Now and Forever - Jim

by Zanz

EMAIL: Zanz

 

Not making any money. (unfortunately) Not mine. (most definitely an unfortunate state of affairs! I'd share, really I would.)

My thanks go to Sonja who introduced me to the world known as The Sentinel. And to Sonja, Alyjude and Wod who finally convinced me posting was a good thing.
Written May 2001

This was my first Sentinel fiction and was done as a stand alone story but tied to a second story as a study to see if I thought I had the characters of Jim and Blair down in a realistic way. The two stories are basically identical with the exception that the first is the event happening to Jim, showing how he would respond and has the second the event happening to Blair and showing how he would respond.

He'd never lost consciousness. The release of just 'not knowing' had been denied. He'd tried to. He'd prayed to. But that release, that comfort was never granted. Not even from the beginning. He'd actually witnessed the entire accident. Seen when the oncoming semi had swerved to avoid the small carload of teenagers that cut him off, its left front tire hitting a pothole and thrown further to the left. Then the front tire dropping off the pavement, sinking into the soft mud. It had been pulled, despite the frantic efforts of the driver, into the center median. Clumps of mud and grass were thrown up marking the progress of the run away vehicle, the soft ground making it impossible to steer. He'd watched its progress bouncing down into the ditch, knowing from the way the trailer swayed and hitched that it was fully loaded. He'd tracked its path coldly, clinically, analyzing its speed and trajectory, to make sure they weren't the unwitting targets. It would come into his lane about four car lengths in front of him. If he was lucky he should be able to avoid the truck completely but he might hit or be hit by some of the other vehicles dodging the accident. He'd already lifted his foot to apply the brakes when he heard Sandburg gasp, "School bus," and turned his head. There wasn't even a second thought. His foot stomped the accelerator and the old truck jumped, its tires squealing as they tried to gain purchase on the hot asphalt. Then they were across the shoulder on a converging path with the massive steel battering ram. He only had time for a hurried, "Hold on, Sandburg." Then a whispered, "Damn!" from between gritted teeth just before the semi plowed into them, its path slowed enough by Ellison's truck that the two vehicles only just grazed the school bus.

If they'd been in a newer vehicle they would probably have both been killed instantly but the massive old truck with its thick steel panels absorbed most of the impact. He was sure his body wore bruises from where it was thrown into the seat belt before the belt snapped and he was thrown free of the truck. That one little brief space of time was the only thing he couldn't remember, going though the windshield and then hitting the ground. He remembered the impact of the truck then opening his eyes on the ground, the smell of grass and mud, trying to reorient himself.

Up, he had to get up, check things out. Where was Sandburg? Was he hurt? What about the school bus? And the driver? Had any other cars been involved? Get. Up. And then his eyes had widened and for the first time he saw what he was looking at. His own hand, lying where it'd been flung, just in front of him. Not moving. Nothing was moving. Nothing was there! What the . . .? And then the fear took over, broadsiding him as surely as the semi had. He was paralyzed. He couldn't move, couldn't feel anything. "Blair?" his voice came out in a whisper but that was okay, it worked and with that one little bit of knowledge, that something worked, he struggled to pull his thoughts back from the abyss. Where was his partner? He fought the new panic. He couldn't move, couldn't get up to go find him and he'd landed with his back to the accident. He did the only thing left available to him; he extended his senses, his hearing, searching for the heartbeat he knew better than his own. He heard the kids first, still on the school bus, somewhere above his head, voices high pitched and filled with adrenaline, frightened, excited, a few crying, and he negated the sound. The tic tic tic of the overheated semi engine as it cooled in the sudden stillness was next and the shaky, fuckfuckfuckfuck, of its driver as he clenched the steering wheel so tightly Ellison heard it creak. And he cleared that sound from his hearing. Then he breathed. There it was, fast but that was normal under the circumstances, then his voice. "Jim?" and a hiss of pain and a groan as he moved, the sound of the truck door opening, and "Damn!" Sandburg's voice filled with pain. "Jim?" Ellison heard the heartbeat spike and the catch of his breath and knew Sandburg had seen him even before he heard the panicked, "Jim!" and heard the sound of his halting, running footsteps. He prayed Sandburg would do it by the book, not let his concern override his training. And he did, sliding to his knees in front of his friend without first grabbing him and trying to turn him over. Blood ran down the side of his face from a wound in the edge of his hair, plastering the curls of soft brown against his face and dying the hair an ugly shade of red. The wound looked superficial and the relief of knowing his partner was okay allowed him to breathe a little easier. Sandburg impatiently wiped at the blood with the back of his hand. "Jim? Jim, you all right?" Concerned blue eyes met his, reading the fear Ellison knew he couldn't completely hide. "You okay, man?" Sandburg reached out one hand to touch him.

"Careful," Ellison gasped the warning. "Don't move me."

"Jim?"

"I can't move, Chief," Ellison said, not caring that his voice trembled. "I'm. . ." and it took a second breath to get it out. "I'm paralyzed."

After only a second of stunned silence when the terror was mirrored in the two pair of blue eyes, Sandburg rose to a seated position directly in front of his partner. Folding his right leg half under his body, extending his left leg out protectively above Ellison's head, his fingers were feather light as he assured the man, "Don't worry, Jim. It'll be okay." The young anthropologist took control. He called 911, reporting 'officer down,' knowing that would bring every cop in the area. He gave the location of the accident, requesting an ambulance. Flashing Ellison's badge like it was his own, he issued orders. Never leaving the downed man's side, keeping his hand in gentle contact with Ellison's face to ground him, he reassured the frightened man, at the same time giving instructions to the curious onlookers. "Check the school bus; see if any kids were injured. See about the driver of the semi, he still hasn't moved from the truck. Were there any other cars involved? Any one else injured? Where the fuck is that ambulance? Get me a blanket, a coat, anything." And something was spread over the man lying so still on the ground. And the whole time, in between barking out orders, Sandburg's voice, soft, low, calming his partner, his Sentinel. And it worked. Ellison lay quietly, listening to his Guide, following the instructions he was given to dial it down. To breathe. Stay calm. Answering the questions. "No, no pain. There's nothing from the neck down. I can't move. No, not anything." He remembered. "Sandburg, my gun." He hadn't felt it when his partner reached over him to remove his handgun from his waist holster where it still rode in the middle of his back, tucking it into the waistband of his own jeans, promising to keep it until this was over.

Ellison had asked one question. "Anyone else hurt?" And the answer from someone behind him. On the bus, one broken arm, a couple of minor cuts and a lot of bruises. The truck driver was okay. He'd already been over twice to explain and apologize before Sandburg chased the crowd back. No other cars involved, no one else hurt. And he'd closed his eyes in a silent, thankful prayer.

Then the EMTs were there. Examining. Inserting an IV. Fitting him with the neck brace that he could feel under his chin but not on his shoulders. Saying the fear inducing words, spinal cord injury, that caused him to lift terrified eyes to his partner. Competent hands on a body he couldn't feel, turning him onto the backboard, positioning him. Strapping him down to keep him immobile. And somewhere in the back of his mind, with a tickle of hysteria, he found that redundant. Immobilizing a paralyzed man. Then they were preparing him for transport. Trying to push Sandburg back out of the way until the young police observer had growled, actually growled at them, lips pulled back and a look in his eyes that made them back off enough that they didn't even protest when he climbed into the back of the ambulance with the stretcher.

They'd been lucky in the emergency room of Cascade General, drawing a doctor who knew them, knew the big detective was better off with the smaller man at his side and didn't object when Sandburg followed them into the examining room. Sandburg did allow them, at Ellison's insistence, to take him into the room next door to clean his own wounds up, stitching the cut on his head but only because Captain Simon Banks showed up and was pressed into duty to stay with Ellison. Twice during this Sandburg returned to check on his partner, questioning the doctor, once refusing to let him administer some drug, knowing it had an adverse reaction on the Sentinel's senses.

In spite of the activity going on around and being done to him, Ellison was glad for the few minutes without his Guide. "Simon?" he said, his voice so soft the big man had to bend down to hear the words. "If something. . ." Ellison swallowed. "If something happens and I don't make it, look after Blair, will you?"

Simon raised up, not liking where this conversation was going. "Jim, that's not going to happen. This is not life threatening."

"Doesn't matter, Simon. I want your promise."

And Simon Banks had given it. "Okay, Jim. You've got it, for all the good it will do."

Ellison looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure he'd make it without you," Simon said bluntly.

"Yes, he will," Ellison said with certainty.

"Maybe physically," Simon said with a frown.

"He's got to make it. He's the best part of this team."

Simon shook his head. "You're wrong, Jim. The best part of your team is your team. Both of you." He considered it for a moment. "I'm not sure I like it and I damn sure don't understand it but I'm not sure either one of you would survive for long without the other."

The curtain parted and Sandburg reappeared, a bandage covering one side of his forehead, "Thanks, Simon. Keep this for Jim, would you? I can't keep it here at the hospital." He pulled Ellison's service revolver from his waistband, gave it to Simon and then took his place at the head of the bed, his fingers lightly resting against Ellison's temples. Once again his attention was fully on what they were doing to his partner. The nurse ushered Simon out of the emergency room, directing him to the waiting room. And he went, grumbling that he damn well knew his way to the damn waiting room, hadn't he spent entirely too much of his life there? The nurse returned to the examining room grumbling about non-essential personnel in the ER, casting dowering looks at Sandburg who, to be honest, was not even aware of her existence.

The cervical collar was removed and Ellison was ridiculously relieved to discover he could turn his head with no pain. The movement wasn't much, his chin going an inch or so up and down and slightly more than that to each side.

At one time, Ellison purposely let his hearing follow one of the young nurses who'd worked on his partner. He needed to know his condition. "Superficial head wound," he heard her say then he almost smiled when he heard her add in awe of his partner, "Remind me to have him on my side next time I'm injured. I've never seen Dr. Killion backed down before."

Another voice, more seasoned, answered dryly, "It's not like they're never in here or anything. Hardly a month goes by that at least one of them doesn't wind up here. You'll see after you've been down here a while. And if you think Sandburg's bad, wait until you have to deal with Ellison. At least Sandburg's nice." And then her voice dropped and Ellison found himself wishing he'd dialed his hearing back down when he heard her soft words, "I just hope I get the chance to deal with that big pain in the ass again."

"Bad?"

"Yeah, it's bad."

Sandburg saw the haunted look in his friend's eyes immediately and demanded the reason. "Nothing specific, Chief," he told him. "I was just listening to the nurses."

And then came the non-information, which was better than bad news but almost as frustrating to deal with. Nothing broken that the x-rays showed. A lot of bruising, a lot of swelling. Pressure on the cord but no way of telling if there was any permanent damage. Wait and see. Twenty-four hours. Maybe a little longer and they should know. It just depended on how long it took the swelling to go down. So they'd catheterized him, which he hadn't felt even though he'd dialed his sense of touch up as high as he dared, then they moved him to a room. To wait.

Now he lay on his back staring at the sterile ceiling, the white light that someone, Sandburg? had considerately turned down in deference to his heightened sight. And they were approaching the fourth day. And still nothing. There was no feeling, no movement. Only the fear, and that grew proportionally with the amount of time that passed. And he tried not to think. There were twenty-five ceiling tiles in the portion of the room he could see and another fourteen half tiles. Had anyone been interested he could even tell them how many dimples were in each tile. He hadn't slept. They couldn't explain why he'd never lost consciousness. He'd heard murmurs of drugs to knock him out but Sandburg resisted.

He couldn't stop the playback. Couldn't stop reliving the past several... hours? Days? God, had it really been days? He couldn't stop the memories. He couldn't stop the 'what ifs' that haunted his mind. Couldn't stop the pain. Not that kind of pain, there was nothing... His mind shied away from that in panic. He could hear the rapid, pounding heartbeat like some wild tribal drum and knew it was his own. God, it was frightening to be able to hear his heart beat and not feel it. But he could feel the responding throbbing in his temples. It felt like his head would explode. As if more and more stuff was pouring in and there was no outlet for it. Like when he'd filled water balloons as a kid, one hand keeping the mouth of the balloon over the bathroom faucet and the other supporting the filling bladder, watching the skin stretch, growing thinner and thinner as the balloon filled.

Everyone had been in, all their co-workers from Major Crime. He'd decided Simon must have camped out in the waiting room as much as he was there. No one stayed long. No one knew what to say but Sandburg told him they kept coming back, that there were always friends in the waiting room across the hall. It helped, knowing they were there.

~~<>~~

The nights were the longest. The hardest. When the everyday noise of the hospital was quiet and it was more difficult for him to filter out the sounds that remained: the quiet talking and laughing of the staff; the squidge of rubber soled shoes of the nurses as they made countless trips up and down the hall; and the patients. The ones whose pain wouldn't allow the release of sleep. Part of the pain was physical; he could hear their soft moans and cries. It was the despair he couldn't block out, maybe because it was calling to the despair in his own soul he was trying to keep blocked now. It wasn't always the fear of dying he heard. Sometimes, like his own, it was the fear of living.

Sandburg was there. He was always there. Talking, reading, remembering things they'd done, planning things for the future. Ellison joined in when he could. Sometimes Sandburg just sat, touching, kissing, holding, as much for himself as for his partner. Ellison knew he wouldn't have made it through those nights without his presence. Sometimes he let Sandburg draw him out, and he talked. It was like the quiet and the darkness and even the paralysis itself was some kind of cocoon, offering a sense of other worldness, of safety, allowing him to speak in a soft voice of things he'd never spoken of before. Mostly he talked of things that didn't matter. Occasionally it was about things that did.

"Three of us actually survived the crash. I never told anyone the full story, the details weren't important to anyone else. One of the pilots lived but never regained consciousness. He died that night. The other man, Fletcher, was part of my squad, a young kid, just turned twenty but he had a good head on his shoulders. He was almost as big as Simon.

"I was thrown from the chopper as it hit the treetops. I think that's what saved me. I don't remember all of it." He shook his head, his eyes holding his pain. "I know I hit my head but I don't know if that's why I can't remember things or if I just blocked it all out. There's just bits and pieces. Waking up. The smell. God, the smell!" His nostrils flared as if the odor was still in the air. "I used that to find the crash site.

"I remember fighting my way through the growth, it was so thick. Everything seemed to hold on. I remember yelling. Listening for somebody to respond to me. Pushing my way through that last wall of green to see the chopper there on its side. The rear of it was still burning. Two of my men were lying on the ground. I could see more in the helicopter." His breathing quickened, his words choked. "I knelt and turned the bodies over, checking for life signs. The pilot and copilot were still strapped in their seats. That was the only way I knew who they were. The fire." His mouth twisted. "God, I don't know how but the pilot was still alive. I remember praying he wouldn't wake up, that he'd just die without regaining consciousness. When I tried to move him," Ellison's eyes closed and his lips drew back from his teeth in pain, "his skin, it came away..."

Sandburg reached forward, cupping his partner's face between his hands. "Breathe, Jim," he instructed in an even voice. "Feel my hands on your face. Can you hear my heartbeat? That's it." He watched his friend carefully as he reigned it in. "It's just a memory. It can't hurt you."

Ellison's eyes calmed slightly as he followed the instructions. "Thanks, Chief," he whispered.

"You want to continue?"

Running his tongue over his lips, Ellison nodded. "Yeah, if you don't mind."

Sandburg waited.

"I moved the pilot over to one side, afraid that the wreckage would catch on fire again, it was still smoldering and the gas tanks were still intact. Then I searched for the other men. Fletcher was the last one I found. I knew he was hurt but I didn't think it was that bad when I first found him in the wreckage. I thought I'd arm him when he woke up so he could protect himself and the pilot while I went for help, maybe tried to establish contact with the natives as ordered. But when he woke up, he was paralyzed. Completely." Ellison broke off, knowledge of his words drawing him out of his remembrance and he knew suddenly why this memory had returned now. His voice was breathless as he added, "Just like this."

It took him several moments before he could continue. "I didn't know what to do for him. I'd had the training. All Rangers are trained as medics but it's more like stop gap measures. Stop the bleeding, splint the broken bone, prepare for transport to turn it over to someone who knew what they were doing. His injuries went way beyond what I knew to do. He was dying. We both knew it. I made him comfortable, which wasn't too difficult since he couldn't feel anything. God help me, but I was glad of that because his feet and legs had been badly burned. What was left of the fabric of his pants and his leather boots had bonded to his skin, the rubber soles had melted into. . . " The muscles in Ellison's jaw jumped as he clamped his teeth together and fought through the memory. His partner waited for him.

"I don't think he could have recovered from the burns alone even if he'd been in a hospital, let alone with the spinal injury. There was just too much damage. He tried to get me to end it for him, told me I needed to leave him, improve my chances. When he saw I wouldn't, he started talking. He was from the Bronx but spent summers with his grandparents in Mississippi. He told me all of it, like he needed to get it out before he died. Fishing and swimming with cousins in the summer, learning survival of the streets in the winter. Staying alive with the drug dealers and pimps. Dealing with the racism of two totally different worlds.

"It took him three days to die. The smell from the gangrene in his feet and legs brought in the predators that last night and I kept a big fire going all night to keep them away. He was out of his head by then from the fever and infection, fading in and out of consciousness. I buried him the next day beside the rest of my men and headed out into the jungle. Two days later I found the Chopec.

~~<>~~

The days were easier but even those had a sameness. A movement, a sound caught his attention and his eyes dropped, his head turning sideways the fraction it could. Nothing was within his range of vision and his eyes drifted back to the ceiling, trying to examine his options. Options? He wanted to laugh, to cry, to scream out his frustrations but his jaw clenched, the muscles knotting as he denied himself that, afraid if he ever gave in to any of it he'd never be able to stop. If he could just shut it off, close his eyes and see only blessed darkness.

A murmur of soft indistinguishable voices reached him. He could have pushed his hearing just a bit and heard the conversation but he didn't put forth the effort. If it involved him Sandburg would tell him. Movement again and his partner came into view, moving a little stiffly. He'd tried to get him to go home to rest, get away from all of this but he'd refused. He wouldn't leave Ellison's side for longer than the few minutes it took him to go to the bathroom, refusing even when the doctor was in the room to leave his friend's bedside. Ellison was glad. He loved this young man and in the months since they'd become lovers, partners in the true sense of the word, that love had grown beyond any rational explanation. And he was loved just as fiercely in return.

Simon was the only one they'd told when they'd become lovers. Besides being Captain of Major Crime, he was a good friend and they hadn't wanted him hurt by finding out from someone else. His reaction had been typical. Shoving his cigar firmly between his teeth he'd actually beamed at them, 'About time,' he'd said gruffly. And they'd both left the room feeling slightly embarrassed and foolishly proud. They knew the other Major Crime detectives suspected but no one asked and they hadn't volunteered. Ellison had insisted on it. He knew already there was resentment directed at the anthropology student who rode with him as his partner, for his unconventional looks and his involvement in police work. This hadn't come from the men and women in their own department, they knew Sandburg's value and accepted him as one of their own. But Ellison's sensitive hearing had picked up the innuendoes and the snide remarks from men in other departments. A lot of guys in the world of law enforcement were prejudiced toward gay cops and while it didn't bother him, he did fear for his young partner. He hadn't wanted Sandburg to be on the receiving end of the hostility and out and out physical violence he'd seen aimed at other officers. Ellison had been afraid at first that Sandburg would see his silence as a sign that he was ashamed of their relationship but he was surprised again by the younger man when Sandburg agreed with his decision. He experienced the same fear as his partner, not for himself but for Ellison. He'd heard too many tales of straight cops who'd delayed response times when called upon to backup their gay co-workers and he didn't want that to happen to Ellison. The job was dangerous enough without factoring stupidity into the equation. Besides none of the small touches and looks they'd always given each other stopped and if they took those feelings a little further when they were in an elevator by themselves it was no one's business but their own. With a grin, Sandburg had confided that sometimes it just added a little spice to think they were doing something clandestine.

Now Sandburg traced Ellison's jaw with feather soft fingers and the detective turned into the touch. Under the exhaustion Ellison could read the love in his partner's eyes. And the fear. And that shook him. He needed Sandburg now; maybe more than he ever had in all the years they'd been partners. He wanted to ease his pain, to hold him, tell him that everything would be okay but he couldn't. "Hey, Chief." Ice blue met sapphire and despite the terror swimming just beneath the surface of Ellison's eyes and the exhaustion, fear and total determination in Sandburg's, no words were spoken about what was really on their minds. Ellison took in the bruises covering the right side of the young man's face, the black eye and the split lip. From his position that was the only part he could see but he knew there was a bruised hip, cracked ribs, a twisted knee and bruised shoulder. He knew because he'd made Sandburg catalog each and every injury for him. "You look like shit, Chief," he said with a little smile.

"Hey, yourself." Sandburg smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "You don't look so hot yourself, you know."

"Nah," Ellison denied. "I look great."

Sandburg reached out and brushed his fingers across his friend's forehead then let his hand stay on the pillow beside Ellison's head, his fingers resting gently against the skin. "Yeah, you do, Jim," he said softly. And it was true. Except for the bruising where the seat belt had restrained him, there wasn't a scratch on him. Nothing that showed.

Before the pain could deepen in his friend's eyes, Ellison asked softly. "What'd the doctor say?"

And Sandburg accepted the change in subjects. "He's worried you're not sleeping, Jim."

"I try, Chief. I can't shut it off." His voice dropped to a whisper, "I wish I could."

Sandburg's fingers caressed his cheek in comfort. "I know." His eyes broke away from the look and Ellison knew there was more.

"What?"

"I want to try something, Jim. I want you to work with me."

Ellison eyed his friend warily. "What are you trying to do, Chief?"

Sandburg met his eyes again. "I want to talk you down into a zone. You need to. . ."

"No," Ellison said flatly, turning his eyes back to the ceiling.

"Jim, please. Just hear me out, okay? You need to rest. Your mind needs the down time. You're not having any success doing it on your own and if we don't do something soon the doctor's gonna insist on drugs."

"No," this time the word came out pleading. "Blair, donn't let. . ." Fear washed over the stoic features before the face shut down again. "I can't fight this and the effect of drugs on my senses. I can't." His jaw muscles clenched.

Sandburg's eyes dropped briefly before the silent pleading. "I know, Jim," he said soothingly, giving in. "I won't let them give you anything. I promise. Okay? Just relax." His hand moved up to brush through the short dark hair. "Will you let me help you?"

Ellison's blue eyes closed in something Sandburg could only describe as resigned desperation. "I can't let. . . If I go to sleep. . ." his voice broke off and his eyes opened, searching out the calming blue eyes above him. "I can't lose anything else, Blair," he whispered in terror.

"Ahh, Jim," Sandburg's eyes filled with tears at the anguish of his friend. "You won't, man." He stroked the dark hair tenderly. "I promise. Okay? I promise."

"You can't promise that," Ellison told him softly before he took a deep breath, trying to dislodge the fear with anger. "I hate this nothing," he said bitterly. "I want to feel you, Blair. I want to touch you and feel you touching me." His voice grew softer as he spoke of love, his eyes speaking more than his words. "I want to hold you, feel the warmth and strength of your body. I want the inside of my arms to ache with loss when you're not there like they always do. I want to feel my heart jump and my guts clench every time you walk in the room because I love you so much I just want to crawl inside you."

"I love you, Jim," Sandburg's voice broke with emotion. "Oh, God, how I love you." Sandburg gently brushed his lips against his partner's.

"I'm scared, Chief." It was barely a breath, whispered into his lover's mouth. "I am so God-damned terrified." His voice shook.

"I know, Jim. I know and it's okay to be scared, you know?" Wishing he could dial down his own senses, Sandburg ignored the screaming pain in his hip and back, leaning forward, resting his weight on his hand on the bed beside Ellison's head. He brought his face down close to his friend's. "It's okay. You don't have to hold it together. Just turn it over to me for a while. I'll watch out for you. I'm here, man." His voice continued speaking soft words of comfort, watching as slowly the terror of the cornered animal left his partner's exhausted eyes and the heavy lids dropped lower. "Just rest, Jim. I'll be here. I've got you, man. Just rest." And for the first time in over three days the fear let go of James Ellison long enough for him to slip into a shallow sleep. Sandburg stayed with him, stroking his hair, speaking softly, and was rewarded when his breathing evened a little.

Straightening up, Sandburg bit back the cry of pain his aching body drove to his lips. He was exhausted, his mind feeling stupid with it. He relieved himself in the bathroom, taking time to splash water on his face and almost not recognizing the man staring at him from the mirror when he raised up. It went far beyond the physical damage that was visible, although that was bad enough. It even went beyond the mental exhaustion. This was a soul wrenching weariness that lurked in the depths of the eyes of the man in the mirror. It hid an almost knowledge, one he could see there but not quite grasp. And it scared him, scared the hell out of him. Not that he didn't know but that soon he would.

He stepped out of the bathroom and his hand reached to shut off the overhead light, leaving only the dim wall light mounted on the wall above the head of the bed as illumination. Crossing to check again on his partner, he was relieved to find his eyes still closed, his breathing even as he slept. Placing his hand on the sheet covered chest; he was irrationally pleased to feel the strong steady heartbeat beneath his palm. God, let him be okay. He's too important. Sandburg had never been a praying man but he'd found himself doing a lot of it the last three days.

He moved quickly then, pushing the door open, needing suddenly to be out of the room. He stopped just outside the door, leaning his shoulder against the wall, head down but keeping the door open a slit so he could monitor his friend.

"Sandburg?" The deep voice was soft, quiet.

It took a couple of seconds for him to process the one word. "Simon," he finally said without moving. "What are you doing up here this time of the night?"

"Stake out. Finished late, thought I'd run by before going home. How's he doing?"

"There's no change, Simon," he sighed heavily, shoving himself away from the wall. "He's asleep right now but I don't think it'll last."

"Any sleep is better than none."

"I guess." He rubbed his hands wearily over his face.

Simon shifted uncomfortably. "It's been so long..." he started but was cut short by the intense blue eyes that shot warnings up at him.

After a second Sandburg looked away. He couldn't blame Simon for vocalizing what was in everyone's mind but he didn't have to listen to it and he wouldn't let it be said anywhere near Ellison. He was already afraid of what the Sentinel could overhear with his sensitive hearing but there wasn't much way he could stop that. Hell, he couldn't even monitor it.

Simon indicated a black gym bag over near the chair he'd occupied. "I brought you some clean clothes. Take a few minutes to grab yourself a shower, man. You haven't slept since he was admitted. You need to rest as badly as he does. You won't do him any good if you make yourself sick."

"I know. But I've got to be there when he wakes up. He needs me." His hands tightened into fists. "He's got to get better, Simon. He's got to." Guileless eyes stared up at the tall Captain. "I touch him, Simon. I hold his hand and keep hoping there'll be a squeeze, a reflex, something. Anything. But there's not. There's not anything. His hand is warm and it feels good and it's...Jim. But it's. . .it's so relaxed." He took a ragged breath. "He doesn't know I'm there, Simon. He can't feel me."

"He knows you're there, Sandburg," Simon said gruffly. "You being there is the only reason he's holding it together as well as he is." His voice dropped to a low insistent whisper as he bent his tall frame to the shorter man's level. "No. He can't feel you like that. Not right now. Maybe never." He continued in spite of the sudden stiffness in his friend. "But he does feel you, Sandburg. Don't ever doubt that. He feels you on the inside, where it counts."

The anger left as suddenly as it had appeared and only a soul wrenching ache was left in the blue eyes. "I love him, Simon. God, I love him so much it scares me. What do we do, Simon? What do we do. . ." he stopped, unable to finish and Simon could do nothing but stare at him helplessly.

A movement near the elevators caught both men's attention. "Isn't that Jim's doctor?"

"Yeah."

"Who's that with him?" Simon asked watching as both men approached the nurses station.

"I don't know. I've never seen him before." The smaller man dropped back against the wall as if suddenly it was more than he could do to remain upright. "He's frightened," he said softly.

"Yeah, well, I guess that's understandable. Anyone would be. The doctors say anything new?"

Sandburg shook his head mutely.

Simon looked away, not knowing what to say. "Take care of yourself, Sandburg, you know. . ." but he was talking to air. With a small cry, the anthropologist shot back into the room. Simon glanced in long enough to see him hovering closely over the head of the bed, his voice soft and pitched so he couldn't make out the words. He hadn't heard anything but Sandburg must have because Ellison was stirring, a frown creasing his features, his lips moving, driven by dreams Simon didn't want to contemplate. The barely heard sounds of the sleeping man became audible and Simon could hear one name repeated over and over until finally the fear in Ellison's mind drove him out of the nightmare called sleep and he cried out in desperation. "Blair!"

And Sandburg was there; his own needs forgotten as he bent, reassuring his partner. Simon pulled back, closing the door softly, knowing neither man would really want this scene overheard. His chest clenched when he thought of the fear that tormented the mind of his best detective, driving him, demanding that he do something, anything and the utter stillness of the strong body that lay, unable to comply. The captain crossed back to the small waiting room and sat down, his large hands finding the nylon strap of the gym bag between his feet, twisting the strap restlessly. His thoughts were on a hundred things, and nothing.

His mind stilled, horribly fascinated as he found himself watching the actions of his hands working the nylon. They seemed almost to have a life of their own, living, expressing the torment of his mind. His eyes jumped to the door across the hall; the door he'd just closed, his thoughts on the man occupying the room. He hadn't really thought about it. He hadn't realized. "Dear God," he whispered, in final comprehension. Dropping the straps he covered his eyes with his hands, rubbing his face to cover his anguish.

Simon Banks was a praying man. "Please," he begged aloud.

~~<>~~

"Shhh," Sandburg said softly approaching the bed, desperately hoping his friend could stay asleep. "It's okay. I'm here. Just rest, Jim."

But the frantic whisper didn't slow, becoming instead of separate words, one long sound, "Blairblairblairblair." Eyes scrunched up tightly, Ellison's head twisted slightly in the small movement it could.

"Jim, Jim," Sandburg's voice, though still soft was insistent. The nightmare was too far gone, he had to wake his friend, break its hold. "Jim, wake up. Come on, man."

A gasp and a single word, "Blair!" and Ellison's eyes opened.

In the space of three heartbeats Sandburg read the undisguised emotion in his partner's eyes; the fear of the dream and the recognition that it was a dream; the unfamiliar room and the struggle to remember where he was; and then the accident and the memory of his injuries. "Oh, God." His eyes rolled back and his eyelids fluttered shut.

The whispered despair ripped straight through Sandburg bringing a lump to his throat he thought would choke him. His hands reached frantically to his partner's face to touch, soothe, offer what comfort he could. "I'm here, Jim. I'm here."

There was a small hitch in Ellison's breathing, almost a sob but when he spoke, except for a slight breathlessness, his voice sounded almost normal. "So am I, Chief."

Sandburg pulled away a little to better see his partner. He continued talking, explaining, trying to bring his partner back to the odd equilibrium they'd existed in before his short nap. Sleeping hadn't provided the relaxation he'd hoped for. "Jim?" He knew that look, the intent, slightly far away look in his partner's eyes. He was listening to something outside the room. "It's gonna be okay, Jim," he said automatically. "It just takes. . ."

"Is it?" Ellison broke in, his tone at odds with the emotions of seconds ago.

Blinking, Sandburg raised up in confusion. Something was going on here and he knew he needed to get a handle on it fast. "Is it what?"

"Is it going to be okay?" His voice was calm but the flat expression in the ice blue eyes scared the hell out of Sandburg. Before he could say anything, Ellison continued. "You keep saying that but there's been no change. I stay dialed up almost all the time hoping there'll be something, you know? The doctor said twenty-four hours, Chief. It's been three days. How long will they wait to tell me?"

"Jim, you can't. . ."

"They're already saying it, Blair," Ellison warned. "Maybe not to you and definitely not to me yet but I heard what they were saying at the nurse's station yesterday."

"Yesterday?" Sandburg said in surprise. His partner had been living with this knowledge since yesterday? "That's just people talking, Jim," he said desperately. "You know how that is and people are always more willing to talk about bad news than they are about good. People are ghoulish when it comes to things like that."

There was the barest of movements as Ellison shook his head. "The doctor said it, Chief. Just now. He's got a specialist with him and they're reviewing my chart." His tone was easy, as if he were relaying the results of a sports game and Sandburg found himself shaking his head. No, there was always more expression in his voice then. This was. . . empty. Stunned.

Ellison continued in that same flat tone, "The new guy says given time, I may regain limited use of my upper arms but don't expect much more than that. They're trying to decide whether to tell me now or tomorrow morning." That odd look of listening again. "Tomorrow morning," he said. "They just said, 'Let the poor bastard rest tonight before he has to face this news.'"

"No, Jim," Sandburg whispered.

Very calm, slightly insane blue eyes met Sandburg's, and the young anthropologist shivered. "This is it, Blair." A puzzled frown crossed Ellison's face. "This is permanent. This is all there'll ever be."

"No," Sandburg denied. "Do you hear me? No. No! I won't believe that. You will get better," he said, his voice rising as his fear over rode everything else. "You will get better, Jim. You'll see."

"I love you," Ellison said softly, his voice losing the detached sound, then he blinked and looked up, adding quietly, "I've tried not to do the 'what ifs' but you can't stop it. I've spent the last three days thinking about what I'd do if it came to this. How I'd handle it. What it would entail." A faint flush stole up the frozen features. "I'm a qua. . . a quadriplegic." For the first time his voice faltered as if the shell he was hiding behind was showing cracks. "Someone will have to be with me all the time. Do everything for me. Even the. . .the latrine duty," he said falling back on the old military phrasing. "In the past three days I've come up with one thing I know for sure. I can't live like this, Blair."

"Jim, no, man," Sandburg begged. "No."

"I'm a cop, Chief." He stopped, lost eyes searching his friend's face. "I was a cop. What am I now? I can't move. I can't move anything. I can't be a cop. I can't be a Sentinel. What do I do?"

"We'll figure something out, Jim. Just give yourself time, man."

Ellison shook his head. "Time won't make a difference. Blair," he stopped for a moment before continuing as if he hadn't heard anything his partner had said, "I won't ask anything of you. I wouldn't do that to you."

"What do you mean, Jim?" Sandburg whispered. "What are you thinking?" His heart jumped and the sudden lump in his throat choked him, as the meaning of his partner's words sank in. Ellison wasn't talking about needing help with his paralysis. Sandburg's breath was quick and shallow as he studied his friend. He'd never met anyone who was as good as Ellison at suppressing things. Now he watched as the man turned it all inward, shutting down just like he always did. Things were being viewed, life choices analyzed and decided upon, all within the confines of his lover's mind. Despite the fact that they were partners in more than just their working relationship, he wasn't being consulted about these decisions, he wasn't even told what they were. The surface was still there, but the important part was locked away where no one could see it, not even him. "I won't live without you, Jim," he warned in a low voice, staring at the man in the bed before him. Ellison's body was just as big and strong as it had always been, his mind just as sharp and bright. It was just that now, the two weren't connected. Sandburg's hand trailed gently down the long arm, sliding into the open hand to link fingers with his partner. Ellison was staring at the ceiling again, totally unaware of the action of his friend.

Confusing emotions warred within Sandburg's cool blue eyes. Nothing he'd ever done prepared him for this. For several seconds he was still, as motionless as the man lying before him. If someone could open a plug and drain all the emotion out of him, he now knew what it would feel like. He felt it go. Then he swung away from the bed, crossing to the door and exiting.

"Chief? Blair?" Ellison called. He closed his eyes, his mind in turmoil.

~~<>~~

Simon didn't hear the door open or see Sandburg cross the hall until he was standing directly in front of him. He jumped slightly, lifting his head from his hands. "Sandburg?" He couldn't read the young man who stood before him now. This wasn't the Blair Sandburg he'd known for three years. This wasn't even the Blair Sandburg who'd stood outside Ellison's door minutes before. "What's wrong?"

"Simon. Do you have your gun with you?"

Simon looked baffled, then surprised. "Yes, of course I do. I'm a cop."

"May I see it?"

Automatically Simon reached for his weapon in its shoulder holster then stopped just short of laying the pistol in the young observer's hand. His actions only went that far because he knew and trusted the man before him. "Blair?"

"I just want to see it, Simon," he promised.

~~<>~~

"Sandburg?" Ellison said, when he heard the door open minutes later. "Is that you?" He waited until his partner stood beside his bed again. "I'm sorry, Chief. I should never have said anything."

Sandburg looked down, his tongue coming out to wet his lips. If his forthcoming words cost him anything no one would have known it from his expression. "Jim. I need you to know something." His voice was soft, low, but with a note in it that caught Ellison's attention, pulled him from the numbness. This never before heard something forced him to think, to become aware again. "I love you," Sandburg said. "More than life itself. You know that, right?" He waited for Ellison's small nod of acknowledgment. "This Blessed Protector gig runs both directions, I guess. I will not allow anyone to hurt you." He swallowed hard but there was no indecision in him as he looked down at his hands where one was knotted into a hard fist. "I am not now, nor have I ever been a violent man. Having said that..." He shifted something in his palm and lifted his right hand, holding up a 38 special cartridge between his forefinger and thumb and stared down into the eyes of the man he loved.

Ellison looked momentarily at the small cylinder then his focus switched and all he could see was Sandburg's eyes. They were the same sapphire blue as always, only somehow more, filled now with so much love it hurt to look at them.

"This is yours," Sandburg promised. "Anytime you ask for it. I won't argue and I won't try to talk you out of it." Strong, steady fingers twisted the silver shell he held. "Do you understand? I will not allow anyone else to do this."

Ellison's throat tightened as he read the truth in every facet of the man standing above him. "No, Blair," he whispered. "Not you. I won't do this to you."

Sandburg's finely sculpted lips tightened. "If you decide this, this is the only way it will happen. I will be the one. Do you understand? Just. . .just be sure, you know?" He dropped the cartridge back into his palm and closed his fist over it again.

A sound, so minute that even a Sentinel's hearing almost didn't hear it widened Ellison's eyes as if he'd heard a gun being cocked directly beside his head. Briefly questioning and then fear filled eyes searched his partner's features. His breathing quick, shallow, he had to swallow before he could even whisper, "What have you got in your hand, Chief?" And his fear was confirmed when Sandburg's eyes dropped, unwilling to hold his own. "Blair?" The young anthropologist didn't move. "Show me," Ellison demanded hoarsely.

There was no fear in the blue eyes that finally lifted to his own. No explanation. No apology. Only determination. His hand was sure when it lifted again to Ellison's line of sight. Two shells were now held between his fingers.

Ellison focused on his partner's hand. "No, Blair," he whispered, his voice filled with pain. He felt a wave of dizziness sweep over him and he closed his eyes.

"Know this, Jim Ellison," Sandburg said in deadly earnest. "I will not live without you. The decision is yours but when you make it, it will be for both of us." He leaned over. "Look at me, Jim." He waited until Ellison reopened his eyes and he read the pain, the heartsick fear. "If you try to do this on your own, to use your senses somehow to end it, I will know." He raised up again. "You can sic Simon on me all you want, and I know you already have, but he can't be there all the time, no one can. Besides there's no one better than I am at getting people to believe what I want them to. And the outcome'll be the same. I won't live without you." He swung away, going to stand at the window. The darkness of the room allowed the full beauty of the city to be seen, but his eyes were only on the reflection of the man behind him, caught in the small pool of brightness from the wall light above the bed.

It broke his heart to look at the motionless figure but he couldn't not look. Ellison lay flat on his back. His arms lay at his sides on top of the pristine whiteness of the sheet that covered him to mid chest. No wrinkles marred the perfectly smooth surface of the sheet. He had the irrational desire to run over, tear the neat hospital corners out and wad the sheet up. Anything to show that the man in the bed was alive and breathing. And he was breathing. He could see the rhythmic motion of the rise and fall of his chest. As he watched the chest rose, held for a long moment on the inhalation then dropped slowly. Ellison's chin lifted and his mouth opened like he was about to say something then it closed again. Sandburg saw his tongue steal out over his lips before he tried again. "What d'ya see out there, Chief?"

Praying that this was a good sign, Sandburg felt his chest tighten as he shifted his gaze for the first time to the view outside the room that had been his world for the last three days. "It's one of those sparkly nights where the darkness goes on forever," he said. "The stars are out and I think I can see every light in Cascade and every one of them is crystal clear. I can see the bay from here and the lights of the boats reflecting off the water. There must not be any wind because the water's smooth as glass. The moon is still a couple of nights shy of full but it's down near the horizon now and it's breathtaking. The reflection looks like a river of light across the water, almost like you could walk right up to the moon and touch it. It's so clich that it looks like one of those cheap paintings you see for sale on street corners right next to the velvet Elvis. We'll go down to the beach when we get you outta here. I love the ocean. It's so constant, you know?"

"What about up close?" Ellison asked in a low voice. "What do you see up close?"

Sandburg shifted his eyes downward to take in the sights closer to the hospital. "The traffic is light, flowing smoothly," he let a smile enter his voice as he continued, "and there must not be any crime tonight because I don't see the flashing lights of cop cars anywhere." He almost cried out in relief when he heard a breathy snort of laughter answering him. "Not much going on up close. It's still too early for much to be happening out there. A car just pulled into the parking lot. It's stopping to let someone out. No, both doors are opening. A guy and a girl, the girl's in a nurses uniform. Oh, wow," he said a little breathlessly. "If they take that any further there'll be grounds for arrest for indecent exposure."

"Blair."

The sound was soft in the darkness, seemingly a part of the dim shadows but the word brought Sandburg to the bedside in one movement. He studied the face he loved. "Ahh, Jim." While he'd been standing at the window, his back to his lover, Jim had been silently crying. Unable to dry them himself, the tears had drawn solitary paths of sorrow from the corners of his eyes to disappear into the soft brown hair at his temples. Sandburg brushed the wetness away with fingers that trembled.

"You don't know what you're asking, Chief."

The anthropologist waited, knowing this was something his partner had to say.

"At the very most I might, might be able to feed myself eventually." A dark flush tinted his cheeks and Sandburg could read the humiliation in his eyes as his partner faced these concepts in his own mind. "There would never be any more camping trips. No more hikes. No more walking on the beach. No more. . ." Ellison caught his breath but forced himself to continue. "No more walking." He swallowed. "I'd require constant care, Chief. 24-7 For the rest of my life. Someone to get me up. Dress me. Bathe me. Feed me. Brush my teeth, for God's sake," he whispered in anguish. "And then there's the daily hygiene with the catheters and I don't even know what else." His voice finally broke and he squeezed his eyes shut as he fought more tears of frustration.

"I don't know either, Jim," Sandburg said, his voice pleading, "but please give me the chance to find out. Please, Jim."

Ellison looked at this partner, his blue eyes swimming in tears he refused to shed. "I couldn't love you, Blair."

Shaking his head at that, Sandburg smiled. "You'll always love me, Jim," he said simply. "Love isn't just the physical stuff."

"It wouldn't be easy."

"No, Jim. It wouldn't be easy. It never is. No one ever said life was easy. But it wouldn't all be bad either. It wasn't all good before but it wasn't all bad either, you know? And since when did we ever do easy?"

A faint smile tilted Ellison's lips. "You won't take no, will you?"

Sandburg shook his head, for the first time beginning to hope.

"I'm not promising forever, Chief."

"I'm not asking forever."

One well-shaped eyebrow lifted in question. "What exactly are you asking?"

Sandburg grinned. "I'm just asking for Now."

"Now?" Ellison looked up at the man who owned his heart. "Isn't that sort of a relative term? Now changes with every passing second. I mean if you think about it, Now can almost go on for infinity."

"Nah," Sandburg denied. "Then you'd be talking about Forever. I just want Now. That's all."

Ellison shook his head in wonder. "Then God help us. Because I'll give you Now."

Almost not believing the words, Sandburg whispered, "You mean it, Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief. I mean it."

Sandburg leaned in and captured his partner's mouth, tasting the hurt, the pain and the frantic hope in the sweetness under his tongue. "I love you," he whispered, his fingers playing with the soft, almost baby fine hair. Feeling almost light headed with relief he dropped his head onto his partner's chest. "I love the sound of your heart. It's so reassuring. So you. Is that what you hear when you listen to mine?"

"Yeah. It's like listening to the sound of the ocean. It's soothing." Tilting his head down as much as he could, Ellison felt his partner's soft curls tickle his face and he took a deep breath. "I could zone on the smell of your hair," he whispered. "Then I won't ever change shampoo," the younger man teased. "Hey," he said raising up. "Don't think for a minute that this means that I don't believe you won't get better. Because I do."

Ellison smiled a little sadly. "If it's okay with you, I'll leave the believing up to you. I love you, Chief, but there's one thing I want you to promise me."

Sandburg looked warily at his partner. "What's that?"

"That you'll give Simon back his damned 38 cartridges. I don't ever want to see them again."

A grin split Sandburg's face. "Okay. That I can do." He frowned. "How did you know I got them from Simon? Did you listen in?"

Ellison shook his head. "You can't hide the smell of his cigars," he said with a grin. His smile slowly faded. "Chief?"

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Will you do something for me?" he asked sounding as if he thought what he wanted wasn't something he should ask for.

"What's that?"

"Talk me down." His mouth twisted in a self-mocking smile. "It may be a little cowardly but I really think I'd like to rest. And I don't want the nightmares right now. Can you take me into a zone?"

A flash of anger lit Sandburg's eyes. "There's nothing cowardly about needing to rest. You're human. Give yourself a break." He brushed his fingers against his lover's cheek to take the sting out of his words. "You want anything first?"

"Maybe just a drink of water."

Sandburg poured a glass of water from the pitcher, added a straw and held it to Ellison's lips for him to drink. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and cupped his partner's jaw in his hand, his thumb tracing the strong cheek. "Close your eyes. That's right. Now listen to me, Jim. I want you to listen to only my voice, shut everything else out, understand?" The words continued as Sandburg took his Sentinel into a zone. The man needed rest and while not sleep, a deep zone would give him what he needed.

~~<>~~

Twenty minutes later an exhausted anthropologist closed the door behind him as he exited his partner's room. Simon Banks jerked around from where he'd been standing looking out the window. He started forward but waited when he saw Sandburg crossing to him. "He's okay, Simon," Sandburg assured him before he could ask. "I've got him in a zone." A tired smile creased his face at the startled look from his Captain. "I know. I know. A Guide's job is to prevent zones but I think this will give him the rest he needs without the nightmares." He lifted his hand, opening the fist that contained the two cartridges he'd borrowed earlier. "Here. I don't think I'll need these any more."

Dumbfounded, Simon took the shells, slipping them into his coat pocket. "Why did you want them in the first place?"

Sandburg rubbed his hands over his face. He didn't want to go over this but knew he owed the big man an explanation. "He heard the doctors talking. They seem to think it's time for him to accept this. To start learning to live with it."

"God, Sandburg," Simon said horrified.

Sandburg shook his head. "I don't care what they say, Simon. I won't believe it." He sighed. "Anyway, Jim decided he didn't want to live."

"So what good were shells?"

The anthropologist shrugged. "I sorta promised him that one of them was his."

"You what?" Simon's voice raised in surprised anger. "Are you crazy?"

"Shhhh!" Sandburg stuck his head out into the hall, searching both directions for the nurse he was sure would come after them. "I told him he could have it anytime he wanted it," Sandburg repeated as if offering to kill his partner was something he did every day. He moved over to where he saw the gym bag. "Didn't you say you'd brought me some clean clothes? If you'll sit here for a bit longer and keep an eye on things, I think I'll grab a quick shower while Jim's out of it."

Simon stared at the young man before him as if he'd never seen him before. "You told him that, but you didn't really mean it, did you, Sandburg?"

"He believed I did," he said, hedging.

Simon looked at the man digging through the bag. "Sandburg?"

Sighing, Sandburg raised up. "Let it drop, Simon," he advised, moving around the human road block.

"Sandburg." The tone brooked no argument. When the police observer turned back, deciding maybe he would have to answer that question after all, Simon surprised him by asking something totally different. "You said you'd promised one of the shells to Jim. Who was the other one for?"

Taking the gym bag with him, Sandburg moved out into the hall. "Don't ask what you don't want to know, Simon." He nodded toward Ellison's door. "Keep an eye on him for me, will you?"

~~<>~~

"What?" Sandburg raised up, wincing as a couple of strands of hair caught in something and pulled. He struggled to bring his thoughts back on line. In his exhausted state, the hot shower he'd taken earlier had just about done him in. All he'd wanted to do was lay down somewhere and go to sleep but he'd known he couldn't do that. In his condition, he'd been afraid if he ever went to sleep it would be hours before he woke. And he knew he needed to bring his Sentinel out of his zone before that.

He'd been half afraid to go to sleep at all, afraid some over zealous nurse would come in and try to wake Ellison up and finding that impossible would push the panic button. So he'd done the only thing he could come up with. Shoving the chair up against the bed, he'd curled one hand over his partner's leg, rested his head against his hip and had gone to sleep with his cheek resting against Ellison's arm.

Sleep filled eyes searched for the trouble he could feel in the room. No one was there so what was wrong? Had it just been a nightmare? Shoving his chair back he stood up. What time was it? Giving his head a quick shake, he widened his eyes, then squinted at his watch, trying to bring it into focus. His tongue ran over his lips and he rubbed vigorously at his face. Pulling his hands down he saw a frown cross the peaceful features of his Sentinel. A frown shouldn't happen. Not when he was in a zone. With a gasp, he took the step that put him level with Ellison's head and he stared down at his partner with a pounding heart. Dear God. Tears.

Tracks of tears ran down the sides of Ellison's face. Even as Sandburg watched, the eyes opened and he found himself staring into almost hysterical agony-filled eyes. Sandburg felt his heart clench. He'd known when his partner agreed to try to live with this disability that it wouldn't be that simple but he hadn't expected the hell to start this quickly. "Jim?" he said anxiously. "It's okay. I'm here, man. I'm here. Take it easy. Take a deep breath. And another one. That's it. You wanna tell me what's going on?" He couldn't read the emotions swimming in the eyes and it scared him. "Jim?"

A hard gasp was ripped from the man before him. "I was dreaming," he said, his voice filled with something that sounded like pain. "Only it wasn't a dream. I don't dream when I'm in a zone. And I knew I was zoned. Is my mind playing tricks on me, Blair? Is that what it is?" he asked desperately. "I can't take any more. I can't!"

"What?" Sandburg demanded. "What did you dream?"

"I'm paralyzed now." Caught up in denial of what had happened, Ellison was trying to re-establish the ground rules. "I know that. I'm paralyzed."

"Jim!" Sandburg almost shouted. "What did you dream? What pulled you out of your zone?"

Ellison gasped, was silent for a long minute then whispered, "I could feel your hair against my hand. I could feel the softness. How silky it is when it's first washed. I wrapped one of your curls around my finger and rubbed it with my thumb." He gave a little sob, "God, Blair. I could move. I could feel!"

Terrified, Sandburg slipped his hand into that of his lover, threading his shorter fingers through the long ones. Clearing his throat he said hoarsely, "Squeeze my hand, Jim."

Ellison shook his head. "I can't, Chief. I can't," he cried in anguish.

Sandburg jerked his partner's hand up, cradling it against his chest. "Squeeze my hand. Try, Jim. Just try." His hands tightened around the hand he held, anger coursed through him when he couldn't get his partner to even try. "God damn it, Ellison!" he shouted. "Squeeze my hand!"

And he straightened with a gasp, feeling like he'd just absorbed a jolt of electric current. Beneath his hands he could feel the very faint fluttering of his partner's fingers. Eyes wide with wonder he stared at his lover. "You did it, Jim," he whispered. "You did it."

~~<>~~

"Well, this is it," Sandburg said lazily. "Your last night of freedom." They were on the big bed in the loft, his head cradled on his Sentinel's chest listening to the steady heartbeat beneath his ear. "You were right," he said with a smile.

"What's that?" the deep voice above his head asked.

"It is soothing."

"Now you know why I listen," Ellison said in satisfaction, tracing lazy circles on the bare skin of his lover's back. His hand slid up to capture one stray curl, sliding it around his finger and brushing it with his thumb. He lifted it to his nose with a sigh of contentment. "It smells wonderful and feels like silk."

"I can't believe my hair pulled you out of a zone," Sandburg said with a grin. He felt the shrug.

"What can I say? I'd dialed my sense of touch up earlier, always hoping that I'd feel something and I guess when you took me into that zone it was still up so when the feeling began to return, I subconsciously searched out the one thing close by that was familiar."

"My hair."

"Your hair," Ellison agreed. Releasing the curl, he slid his hand back down the strong back, his finger following the line of the muscle, deliciously loving the chill bumps his touch caused.

Sandburg slid his own fingers over his Sentinel's stomach, outlining the firmly developed abdominal muscles on display. A contented hum rumbled through the chest beneath his ear sending a shiver through him. "You glad to be going back to work after two weeks off?"

"Not that I haven't totally enjoyed the feel of having you reacquaint yourself with my body and of said body reacquainting itself with the exquisite rapture you so expertly perform but yeah, I am glad to be getting back." He sobered and Sandburg stilled his fingers with the sudden seriousness, laying his palm flat against the firm stomach, offering support. "You can't imagine what it's like to know you'll never be able to move again. I watch my hand playing over your back, feel your muscles quivering beneath my fingers and think how close I came to never knowing that again." He shuddered. "I pray you never know what that feels like, Chief."

"I came as close to it as I want to, Jim." He kissed the firm skin under his lips, trying to soothe his friend. "I'm just sorry you had to go through it."

"It's done now and believe me, this is something I'll never take for granted again."

Sandburg turned his head sideways, his lips sliding gently over the smooth skin of his Sentinel's chest. "Nor will I," he said softly.

Ellison gently placed a kiss on the curls floating near his mouth. "Thank you."

Using the velvet of his tongue, Sandburg teased, caressing a small brown nipple that caused an immediate reaction, thrusting Ellison's hips up, and he gave a pleased little smile as he asked, "For what?"

Breathing a little fast, Ellison replied, "For believing when everyone else, including me, had given up."

"Ahh, that was easy," Sandburg told him.

"Easy? Why was it so easy?"

Raising up, Sandburg looked deeply into the blue eyes beneath him and said simply, "You couldn't live with the paralysis. I couldn't live without you. And I wasn't ready to die. That only left one alternative. Anything else was unthinkable."

Ellison grinned at the off beat logic of his love. "Yeah, I guess it is easy when you put it like that. Why didn't I see it?" he asked dryly.

"Ahh, that's easy too," Sandburg said with a teasing grin.

"I'm just no challenge at all, am I?" he said with a matching smile. "Explain, Darwin."

"Sure." He propped his elbows up on his partner's chest and rested his chin in his palms. "You were too caught up in your fear of the future. You couldn't get beyond that 'permanent' business."

"Now," Ellison remembered, his eyes filled with love.

"Yeah, man," Sandburg nodded enthusiastically, his hair swaying with his movement. "You gotta live in the Now."

Smile fading, Ellison shook his head. "I can't do that, Chief. I can't live in the Now."

"Jim?" Sandburg searched his face in concern. "Why?"

Ellison's fingers mere whispers of touch as they traced the line of his partner's cheek, moving down to the beautiful lips. "I don't have a Now, Chief," he whispered. A gentle teasing filled his eyes and he smiled at the serious look in the eyes watching him so carefully. "I gave it to you, remember?"

A second of startled confusion before a decidedly lecherous grin reshaped Sandburg's lips. "Oh, yeah," he breathed. "Yeah, you did, didn't you?" Lowering his head, he traced the outline of his lover's nipple, tonguing it, then nipping sharp enough to send a low moan of desire through the chest beneath him. Moving up to his lover's mouth, his lips brushed, not in a kiss, more of a nuzzle. Smelling, feeling, reacquainting. Ellison's heartbeat jumped under his hands, and he felt his lover's ragged breath against his mouth. "And believe me, I have definitely got plans for your Now. And your Forever."

END

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