Visions Before Dawn
 

Tick. Tick. Tick. Blair looked at the annoying clock that stood on the
dresser next to his bed. It was a round, old-fashioned alarm clock with
an illuminated face. 2:03 a.m. He couldn't sleep. With a frustrated
sigh, he slid off the mattress and shuffled out of his room. A faint,
almost surreal glow bathed the loft. A full moon hung in the sky above
Cascade, its murky white light spilling through the balcony doors.

Blair yawned as he made his way to the kitchen. Maybe some tea would
help him get to sleep. A folded, white piece of paper held by a magnet
against the freezer door caught his eye, the word 'Chief' scrawled in
Jim's handwriting on the cover.

Blair pursed his lips. He'd arrived home two hours ago to a dark loft,
but hadn't noticed the note then. Jim had already retired to bed and,
indeed, Blair could hear the Sentinel's faint snores drifting from the
upper level.

He snatched the note and unfolded it, turning on the small light above
the sink so he could read the words. 'Left you some pasta and meatballs
in the fridge. It's wrapped in foil. Don't stay up all night working -
busy day tomorrow.'

Blair smiled and tossed the note in the trash, then opened the
refrigerator and found the foil-wrapped plate. Pasta sounded great right
about now. He unwrapped the food and nodded appreciatively. Two large
meatballs sat atop a pile of rigatoni, beckoning his stomach. He hadn't
eaten since lunch and, with the sight of food, he suddenly realized that
he was very hungry.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Blair looked out to the balcony and found the source of
the noise. A small woodpecker sat perched on the balcony doorknob
outside as it tapped persistently at the glass.

Blair frowned as he popped the plate in the microwave. He couldn't
remember ever seeing a woodpecker out at night in such cold weather.

Tap. Tap. Tap. *Go away, little guy,* Blair commanded silently, punching
in two minutes on the microwave cycle. The incessant tapping ceased and
Blair glanced back at the balcony. The bird was gone. His eye caught the
bright green glow of the VCR clock. 2:10 a.m. Had that much time passed
already?

*I really need to get to sleep. I'll eat, make some tea, then go back to
bed.*

The room darkened suddenly and he spun around. Tap. Tap. Tap. Blair
gasped. It looked bright as day outside, but the loft's interior was
pitch black. A coldness creeped over him, puckering his skin with
goose bumps. He felt a presence behind him and spun back around, but he
couldn't see anything through the darkness.

Reality twisted and time stretched to infinity. A wave of pain crashed
into him and the world dropped away from him, sending him spiraling into
the Void.

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

Blair awoke with a gasp to a dark room. The remnants of an unpleasant
dream kept his heart racing and he inhaled a slow, deep breath as he
glanced at the round, antique clock on the dresser next to his bed. 2:03
a.m. Damn, he really needed to be sleeping. He'd been pushing himself
hard the last few days and he had to get up at 6 a.m., which left him
only a few hours to sleep.

With a sigh, he slid out of bed and shuffled out of the room. A faint,
almost surreal glow bathed the loft. A full moon hung in the sky above
Cascade, its murky white light spilling through the balcony doors.

Blair yawned as he made his way to the kitchen. Maybe some tea would
help him get to sleep. A folded, white piece of paper held by a magnet
against the freezer door caught his eye, the word 'Chief' scrawled in
Jim's handwriting on the cover.

Blair swallowed hard, his chest tightening with inexplicable foreboding.
He'd arrived home two hours ago to a dark loft, but hadn't noticed the
note then. Jim had already retired to bed and, indeed, Blair could hear
the Sentinel's faint snores drifting from the upper level. A dizzying
sense of de ja vu assaulted him, making him almost dizzy, and he grasped
the edge of the counter for support.

*Weird.* The unsettling sensation passed quickly, and Blair made his way
to the refrigerator. He snatched the note and unfolded it, turning on
the small light above the sink so he could read the words. 'Left you
some pasta and meatballs in the fridge. It's wrapped in foil. Don't stay
up all night working - busy day tomorrow.'

Unexpected tears stung Blair's eyes, and a shiver snaked down his spine.
This had happened before. He'd dreamt it. He remembered it all, now, and
he knew it was a vision. He knew what it meant. It was going to happen
tonight and he knew with absolute certainty that there was nothing he or
anybody else could do to stop it from happening.

*Oh God. Jim.* His legs betrayed him and he collapsed to the hard
kitchen floor, his insides cold with terror.

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

A rapid pounding infiltrated Jim's slumber and pulled him to
consciousness. It took his sleep-fogged mind a moment to clear and, when
it did, he located the source of the intrusion.

A heartbeat. Blair's heartbeat. Pounding fast. Fear.

Jim sprang out of bed, his senses alert. He heard no other heartbeats in
the loft, so he knew he and Blair were alone. Leaving his gun on the
night stand,
he jogged down the stairs, quickly pinpointing the rapid beat in the
kitchen, but he didn't see Sandburg.

"Blair?" Cautiously, he moved forward, a cold prickle making the hair on
his arms stand on end. "Chief, you okay?"

As he moved around the kitchen isle, he saw Sandburg sitting on the
floor, his back propped against the refrigerator, his eyes staring
blankly into the darkness. His face looked stark white. *Shock,* Jim
realized immediately, dropping to his knees in front of his partner. But
shock from what?

He dropped a hand on Blair's shoulder and gave him a quick shake. "Hey,
you with me, buddy?"

Sandburg blinked, his eyes finally shifting to focus on Jim. "Huh?"

"Are you okay? What happened? Why are you out here on the floor?"

Blair swallowed and reached up to cover the hand on his shoulder with
his own. "Jim?"

"Yeah? What is it, partner? What's wrong?"

The edges of Blair's eyes crinkled, and he sucked in a shallow, quick
breath. "I'm going to die, Jim -- before sunrise."

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

Jim rocked back on his heels. "What?"

"I... I had a dream. A vision." Blair closed his eyes and dropped his
head back against the cabinet. "I --"

"You had a dream?" Jim sagged, expelling a relieved breath. "Jesus,
Sandburg --"

"Listen, Jim." Blair's voice was so low and somber that it surprised Jim
into compliance and he waited for Blair to continue. "This wasn't a
normal dream. It was a vision. I dreamt things and, when I woke up, they
happened. I dreamt about the note you left me." He pointed to the piece
of paper laying on the floor. "I never even saw it when I got home, but
I dreamt about it. I knew exactly what it said before I even opened it -
word for word."

"You sure you didn't read it and just forgot? You've been pushing
yourself hard these past few days. You were probably exhausted. You --"

Blair glanced at the clock. "In less than a minute a woodpecker will
perch itself on the balcony doorknob and tap on the glass three times.
Then it will pause and tap three more times before it flies away." He
jerked his chin toward the doors. "Wait and watch."

There was an odd, dark quality in Blair's eyes and a note of certainty
in his voice that stole Jim's breath and compelled him to look toward
the balcony. He waited, unconsciously holding his breath as the seconds
passed. A flutter of wings appeared out of the darkness and the
anticipated bird perched itself on the doorknob.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

A coldness passed over Jim and he shivered.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

*Oh God.* It couldn't be true, could it? Was it possible that Blair
actually had a premonition? How else could he have predicted the
woodpecker? It was too damn cold outside for birds to be up and around,
wasn't it? *Maybe I'm dreaming.*

The bird tilted its head and, for a moment, it looked to be staring
directly at the two men. Then it flapped its wings and disappeared back
into the night.

"Jim." The simple plea came out as a soft sob and Jim looked back at
Blair, noting the unshed tears in the young man's eyes. "I don't want to
die."

*You're not. Not tonight.* Jim didn't know what to believe, but he
couldn't deny the evidence of the woodpecker and he couldn't ignore the
fear etched in Blair's face. Whatever was going on, he knew one thing
for sure. He wasn't going to fall asleep until the sun rose. He wrapped
an arm around Blair's shoulders and pulled him close. "Don't worry,
Blair. Nothing's going to happen to you tonight. I won't let it. I
promise."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tick. Tick. Tick. Jim rubbed his forehead as he sank onto the sofa
cushion next to Sandburg. That damn clock. It had been a gift to Blair
from a friend and Sandburg, being the neo-hippie retro contradiction
that he was, loved the simple, elegant design of the old-fashioned time
piece. Normally, with the white noise earplugs, the sound didn't bother
Jim so much. He hadn't worn the earplugs tonight, though, because they
had a tendency to hurt if he used them too long. He had, however, become
quite good at turning down the dial for sleep, thanks to Sandburg's
guidance.

Sandburg. He sighed and looked at Blair, concerned that the color hadn't
yet returned to his friend's face. *He looks about ready to pass out.*
Actually, that might be best. Let Sandburg sleep through this night
without worrying that each second would be his last. Jim would keep
watch - put his heightened senses to full use and make sure that nothing
even remotely resembling a threat got within striking distance of the
loft.

But first, he had to have an idea of what he might be up against. "Tell
me about the dream, Chief."

Blair released a shaky breath and tilted his head over the edge of the
sofa back. "It was like I told you," he said, closing his eyes. "I
dreamt I woke up at 2:03 am. I shuffled into the kitchen and saw your
note about dinner. I found the pasta in the fridge. Then I heard a
tapping at the balcony doors and turned to see the woodpecker. I'm not
quite sure what happened after that. It gets kind of fuzzy. I just
remember it got suddenly dark and cold and I felt something behind me.
When I turned around... I... I'm not sure what happened. I remember
pain. I... I think... I think whatever happens to me is going to hurt."

Jim stiffened. Beneath the apparent hesitation in Blair's voice lurked a
layer of certainty that chilled the air.

"It's going to hurt a lot, Jim, but it'll be relatively fast."

"Blair don't. It's not going to happen. We'll just sit right here until
morning and I'll make sure the loft remains secure."

Blair lifted his head and looked at Jim, his eyes somber. He looked like
a man without hope. "We don't know how it's going to happen, Jim. I
don't even know *when.* It may not be an outside threat. I could die
right here. Embolism. Aneurysm. Heart attack."

"You're too young," Jim blurted. "You're healthy. That's not going to
happen."

"It's uncommon but not unheard of at my age." Blair swallowed and
shifted his gaze to the balcony, his eyes distant. "I can't explain this
exactly, but I just *know* it's going to happen. There's nothing you are
I can do about it, Jim. I don't know how I know or why I'm so certain.
Believe me, I don't want to die." His voice cracked and he swallowed
quickly before continuing. "I'd fight if I thought it would help, but it
won't. If we stay here, I'll still die. Natural causes. Earthquake. Who
knows? If we leave I could die in a car accident, a mugging... whatever.
There's no running from it, Jim. No hiding from it. No way to avoid it.
I --"

"Look, Sandburg, the odds of you dying by a sudden heart attack or
embolism are remote. With your history, it'll be natural disaster or
psycho. I think we should focus on those. I'll call Simon and we'll get
some men posted out in the hall and on the street. We'll --"

"I should call Naomi." Blair glanced at the cordless phone hanging on
the wall, giving no indication that he had even heard Jim. "Very few
people get the chance to say good-bye to the people they love. Guess I'm
lucky that way."

"Blair --"

Sandburg finally looked at him. "I'm sorry, Jim. I'll get my notes in
order and you can give them to Simon... or whoever you want to help you
with your Sentinel abilities. It's important that you find someone you
can trust, Jim. I --"

"Stop it, Sandburg!" He shot off the couch, his fists clenched and his
stomach tight. "You're *not* going to die. Got it?"

*Not on my watch. Not again.*
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair hung up the phone, returning the cordless to its base, his face
registering his disappointment.

"No luck, Chief?"

Blair shook his head. "No. I know she was heading for a retreat, but I
thought she'd be back by now."

"Do you know where she went?"

"She wouldn't have access to a phone on the retreat." Blair shrugged his
shoulders and moved into the kitchen. "I didn't leave a message. No
point. Guess I'll just write her a letter."

"Blair --"

"Jim, can you please stop this?" He grabbed the tea kettle from the back
burner and began filling it with water. "I know you think there's some
way to cheat fate, but I'm telling you there isn't. I *know* this is
going to happen. I *know* there's nothing we can do about it. I don't
know how or why I know, but I can't help this certainty. I know I'm
going to die before sunrise just as surely as I know the sun will rise
in a few hours. We can't prevent either one... and I really don't want
to spend my last few hours fighting with you."

*That* shut Jim up and he rose from the couch, moving behind Blair. He
watched as Sandburg turned on the flame and set the kettle on the
burner. It all seemed so surreal and he wondered once again if he was
dreaming. This couldn't really be happening, could it? Blair wasn't
going to die in a few hours? There was no such thing as fate. Men and
women were responsible for their own lives and their own destinies.

And, even if there was something called Fate, how could it be so cruel?
So senseless? So...

"Chief... Please." This time when he spoke, his voice was nearly
whisper-soft. "Maybe the dream was a warning. Maybe --"

"It was more than that, Jim," Blair said, turning around to face him.
His voice sounded calm, but his eyes betrayed his fear. "I told you,
it's like something has put this knowledge in my head and I know -- I
just *know* -- that this is the last night I'll have with you. I..." He
looked away quickly and swallowed hard. "I don't want to waste it, Jim.
We always think we have all the time in the world, but we don't. I
don't. Whatever time I have left I'd like very much to spend with you.
Right here. But I don't want to argue."

"You want me to just accept this and let it happen?"

"You have to accept it, Jim. There's nothing you can do about it. I wish
there was, but there isn't. There... Oh God --"

Blair's facade of calm acceptance cracked and he sagged. Jim caught him,
lowering him carefully to the floor. "Easy. Okay, no arguing, Chief.
Just take it easy."

Sandburg's breathing came in pained gasps and the pale terror returned
to his face. "Jim." He reached out, clutching at Jim's arm. "I... I..."

"Hey, hey, I'm here." Jim didn't hesitate as he wrapped a strong arm
around Blair's shoulders and pulled him close. "It's okay, Chief.
Breathe. Just breathe. You're okay. No more arguing. Whatever you want,
buddy. Just say the word."

"I... want more time," Sandburg blurted and his eyes filled with tears.
"I'm sorry, Jim. I don't mean to do this."

"It's okay." He gave Blair a firm squeeze.

"We've only known one another a little over three years, Jim. It's...
It's not enough."

"No, it's not." Jim closed his eyes. It wasn't anywhere *near* enough.

"I still have things I want to do."

Jim felt the tremors begin in his friend and he tightened his hold.
"It's okay, Blair. Listen to me. You wouldn't have dreamt about your
death if there wasn't some way to change it, right? What would be the
point, otherwise? It was a warning and I think we *can* do something
about it."

"Jim, you're not listening! There's nothing we can do."

"Like hell." It came out as a growl and his whole body went rigid. "Just
watch me."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Simon, please, it's important... Look, if I tell you, you won't believe
me. I'm asking you to trust me, sir... Yeah... Uh-huh... Okay. Thank
you, sir. I appreciate this." Jim hung up the phone and turned to
Sandburg, meeting the young man's expectant gaze. "He's going to assign
a car to patrol the block until morning."

"So I gathered." Blair strolled back over to the couch and sank onto the
cushion with a sigh. "Sorry for freaking out earlier." His voice was so
low, that Jim barely deciphered the words.

Silently, Jim moved to stand behind Sandburg and placed a hand on the
back of the sofa. He opened his mouth to attempt words of reassurance,
but his throat tightened, hampering his voice. He wanted to tell Blair
that he understood and that it was okay. He'd done a little freaking out
himself when he'd dreamed about shooting the wolf - a wolf that had
morphed into Sandburg. That had been a vision, only he hadn't
consciously known it at the time.

But it had come true and Blair had died. Would Sandburg's vision also
come true?

*God, I hope not. I can't lose you again, Chief. Not so soon.* It didn't
make any sense. What kind of Otherworld would allow him to bring Blair
back and then take him away again less than a year later? No, the
universe wasn't *that* senseless. It couldn't be. If it was, than
humanity was screwed and there was no point in even trying to struggle
through existence.

"Jim?" Blair twisted his head back to look up at his friend. "This is
where you're supposed to say 'It's okay, Blair. Anybody would freak out
in your situation. I don't think any less of you.'"

Jim forced a smile and patted Blair's shoulder. "I'm doing a bit of
freaking out here myself, Chief."

Blair moved his head out of its awkward position and looked out the
balcony. "Oh, so that's what you call that cool, calm, and collected
demeanor. You might want to keep it down for the neighbors."

Jim snorted and moved around the couch to sit next to Sandburg. He
wavered between following up on Blair's valiant attempt to lighten the
mood or finally biting the bullet and saying the things he'd always
wanted to say. He'd never had the guts to tell Blair how much he really
meant to him and, if the vision was true, this might be his last chance.

Blair beat him to it, as usual. "Are you going to be okay, Jim?"

What a question. He didn't know how to answer it. He didn't *want* to
answer it.

Blair shifted his body to face him. "I want you to promise me you'll be
okay, Jim."

"Define 'okay.'" He turned his gaze to the balcony, reflecting on
all the times he and Blair had shared a beer out there.

"Cut the crap, Jim. I don't have time for this. I want you to promise me
you're going to be okay. It would..." His voice faltered and he
swallowed quickly before continuing. "It would really help me if I knew
you would try for happiness. You deserve it, Jim, more than any man I've
ever known."

Awww, hell. Jim closed his eyes, fighting tears. He deserved nothing. It
astounded him that Blair seemed more concerned about him than about his
own pending death. *Even after all the ways I've hurt you, Chief, you
can still say such things to me? And mean them?* He suddenly felt very
ashamed that he'd been reluctant to tell Blair how he felt, especially
since Blair hadn't hesitated. No, Blair had just come right out with it,
like he always did - because he knew that there were things more
important than propriety and ego. *Why can't I learn that lesson?*

Well, he could. And he just did. "Blair," he began, opening his eyes to
look at his friend, "I can't imagine what my life would be like now if I
hadn't met you." He took a deep breath, his thoughts racing ahead as he
tried to figure out how to put his feelings into words without screwing
it all up. "I know there have been a few times over the years when I've
come down a bit hard on you." A bit? "I'm sorry." *There, I said it.*
"Truth is, you've been the best friend and best partner any man could
hope for. I count myself damn lucky that you walked into that hospital
room three and a half years ago. I didn't know what it meant to be happy
before I met you. You've given me more than I could ever repay and the
truth is I don't know what I'll do without you in my life."

He watched in rapt fascination as Blair's face changed. His jaw
slackened, his cheeks flushed, and the tip of his nose reddened. A thin
sheen wet his eyes and Blair finally looked away, his gaze falling to
the blank television screen. He sat perfectly still for several moments,
the only sound his slightly strained breathing. Then he leaned forward
and buried his face in his hands and his shoulders began to tremble
softly.

Jim fidgeted. That wasn't exactly the reaction he had hoped to elicit.
Had he said something wrong? Or maybe it was all just said too late and
Blair realized that. Maybe it had been cruel for him to dangle such a
carrot in front of a man who knew this was his last night on Earth.

Hesitantly, he leaned forward, draping his arm across his friends'
shoulders. "Hey, hey. What's this, Chief?"

Blair took the invitation eagerly, leaning into him. Instinct took over
and Jim pulled the younger man into his arms, holding on tight and
drowning his senses in the precious heart that beat against his own. He
prayed tonight wouldn't be the night he heard that beat stop.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair sat at the kitchen table, the loft silent except for the soft
scratching as the pen glided over the paper. He was painfully aware of
Jim seated behind him on the couch, and he kept fighting the urge to
glance back at his friend. He needed to finish this letter, but the
words weren't coming easily. In fact, they was proving damn hard.

How does a son say good-bye to his mother? How does anybody say good-bye
on paper? He wished again that he could talk to her one last time, but
wishing didn't make something so. Naomi was out of reach. Not her fault.
She couldn't expect her son would have a pre-dawn vision about his
impending death.

The pen wavered before his eyes and he blinked, surprised when two tears
dropped onto the paper. He'd only gotten as far as "Dear Mom," and now
those words were bleeding together, meshing with his salty tears and
forming a barely decipherable blotch on the white sheet.

Damn. He dropped the pen onto the table and rolled the paper into a
ball, shoving it aside as he tore a new sheet from the notepad. The
paper was pure white and unlined, inviting yet terrifying with its stark
nothingness.

He started again.

Dear Mom,
I don't know how to start this letter except to say
I love you. There are so many other things I want to
say, but they all basically come down to those three
words. Those are the most important, and I wish
I could say them to you in person one last time.
I'm sorry I have to say good-bye in a letter. I'm
sorry I'm leaving. Don't be sad, Mom. I've had
a really good life. I discovered a friendship
most people only dream of finding. I've traveled
and seen things most people never see. I've lived
three lifetimes in only three decades. Now, I'll
get to see what's waiting on the other side. I'll
miss you and I know you'll miss me. Don't cry for
me. Be happy. When you think of me, smile and I'll
be smiling, too. I love you. Good-bye.
Love,
Blair

He looked at his signature and almost laughed. Who else would she think
the letter was from? Not many people called her "Mom." Well, not any
that he knew of, anyway. With Naomi, anything was possible.

He glanced up at the microwave clock. The bright green digits seemed to
glow ominously, screaming at him through the silence. 4:15 a.m. Two
hours 'til sunrise.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim stood rigidly in front of the glass, gazing through the balcony
doors at the city below. His ears focused on the steady rumble of the
police vehicle patrolling the area -- per Simon's orders. One cop car
wasn't
enough. If there was even a 1% chance that Blair's dream was a vision
destined to come true, that was 1% too much.

Destiny. There was no such thing. At least, that's what he kept telling
himself. He just couldn't believe that the cosmos had some pre-laid plan
for each individual, that there was no free choice.

There was free choice. Even Incacha had said "A Sentinel will always be
a Sentinel as long as he chooses to be." The key word was "choice."

So, Jim clung to the hope that the vision was not a glimpse of the
immovable future, but a warning. He kept trying to convince himself that
it was just a dream -- nothing more -- but he couldn't . He'd had his
own
morbid vision and it had come painfully true. So he didn't dare discount
this vision. Not this time. Not again.

"You know, I really want a cinnamon roll."

Almost, immediately, the thick scent cinnamon and dough drifted to Jim's
nostrils from the all-night bakery below. Power of suggestion? He turned
around and looked at Blair, who was seated on the couch with his legs
tucked under him.

Jim forced a smile. "Cinnamon rolls sound good about now." But he wasn't
too thrilled about the idea of leaving the relative safety of the loft.
"Maybe I can get Fred to deliver if he I promise him a big tip."

Blair shrugged one shoulder and smiled, but it was a sad smile
highlighted by the dark fear in his eyes. Jim glanced away from those
eyes to look at the microwave clock. 5:01 a.m. His chest tightened. When
was sunrise? 6:05? 6:10? 6:15? He had the paper around somewhere, so he
could probably find out.

But Blair said he didn't know *when* it would happen. He might have all
the way up until the moment the sun broke the horizon, or he might die
before the digits changed to 5:02.

His nostrils flared and he took a deep breath. No.

*No. No. No.*

"I'll call." Jim hurried over to the phone. If Blair wanted cinnamon
rolls, he would get cinnamon rolls. They weren't something the young man
indulged in often because of their fat content, but...

*Fuck. Is this supposed to be a last meal?*

"Shit! Easy, man!"

Jim blinked. A cool breeze brushed against his face and a sliver of
moonlight reflected off pieces of glass scattered on the floor near the
balcony. He blinked again and noticed that one of the double doors
leading to the balcony no longer existed. He tenses, his first thought
that a bullet had shattered the glass, then he realized the phone wasn't
on the hook - nor was it in his hand - and Blair was staring at him with
a mixture of concern and horror.

"You okay, Jim?" Sandburg's voice was soft and deep, soothing.

"What happened?"

"You threw the cordless into orbit. I'm sure the neighbors heard the
sonic boom, if they missed the sound of glass shattering." It was an
obviously shallow attempt at humor, a slight tremor betraying the
underlying anxiety in Blair's voice.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The cinnamon rolls arrived fresh and hot, to both men's delight. Fred
had delivered the goods with a smile, telling them he'd baked a fresh
batch "just for them." Of course, Jim had tipped the man generously. Too
generously. The surprise had flickered obvious on Fred's face, but he
pocketed the forty dollars with an awkward smile, then hurried off down
the hall as Jim closed the door and retreated to the kitchen.

Blair sniffed the air appreciatively as Jim set the bag on the table.
"Smells good."

"Dig in." Jim grabbed some napkins and paper plates, then sat opposite
Sandburg.

He watched intently as Blair carefully opened the bag, looking like a
child opening his first present on Christmas Day. "God, man, I haven't
had one of these in forever!" Sandburg took another whiff of the freshly
baked rolls and then dipped his hand in the bag, emerging with a fat,
gooey cinnamon roll. With a grin, he looked up and held the pastry
victoriously. "Got milk?"

Jim barked a surprised laugh despite the knot in his gut. "Yeah, coming
right up, Chief."

He rose quickly from the chair, glancing again at the microwave clock,
and retrieved the half gallon container from the refrigerator. It was
now 5:30 a.m. He picked out two glass goblets from the shelf and filled
each one carefully, his hands shaking so hard it was a miracle he didn't
spill any. He looked discreetly back at Blair, hoping the young man
hadn't seen his trembling.

Damn. Half an hour. The knot in his gut bloomed to panic. In
approximately half an hour they would find out whether Blair's vision
had been legit. In less than thirty minutes, Death would come knocking
at the door, or It wouldn't.

*Well, if It does, It'll have to get through me.*

"Jim?"

He jumped as though stung and turned quiltily around to look at his
partner. "Yeah?"

Blair smiled softly. "You didn't zone on the milk, did you?" A slight
quiver shook his words, and Jim saw past the fear in the younger man's
eyes to the underlying concern.

Jim didn't answer right away. Instead, he returned the milk to its
proper place on the shelf and then carried the two goblets to the table.
Taking his seat, he looked up at Blair and leaned forward, his milk and
the cinnamon rolls forgotten. "I didn't zone, Blair."

Blair's shallow smile faded and he looked down at the roll now sitting
on his plate. "Oh, okay." Absently, he began picking at the pastry. "It
was nice of Fred to bake these for us."

*Enough of this.* "Blair."

Sandburg looked up hesitantly.

Jim held his gaze steady. "Talk to me."

"And say what?" Blair blurted, his voice barely composed.

"What's on your mind," Jim whispered.

Blair stood suddenly, wiping his hands on his sweats, and moved into the
living room, stopping in front of the balcony doors. Jim shot out of his
chair, extending his senses to search for threats outside. His cop
instincts screamed to get Blair away from the window, and those
instincts carried him swiftly over to his friend. Gently but firmly, he
placed his hands on Blair's shoulder and steered him over to the couch.

Wordlessly, Blair sat down, his head low.

"No one can replace you, buddy... but I promise to be careful." *IF,*
his mind screamed. *IF it happens, which it won't because I have no
intention of letting it.*

Blair looked up sharply. He studied Jim for a few seconds, then a slow
smile tweaked his lips. "You read minds now?"

"I don't need to. It's written all over your face." *In your eyes. Damn
those eyes.* That was one of the hardest parts about all this -- looking
into Blair's ever-expressive eyes and seeing the fear there, knowing he
couldn't ease those fears no matter how many reassurances he gave. Blair
was convinced he was going to die this morning no matter what.

Blair looked down again. "Just don't get yourself killed, Tough Guy."

With a pained sigh, Jim sank onto the cushion next to Blair. "I'll do my
best."

Sandburg leaned into him and Jim let his arm wrap around Blair's
shoulders.

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

Light tickled his eyelids and awareness slowly crept into the dark fog
that dimmed his senses. He inhaled a deep breath and opened his eyes.

*What?*

It was morning. Bright, glorious morning. He couldn't believe it.

*How?*

He felt a warmth along his right side and shifted his head, but his face
pressed into something cottony and unyielding. A T-shirt... Jim.

He pulled back a fraction to orient himself. He was laying on the couch,
sprawled halfway over Jim. The Sentinel lay asleep against the arm of
the sofa, snoring softly.

*I'm alive!* He grinned, and the warmth in his chest bubbled to
laughter.

Jim groaned and his eyelids trembled, then opened. He blinked several
times, focusing sleepy eyes on Blair. It took a moment for realization
to dawn in the Sentinel's eyes, but when it did, he shot up, pushing
Blair back.

"You're alive!"

Blair nodded, laughing. "Yeah, man. Totally."

Conflicting emotions flittered over the Detective's face, but after a
brief struggle, subdued joy finally settled there. "It was just a dream
after all."

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Blair's smile faded and he looked to the balcony doors. The little
woodpecker sat perched on the doorknob, staring at the two men intently.
It cocked its head, then fluffed its wings and, finally, leapt into
flight and disappeared into the sky.

For a long time, neither man spoke. Jim finally broke the silence. "It
was the same bird, I'm pretty sure. Same markings."

"Maybe it just likes this place."

"I've never seen it here before."

"Me either."

Jim looked at Blair. "What does it mean?"

Blair turned his gaze back to the windows, eyeing the empty spot where
the bird had sat. "I'm not sure, but..." He hesitated, struggling with
the words. "I think we passed some kind of test last night."

Jim stiffened. "A test? What kind of a test?"

"It's weird. Just like I knew last night that I was going to die, I know
it was a test."

"What are you saying?"

Blair raised his eyebrows and looked directly at Jim. "There is more to
life in the spirit than what we know in the world."

Jim pulled back. "What?"

"Huh?"

"What did you just say, Blair?"

"I said I haven't seen the bird here before last night."

When Jim's face went white, Blair leaned forward, alarmed. "Jim, man,
you okay? What is it?"

Slowly, Jim's raised his hands to Blair's shoulders, his eyes seeming to
probe for the answers to unasked questions. "You said something else,
Chief. Something Incacha said to me once."

Blair swallowed, now thoroughly confused. "When?"

"Just now."

"I don't remember. I just said I hadn't seen the bird before. That's
all. What did Incacha say to you?"

Jim shook his head and pulled Blair forward, one hand sliding around to
grasp the back of Blair's neck. "Something I didn't understand at the
time, but I do now. He said it soon after the tribe took me in. I was
grieving for my lost men. I didn't even understand the words at the
time, but now, as I remember them, I know what they mean."

"What do they mean?"

Jim smiled gently and looked down at Blair. "We just took a dip in the
pool, Chief... and, you're right, the water's nice."

~~~~~~
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