Seventh Circle II: Through the Fiery Sands

By Xasphie

 

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Please note: This is a sequel to Seventh Circle http://brothersinarms.tvheaven.com/Xasphie/xasphietsgen/seventhcircle.html and may not make too much sense unless you've read that first.

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Title: Seventh Circle II: Through the Fiery Sands

Author: Xasphie

E-mail: xasphie1@aol.com

Category: Angst

Disclaimers: I don't own the characters, never have, never will

Status: Sequel. Complete

Betas: Lyn and Arianna - thank you

Summary: With the hope he felt when he thought Jim might one day recover, Blair continues to fight

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"Hey, Chief. How's it going?" Damn, Blair missed hearing that voice - especially sounding so normal.

"Not too bad, thanks, Jim." He couldn't resist the follow-up comment. "You?"

The laugh they shared was small, and only half-hearted.

Blair sat on the roof of the apartment building, air vents, wind-blown litter and residue puddles of rainwater keeping him company. He sat cross-legged against one of the surrounding walls, his back towards the view. Dressed in ripped jeans, one of Jim's t-shirts, and fending off the chills with Jim's leather jacket, this whole scenario had become his safe-haven.

"So, how many weeks has it been now, huh, Chief? Four? Five?" It was comforting to hear the voice but it was intruding today. Today, Blair needed isolation. There was too much information hurtling around in his head and repeated attempts at cataloguing it all on either a computer or on extensive sheets of paper had only confused him further. Simon's lawyer had offered copious advice and a multitude of options in terms of longer-term care - but had missed the point of the consultation entirely, simply stating that without scientific or documented proof; then Blair's claims about Jim's needs would be met with open ears, but with the likelihood of little being done.

Ellison's insurance was set to cover long-term care, and the medical staff were far more qualified and experienced than Mr. Sandburg, and perhaps he should consider leaving the decisions concerning Ellison's welfare to those with greater knowledge in these matters. However, if Mr. Sandburg could provide greater evidence based on more than fallacy and the fiction written by a certain explorer, then…

Simon had taken a slightly different tack, but was left in a similar situation, i.e. no further forward.

Mr. Ellison Senior was on a lengthy business-trip somewhere in Europe, and his housekeeper had assured the kind officers that their messages were being passed on, and that Mr. Ellison would no doubt contact them eventually. Please could they understand that the relationship between the two men was not as amicable as might have been hoped?

"So, is it five or six, Sandburg? Or are you deliberately ignoring me now?"

"It's four, Jim. And you know it." Refusing to look away from the brick wall on the opposite side that held his rapt attention, he hunched his shoulders over further to stem the infiltrating cold. "Shut up and go away, would you, man? Just for a few minutes - I'm trying to think, here."

"A guy could take offence."

Blair missed the gentle teasing, and envisaged rather than saw Jim dropping to the ground next to him, and seating himself next to his roommate.

"You know what I mean."

The legal move was a bust. The scientific move was still 'in consultation'. How much internet research could a guy do before he began to feel that he really was talking garbage, or that the answer never existed in the first place? Pulling in favors was his specialty, but somehow, this time, he was either asking the wrong people, or they were the same people who had planted the useless answers on the websites.

He had typed in words and phrases around the words 'auditory nerve', 'suppression', 'sound proof', and anything else he could think of. He found some fantastic sites offering discounted 'white noise' cds, sound-proof padding, and learned, in passing, about new technologies being developed in attempts to restore lost hearing. Which was the complete antithesis of what he sought. Having said that, he had been reminded by several website headings, that persistent loud or uncontrolled sounds could cause serious and permanent damage to the small hairs within the ear, causing substantial hearing loss.

He had also stumbled across Roald Dahl's story.

The irony had been that it had been a story Jim had remembered reading once, at school, and had commented on it to Blair during a stakeout one night. To appease his researcher, Ellison had opened his hearing then and there, to see what other sounds he might be able to identify outside the usual range, but had finished by shaking his head, wincing from the impending headache, and snatching the thermos flask of coffee from Sandburg's shivering hands.

"Four weeks, huh?" Blair could almost make out the outline of his friend next to him, but knew that if he turned to face him, he would shatter the illusion. "Twenty-eight days later, and I'll bet you haven't changed the towels in the bathroom."

"Actually, Jim, I have." He could be locked up for having a conversation with himself, but he needed to be grounded, or the stress of watching his friend fall apart further each day would have been enough to send him there with him. "Changed them a few days ago. But I am sleeping in your room right now - larger, more space… and my bed is covered in research."

"Scraps of paper, Chief. Mess." Who cared if he was imagining this whole conversation? It heartened him to pretend that Jim was here with him. "Yeah, and as soon as I have the answers and am allowed to do something about it -"

"You'll leave it there for me to clear up, when I get home."

"When you get home," he murmured in response. "Right." The dark curls had been gently moving with the breeze, and had flopped over his face. Usually strands falling over his eyes annoyed Blair to the point of pushing it back, or running his hand through his hair. Today he did nothing about them, wanting to concentrate his energies on helping the disturbing puzzle to find its place in his head, and paint the correct picture.

"You can't dial it down, can you? You've either forgotten how, or don't know that you can." Blair chewed his lip in thought and worried away the fragile top surface of skin.

"Your point being?"

"So I have to dial it down for you," he answered himself. "But I have been categorically told that your room is in the quietest wing of the hospital, and I should appreciate the concession they made of hooking up the white noise generator in the first place."

"I'm in a padded room."

"No, only occasionally, when you've become more irrational and violent."

"They're pumping my system full of crap, pretending that it's calming me down, and we both know it's not."

"That's the problem, Jim. You don't know what's real and what isn't anymore, and I can't stop them from pumping anything into you without a justifiable reason, or a court order getting you out of their care and sent elsewhere."

"Apart from the loft, where else could I go?"

"I don't know, man. It's part of what I'm trying to find out."

The wind whipped up further, and Blair dug his fingers into his armpits. He slowly rose from his place on the floor and eased himself up onto the top of the wall, swinging his legs over the edge, and wondering where he had found the nerve to stare curiously into the streets below. He was afraid of heights, and by his law, he shouldn't even be at ease this high up without a harness.

"I like exploring the Sandburg Zone, Jim." He kicked his heels against the rough surface and gripped the front edge of the brick with his hands, amazed and frightened at his own daring, surprised that the disabling thunder of fear was absent. "But it's one thing to explore it, it's another for someone else to be stuck there." He surveyed the world below, suspecting that if he stayed up there long enough, someone would panic, call the police, and he would be arrested for his own good so that he couldn't jump. "I've been talking to everyone I know about so many ideas. I even asked Serena if there's a drug I might be able to sneak into you, to tone down your hearing enough for you to have a little bit of peace." He grinned at the recollection of her shocked face. "If she didn't know me better, she might have thought I was being serious." His grin faded. "Problem being, that I was."

The bizarreness of his position rammed home in the fraction of a second before his body's natural rocking motion plunged him off the building and into the traffic-filled street below. Confused as to why he'd even thought to be up on the wall, he swung his legs back round, and took deep, calming breaths.

"What worries me the most, is that the doctors could be right, and anything I try might do you more harm than good." The roof had seemed like the perfect place just after Blair's first visit to the sanitarium - away from the loft that spelled his friend's name in capital letters, the PD, the University, the stores they visited, the streets they walked, the telephones. Just away. He used his time up here to 'communicate' with Jim. Naomi had never laughed at him when he'd told her about his invisible friend when he was small. As he had grown up, he had known that to talk to an invisible friend, was to be effectively talking to yourself, but she welcomed such actions and deemed them an excellent way of discovering what you were truly thinking or feeling.

"What are you going to do next?" For some reason, 'Jim' never followed him back into the building, so they would have to say their farewells shortly, as Blair stretched out his aching muscles, and took a final glance towards the distant horizons.

"I'm going to come and visit you again, Jim. Just like I always do in the afternoons." He gazed out over the rooftops, and smiled. "I always wondered what it would be like to borrow your heightened senses, if only for a day. Just to see it for myself. But now…"

But now, he would happily exchange his place for Jim's.

He hated to see people in a position that they hated, and that they couldn't control. He couldn't bear to see their frustrations and the pain of their worries. Jim was one step beyond all of that, and if he could, Blair would switch with him in a heartbeat.

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Sitting in the sparsely furnished waiting room, Blair was becoming a master at thinking up mind games based on the brown linoleum floor tiles. He didn't understand why they sometimes waited anything up to half an hour before letting him in to see Jim. What the hell was there to do? Comb his hair, brush his teeth, pick him up off yet another floor?

His brown lace-up boots scuffed lazily across the tiles, as he tried to complete a star shape with the marks the soles left. Comparing his current footwear to the sneakers he recently tossed in the trash, he idly thought of how he was wearing better quality clothing now, and how his style was slowly changing. Had his time living with Ellison influenced him so much, or was he simply growing up?

Or was he just able to buy at stores other than the thrift shop, now he didn't have to ensure he had enough money in his pocket to make the rent each month.

Yeah, it was a good partnership.

He had to admit that the present dilemma with Jim's senses would make the most extraordinary chapter in his dissertation, and he also knew that he would have to produce an outline sometime in the near future to stave off the vulture frenzy of the committee.

Satisfied that the scuffed star was of a decent quality, and annoyed that the ticking clock was about to announce the conclusion of another fifteen minute delay, he sat back and almost wished for the squeak of rubber against linoleum again to keep company with the persistent clock.

Ticking clocks were something that he had grown to loathe. Maybe it had something to do with the number of close shaves he'd had with digital displays that were counting backwards and not forwards. It was like the clicking of keys on a computer keyboard, or the sound of someone chewing with their mouth open - little pet hates that he had.

Sticking his fingers in his ears to block out the ticking of the clock, he reflected that at least he didn't have Ellison's problem of hearing the clicking keyboards in the next building, and the people eating in the diner down the street.

The longer he sat with his fingers attempting to block out the sound, the more he noticed the build up of noise within his own head. The same roaring that you hear when you press a conch shell to your ear, or the distant rumble of the metro train approaching in the distance. And behind it all was the steady whump of his own heartbeat pulsating through his fingers, and out through his head.

Even when the orderly arrived to guide him to Ellison's room, Blair remained in his seat, his fingers firmly plugged into his ears, and a frown adorning his brow. Right here was the root of his predicament, and he was angry with himself for wasting much of the previous day battling arguments that didn't need to be won.

No amount of soundproofing of a room would help Jim at this point in time. It wasn't that they needed to limit the amount of exterior noise, because the moment they reduced that, it would be overcompensated for by all of his own body sounds, demanding their share of attention.

It was a small wonder that the man was able to understand anything anyone said to him - it must be like trying to follow a conversation in a crowded nightclub, or in the middle of a rock concert, or during the roar of a last minute basket as the Jags won a game.

Somehow, Blair had to get his friend to control this from the inside out - external stimulus could be limited where possible - but this was going to be difficult.

How do you try and ask someone to turn the music down when it's so loud you can't hear their request?

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For the first time in any of his visits, Blair simply sat on the floor next to Jim's safe place, and allowed the repeated litany of the distraught man's words to wash over him. He didn't even attempt eye contact, and the only physical contact came when Ellison gradually eased himself into Blair's personal space and took up his customary position - secure, comfortable, and receiving the only form of contact his alienated world currently allowed him.

The standard initial outburst had been less today, and the hand soothing and calming sounds had been a far shorter event. This time, it was almost as if Jim was exploring his usual script, but battling against Blair's own.

When the wording reached the words: 'I didn't mean to kill you', for yet another rendition, something inside of Sandburg snapped and he rammed himself out of his own zone and straight into Ellison's face.

"Really?" The older man had been cradled in his arms as usual, but despite the slow rocking, Blair couldn't relax and found himself tensing. The result was instantaneous as Jim sensed the change and pulled himself away, crawling on hands and knees back to his corner - legs drawn up, hands clasped around the knees, the steady back-and-forth movement irritating the hell out of the witnessing Sandburg.

"You tell me every day that you didn't mean to kill me," he spat, the vehemence of his words causing the spittle from his mouth to reach the patient in such close proximity. But it was pointless; he knew it. "So why don't you open your eyes and see that you didn't?" Blair brought his own knees up underneath him and knelt in front of his friend. "I have no idea what to do here, Jim, and I'm trying so hard not to give up hope."

"Didn't mean to kill…"

"I KNOW." He grabbed up the hands that were white-knuckled against the cotton pants, and held them firmly in his grip. "I know, Jim, man, I know. You tell me that every day." He pulled the unwilling hands up to his face and bowed his head onto the clenching fingers. "I don't know what to do next. I need you to come back to me a little like you did the other day, I need something to know that you're still in there and I haven't lost you completely or…" His bloodshot eyes looked up from the enclosed fists, and wearily gazed at the haggard face of his suffering friend. "Or none of this will have been worth it, and we will have lost everything."

The rocking refused to abate, so, reluctantly, Blair hedged away from his own needs and inched his way into Ellison's corner. There was an unspoken mandatory thirty minutes to be held, of Jim safe and nestled in his friend's shoulder. There were still another ten to go.

For the precious remaining minutes, Blair cradled his friend in his arms. Silent. Scared.

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Blair wasn't surprised when Simon told him that attempts to be granted power of medical attorney had failed. It had been one of many ideas he had flung out there, in a desperate bid to help Jim. What was becoming of more concern was the diminishing number of options remaining available. While acknowledging the hospital psychiatrist's own hypnosis sessions with the increasingly incoherent patient, Blair had nevertheless tried several sessions of his own – failing equally as miserably, and if anything, almost felt as though it had made Jim regress.

Nothing beyond the recitative stream of "I didn't mean to kill you" had emerged from Ellison's lips since the last aborted attempt, four days before. Not only was his mental health deteriorating, but there was no longer any spontaneous desire to consume the food placed in front of him. More worrying, was when he had been given a bowl of soup with a spoon, and Jim had simply stared at it, unable to understand the function of the spoon, and unclear as to what he should do with the contents of the bowl. When a nurse had endeavored to assist him, he had grown so nervous and agitated that she had been forced to withdraw, unsuccessful. When Blair had arrived for his hourly visit, he too had tried to get Jim to eat, but all to no avail. The difficult decision of how to force nutrition into the slowly degenerating body was left to the medical staff, but Sandburg understood their quandary as he nervously paced the corridor outside the center manager's office. Sedating Jim to feed him using an IV drip or a naso-gastric tube would only alleviate the issue of food, and probably complicate the mental health issue. However, unless he was sedated, their only other option would be to secure his wrists, causing greater agitation, which would in turn lead to sedation anyway. And if they catered for Jim's mental health needs over his physical needs, and didn't sedate him, he wouldn't receive any sustenance.

Either way, the hope that Blair had begun to feel a few short weeks before was evaporating so fast he could barely keep himself upright. His own breathing was ragged as he reviewed and rejected every path they'd tried, he had tried hypnosis, they had tried drugs, they had tried seclusion, inclusion, silence, music, white noise, voices, restraint, calm, anger... It felt like they had tried everything. Now it seemed that Ellison's subconscious had had enough, and was seeking its own respite.

Whether voluntarily or not, the detective's mind had chosen to believe that his partner was dead – dead by his own intentionally aimed and fired weapon. More than four weeks had passed with Ellison spiraling further and further into his self-enforced isolation, and unable to communicate the world he felt he must have failed. Was refusal to understand the function of food his body's way of asking for release? Sedation to ensure the delivery of essential nutrients would take the Sentinel into an uncontrollable descent mentally, and no sedation in order to preserve what little was left of his sanity, would mean no food, and inevitably lead to death.

The choices were unacceptable.

Except they weren't choices – they were the only two mandatory options. One had to be chosen.

Either way, Blair realized as he fell against the corridor wall, slamming hopeless fists against the cracked paint, he had lost Jim.

Jim may have felt as though he had failed the world, but to Blair, since finding the best friend he had had the privilege to know, it was he who had failed. Jim would have trusted Blair to find the answers – after all, that's what he had always done, wasn't it? Trusted Blair to find the solution to any of the problems with his senses. His olfactory sense was out of whack: "Try this herbal tea, Jim, it tastes like shit, but it works, trust me". His sense of touch was out, and it was Blair who instantly reverted to the previous brand of detergents and washing powder. Even knowing that the kid was flying by the seat of his pants, he had never doubted the student's ability to find the answer, and that confidence had led Blair forwards.

Until now.

As he continued to punch battered knuckles against the wall, Sandburg's teeth went from gnawing on his lips to gnashing against each other, the frustration and fear pouring out of him. He didn't even notice when the solid figure of Simon approached and stood in front of him, the captain's own body shaking as he fought his own battle with fear and concern. As the echo of his footsteps faded, the dulled ring of pounding fists took up a rhythm of their own. Gulping down the lump that was making his own breathing so difficult, Banks broke into the graduate's personal space, and stood, silently, waiting for his friend to notice him.

But when the self-mutilation descended into sobs, Simon could take no more. Placing one large hand in a firm grip on Sandburg's shoulder, the other tipped the younger man's face to look towards him. "Kid." His voice cracked as he formed the words. "You tried." Those eyes that bore straight into his held all the pain and suffering that had been so well concealed. This was hurting both of them so much. "Let them do what needs to be done."

His lips quivering, and his cheeks glistening from the explosion of tears, Blair could barely muster an answer. A distorted mutter that forced Banks to lean in closer to catch the words, released the words, "I failed."

"No," the captain admonished, pulling his friend in to a tight embrace. "No, you didn't, kid." Almost mirroring Blair's own actions with Jim over the previous several weeks, Simon rubbed his hand up and down Sandburg's back as he held him, offering physical comfort where he now failed to find the words.

There didn't seem to be any words to cover the situation beyond Blair's own. Perhaps they had failed Jim after all.

They would shortly discover if their friend was to be sedated, or…

There was no "or".

The creaking of the office door and the footfalls pre-empted the center manager's invitation into his office.

Yes, they clearly understood his position, and his inability to share confidential patient information. They appreciated every consideration he had given them, and the accessibility he had offered to pertinent facts. And yes, they were also aware that the elusive Ellison Sr. held power of attorney, and had been in touch, via fax only, to relinquish the tougher decisions to the medical staff.

With this in mind, and with the welfare of the patient at the heart of the decision, James Ellison was to be sedated until such time as he could feed himself. He would be roused periodically to assess his condition, but in the meantime, for the safety of both the patient and the attending staff, he would also be placed in wrist restraints.

Banks, having fully expected this outcome, was nevertheless in shock, feeling that this was the executioner's final call. Blair Sandburg, on the other hand, was glad he had skipped lunch when he dry-heaved into the hastily re-positioned wastepaper basket, his own hopes destroyed.

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It had felt like he was saying goodbye. Blair had stood to the side and watched while the nurses strapped his friend to the bed, and adjusted the restraints, then set about securing the IV lines. It hadn't taken long for Jim's weary eyes to lose focus and drift shut, his face finally softening as though he was grateful that his nightmare could at least be allayed for a time.

Sandburg had held one of the lax hands in his own as Jim began the first of many hours of enforced sleep. The worry lines seemed to slowly relax, and some of the tension faded from Blair's body as he acknowledged for himself that this was the kindest solution. He lightly brushed his hand across his sentinel's face, silently thanking him for the years that they had had, and for the irreplaceable friendship. He looked so tranquil lying there, as though he was having a gentle dream, and the alarm was about to wake him for another day as the great sentinel, or as plain Detective Ellison. It didn't seem quite right that he would only awake now when the medical staff chose for him to, and even then, would only be to test for an unpredicted and unlikely improvement.

Blair sat for hours, cataloguing his friend, mulling over successes and failures, and treasuring all the good memories. It was far into the night before Simon approached once again, and had to forcefully suggest that he leave. As the lost guide stood, he leant over and whispered his simple apology into Jim's ear, hoping that he might finally be finding some peace.

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Trafford Sanitarium was an unimposing building, built in the late 1970s, and the brown brickwork could have housed any nature of business. The bars on the lower floor windows were on the inside, and barely noticeable unless viewed in close quarters. The lawns stretching away from the entrance were well-tended, and the sparsely populated parking lot sat in the shadow of security cameras and a sign welcoming the visitor to the home of those who had reached a crisis point in their lives.

Blair sat in the car, his hands on the wheel and his chin resting on the back of his wrists. He had been sitting there for the better part of an hour, gazing up at the off-white sign, the letters long having transformed into a meaningless set of shapes. Out of the two of them, he would have figured that if it had to have been either of them, it would have been Blair who was destined to finish his days in somewhere like this.

He liked to think that Jim would have devoted as much time with him as Blair had, but he didn't know how the detective would have reacted to the pep talk the center manager had given him earlier. It had been three days since the sedation had begun, and Blair had maintained his twice daily visits, sitting quietly with the man, his thoughts twisting in so many confusing directions, and somehow unable to voice any of the turmoil in his head. Not considering his own health, he hadn't realized how many meals he had missed or how little sleep he had had; for weeks, his days had revolved around his schedule at the University, the sanitarium, and trying to find the elusive solution to the increasingly dire situation.

It wasn't until he had stood at the end of today's second visit, that his legs had betrayed him, and Blair had found himself guided into the manager's office, force-fed a sandwich, and given "the talk". A man who could have been tainted by an often demoralizing job, the manager had talked kindly about the two kinds of visitors they received in the majority - the ones who sporadically arrived out of nothing but guilt or duty, and those who put their own lives on hold to dedicate all their time to the patient, be it relation or friend. He asked that Blair consider taking some time for himself, perhaps some time away from Cascade so that he could attempt to put his world back into perspective. No, he wasn't asking him to give up all hope on his friend, but it was essential that Blair didn't give up on his own life in exchange. And no, he wasn't banning him from the center; he was simply stating the obvious from an objective point of view.

Blair had to admit that his classes had suffered from his preoccupation - to the point where he hadn't even noticed that the majority of his students had left his afternoon class in despair, until the very end, when he had finally remembered to ask if there were any questions. One of the girls had come to the front as she left, and suggested that he ease off on whatever drugs he was taking. He had frowned at the audacity of the comment until he saw himself in the bathroom mirror, and had seen the black lines under his eyes, the unkempt hair, and the pallor of his skin that she had misinterpreted. At which point, he had packed up his bag and headed straight back to Trafford.

He didn't want to consider the future; it looked too bleak. If he couldn't help his sentinel, then what was the point in writing a thesis in the first place, when the content was supposed to be written by someone who was knowledgeable on the subject? That aside, he had lost his friend.

Clenching and unclenching his fists one last time, Blair let out an exasperated sigh and dropped his hands down, catching the ignition key on the way and firing the engine. Simon had threatened to turn up at the loft and baby-sit him into eating and sleeping, and it wouldn't look so good if Sandburg wasn't even there when he arrived. His throat ached as he glanced over his shoulder, searching for the window to Jim's room, and he blinked away the tears that he refused to let fall.

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Simon and Rafe had cleaned out the refrigerator, restocked it, wiped down the counter-tops and cleared away a lot of the mess that had been accumulating. Rafe had then left to start his night-shift, and Simon had been the one to ease Blair out of his shoes and tuck him up on the couch, having grabbed the pillow from the futon, and surveyed the scattered life in the small room.

Knowing how his own mind raced sometimes at night, Simon had left the television set playing quietly to itself, and waited until Blair's breathing had turned into gentle snores. It scared him to think that unless someone stepped in, he would be losing another of his friends to the bizarre events that had led to today. The kid needed to learn that he did not have to fight this on his own, nor did he have to give up the fight either.

It wasn't the center manager's responsibility to call the captain about Sandburg overdoing himself, but from a humane point of view, it had taken a third party to see how withdrawn and ill the student had become.

Banks took a final look around the loft, pocketed Blair's wallet, and the keys to both the Volvo and the truck, and pulled the door closed behind him. He would return first thing in the morning, but in the meantime, he didn't want Sandburg visiting anywhere other than the inside of his eyelids.

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Man, he hated it when his dreams confused reality with fuck-knew-what. There was a weird mixture of ideas flooding through his head when his own snoring woke him up, and Blair fell nose-first off the front of the couch. He landed awkwardly and cursed the cramp that had already started in his neck; stretching out as best he could and hauling himself back onto the seat. He scrubbed his hair into some form of order, and rubbed the remains of the strange dreams out of his eyes.

Idly catching the pictures coming from the television screen, he found the source of some of the weirder elements that had impinged on his dreams, and clicked off the repeat of the hospital drama. He'd had enough personal experience of hospitals to know how fallacious the majority of the scenarios on the television were.

One shower, one battle with the coffee machine, one fulfilling breakfast and one irritated hunt for his keys later, Blair answered the door to Simon. He spent much of the ensuing conversation frowning. He wanted to dislodge some of the more spurious ideas that were leftovers of his dreams, so it wasn't until Banks lightly punched his arm and threatened to remove the vehicle keys once more, that Blair was forced to verbalize the stupidity of his thoughts.

Strangely though, it didn't seem so incredulous when he uttered it out loud, and Simon, to his credit, simply listened.

"Think about it this way," Banks responded, once Blair had rearranged his random thoughts and produced the vague outline of a plan. "If you don't try this, how are you going to feel, not knowing whether or not it might have worked?" He stepped forward, stilling Sandburg's gesticulating arms, and placing the Volvo keys into his palm, closing his fingers over them. "Go. Try."

Blair looked at the shiny keys he now held, and then up at the man he respected. "I will." He pushed the chair under the kitchen table, straightened the pile of papers that sat there, and slipped on his shoes, ready to leave. "I'll do this."

"Do what you do best, Sandburg." Banks smiled, as the missing energy seemed to reinstate itself. He folded his arms and felt a warm glow when his young friend scuttled out of the door, almost tripping over himself. "Call me later," he yelled after him, laughing out loud with the overwhelming relief that there might, just might, be one more possibility.

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Blair spent most of the day scribbling notes, making phone calls and begging favors. He had to believe that his crazy idea could work, but in his heart of hearts, there was a nagging doubt that he was just scrabbling for artificial hope. Simon was right, in that he had to at least try. If he didn't, could he ever live with himself for not having tried? He knew he couldn't.

An hour after Trafford's visiting hours were over, the center manager was surprised to find an almost bouncing Mr. Sandburg demanding to be allowed to place a tape loop system next to James Ellison's bed.

"And what do you hope to achieve by this?" the man had asked, already knowing that anything was better than nothing. He wasn't immune to new ideas.

"It's worth a try, isn't it?" Blair had begged, already leaving the room, machine hooked firmly under his arm. "What have I got to lose?"

And so, for the next twenty-four hours, Jim's heavily-sedated emaciated figure was subject to a continuous loop of his errant roommate cajoling him in an encouragement of words to dial back his sense of hearing, and his conception of pain. The looped recording was underscored by the quiet tones of the music from the Yanomamo Tribe. It was a simplistic four minute looped track which incorporated the music that Jim had first heard in Blair's office, the phrases Blair had used the most in their time together, and the instructions to "dial it back" and to "bring it back". It also included the plaintive plea of "I need you, man".

Blair knew that there was documentary evidence of people in comas being able to hear the voices of those around them, and, while he wasn't expecting the miracle recovery that had clearly taken place on the television hospital show that he'd seen that morning, he was still hoping for something.

He also knew that hoping Jim could hear the recording was in total contradiction to the peace he had wished on him when the sedation had begun.

Perhaps, by having the words playing non-stop, a small element of their meaning might begin to sink in to the traumatized conscious and sub-consciousness of his suffering friend.

It was a long shot, but it was worth trying.

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The Trafford psychiatrist who had initially tried hypnosis on Ellison viewed the loop machine with a wry smile at the end of the first twenty-four hours. She had no problem with this idea, despite her uncertainty with the phrasing about "dialing it down". The sedation level had been dropped several hours before, in a repeated test to gauge the patient's sentience, and Sandburg was dutifully standing by, hoping against hope that there might be the faintest glimmer of recognition in the eyes that were currently being tested with the penlight.

Another hour ticked by; the psychiatrist patted Sandburg on the arm, promised a return visit the following evening, and shared the nod from the attending doctor acknowledging continued failure.

The sedation levels were increased once more, the loop machine was switched back on, and Blair's heart slowly sank.

He spent a further two hours clutching the cracked skin of Ellison's hand, desperate for something positive, and only deigning to leave when his head dropped against the sheets and the nurse had to rouse him.

Bored with the sound of his own voice coming from the low-volume machine, Blair sighed and fumbled for his keys. He couldn't give up; this was the only idea he had left. It had to work.

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The next night was almost an exercise in deja vu as the only sign of awareness Ellison exhibited was utter panic and moans of pain. The same as it had been every night.

And the same as it was the night after that.

The hope that had flickered inside of him when Ellison had made that short step back towards reality, weeks before, was fading. As was Jim's body. The skin was almost opaque, its condition worsening daily, and his muscle tone was disappearing. The person that had teased Blair about getting his hair cut, about humping table legs, about leaving wet towels on the floor – that wasn't the same person lying here. This wasn't the man that Blair had hugged goodbye to at the airport before his trip to South America.

It would help to place emotional distance between the memory and the man, he figured as he turned away and slowly left the room. It was only a matter of time.

He barely noticed when the nurse dutifully switched on the loop machine one last time, the phrasing engraved on his heart. The same place where he was storing and locking the memories. The same place that was hurting so much he could hardly walk, hardly breathe. And if the end came, then he wasn't sure he would want to breathe any longer.

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"I already told you, man, I want to be left alone." It was raining, Blair was soaked, and he was shivering from the cold.

"I'm not leaving you alone, Sandburg. You get yourself into too much trouble when I'm not around to save you."

"Yeah, yeah, pamper your ego, Jim. Go ahead." He kicked at the puddles that were forming around his feet, as he sat on the drenched apartment roof, staring into the thick clouds overhead. "And if you're so concerned about me getting into trouble, then why don't you just wake the hell up and come and save me in person? Answer me that, huh?" His heel smacked against the surface, shaking some of the water from his jeans. "You're so damn concerned, but it's killing me to watch you slowly leave me."

The thunderclap was so close, it seemed to shake the wall he was leaning against, but Sandburg was so far beyond the point of caring, he almost wished the next bolt of lightning might be a direct strike and then all of his worries would be over.

"I was stupid enough to think that my foolish idea might work."

"But it will," the fictitious Jim interrupted, pleading with his friend. "You just haven't worked out how, yet."

"What the fuck do you mean by that?" Blair demanded, wishing he could hit the man, but horribly conscious that he was only arguing with himself. "I tried what I thought might just work and…"

"You've forgotten what I said," Jim pointed out, a patronizing edge lacing his tone. "Just remember what I said, and it'll work."

"Remember what? 'Clean the bath when you're done, Sandburg', or 'I thought I told you not to play your music so loud'. Which bit did you want me to remember?" It had been building for so long, that when Blair found himself screaming at the top of his voice, in a bitter argument with the rumbling thunder, it came as no surprise. He yelled pitifully against the hopelessness of the whole situation, and wished that his conversation had been with a panther, or taken place in a blur of white light, so he could know that there was some element of truth, possibly. As it was, he knew he had just been fighting wi -

'I thought that if I listened more, I'd hear your heartbeat again.'

No.

He'd tried that, for fuck's sake. One of the first things he had tried in the weeks after Jim had said that, he had pressed Jim's head against his chest, forcing him to listen to the familiar and steady thump of the heartbeat that he said he couldn't hear.

What was he missing, that part of him seemed to think could still work?

They were fast running out of time, and Blair had thought he was out of ideas. It had hurt to call Simon with the negative results of the looped tape, it had seemed a weird idea, but worth a go. Now, something in him was suggesting a similar idea, but working with the phrase that Jim had given him.

If only he could work out the best way forward.

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"Sandburg, I say it again. You. Are. Insane."

Blair continued hauling across the computer monitor, and shoved the plug into the socket. "Humor me, Simon. I believe someone not too far from me, asked me how I'd feel if I didn't try out the idea." He flipped on the monitor, and waited for the screen to crystallize.

"Yes, but that was when you were suggesting recording a repeated message, hoping that Jim might hear it and react."

"Maybe I was wrong." Blair shoved some typed sheets under Simon's nose, and squared his shoulders. "This is the last idea I have, and it's all I have left. Please. For Jim." The blue eyes moistened. "For me."

Simon couldn't help feeling uneasy, especially with the audience in the hospital room, but if Blair was adamant, then he'd seen crazier things while working with these two. Anything was worth a shot.

"So what's on this recording that you and your friend spent the day producing?" Simon was curious as he scanned the words Blair had printed out for him.

"Audio ripped from a few TV shows, sound effects, my heartbeat." Sandburg placed the small speakers on either side of Jim's head, and nodded to the attending nurse and doctor that he was ready.

The level of sedation had been lifted considerably in order for this latest test to be carried out. The hospital were under no illusions that this would be any more successful than anything else that had been attempted, but it didn't seem to be causing the patient any distress.

Simon jumped when the computer program started to run the sound file, and the room was instantly filled with the sounds of raised voices, followed by gunshots, panicked shouts, sirens and the transmission from a police radio. The staged dialogue could have come from any number of cop shows, but Banks had to give the kid credit for the compilation he and his tech friend had produced. The paramedic dialogue sounded like it had come from a reality show, and he was wondering at the smooth transition into the audio of the hospital when he found Sandburg pointing at the sheet, and demanding he shout the words there.

He felt foolish yelling "Sandburg's been shot, Sandburg's been shot", when the kid was standing right next to him, nodding in encouragement, but it fitted in perfectly with the sounds coming from the speakers. His next lines included Rafe's and Brown's names, demanding they call Taggart, and seeing if someone could get in contact with Naomi. "And see if anyone can find Ellison," he added, managing to add authority into the line. The intensity of activity continued, the nurse and doctor in the room grinning at some of the medical inaccuracies that were being fired out of the speakers. "We're losing him," came the much-copied line from any number of TV shows.

It was at this point that the unmistakable pounding of a heartbeat seemed to swallow the majority of other sounds, and Blair nervously chewed on his fingers, as he stood closer to the bed. This was what he was aiming at with the whole, far-reached idea. In the recording, the pounding of the heartbeat became erratic, and was soon drowned with a continual tone, closely followed by "Get me 10cc of adrenalin," yelled one voice, interrupted by another demanding paddles turned up to 200. The heartbeat hiccupped once, but fell back to a drone, only to hiccup again and fall back.

Blair looked up at Simon, despair written on his face, as he failed to notice any reaction in Jim. The sedation should have been light enough for Ellison to be hearing every decibel of this recording. Perhaps they weren't far enough through yet.

"360," an anonymous voice called out, a whirr of electricity, a thump, another hiccup, and a steady heartbeat thrumming so loudly out of the speakers, they vibrated against the pillows. "We've got him," announced another voice, needlessly.

The heartbeat became the dominant sound, as the other synthesized sounds were faded into the background.

If this didn't work, then…

There was silence in the room as the recording came to an end, and Simon placed his sheet of paper next to the computer monitor. The nurse stepped forward to shine the obligatory penlight into the patient's eyes, and glanced hesitantly towards the awaiting people.

There was very little pupil reaction to the light, and if there were to be any reaction to the stimulus that had played out, now would have been the time. She tried again a few moments later, but nothing had changed.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, pulling back and letting Sandburg reach an unsteady hand towards his friend. The doctor gestured for Simon to join him outside for a quiet word, while the nurse surreptitiously slipped out to leave Blair alone with Jim.

The sick feeling of failure was overwhelming, as Blair took Jim's hand in his own once more. "You said it would work." The whispered words sank slowly through the air. "You said it would work." He pressed the palm of Jim's hand against his chest, where his heart was beating so hard, his ribs were hurting. "I don't know what else to do." His chin dropped down as he gazed at the now-brittle fingernails that had never been so clean. "I need your permission to give up, man." He swallowed hard, and fought for the next breath. "I need to know it's okay to let you go now, Jim."

The despair he felt was causing him enough difficulty in keeping his legs straight, his lungs inhaling air, and his heart beating.

He stroked the back of the limp hand, held so tightly in his own, before slowly placing it back on the sheets.

Perhaps it would be okay to give up now.

As he released the pale hand, he almost laughed to think that the fingers had hooked his just a little as he pulled away. Wanting to keep that final positive thought, he patted Jim's arm and grinned at the man who was his friend.

"Thanks, man. Thanks for being there. I just wish you could know that you didn't kill me, and that I'm here. That I'm okay."

For the last time, Blair ran a gentle finger across Jim's brow.

It took a moment to register that the eyes weren't completely closed anymore, and that there was small movement from the dry lashes.

"Jim?" Blair wasn't sure what he was seeing, and he didn't want to ruin the magic of this illusion. Surely it wasn't possible.

But they were there – the blue eyes that had been closed to the real world for too many weeks, were slowly focusing on Blair. Jim was actually making eye contact. There was no emotion of fear or confusion being emitted from them; no panic - there was only a look of…

Blair could have cried.

It was one of recognition.

It was a start.

 

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http://www.italianstudies.org/hui235/outline_of_inferno.htm gives a description of each of Dante's Cantos, including the Seventh Circle.

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Fin

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copyright Xasphie 1st September 2005

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