly the staff had made an effort to keep him updated on his friend’s progress once they had verified his claim to be Blair’s medical emergency contact, but until Sandburg was finally settled in his room Jim would just have to try and contain his impatience. He looked up to see Simon standing before him, two Styrofoam cups of coffee in his hands.

“Here, Jim, drink this. I know it’s pretty vile, but it’s better than nothing, and I think you could probably do with the caffeine. Any more news yet?”

Jim took a cup with a nod of thanks, quickly dialling down his senses of taste and smell before sipping tentatively at the dark liquid. At least the action rendered it drinkable, and for a fleeting moment he was truly thankful for his ability, because Simon’s sour expression said it all when he also took a mouthful. It was yet another reason to be grateful to Blair for his inspired suggestion, and Jim knew with a pang of shame that he had never really bothered to express his thanks and appreciation for all the young man’s help and advice. And he swore there and then that, as soon as Blair was better, he would make the effort, and let his roommate know just how much he meant to Jim.

Suddenly he realised that Simon was still waiting for an answer, so he shook himself briefly and responded as best he could.

“Sorry, Simon. No. No real news yet. I’ve been here pretty much all the time except for a couple of bathroom breaks, so if there was anything more they’d have told me. All I know is that apparently there were some complications during Blair’s surgery, which is why it’s taken so long to get him settled up here. Apart from broken bones, he suffered a severe head injury, which is what is causing them the most concern. Me too, truth be told. But all being well, I should know something more soon. I can hear them making him comfortable as we speak, and can tell you that he’s still unconscious, and that’s all.”

“Shit, Jim, no wonder you look like a mile of bad road yourself. To be able to hear what you can hear, and not do anything to help must be hell. I’m sorry I couldn’t stay with you, man. Given you some support.”

“Hey, no worries, Simon, as Megs would say,” Jim murmured with a wry grin. “I knew you’d have to get back to the PD to do your ‘captain’ stuff. And Joel and Megan dropped by for a while, as did H and Rafe on their way back from court, so I haven’t been completely alone.”

“Glad to hear it, Jim. You have some good friends and colleagues, and they care about Blair’s welfare as well as yours. Pity the kid doesn’t realise it, though.”

Grimacing wryly, Jim met his captain’s warm, but worried dark gaze. “You’re right, Simon. On both counts. But you know, and I know, that despite his genius and his ability to talk the talk, Sandburg’s always lacked self-esteem. He’s always trying so hard to fit in, and, God help me, I’ve never helped. I realise now that I’ve always been too ready to belittle him in the bullpen, and I bawl him out for the stupidest things. Some friend I am, huh? And then we have that falling out, and now this.

“And I have no idea what I’ll do if I never get the chance to apologise to him. To tell him how much he means to me,” and he rubbed at his face with his free hand, trying to scrub away the suspicious moisture that dampened his cheeks.

With no words to convey the depths of his own feelings, Simon simply reached out and squeezed Jim’s shoulder, offering tacit comfort. And he prayed to his God, and to whatever deity might be watching over hurt sentinels and guides, that Jim would never have to find out.

Thinking it was time to change the subject to something slightly less painful; Simon reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone.

“Hey, Jim, I found the kid’s cell phone in his backpack. One of the patrolmen retrieved it when we had the Volvo towed to the PD. Got to say that I can’t see that little car ever going back on the road, but for all the jokes we made about it, I think it was the strength of its bodywork that saved the kid’s life.

“But be that as it may, I thought that maybe the kid had Naomi’s number saved on here. I can’t think of any other way to get hold of her, and she should be told, shouldn’t she? You know, just in case….”

Jim deliberately ignored the implication as he reached for the phone. Blair wasn’t going to die, no way! But then again, it was only fair that his Mom should be informed of his accident, so he scrolled though the saved numbers quickly.

“Here it is, Simon. At least, this seems to be the most recent one for her. Should I call her now or do you want to do it?”

“You do it, Jim. He’s your roommate after all, and she might be more shocked if she gets the news from me in the first instance.”

That wasn’t really the answer he was hoping to get, but Jim knew he couldn’t put it off, however much he’d like to, so he stood and approached the nurses’ station. Offering the duty nurse his most charming smile, he asked her if he could use her telephone to try and contact Blair’s mother, and of course, she agreed.

After several rings, Jim was just about to disconnect when a breathless voice answered the call.

“Hello? Who am I speaking to? How did you get this number?”

“Hey, Naomi, it’s Jim. Jim Ellison. And I got the number from Blair. Or rather, Blair’s cell phone. Look, where are you right now? There’s something I need to tell you.”

He realised immediately that he had frightened her with his cryptic words, and cursed his lack of tact in awkward circumstances. Hell, it was why he was always glad to hand over the task of dealing with victims or their friends and families to Blair, because for sure the kid had empathy in spades.

“What do you mean, Jim? Has Blair been hurt? Was he with you?” The fear and anger in Naomi’s voice carried easily over the line, and Jim cringed as he replied quickly, knowing that he sounded almost defensive.

“No, Naomi. I mean, yes, he’s been hurt, but it wasn’t anything to do with riding with me. He was in a car accident on his way to Rainier. I wasn’t with him. But I wish to God I had’ve been.

“Look, I haven’t been able to see him yet, but I think you should come. I think he’ll want to see you when he wakes up.”

“Oh goddess!” Naomi breathed. “Um, I’m in San Francisco at the moment, but I was in the middle of packing. I was on my way to stay with a friend at her retreat in Taos. I’ll call her, and tell her I’ll be delayed for a few days, and then I’ll get the first flight I can to Cascade. I’ll call you as soon as I know when I’ll be arriving. Will you be at the loft?”

“No, Naomi. I’m staying right here. If you call me once you’ve landed, I’ll get someone to pick you up from the airport, OK? My cell number’s 555-3716.”

“Right. Right. OK, Jim. Speak to you soon,” and without further ado, Naomi rang off, and Jim was left staring a little distractedly at the handset still clutched in his fist. Damn, he hoped he’d done the right thing in calling Blair’s mom. The woman could certainly be a ditz at times. But she deserved to know. He just hoped that Blair would see it that way when he woke up.

If he woke up. And that’s enough of that, Ellison! he scolded himself. Blair’s tough. He’s a stubborn little cuss who doesn’t know when to quit. Hell, he’s never quit on me yet, so it just goes to show!

Putting the handset down, he smiled a little wanly at the nurse, and returned to his seat, nodding tiredly in response to Simon’s inquisitive glance.

“Yeah, she’s coming, Simon. She was in San Fran, on her way to somewhere else – Taos, I think she said. Anyhow, she’s going to ring to let me know when her plane lands. I said I’d get someone to pick her up. I guess it’ll be sometime tomorrow. OK with you?”

“Sure, Jim. Just give me a call, and I’ll arrange it, no problem.” He already knew that Jim would be staying here to be as close to Sandburg as possible, and that it would do no good to ask the man to go home and get some proper food and rest.

Any further conversation was interrupted anyway by the arrival of Dr Simms, who looked even more exhausted; practically dead on his feet.

“Detective Ellison, Captain Banks,” he began. “I’m just about to go off shift, but I thought I’d let you know that Mr Sandburg has been settled in his room, and that a nurse will be coming to get you shortly. Only Detective Ellison, I’m afraid, as hospital rules only permit one visitor for ten minutes every hour, and that only includes close family or medical emergency contacts--”

“That’s OK, Dr Simms,” Simon interjected quickly before Jim could take umbrage. “We are both aware of the regulations. But I think that you will find a note in Mr Sandburg’s file suggesting that he would benefit from Detective Ellison’s presence. I believe there’s a similar note in Detective Ellison’s file to that effect also. Sad to say, both men have had cause to visit on more than one occasion.”

The young physician raised a somewhat disapproving eyebrow at Simon’s words, but obviously didn’t have any inclination to get into an argument.

“I’ve no doubt that the staff here will take note of your suggestion, Captain. But as I shall not be Mr Sandburg’s attending physician, I can’t comment. It will be Doctor Mackenzie who will be overseeing your friend’s treatment while in ICU, and I’m sure she will take your concerns on board.

“Good night, gentlemen, and I hope your friend soon shows some improvement.”

With a nod and a tired smile, the young man turned to go, obviously in a hurry to get to his bed for some much-needed rest.

Jim and Simon exchanged an understanding look. Both men surely sympathised with the overworked young doctor, but their concern was with Blair, and everything else paled in comparison.

Just then, their attention was drawn to the nurse who was approaching on almost silent feet, her rubber soled shoes admirably suited to the ICU’s environment. In her early middle age, her face was kind, and she had an air of calm and competence about her. Her name tag identified her as Nurse Brenda Howard.

“Are you here for Mr Sandburg?” she asked, looking expectantly from one to the other. When they answered in the affirmative and identified themselves, she smiled gently.

“If you’ll follow me, gentlemen, I can show you where your friend has been settled. I’m afraid that only Detective Ellison will be able to actually enter his room, but Dr Mackenzie will be out shortly, and she can give you a full account of what to expect. But please don’t be too alarmed at how your friend looks, Detective. Although his injuries are severe, he is plainly a healthy young man, and I’m sure he’s a fighter, am I right?”

“Yes, Nurse Howard, he is,” Jim murmured in reply, hoping that Blair would continue to live up to his usual feisty reputation. He suddenly had a terrible premonition that the kid was going to need every bit of determination and luck he could muster to get through this.

The ICU at Cascade General was one which provided individual cubicles for their patients, and Jim and Simon were led to the one in which their friend lay. As they peered through the window, both men were shocked speechless at the sight before them. Although each in their own way had expected to be upset by what they would see, the actuality was far worse. Blair lay motionless on his back, with both his left arm and leg in plaster. His leg was slightly raised and held rigid in a sort of caged contraption, indicating significant skeletal damage. His naked torso was swathed in bandages and attached to various monitors, and there were cannulas in his right hand and arm where blood and an IV bag of some sort of clear liquid – probably antibiotics – dripped steadily, although his lower body was covered by a light blanket.

However, it was his head and face which were the most distressing aspect as far as both men were concerned. The left hand side of Blair’s head was wrapped in a heavy dressing, which partially obscured his face. But what could be seen was a patchwork of scrapes and multi-coloured bruises, the small areas of unmarked skin deathly pale in contrast to the dark beard stubble on his cheeks and chin. Both closed eyes were sunken and ringed with deep bruising, resembling the markings of a panda, and there was an oxygen tube in his nose.

Forcing himself to look beyond the superficial damage, Jim studied his friend’s face carefully, finding some relief in the fact that the underlying bone structure seemed to be intact, so that, all being well, he should heal up well enough with perhaps some scarring. But his head was another matter altogether. Jim had no idea what lay beneath the thick dressing, and was further dismayed to note that nearly all Blair’s beautiful long tresses were gone. Where they were visible, the short remaining curls haloed his head, making him, if anything, look even younger and more fragile and vulnerable than Jim could possibly have imagined.

At his side, the observant and empathic Nurse Howard guessed correctly what had grabbed his attention.

“I’m sorry about your friend’s lovely hair, Detective,” she murmured softly, placing a gentle hand on his forearm. “I’m afraid they had to cut it when he went into theatre. The surgery was urgent and complex, and didn’t need to be complicated by blood-soaked curls, I’m sorry to say. There simply wasn’t time to wash it, so clipping it short was the only way. I’m sorry. I can tell it means a lot to you.”

Forcing himself to look away from the window and face the kindly nurse, Jim managed to reply reasonably coherently. “Thank you, Nurse Howard. Yes, it is a shock, seeing him without his curls. But I understand why it had to be cut. Then again, I suspect Blair might have something to say about it when he wakes up!” And it was obvious that all of them were hoping that that would happen very soon, even if it meant being treated to an outburst of temper and sulking on the part of the patient.

Just then, the door opened to reveal the doctor who had been checking Blair over. Exiting the room, the tall, slender African American woman smiled quickly at them, gesturing to the chairs placed conveniently a little further down the corridor. As Nurse Howard left the two men with a smile and a word of comfort in order to continue her duties, the doctor took a seat, and waited while Jim and Simon settled themselves before her.

Without further ado, she launched into a detailed account of Blair’s condition, having already been advised of Jim’s status.

“Detective Ellison, Captain Banks, my name is Dr Amber Mackenzie, and I shall be overseeing your friend’s treatment while he is in this unit, and most likely thereafter also. Mr Sandburg has suffered serious injuries, but it is too early to say yet whether they are potentially life-threatening or not. As you can see, most of the damage is to the left hand side of his body, due to the driver’s side of his vehicle being crushed by the impact of the other car. His left wrist and both the radius and ulna in the forearm were fractured, but should heal cleanly without complications. However, he sustained a compound fracture of the femur in his left leg which required pinning, and his left foot and ankle were severely crushed and needed the insertion of several screws. So he will be looking at a considerable amount of therapy in order to regain full mobility, especially as he also has a hairline crack in his pelvis.

“He has three cracked ribs which will be uncomfortable for some time, and some deep bruising and significant abrasions to the upper body and chest, but by far the worst injury is the depressed skull fracture, probably caused by his head impacting with the door frame. Now, Dr Rollinson, who performed the emergency surgery on Mr Sandburg, is one of the best; not only in this hospital, but probably in the state, if not the country. I say this to offer you reassurance that your friend has already benefited from Dr Rollinson’s expertise. He was able to raise the damaged skull fragment, and has removed a blood clot that had formed behind it.

“However, we now have to watch for swelling of the brain, and only time will tell if there was any significant damage to the brain tissue. For the next 48 hours at least we will be keeping Mr Sandburg in an induced coma in order to facilitate his care and kick-start the healing process, but we won’t know until he wakes how much effect this injury will have.”

“You mean, possible brain damage, don’t you?” Jim said, his voice harsh from emotion as his eyes reflected his pain and dismay.

“Yes, Detective, I’m afraid so,” Dr Mackenzie replied, her own expression genuinely sympathetic. “But there’s no point in being unduly pessimistic. The human brain might be fragile in one sense, but it can also be surprisingly robust and resilient, and I have seen some remarkable recoveries in this unit. It is an organ which we still know relatively little about, so there is always a case for guarded optimism.”

Nodding, Jim averted his gaze and looked pensively at the still figure behind the glass for a long moment before addressing the doctor again.

“Thank you for the update, Dr Mackenzie. I appreciate your candour – we both do,” and he glanced over at Simon to see the other man nod in assent. “Can I go and see him now?” and the need in his eyes was plain to see.

He was greatly relieved when the doctor smiled gently and nodded. “Yes, Detective, but just for a few minutes this time. I have seen the note in Mr Sandburg’s file about your particularly close relationship, and I shall take it on board, I assure you. However, I would ask you now to go home, get something to eat and get some rest after you’ve seen him for yourself. Mr Sandburg will be deeply under for some time, and I promise that you will be informed immediately should there be any change in his condition. Any change at all. And you will do him much more good if you’re not about to keel over, OK?”

Jim dearly wanted to argue, but he could see the determination in Mackenzie’s regard, even as he saw a similar expression on Simon’s face, so he nodded reluctantly.

“OK, if you say so, Doctor,” he capitulated miserably. “But when I get back, I want to stay here with him as much as possible, OK?”

“It’s a deal, Detective. So, go and see your friend, then go home and we’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning, OK? After that, we’ll play it by ear.” And with that, she stood up and took her leave, striding off down the corridor.

Simon reached over and grasped Jim’s forearm, fixing his friend with an understanding look. “Come on, man. You need to go and see Blair, and I’ll wait for you here. And then I’m taking you home, like the doctor ordered, OK? No arguments, Detective. It’s for Blair’s good as much as your own.”

“Yeah, yeah, Simon,” Jim replied tiredly. “I just need to see him for myself,” and so saying, he walked the few steps to the cubicle and quietly let himself in.

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Following morning, ICU:

Jim strode purposefully down the corridor of the ICU, his senses all focussed on his guide. He already knew that Blair was still unconscious, his strong, but steady heartbeats reassuring auditory evidence that the beloved, steadfast young man was still physically present, at least. Because yes, Jim now recognised that his guide was beloved – and needed – having had something of an epiphany during the night.

After forcing down the soup and grilled cheese sandwich Simon had insisted on preparing for him, Jim had showered quickly and gone to bed, not expecting to get any proper rest while he was so worried about Blair. But surprisingly he had slept, albeit fitfully, and sometime during those long, dark hours he had realised with a shock that yes, he really did love Blair. It was more than a friendship based on a reciprocal, mutually convenient arrangement, and had been for a long time. Jim just hadn’t pulled his head out from his ass soon enough to recognise it. Blair was…well…Blair! Mouthy, pushy and untidy. Irritating at times most certainly. But also loyal, caring and supportive, even when being virtually ignored or belittled by his ungrateful and self-centred idol. And it had taken an almost fatal accident to open Jim’s eyes to the fact. What was it that that strange homeless man had said the other night? Something to the effect that what good were eyes that could see for a thousand miles, yet couldn’t see what was in front of his very nose. Or was it about not hearing the whispers of his own heart? Perhaps that was it. But now Jim did see, and cursed himself for not noticing it sooner.

But now he desperately needed for Blair to wake up so he could tell him. Could explain what he now recognised at long last, and ask not only for forgiveness – because the generous-spirited young man would undoubtedly do that without a second thought – but also to believe that Jim returned his affection in full. He neither knew nor cared at this point whether such revelations would lead to some sort of sexual relationship. Right now that was of lesser importance than the hope that there would be some sort of relationship. A satisfactory one that would work for both of them for as long as they wanted and needed it. And Jim found himself hoping that that would be one that lasted a lifetime.

As he approached the door to Blair’s room, he spared a thought for Naomi. He knew that she would be arriving later this morning, having called to let him know that her flight was due in at 9.30 a.m. He had contacted Simon immediately and had been informed that his boss intended to pick her up from the airport himself, and bring her straight here. It was only right that she should see her injured son, but right now Jim wanted time alone with Blair, even if Blair was oblivious to the fact. He wanted to believe that something – some unconscious link or some such – would reassure Blair that his sentinel was here for him, even as the predominant, prosaic side of his character laughed snidely at the fanciful notion.

Whatever the case, he intended to stay by Blair’s side, talking to him as necessary, and doing what he could to help with the young man’s routine medical procedures, having informed the staff of his army medic training. And he would do it for as long as needed; until he could take his guide home.

Arriving at Blair’s cubicle, Jim watched for a moment as the nurse within bustled competently around, taking Blair’s vitals and making him comfortable. It was a different nurse this time, the night nurse, Brenda Howard, having already gone off shift, and Jim hoped that this one had been briefed on his presence. He needn’t have worried, as the young woman, whose name tag identified her as Rosita Montiguez, simply looked up, and waved him in, a warm smile on her face.

“Good morning, Detective Ellison. Brenda told me you would be in bright and early. Mr Sandburg had a quiet and uneventful night, and Dr Mackenzie will be arriving soon to do her first rounds. Do you wish to sit in with your friend now?”

“Good morning, Rosita, and please call me Jim. And I’m sure when he’s awake, Blair will insist on you calling him by his given name also. But yes, I’d like to sit with him now. If I can do anything to help, just let me know, but if not, then at least I know enough to get out of your way.”

“No problem, Jim. And I’ll certainly let you know if there’s something you can do. I believe that it is beneficial for our patients when they have plenty of contact with friends and family.”

With a nod and a smile, she quietly left the room, and Jim took a seat in the visitor’s chair at the head of Blair’s bed. The bed head had been raised somewhat, no doubt to relieve pressure on Blair’s cracked ribs, and his left leg was still elevated and secured within its cradle. The bruising on his face and torso was even more spectacular now, but Jim knew that it would look worse before it began to look better, so that didn’t concern him too much. What did concern him was Blair’s utter stillness. The kid was never still, even when he slept. Sentinel senses automatically centred on him in his small, under-stairs room, and Jim was soothed to sleep by the rustling and muttering below him. The silence last night had been shocking insofar as Jim had realised just how much he depended on those sounds to relax him, and also on the presence that created them. How he would readjust if for some reason Blair didn’t come home to the loft, he had no idea, and no desire to find out the hard way.

Taking Blair’s right hand in both of his, and being careful not to disturb the cannula inserted in the back of it, Jim gently stroked the soft skin around the intruder, then turned his attention to the fingers and palm, learning each whorl and callous intimately as he began to talk. And whereas under normal circumstances he was the archetypal strong, silent type, in the quiet of the ICU cubicle, he found he could express himself perfectly. So he told Blair everything. Secrets about his early life that he had never disclosed to anyone before. His hopes and fears, and what he perceived as his successes and failures; his strengths and weaknesses. His belated realisation that Blair was the best thing that had ever happened to him; and his terror that he would never be able to make good on all his promises to love and care for his guide, because he had left it too late.

He didn’t talk about the possibility of Blair dying. That wasn’t an option. But there was every possibility that this was one hurt too many, and that Blair would finally call it a day and move on.

And who could blame him? He’d taken nothing but shit from the man to whom he had already committed three years of his life to help, and with nothing to show for it. For all he knew, Jim was still totally opposed to the ‘Sentinel’ diss. And Jim had no way of knowing that his friend had already decided to pull the plug on that paper, and had been on his way to the U to submit a new topic when the accident happened. Which was perhaps just as well, because it would have undoubtedly have made Jim feel even worse, and upped the guilt factor accordingly to near unbearable levels.

Whatever the case, Jim kept talking, and only stopped when the door opened to reveal Dr Mackenzie, who had arrived to check her patient over.

She greeted Jim with quick smile, but then asked him to leave while she worked, promising him that she would update him afterwards. As Jim left the room, he glanced back and noted with approval her professionalism as she worked on his guide. If Blair had to be injured, then he was surely in one of the best units he could be in order to facilitate his recovery.

Deciding that he would take the opportunity to take a bathroom break, and then get himself some coffee, he quickly took care of business, and then cadged a decent cup of coffee from the accommodating staff at the nurses’ station.

And as he made his way back to Blair’s room, his steps slowed as he saw that Simon had arrived with Naomi, who was looking pale and weary as she accepted the support of the big captain’s arm around her waist, and not at all like the vibrant woman he remembered from her previous visit.

Well, damn. He hadn’t realised how time had flown, so intent was he on his ‘Blair-watching’. He really, really wanted more time alone with his guide, but at the same time, chastised himself for his selfishness. This was Blair’s mother, for god’s sake, and he had no right to take umbrage.

But sure as shit he felt irked anyway. He was only human after all, and he knew that he resented the intrusion.

Giving himself a quick shake, he pasted on a reasonably authentic-looking smile, and approached the pair.

“Hey, Simon, Naomi. It’s good to see you,” he said gently, addressing the desperately distressed woman. “I’m so sorry about the circumstances, though,” and he took her hands in his, his expression frank and compassionate as he met her tearful gaze.

“Thank you, Jim. I’m glad you’re here for Blair. And Simon tells me that this…this…accident really wasn’t anything to do with his working with you. I mean, I know you told me already, but it was difficult to believe. I…I mean, he’s so wrapped up in you and your job that it’s almost as if it’s become his life too.”

Jim couldn’t help but note the faint, accusatory tone, and tried not to react in anger, especially as he knew that she was correct. Blair had become that integrated into Jim’s existence, even though the older man hadn’t appreciated it until now. He couldn’t for the life of him remember the last time Blair had hung out with his friends from the U, and he hadn’t dated in an age. Well, damn.

There wasn’t really any satisfactory answer he could come up with right now, so he settled for a white lie. “That’s OK, Naomi. I quite understand.” Then, turning his attention to Simon, he said, “Thanks for collecting Naomi, Simon. Look, I’ve no idea how long it’ll take until Blair wakes up, so I need to take some leave. I must have quite a bit stacked up?”

“Already done, Jim,” Simon responded. “I’ve signed you off for the rest of this week, and we’ll take it from there, OK? And I’ve contacted Rainier on Blair’s behalf also. Spoke to a Dr Stoddard. He sends his best wishes for a rapid recovery. Sounded genuinely upset at the news, I have to say. And needless to say, everyone in the bullpen sends their regards too. I think Blair would be surprised at how much he’s come to mean to them. But of course I told them there was no point in coming to visit until he’s awake again.”

“Thanks, Simon,” Jim began, only to be interrupted by Dr Mackenzie exiting Blair’s room. Jim quickly introduced Blair’s mother, and the Doctor directed the small group to the same seating area as before so she could bring Naomi up to speed, and update Jim on Blair’s condition.

As far as Jim was concerned, the only new development was that the EEG indicated that there was no further decrease in brain activity, which was a great comfort to them all, and so far there had been minimal swelling. Even if there was some damage, it was to be hoped that it wouldn’t impair Blair too much, or significantly reduce his considerable intellect. Because all three recognised that that would be supremely unfair indeed if their son, friend and guide was no longer able to study and share his knowledge, insights and enthusiasm for life with the world.

However, there was undoubtedly a possibility of amnesia to a greater or lesser extent, so they could only pray that any such memory loss would be temporary.

Her update completed, Dr Mackenzie agreed to let both Jim and Naomi sit with Blair for a while, but insisted that they be prepared to accept changes to the visiting arrangements should there be any possibility of interfering with Blair’s treatment or recuperation, to which they both agreed.

Just before they went in, Jim did another surreptitious sensory scan of Naomi, and realised that the woman was even more tightly-wound and physically exhausted than she appeared on the surface. Not wishing to anger or upset her, but genuinely worried for her well-being, Jim diffidently suggested that, after seeing for herself how Blair was doing, she let Simon take her back to the loft to get unpacked and relax a little before coming back to the hospital later. He was extremely surprised when she actually accepted his offer, which both he and Simon took as an indication as to how close to the edge she really was. Simon therefore made himself comfortable, prepared to wait until Naomi was ready to leave. He couldn’t afford to absent himself from the office for any length of time, however much he’d like to, but this much he could do for his best team.

Once inside Blair’s room, and faced with the awful reality of her son’s condition, Naomi actually did a very good job of controlling her reactions, and settled down in the chair next to the bed in order to take Blair’s lax hand in hers. Understanding that mother and son needed the proximity for now, Jim restrained himself from trying to interpose himself between them, and sat a little distance away, even though he continued to monitor Blair’s vital signs. He also tuned out the quiet, one-sided conversation taking place, allowing Naomi some privacy while she reconnected with her only child.

Shortly afterwards, and still rigidly controlling her emotions, Naomi stood and dropped a kiss on Blair’s brow before indicating that she was ready to leave. Once outside the room, however, she allowed her tears to fall, and Simon gathered her up carefully in preparation for taking her back to the loft.

Once the pair had left, Jim returned to Blair’s side, retaking his place at the bed head. He knew that it would be at least another few days before the doctors would even consider allowing Blair to wake up naturally, and resigned himself to be patient. Blair would wake. Any other outcome was unthinkable. But the more he thought about the possibility of amnesia, the more it weighed on Jim’s mind.

And if he had but known it, he had every reason to be concerned.

--------------------------------

Part 2: The World on its Head:

Four days later, Blair’s room in the ICU:

It was around mid-morning, and Jim and Naomi were sitting in their customary seats one on either side of Blair’s bed. Over the intervening days since Naomi’s arrival, they had come to a surprisingly mutually acceptable arrangement; one which allowed both of them a certain amount of freedom; although it had to be said that Naomi seemed to require it much more so than Jim. Although undoubtedly concerned for her son, she also needed time to herself in order to meditate and centre herself away from the hospital, so she had hired a car to enable her to travel to and from the loft, where she had temporarily appropriated Blair’s room. The arrangement suited Jim admirably insofar as it allowed him more time alone with his guide, but also provided him with the opportunity to go home to shower, change and grab something to eat while Naomi spelled him for a while at Blair’s bedside. He would have preferred to stay at his guide’s side twenty-four seven, but Dr Mackenzie had had something to say about that, and he could understand her reasoning even if it irritated him. And an added bonus was that they were rarely present in the loft at the same time, so that there was no necessity to make nice when they were both stressed far beyond the ability to socialise. As far as Jim was concerned, the limited conversation and interaction they had while in the ICU was ample while his whole attention was centred on Blair.

For the moment, Naomi was talking softly to her son, reminiscing about some of their adventures together, so Jim once again took stock of Blair’s condition, pleased to note a marked improvement in some aspects of the young man’s recovery. Thanks to Jim’s sensory perception, an incipient threat of infection had been nipped in the bud, although the ICU staff members were still perplexed as to how come Detective Ellison had recognised the signs so early and alerted them accordingly. And there was no way he was going to explain how his sensitive nose had detected the subtlest of hints of morbidity and the minute rise in Blair’s temperature unless pressed. However, his stubborn insistence had paid off, backed up by Naomi’s adamant and vociferous support. She might not understand exactly how he knew such things, but she trusted in his special relationship with her son, so for Blair’s sake she was prepared to back him all the way in this instance. Suffice it to say that, despite a certain amount of initial disbelief, a timely course of antibiotics was administered, and for the moment at least, Blair’s temperature was normal, and his soft tissue wounds healing nicely.

And today marked a turning point in his treatment, as he was being weaned off the medication that kept him in the induced coma; so from now on, all hopes and prayers were for him to wake on his own accord. Because then, and only then, would his friends and family learn just how much damage had been inflicted on his brilliant brain.

---------------------------------

Unaware of all such care and concern on his behalf, Blair’s return to consciousness was slow and agonising, and left him muzzily wishing that he could stay wrapped up in the warm darkness of oblivion. As his body checked in, waves of pain washed over him from his head down to his feet, but by far the most painful part of waking was knowing that he had upset his Mom again. He knew that she wouldn’t scold him, but he would see the disappointment in her eyes as she packed up their belongings, ready to move on yet again to pastures new. For sure, she would put a brave spin on it – ‘There’s a world of love and enlightenment out there, Sweetie, and we need to seek it out,’ – but he would never know if this one might have been the ‘right one’ in her constant quest for true and lasting love.

--------------------------------

Appleton, OR, nineteen years previously:

Ten year old Blair climbed higher in panic, knowing that he had to keep out of reach of his tormenters. He knew they wouldn’t try and climb up after him – they were too cowardly for that – but they could and would try and get him to fall. Goddess, how he hated this place! He had tried so hard to stay below the parapet, and in most domestic situations he was successful because throughout his young life he’d had plenty of practice at making himself almost invisible. But when it came to school, he couldn’t help but shine, and that invariably drew unwanted attention and jealousy. It was something he was already accustomed to, but usually the bullying didn’t go this far. He sobbed out loud in terror as his foot slipped off a branch, but he managed to cling on and haul himself upwards. Please let this be high enough! I don’t want to go any higher!

Perching precariously on a too-slender branch, he looked down, feeling instantly dizzy, so he clung tighter to the gnarled tree trunk, eyes squeezed shut, and hoping for the strength to out-stay Mikey and Jojo who waited below, taunting him viciously and saying such awful things about his mom.

As he hugged the trunk harder still, he couldn’t help but contemplate how he had gotten into this predicament. For sure he had had some scrapes in his short life. Some of the places Naomi chose to land in were less than suitable for a young child, so he had learned quickly how to avoid attention where possible. But Naomi had been so sure that this time she had chosen well.

They had arrived in the pretty little town six months ago, Naomi having been told about its charms by one of her many like-minded friends. Hoping to get temporary work during the apple harvest, for which the town was renowned, she had almost literally bumped into the local doctor while exploring the quaint shops and businesses in the main street, and was instantly smitten by the handsome and personable charmer. Apparently the attraction was mutual, and within a day or so, Naomi moved herself and Blair out of the cheap rooms they were renting, and into the doctor’s large house on the outskirts of town.

As it turned out, Dr Adam Blessed had been widowed two years earlier, leaving him with two small boys to bring up. Michael – ‘Mikey’ - was eleven, and Joseph – ‘Jojo’ - nine, and they hated Naomi, and therefore her son, on sight. Although they were polite and well-behaved in their father and Naomi’s presence, once out of sight, they made it their aim in life to torment and hassle the intruder, who their father expected them to accept with open arms. Not a chance in hell! How dare this free-spirited hippy woman usurp their lost mother’s role and her place in their father’s bed! And how dare she try and foist her bastard son on them!

And so it had begun. At home, Blair made every effort to stay out of their way, and refused to tell tales on them even when trying to explain away the ever-growing collection of bruises on his arms and legs from sneaky, painful pinches and kicks. But at school he had no chance to hide. As per normal for him, he was placed in a higher grade than usual for his age group, which put him in the same class as the older Mikey, and the other boy wasn’t amused. At recess, he and his brother made a game of teasing Blair and turning the other kids against him, with great success. Things had come to a head when Blair had aced all of the end-of-term tests, coming top of the class by a distance. The jealousy and back-biting after school had culminated in Blair actually being forced to run away to avoid the pushing, shoving and name-calling to which he was subjected, realising that this time Mikey and Jojo meant business.

Although most of the kids were content with driving the nerdy little Jew-boy away, Mikey and Jojo intended to make him suffer. So they chased after him, baying like hounds on the trail, and he ran faster and faster in panic, finally cutting through Mrs Danbush’s orchard which backed onto Dr Blessed’s property. With his pursuers hot on his heels, Blair had no option but to shin up the biggest of Mrs Danbush’s apple trees, hoping to stay safely out of reach until either his mom came looking for him, or the boys got bored.

It might have worked, except for a weakness in the branch on which he was crouched. Even as Blair screamed in horror, the branch cracked and broke away, taking the child down with it. Blair had a sudden sensation of weightlessness, accompanied by a fleeting vision of leaves and branches rushing by, then he fell to earth with a crash, the pain in his broken arm agonising enough to cause him to pass out.

Blair was to learn later that Mrs Danbush had witnessed everything, and had rushed next door to get help and to explain what had happened as the boys made themselves scarce. Dr Blessed had treated Blair, and set his arm, but there was no way the relationship between he and Naomi was going to survive. Mortified as he was by his sons’ behaviour, he didn’t fight when Naomi declared her intention to leave as soon as Blair was able to travel, and within a couple of days they were on the road again.

But for the moment that meant nothing to Blair, who believed he was waking up in Dr Blessed’s clinic. Only to find that he seemed to have suffered a good deal more than a broken arm this time if his additional aches and pains had anything to say about it. Perplexed and upset, he gradually forced his eyes to open, frightened at what he might see, but needing to do it anyway.

And the first thing he saw was a big, grim-faced man leaning close to him, whose large hand hovered above him, as if wanting to touch his face. Although for a fleeting instant, Blair thought he recognised the man, his instinct was to shrink away as far as he could in fear, only to find that he couldn’t move. Was he in trouble? Was this man here to take him away? What had he done?

Then suddenly his restless and anxious gaze met with a welcome sight. Mom! Mom was here, and holding his hand as she smiled tremulously at him. She was upset, and it was his fault. Forcing his dry throat to cooperate, he managed to whisper, “Mom? Did I fall again…?”

For a moment, Naomi frowned in confusion, then suddenly her expression cleared again as she made the connection. “No, Sweetie. You didn’t fall again. Not this time.”

Relief washed over him, but was instantly drowned out by the pain that was making itself known again, particularly in his head, where it was reaching an impossible crescendo. Screwing up his eyes, he moaned in agony, unaware of the flurry of activity around his bed as Nurse Montiguez and Dr Mackenzie hustled Jim and Naomi unceremoniously from the room as they checked over their newly-awakened patient and administered much-needed painkillers through his IV line. Within minutes, the pain had receded enough for Blair to relax again, sinking gratefully into a natural, healing sleep.

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Outside in the corridor, both of Blair’s constant visitors were undergoing a form of emotional meltdown, but of a very different nature. For sure, they were both jubilant on Blair’s behalf to have witnessed the young man’s awakening, but thereafter their thoughts and feelings diverged significantly, and for good reason.

As far as Naomi was concerned, the fact that Blair recognised her was paramount; even if it appeared that he had lost a sizeable chunk of memory. Like Jim, she had been made aware of that possibility, and had prayed to every deity she could think of that at least he wouldn’t wake up as some sort of vegetable. She understood herself and her shortcomings well enough to know that she could never take on the long-term care a permanently and severely brain-damaged patient would require, even if it was her own son. But apparently that wasn’t the case, and so what if he seemed to have reverted temporarily to his ten-year-old self? With love and patience and help from her many friends she could and would help him to heal; and perhaps this might turn out to be the very means by which to rid him of his unnatural obsession with sentinels and Jim in particular. Although she would never have wished such an appalling accident to befall her beloved son, it might yet provide a ‘silver lining’ insofar as breaking up that dysfunctional partnership was concerned. Free of Jim Ellison once and for all, perhaps Blair could return to his studies in due course, and stay safe; far away from the physical danger and corrupting influences of the jack-booted thugs in the Police Department. Or better still; travel the world with her once again. Yes, she might well have cause for celebration after all.

On the other hand, Jim had little cause for celebration over and above his genuine relief in seeing Blair open his eyes again. Although he had been prepared for some confusion in his guide’s newly-awakened state, and had even braced himself for signs that the young man had been damaged beyond repair; as far as he personally was concerned, the actuality was far worse. A better man than he would simply be rejoicing in Blair’s return to consciousness, but despite recognising the selfishness of his own hopes and desires, and the attached guilt thereof, he felt completely devastated. Not only did Blair not acknowledge him, but he had actually tried to pull away in fear. The only slight consolation was that brief flash of recognition that Jim was certain he had glimpsed in those beautiful, blue eyes before the fear and confusion replaced it. Please God it meant that in time Blair just might remember him again, and recall how important he was to Jim.

But then again, why should he? The hours before the accident had been anything but amicable despite Jim’s half-assed attempt at an apology, so perhaps Blair was justified in his fear.

Gods, it was such a mess. But he shook himself determinedly out of his self-centred funk, knowing that he ought to take care of Naomi, and then call Simon with the good news. And then he would wait, and try and contain his impatience. If it took years, he would try and help Blair to remember their time together. And if Blair’s memory never improved, then Jim would help him create new memories, and a new life together. And this time he wouldn’t fail his guide.

But little did he realise then that he would have some very strong opposition, such that his resolve would be sorely tested.

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A short while later, Jim, Naomi and Simon sat in the hospital cafeteria, talking desultorily and picking at the food they had been ordered to get. Dr Mackenzie had made it very plain that she expected Naomi and Jim to take a little downtime after the emotional shock of seeing Blair wake, and also insisted that, now he was sleeping naturally, this would be as good a time as any to get themselves a decent meal. The next few days would be far harder as Blair’s recovery progressed, and they would need all the strength and patience they could muster in order to help him through the trauma of both physical pain and mental stress. It was to be hoped that he would improve enough to be transferred to a normal ward before long, but after that decisions would have to be made about where he would go thereafter, since it was inevitable that he would need a long period of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Of course, Jim both expected and intended that Blair would be coming back to the loft eventually, preferably sooner rather than later, even if he had to take unpaid leave to care for his guide. It simply never occurred to him that there was any other option. But right then he had no way of knowing that Naomi had other ideas. As far as he was concerned, she might well love her son as much as she was capable of loving anyone, but from the hints he had picked up from Blair from time to time, he was less than impressed with her idea of responsible parenting.

Pushing his nearly untouched plate to one side, Jim flicked his eyes up to meet Simon’s inquisitive gaze, gratified to see understanding flash in the warm, dark eyes. Simon knew exactly what Jim was trying to convey, and Jim was inordinately grateful for the older man’s perspicacity.

For his part, Jim was glad that his boss had seen fit to come straight to the hospital after receiving Jim’s somewhat strained call. He had told Simon of Blair’s awakening, but his friend had realised immediately that there was something wrong with Jim’s tone and the stilted content of his information. His friend needed support, and he needed it now, and Simon was ready and willing to offer it.

Sitting back in his seat, Simon regarded both Jim and Blair’s mother in turn, and began.

“Well, guys, it goes without saying that I’m really happy to hear that Blair has woken up at last. All his friends and colleagues at the PD have been rooting for him, and I know that those at the U have been also. I understand that his memory isn’t up to speed yet, but just give him time. When my uncle was in a similar situation, it took him a couple months before he got most of his memory back, but it happened, and now he’s pretty much back to being the cantankerous old B I recall from my youth!” And he offered them a rueful grin, which earned him a reciprocal reaction.

“Thing is, Jim, reluctant as I am to say it, there’s only a certain amount of time off I can grant before you have to take unpaid leave. Are you OK for me to go ahead and make the arrangements as and when they’re needed?”

“Of course, Simon!” Jim replied immediately. “I have savings, and I’m prepared to take as long as necessary to stay with Blair. He might not know me now, but I’m sure he will eventually. I just have to be patient.”

However, Naomi refrained from responding, gazing from one to the other with a frown creasing her pretty face. She knew that soon she was going to be confronting both of them once her plans were in place, but for the time being, she had no intention of letting them know what she had in mind. She was distracted, however, by Jim’s next question, which threw her for a moment while she concocted a reasonable response.

“Naomi,” he began, his tone far more gentle and understanding than she would have given him credit for, “When Blair woke up, he seemed, well, very child-like. Very unsure of himself. Do you know what he meant by that ‘falling’ question? You seemed to know what he was referring to. Can you tell us? Perhaps it’ll help with communication if I know what he’s talking about. Where he’s coming from.”

Sentinel senses told him immediately that she was disconcerted, and he resigned himself to be faced with some classic Sandburg obfuscation. Sure enough, her forced smile and synthetic, girlish giggle confirmed his suspicions as she replied, “Oh, Jim! It was nothing! Nothing important, I assure you. It’s just that when he was a child he fell out of a neighbour’s tree and broke his arm. A childhood accident, nothing more sinister than that.”

Now Jim recalled learning something about that little incident while he was eavesdropping on his guide who was strapped to the serial killer David Lash’s dentist chair at the time. He’d thought nothing more about it, other than being profoundly impressed by his partner’s courage and quick thinking in a perilous situation. But some instinct told him that there was more to the story than that, and he determined to get to the bottom of it.

But perhaps not right now. Naomi looked frayed around the seams, and he didn’t feel so brilliant himself, so he let it go for the time being. But later, for sure.

“Well, on that note, I think I’d better take Naomi back to the loft, if that’s OK with you Jim? Unless you want me to take you both?” Simon’s question brought him back to the present, and Jim smiled wanly as he replied.

“That’s a good idea, Simon, as long as it’s OK with you, Naomi?” And at her small smile and nod of assent, he added, “I’ll stay here for now, Simon, thanks all the same. I can make myself comfortable in the ICU waiting area until I’m allowed back into Blair’s room, but from what Dr Mackenzie said, he probably won’t wake again now until the morning. And we can take it from there.”

“Fair enough, Jim,” said Simon, rising to his feet. “Hot to trot, Naomi?” and he grinned at her coquettish smirk. Surely things could only get better from hereon in?

If he had only known….

-----------------------------------

Several days later: Blair:

Although awake, Blair lay quietly, eyes closed and breathing slowly and steadily in order to put off any confrontation for as long as possible. It was simply too much hassle trying to interact with so many people without losing the small amount of fragile self-control he was able to conjure up. People who he realised were only there to help him, but it was so hard to cooperate when he was feeling so confused. The nurses and ancillary staff were generally fine; cheerful and competent, and always apologetic when they had to carry out some uncomfortable or embarrassing procedure. He actually welcomed their friendly chatter, because there was no side to it, and they didn’t seem to expect anything more from him but a smile and word of gratitude. No ulterior motive, such as trying to ascertain what was going on inside his head. His still very sore and aching head. Even Dr Mackenzie was tolerable, and Blair truly appreciated her expertise and sympathetic treatment of him, especially when the pain made him less than amenable to her probing and handling of him.

But he was finding it harder and harder to deal with one of the two people who nearly always seemed to be there when he woke up. The big, quiet man with the sad blue eyes, who looked at him with such hopefulness, care and longing. The man who, even more than his mom, was always ready and willing to do whatever Blair needed, whether Blair asked for his help or not. It was slowly driving Blair insane, because although he knew – or at least, had been told - that he had worked with this man, Jim Ellison, and had even shared an apartment with him, he could only recall the most fleeting impressions of their time together. And it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t cope with the level of expectation the man – Jim – seemed to require of him, and it made him feel desperately frustrated and inadequate. It made no difference that the other doctor – the psychiatrist, Dr Weaver – assured him repeatedly that he was doing well – better than expected. It wasn’t enough, and Blair wanted to scream in impotent fury. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! He wanted his life back. All of it.

To be honest, he was remembering a certain amount, a little more each day, although it was intensely confusing in its randomness. Although when he first woke up, he had really believed that he had just fallen out of Mrs Danbush’s tree, he knew now – because his mom had told him, very gently - that he had been involved in a car accident, and that he had hurt his head. And that he wasn’t ten years old, but nearly thirty. Now that had been a real shock, and had even made him cry. And how sad was that?

In truth, he had remembered his early life fairly well, and could rely on his mom to correct him when necessary. During their conversations he could hold up his side reasonably well as long as the theme was his childhood with her. And of course Naomi took care to only bring up the most satisfactory elements of that particular subject. He could also recall most of his undergrad years at Rainier, and he had learned that he was still a grad student there, in theory, at least. He remembered being awarded his Master’s degree, but to him it felt like a recent occurrence, whereas he had been told that it was actually several years ago. Years during which he had been researching for his doctorate, and that was where his real problem lay. He simply couldn’t remember what the actual topic was, and no one was going to tell him, since Dr Weaver had advised his visitors that Blair should be encouraged to remember such an important issue for himself. He felt as if there had been more than one option on the table, but a seemingly insurmountable mental block prevented him from discerning exactly which one it was. It had something to do with Jim Ellison, who Blair understood was a detective with Cascade PD, but why he should have been working with the man, and apparently even living with him made him feel cold and panicky, and his head to ache with the effort of remembering.

And of course there was no way he could have known that those who could have explained it to him had no intention of doing so for fear of ‘outing’ his subject as a sentinel unnecessarily. It would be foolish indeed to reveal Jim’s ability if Fate decreed that Blair never recovered that part of his life however inconceivable that may seem.

So as far as Blair was concerned, there had to be something about the topic that was causing him deep disquiet. Some aspect that was actively preventing his injured brain from fitting together the fleeting and fragmentary images in his mind, and trying to fill in the missing pieces which remained tantalisingly out of reach. Self-preservation warned him to leave well alone, but his inherent inquisitiveness wouldn’t allow him to hide from the truth, and that was the root of his dilemma. And the cause of his persistent headaches as his thoughts and emotions chased interminably around his mind like a hamster on a wheel, with as little useful end result.

In a purely practical and physical respect, things were progressing much more satisfactorily. Although no doubt it didn’t feel like it to the impatient patient most of the time, he actually was healing remarkably well considering the extent of his injuries. Now he was awake, and able to eat and take medication by mouth, he had been disconnected from the IV line although the cannula had been left in place for the time being. Of course, the cage contraption that kept his left leg immobile meant that movement would be severely restricted for some time to come, and he would be looking at long-term therapy on the badly damaged limb even when the cage was removed and he could finally leave his bed, but according to his nurses, his head injury was healing nicely, and the bruising on face and body was gradually fading. The final stitches had also been removed from the worst of his abrasions, and he had been assured that there would probably be minimal scarring there at least. Breathing deeply was still uncomfortable, thanks to the cracked ribs, but all in all he was considered to be doing well enough to be transferred to a normal ward, and that would probably be happening sometime later today.

Truthfully, the idea of a change of scene appealed to him, bed-bound as he was, so he knew he would have to open his eyes and prove to his carers that he was good to go, so with a soft sigh, he finally raised his reluctant eyelids.

To see another man seated where Jim usually sat. And this one was a big, dark-skinned man who Blair instinctively thought he should recognise, but as usual, the memory stubbornly refused to surface. However, another instinct told him to be wary, so whatever he knew about this character must be less than comfortable. Nevertheless, the man smiled at him amicably enough, and addressed him kindly.

“Good morning, Blair. I don’t suppose you’ll remember me very well, but I’m Captain Simon Banks of Cascade PD’s Major Crimes Unit. I’m also Jim’s boss, and your friend. And I have to tell you, Blair, that I’m very pleased to see you awake and alert, son. There are a lot of people concerned about you, who would love to come and visit you once you’re in a normal ward, but of course that will be entirely up to you. I suspect too many new faces could be overwhelming for you at the moment, but I sincerely hope that eventually you will remember them as kindly as they remember you.”

In fact, most of what Simon said went straight over Blair’s head, and he was regarding his visitor now with a perplexed frown. When he did reply, Simon was both amazed and saddened at what the young man came out with.

“I…I know you don’t I?” he began uncertainly. “I…I jumped out of a plane. With Jim Ellison. Over a jungle. You were there – with…with a boy. I don’t know why? Why was I there too? I can’t seem to remember anything else….”

His reward was a beaming smile which lit up the captain’s entire face. “Yes, Blair, that’s right. You do know me, son, and you came with Jim to rescue me and my son Daryl from drug smugglers. We owe you big time, kiddo, and not just for that episode. And Daryl thinks the world of you. Do you remember him? Can you recall anything else? Anything more about working with Jim?”

He could have bitten his tongue at his overeager interrogation when Blair’s face took on a pained and upset expression as he shook his head mutely.

“I’m sorry, Blair. Don’t distress yourself, son. You’re doing really well, by all accounts, and I’m sure it’ll come back to you in time. Look, I just wanted to tell you that Jim won’t be coming in until later today. He’s had to go in to the PD to do some official paperwork. But your Mom will be here soon.

“I’ll go now, and let you have some peace and quiet. But I hope you won’t mind if I come again?”

And when Blair nodded in shy assent, he grinned cheerfully and patted the young man’s hand gently before rising to his feet, leaving a very perturbed Sandburg watching his departure.

-------------------------------------

Whether or not it was the move to a different ward, or the result of Simon’s visit, or even a combination of the two, that night Blair had a nightmare of gigantic proportions, which left him shuddering with terror and closer to getting a good portion of his memory back, but not in any good way, which Jim was going to find out to his cost.

He was in another tree. But it wasn’t Mrs Danbush’s apple tree. It was something taller, and he was desperately trying to reach something. A nest? And it wasn’t Mikey and Jojo laughing at him and taunting him from down below, but Ellison, his handsome face twisted in a mocking sneer. And Blair slipped, falling with a scream of terror, only to pull up with a jerk hard enough to throw him and his fellow passengers in the elevator into a heap on the floor. Oh goddess! There’s a bomb! Got to get it out before it goes off! But too late. Falling again. Out of a plane? Why the hell would he jump out of a perfectly good aircraft? Because Jim told him to? No. That was jumping off a cliff. Into the water. Cold, cold water. And he hit his head – no wonder it hurt so much. And his leg. But of course it would with a bullet in it. And then there was a sensation of flying helplessly through the air above the tree tops, strapped to a stretcher? ‘Jim! Get me down!!’

But Jim didn’t. And all the time Blair could hear mocking voices in the background. ‘Mr Natural!’ ‘Mr Mozart.’ ‘Darwin!’ ‘Einstein’. ‘Hairy Blairy!’ ‘You’re not a cop, Sandburg!’ And finally, ‘I need a partner I can trust! I got you a job, gave you a roof over your head, and you betrayed my trust….’

Oh Goddess! If Blair could have sat up, he would have, but a sharp, stabbing pain in his ribs prevented it. So he lay there, gasping and shaking, tears streaming down his face.

So now he knew. Or thought he did. And it was enough. More than enough to nearly destroy the lives of two men.

-----------------------------------

The following morning, Blair was tired and subdued after his restless night; enough to make his new nurse study him with concern. “Are you OK, Blair? Are you in more pain than usual this morning? I can see if I can get you something for it if Dr Mackenzie agrees.”

Shaking himself out of his introspection, Blair offered her a wan smile; as usual not wanting to worry anyone unnecessarily on his behalf. “No, Beth. I’m OK really. Well, no worse!” he added, with an attempt at self-deprecating humour. “Just had a bit of a disturbed night is all.”

Beth didn’t look all that convinced, but she chose not to argue with him. From what she had already learned of the gentle young man and his traumatic head injury, he needed understanding and compassion rather than clinical indifference, and she was more than happy to supply it.

As she took his vitals and prepared to check his dressings, he glanced shyly up at her. “Um, Beth? Do you know if Detective Ellison is here yet?”

She met his gaze with a smile. “I think so Blair. There’s a tall, blue-eyed man waiting for me to finish up in here, and I was told to expect both him and your mother as usual during the course of the day. Is there a problem?” she added, frowning now at the flash of dismay that he wasn’t quite able to keep from clouding his expressive face. “He’ll have to wait until Dr Mackenzie’s finished her rounds anyway.”

“Uh, no, not really,” Blair obfuscated, but one glance at the friendly nurse’s speculative gaze made him decide to come clean.

“Um, I don’t really want to see him, Beth. But I think I have to. Just one more time. There’s something I have to know. And things I have to tell him….” and his voice tailed off as he looked away, unconsciously chewing his full lower lip anxiously.

“OK, honey,” Beth answered, with a gentle pat on his shoulder. “Tell you what, when Mr Ellison comes in here, I’ll try and make sure I’m not too far away from the nurses’ station, so when you want him to leave, you just have to push the call button and I’ll come running. How does that sound?”

And Blair’s smile of gratitude was all the reward she needed as she finished her tasks and left him in relative peace for a while.

-----------------------------------

After the doctor’s visit, and despite his anxiety, Blair must have dozed off briefly, because when he roused again, it was to see Jim sitting in his usual place by the bed. A quick glance around told him that his mother wasn’t here yet, but perhaps that was a good thing, he thought distractedly, because what he needed to discuss with Jim probably wouldn’t be comfortable for her to hear. And wasn’t he always concerned for her comfort rather than his own? It was simply the way things were, and pretty much always had been, so he gave it no mind.

His startled gaze returned to Jim, however, when the big man casually leant over and straightened the sheet that had bunched up under Blair’s cast left arm. Only to frown in concern when Blair flinched away, his scent soured by the tang of real fear. What the hell? Jim thought worriedly. He hasn’t reacted like that since that moment when he first woke up. What’s happened to cause it? Has he remembered something? This could be bad….

Forcing himself to smile affably, Jim said calmly, “It’s OK, Chief. Just making sure you’re comfortable is all. Do you need anything to drink?”

Blair stared at him for a moment, his expression one of intense concentration tinged with anxiety and no little discomfort. “Wh…why are you still here, man? I don’t understand. That man who came to see me yesterday said he was my friend, but I don’t remember it. I sort of remember going somewhere to find him…with you…but I don’t know why? I remember things now. Things to do with you. Things I did for you. Times when I got hurt…. So many times…. But you said you didn’t trust me. And I don’t even know why I was following you around anyway. Did I mean anything to you – do anything to you? What are you here for? It doesn’t make sense!”

Jim stared mutely at him for a long moment, his mind in turmoil. Oh, shit! This is worse than I thought. He’s forgotten all the sentinel stuff by the sound of things. And he sure as hell doesn’t remember our friendship. What can I say to reassure him without leaving myself open?

“Look, Chief…Blair. It wasn’t all like that. You know, you getting hurt, although it happened way too often for my peace of mind, I promise you. I wanted to protect you. Tried to protect you even if I wasn’t always as successful as I wanted. We had some good times too. And you have friends at the PD as well as at the U. As for why you stayed with me, what do you remember about your studies, Blair? I think you’ll understand the reason if you think about it.”

He waited, praying that the young man would make the right connections, but terrified that he might not. Sandburg genuinely seemed afraid of him and what he represented, and if that was the case, no good would come from insisting that it was otherwise. The memories had to come on their own accord, not be planted in Blair’s ‘Swiss cheese’ brain if he was to be truly convinced of the real nature of their relationship. However, the look of confusion and pain on the young man’s face was enough to convince Jim that no good was going to come of this discussion.

“I…I don’t know. I don’t know why you should say that we’re friends!” Blair almost sobbed in frustration. “You…said you didn’t trust me. Said I betrayed you. I remember that, for sure! I remember you laughing at me - calling me names? I…I think you saved me from someone. Several times, and I’m grateful. But why was I there in the first place? I mean, I think I might have been doing research, but for what? Why was I putting myself in danger like that? There had to be a good reason, but I can’t remember it!”

“Think about it, Blair. Does the concept of the ‘thin blue line’ or closed societies mean anything to you?” Jim prodded gently, not at all sure he was doing the right thing, but not knowing how else to proceed. He so desperately needed Sandburg to stay with him. To remember him. As a friend if not as his guide. It was Blair’s presence in his life that he wanted. What his senses demanded.

Blair looked close to tears as he scrunched up his face in consternation and frustration. “I…it might. I mean, it…it’s something I might well have chosen as a diss topic,” he offered eventually. “But I don’t think I want to do it now. I can’t. I can’t!” he sobbed again. “Please, please go away,” he added softly. “It hurts too much. I don’t want to see you. It hurts!” and Jim was stricken when Blair’s tears fell then, knowing that the damage was far greater than he’d feared.

Just then, Naomi entered, accompanied by Beth. Horrified at the tableau before her of a white-faced Jim and her sobbing son, her anger and indignation surged. There was no way she was letting this go! It was time for her to act on Blair’s behalf, and act now.

“What in the goddess’ name have you done!” she hissed at Jim, her eyes flashing fire. “Isn’t it enough that you’ve taken three years of his life already? Can’t you see that it’s over? Looking out for you and your secrets has led him to this. It’s time to let go. Let him go!”

Taken aback by the normally peace-loving woman’s venomous attack, Jim bridled instinctively as he growled, “What do you know about it, Naomi? What has he told you? Because whatever is between us, stays between us, you hear?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care what it is. All I know is that there is some reason why my son would be following you and your jack-booted friends around, and it has to do with your job and your hold over him, but no more! Nothing about you is worth his pain, and I tell you this! As soon as he’s well enough to travel, I’m taking him away with me. Away from Cascade to somewhere where he can heal. Find his centre and get his life back again. And if I have anything to do with it, you’ll never see him again. Do you understand?”

Shocked to the core, Jim had no answer for her that would be anything but unforgivably cruel and confrontational, and it was blatantly obvious that Blair couldn’t take anymore. So he tightened his jaw, stood quickly and headed for the door without another word, his cold exterior hiding probably the worst pain he’d ever experienced in his life. And as he strode down the corridor away from Blair’s room, he felt as if his heart was literally torn in two, with the best part left behind with his innocent but oblivious guide.

------------------------------------

Part 3: A Mother’s Prerogative:

Two weeks later, MCU bullpen:

Jim frowned darkly at his computer screen, growling in his chest as his vicious ‘hunt and peck’ typing style tried to beat the innocent machine into submission. He hated everything about his enforced desk duty, especially since this time it actually had nothing to do with his senses. Hell, he wasn’t even attempting to use them unaccompanied. He had been so unbalanced and disconcerted by the painful confrontation at the hospital, that he had absolutely no intention of trying to go it alone, at least as far as using his so-called ‘gift’ was concerned. To all intents and purposes, his injured guide was lost to him, no doubt even now being brainwashed into passive submission and acceptance by his harridan of a mother, and there was nothing Jim could do about it. Not yet, anyway, even if there was some remote chance in the future.

No, this spell of desk duty was purely down to his own fault even though his inner sentinel still didn’t consider he had done anything wrong. After overhearing a couple of uniforms joking snidely about Blair’s continuing absence, and the crude and derogatory comments they were making about Sandburg’s person, Jim had snapped and confronted them, his vengeful fury a sight to behold. It probably would have resulted in physical assault had not Rafe and H intervened, much to his intended preys’ relief, and although undoubtedly sympathetic to Jim’s point of view, it was incumbent on Simon as Captain to administer some form of penalty on his lead detective.

If he was honest with himself, in hindsight Jim could hardly blame Sandburg for any of this. His last sight of the young man was burned into his brain like a brand – the pain, fear and utter despair wracking his guide’s battered body ample evidence of Blair’s complete breakdown - and no one but a complete and utterly self-centred boor would interpret it in any other way. So Jim had schooled himself ruthlessly into dialling down the senses to normal levels, promising himself that they would either remain there, or be turned off altogether if he never got his guide back. And if he regressed to the antisocial loner of his pre-Blair days, then so be it. Karma had kicked him in the teeth, so he would kick it back, dammit. Nothing and no one mattered very much anymore now the light of his life was gone, and how sad that it had taken something as traumatic as a head injury to wreak such havoc while inspiring the epiphany he should have had weeks ago. And force him to realise and accept just how much he had loved Blair Sandburg. How much he still loved Blair Sandburg – was in love – with Blair Sandburg, and always would be.

And damn to hell who or whatever force, fate or cruel deity had inflicted such a punishment on them both.

Sitting back with a sigh of unrelieved resignation, he gave up for the moment on even trying to concentrate on the thrice-damned report he was attempting to input. It was a piece of shit anyway. Some greedy but inept wannabe gangsta gets topped in plain sight through his own stupidity. Open and shut case, and of no interest whatsoever to the heart-sick detective. He closed his eyes, trying but failing to shut out the depressing thoughts that were determinedly running through his mind.

At least he had the loft to himself again, Naomi having moved out within hours of their argument, much to his relief. It had soon become an uncomfortable arrangement at best, even though they spent little time together there. Naomi just hadn’t been able to control her compulsion to rearrange everything to her own satisfaction, even in Blair’s room, which she had been temporarily occupying. And despite the fact that she plainly blamed Jim and his lifestyle for indirectly causing Blair’s accident even if it hadn’t occurred in Jim’s company; as an incorrigible flirt, she still couldn’t quite contain her attraction to Jim as a highly attractive and virile man, to the discomfort of them both.

Virtually as soon as Naomi had exited the building, Jim had immediately set to, returning everything to its proper place and clearing out all vestiges of Naomi’s presence especially in Blair’s room. He refused, however, to box up any of Blair’s possessions. Even if it was irrational, he felt that, as long as some physical tokens of his guide remained in place, he wasn’t truly gone, and might even return, to find everything as before and waiting to welcome him home. Of course, Naomi might well contact him eventually and demand that he forward Blair’s stuff to wherever they ended up, but until then he was holding on to everything he could. The silence was already unbearable, the life and warmth of the place having departed along with his guide’s presence, but if all tangible mementos of Blair were to be taken from him, he would be lost indeed, and he knew it.

Just then, a call came in for him, which turned out to be something he really didn’t want to hear. It was a courtesy call from Dr Mackenzie, who was calling him in his role as Blair’s emergency medical contact, even if his authority was superseded by Naomi’s as Blair’s blood kin. And as soon as the call terminated, Jim growled deep in his throat and slammed the handset down before literally hurling the inoffensive instrument to the floor, startling the bullpen’s other occupants into shocked silence for several charged seconds before Simon’s office door flew open.

“Ellison! My office! Now!”

Frowning mutinously, Jim shoved his chair back and stalked over to do Simon’s bidding, uncaring of the excited buzz of voices raised in consternation, concern and also some disdain as conversation restarted, even as he ignored the speculative eyes that tracked his progress to their captain’s inner sanctum.

Glaring up at his unrepentant subordinate from behind his desk, Simon went straight for the jugular. No one, not even someone he called ‘friend’ got to behave like that in his bullpen, and he was bound and determined to get to the bottom of this most recent and violent outburst.

“Sit down, Detective!” he snapped, his growl every bit as threatening as Jim’s. “Just what the hell was that all about, Ellison? It’d better be good, or you’re looking at a disciplinary, man!”

For a moment it looked as if Jim was going to defy him, but then he seemed to deflate like a burst balloon, and the furious expression on the handsome features was replaced by one of pure exhaustion and misery. Sinking gracelessly into the chair Simon had indicated, Jim scrubbed at his face with both hands for a moment before raising mournful eyes to meet Simon’s. And when he spoke, Simon was utterly dismayed by the sad and cynical delivery as his friend murmured, “That was Dr Mackenzie, calling from Cascade General. She told me that Naomi’s taken Blair. Had him transported to some private clinic somewhere within the city limits, most likely owned by some past lover. And it’s obvious what she’ll do next, Simon. As soon as he’s fit enough to travel any distance, she’s going to take him right away from Cascade. Away from me and my ‘disruptive influences’. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

And for the first time ever, a horrified Simon witnessed a lone tear leak from his stoic friend’s eye as the proud man was destroyed before his very eyes.

------------------------------------------

Six months later: MCU bullpen:

“Yo, Jim, man, you comin’ down to Barney’s Bar for a drink?” H’s kind and cheery voice broke into Jim’s reverie as the younger man clapped a friendly hand on the other detective’s shoulder. “You really should, my man. Rafe’s so hyped with passing his Detective First Grade exam he’s like to burst. And you know how he is with his money, man. If he’s not spending on fancy threads, he doesn’t want to know! This’ll probably be the first and last time he ever offers to buy us all a round!”

In all honesty, Jim’s instinctive reaction was to shy away from the invitation to socialise, but he ruthlessly quelled it. Over the past six months, he had fought doggedly against his natural inclination to turn into the hard-nosed, cynical loner he had been pre-Blair. However, it had been a hard battle, aided by the unstinting support and encouragement of Simon and his closer friends in the department such that he had reached a point where, if not happy, at least he was managing. Besides which, what was the alternative? To sit alone in his echoing loft, nursing a beer and watching endless Jags re-plays on TV, trying not to think about what Blair was doing. Wherever he was.

Because despite Simon’s urging, Jim had refused to try and track Blair and Naomi’s whereabouts, even though it probably wouldn’t have been that difficult a task. He was convinced that confronting his guide would do more harm than good, judging by the kid’s reaction the last time they had set eyes on one another, so had forced himself to wait. To wait until Blair was ready to face him and accept his rightful place at Jim’s side. He felt to the depths of his soul that it would happen when the time was right, and that he would know instinctively when that was, spiritual shit be damned.

And if it didn’t, then the dormant senses would stay that way, and the sentinel would be no more.

Shaking himself out of his brief reverie, he grinned up into H’s hopeful face.

“Sure, I’ll come, H. Brian deserves a bit of a celebration after all. And it’ll be fun seeing his face when he gets the check for the drinks!”

----------------------------------

Some while later, Jim sat at the bar nursing a beer, and smiling gently at Rafe’s cheerfully inebriated antics as he waxed lyrical about his achievement. Simon sat beside him, a similar expression on his own face as they shared a companionable silence, each man wrapped up in his own thoughts.

As far as Simon was concerned, apart from enjoying the sight of his detectives letting their hair down for a while – because God knew they deserved it – he was also glad to see Jim looking so much more relaxed. The man had been a mess after Sandburg’s departure, and in all honesty, Simon had believed that either the heart-broken sentinel would find and force his presence on Blair, with who knows what devastating effects on them both; or he would sink into a depression so deep that eating his gun might have been the only likely outcome.

However, he should have known that Jim was made of sterner stuff, providing he had a reason, so Simon had determined to give him one. And with the willing help of the likes of Joel, Megan, H and Rafe, they had managed to break through his protective shell and encourage him to interact with them on a level above simple work relations. Of course, they all knew that he would never return to his previous comfortable persona without Blair at his side. They all missed the young man; not only for his beneficial influence on Jim, but for himself also even if he would never understand it; but they’d take what they could get for now.

And maybe Jim was right to believe that by some miracle, Blair would recover and come back to him after all. They could but hope.

Feeling his friend’s speculative gaze on him, Jim half turned in his seat to grin knowingly at Simon.

“Come on, Simon. Out with it. I can tell you want to ask me something, so go ahead!”

Grinning back a little sheepishly, Simon replied, “It’s nothing much, Jim. Just wanted to say I’m glad you agreed to come here tonight. It’ll mean a lot to Rafe and to your friends. I know you come to the poker nights, but they – we’d – like to see more of you outside of the office, man.”

Jim’s smile widened in response, grateful for his captain’s sentiments. However, his expression turned a little wistful when he replied frankly. “That’s good of you to say, Simon, and I truly appreciate it. I know I probably haven’t told them properly either, but I appreciate their efforts also,” he added, nodding towards the noisy group across from them. “I’m well aware that I wasn’t in a good place when Blair left, and I’m sorry about the impact it had on the department. Which makes it even more astonishing that you guys continued to make the effort you did. But I’m grateful. You all gave me the will to get a grip and get something of my life back. And even if this is all it will be, I’m still a good cop, and I can still make a difference.

“But you’ll have to accept that I’m never going to be a party animal, Simon. Even Blair had to drag me out forcibly on occasion.”

Simon nodded understandingly. “Fair enough, Jim. Didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, man.

“So,” he continued brightly. “Are you doing anything this weekend? Other than watching the Jags lose to Boston?” this said with a sardonic grimace.

Jim chuckled at his boss’ sour expression. “Nah, not really. But I had thought of a few home improvement projects I could be getting on with, so it’ll likely be some of those.”

Simon was just about to make a sarcastic comeback when Jim’s face changed dramatically, a perplexed frown creasing his handsome features.

“What is it, Jim? Are you OK?”

After a long moment, Jim shook his head, as if trying to clear it. “I…I don’t know, Simon. I mean, just for a moment I thought I heard something.”

He wasn’t about to say that it sounded like the howl of a large cat – a large cat such as his black jaguar animal spirit. He didn’t want to believe it himself so he certainly wasn’t going to burden Simon with any of the ‘sentinel voodoo shit’ he hated so much.

But he suddenly felt the strongest urge to get back to the loft. He felt certain that something momentous was about to happen, and that he needed to be there ready and waiting.

Offering reassurances that he was fine to Simon, who truthfully didn’t look very convinced, he made his excuses and left the bar, heading for home as quickly as he safely could.

--------------------------------

Part 4: Home is where the Heart is:

Following morning, the loft:

Jim paced about the loft, feeling more antsy and twitchy than he’d ever felt before. He’d had a lousy night – broken by strange dreams which he couldn’t now recall – and now his skin prickled as if there was a thunderstorm approaching, and the static was making the short hairs on the back of his neck stand up. But the skies above Cascade were uncharacteristically clear, and the day promised to be one of the best so far of the late summer months.

So what the hell was it?

Just then, he was assailed again by the angry growling he had heard at Barney’s the night before, and he whipped about, seeking the source. Sure enough, there was his black jag, prowling back and forth in the upstairs bedroom, and looking as pissed as a big cat can.

Frowning, he tried to stare the feline down, but his subconscious had already accepted the inevitable. The senses were about to awaken, and he needed to be ready, because sure as hell this was going to hurt!

He wasn’t wrong, and for too many minutes he felt as if he wanted to rip his own head from his shoulders, while his skin felt too sensitised to bear. But then his inner strength kicked in, and he remembered the dials which his talented guide had suggested. And slowly but surely he grabbed each one in turn, and forced his senses to retreat to tolerable levels.

After a few minutes more, he felt able to get back to his feet from the foetal ball he’d adopted, and tentatively cast around for the source of this unexpected, but not necessarily unwanted reawakening.

There! There it was, and his heart seemed to almost leap from his chest in joy. Blair was entering the building, the beloved heartbeat so long missed elevated in either anxiety or excitement. Sending out his other senses confidently now, he took a deep sniff of the young man’s addictive scent, even though it was tainted by – what? – Fear?

Oh, no. There was no way he wanted Blair to be afraid of him, but he could understand it. And marvelled at Sandburg’s courage in coming up here nevertheless.

He didn’t want to unnerve Blair unnecessarily by doing his old party trick of throwing the door open before his visitor knocked, so he curbed his impatience and waited until the slightly uneven steps slowed and stopped outside the door of #307.

And at the first tentative tap, he opened the door and feasted his eyes on his guide; back at last, and if he had anything to do with it, it would be to stay.

As Jim visually devoured the much-desired vision before him, he also quickly became aware of several things. Blair was absolutely terrified if his scent and expression were anything to go by, but the resolve in his wide blue eyes took Jim aback. Quickly, he smiled encouragingly, and opened the door wider, tacitly inviting the smaller man in. Back into his home, if Jim had his way.

Blair’s anxious eyes flicked back and forth between Jim and the doorway for a moment, and then he took a deep breath, and stepped forward, crossing the threshold for the first time in far too many months.

Instinctively realising that the worst thing he could do right now was to reach for his nervous friend; Jim stood back a little and watched as Blair gazed hungrily around him, taking in the loft and its contents.

And while the young man was thus preoccupied, Jim took the opportunity of studying his guide carefully, not at all happy with the conclusions he came to regarding Blair’s physical status.

Blair was whipcord thin. Not emaciated, as there seemed to be well-defined muscle underneath his customary baggy clothing, but without any surplus fat at all. He was tan and looked healthy enough on the surface, but his face bore the evidence of much pain and stress in the lines that bracketed the full-lipped mouth and crinkled the corners of his glorious eyes. But even so, he was still one of the most beautiful men Jim had ever seen. The weight loss enhanced his magnificent bone structure, drawing attention to his well-defined cheekbones and wide brow, and Jim started slightly when his libido sat up and took notice.

Not now! He scolded himself. Give the kid a chance to settle down first, at least!

But this was no kid. He might have only just turned thirty, but he had been through the grinder, and appeared to have come out the other side with commendable success. And now it was commensurate with Jim to follow the same example, and he knew it. And he greeted the challenge with open arms.

There were other things about Blair’s appearance which weren’t so pleasurable to behold though as far as the sentinel was concerned. Or for Jim the man for that matter.

Blair’s hair had grown out some, but the glorious long locks of the past had been replaced by a halo of short curls around Blair’s head. Very attractive, to be sure, but as yet barely disguising the scars from his head injury. Surreptitiously scanning the area on the left hand side of Sandburg’s skull, sentinel eyesight could easily detect the scar tissue between the sun-bleached curls, while at the very centre of the injury site, a tiny bald patch, no bigger than a dime, indicated the area where hair would no longer grow. Suddenly struck by a surge of empathy and love, Jim had to forcibly restrain himself from pulling his long-lost friend into a warm hug. The young man was skittish enough already, and the last thing Jim wanted was to send him running for the hills.

If indeed he could run. Because that was the other distressing fact upon which Jim had picked up. Despite his apparent rangy fitness, Blair’s injured leg was slightly twisted such that he stood with his toes turned inward, and favouring his hip. Sentinel hearing had also detected the minute sounds of the metal inserted within the damaged bones, and sentinel recall replayed the uneven cadence of Blair’s approaching footsteps. The injuries might have healed, but had left his guide with a marked limp, such that Jim doubted if Blair would ever be chasing after him in the field again, even if the young man was willing to try.

But that was the least of his worries right now. By far the most important thing was to re-establish their connection, and everything thereafter was icing on the cake.

He saw Blair turn to face him, and his attention instantly focussed on the smaller man’s expression. It looked as if Blair was going to address him, and he knew as sure as hell that he wanted to hear everything his beautiful friend wanted to say. However, he was simultaneously struck by an unexpected flash of anxiety, and for a moment he was terrified of what he might hear. So he pre-empted Blair’s speech by blurting out the first thing that came into his head.

“God, I’ve missed you, Chief! I’ve missed everything about you. Please tell me you’re here to stay?”

Blair’s reaction wasn’t exactly what he was hoping for, but then again, he should have expected as much. There was a lot of explaining to do on both sides, and this had to be so much more difficult for Blair, so he schooled himself to calm and patience in the face of the young man’s blatant unease. But it was so hard when all he wanted to do was pull his guide into a warm hug and keep him there.

Huge blue eyes searched Jim’s face, plainly seeking reassurance as Blair unconsciously licked his full lower lip before speaking. And then to Jim’s horror, they filled with tears as his friend spoke at last, his voice rusty and breaking as he fought for control.

“I’m s…s…sorry, Jim. I…I didn’t mean to b…barge in on you like this. I…I called the PD when I got in yesterday, and Rhonda told me you had the weekend off. B…but I was afraid that if I called here first, you would make sure you were out. Or tell me t…t…to get lost, so I asked her not to tell you! I wouldn’t blame you, man. I just wanted to tell you to your face how sorry I am,” and at that, a few of the tears spilled over to roll down his cheeks, and Jim couldn’t stand it. He gave in to his first impulse and reached for Blair, taking the thin body into his arms and tucking him carefully against his chest, where he wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find that Blair fitted perfectly.

For a long moment, the young man was rigid, whether in shock or fear Jim didn’t know, but then he felt a tentative movement as Blair’s arms raised up slowly to wrap around Jim’s back, finally clutching his shirt as if he’d never let go.

And Jim certainly didn’t want him to.

They stood there for long minutes, wrapped in each other’s arms, with Jim both gratified and relieved to feel Blair’s increasing relaxation as he melted against Jim’s broad chest, his addictive personal scent gradually losing the disturbing taint of fear and stress. However, the sentinel could also discern the tiny tremors in the body in his arms, indicating great fatigue and probably hunger too, so with reluctance, he loosened his arms enough to put Blair away from him a little. Smiling softly down into the upturned face he murmured, “Come on, kiddo. Much as I’d like to stand here all day, you need to sit down. So let’s get you comfortable on the sofa, I’ll get us some drinks and snacks, and we can talk. OK? And I do mean talk, I promise!” he added with a self-deprecating smirk.

Blair offered him a watery smile, and Jim was smitten all over again with love for his frail, but so courageous friend, as he guided him over to the sofa to settle him comfortably against the throw pillows.

Wanting to allow his guide a few minutes’ peace in which to work on regaining his inner serenity, Jim moved to the kitchen in order to put on a fresh pot of coffee, and also fill up the tea kettle, thinking that Blair would probably appreciate some of his herbal tea rather than a beer at this time of the morning, even if Jim was sorely tempted. He also decided to toast a couple of bagels, as the faint rumblings he could hear from Blair’s tummy suggested that he’d foregone breakfast.

Realising what Jim was doing, Blair turned to look at him. “Do you want any help, Jim? I mean, I didn’t expect you to go to all this trouble….”

“And why wouldn’t I?” Jim replied with a mock frown, which was immediately replaced by a warm smile. “I need coffee, and I’m sure you wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea. And I can tell you’re hungry, Chief,” he added, tapping his ear.

Blair blushed delightfully, but he was smiling softly also, so Jim carried on with what he was doing, his heart lighter than it had been in many months. And he stubbornly refused to consider that this meeting was only an opportunity for Blair to tell him goodbye.

The light breakfast took no time at all to complete, and Jim was quietly delighted when Blair automatically took his usual place at the table. The gentle domestic routine seemed to calm and reassure his still jittery friend, who managed to finish off a whole bagel with cream cheese as well as two cups of tea. He also offered to help with the clean-up, and Jim didn’t have the heart to deny him, thrilled when they completed the task in casual harmony, as if they had never been apart.

But the comforting routine couldn’t be extended artificially, as they both knew, so all too soon it was time to get down to the serious business of working out how, or if, they were to proceed with their partnership.

Realising only too well that he had the most explaining to do, Blair settled on the sofa again, unconsciously nibbling at his lower lip as he waited for Jim to get comfortable next to him, hitched around so he could look his nervous friend in the face.

“Um, I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve still got all my stuff out, Jim,” he began diffidently “I…um…well, after I left so suddenly, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d thrown it all out. It never occurred to Naomi to send for it after all. She doesn’t place any importance on material stuff, see, so I guess she thought I wouldn’t want it anyway. But I’m really glad you kept it,” he murmured, ducking his head. “It actually means a lot to me, although I know it shouldn’t,” and Jim almost flinched at the faint blush of shame that tinged the fine-boned features.

Jim felt his temper rise at yet another example of Blair’s mother’s unintentional failures as a parent to such an amazing gift of a son. OK, maybe she had some sort of excuse, having had Blair when she was little more than a child herself, but it seemed to Jim that Blair had developed into such a wonderful person despite her efforts rather than because of them. But there was no way he’d say anything to that effect to Blair. The young man was fiercely loyal to his mother even when she hurt him, and Jim couldn’t fault him for that. He therefore contented himself with saying, “It was no trouble, Chief. I wanted everything here, because I was so hoping that you’d come back to me. And if you did, I wanted you to see that your home is still here. Here with me.”

“But now you have come back, and if you can, I’d like to hear everything about what you’ve been up to. Where you’ve been, and how you managed to get your memory back. Everything you can tell me, Chief,” and he reached across the small distance between them and squeezed Blair’s hand, smiling encouragingly into the wide, still slightly anxious gaze.

Blair ducked his head again, as if marshalling his thoughts and gathering his nerve, but then he raised his head again and looked Jim squarely in the eye. And Jim couldn’t have been more proud of him when he began.

“After I had that…that stupid meltdown, I think I must have frightened mom, because she started going on about getting me away from Cascade as soon as possible. Away from your influence. I’m so sorry, Jim. All I could think of was how I got hurt, and it was so scary. I didn’t fight her. It felt like I was ten all over again, and she had to get the pair of us out of Dodge!” and he snickered ruefully at the painful attempt at humour.

“Anyway, she had a friend – an ex-lover, I think – who ran a private clinic on the outskirts of Cascade, and as soon as she got the go-ahead to move me, that’s what she did. I don’t think Dr Mackenzie was happy with her, but once my mom gets the bit between her teeth, there’s no stopping her!” and he smiled sadly in wry admiration.

“So, as soon as the cage had been disconnected from my leg, and I could be bundled into a wheelchair, I found myself on my way to Pinecrest Rehabilitation Centre. And to be truthful, I don’t really remember too much about my stint there. Nothing I want to remember anyway,” he added, with a rueful chuckle. “Naomi had a guest room there, courtesy of Nick, her doctor friend, so she could visit me every day. But it wasn’t long before I realised I missed you, man. Strange, but true, I’m afraid. I wasn’t scared of you personally, Jim. I realise that now. But I was so confused and scared of what had happened to me, and Naomi kept saying how bad an influence you and the MCU gang had been. And I listened to her, Jim. I’m so sorry.”

Jim wanted to interrupt with words of comfort, but didn’t want to put Blair off his narration, so he simply smiled and squeezed Blair’s hand again, his expression encouraging the smaller man to continue.

“I still don’t understand how I could have repressed so much, Jim, but I think now that it had to be some sort of unconscious act of self-preservation while my head and my mind healed. But I guess you understand that, right?”

And this time it was Jim who nodded ruefully. And how! he thought sardonically. And guess who got me to face up to mine? “Yeah, Chief, I do. And thanks to you it no longer scares me, so can I do the same for you?”

Blair smiled warmly at him this time. “In a way you already have, Big Guy,” he murmured fondly. “But there was a lot I had to come to terms with, and it’s taken me far too long. But if you still want me to, I’ll try to explain.”

And at Jim’s eager nod, he took a deep, calming breath and continued.

“OK. Well, at Pinecrest they did some therapy on me, and I recall that it hurt like hell. But Nick’s generosity had a price. He wanted Naomi to agree to get back together with him, and of course, she turned him down flat. So we were off again, and this time we flew to Taos and stayed in a sort of artistic community-cum-rural commune she’s been visiting on and off for years. Me too, when I was a kid. But we couldn’t afford the sort of therapy I should have had in town, so we relied on her friends, some of whom had a bit of experience although it was mainly in spiritual rather than physical healing. And at least the weather was good there, most of the time, so I began to work outdoors. In the garden and the yard, that sort of thing, and gradually got fitter.

“And then we had a visitor. It was Eagle Spirit, the shaman of the local Native American people. I hadn’t seen him for years, and Naomi wasn’t pleased, I can tell you, man. As soon as I saw him, I remembered him, and the conversations we had when I was a kid. He told me then that I had a special gift, and I would come into it when the time was ripe, but when nothing happened, I forgot about him. . Even when Incacha passed the Way of the Shaman to me, I never connected the dots. Seems like he hadn’t forgotten me, though. He told me he wanted to take me on a spirit walk, because then I would be healed – in my head, at least. Naomi went nuts, but I agreed. I so wanted to get all of myself back, and understand what had been driving me for so many years.

“Anyway, long story short, he took me back to the res, and led me through the rituals. And I saw, man. I met my spirit animal – who’s the most fantastic wolf, Jim – and I saw Incacha. And you, Jim. You as you looked on the cover of ‘Life’ magazine, and you as your spirit animal also. The black jag, man! And my wolf and your jag just, well, bonded, Jim! They were so happy to see each other, and they were playing around like pups – and kittens!

“And Incacha told me that this was how it should be between Sentinel and Guide. And everything came back to me. My fixation with the subject at the U. Finagling my way into the hospital to see you. Finagling my way into riding with you! Yes, you were my diss subject to begin with, but soon you became my friend. And my protector. And then it all went wrong.

“Oh, Jim, I so wish you hadn’t read that chapter, man. I thought it was going to destroy us. That’s why I was going to the U that day, Jim. I was going to tell Eli that I was changing my topic to some aspect of the ‘Thin Blue Line’ thing. I had more than enough data for it anyway.

“I wanted you to be pleased with me again. To forgive me….” And here his voice tailed off as he looked away again, unwilling and unable to watch the changing expressions on Jim’s face in case they reflected anger and disgust. He really didn’t think he could stand to witness that right now.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, Jim was finding it hard to swallow around the huge lump of love and emotion that had stuck in his throat. Never had anyone loved him like this. Not Carolyn, not his father or brother. Not even Simon or the men in his Ranger team. Blair loved him for himself as much as he loved Blair, and had been trying to prove it that fateful day of the accident.

Gods, how the guilt hurt. It was his fault that Blair was on the road that day. He might as well have been driving the other vehicle himself.

But once again Blair surprised him. Turning again to look Jim squarely in the eye, he scolded, “Don’t even think of doing the ‘guilt’ thing over this, Jim! I was going to Rainier anyway that day, and even if I’d gone a bit later like I originally intended, who’s to say that I might not have been in an even worse incident? One that left me dead? You can’t blame yourself for the accident, Jim. I don’t!”

And there was really no answer to that that Jim could think of. Blair was right – again – but that didn’t magically make Jim’s guilt disappear. But for Blair’s sake, he’d work on it.

The important thing now – the only important thing – was to convince Blair to stay here with him.

All else would follow in its own good time.

Part 5: A Future Worth Fighting For:

Hours later, the two men sat side by side, companionably silent now, but both contemplating everything that had been discussed between them. It had been a marathon effort for both of them, but hopefully it would bear fruit insofar as cementing their relationship henceforward. Blair had finally - and somewhat reluctantly - related the whole ‘Danbush apple tree’ incident, which left Jim feeling both infuriated on his guide’s behalf for past wrongs, but also understanding now where Blair had been coming from when he first woke up. No wonder the young man had been confused. But he still couldn’t forgive Naomi for not explaining it at the outset, even if he believed he now understood her reasoning.

There again, all her machinations had come to nothing after all, since Blair’s will had proved strong enough to fight back and make his own decisions once his memory had returned.

As for Jim, he explained how he had coped during Blair’s absence by relying on the friendship and support of his friends in MCU, and by keeping his senses at normal levels. He kept his description succinct and matter-of-fact, but he should have known he couldn’t fool his empathic guide, who reacted accordingly.

“Oh, Jim! I’m so sorry you had to deal with all that by yourself, man! I should never have listened to her. I should have stayed with you, even if I couldn’t remember how to help you. At least I would have been here to ground you.”

“And that’s enough of that, Chief!” Jim replied firmly. “It was hardly your fault, and after the way I treated you, you could be forgiven for walking out on me anyway, amnesia or not! I’m just so grateful that you had the courage to return. Because I don’t ever want to be without you again. It’s proved to me once and for all that I can’t – won’t – be a sentinel without you as my guide.”

He couldn’t help but notice how Blair’s eyes widened and shone with love and relief.

“Oh, man! That’s such a lovely thing to say, Jim. Because,” and here his beautiful eyes glanced aside briefly before meeting Jim’s ardent gaze again, “after my spirit walk, I knew what Incacha meant. He knew we were supposed to be together as sentinel and guide, but I wasn’t really sure until now that we were truly on the same page. I know you aren’t that impressed with the spiritual stuff, so didn’t really know how you’d react to my conclusions.

“But as long as you need me, I’ll be here, Jim. I promise. I won’t leave again unless you tell me to go.”

“And that’s never going to happen, babe,” Jim replied, the small endearment falling naturally from his lips.

Blair’s smile lit up the room like a beacon for a moment, but then his face fell again as he was struck by doubt once more.

“There’s another thing I should tell you though, Jim. Something you need to consider before you decide to commit to me. It’s only fair that you should know what you’ll be getting if you want me to stay. And it’s not just this,” he muttered, slapping his injured leg in frustration. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to the U yet, if ever, even with a fresh diss topic. I mean,” he continued, looking more than a little embarrassed, hurt and angry, “I don’t think I can study as I once did. I mean, ever since the accident, my concentration’s shot, and I can’t read for long without getting headaches. The general medical opinion is that it should improve in time, but how long that’ll take I have no way of knowing. So I don’t really know what to do in the meantime.

“But I swear to you I haven’t come here to mooch off you, Jim! Truly!”

“I know that, Chief. You never have, and you never will take more than I’m prepared to give, but I swear to you, babe, that I don’t care if you can never work again. The most important thing to me is that you’re here with me now. And if you’ll let me, I’d like to take you upstairs to bed, and prove it.”

At his words, Blair’s face lit up again in joy and wonder. “Oh, yes! Yes, please, Jim. I truly believe that this is what we have been working up to, and I want you. I want you so much, and not just as my sentinel. I love you, Jim. Always have, and always will, even if I didn’t realise it at first.”

Smiling happily, Jim stood and held out his hand in invitation. “Then what are we waiting for, babe?”

And Blair gladly grasped that hand, and allowed himself to be ushered up the stairs to the bed he’d wanted to share for so long.

-------------------------------------

Epilogue:

Two thoroughly sated and contented men lay cuddled together in Jim’s big bed, with Blair draped half over his bigger lover as if ensuring that Jim wouldn’t escape without his knowing. As if I would! Jim thought fondly, despite the almost uncomfortable body heat and the tickling from the curly head buried against his neck. He could tell that Blair was on the point of drifting off fully, and had no intention of disturbing him, but as he slid gently towards oblivion himself, he allowed his thoughts to wander.

Apart from thoroughly enjoying the aftermath of truly great sex, in his mind he was more relaxed and comfortable than he had ever felt before, and that was purely down to the bundle of Blair in his arms. It was as if the missing piece for which he had unconsciously been searching for all his life had finally been found, and he felt truly whole. He realised and accepted that that missing piece had been there for the taking ever since a scruffy grad student had confronted him in hospital years ago, but he had been too scared to admit it back then. And it hadn’t helped that despite the friendship and the signals he had received from his young guide he had remained unconvinced, cynically believing that as soon as that damned dissertation was done, Blair would disappear from his life like everyone else before him that Jim had cared for.

But he knew he had been blessed by a miracle despite himself and his self-defensive behaviour and poor attitude. Because whether he deserved it or not, Blair had come through for him after all. Despite the horrors of the accident, and its traumatic aftermath, Blair had found the courage and conviction to fight against both his physical and mental injuries, and Naomi’s selfish mind games and had returned. Had come home to Jim even though he had no way of knowing how he would be received. The depths of his determination and commitment touched Jim so deeply that he felt almost brought to tears, but they were tears of pure love and gratitude. And he swore to himself that he would never let Bair go again.

His thoughts drifted to their lovemaking, and he smiled gently and somewhat smugly at the recollection. Once they had come upstairs, he had insisted on undressing Blair, determined to prove that to him, Blair was beautiful. Once on the bed, he had thoroughly indulged his senses on the slightly nervous but quiescent body, tenderly touching and kissing each and every scar until Blair realised that, far from being disgusted, Jim was accepting them as part of Blair now; part of the man he loved.

And in his turn, Blair had reciprocated with awed reverence, instinctively knowing how to stimulate sentinel senses to achieve the most exquisite depth of feeling Jim had ever experienced. And when they had come together, not even needing penetration, they had both experienced the most amazing and virtually mutual climaxes of their lives. And as they came down from their respective highs, they found that they had shared a brief but wonderful vision of their two spirit animals leaping joyously to merge as one in a glorious flash of light. Two halves of one soul as it should be, and always would be ever after.

Jim knew that in due course their lovemaking would get far more physical and adventurous as their relationship developed, and he looked forward eagerly to taking Blair, as he wanted to be taken in his turn. But right now, he couldn’t have been more satisfied if he had tried. Certainly he knew that there would be difficult times to come. Blair didn’t know yet what course his working or studying life would take, and it might well be that he would never be able to accompany Jim again in the field in any capacity. But Jim found that for once, he didn’t care. He genuinely wasn’t concerned if he had to quit being a cop to seek out some other employment where Blair and he could work together for the good of the tribe which didn’t include the PD. They were together now, and that was all that mattered.

They had a future worth fighting for, whatever life had to throw at them, because together they were strong enough to face it. And create the life they wanted.

Just then, a drowsy voice murmured from the region of his neck and shoulder.

“You OK, man? Everything cool?”

Dropping a kiss on the curl-covered crown, Jim relied fondly, “Yeah, baby. Everything’s cool. Go to sleep, Chief. Like the old cliché says, ‘tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our new lives.’ Got to keep your strength up, baby. It’s going to be a wild ride.”

The End.