Dark, Silent Night
Part 2

Jim was only two blocks away when the explosion hit, and if not for his Sentinel vision, he never would have seen the two figures thrown backward by the force of the blast. He identified Sandburg immediately from the wild mop of long, curly hair and pressed harder on the accelerator, beating the half dozen squad cars and the ambulance as he slid to a screeching halt in front of the burning wreck.

He felt relief beyond words at seeing Blair alive, but that relief was overshadowed by dull horror as Sandburg lay unmoving on the opposite sidewalk in front of the dwindling inferno. Jim flew out of the truck, dropping next to his partner. A young boy, burned and black with soot, lay clutched in Blair's arms, resting almost peacefully on Sandburg's chest. Jim's ears picked up only one heartbeat, and he knew immediately that the child was dead.

"Oh, Chief." His eyes scanned Blair's half-naked, battered form.

It was obvious that Blair had been trying to save the child, and Jim knew the boy's death would hit his sensitive partner hard. The boy's body seemed to shield most of Sandburg's chest from the brunt of the blast, but Blair's face was blistered, checkered red and black with burns and soot. The ambulance pulled to an abrupt stop a few feet away, and the distant wail of more sirens indicated the approach of fire trucks.

Jim shifted aside, allowing the paramedics access to his injured partner but staying close enough for his own comfort. A flash of pained emotions touched one of the EMT's faces -- a young man with cropped brown hair and hazel eyes. His eyes met Jim's, and the detached paramedic's mask fell into place as he turned his attention back to the two figures on the blacktop.

After checking both pulses, the paramedics carefully slid Blair's arms off of the child. The motion caused a small groan from Blair, and he attempted to tighten his grip on the boy, but the paramedics eased the dead child away from him. One began resuscitation efforts on the child while the other continued his examination of  Sandburg.

Sandburg stirred some more as the paramedic took his blood pressure. A small, pained whimper escaped the young man, and his eyes fluttered open. He blinked several times, a low, guttural groan rumbling from his throat as he turned his head away from the paramedic.

"Easy, Chief." Jim scooted forward and placed a gentle hand on his friend's forehead.

Blair jerked away, the groan rising to a desperate, pained wail, and he pushed at the paramedic's arm, cradling his right hand to his chest. He twisted away from the man, and the pitch of his cries changed as the pain seemed to register more completely. He brought his hand up to his eyes and arched his back as though trying to move away from the source of the agony.

"I need some help here!" the paramedic announced just as the fire trucks and a second ambulance squealed onto the scene.

Jim offered his help while the other paramedic continued his resuscitation attempts on the boy and barked information into the radio.

"Careful, just hold his arm away from his face," the paramedic instructed.

With a nod, Jim complied, being gentle with Blair's injured hand and gashed wrists but wrapping his hands around both of Blair's arms to keep the younger man still. "Shhh. Blair, it's okay. It's okay."

Blair tossed his head from side to side, his eyes opened but swollen from the burns. He didn't seem to see or hear Jim, and his struggles gained momentum until he was bucking beneath Jim's hold and screaming at the top of his lungs. With a burst of strength that must have been due to adrenaline, Blair twisted out of Jim's careful grip and scampered away.

"Shit!" both men exclaimed in unison.

Jim had been trying not to aggravate his partner's injuries, and it was damn hard to keep hold of Blair without hurting him. The paramedic lunged forward after Sandburg, and more EMTs converged upon the young man. Blair backed into a young female paramedic, and before she could catch him, he lurched away, moving in an awkward, slow crawl toward Jim, sharp cries of pain erupting from his throat with each move forward.

"Hold it!" Jim waved the paramedics back as he studied his partner.

Blair's eyes were wide despite the swelling from the burns, and he looked panicked, confused, his gaze darting wildly over the area. Looking but not seeing.

Jim gut twisted. "Oh God, I think he's blind."

"That's a possibility, but we really need to get to him," one of the EMTs replied flatly.

"Jim?"

Ellison looked up to see Simon standing next to two of the paramedics, his eyes pinched with concern.

"He can't see us, sir," Jim repeated miserably, then looked back at Blair.

Sandburg had stopped moving and now lay curled in a ball on the blacktop. His eyes were open but staring vacantly at some point just over Jim's shoulder. Jim inched forward, one hand extended.

"Blair?" He kept his voice strong but even. "Come on, buddy. Take it easy. You're okay."

Blair didn't even acknowledge him until Jim touched his shoulder, then he yelped in surprise and flinched back, batting wildly at the air with his good hand. It was then that Jim came to another, horrifying conclusion. "He can't hear."

Simon knelt down next to Jim, his eyes miserable as they swept over the young man on the blacktop. "God, Jim. He's blind and deaf?"

Jim's throat tightened, and he had a hard time forcing the words out. "Yeah. I think so."

"Awww, hell. How are we going to get through to him?" Simon sounded as lost as Jim had ever heard him.

An idea sprang to mind and Jim reached into Simon's jacket pocket. "A cigar, sir, please." He didn't wait for a response as he retrieved the item.

"Sure, but how's that going to help?"

"One moment, sir."

Jim moved forward again. Careful not to make contact with Blair, Jim held the cigar under Sandburg's nose. For several seconds, Blair gave no response, then, slowly, he lifted his head and sniffed the item, his brow creasing. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he reached out with his good hand and wrapped his fingers around the cylindrical object. The cigar shook in his grip, but he held onto it like a child with a lollipop.

"S-Simon?" Blair's voice trembled. "Jim?"

"Right here." Jim slowly reached forward and gently cupped his hand around Blair's.

"J-Jim?" Blair inquired again, his voice breaking.

Blair shifted forward, dropping the cigar to the pavement and reaching out almost desperately. His hand contacted Jim's face, his fingers brushing over the strong features and then sweeping over the short, cropped hair. It was then that Jim saw the fear crumble in Blair's eyes, replaced by pain and a heart-wrenching, desperate need.

Jim needed no further prodding. He leaned forward and, with exquisite care, wrapped his arms around Sandburg, pulling him close. "Right here, Chief. I'm right here," he whispered, even though he knew the words were lost on his friend.

Blair clung to Jim, trembling, sobbing with a mixture of pain, misery, and exhaustion. "Jim... I can't see. I can't hear my voice." He tensed suddenly, his heart rate skyrocketing. "Tommy! Where's Tommy? Jim, he..."

Jim tightened his grip and nodded at the paramedics, giving them the go-ahead. They rushed forward and Jim released Blair to their care, almost groaning with the effort it took to do so, but he did keep one hand firmly wrapped around Blair's, listening helplessly to his friend's desperate pleas for the child.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim and Simon sat in the waiting room, both silent, both waiting for news about their friend's condition. Blair had been swept away by a horde of physicians nearly two hours ago, and Jim and Simon hadn't heard a word from the doctors since.

"Thanks, Joel." Simon's voice resonated through the quiet room.

Jim looked up just as a hot styrofoam cup was placed in his hands. Automatically, his fingers closed around the cup and he managed a small smile. "Thanks, Joel."

"No problem."

"Did you just get here?" Jim asked absently, not really focusing on what he was saying.

"Yeah. What's the word?"

Jim shook his head, slouching deeper into the chair. "No word, yet."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was terrifying. His world was a dark, silent void of agony. His eyes burned so intensely he wanted to scratch them out, but he couldn't raise his arms. His left leg throbbed and his right hand ached with hot pain. His head pounded, and his mouth and throat felt dry and scratchy. He thought he was screaming because he could feel his vocal chords vibrating painfully, but no sound emerged, so he tried to scream louder and louder, hoping he could penetrate the impenetrable blackness, wondering if this was what it was like to feel one's self slipping into madness.

He felt hands all over him, touching and burning him. He was lifted from one place to another, and the hands touched his face, probing his eyelids. He flinched, seeking a refuge from the pain, but it was everywhere, covering him like a blanket. Something hard and cold was placed in his left ear, then abruptly removed to return again in the right ear. Moments later, warm liquid rushed into his ear canal, and he gasped from the shock of the sensation and tried to pull away, but the hands held him steady.

And Tommy. Oh God, where was Tommy? Jim... Jim must have found Tommy. He'd been there, hadn't he? Jim! Had he managed to call out loud or was it just in his head? Jim, where are you? He tried to raise his arms to search for the Sentinel, but they were held down tight, driving him to panic.

Jim! Jim, please... He didn't know what he was asking for, just that he needed to know the Sentinel was nearby. It was a need so deep it burned in his chest, different than the other pains that tormented him, but just as intense.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim shot out of his chair, the distant plea ringing in his ears, and the plaintive desperation in the tone reaching into his gut like a fist to twist his stomach inside out. He started down the corridor like a bloodhound, tracking sound rather than scent, and ducked into the staircase, nearly oblivious to the deep voices calling to him from behind.

He ran up one flight of stairs and emerged on the second floor, following Sandburg's voice to a room with a large window. Looking through the glass partition, he saw a group of men and women dressed in scrubs swarming around Blair, who was secured to an examination table and struggling weakly against the restraints. He was obviously terrified and in pain, and Jim's face flushed with anger as he pushed his way into the room.

Immediately, all activity in the room ceased as the staff members looked up, some of them taking surprised steps back as he stormed up to the table.

One man stepped forward. "Just what the hell --?"

Jim flashed his badge, silencing the physician. He took Blair's left hand in his own, giving it a firm squeeze, and the young man quieted immediately, turning his face toward Jim.

Jim threw a hard look at the doctor. "Can't you give him something instead of strapping him down?"

A stocky man dressed in full scrubs stepped forward. "We're waiting on the results of the tox screen. If he has something in his system and we give him a sedative or pain killer, we could kill him."

Jim clenched his jaw, giving a grudging acknowledgment of the man's judgment. He looked back down at Blair, hating to see the lines of pain in his friend's burned face and the naked fear in his eyes. He listened to Sandburg's pounding heart, feeling the frantic pulse through the hand clenched in his own. It was killing him being so helpless. He couldn't even soothe Blair with his voice. The only comfort he could give was through touch, and there weren't many places on Blair that could be touched at the moment without causing him pain.

"Sir, if you'll go back to the --"

"Please," Jim looked up, as close to begging as he'd ever come. "If you can't do anything for him right now, please just let me stay here with him. He's been through so much trauma already. Look at him, he's calmer, and I can keep him this way while you work."

The doctor hesitated a moment, his eyes drifting back and forth between Jim and the patient. Finally, he nodded. "Okay, as long as you stay out of the way. Some of the things we'll be doing might be hard to watch, but you have to promise not to interfere. You also need to wash your hands and wear gloves if you'll be touching him."

Jim swallowed, nodding quickly. "Deal."

Reluctantly, he released Blair's hand and walked over to the sink, then quickly scrubbed his hands with soap and water. When he'd washed all the soap off, he turned off the faucet, grabbed one of the paper towels from the sanitary dispenser, and dried off as fast he could. He grabbed a pair of latex gloves from the box on the small counter and slipped them on, then returned to Blair's side.

Slowly, the group returned to their work, and as soon as their hands touched him, Blair tensed and squeezed Jim's hand. Jim rubbed the base of Blair's palm with his thumb, trying to keep his own attention away from the doctors' ministrations and focusing instead on Sandburg's heartbeat.

"Fortunately, all of the burns on his face are partial thickness only, first and second degree," the doctor explained, surprising Jim. He glanced up at the physician, but the man was busy rubbing a gelatin-like substance on the blisters of Blair's face and didn't look up. "Your friend here came out of this relatively lucky," he continued. "The wound in his leg is infected, but there's no sign of gangrene. His hands and forearms also sustained first and second degree burns, and his right thumb is broken. All in all, manageable injuries. We'll be dressing his burns and putting him on antibiotics to combat the infection. He's got a couple of bumps on the head, but nothing serious."

"What about his vision and hearing?" Jim croaked.

This time the doctor did look up briefly. "There are some minor corneal abrasions. Very minor. I think his blindness is more a result of shock. Temporary. I can find nothing to indicated a permanent injury."

Jim's shoulders sagged with relief, and he covered the rest of Blair's hand with his second one, hoping to offer a measure of silent reassurance to the young man. "And his hearing?"

The doctor looked less certain. "Uh, well, again, I can find no sign of permanent injury. His tempanic membranes probably did suffer a shock from the explosion. It's similar to people who go to concerts and stand next to the speakers. Afterwards, their hearing is dampened, but generally recovers quickly. Now, there are hair-like receptors that can be permanently damaged from loud noises and this effect is cumulative over time, which is why older people may exhibit hearing loss. In his case, there might be some damage, probably similar to the rock concert scenario, but, from my examination, I can find no reason why he won't get his hearing back."

Jim's knees threatened to buckle. That was the best news he could have hoped for. "Thank you, Doctor," he said, his voice threatening to crack. "How long?"

"Until he gets his hearing and vision back?"

Jim nodded.

"Hard to say. A few hours, maybe. Actually, I'm a bit surprised he hasn't shown improvement already."

Jim swallowed, suddenly nervous. "He should have shown improvement already?"

The doctor shrugged. "Yes and no." He offered a small smile. "Don't worry too much about it, Detective. Let's just wait and see. Give his body some time to get over the shock." He grabbed a small tool that looked like a water-pick and held it up to Blair's eye. "Now we're going to flush out his eyes with a solution that should ease some of the burning. It'll be unpleasant for him and quite a shock, I'm sure, since there's no way for us to prepare him for what's coming."

Jim unconsciously tightened his grip on Blair's hand, forgetting about the burns there until a small gasp escaped the young man. Jim released Blair's hand as though he'd been shocked, but the loss of contact seemed to only agitate Blair, and he began to fidget on the table again, a low moan rumbling from his chest.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim whispered, taking Blair's hand again and being careful to avoid the burns this time.

Gently, the doctor lifted Blair's right eyelid and poised the metallic tube over the eyeball. "Bill, here, is one of our interns, and he's going to hold Mr. Sandburg's head for me."

A dark-skinned man in green scrubs nodded and placed his hands on either side of Blair's face, carefully avoiding the worst of the burns. The doctor nodded his thanks and pressed a button on the tube. Clear liquid shot out of the tip to flood Blair's eye, and the young man squawked and flinched, his body going rigid as he tried to turn away from the spray, but the intern held him firmly in place.

Blair clamped down hard on Jim's hand, a guttural cry of distress rising from his throat. Jim's stomach twisted, and he returned the pressure, using his free hand to stroke Blair's arm.

Finally, the doctor shut off the spray, and Blair shuddered, sagging against the table.

The doctor looked up at Jim and offered an almost apologetic smile. "We'll give him a few minutes to calm down, but then we'll have to do his other eye."

Jim nodded, his jaw tight. "When is that damn tox report due?"

The doctor sighed. "It should be soon." He looked at a young lady to his right and asked, "Deb, will you go check on that for us?"

"Sure, Doctor Wagner." She nodded and hurried off.

"Thank you." Jim bowed  his head appreciatively, genuinely grateful for the man's indulgence and apparent concern.

"No problem. We'll wait 'til she gets back before putting your friend through anymore discomfort. Okay?"

"I appreciate it." He closed his eyes briefly and lowered his head, continuing the soft strokes on Blair's arm. He hoped the report was finished and would give the all-clear for Blair to be sedated, because he really didn't know how much more either one of them could take.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next few hours crawled by, agonizing in duration. The tox report hadn't come back until two hours after the woman had been sent to check on it, and by that time, Blair had had his left eye flushed out and most of his burns cleaned and covered with an Adaptic dressing. He looked almost like a mummy, with the dressings covering most of his face and arms. His right hand was also bandaged, with the thumb in a brace, but his left hand had emerged relatively unscathed with only minor first-degree burns that had been cleaned and sprayed. Both of his wrists were bandaged from where the handcuffs had dug into his skin, and his right wrist had actually required stitches to close the wound.

Those had been two hours of hell, with Sandburg screaming until his throat had gone raw. Jim's hand still ached from his partner's surprisingly powerful grip, and his head throbbed from the hours of sensory assaults. Now, finally, Blair lay sedated in a hospital bed, blessedly quiet and peaceful.

Unfortunately, in those two hours Blair's vision and hearing had not improved, and that worried Jim. Doctor Wagner had been quick to reassure him that, in all likelihood, Blair would regain full use of his senses, but Jim as a Sentinel had detected a shadow of anxious uncertainty beneath the man's calm facade. In the meantime, a psych consult had been called in, but since Blair was still unconscious, nothing much could be done for the moment.

The door creaked open and Jim looked up, shifting in the uncomfortable chair as he greeted the captain. "Hello, sir."

Simon closed the door behind him and walked over to the bed, his face grim as he gazed at the motionless anthropologist. "How is he? What did they say about his eyesight and hearing?"

Jim managed a smile, doing his best to look hopeful. "The Doc says he can't find any permanent damage, and he expects Sandburg to make a full recovery."

"That's great, Jim!" The lines of worry melted as Simon's face broke into an unaccustomed grin. "Best news I've heard in a long time."

"Yeah," Jim nodded in agreement, looking back at Sandburg.

"Jim?" Simon inquired, his tone more subdued. "Is something wrong? You don't seem all that happy."

Jim shrugged, releasing a slow sigh. "It's good news, sir, but... well, the doctor said Sandburg should have already improved. That's what worries me. It's been hours and, if the doctor was right, Blair should be able to see and hear something by now."

"He's unconscious, Jim --"

"He was conscious almost the whole time they were working on him." He took a deep breath and ran his hands over his face. "God, Simon, that's one thing I'll never forget. He was in so much pain and there wasn't anything anybody could do for him. Blind and deaf, he had no idea what was going on or what to expect next. I don't know if he even realized he was in a hospital. He seemed so out of it and in so much pain. Damn, Simon, what if he doesn't get his eyesight and hearing back?"

"Then you'll help him deal with that," Simon answered quickly. "Just like the kid was there for you when you lost your sight to the Golden."

Jim nodded, sagging back against the chair. "I'll try, Simon, but I had my four other heightened senses to help me. I wasn't deaf. Sandburg doesn't have that advantage. How do you think he's gonna feel living with a guy who has five heightened senses when he can't hear or see a thing?"

Simon sighed and shook his head, looking suddenly five years older. "I don't know, Jim. Yeah, it's going to be tough on him; he's going to need you and, I'm no psychologist, but I can try to imagine what it would be like for me to lose my vision and hearing after suffering God-knows-what. Uh... Did, uh..." Simon fidgeted and glanced at the far wall. "Did the doctor say if Sandburg had been sexually assaulted?"

Jim shook his head. "No. There's no sign of that."

Simon breathed an audible sigh of relief and looked back at Jim. "Thank God. There's only so much a person can deal with at once. It's going to be tough for him to get through this as it is without dealing with the emotional aftershock of that kind of an attack. Oh, and, uh, Jim... About Tommy..."

"Yeah?"

"The coroner turned in his report. Tommy died from a combination of gas inhalation and burns. The boy's back was almost completely scorched. His body shielded most of Sandburg's chest and torso, as a matter of fact."

Jim swallowed. "Damn." He looked away briefly. "If Blair finds that out, it'll kill him. He's going to have a whole shit load of other aftershocks to deal with." A hard edge cut his tone. "Not only Tommy's death, but also whatever that bastard did to him. Questioning him about it is going to be damn near impossible. He can't hear or see or even listen to himself talk. How the hell are we going to communicate with him? Aside from Balentine's case, how can I help Blair -- how can anyone help him -- like this? Therapy? How the hell is he going to go through therapy for this if no one can communicate with him?"

"There's something else, too."

Jim stiffened, catching the impending bad news in Simon's tone. "What?"

"The boy was molested."

Jim's headache flared to life again, and he scrubbed his face over his hands as though trying to wipe away the fear and desperation. "God, Simon, I hope to hell that Blair didn't see that. I don't know what it would do to him." He'd never felt so damn helpless in his life, not even when his chopper had gone down in Peru.

"Jim." Simon placed a strong hand on Jim's shoulder and grabbed the vacant chair next to the wall. Sinking slowly into the seat, he waited until Jim looked up at him. "Give him some time. If the doctor thinks he'll get his vision and hearing back, then hold on to that. He's been through a hell of an ordeal, and right now, you need to be patient. How did you feel when you lost your sight?"

Jim closed his eyes briefly and leaned back in the chair, remembering the icy fear that had gripped him when the Golden had stolen his eyesight. "Afraid," he admitted with a croak. "If I hadn't gotten my sight back, I would have had to leave the force. I couldn't think about spending the rest of my life blind, but Blair..." His voice caught in his throat and he coughed sharply to cover the flub. "Well, Blair was so sure my vision would come back that I found myself believing him. I mean, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and he was there for me every step of the way."

"Did he know what he was talking about?"

Jim couldn't help the chuckle that escaped. "It turns out he did, but I think he was flying by the seat of his pants. Bullshitting."

Simon smiled. "Guess that's why his initials are B.S."

Jim laughed. "Yeah, Naomi really called it on that one."

"Truth is Jim, Blair was scared. I could see it in his face when you two came to talk to me in the office. He did a damn good job of covering, but there were times when he was so focused on you that he forgot I was there. I could see it then. The kid was terrified, but he never let you know that."

Jim swallowed. "I see where you're going with this, sir. I'll try."

Simon patted Jim on the shoulder. "You'll do more than try, Jim. That kid's been there for you all the way. Gone through hell and back."

Jim stiffened, flinching as though he'd been slapped.

"Easy, Jim." Simon shifted in his chair. "You're misinterpreting. I'm not saying you're the cause of the crap he's been through. He made his own choices, but he chose to stay with you even when you weren't all that pleasant to be around. Right now he needs you, and damnit, you're not gonna let the kid down. You're going to be strong for him and help him get through whatever he needs to get through... and I'll be here to help, too. Okay?"

Jim felt the sting of tears in his eyes and looked quickly away. "Thanks, Simon." His voice was rough. "I guess I needed that kick in the butt."

A knock pulled Jim's attention upward, and he saw Megan, Joel, Rafe, and Brown through the glass of the door. He nodded to give them permission to enter, and the door swung inward as the group poured into the room.

"How's Sandy?" Megan asked, her Australian accent slightly thicker than usual.

Jim forced another hopeful smile on his face. He had a feeling he'd be doing that a lot in the days to come. "Doc says he should make a full recovery."

They seemed to sag as a group, the relief evident in their eyes.

"That's great news," Joel kept his voice low as he moved to the bed. He placed a hand on the rail as he gazed down at the young man. "Has his vision and hearing come back yet?"

Jim shook his head, hoping he didn't look as desperate as he felt. "No. It's going to take some time."

Simon cleared his throat. "He's had a hell of a shock, folks. Now, why don't we all head down to the cafeteria so I can pick up something for Jim."

"No, Captain, I --" Jim started to protest.

"Coffee and a sandwich all right with you, Jim? Good." Without waiting for an answer, Simon rose from his chair and shuffled the group out of the room. He hesitated in the doorway a moment to look back at Jim. "Behave yourself, Ellison." With a small smile, he ducked into the hallway and closed the door.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The night came to life with fire. Dancing yellow flames undulated wildly beneath a black sky, reaching out toward him with their golden arms. The child was clutched against his chest, and the demons lunged for the child, seeking to claim him as their own.

NO!

Blair turned away, shielding the child from the fire demons, but fingers that burned grabbed his arms from behind, and from the darkness in front of him emerged a black figure made of ash but shaped in the form of a man. Blair hesitated, trapped, more terrified of the ash figure than the living flames behind him. He tried to duck to the left to make his escape, but the golden fire lashed out at him from behind, and golden arms reached out to wrap him in a burning embrace.

He jerked, emerging with a gasp into a silent, black void. He could feel his body, his arms and legs stretched out on a soft surface, but his skin itched and burned, and his leg throbbed angrily. His eyes hurt. Oh God, his eyes hurt!

He felt a wetness on his cheeks and a vibration in his throat. He was crying. Wasn't he crying? Or screaming? But there was no sound. None at all. Why couldn't he hear himself crying?

Something brushed against his hand and he flinched away in surprise. What? What? Where? There had been an explosion, hadn't there? Fire. He was flying backward.

Tommy! Oh God, Tommy!

A touch on his face, soft like a caress. His heart flung into overdrive, wild with panic. Balentine! No. No. Tommy. Where's Tommy? The hand pressed gently down on his forehead, and he whipped his head away. No, don't...

The hand wrapped around his own, pulling his arm gently upward. He tried to pull away, but he didn't have the strength, and he felt fingers brush over his palm. Then his own fingers touched a face. Lips. A hint of scratchy stubble just above.

Oh God, no...

He felt the keening in his throat, but still no sound emerged. His hand was forced upward, brushing along the contours of the man's features. Then his fingers swept along the short hair, cropped close to the skin.

Not Balentine. Jim?

He must have cried out because he felt the squall tear from his chest with a burst of hollow pain, but, again, the sound was swallowed by silence.

Oh God, I'm deaf and blind... What's happened to me? The panic thundered in his chest like a wild bird trapped in a cage. Oh God, Jim. What's happened to me?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair was beginning to panic, his heart rate skyrocketing, and a low, miserable wail rose from his throat. The heartmonitor beeped frantically, and Jim took Blair's hand in both of his own, giving a gentle squeeze in an attempt to calm the young man down.

"Shhh. Shhh. It's okay, Chief." He was pretty sure Sandburg couldn't hear him, not unless the younger man's hearing was starting to come back, and Jim didn't think that was the case. Thus far, Blair hadn't responded to a word he'd said. Still, Jim kept up the soothing litany of words, but it was more for his own benefit than Blair's.

The door swung inward, and a doctor-nurse duo burst into the room.

Doctor Wagner moved quickly to Blair's side. "Did he just wake up?"

"Yes. I can't get him to calm down."

The doctor gestured to the nurse, who handed him a readied syringe. "I'm going to give him a small dose of a sedative. Not enough to put him out, but just enough to subdue him. We won't get anywhere until we can communicate with him, so I want to keep him awake."

Jim nodded. "Okay." He watched as the doctor plunged a portion of the syringe's contents into the IV line.

Within moments, Blair settled down, his shuddering sobs dying to a low groan as the tension drained from his body, the diminishing rhythm of his heart echoed by the slowing sounds of the heartmonitor. Eyelids drooped over blank eyes, and Jim felt Blair's hand relax within his own.

"That's it." Jim leaned over his partner and gently stroked the top of Blair's head.

"Jim," Blair choked softly, turning his head toward Jim, his eyes drifting as though searching for confirmation of the presence he sought.

Jim gave the young man's hand a careful squeeze, and a wave of warmth flooded him when he felt Blair's fingers close around his in a weak reply. Pulling his gaze away from his friend, Jim looked up at the doctor.

"How do we communicate with him? How can I let him know what's going on and what his prognosis is?"

The doctor pursed his lips, a flash of uncertainty touching his face. "Well, uh, I've called a psych consult down here. She should be arriving in a few minutes. Unfortunately, I haven't dealt with this kind of situation before, but our psychiatrist, Doctor Gardner, is highly competent and very knowledgeable."

As if on cue, the door swung further inward, and Jim looked over to see a petite woman with long, dark hair pulled back in a braid. She had large brown eyes and wore round, wire-rimmed glasses.

With a smile, she extended one hand toward Jim. "I'm Doctor Gardner. You must be James Ellison?"

Jim nodded, but refused to break contact with Blair to take hers. "Yes, you'll forgive me, but I think my partner here needs the contact a bit more than you do." He softened his words with a smile, and she dropped her arm to her side, nodding.

"Of course." Her smile faded and she took on an air of professionalism as she moved to Blair's bedside. "Doctor Wagner here updated me on Mr. Sandburg's situation."

"And can you help him?".

"I'll try. Since I've been told his sensory deprivation should be temporary, we'll try to convey that to him. That should give him some comfort, then we'll work on forming a basis for communication. Since touch is his only real avenue left, our techniques will focus on tactile communication. We'll start off simple to give him an immediate sense of accomplishment. One tap from you on his arm will mean 'Yes.' Two will mean 'No.' Three will mean, 'I don't know.' The challenge is in communicating the system to him."

Jim smiled, an idea springing to mind. Finally, he might be able to make himself useful. "I think I can manage that, Doc. Sandburg's got a sharp mind and catches on to things quickly."

She raised an eyebrow and gestured toward Blair. "Please, go ahead."

Nodding, Jim turned his attention back to Blair, realizing that the young man had drifted into a light sleep. Gently, he brushed his fingers over Blair's forehead while his other hand squeezed the young man's hand, prodding him awake. Blair came to with a small gasp, his eyelids jerking open and his eyes darting automatically toward Jim. Jim's heart sped up, and for a moment, he thought Blair was actually looking at him, then the younger man's eyes resumed their blank stare.

"Okay, buddy. Here goes." He gave Blair's hand another squeeze and waited.

Two seconds passed until he was rewarded with a question from Sandburg.

"Jim?"

Quickly, Jim tapped once on an unburned, unbandaged patch of Blair's arm just below the elbow. Blair's brow creased, his eyes sparking with interest even though they couldn't see.

"Tommy," Blair gasped, his voice somewhat slurred from the sedative. "Did you find him?"

Damn. He had hoped for another question. Any other question. Clenching his jaw, he tapped once.

"Does one tap mean 'yes?'" Blair asked. "If one tap means 'yes' tap once again."

Jim tapped once again.

"Okay, so one tap means 'yes.' Two means 'no?'"

Jim tapped a 'yes.'

"Is Tommy okay?"

Jim hesitated, looking up at the doctor. He didn't want to risk upsetting Blair, but he knew the kid would just keep asking until he got an answer, and if he didn't get an answer, he'd figure out why all on his own.

"Doctor, I don't know how much you've been told about what happened to Sandburg, but Tommy was a kidnapped boy who Sandburg was trying to save. Unfortunately, the child died, probably right in Blair's arms according to the coroner's report. I'm not sure if I should tell him that, though. Also, the child was molested before he died. I'm not sure if Sandburg actually witnessed that, but I hope to hell he didn't"

"I.,. I didn't know that." Doctor Gardner shook her head, her eyes troubled. "We'll have to --"

"Jim?" Blair inquired a bit too loudly, his voice tinged with desperation.

Jim dropped his gaze back to the bed and gave a gentle squeeze. He saw the tears welling in Blair's eyes and cursed silently, recognizing the dreaded realization in the younger man's face.

"He's not okay, is he, Jim?" Blair asked in a soft, trembling voice, lifting his head a fraction. "Is... Is he dead?"

Jim closed his eyes briefly and tapped once. He felt the hand tighten around his own and heard the choke of tears rise in Blair's throat. Leaning forward, Jim lowered the bed rail and scooted onto the edge of the mattress.

"Can you leave us alone for a moment?" Jim asked the trio, his voice husky with emotion.

Dr. Gardner nodded and waved the others toward the door. Then she glanced back at Jim, a sad smile on her face. "You seem like a very good friend to him, and he's going to need one to get through this. Just keep doing what you're doing."

"Thanks." He watched her follow the doctor and nurse out of the room. Seconds later, Jim was alone with Blair, listening to his friend's distressed sobs.

"Aww, hell, Chief. I'm so sorry." Ever-so-gently, he slid one arm beneath Blair's shoulders and pulled the smaller man up, cradling Blair against his chest. "I know, buddy. I know." He wrapped his other arm around Blair's chest, careful of the burns, and closed his eyes, listening to the rapid heartbeat and distressed cries of his friend.

"I tried, Jim." Blair raised both arms to clutch weakly at Jim's arm. "I... I was handcuffed to the bed, but I smelled gas and I pulled free. I didn't think I could do it, but... but I had to. He was just a little boy, Jim. I'm so sorry. I waited too long, but I... I..." Blair's voice disintegrated, and he coughed several times, gasping each time, and Jim just held him a bit tighter. "I..." Blair struggled to continue, his words barely decipherable but his voice rising as though he were trying to make himself hear his own words. "I tried, Jim. I did. I couldn't get up at first. I hurt so much and I was so tired. I'm so sorry. Did you find his parents, Jim? Please... Please, tell them I'm... I'm sorry. I should have moved faster, but I didn't. I couldn't. It was so hard, Jim. I... I... I watched... saw... what he did.... he... Balentine...."

The monitors beeped alarmingly as Blair's heart rate went wild and he began to hyperventilate. Jim rocked Blair slowly in his arms, feeling the thundering beat below his chest. Footsteps pounded into the room, and Dr. Wagner's familiar voice rose over Blair's sobs.

"Okay, he's had more than enough."

Jim looked up to see Wagner empty the contents of the syringe into the IV tube.

"... he hurt... I... screamed at... him..." Blair's voice faded, and Jim tightened his hold as his partner went limp in his arms.

With exquisite care, Jim lowered Blair onto the mattress, then pulled the thin blanket up to the young man's chest. He closed his eyes briefly, Blair's words playing in his head. Damn. It sounded like Blair had witnessed the boy's rape, but Jim still clung to the hope that maybe he hadn't. Maybe he'd just witnessed the physical abuse that had left those awful bruises on Tommy's face and chest.

Raising his eyes to the doctor, he offered a small nod of thanks. Wagner retreated quietly from the room, recognizing the unspoken request, and for that, Jim would have to thank the man later. For now, he sat at the edge of the bed and rested his palm on top of Blair's head, hoping he'd do a better job of helping next time Blair awoke.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rafe sank into the chair opposite of Balentine, a tape recorder set in the center of the table between them. This was the man's second interrogation in thirty-six hours, and still Balentine hadn't asked for a lawyer or for the questioning to stop. In fact, he seemed downright eager to talk. The first session, however, hadn't achieved the desired results. Balentine had been coming off of a hangover and had spent the three-hour session cussing out James Ellison and the bartender, and doing a good job of playing the victim. Now that Balentine had dried out, going without a drink for a day and a half, he seemed much more amenable to questioning, almost as though he thought he could get a drink if he cooperated.

Of course, Rafe may have encouraged that notion when Balentine had asked for a drink and Rafe had said, "Sure, I'll have someone bring you something." Of course, that "something" was going to be water, but when Balentine had asked for "just a bit of Vodka," Rafe had ambiguously replied, "I'll see what I can do about that later. How are you doing right now? I know you've had a rough couple of nights. You get much sleep last night?"

Balentine shrugged. "A little."

"Well, that's better than none, I suppose." Rafe shifted in the chair with a feigned, impatient sigh and almost smiled as he took in the deep lines and bloodshot eyes of the suspect seated on the other side of the table.

"So," Rafe began, "can you tell me about Thomas Baynor?"

"Tommy?" Balentine glanced anxiously at the door. "Hey, is the Vodka coming?"

"My partner is rounding up something for you to drink," Rafe said. "I know you're having a rough time right now, and I'd like to make this as easy on you as possible, so you're going to have to trust me and work with me, okay?"

Balentine nodded, looking deflated. "Whatever, man. Look, can I have some aspirin? My head's killing me."

"Sure, right after we're through here we'll get you something. Right now, I need you to answer a few questions."

"You want to know about Tommy? Look, I... I didn't kill him. I wasn't even there!"

Rafe nodded and managed a reassuring smile. "I know. It was an accident. These things happen, right?"

"Right! I mean, I was at the bar getting arrested. Ellison had me in cuffs. You can't pin the kid's death on me!"

"Hey, hey, who said anything about murder? We're just talking here, right? I'm here to help you. I mean, you know what they do to child molesters in prison. You cooperate with me, and I might be able to do something for you. I just want to know where you found Tommy."

"He was walking on a sidewalk with some older kid. His brother, I guess."

"Did you go up to him?"

"I pulled the car up and asked for directions. The big one came close and I knocked him out, then grabbed Tommy. Kid put up a fight, so I had to belt him. He slept the whole way in the backseat."

"Why did you take him?"

Balentine glanced at the door. "Could your partner hurry up, man? I'm hurtin' here. Just a little sip. I have a bad heart and the doctor says a sip of alcohol every few hours is just what I need."

Rafe raised his eyebrows. "We'll see." The man was lying, of course. Rafe had already pulled the guy's medical records. "Now, can you tell me why you took Tommy?"

Balentine shrugged. "Just 'cause I liked him."

"Do you like little boys?"

"Sure. The young ones are so small and new and they need someone to take care of them."

Rafe swallowed, his stomach churning. "Is Tommy the first little boy you've taken care of?"

"Uh...."

Rafe stiffened imperceptibly at Balentine's indecision. "There was another child, wasn't there?"

"No, no. I --"

"Really? Sandburg told us you got drunk quite a bit and said some things," Rafe lied. "He told us you were muttering about another child. Mentioned where the body was. There's no point in lying about it because we've already found the body."

Balentine leaned forward, his eyes widening. "Look, I didn't mean to kill that kid. He was crying, and I tried to shut him up. He fell and hit his head. I swear, I didn't mean it."

"Hey, hey, I know," Rafe said, his voice soothing. "I'm going to try to help you, here, but you've got to be honest with me. Tell me how you buried that little boy. His parents have been wondering all this time. Don't you think they deserve to know?"

"Well... uh... Okay. I... I uh figured the old well was a good place because no one even really knows about it. It didn't take much. I just bought some cement and poured it over him - way down there."

"And we need you to state, just for the record, where that well is located."

"Culbert. The old rural area off of Highway 12."

Rafe smiled. "Thank you. I appreciate your cooperation and I'm sure this will look very good at your trial." Jesus. God, I hate this. Rafe took a deep breath. "Do you remember the little boy's name?"

"Sean. That's all. Don't know his last name."

"So, did you have sex with Sean?"

"Yes."

"Did you have sex with Tommy?"

"Yes."

"How many times?"

"Just once with Tommy. He was real tight, screamed the whole time. Kid sure has a pair of lungs on him. I didn't want to hurt him too bad, but he would have gotten broken in and it wouldn't have been so bad after a while."

Rafe felt the bile rise in his throat and almost shot out of the chair. He wanted to leave the room so badly and go outside to breathe in a lungful of the cool, Cascade air rather than sitting in this small, isolated room with this sick bastard.

"Can you tell me how you encountered Blair Sandburg?"

"Sure. Little Tommy got out one night. Fast. Boy, is he fast. I was running after him, but I stumbled a few times. Hurt my knee going down on something, but not too bad. I got real pissed off, though. He was way ahead of me, and when I caught up with him, I saw a car parked by the alley with its headlights on. Your guy was kneeling in front of Tommy, talking all nice and soft to him. He was saying how he worked with the police. I had to hit him over the head. Couldn't let him go back to the cops. Besides, he had these nice, long curls like a lady. It wasn't too far back to the place, so I carried your guy over my shoulder and little Tommy under my arm. Knee hurt like a bitch, though. Then I packed up and moved to a different place. Knew the cops would probably be all over the area."

"What did you do with Sandburg?"

"I put together a bed and handcuffed him to the rail. He was out for a while, all quiet, but when he came to he started mouthing off. Tried to escape. Damn near choked me with his legs, so I stabbed him with a pocket knife. I'd taken it off of him earlier. Nice little piece. I always wanted a pocket knife like that. Anyway, I cleaned his leg out because I didn't want him dying on me, least not right away, ya know. It was self-defense, though, you know. I mean, he was trying to kill me. Runt wouldn't let go either, 'til I poked him, and then you shoulda heard him howl. But that was nothing 'til I poured the Vodka on his leg. Damn near wasted half a bottle, but I know alcohol is good for cuts. He carried on and on, and I thought they'd hear him all the way downtown."

The door opened, and Henri Brown walked in with a glass of water clutched in his hand. He looked at Rafe as he set the cup on the table, obviously reading something in Rafe's expression because he pointed to the door and glanced briefly at Balentine.

"Hey, partner, wanna take a break for a second?"

Rafe nodded gratefully and followed Henri out of the room, barely hearing Balentine's muttered curses about the water. Once out in the hall, Brown closed the door and turned to Rafe.

"What's up, man? You don't look so good. Is the guy talking?"

Rafe's eyes flashed angrily. "Squealing like the pig he is. Right now, I wish Ellison were here to do the interrogation. Actually, I wish Ellison had had more than five minutes alone with the guy behind the bar."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim kept one hand wrapped around Blair's as the psychiatrist went over the strategy for Blair's treatment. Blair was awake but still groggy, drifting in and out of sleep, and with his eyesight and hearing gone, he was relying more and more on touch. Specifically, on Jim's touch. Blair would flinch whenever strange, unexpected hands touched him, which happened several times a day as doctors and nurses changed his bandages and cleaned his wounds and examined his eyes and ears. However, he seemed to know Jim's touch instantly, as though he'd already learned the contours and textures of Jim's hands.

"Right now we're going to forge ahead as though his disabilities were permanent. Doctor Wagner and I are still hopeful that he'll get his senses back, but it does seem to be taking much longer than it should. There are several possibilities for this, from physical to psychological, but based on what you've told me, I think it highly likely that Blair's condition, though initially physically induced by the explosion, is now largely psychological."

Jim tensed. "What? Are you saying Blair's doing this to himself? That he wants to be blind and deaf?" Jim didn't buy into that for a minute. The woman obviously didn't know his partner. She wasn't the one listening to Blair's panicked heartbeat every time he woke up, disoriented, and realized all over again that he couldn't see or hear a thing.

"I'm not saying that he consciously wants to be blind and deaf, but you have to understand that the subconscious is, in many ways, more powerful than the conscious mind. Mr. Sandburg has seen and heard things that he's having a very hard time dealing with -- things he probably wishes he hadn't witnessed. Plus, he went through a hard time himself and suffered some fairly serious injuries. Right now, his condition might represent his subconscious desire to block all that out and protect himself from ever having to witness such things again."

Jim shook his head. Mumbo jumbo. The woman doesn't have a clue. "No, Doctor, I can't agree with you on this one."

She sighed, placing one hand on the bed rail. "Look at it this way, Mr. Ellison. Your partner woke up to a dark, silent world that no doubt scared the hell out of him. On top of all that, he was severely psychologically traumatized by his ordeal and his physical injuries. He consciously wants to see and hear, of that I have no doubt. However, inside he's still scared and not quite ready to jump back into the world and get on with life. He needs time to heal, and he needs to come to grips with his perceived failure to save Tommy -- first from being raped and then from dying. On top of all that, somehow he's going to have to learn how to feel safe again. I've looked over his file, and, well, he's been through quite a lot of frightening experiences over the past few years. I'm sure those experiences have taken their toll on him. When the explosion hit and shocked his system, he turned what should have been a temporary condition into a coping mechanism."

Her explanation struck a painful chord with Jim, and he stiffened automatically, suddenly feeling defensive. He opened his mouth to protest, but then remembered his own experiences in Peru when his chopper went down. He'd done a lot of repressing himself, both of his memories and of his senses, so he figured maybe it wasn't so unlikely that Blair's condition was a type of escape mechanism.

"Okay," he admitted, somewhat grudgingly. He lowered his gaze to the motionless figure on the bed, his chest tightening as he took in Blair's blank stare, his eyes focused on the ceiling -- open but not seeing. "How do I help him feel safe again?"

"He needs people he loves and trusts to help him through this. You seem to fit that bill. You two have an obvious bond, and he responds to you. He's calmer when he knows you're around, which is obvious to all of us here. The best thing you can do for him is be there for him and encourage him to start trying things for himself. People who lose their sight as adults always have a hard time adjusting, and they start to rely almost exclusively on touch and hearing. Mr. Sandburg doesn't have the benefit of his hearing, so he's dealing with two deprivations. He's probably going to fear being alone for awhile. He'll feel helpless, and that will probably end up leading to frustration and anger. You might find him beginning to lash out at you and others. If he does, don't take it personally. Be patient with him. Help him when he needs help, but try not to hover. Until his burns heal, he'll need a lot of help, but after that, you should encourage him to do more and more things on his own. I'll set him up for daily sessions once he's healed, and we'll teach him how to be independent, just in case... The good news is that if his condition is psychological, he'll almost certainly get his senses back."

"How long?"

"I can't say. Could be days. Could be weeks. Maybe even months, but I doubt it. It all depends on when he's ready."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Am I gonna be like this permanently?" Blair asked, a slight tremble in his voice.

Sandburg was going on his third day in the hospital, and Doctors Wagner and Gardner wanted to hold him one more day to make sure his burns were healing properly and his leg didn't develop another infection. The hospital had become Jim's world. He'd been out of the room only a few times to go to the bathroom and take care of other business. Simon had stopped by to drop off a change of clothes and some toiletries, but Jim still felt grubby.

As he pondered Blair's question, trying to reassure himself of the answer, Jim tapped Blair's hand twice.

"Will I get both my hearing and eyesight back?"

Jim tapped once.

"How long? Soon?"

Three taps, which they'd developed to mean "I don't know."

"Jim, man, we need to work on a different communication system. Am... Am I talking okay? I'm not too loud?"

One tap.

"I am too loud."

Jim took a breath, his frustration rising. He hated this barrier of communication he had with Sandburg. Quickly, he tapped twice.

"So I'm talking okay?"

Jim tapped once.

"Okay, okay, I just can't hear myself, Jim." Again, the quiver was back in his voice. "I... I can't just keep shooting questions in the dark. I think we can work out a more advanced system. You can write letters on my good hand with your finger. Helen Keller communicated that way, actually, only she used the sign language alphabet, which I'm not familiar with, so you'll just have to use the longer English alphabet, Jim."

Jim perked up, a smile touching his lips. Thatta boy, Sandburg. He was so happy to see Blair showing some interest and initiative. That had to be a positive step toward recovery.

Gently, he opened Blair's palm and traced the first letter of the alphabet.

"Capital A?" Blair asked. "Are you starting from the beginning and working in sequence toward Z? I think that's a good way to do it so I can get an idea of what each letter feels like."

Jim smiled and tapped once on Blair's palm. "You're coming along, Chief," he whispered. Continuing, he traced the letter "B" on Blair's palm.

"Okay, that one should be easy for me to decipher."

Jim moved to the next letter..

"C," Blair confirmed. "D... E... F..." A small smile touched his lips and his eyelids drooped. "G... H... I... Mmmmn. That feels good, Jim."

A tap at the door stole Jim's attention, and he looked up to see Simon and Joel enter.

"Hey, he's awake!" A broad grin broke Joel's face. "How's he doing?"

Jim smiled, feeling genuinely optimistic. "Good. Better. He's coming along. He still hasn't gotten any of his eyesight or hearing back, but he's showing more interest in things." He glanced back at the young man, his smile growing wider. "Right now we're working on a communication system."

As if in reply, Blair lifted his head a fraction and furrowed his brow. "Jim? Why'd you stop? Something wrong?"

There was that note of worry in Blair's tone that reminded Jim that Sandburg still had a lot of humps to get over in his emotional recovery. It seemed like Blair was always hovering at the edge of panic, as if he didn't quite believe he was in a hospital and expected Balentine to make an appearance.

Jim gave Blair's hand a reassuring squeeze, then tapped twice. Slowly, he traced an "S" on Blair's palm.

"S?" Sandburg's brow furrowed. "Why are you going out of order?"

Jim traced another letter, hoping Blair would catch on soon.

"I? Okay, are you spelling something?"

Jim tapped once.

"Oh, okay. S and I... Next?"

Jim smiled and tried for the "M"

"Simon?" Blair guessed. "Is Simon here?"

Jim grinned, fidgeting with pride in his seat, and tapped a "yes." It looked like their system would work out well, and it felt so good to finally be able to actively communicate with Blair. His sense of victory was short-lived, however, when he saw Blair turn his head away from them, a shadow crossing his face.

"Hi, Simon." Blair sounded suddenly hesitant. "You, uh, probably want a statement from me, or something. Right?"

Jim looked up at the captain for confirmation. Simon walked up to the bed and gazed at the young anthropologist silently for a few seconds. Finally, he looked at Jim. "Actually, I came here to see how he was doing. We can hold off on taking the statement until he's ready because Balentine gave Rafe a full confession. It looks like there's not going to be a trial. He also confessed to the killing of another boy years ago. and we have people digging up a well now in search of the body. Basically, it looks like Balentine's going away for a long time. Probably for life."

Jim tapped twice on Blair's palm, indicating a "no" to the younger man's earlier question. Then he responded to Simon's news. "I hope so. The bastard doesn't deserve to ever see the light of day again. Did you find out what caused the explosion?"

Simon nodded. "There was natural gas and alcohol in the place, so the fire investigator hasn't yet determined which started it. She thinks the gas filled the place, and a spark from the compact refrigerator Balentine had set up ignited the gas and caused the explosion."

"Gas? You think Balentine was trying to kill them?"

Simon shrugged. "We don't know. The right burner switch was turned on, so we're guessing he was using the stove and either intentionally blew out the gas burner or was so drunk he accidentally caused it to go out and didn't think about turning off the gas." He glanced down at Sandburg, then back at Jim. "Oh, and uh, Balentine had Sandburg's pocket knife on him. Right now it's in evidence, but if Sandburg wants it back I'll have it released to him."

Jim nodded. "Maybe you should release it to me. I don't quite know if either of us is up to me spelling out that question on his palm." A tiny smile brushed his lips.

"Must be hard on him." Joel stepped closer to the bed and studied the young man. "It's weird seeing him staring like that."

"Actually, I think he's drifting off to sleep." Jim looked back at his partner. Blair's eyelids were drooped, his heartbeat slow and even. "He sometimes sleeps with his eyelids partly open. I guess the upside to this is he sleeps through just about anything."

"Oh." Joel shook his head sadly. "Poor kid." He swallowed hard and looked up at Jim. "How are his burns healing?"

"Just fine, Joel. Doc says there should be very little scarring because they're all first and second degree burns."

Simon stepped closer to Jim. "Look, why don't you go back to the loft and get some sleep? You've been here for days, and quite frankly, you need a shower."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Do I smell that bad?"

Both men nodded, and Jim smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I did manage one shower the other day." He glanced down at Blair, judging the depths of the young man's slumber. He was pretty sure Blair was completely out. "I don't want to leave him, though. Every time he wakes up it takes him a few seconds to remember where he's at. If anybody touches him before his brain clears, he freaks out." He looked back up at Simon. "Right now, he's in a very vulnerable state, Simon. I really don't think I should leave him."

Joel interjected himself into the conversation. "Look, why don't you go back to the loft, shower, get a decent meal, change your clothes and pack a bag, then come back here. You can let Blair know you're leaving and you'll be back. Meanwhile, I'll stay here with him."

Jim still hesitated. "I don't know..."

"Go Jim," Simon insisted. "I'll drive you. You can even grab Sandburg some real food while you're there. I'm sure he'll like that, right?"

Reluctantly, Jim nodded. "Yeah, he would." He raised his chin a fraction, inspiration striking. "I can pick up some other things for him, too. You know, stuff to stimulate his other senses. The doctor said boredom will turn to full-blown depression fast if Sandburg doesn't keep his mind occupied. I mean, he can't read, can't watch TV, can't listen to music. He can't even hold a real conversation. He sleeps most of the day, and when he's not sleeping, he starts going stir crazy."

"So go, then," Simon prodded gently. "Joel will stay right here with him. Why don't you wake him up and let him know you're leaving, then maybe he and Joel can work on that palm thing you were doing?"

Finally, Jim sighed, rising from the chair. "Okay, you guys win." He looked at Joel and began the list of instructions. "If he falls asleep after I wake him up, let him be. If he starts having a nightmare, you can try to wake him up by gently squeezing his hand, but don't touch his face or shoulder. Also, we developed a system. If he asks a question, you can answer by tapping on his hand. One tap means "yes." Two taps mean "no" and three mean "I don't know." We just started the palm thing a moment before you got here, and I was going through the alphabet with him. I left off somewhere around G, I think."

"I," Simon corrected.

"Okay, I," Jim said. "If he's up to it, you can continue. Otherwise, he'll probably just sleep... and dream." His gaze drifting almost wistfully to the young man in the bed. "Anyway, like I said, if he starts to have a nightmare, don't try to wake him unless it gets bad. If you do try to wake him, do it by squeezing his hand gently. Not his wrist. His wrists were cut by the cuffs, and you'll hurt him if you put too much pressure on the wounds."

Joel nodded, looking less certain of his duties than he had a moment ago. "Got it." Despite the words, he didn't sound all that confident.

"Look, Joel," Jim said, beginning to have second thoughts about leaving. "You know, I can send you two back to the loft for some stuff while I stay here with him. I --"

"No, Joel will be fine here, Ellison." Simon wrapped a strong hand around Jim's arm and pulled him toward the door. The fact that Jim yielded so easily gave testament to his level of his fatigue. "You'll only be gone a few hours."

"Okay." Jim nodded, looking almost numb, then he remembered he had to wake Blair and pulled out of Simon's grip. "Just hold on a minute so I can let Blair know I'm leaving."

He moved back to the bed and took Blair's hand in his own, giving it a firm squeeze. Blair didn't respond, so he used his other hand to stroke Blair's arm, his fingers brushing lightly over the bandages. Finally, Blair's eyelids lifted from their half-mast position and he turned his head toward the guys.

"Jim?" His voice was rough, heavy with sleep.

Jim tapped once. Then he opened Blair's palm and slowly traced a short phrase, one letter at a time: BE BACK.

Blair didn't seem to get the message right away, his brow creased with concentration as his sleep-fogged mind tried to decipher the message. Jim traced the message again, and this time, it registered with Sandburg.

"You're leaving?" Blair's voice caught with a slight tremble.

Jim tapped once.

"Oh." Blair swallowed, and his eyes drifted upward to stare blankly at the ceiling. "Will you be gone long?" It was obvious he was trying to sound casual, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety in the question.

Jim tapped twice, quick and firm to let Blair know he would definitely be back soon. He traced another message on Blair's palm, slower this time. JOEL HERE.

"Oh, okay." Blair managed a smile and raised his bandaged hand to give a small wave. "Hi, Joel."

"Here, Joel." Jim took Joel's hand in his own and clamped it gently over Blair's good one. He felt Joel give the younger man's hand a soft squeeze, and then the big man sank into the empty chair next to the bed.

"Okay, let's go, Jim." Simon took hold of Jim's arm and steered him toward the door.

Jim glanced over his shoulder on the way out, feeling a twinge of guilt at leaving his partner -- if only for a few hours.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~