Warning: Contains spoilers for "Sentinel Too".

A special "thank you" to Faerlass for helping me with some medical stuff. Any errors, of course, are mine alone. Also, I've borrowed freely from many of the-raft posts, sometimes because I share the opinion (or perhaps commented on it in the first place) or because I was blown away by some new insight someone shared. A huge thank you to all who unknowingly contributed their viewpoints and knowledge to this story. I even snipped some scenes from a couple of my unfinished stories because they seemed more pertinent here. (We will not discuss the scene I snipped from Chapter One of my Evolution series, where Jim's brother Thomas goes to a forgotten pyramid deep in the jungle and has a deeply spiritual experience.... How I wish I'd left that scene in, now; it would have fit perfectly with Blair's description of the Olmec temple. Sheesh! Editing can be so cruel at times.) By the way, if the story sounds vaguely familiar, it's an idea I postulated on-line; I didn't borrow the plot from anyone. Quit sniveling and write something...

Note: This story was very difficult to write; I felt as if I had to extract each word with hammer and chisel. Therefore, I suspect it's not as good as I'd hoped it would be. And I'm not ready to tackle Blair's spiritual epiphany into shamanism, so I'm leaving that to more adept hands than mine; or maybe as a sequel to this story.

(epilog to Sentinel Too)
-- by Mackie/

"He's alive!"

The words were ripped from Jim Ellison's emotion-tightened throat with all the desperation of a man who felt his own soul on the brink of disintegration. He couldn't take his eyes off the still, apparently lifeless form sprawled so vulnerably in the grass at the base of the fountain.

Simon and Henri Brown were trying to hold him back, calm him down after the futile effort to resuscitate his partner and best friend, and Jim struggled violently against their well-meaning efforts. Feeling a constriction in his chest so tight it was almost impossible to breathe, he managed to look away from Blair long enough to turn imploring eyes on his Captain. "I hear a heartbeat," he whispered in the only voice he could manage, the last of his own strength fading as quickly as the faint, erratic beat that had brought him out of the dark abyss of despair into which he had been tumbling.

"Dear God!" Simon gasped, releasing his grip. "Henri, let him go."

Simon was less than a half step behind as Jim fell once again to his knees beside the small, inert figure. "Get over here!" he yelled to the paramedics, who were gathering their equipment nearby.

"We're sorry -- " one of them began sympathetically.

"Damnit!" Simon shouted, every ounce of his authority ringing in his tone. "If he says he hears a heartbeat, he hears a heartbeat! Now move!" Everyone witnessing his outburst must have thought he'd gone crazy, but he didn't care. Jim's secret wasn't important at the moment; Blair's survival was what mattered.

He's not breathing, Jim's mind cried in terror as his nerveless fingers tipped back the young man's head, and he once again began to breathe life back into unresponsive lungs.

Simon sought with his fingers for any sign that Jim's hearing had detected something more than wishful thinking. He had to press deeply on the carotid artery before he found it -- wildly erratic and thready, dangerously faint, but a beat nonetheless. "He's alive," he gasped to the startled paramedics. "He has a pulse."

The paramedics quickly determined this for themselves, and one roughly displaced Jim to immediately cover Blair's nose and mouth with an ambu-bag. He began pumping the bulb to force more life-saving air into lungs too filled with water to inflate by themselves.

The second paramedic tore open Blair's shirt and used scissors to slice up the front of his tee shirt, baring Blair's chest to the chill morning air. Switching on the defibrillator unit, he utilized the paddles to assess the abnormal rhythms. "Ventricular tachycardia," he pronounced grimly. He motioned for Simon to continue CPR while he powered up the current to deliver the electric shock needed to return the heart to its normal cadence.

With no more help to offer, Jim began to slip back into a shuttered world where nothing existed beyond the motionless body of his Guide. He took one cold, limp hand between his own and tried through a sheer act of will to infuse vitality back into Blair's wavering spirit. Nothing else mattered. Only half aware of the harried work surrounding them, his world had been reduced to the sound of the runaway heart beating frantically within the breast of his friend.

"We'll try two-hundred watt seconds," the paramedic said, then to Jim, "You'll have to stand clear."

Jim didn't hear him. He only knew he had to maintain contact with his Guide or risk losing him again, perhaps forever.

Simon reached over to touch his shoulder and try to get his attention. Jim shrugged him off almost savagely, unable to see beyond the need for his vigil to continue. His senses were totally focused on Blair; all other input was superfluous and irrelevant.

Impulsively, Megan dropped to her knees behind Jim and wrapped her arms around him. It wasn't perhaps the most feminine of poses, but she wasn't worried about appearances; she only saw a need that had to be met. She had to stretch her arms to their fullest, but she was able to grasp Jim's hands in her own. "Jim," she whispered in his ear, "you have to let go, just for a moment. They're trying to save him. Help them."

Jim trembled once, but his grip loosened. Although he did not let go, he did not resist as Megan took his hands and drew them in tight against his body, holding on as if her grip were the only thing keeping the tempest of Jim's emotions at bay. Through her hands, she could feel his heartbeat, hard and fast, just as he could probably feel hers against his back. His hands were ice-cold from shock.

Simon moved around to crouch beside them, and placed one hand comfortingly at the base of Jim's neck. With his other hand, he gripped the crook of Jim's elbow, ready to keep his friend from reaching for Blair again until after the paramedics were through. On the other side, Brown knelt without touching, astounded and deeply moved by the depth of Jim's misery, but ready to help if need be.

The loud crack of the cardioversion unit disturbed the silence of the brilliant morning. The small figure on the grass jerked convulsively once beneath the surge of current that slammed into his chest.

In her arms, Megan felt Jim spasm as well, as if he'd felt the shock all the way to his soul. A slight, almost soundless moan escaped his lips, and she knew with anguished certainty that Jim's own heart was tearing itself apart in his distress. Clearly, there was more to the relationship between detective and observer than she had supposed, but this was not the time to dwell on it.

"We have a good sinus rhythm," the paramedic reported calmly, although he did not sound overly optimistic. He turned off the defibrillator, and Megan gently released Jim's hands so he could again clasp Blair's. With a soft squeeze of support on his shoulder, she stood up and moved back, a little uncomfortable now at the intimacy of her actions. She had not been with this group long enough to feel truly a part of it. But Simon threw her a glance of thanks, and she nodded slightly in grateful acknowledgement; she had done the right thing.

The paramedic on the air bag checked, but added, "Still not breathing," and returned to his pumping.

His partner said, "I'll get the gurney."

"I'll help," Rafe told him, glad for the illusion to feel useful. He felt as if he'd been standing around in futile helplessness for hours.

Simon was getting anxious. He knew Jim had zoned on Blair's heartbeat, that he had effectually tuned out the rest of the world. He'd never seen such a complete disconnection. "Come on, Jim," he said quietly, massaging the back of Jim's neck in an effort to get his attention. "Come on, man, snap out of it. He's gonna be all right."

But Jim didn't hear him.

As Blair was lifted onto the gurney, Jim stood up. The sudden movement after the long, tense minutes crouched in one position caused him to stagger a bit, but Simon steadied him. Still, Jim didn't notice; he followed after the gurney, the Captain at his side.

"Come on, Jim," Simon urged forcefully. "We'll follow in my car." Jesus. Nothing. Jim might as well have been on a different planet for all the good Simon was doing. "I hope you guys have room for two more in there," he grumbled as the paramedics loaded the gurney and its precious burden into the ambulance. The one attendant had never stopped pumping the ambu-bag, even though his expression indicated he thought it was a doomed effort.

"'Fraid not," the other one said.

"Let me put it another way," Simon explained sternly, nodding toward Jim. "I don't think anyone's gonna be able to stop him, and where he goes, I go." Though God only knows what good I can do when he's zoned out this badly.

The paramedic took a look at the totally focused, single-minded stubbornness on Jim's face and frowned at what he could not understand. "All right, but keep him out of the way so my partner can do his job."

"No problem," Simon answered confidently. I hope.

They crowded into the rear of the ambulance, where Jim once again took Blair's hand between his own. His lungs must be full of water. "He needs oxygen," he murmured, not to anyone within hearing but rather as a response to his own mental processes, as if he were working through the problem and seeking a solution.

"They'll intubate and put him on a ventilator as soon as we get to the hospital," the paramedic assured him, his rhythmic pumping of the ambu-bag never altering. His self-preservation instincts had gone into overdrive wondering if someone would lodge a protest over the rescue unit's quick pronouncement of death and their halt of resuscitation efforts. They never should have stopped so soon. But, damnit, the guy had looked so dead!

Jim wouldn't remember much of that journey. In fact, he would remember very little about any of it from the moment he'd turned toward the fountain and seen with his own eyes what his heart had been unable to accept -- his partner face down in the shallow water, unmoving, lost somewhere beyond life.

The paramedic began asking questions, and Simon did his best to answer them. "No, we don't know how long he was in the water," he replied to the first question. "We began CPR immediately, though."

"How did he fall in?"

"I have no idea. We think someone was trying to kill him."

With his free hand, the paramedic examined the back of his patient's head. "Yeah, looks like he was hit or something. Probably stunned him enough to make him fall, and the water did the rest."

Damn murderous bitch! Simon raged inside. God, he hoped someone was taking care of the case, looking for Alex Barnes; there were things he knew he should be doing, but right now he felt he had to stay with Jim. Half sitting on the edge of the narrow bench seat, half crouched on the floor because there just wasn't enough room, he watched and worried. What if he couldn't reach Jim, bring him back from whatever hell his guilt-ridden soul had taken him? For now, it was probably enough to wait and keep him safe. The rest would have to come later.

They reached the hospital at last, and Simon tried to get Jim out of the way while the emergency room staff downloaded the gurney and rushed the patient inside. Although Jim didn't hinder any of their efforts, he still didn't move from Blair's side or release his grip.

The paramedics were spewing information too fast for Simon to follow -- facts about the drowning, resuscitation efforts, the cardio-shock, blood pressure, pulse rate, water temperature in the fountain and all the rest of the critical minutiae needed to determine treatment. The ER doctor bumped into Jim, and snapped, "What is this monolith attached to the patient?"

"Detective Ellison is Blair Sandburg's partner," Simon snapped back, matching the doctor's don't-you-try-to-give-me-a-ration-of-shit tone. As the only one who knew the strength of the bond between his detective and the young anthropologist, he was feeling extremely protective of them both.

As they wheeled the gurney into an exam room, Simon grabbed Jim's arm and planted his feet. Jim's momentum was halted abruptly. For a moment, it looked as if he might struggle until Simon said, "Jim, they're going to treat him now. You'll just be in the way."

Jim looked around, his expression dazed. The hospital. They were at the hospital. Blair was alive. His glance at Simon was almost without recognition, but information was gradually penetrating his sluggish brain.

"Come on, Jim," Simon coaxed gently, "we'll wait over here." Using his grip on Jim's arm to guide him, he led the way to the waiting room and urged Jim into a chair.

Instead, Jim stood up immediately and went toward the door. Simon almost went after him, but Jim stopped in the doorway, facing outward, his senses once again seeking and finding the heart he so desperately needed to hear beating.

The other detectives arrived a minute later to join them, and they passed Jim with murmurs of support. No one expected or received an acknowledgement from him. Simon stood up to meet them and his words were spoken barely above a whisper. "Henri, Rafe, I hate to do this to you, but someone has to be on this case," he told them gently. "I need to stay here with Jim. Can you handle it?"

"Sure, Captain," Rafe answered, matching Simon's low tone without thinking. "We'll find the bitch and the nerve gas."

"Damn canisters are so small, they could be smuggled out of the country in a thousand different ways," Brown grumbled.

"I'm almost more worried they won't leave the country," Simon returned bitterly. "We've got enough home-grown terrorists more than willing to buy them."

"Shit," Brown agreed fervently.

Rafe's earlier optimism faded. "Then we'd better get started."

The two detectives left the waiting room.

"I'd like to stay, if you don't mind, Captain," Megan said quietly.

Simon hadn't really noticed her. "Of course," he replied, not knowing why he agreed but welcoming the company. He sat down again, and Megan sat beside him.

She studied the motionless figure standing so resolutely in the doorway. "What's he doing?" she asked after a few minutes.

With a sigh, Simon answered, "He's listening."

Megan's curiosity was aroused. "For what?"

Simon knew she was too astute to buy a lie, even if he'd felt up to giving one. Besides, he knew his own frantic, unthinking outburst during those first few desperate seconds after dragging Blair's body from the fountain had all but revealed Jim's secret. "He's listening to Sandburg's heartbeat."

There was silence between them for another minute, then Megan said, "You mean, he can actually hear it?"

Simon nodded. "It's not something that's common knowledge," he explained. "Criminals could take advantage of it, and some of the other cops might think he was a little strange." A little strange? After today, the story of Jim's bizarre behavior would be known throughout the precinct. Not to mention his own. "So I'm trusting you to keep this confidential."

"Of course," she assured him, staring in wonder at Jim's back. To detect a heartbeat from a dozen or more yards was a phenomenal ability. At least it explained why he'd been able to push her aside when Bud Flint had fired on them -- he'd heard the round being chambered. And how could he focus so thoroughly now, with so many hospital sounds to distract him? Were the intrusive sounds painful? They had to sound so much louder than the heart to which he was listening.

Instead of asking these and a hundred other questions, she sat back and picked up a magazine. It was Popular Mechanics, but she didn't care. Turning the pages kept her mind and her hands occupied.

Simon just sat and watched Jim, ready to jump forward if Jim started to pass out because he'd suddenly forgotten to breathe or something. He felt wholly inadequate to the task. Damnit, you'd better live, Sandburg, he thought angrily. I'm not cut out for this. A moment later, the thought amended itself: To tell you the truth, if you die, I don't think I'll have to worry about it. He's gonna die right along with you, even if his body keeps up the pretense of being alive.

Jim stood watch at the door, his senses so finely focused that he wasn't bothered by the announcements over the PA system or the conversations going on around him. He heard every order from the doctor, every response, query and assessment from inside the treatment room where his Guide had been taken. Every sound was perfectly lucid, including the rasp of the IV needle as it was inserted beneath flesh to deliver necessary meds. He heard the ER team intubate their patient to start the flow of revitalizing oxygen. They had to suction water from the over-burdened lungs and then work to reinflate some collapsed portions. Drugs were administered to prevent airway spasms. A quick blood analysis indicated a need for more medication to restore chemical imbalances caused by the near drowning. The treating physician anticipated lung inflammation and ordered a treatment of corticosteroids. He also recited the antibiotics that could be utilized in the event of an infection. Jim's mind played through the list, seeking any Blair might be allergic to, finding none. He tensed when he heard the physician order an EEG. The possibility of brain damage was discussed, a certainty if the patient's oxygen deprivation had been prolonged. Someone else mentioned the potential for heart failure following the trauma. Someone with a strong practical streak asked if the patient had a living will that stated any wishes regarding treatment if coma or a persistent vegetative state were the only long-term prognoses.

With the mention of each potential hazard, Jim felt his despair deepening. They'd gotten Blair to the hospital alive, but the struggle to survive was just beginning. He followed the heartbeat, stronger and steadier now, as Blair was wheeled from the ER toward the elevator that would carry him to ICU. Automatically, Jim followed the sound, and Simon jumped up to go with him, Megan at his heels.

The doctor seemed surprised to find them already trailing the gurney into the elevator. "We're taking him to ICU," he explained. "It will take a few minutes to get him settled, and then I'm afraid we can only permit immediate family to visit."

Simon gestured toward Jim. "That would be him."

The doctor looked at Jim skeptically. "You're a relative?"

"He's Sandburg's partner," Simon returned on Jim's behalf, his expression indicating he wasn't going to accept any argument.

After a moment, the doctor nodded. "OK. We've managed to stabilize Mr. Sandburg's condition. His lungs appear undamaged, although there's always a potential for infection or inflammation. His heart is sound -- he has his youth and good health to thank for that. We'll be monitoring his blood while his oxygen level returns to normal, and we'll keep him on the respirator until he starts breathing on his own."

"When might that be?" Megan asked politely.

"No way to tell, I'm afraid. If there's brain damage -- maybe never."

"But there's hope, right?" Simon said anxiously.

"Yes, of course there is," the doctor replied. "His lungs suffered a tremendous shock. It's not unusual to have temporary loss of normal breathing, especially when the victim is in a coma."

The elevator doors opened, and the gurney was wheeled through the doors into ICU. Once again, Simon was able to stop Jim from following blindly. "They have to get him settled first, Jim. Then you can see him."

Jim halted obediently and watched the gurney disappear. Blair's heart rate was still strong and steady, very good signs. His skin had lost its blue-gray pallor, although he was still horribly pale.

And a machine was breathing for him.

Still, he was alive, and that was all that mattered.

Jim didn't move from where he had stopped, and Simon frowned in frustrated helplessness.

"Has he ever been like this before?" Megan asked softly.

"Never like this, certainly never for this long," Simon admitted. "I don't know what to do."

"It's probably wise just to leave him be and keep a watchful eye."

Simon nodded glumly. "Good, because that's about all I can do."

Several minutes later a nurse came and told Jim he could go in. He started forward, then stopped and turned back toward the others. He still looked dazed, but at least he'd known they were there. "He'll be OK," he said haltingly to Simon, his tone almost child-like in its hopefulness.

"I know he will," Simon returned with more assurance than he felt.

Jim looked at Megan, and his expression of helpless confusion broke her heart. As if he didn't quite remember why he needed to say it, he murmured, "Thank you."

"Tell Sandy we're all rooting for him," she said, swallowing the sudden lump in her throat.

Jim nodded absently, then turned away to follow the nurse into ICU.

"I'll wait here awhile," Simon called to his retreating back, not certain if Jim heard. When Jim had disappeared through the doors, he looked at Megan. "Will you get back and keep an eye on things? I'll call you if there's any news from this end."

"And I'll do the same," Megan promised, touching Simon's arm briefly before heading back toward the elevator.

Wearily, Simon looked for the waiting room. It was going to be a very long day.

Jim sat hunched forward in the chair beside the hospital bed, his fingers automatically clutching Blair's unresponsive hand. A bag of solution hung from a stand, its thin line steadily dripping nutrients and medications through Blair's IV. The skin around the invasive needle was blue-purple with bruises. A monitor beeped a reassuring tempo of heartbeats, while the ventilator whooshed softly as it delivered precious oxygen to the traumatized lungs.

God, they had been in the hospital too many times in the past three years, one or the other suffering injury at the hands of criminals. Jim's injuries had been relatively minor -- exposure to opium paste, a couple of minor gunshot wounds, a mild concussion or two. Blair's sojourns into the medical world had been far more serious -- two involuntary drug overdoses, and now this, a near-death by drowning caused by --

-- caused by --

-- me.

Jim felt his body clench in denial of his thoughts, but secretly he knew the self-condemnation was warranted. He was the cause of Blair's current condition, no matter that Alex Barnes had been both motivator and instrument. Jim had thrown Blair out of his home -- out of his life -- with no regard for the potential dangers. He should have foreseen the hazard, should have known Alex would need to eliminate Blair, who knew the secret of her sentinel abilities and could help stop her when the time came. Even if her only motive had been to distract Jim from the case, he should have known Blair would be a natural target.

God, he was a fool!

His only excuse, a feeble one at best, was that he'd been knocked totally off balance by Alex's arrival in Cascade. He was beginning to understand a bit of it, but most of his odd behavior still remained a mystery. Sandburg will help you figure it out, he thought. A vicious little voice snarled back, If he lives...if his brain hasn't been damaged...if he still wants to be your Guide....

He felt a moan of denial building in his throat and fought it down, forcing it back with the rest of his emotions while he maintained his vigil...while he executed that most sacred of sentinel trusts, protection of the Guide. Besides, as long as he focused on Blair's heartbeat, he was able to blank his mind to the guilt and remorse trying to trample his sanity.

Throughout the long morning and afternoon, he waited, almost as unmoving as the pale figure lying so helpless in the hospital bed. Nurses came in to check the IV or draw new blood for analysis; the doctor came in with good news that the EEG had shown a few abnormal brainwave patterns, but apparently Blair hadn't been in the water long enough to sustain permanent brain damage. Jim didn't respond to any of their softly whispered words of encouragement, their offers to bring him something to drink, or even the doctor's direct query about whether or not Jim was all right.

Only when Simon touched him on the shoulder in concern did he force himself to look away from Blair's wan, deceptively peaceful face. When he did, he realized his eyes felt gritty with strain and a huge headache had settled in his skull sometime during the day.

"The doctor's getting worried, Jim," the Simon told him. "So am I, for that matter, but he's the one talking about checking you into the hospital if you don't show some signs of comprehension."

Jim looked from Simon to the doctor and back again. "I'm all right," he murmured hoarsely. His voice felt rusty from lack of use. "I just need to stay here." To the doctor he added simply, "He's my partner."

The doctor studied him for a long minute, then finally relented. "All right, but I want you to try to eat something. At the very least, you're going to have something to drink."

Simon nodded. "I'll see to it," he promised. "What'll it be, Jim -- iced tea, coffee?"

Jim shrugged, unable to make this irrelevant decision. "I don't care."

"OK, I'll see what I can rustle up." Simon squeezed his friend's shoulder briefly in sympathetic support, cast another look at the pallid, unresponsive figure in the hospital bed, and went back out with the doctor. It was unnerving to see the normally hyperactive young man so motionless, the expressive face so unbearably still.

Jim forgot their visit almost immediately as his hearing sought again the reassurance it needed in the strong, steady rhythm just a few feet away. No brain damage, he thought with relief. Then why doesn't he wake up? Why doesn't he breathe on his own?

Afternoon waned into evening. Without being aware of it, the steady beep of the heart monitor and the mechanical hiss and hum of the respirator lulled him into an uneasy sleep.

"It's about time you got here." The voice sounded irritated, impatient after the long hours of waiting.

Jim peered wildly around himself in shocked dismay. He stood in the depths of a rain forest, the canopy of tall trees permitting only sallow shafts of sunlight to penetrate and feed the scant undergrowth that eked its fragile existence from the forest floor. The ground beneath him was soft and deep with decayed organic matter, the sparkling air redolent with fragrant blossoms and musical with the hums, buzzes, chirps, squawks and chatters of thriving wildlife.

The first moment of shock passed, and he turned abruptly toward the source of the voice.

Blair sat atop a large, fallen tree trunk, his arms resting comfortably on his drawn up knees, his hair shining red, auburn and chestnut in a single beam of sunlight. He was completely naked.

With a start, Jim became aware that he, too, was completely unclothed, and the realization was both disconcerting and embarrassing. "I really don't like this," he murmured nervously, casting about for some memory of where he was or how he'd gotten here.

Blair was unsympathetic. "I didn't make up the scenario," he retorted coolly.

"Where are we?" Jim asked, looking for any familiar landmarks, seeing nothing but the impenetrable ancient forest surrounding them.

"Don't know," Blair answered simply. Somewhat uncertainly, he added, "I think we need to talk."

Memory flooded back with a rush, and Jim turned away, striding across the soft forest floor to the edge of a narrow stream that trickled melodically between a jumble of rocks. He sat down on a flat rock, his back to his friend.

"Oh, that's rich," Blair said angrily, getting down off the tree trunk and stalking over. "Just turn your back again. Well, that's not going to work this time, damnit." Rage gave his voice a hard, raw edge that Jim tensed against. "We're going to have this talk, and you're gonna have to knock me out to shut me up! Whatever the hell you think I've done -- " His voice trailed off abruptly. "Oh, man," he went on more calmly, "it's not me, is it? You're feeling ashamed."

Jim's shoulders hunched, and he drew up his knees to sit in much the same pose as Blair had on the tree trunk, only his was a defensive posture.

Blair sat down beside him, inches away but not touching. "I've got a weird question," he began softly, then waited a long time before asking it. "Am I dead?"

Almost savagely, Jim shook his head. "No," he managed to answer, a familiar tightness in his throat making speech difficult.

"Good. Because if I'm dead, that probably means you're dead, too, and I couldn't -- " he grinned suddenly, and Jim almost smiled in response as he heard the final words echoed in his own mind -- and I couldn't live with that. Blair Sandburg, stand-up comedian. Funny guy.

"But I did die, right?"


Blair looked intrigued. "Cool."

Jim glanced at him for the first time. "Cool?"

"Yeah, really cool. I hope I remember all of this."

Jim looked away again. "I don't." Then he elaborated, "I don't want to remember any of it."

"It was Alex, wasn't it?" Blair went on, dredging up the memories. "She came into my office with a gun. I thought for sure she was going to shoot me. She made me go outside, and then she whacked me over the head. I saw the fountain and the water rushing at me, but I couldn't do anything, not even hold my breath. It was so weird." Then he, too, wrapped his arms tightly around his knees, as if not certain this was a memory he wanted to hold onto. "I read somewhere that drowning is supposed to be a peaceful death. It wasn't."

The hard edge was back in his voice, and Jim drew in more tightly, waiting for the blows to fall.

Blair's voice was filled with bitterness and disappointment. "You threw me out. You do remember that part, don't you?" Jim really didn't want to hear this, but he couldn't shut out the angry words. "You didn't even stick around so I could borrow your goddamned truck. I had to call one of my students to help me move my stuff. Do you have any idea how that felt?" Jim's breathing quickened, but he didn't answer. After a minute, Blair muttered a curse and went on. "And then Alex killed me. You threw me out, and Alex killed me. That's what happened, isn't it?"

Jim actually seemed to shrink under the accusation. He couldn't answer. His first instinct was to flee from this storm surge of emotion, but he was rooted to the spot as firmly as any of the trees towering over them.

"You were so caught up in yourself, in your feelings of betrayal, that you didn't see the danger until it was too late. You really screwed up big time, didn't you?" Blair might as well have delivered a physical assault, his words fell so powerfully. He stopped his tirade again, and waited. The silence lasted for several minutes. "So say something."

A moment later, Jim murmured, "What do you want me to say?"

"Anything you feel you need to," Blair countered, some of the anger in his voice replaced with impatience. "Damnit, Jim, I know you're not a complete emotional cripple, so quit acting like one."

Jim bristled at the tone. "OK, I screwed up!" he shot back bitterly. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

Quietly, Blair replied, "I want to hear the truth. Why did you screw up?"

"Why?" Jim almost stuttered. "I threw you out -- "

"That was part of the screw up," Blair interrupted. "So I'll ask you again -- why?"

Jim pondered the question, trying to pull his thoughts into some sort of coherent meaning amid the chaos of his emotions.

"At the time, I didn't know, but I think it's because you'd been with her, you were her guide now, and I felt...betrayed. " He'd been acting on instinct, not rational thought. He just hadn't realized it in time. "I thought you were abandoning me, so I wanted to abandon you first."

Typical Ellison preemptive strike. Blair's voice was quiet. "You probably think I should hate you, don't you?" A long silence followed, but Jim refused to break it, so Blair was forced to continue. "I don't. The very last thought I had while I drowned was that I forgave you. Worst of all, I knew I'd never get the chance to tell you." After a bit, he added, "Do you know what I forgave you for?"

When it was clear he expected an answer, Jim shook his head once. "No. For not being there? For not being in time to save you?"

Blair actually chuckled. "You must have been, because you just told me I'm not dead."

The simple logic confused Jim for a minute, and he frowned in disbelief.

"No, I forgave you for not trusting me."

I need a partner I can trust. Jim's words came back to mock him. "I do trust you."

"You were angry about the dissertation when you should have known I wouldn't write anything demeaning or hurtful," Blair countered. "You never gave me a chance to explain; you just read the highlights you thought you understood and then trashed three years of my work. Do you have any idea how much that hurt? You didn't trust me enough to talk to me about your feelings when Alex entered the picture; I could have helped you work through it and probably saved myself a lot of grief by understanding earlier what she was. You really let me down, Jim."

"I'm sorry," Jim whispered, his voice breaking with barely contained guilt.

Blair was silent for awhile. Sunlight dappled the tripping stream with kaleidoscopic brilliance, and he let the light stab his eyes until they ached. "You still don't get it, do you?"

Too worn down to offer resistance, Jim asked resignedly, "Get what?"

"It wasn't your fault. It was mine."

Jim turned and stared at his friend. "What?"

"You weren't responsible for getting me killed," Blair insisted, his hands moving to counterpoint his words. "I put the play in motion, and I was the one unable to stop it. It wasn't your fault."

"No -- "

"Listen to me! You were behaving like a sentinel, responding to some centuries-old genetic heritage. You had all this new and weird stuff coming at you, and you didn't understand it. I was behaving like a scientist. I saw Alex as someone I felt qualified to help. I was thinking like an anthropologist, pleased to find another test subject because you and I were having so many problems with the friendship getting in the way." Quietly, he added, "I should have been behaving like a guide."

Jim was confused. "You are a guide. After I came down on you so hard in the bullpen, Simon asked how I was going to get through this sentinel thing on my own. That's when I realized what I'd done. You've always been there to help me control my senses."

"Sure, as your friend, as a scientist," Blair insisted, "but never as your Guide. I never made that commitment to be a shaman -- I never felt worthy enough to try. I still don't know how to begin, but I'm sure that's why you didn't trust me." It had been a difficult confession, and Blair studied the water some more. He tossed a pebble into the current and listened to it skip from stone to stone. "The question is, I guess, are you gonna forgive me?"

"Forgive you?" Jim echoed. "Of course."

"But you're not gonna forgive yourself, are you?"

Jim shrugged, but didn't answer. Guilt was a hollow-cored ache in his belly; more than anything, he wanted it to be gone, but he knew it would be there for a long time.

"More importantly, are we gonna be OK?" Blair added.

"As what? Partners? Sentinel and guide? Friends?"

"All of it."

"Anthropologist and test subject?"

Blair tensed. "You'd really rather I just drop the whole thing, wouldn't you?" he asked softly, afraid of the answer, afraid of what he'd have to give up. Jim couldn't see beyond his own needs where the dissertation was concerned; he couldn't see that giving it up was abandoning more than just a paper, it was a matter of Blair abandoning the whole course of his life. Blair didn't know if he was strong enough to do that.

Jim's answer was a surprise. "I understand that you have to do the paper," he replied uncomfortably. "I wish you didn't, and that's bound to cause problems. I think we'll be able to work through them." Maybe. If I don't act like a jerk.

"Then let me finish it," Blair said, happiness infusing his voice with energy "When it's done, I'll explain it to you chapter by chapter, verse by verse if you want me to." He smiled slightly. "I'm gonna have to lie so much anyway, you probably won't find anything to complain about."

"Lie? Why?"

"Because I'm your Guide," Blair answered simply. "I've become part of the study. That's not good scientific methodology. How can I be both researcher and test subject? I can't remove myself from the equation, therefore I can't be objective."

"Then why are you still going ahead with it?"

"We're talking about my academic career here, Jim," Blair pointed out. "If I don't publish, I don't teach; if I'm not affiliated with a university or other institution, I don't get grants to conduct fieldwork, and I still don't teach. Those are things I want to do."

"So you're still not committed to the idea of being a guide."

"I didn't say that." Blair sighed in irritation. "All right, maybe I did. But I still have to earn a living, and teaching is the way I want to do it. Maybe, when I've worked through all this, I'll be able to put that part of my life in second place and put this shaman thing on top." His previous joy faded as quickly as a half-formed thought. Haltingly, he confessed, "I don't know. I'm scared to death of trying to be a shaman, trying to be a guide. I don't know if I can do it."

"Are you at least willing to try?" Jim asked gently.

Blair looked away, into the shifting patterns of the stream, and couldn't find an answer.

Jim woke abruptly to the sound of desperate gagging. The hand clutched in his own jerked away convulsively, but he didn't let go. Jumping from the chair, he grabbed Blair's other hand as it reached urgently toward the breathing tube. "It's OK, Blair. You're gonna be OK," he murmured soothingly, wishing he had a third hand to press the call button for the nurse.

Frightened blue eyes stared wildly into his own, but the frantic trashing quieted and finally stopped. Jim chanced releasing one of the captive hands and pushed the call button before almost tenderly stroking Blair's unruly curls.

"You're in the hospital, you've got a tube down your throat to help you breathe," he explained gently. "Someone will be in to take it out, and then you'll be able to breathe OK on your own."

God, Blair felt as if the thing down his throat was killing him! The artificial pumping of his lungs terrified him as it conflicted with his own efforts to breathe. And he ached -- his head ached, his chest and ribs felt as if someone had dropped an anvil on then, and every muscle wanted to charley-horse with agony. What the hell had happened to him?

A nurse came in then and saw the situation. "Mr. Sandburg, I'm glad to see you're awake," she said brightly, ignoring his desperate discomfort. "I'll just get the doctor, and then we'll see about getting that tube out of your throat."

Hurry, Blair's mind pleaded. But Jim was with him, Jim's hand was warm and comforting against the throbbing in his head, his voice was mild and confident, his very presence reassuring. Gradually, Blair remembered some of the events of the past few days. Jim had thrown him out of the loft. Well, apparently his illness or injury had brought them close again, at least for a little while, but Blair wondered how long that would last. Did Jim still want him out of his life?

Then, other memories infused his thoughts, tantalizing and intriguing because they had not happened in real life. Had he dreamed them?

The doctor came in and made his examination, Jim stepping back just enough to give him room but ignoring an order to leave.

Removing the breathing tube was not the gentlest of tasks, and Blair gasped with pain and fear. Jim was beside him again in an instant.

"A little ice water will help soothe your throat," the doctor assured his patient. "We're going to keep monitoring your heart and breathing for the next forty-eight hours or so, then probably move you to a regular room."

Blair tried to speak, found he could only croak painfully, so Jim asked the obvious question. "When can he go home?"

"Probably in about a week. We'll want to do another EEG, and keep a close eye on his lungs to prevent any infection or inflammation." To Blair, he added, "We may want to put a breathing mask on you to deliver medication to your lungs, but as long as you're breathing on your own, you won't have to worry about any tubes going down your throat again."

Blair nodded gratefully, and the doctor left. Jim poured some ice water into a glass and held the straw to Blair's lips. He sipped thankfully, the cold liquid easing the rawness in his throat. He tried to piece together the fragments of his memory. Alex...Alex had been a criminal. Blair had tried to help her control her sentinel senses, but he'd turned his back on her once he realized she'd perverted her gifts by using them to hurt others...to kill others. She had tried to kill him --

Images of the walk to the fountain, the gun in his back, the stunning blow to his head, the first helpless, hopeless intake of water -- these recollections rushed in like a tidal wave, overpowering his sanity, and he lunged up from the bed, his mind gripped by the horror of those final moments. He had to get away!

Jim caught him, the plastic glass and it's contents spilling heedless to the floor.

In Blair's addled mind, the visions became jumbled -- a fountain, a dentist's chair, a gun, padlocked chains, the struggle to breathe, to stay alert amid a sea of choking drugs and water, the leering face of a madman, the cold, emotionless face of a woman beyond redemption. "Drowning..." he gasped helplessly.

Holding on tightly, Jim massaged the back of Blair's neck, all the while murmuring words of comfort. "You're safe," he whispered. "I've got you. You're not going to drown. I've got you." Although Blair had never suffered a spontaneous, waking flashback like this before, Jim still remembered this nightmare well. He was not surprised to have it repeated here as part of a horrifying flashback, its impact only heightened by new images of terror. "The water can't touch you," he continued gently to the trembling figure clutching desperately at his back. "Just hang on, and you'll be safe."

So Blair hung on until the worst of it had passed and his thoughts had realigned themselves with the present. After a time, he drew back shakily, a little embarrassed by his breakdown. "Sorry," he murmured, lying back under Jim's helpful hands.

Jim checked the IV needle to make sure it was still in place, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "That's OK. You were nearly killed. Your mind's probably still a bit scrambled."

"I drowned, didn't I?" Blair asked, his voice rasping painfully in his throat. "I remember that."

"We found you in time," Jim said, unable to keep from averting his eyes.

The silence was leaden. "You still haven't forgiven yourself, have you?"

Jim looked back, a frown creasing his face. "Still?"

Blair looked a little confused himself. "I had this dream -- " he began, then stopped and frowned in concentration. "We were in the rainforest. We were naked."

Jim paled slightly, his expression shuttering. The concept that they'd shared the same vision was just too weird, and he didn't want to deal with it now. "Sounds kinky," was all he said.

And with those two words, he saw the barriers go up between them like a thousand vault doors slamming shut. "Blair -- "

"Forget it," Blair interrupted coolly. "It was just a dream."

There were a hundred things Jim wanted to say, but the words kept sticking somewhere in his throat. "You need to get some rest," he said inanely.

"Sure," Blair said, "and next week I can go home. Just where is that, Jim? Do you have any ideas on that subject?"

Jim was baffled. "The loft, of course. It's where you belong."

Blair shook his head. "Not now. You threw me out."

"I thought we settled all that -- " Jim's words halted abruptly.

But Blair wasn't willing to let it drop. "Settled it when, Jim?"

In the dream. Anger erupted without warning, and he snarled, "You manipulative bastard."

"This from the master of iron-fisted control," Blair shot back, unrepentant. "I'm not going to live in your home dependent on your whim." Sarcastically, he pressed onward, ignoring the urgent warnings of the little voice inside his head that told him he was about to burn all the bridges. "But just so I don't seem totally ungracious -- thank you for giving me a place to stay. And while we're on the subject of indebtedness, did I forget to thank you for getting me a job at the precinct? I got the chance to be shot, drugged, beaten up and kidnapped -- all the swell E-ticket thrills denied your average tourist. It was all nearly as much fun as drowning!"

Jim's face was suffused with rage, his eyes hard and cold as lapis. "Let's not forget who was so damn eager to jump on for the ride -- " he began harshly.

The nurse entered the cubicle, her figure stiff with irritation. "Please keep your voices down."

"It's all right," Blair told her, turning away from Jim. "We're finished." Talk about your preemptive strike!

We're finished.

He heard the nurse speak to Jim. "Are you leaving, sir?"

"Like the man said, we're finished," Jim growled, his footsteps retreating from the ward, the hollow sounds carrying an echo of Blair's heartache.

Blair closed his eyes against the sudden threat of tears. Why the hell had he blown up like that? The little voice gave him its undeniable answer: Looks like you finally made your choice.

Then why did he feel so empty inside?

"Are you all right, Mr. Sandburg?" the nurse asked in concern.

"Go away," Blair murmured in response.

"I'll get the doctor to prescribe something to help you rest."

"No." Blair curled up defensively. "Just go the hell away."

Outside in the corridor, Jim had only a moment to quell his angry confusion before Simon hurried up to him.

"The doctor said Blair's regained consciousness."

Jim nodded, his posture rigid. "Yeah, he's gonna be OK."

Simon's relief washed the lines of tension from his face. "Thank God." He finally noticed how drawn and pale his friend looked. "Jim, you need to get some rest."

"I will," Jim promised, assembling his muddled thoughts. "Uh, Simon, Sandburg's gonna be here a few days."

"I know."

Awkwardly, Jim explained, "I mean, my being around probably won't help his recovery any. He, uh -- I don't think -- " He couldn't define his feelings.

"You mean after all this, the two of you still haven't worked out your differences?" Simon asked incredulously.

Jim shook his head. "Guess not." Abruptly, he made a decision. He reached into his pocket and handed Simon a set of keys. "Look, when he checks out of here, take him back to the loft. Here are his keys. You'll have to help him get some furniture out of storage, but he knows where the key to the basement is kept."

Simon stared at the key ring in confusion. "Where will you be?"

"I don't know." Wearily, he ran a hand through his hair. "I just can't deal with any of this now." He touched Simon on the arm. "I'll be in touch."

Suspiciously, the Captain asked, "You're not thinking about going after Alex Barnes by yourself, are you?"

"No," Jim assured him, "I'm not. If you happen to get a lead on her, though, I'd like to hear about it."

"Great. How will I reach you?"

"I don't know," Jim admitted wearily. "I'll call you or something." Without a word of farewell, he started toward the stairwell exit.

Simon stared after him in concern. "Jim, take care."

A casual wave was the only response he got, and then Jim was gone.

On to Part Two

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