Sep. 28th, 2009

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Title: One Bright Summer
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Jim is training for a steeplechase, and meets seven-year-old Blair hanging around the stables.
Style: Gen
Size: 32,635 words, about 63 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Started Aug. 26, 2006, finished March 3, 2007. Written to a four-year-old prompt from Elizabeth. I hope she enjoys it.
        My gratitude to Becky, whose transcript page is a wonderful resource for Sentinel writers. Several lines of dialogue are lifted from "Switchman".
Feedback: Not necessary, but every one is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





One Bright Summer

by StarWatcher





Early June, 1976

Jim Ellison stared at the passing scenery as the cabbie drove him toward the training stables. It rankled; he was sixteen, dammit, and had passed Driver's Ed with flying colors -- as if his father would permit anything else -- and there was no reason that he shouldn't be able to drive himself in his own car. If he had a car. But, oh no. He remembered the last argument they'd had about it.

"Jimmy," his father had said, "the insurance rates for boys between sixteen and eighteen are ridiculous. The same amount of money would pay for fifty cab-rides a month; I'm getting a bargain at sixteen, and there's no upkeep on another car besides. We'll talk about it again when you're eighteen."

Hell, he'd even offered to work it off around the estate, or get a real job in town to pay a fair share toward the upkeep and insurance of a car, but his father had shot down that idea, too. "Doing what, Jimmy? A clerk at K-Mart? I've worked hard to raise this family to a better social and financial level, and you will uphold that. My son will not work for pennies at a minimum-wage job."

Hunh! If the old goat would just pay Jim what he paid his other workers, he'd be able to afford a decent used car and basic collision insurance. And he might just as well get paid; he was more an employee than a son to William Ellison, with the 'job' of making straight-As to uphold his father's expectations, and being paraded at corporate shindigs as the perfect son.

He stared with disfavor as the cab pulled up in front of the Olympic Flame Training Stables. His current 'job' was to ride -- and win -- in the steeplechase race over Labor Day, eight weeks from now, and Jim hated it. Not the people; most of them really loved the horses they rode or trained. And the horses themselves were great; honest and straightforward, and you always knew where you stood with them. But his father's expectations of push-push-push, win-win-win hovered like a dark cloud over his head, blighting his enjoyment of being with the big animals. Dammit; he'd just got out of school for the summer, and now he had to waste four mornings a week training for a race that would give his father bragging rights at the Country Club.

Jim sighed as he climbed out of the cab; time to see how Sam wanted him to ride Hercules today. He paid the cabbie and added a generous tip -- no sense in taking out his bad mood on someone else, and the man was just doing a job. Besides, his father would regard it as a waste of money, and the small rebellion felt good.

He walked around an idling station wagon and stepped inside the main barn. Pausing, Jim took a moment to adjust to the smells. Although he enjoyed the sweet scents of fresh hay and grain, and the pungent tang of the horses themselves, it was always too strong to start with -- and the odor of manure and various liniments and medications was almost enough to make him gag. He concentrated on breathing shallowly through his mouth until his sense of smell became acclimatized. After a few minutes the smells faded into the background, and he was able to ignore them.

He found Sam at the far end of the middle aisle, talking to a little girl about the lesson she'd just had, and how she could improve her performance the next time. She looked to be about ten, with long blonde braids hanging down under her helmet, but she listened seriously, nodding to show she understood each point. "I'll remember, Sam," she promised. "Thank you so much. See you Saturday." She turned and hurried toward the front of the barn and, Jim assumed, the station wagon outside.

Sam turned toward the respectfully-waiting teenager. "Jimmy!" he greeted. "I hear you want to ride in the Labor Day Steeplechase."

Jim sighed and shrugged. "I suppose my dad told you that, didn't he?" He shook his head, a twisted smile on his face. "I just like the horses, Sam, you know that. But riding for fun is a waste of time, as far as the old man is concerned; I gotta be training to win something if I expect him to keep paying for it. But I'm not gonna try to control things like he does; I'll ride and train the way you tell me to."

Sam Evanston regarded the young man in front of him. Tall and lanky, Jimmy Ellison had an athlete's coordination and rode with firm but gentle hands on the reins. More importantly, he cared about the horses, never pushing them beyond their limits, but also never letting them get away with any shenanigans.

Sam sighed internally. In his time, he'd ridden in three Olympic games, and had two silver medals to show for it. He recognized a talent in Jimmy Ellison that would have let him go that far, as well -- if only the boy's father wasn't so hard-nosed about grooming his son for the corporate world and relegating Jimmy's riding to a part-time hobby. Well, Sam couldn't change any of that. But he could ensure that Jimmy's summer of training was as much fun as work, so that the boy's love of horses wasn't soured by the necessity of meeting his father's expectations.

"I'm glad to hear that, Jimmy; I don't like using spurs on my horses or my riders." He winked, pleased to see Jim's expression relax. "Marcella rode Hercules for a strong round of jumping yesterday; he doesn't need that much impact on his joints again this soon. So today I just want you to reinforce his responsiveness to your guidance. Take him out cross-country and practice rating his speed and length of stride -- slow down, speed up, shorten his stride, then lengthen it -- just as if you were riding a course, but without the jumping. After you have him warmed up, work at trot and canter; you can do two sets of hand-gallop, but no more than ten minutes each time. Total time out, ninety minutes, and I expect you to bring him back already mostly cooled out. You got all that?"

Jim relaxed even more. When one of Sam's junior trainers had worked on 'fine-tuning' a horse's training, it allowed the owner/riders to relax and simply enjoy the relationship with their animal. Spending time in the wide open spaces, just him and the horse, was the best part about riding; maybe training this summer wouldn't be such a pain in the ass, after all. "I got it, Sam," he assured his trainer. He ducked his head a little, embarrassed. "And thanks," he added softly.

Sam chuckled. "I was young once, Jimmy; I haven't forgotten what it was like. Go on; get Hercules cleaned and saddled -- and be sure you go by the notice board and write your time out and where you plan to ride before you take off."

Jim stopped at the tack-room to grab halter and cleaning equipment, then carried them halfway down the aisle to Hercules' stall. But the big horse wasn't there. Jim shut the stall door behind him, then walked out the back door into the attached 'run' that was part of each stall, allowing every horse the space to have a little free movement and minimum exercise. Sure enough, Herc was at the far end of the run, under the shade of the big mulberry tree, standing just across the dividing bars of the fence from his neighbor and best friend, Rosie.

Jim left the tools by the back door and walked toward Hercules with halter in hand, once again admiring the horse as he approached. Champion Hightower Gladiator of Hilliard -- Hercules, to his friends -- was an Irish-bred warmblood, a big bay with a white blaze on his face, a kind look in his eye, a generous heart and a courageous soul. Jim had been prepared to hate the animal when his father had bought it, six months previously; the purchase of such an expensive, proven winner smacked of trying to buy a trophy. But he'd come to realize it wasn't Herc's fault that his father was trying to cash in on the champion's record, and the big, gentle animal had won Jim over with his honest, straightforward attitude and his enthusiasm for jumping.

Jim stroked the horse's neck while Hercules snuffled his shirt in greeting, then slipped the halter over his head and led him toward the back door. There he made short work of brushing the dirt out of his coat and cleaning his hooves. Finished, he led Hercules through the stall and hitched him to one of the rings set in the wall outside the tack-room, while he went to get saddle and bridle.

As he smoothed the saddle-pad on Hercules' back, he heard a young voice from the end of the aisle. "Hi, Sam. Naomi said I could go riding, an' Uncle Trevor said it's okay with him if it's okay with you. An' then Naomi said not to bother you if you're too busy. But you don't look too busy, so would it be okay?"

The clear tones of what seemed to be a very young child struck Jim like the pure resonance of a perfectly-tuned bell. It wasn't unusual for him to hear conversations from such a distance, but very seldom did someone's voice spark a reaction in him that demanded his attention. He turned to see who was speaking.

Standing in front of Sam was a small, curly-headed moppet that appeared to be not a day over five. Yet as the child looked up at Sam, he exuded a self-confidence and sturdy independence that would be appropriate for someone ten years older. Jim wondered if this kid had ever heard the word 'no'; his attitude suggested that it was unlikely.

"I'm sorry, Blair," Sam was saying. "I don't have time to give you a lesson, and since you're under twelve, you need to follow the 'ride-with-a-buddy' rule, and nobody's free to go out with you right now. Maybe tomorrow, okay?"

The child's shoulders slumped slightly and, even from that distance, Jim could see the glow in his eyes dim a little. But, far from throwing a tantrum, he took the disappointment like a little trouper. "That's okay, Sam," he said gamely. "Maybe I could watch somebody else having a lesson? Naomi says watching other people is a valid learning method, an' knowledge is never wasted. An' someday I want to visit some honest-for-real Indians, so it would be good to know, wouldn't it?"

Sam laughed and agreed, clapping his hand onto the boy's shoulder, even as Jim's feet carried him toward the pair, entirely without his volition. "He could go with me, Sam," Jim heard his own voice saying. He stopped in front of them and looked down to see the moppet gazing up at him with wide blue eyes and open mouth; he looked slightly awestruck. Jim squatted so that he was at eye-level with the child. "What d'ya say, Kid? Would you like to go with me? If you ride Rosie, she'll follow wherever Hercules goes, and all you have to do is hang on. That is, if it's okay with Sam to ease up on Herc's training for today." Jim glanced toward the trainer, silently asking permission.

"I'm not a kid; my name is Blair an' I'm seven years old!" The answer was accompanied by flashing eyes and a set chin. "An' Sam's been teaching me; I can ride a whole lot better than just hanging on, can't I, Sam?"

"Yes, Blair, you sure can," Sam agreed gravely, striving to hide the quirk at the corner of his lips. "Jimmy Ellison, meet Blair Sandburg. Blair is staying at the big house for a while; his mother is..." He hesitated, not wanting to be too blunt in front of the child. "She's keeping company with Mr. Madison for awhile."

Blair was nodding vigorously, either unknowing or uncaring about the innuendo. "Yeah, Uncle Trevor is my new uncle," he confirmed. "Naomi likes him a lot, an' I do, too. This is the best place we've stayed in a long time, because I really like horses, an' Sam's teaching me all about them; I can groom an' feed an' ride an' everything!"

Sam allowed the chuckle to escape, and tousled Blair's curls. "That's right; Blair is turning into quite a competent horseman," he agreed. "And it's a great idea, Jimmy; Blair will have no trouble handling Rosie, especially if she's with Hercules -- if you're sure you want to."

Did he? Not ten minutes ago, he'd been celebrating the chance to be alone with his horse in the wide open spaces. Did he really want this little munchkin around, making him have to moderate his riding? Did he want to be responsible for the safety of such a pipsqueak? But, gazing into the deep blue eyes that looked so hopefully into his, Jim felt he couldn't back out now. Besides, there was something about this kid; with just a few minutes' acquaintance, Jim felt more comfortable with him than anyone he'd ever known.

"Yeah, Sam, I'm sure," he said. He winked at Blair in response to the joy spreading over the eager young face. "I think we'll have a great time together, won't we, Chief?" The little boy nodded vigorously.

"Then it's a done deal," Sam agreed. "And Jimmy, Blair really is a good rider. You can still work on responsiveness at trot and canter; just avoid moving into a hand-gallop. Blair can follow your example and work on the same exercises." He smiled down into the boy's upturned face. "So, what are you waiting for? Go get Rosie and tack her up."

"Thanks, Sam," Blair said fervently, and hurried down the aisle as fast as the 'no running' rule would allow.

"I'll help you, Chief," Jim called and started to follow, but Sam caught his arm.

"Take it easy, Jimmy," he ordered. "You can watch over him, but let him do as much as he can himself. He really is quite competent, and we want to foster that independence; if you ever meet his mother, you'll see why. So just keep an eye on him, and help him tighten the cinch, because he's simply not strong enough yet to pull it home. For the rest, I think he'll surprise you."

Jim nodded and hurried after Blair, but soon saw that Sam was right. The little boy put a tall stepstool under a tie-ring close to Hercules, then laid the cleaning equipment on top. He carried a halter and rope to Rosie's stall and slipped inside.

"Hey, Rosie!" Blair called gently. "Com'ere girl; we're going for a ride." He made gentle kissing noises as he looked out the back door of the stall. Jim watched in astonishment as Rosie pricked her ears, then ambled toward Blair from the far end of the run. When she reached him, she lowered her head, allowing the little boy to buckle the halter without needing to strain upward.

Blair confidently led Rosie toward the tack room, where he 'parked' her next to Hercules, then hopped up on the stepstool to hitch her to the tie-ring. Although the dapple-gray mare looked almost petite next to the large bay gelding, she was still a big horse; standing next to her, the top of Blair's head barely reached the mid-point of her body. Unfazed, he repositioned the stepstool at her side, which gave him the needed height -- provided he stretched -- to brush her clean.

To Jim's amusement, the kid kept talking to the horse as if she could understand him. In a crooning voice, Blair told Rosie that it was a nice day for a ride, that she'd have fun going out with her friend Hercules, that Jimmy Ellison was really tall but he seemed awfully nice, and that Blair would give Rosie two horse treats when they came back. Oddly enough, Jim didn't find the prattle irritating; on the contrary, he felt like he was floating on the musical nuances of that young voice.

When Blair started to speculate about where they'd be going, Jim shook himself from his near-trance; they wouldn't be going anywhere if he didn't get his act together. Quickly, he repositioned the pad on Hercules' back, then set the saddle in place and cinched it tight. He turned to see Blair carrying a saddle out of the tack room, and stepped forward to lend a hand.

"I can do it," the little boy stoutly assured him. He set the saddle on the ground while he examined the pad carefully. "There was a sticker in it once," Blair explained, "and Rosie didn't like it. So now I be extra careful." Satisfied, he climbed up on the stepstool, to find that the horse had shifted and was now beyond his reach.

"Rosie, I can't reach you over there. Move this way!" he insisted, adding some kissing noises to his command. Jim's jaw dropped when she did just that, standing patiently while Blair placed the pad, and then the saddle, upon her back.

Blair pulled the cinch buckles snug, then hopped off the footstool and carried it into the tack room. When he came out, he had the bridle hanging over his arm while he buckled the chin-strap of a helmet. "Now you can help," he informed Jim. "I can't make the saddle tight enough; will you do it, please?"

Jim tightened the cinch as requested, still pondering what he considered basically unhorselike behavior. "How did you get her to do that?" he finally asked.

"I been riding Rosie a lot, an' she likes me an' I like her, so me an' her have a n'understanding. See?" Blair stepped toward the horse's face, holding the bridle upward and opened. Rosie gracefully lowered her head and opened her mouth, allowing the boy to place the bit between her teeth, then kept her head down while he slipped the leather behind her ears and buckled the chin-strap. Finally, Blair unhooked the tie-rope from the halter, and turned to Jim with a frown.

"Aren't you ready yet? Hercules is wondering why you're just standing there."

Blair was right; the big horse did seem to have an impatient glint in his eye. Wordlessly, Jim put on his own helmet, bridled Hercules and unsnapped the tie-rope, then turned toward the main doors. "You got it, Chief; let's get this show on the road." Side by side, boys and horses headed out of the barn, Jim shortening his stride to allow Blair to keep up.

Outside, Jim turned toward his young companion. "Need some help getting up there, Chief?" he asked. Anticipating an affirmative, he was already reaching to grab the little boy, but Blair firmly shook his head.

"No, thank you," he said. "Sam says I have to be able to do it myself, 'cause there won't always be someone around to give me a boost. 'Sides, Rosie knows to help me." He led the horse to a white-painted fence and positioned her lengthwise beside it, then climbed the boards like a ladder. Giving a small push off a center post, Blair was over the gap and sitting neatly in the saddle. He slipped his feet into the stirrups, competently gathered the reins, then turned to Jim with a triumphant smile on his face. "See?"

Jim chuckled as he swung into the saddle. "I'm impressed, Chief; you really can do it all. So, have you ever ridden the steeplechase course in Murphy's Meadow?"

"Noooo," Blair breathed with wide eyes. "You mean, we get to go there? But Sam doesn't let me jump, yet."

"Not to jump," Jim assured him. "But plenty of wide open spaces for riding, and you can at least see the obstacles." He reined Hercules to the left and urged him into a gentle trot.

"Cool!" Blair exclaimed, encouraging Rosie to move up beside her stable-mate.

From the barn doors, Sam watched the incongruous pair head toward the lane. He wondered what had come over Jimmy; the teen had shown no interest in any of the other youngsters that visited the training stables. Still, Jimmy's sense of responsibility would ensure that Blair would be watched carefully. And maybe the bright, buoyant little boy would help Jimmy relax and forget his cares for a while. Nodding to himself, Sam headed toward his office to deal with some of his ever-present paperwork.




As they jogged toward Murphy's Meadow, Blair kept up an almost continuous commentary. He compared the jumping saddle Jim was using to the endurance saddle he had selected for Rosie, explained the difference in habitat and behavior between red squirrels and gray squirrels, and discussed the various types of trees they rode past, speculating on what kinds of animals or birds they might shelter.

Jim wondered how the kid could have learned so much in the few short years he'd been alive. He grinned as he listened -- the kid was an amusing encyclopedia, at least -- and aided and abetted him by keeping an eye out for birds and small animals to point out to his young friend, just to hear what Blair would tell him.

But Blair's prattle was by no means one-sided. Jim found himself explaining the chemistry experiments he'd done in the school lab, watching Blair's eyes go wide as he described the effects of hydrochloric acid on various substances. From there, they moved into an analysis of the pros and cons of various sports. Blair expressed a preference for basketball -- "But I'll have to do a lot of growing before I can play," -- while Jim held out for the excitement of football. They debated whether horse-riding should be considered an individual sport -- since each person rode alone -- or a team sport, since horse and rider worked together to complete a task.

"I really like riding horses," Blair informed him earnestly. "I wanna get real good; I hope Naomi stays with Uncle Trevor long enough so I can learn everything. Sam says he'll start teaching me to jump pretty soon, an' I really wanna do that. Is it as exciting as it looks?"

"It's pretty neat," Jim admitted. "Feels almost like flying, and the horses seem to like it too. I saw an English steeplechase on TV a while back; one of the riders fell off, but his horse just kept going, and completed the course with all the others. It's just that..." He stopped, uncomfortable with trying to explain his aversion to submitting to his father's decrees.

"What?"

Jim ignored the question. "The horses are warmed up; time to get to work. Let's canter up to that big oak tree, then ease them back to a trot." At a squeeze of his calves, Hercules flowed into the smooth, ground-eating gait.

Blair had followed Jim's directions and Rosie kept pace with her stable-mate while Blair whooped aloud, eyes alight with glee.

They swept up to the oak tree, then trotted toward the official starting line in front of the jumps in Murphy's Meadow. Jim reined Hercules to a halt, and Blair matched him flawlessly.

"Okay, here's the deal," Jim explained. "We'll follow the course, but aim the horses way to the side of the jumps; we don't want them to get confused and think they should go over. Depending on the distance to the next jump, we'll need to go faster or slower, and ask the horses to take shorter strides or stretch their legs out more. As we pass each jump, I'll shout out what you have to do for the next one. Think you can do that?"

Blair nodded vigorously, shortening his reins to ensure the necessary 'contact' with Rosie.

"Okay. Now, imagine there's a man in the judges' box with a starting pistol. You ready? One. Two. Three -- bang!"

As they swept around the course, Jim calling directions which Blair followed to the letter, Jim realized he was having fun. The combination of riding in harmony with the big horse, the unfettered space of the open countryside, and -- oddly enough -- the company of the little boy beside him, created a peacefulness for him, despite the speed at which they were riding. He decided at that moment to simply enjoy the opportunity this summer to spend a lot of time with the horses and people at the riding center. He'd practice for the steeplechase because it was fun. Winning would be nice but, if he didn't win, his father could just go hang. He had long ago planned to leave home as soon as he turned eighteen; the more time he spent out here until school started again, the less he'd have to spend at home.

They made the circuit of the course and crossed the finish line still riding side by side, the horses matching each other stride for stride. As they eased the horses to a walk, Blair chortled with delight, leaning forward to stroke Rosie's neck. "That was fun! Can we do it again, sometime?"

"You bet we can, little buddy," Jim assured him, also giving Hercules a congratulatory pat. "I'll be out here four mornings a week, all summer long. Some days I'll have to train over the jumps, but other days we can go out together."

"An' I'll watch," Blair assured him. "Then when Sam lets me start jumping, I'll already know what to do."

Jim reached out to tug a curl that hung down under the back of the riding helmet. "Now don't you make Sam think I'm a bad influence on you," he warned. "You still have to listen to what he says, or whoever your instructor is."

"Hey, don't pull my hair!" Blair protested. "An' I know that. Naomi says that we can learn by listening to those with experience, if we recognize whether the experience is valid for our lifestyle." He nodded firmly, as if the subject were settled, and Jim wondered again how such a young child had gained so much knowledge. He ostentatiously checked his watch.

"Well, my experience tells me that we have about twenty minutes before we need to head back to the stable, and the horses need to be cooled out. Let's ride through the woods; maybe we'll see something interesting." Jim turned Hercules toward the trees that bordered Murphy's Meadow and, once again, Blair fell in beside him.

It was cooler in the shade of the trees, a welcome relief for all concerned, but they kept the horses moving at a brisk walk; cooling out had to be a gradual process, to avoid the possibility of muscle spasms. However, they weren't moving so fast that Jim couldn't keep an eye and ear out for things that would entertain Blair. He'd realized many years ago that he could see and hear better than his friends. He never talked about his senses, and they didn't always work reliably, but today they seemed 'on' -- sharper than they'd ever been, and easier to control. He was able to see, and point out to Blair, the tracks of a badger, some deer-scat, and two baby owls peering from their nest-hole high up in a tree.

A shifting current of air carried the scent of fresh blood. Jim searched for the source. To the right? He thought so. "Slow down, Blair," he whispered, "and come this way." He was mildly concerned; someone could be hurt, although it was more likely a wild animal of some kind. Whichever; they should investigate, but needed to be cautious.

A few minutes later, they came to the edge of a small clearing and halted the horses. In the middle of the open space, a wolf stared at them balefully, a rabbit dangling limply from her jaws.

Blair squeaked in excitement. "Wow! What's it doing?"

"Taking lunch home to her family," Jim said practically. "See how big her teats are? They're full of milk; she's a nursing mother with cubs. Either they're old enough to start eating meat, or she wants to eat the rabbit there, so she doesn't leave them alone too long."

"Wolf puppies! D'ya s'pose we could follow her, an' maybe see them?"

"Wolves are pretty smart animals, Chief. I don't think she'd go to her cubs if she knew we were following her -- and there's no way we could hide from her."

Blair nodded sagely. "You're right; wolves are very protective of their babies. But they must live around here somewhere, an' that's neat to know, isn't it?"

"Very neat," Jim agreed. They watched for a few more moments while the wolf stared at them, golden eyes gleaming, as she apparently evaluated their level of threat. Coming to some conclusion, she turned and slipped into the underbrush on the other side of the clearing.

"Wow!" Blair breathed, awestruck.

"You said that already," Jim pointed out, although he felt the same way. "But now we have to head back to the stable. Giddy-up partner; Sam's expecting us."

Blair turned Rosie to follow Hercules. "Okay," he agreed. "But next time I'm going to bring some doggie treats an' drop them here. D'ya think she'd like that?"

Jim shrugged. "I dunno, Chief; maybe. I suppose it can't hurt anything, but you know she might not even find them."

"But she might," Blair insisted. "An' Naomi says every mother deserves good things. That's the only thing I can think of that a wolf might like."

"Well, she'd probably like a whole chicken. But I don't think either Sam or your Uncle Trevor would approve of you giving people-food to a wolf."

"Sadie too -- she's Uncle Trevor's cook -- she'd be real upset."

"And you always want to keep the cook happy," Jim said. "Our cook is Sally, and she's great. Y'know what? I'll see if she'll make some cinnamon rolls this week, and bring you a couple; they've gotta be the best in the whole world."

"Oh, yummy! I like cinnamon rolls. An' then maybe you can stay for lunch someday when Sadie's making chicken cacciatore -- it's the best!"

The ensuing discussion of favorite foods and cooks' personalities carried them all the way back to the stable. They unsaddled and brushed down the horses, then tuned them into their stalls. Shortly after, the cab arrived to take Jim home. He watched Blair waving goodbye until they turned the corner and the engaging, talkative little boy was no longer in sight. Jim looked forward to seeing him again tomorrow.




The following day, Jim and Hercules practiced jumping in the arena, under Sam's discerning eye. Blair watched from the rail, bouncing and clapping in excitement each time they successfully cleared a fence.

Blair crowed in delight as Jim completed his second circuit and eased Hercules down to a walk. "You did it, Jimmy, you did it!" he exclaimed as Jim approached the rail where Sam and Blair were standing.

"Hercules did it, Chief; I was just along for the ride," Jim assured him, leaning forward to give the horse a congratulatory pat. "I'm not even sure Hercules notices those little training jumps; he thinks he's out for a Sunday stroll."

"Don't sell yourself short, Jimmy," Sam advised him. "A poor rider won't get a decent performance out of even the best horse. You followed my instructions, rated him properly, and kept your approaches to the jumps clean. 'Those little training jumps' will make sure he responds to your cues and keeps his pacing accurate, without putting too much stress on his joints.

"Now, young'un," he continued, turning to Blair, "while Jimmy unsaddles Hercules, how about you saddle up Rosie? Use a jumping saddle; I think it's time for your first jumping lesson."

"Really? Oh, boy! C'mon, Jimmy!" Blair leaped down and raced toward the stable, not waiting to see if his friend followed him.

"Meet me in the small training corral in twenty minutes!" Sam called after him. He chuckled and turned to the older boy again. "Go with him, Jimmy; he's too excited for his own good."

Jim nodded and headed Hercules in that direction. By the time he tied the horse to the ring outside the tack-room, Blair had already brought Rosie from her stall and was industriously brushing her, while explaining the great treat they'd soon have.

After removing the saddle from Hercules, Jim did his own brushing while listening in amusement as Blair described the morning session. "I bet Jimmy's the best rider in the whole world; he went over those jumps so easy. I wonder if he'll stay an' watch while I have my lesson?"

"Of course I'll be watching, Chief -- if you'll do me a favor."

"Sure, Jimmy, what?" Blair asked eagerly.

"I'd like you to call me 'Jim'. 'Jimmy' sounds like a little boy's name. Sam and my dad think of me like that, and they'll probably never change. But I can start being 'Jim' with you. Sound good?"

"Yeah, I can do that, J- Jim. But then why do you call me 'Chief' instead of 'Blair'?" He examined the saddle pad as he spoke, then placed it on Rosie's back.

"Well, at least 'Chief' isn't babyish," Jim pointed out. "But I'll stop if you want. Would you rather be called 'Blair'?"

"No, I like 'Chief'," Blair assured him. "I just wondered why, is all." He lifted the saddle into place and pulled the cinch as tight as he could.

Jim walked around Hercules and finished pulling Rosie's cinch tight without being asked. "I had a friend, once -- a good friend -- who used to call me 'Chief'. It just seems to work for you. Do you mind having a used nickname?"

Blair's eyes widened. "You mean you gave me your old nickname? That's so cool! Thank you -- Jim." His smug expression proclaimed his satisfaction at remembering to use the preferred name.

"Then we're good, Chief. Now let's go see how good a jumper you are."

If Blair was disappointed to be faced with a series of eight-inch caveletti, instead of the forty-two inch training jumps Jim had used, he didn't let on. He listened carefully to Sam's instructions and executed perfect form -- head up, back level over the horse's neck, his little butt floating in the air above the saddle-seat -- as Rosie trotted over the low-set rails.

"Lookin' good, there, Chief!" Jim called out, and saw the flash of a prideful smile before Blair's face again showed his careful determination as he rounded the corner and headed over another set of the caveletti.

Finally, Sam said, "Jimmy, go set up a one-two at the far end; I'm going to let Blair ride a pattern." Sam called the little boy over and, while he explained the course Blair should follow, Jim formed a modest jump with three of the caveletti -- one in front with two stacked up directly behind, to form a sixteen-inch rise; Rosie would actually have to lift her body to clear it.

Jim heard the hoofbeats behind him and stepped to the side of the obstacle to watch Blair approaching, his face creased in concentration. He rounded the corner, trotted over four single-stride caveletti, then took three balancing strides and lifted up and over the miniature jump, maintaining his proper 'hunt-seat' position.

"Yippee!" floated back to Jim's ears as soon as Rosie landed; Blair sat up and pumped his fist in the air, as excited as if he'd won Olympic gold. "Did you see that, Jimmy? I mean Jim. Did you see? Me an' Rosie did good, didn't we?"

"You did real good, Chief," Jim assured him. "Pretty soon, you'll be giving me advice. I'll expect you to see me through to the steeplechase in September."

"Oh, I will, Jim, I really will. Me an' you an' Hercules will be so good you'll be sure to win!"

"I think you're right. But in the meantime, I think your lesson is finished. Let's give Rosie a good rubdown, to say 'thank you'." Together, the tall teen and the diminutive little boy headed toward the stable, each well-pleased with their morning's efforts.




On Thursday, Jim approached the stable with considerably more eagerness than he had just three days previously. He had missed Blair yesterday, and had been thoroughly bored at home. He wondered if he could convince his dad that riding five days a week -- maybe even six -- would increase his chances of winning.

He smiled to see Blair waiting for him at the main entrance, bouncing impatiently with excitement. Jim quickly paid the cabbie and hurried to greet his little friend. "Hey, Chief! How's it goin'?"

"Jim!" Blair caroled happily. "I been waitin'! Sam says we can go on a trail ride today, just take it easy an' stay out as long as we want. I already got some doggie biscuits; can we go to that place an' leave them for my wolfie?"

"Your wolfie?" Jim asked, eyebrows raised. "How did that happen?"

"I been thinkin' about her. When you think about people, that means they're your friends. So she's my friend, an' that makes her mine," Blair replied firmly, with the inarguable logic of a seven-year-old.

"You got it, kiddo. But after we drop off the goodies for your wolf, what about us?" Jim followed Blair's impatient scamper down the aisle.

"Oh, we got good stuff," Blair promised as he picked up a halter and headed toward Rosie's stall. "Sadie made us some chicken sandwiches an' chocolate cake an' lemonade."

"A veritable feast," Jim agreed as he picked up Hercules' halter. "Okay, meet you back at the tack-room." Each boy slipped into a stall to collect his horse.

They were soon trotting down the trail, enjoying the warm early summer sunshine. Realizing how eager Blair was to distribute his 'wolfie treats', Jim led them unerringly to the small meadow where they'd seen her. Blair rode around the perimeter, dropping a handful of the hard biscuits in three different spots. He rode back to Jim with an air of satisfaction.

"There! If she comes back here to hunt, I bet she'll find them," he declared. "Hey, Jim, you can see an' hear a lot better'n me; is she anywhere close by?"

How does he know? Jim wondered, but obediently opened his senses. After a few moments, he replied, "Not right now, Chief, but I think she was here yesterday."

Blair nodded, his expectations confirmed. "Good. I bet she'll find them tomorrow."

"And I bet you're planning to drop some more treats; I see a suspicious bulge in your saddlebag. So what d'ya say we ride up along that ridge? Seems like it would be prime wolf-hunting territory."

"Okay," Blair agreed. "An' you pay attention; maybe you'll find someplace else she's been."

They rode in comfortable silence for awhile, before Jim broached the subject. "Chief, how do you know I can see and hear better than you can?"

"Not just me -- everybody," Blair asserted. "An' smell an' touch better, too, an' prob'ly taste."

So much for secrets, Jim thought. "Yes, but how do you know?" he persisted.

Blair shrugged carelessly. "I dunno; I just do."

At seven years of age, Jim reflected, the kid probably really didn't know how he had made the connection. He sighed and gave in. "Okay, but look -- I don't want other people to know. So can you keep it a secret? For me?"

"Sure I can, Jim," the little boy declared stoutly. "But why? Isn't bein' good at that stuff a good thing?"

"Sometimes," Jim admitted. "I found my little brother, once, when he was lost. But lots of people will think I'm a freak if they know about it, and I don't want the hassle."

"You're not a freak!" Blair insisted. "You're really special, an' that's a good thing, I promise!"

"I'm glad you think so. But not everyone does. So, you'll keep the secret, right?"

Blair nodded vigorously. "Right! Pinkie swear?" He stretched out his hand, little finger crooked.

Jim reached out to twine his smallest finger around Blair's, and they solemnly shook. "Pinkie swear," he agreed. "Thanks, buddy."

They continued riding. Jim watched closely and soon spotted some sign. He reined Hercules to a halt. "Look there, Chief; I see some wolf tracks, and a bit of blood and rabbit fur."

Blair peered at the ground, obviously not seeing anything, but he trusted Jim's observations. "Good!" he said. "That means you're right, an' she's been around here, too." He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of the doggie treats, which he dropped on the ground.

"It could be a different wolf, Chief," Jim cautioned.

"No, it's mine; I know it. Like you said, she's gotta feed her babies."

Jim shrugged; there was no need to disillusion his little friend. He picked up the reins, and they moved onward.

Half an hour later they came across a small grassy area that bordered a little stream. While the horses grazed, the boys pulled off their boots and socks and paddled their feet in the water as they ate their sandwiches and cake.

While they were packing their lunch wrappings into their saddlebags, Jim sensed... something. He looked around, extending his eyesight, and soon saw the wolf, peering at them from under a concealing bush.

"Chief!" he whispered. "There's your wolf -- under that bush."

Blair looked eagerly, but was unable to penetrate the shadows of her hiding place. "I can't see her," he said, disappointed.

"Well, she sees you," Jim assured him, "and it is your wolf, just like you thought. I bet she wants a drink of water, and she's just waiting for us to leave."

"That sounds fair. C'mere, Rosie," Blair called, and kissed to urge her toward him. Jim went to get Hercules, lifted Blair onto Rosie -- there being no convenient fence or boulder nearby -- and swung into the saddle himself.

"Just a minute," Blair insisted. Riding toward the water, he dropped a handful of biscuits at the edge of the stream. "Those are for you, Wolfie," he said softly. "I hope you like them." He waved at the bush where Jim said his wolf was hiding, and turned to join his friend.

They had ridden a scant hundred yards when Jim called a halt. "Get down, Chief. Let's leave the horses here, and see if we can sneak back." They tied the horses to a tree branch, took off their boots, and walked as quietly as possible back to the tree-lined edge of the grassy little glade.

Blair gasped in excitement. There was his wolf, just like Jim had said. She was eating his 'wolfie treats' with, he was convinced, a blissful expression on her face. She had accepted his present!

They watched while the wolf finished the hard biscuits, took a long drink of water, then slipped into the underbrush. Jim stirred and stood upright. "That's it, Chief. She's probably headed back to her cubs, and we should head home, too. Let's saddle up."

They rode homeward, Blair thoroughly satisfied with their day's outing, and Jim a little bemused that Blair's 'wolfie' had actually materialized. Blair was undoubtedly the most unusual little boy he'd ever met, and almost frighteningly self-confident and independent. Jim and Sam would need to impress upon Blair that 'his' wolf was still a wild animal, despite her acceptance of the doggie treats. Otherwise, Jim was convinced, Blair would soon be making plans to bring his 'wolfie' and her 'puppies' home to live with him.




One week slipped into two, and Jim continued to enjoy Blair's company; he was such an engaging little scamp. Blair, for his part, had a full-blown case of hero-worship; Jim was the smartest person he knew -- even smarter than Naomi -- and the best rider, and his extra-keen senses made him almost magical... or at least as good as Superman. And he never seemed to get tired of letting Blair hang around, as often happened with other people.

Sam, as he had promised, varied their schedule, rotating arena jumping with cross-country work and 'free days' when the boys could just relax and wander the countryside with the horses. Jim and Hercules were working so well together that they seemed to have a telepathic connection; each knew what the other wanted or needed, and responded flawlessly. Blair had a solid foundation in jumping, and could clear three-foot obstacles with ease; he delighted in finding downed logs or wide streams to jump over when they were out trail-riding on their 'free days'.

Jim became adept at spotting wolf-sign, and grew to recognize if it had been left by Blair's 'wolfie'; she had a crooked toe on her left hind paw that distinguished her prints from the three or four other wolves that seemed to roam the area. Blair continued to drop his doggie treats at likely places and, on two other occasions, they caught a glimpse of the animal. She appeared to be cautious, but unafraid of the boys, and even seemed to be associating the treats with their presence. But, as much of a chatterbox as Blair was, he had told no one else about his 'wolfie'; she was a precious secret between him and Jim, and he held it close to his heart.




Blair wandered through the empty landscape, unconcerned about the strange blue light which surrounded him. It was pretty, but he couldn't be bothered to pay attention to it. There was something important he had to do; he just knew it. He wasn't sure what it was yet, but he was certain he'd find it, if he just kept searching.

After awhile, he noticed a sound -- a kind of pleading whimper. Instantly, he was convinced that that was his goal. He hurried in that direction, and soon heard the whimpering grow louder, interspersed with pain-filled growls. He started to run.

Bursting out of a stand of trees, he saw his wolf crawling along the ground. Something was wrong; her back leg didn't work, and it was red with blood. Blair squatted in front of her; he didn't know what to do. The wolf raised her head to look at him, panting in distress, her golden eyes pleading for help...


"NO!" Blair gasped, bolting upright in his bed. He looked wildly around; the first light of dawn was just creeping through the windows, and he recognized his bedroom in Uncle Trevor's house.

It was early, he realized; probably no one else was awake yet, not even Sadie or Sam. But he'd get ready; then when someone did wake up, he could ask them to go with him to find and help his wolf.

Accordingly, Blair scrambled out of bed, dressed hurriedly in clean jeans and T-shirt, and washed his face and brushed his teeth. Then he tiptoed into the kitchen and -- oh, good! -- there was Sadie, mixing up the batter for breakfast pancakes.

"Well, good morning, Blair!" Sadie exclaimed. "And what are you doing up so early this fine day?"

Blair chewed his lip in thought. Sadie was a cook; she probably didn't know much about animals, and wouldn't be able to help him.

"I gotta talk to Sam about something," he finally explained. "D'ya think he's up, yet?"

"Oh, I'm sure he is. He has to feed the animals just like I have to feed the people. So you run out and talk to him, but don't be too long; breakfast in forty-five minutes."

Blair nodded. Yes, they'd need to eat before looking for his wolf; it might take a long time. But, if Sam started getting ready, they could leave as soon as breakfast was over. He slipped out the kitchen door and hurried toward the stable.

He found Sam -- and Marcella and Larry -- tossing flakes of hay into the hay-racks and pouring grain into the bins underneath. Blair waited till Sam came out of a stall, then asked, "Sam, can I talk to you?"

"Sure can, Blair," he said easily, then stepped into another stall. Coming back out, he continued, "But you'll have to do it in pieces while I work. I promise, I'll listen anyway."

"Okay." Blair hesitated, then plunged in. "I have a wolf-friend, an' she's hurt, an' I wanna help her, an' can you go with me 'cause I might not know what to do." He waited patiently while Sam stepped into another stall.

"A wolf-friend, huh? And how did this happen?"

"Me an' Jim been seeing her when we go on trail-rides, an' I been leaving doggie treats for her." Another stall, another short wait.

"Sounds like a friend," Sam agreed. "But how do you know she's hurt?"

This would be a problem; a lot of grownups didn't really believe in dreams. Maybe if it was something more, like a... yes, like the visions of an Indian medicine man. Those were important; surely Sam would respect a 'vision' more than a 'dream'.

"I had a vision last night; it was all blue an' everything. An' my wolf looked at me an' asked for help, so I really gotta find her."

Sam disappeared into another stall. When he came out, he asked, "Were you in bed when you had this vision last night?" At Blair's nod, he squatted to look at the little boy face-to-face. "Blair," he explained, "even if it was blue, it was still a dream, and dreams aren't real. I think somewhere inside of you, you'd like to be a hero to your wolf-friend, so your mind made this up. But a wolf is a wild animal, and can take care of itself. Giving her doggie treats is being enough of a friend; you don't need to do more."

Blair stared rebelliously at the door as Sam slipped into another stall. Naomi didn't allow him to use bad words, but he could think them. So he did. Damn! Stupid grownups!

But the thoughts didn't make him feel better, and didn't get him any closer to helping his wolf. Maybe...

"Okay, Blair," Sam announced, stepping out of the last stall, "I'll bet Sadie has breakfast ready. Let's get up there before it gets cold."

As Blair fell in beside Sam, stretching his legs as far as he could, he continued his plans. Jim would be here this morning, and he wasn't a grownup yet; maybe he'd listen when Blair told him how urgent it was. Okay. Blair would eat a big breakfast, and be ready as soon as Jim showed up. His wolf was counting on him.




"Jim! Jim!" Blair cried as the cab pulled up in front of the stable. He dashed forward and practically leaped into the teen's arms. "You have to help! My wolfie is hurt, an' we gotta go find her!"

"Easy, buddy, easy," Jim soothed, his arms curving to cradle the small boy and offer comfort for he knew not what. "Take it from the top, slowly, and tell me all about it."

And Blair did just that, explaining about the blue light and helpless wolf, and the urgency of finding her. But, to his vast disappointment, Jim brushed off his concerns, just as Sam had.

Jim sat Blair on top of the nearby fence, so that were at eye-level with each other. "Look, Chief, our minds can play tricks on us, especially in our dreams. I know you've been kind of worrying about your wolf, and how she's managing to take care of her cubs, haven't you?" He waited for Blair's reluctant nod. "So your mind just took that worry and made it bigger in your dreams. But, honest, it's not real. Your wolf is part of a pack, and the pack members take care of each other. So she's all right, and tomorrow we'll check out all the places we've seen her, and I bet we'll see her again. But today Sam has me doing practice jumps, so it'll have to wait till then. Okay?"

"We could go after lunch," Blair suggested hesitantly. "You could eat with us, an' we could go right after. I bet we could find her easy. She's up there, somewhere." He pointed halfway up the mountain that rose out of the forest.

"I'm sorry, Chief, I really can't. There's a corporate meet 'n' greet this afternoon, and my dad says I gotta be there; I'll have to leave right after my ride." He patted Blair's knee consolingly. "But I promise, first thing tomorrow, we'll head out, okay?"

What could Blair say? He averted his gaze from Jim's and shrugged unhappily, then climbed down from the fence and followed the older boy into the stable, his dragging footsteps signaling his dejection. He watched Jim saddle Hercules without his usual cheerful commentary, then followed them to the practice arena and plunked down in the shade of a tree to watch Jim ride. But his eyes kept trying to close, making it difficult to focus on Jim's performance. After a short time he gave up the struggle and curled up in the grass, resting his head on his arm.




Blair ran through the blue light. His wolf was here, somewhere; he had to see how she was doing. Maybe, like Jim said, the rest of the pack were helping her. Maybe she could wait another day. But he had to be sure.

There it was again, that pain-filled whimper. Blair ran even faster, pumping his legs desperately; he had to reach her, had to see what was happening to her.

He burst over a slight rise and found her curled up in a shallow depression. No other members of the pack were with her, and her continued distress was evident through her harsh panting and strained whining.

Blair threw himself prone in front of the wolf, aching to comfort her. He had been right, he had! She couldn't wait till tomorrow; she needed help soon.

"I'll come for you, Wolfie, I promise; you just wait for me. I'll come as quick as I can, an' I'll
make Jim or Sam come with me, so they can fix you up. So you keep waiting, an' soon you'll be okay."

The wolf looked trustfully into his eyes, then laid her head on her paws to wait. Blair stayed where he was, talking to her in soothing murmurs, but soon the blue light -- and the wolf -- started to fade away.





Blair crept into the kitchen. Lunch was finished, and Sadie had not yet started preparations for dinner; the coast was clear. If no one would help him save his wolf, he'd help her himself. He had a splendid plan -- he'd get lost with his wolf. Naomi would worry, and he was sorry for that, but it was really important. When Uncle Trevor or Sam or somebody came to find him, and he was right next to the wolf, then they'd have to help her.

But it might take them a long time to find him -- maybe even a whole day -- so he had to take some food and water with him. Blair filled his small plastic canteen, acquired during his many travels with Naomi, with cold water, then made two peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He put them in a small brown sack that would fit in the saddle bag, along with an apple and a banana, and six chocolate-chip cookies. That should be enough.

Heading toward the door, Blair paused. If he would get hungry, his wolf would, too. She might already be hungry, because the grownups had made him wait to rescue her. Blair was pretty sure a wolf wouldn't like peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches; Uncle Trevor's dog Patch didn't, and wolves were a lot like dogs.

He opened the fridge and surveyed its contents; what would a wolf like to eat?

Perfect! He pulled out the slab of leftover meatloaf. It was already enclosed in plastic wrap, and easily slipped into another small brown sack. But if Blair had two sandwiches, the wolf should also have two somethings. Another examination of the fridge contents yielded an almost-full package of bologna, which fit very nicely next to the meatloaf. And treats, of course. He added a few handfuls of doggie biscuits to fill in the empty spaces around the meat.

Water. His wolf might get thirsty, but Blair only had one canteen. But a kitchen should have something to carry water in.

A search of the lower cupboards yielded only pots and pans and a few empty glass jars, but they might break. Blair pulled over a chair so that he could search the high cupboards. And there was his solution -- some big plastic glasses with tight lids. He grabbed two -- his wolf might be very thirsty -- and filled them. Okay; now he had enough supplies.

Blair tried to sneak like an Indian as he entered the barn; if somebody saw him, they'd be sure to stop him. But Sam had taken a group of students to Murphy's Meadow, and Marcella was working with another group of students in the dressage arena. Uncle Trevor and Naomi had gone to town after lunch, and Sam had told Larry to fix some fence, so he should be safe from discovery.

He left the food and water to wait in the tack room while he went to get Rosie. She came to Blair as willingly as always, and he was soon brushing her clean. Of course, he had to let Rosie in on his secret. "I know my wolf is in trouble, even if they don't believe it," Blair whispered confidentially. "But I bet you an' me can find her. Then I'll stay with the wolf, an' you can come home by yourself. An' when they see I'm not with you, they'll come looking for me, an' you can show them the way to where we are, okay, Rosie?"

The horse snorted softly, which Blair took as agreement for his clever plan. He placed saddle pad and saddle on her back, then paused. Buckling the saddle tight enough was always a problem, but Marcella had showed him a neat trick just a few days ago; he was pretty sure he could do it. Blair pulled the cinch as tight as he could. Using the stepstool, he was able to reach the stirrup with his foot and swing his leg over the saddle just as good as Jim did. "I wish Jim was here to go with us, Rosie," he said softly, "but I know we can do this. Now hold still while I pull those buckles tighter." Blair moved his left leg out of the way, and bent over the saddle flap; his weight had pushed the saddle down far enough that he was able to pull the cinch straps two holes tighter. Now he could be sure the saddle wouldn't slip.

Blair slid down to finish getting Rosie ready. He tied a set of saddlebags to the rings behind his seat, and loaded them with the food and water. He put his helmet on his head, slipped Rosie's bridle in her mouth, and he was ready to go. He used the stepstool once more as he climbed into the saddle. It was against the rules to mount up in the barn -- or to leave things in the aisle, like the stepstool -- but he was already breaking so many rules that a few more wouldn't matter. He wouldn't write the time or where he was going on the notice board, either; he needed a head start to find his wolf before the grownups found him.

Blair patted Rosie on the neck as they exited the barn, and turned her away from their usual path. Somewhere up on the side of that mountain; that's where he'd find his wolf. He 'kissed' gently and nudged Rosie into an easy jog; he didn't want her to get too tired if his wolf was a long way away.




The sun was going down, and the air had a slight chill, especially under the forest trees. Blair had been riding for hours, and his legs were trembling with the strain of using the same muscles for too long a period of time. But that didn't matter; his wolf must be close now. Something inside of him had been telling him which way to go, like a rope pulling Rosie's halter, but it wasn't working anymore; maybe they were too close.

Blair drew Rosie to a halt while he tried to think of a way to find his wolf. He wished his friend was here. Jim didn't talk about it too much, but he could hear way better than other people; sometimes even better than the horses. Oh, that was a good idea; maybe he could use Rosie's ears. He leaned forward to talk to her.

"Rosie, I'm gonna ask my wolfie to make some noise. You listen real good to hear her, okay? An' then you can take us there." Blair straightened up to call into the gathering dusk, "Hey, Wolfie? We're coming to help you, but we can't find you. So make some noise, okay? So Rosie can hear you an' bring me there. Just make some noise, Wolfie, an' we'll come quick."

He waited, straining his ears, but heard only the normal soft sounds of the forest. But Rosie pricked her ears and looked to the right, snorting softly.

"Good girl, Rosie!" Blair exclaimed. "Now take me there." He nudged her with his heels, but left the reins loose, letting her find her own way.

A few moments later, Blair was looking across a small clearing at an outcropping of rock. He still couldn't hear anything, but Rosie didn't want to go any closer; she was snorting and backing up each time Blair tried. Well, Sam said that most horses didn't like wild animals, so his wolf must be somewhere in there. Okay, he could walk the rest of the way himself.

Twisting in the saddle, Blair unhooked the saddlebags and let them fall to the ground, then slid down himself. He pulled Rosie's face to his level, and stroked her forehead while he explained. "You did good, Rosie; thank you. Now you gotta go home so people will come looking for me, an' you can show them the way back, okay?" He unbuckled the bridle and slipped it off her head, because a running horse might get tangled in loose reins and fall and hurt herself. He petted her one more time, then moved down her side and slapped her on the flank, as hard as he could. Stepping back, Blair waved one of the reins in the air like a training whip as he shouted, "Go, Rosie! Go on home!" He added several urgent kisses for good measure, and watched in satisfaction as the horse moved off at a fast trot.

Good. Now to take care of his wolf. Blair picked up his saddlebags and the bridle, and headed across the meadow toward the rocky outcrop.

Halfway there, he could hear a series of whining growls, and homed in on two large boulders lying half-buried, a short distance away from the main mass of rocks. A few more minutes let him see the wolf he had come so far to help. She was lying between the two boulders, trapped somehow, whimpering and panting in distress.

Blair ached to comfort her, but Sam had told him that injured animals weren't always in control of their actions; you had to approach carefully, and give them time to adjust. Accordingly, Blair sank cross-legged to the ground, a few yards away from his wolf, but within easy sight / sound / sent range, so she could get used to him.

"Hey, Wolfie," he crooned. "It's okay now. I'll stay here an' take care of you till my friends get here, an' they'll get you out of there an' then you'll be okay. Will you let me come closer? I have some food for you, an' some water; that'll make you feel better. You'll let me come closer, won't you?"

The wolf was quieter now; she seemed to be listening to the soothing voice, and watched Blair without observable fear. Encouraged, he reached into the saddlebags and snagged the meatloaf and one of the plastic glasses of water. He unwrapped the meatloaf and, holding it in extended hand, scooted closer to the wolf, murmuring reassuringly as he moved. She watched alertly, but made no threatening gestures.

Finally, Blair was close enough. He laid the meatloaf under her nose, then moved back a little bit to reassure her. Keeping a wary eye on Blair, the wolf nevertheless devoured the food in four quick gulps, then licked her chops in gratitude.

Blair was pleased that his offering had been accepted. "That was good, huh? Sadie's a real good cook; I thought you'd like it. Are you thirsty? I have some water, but I forgot to bring a bowl. But if you'll let me stay close to you, I can hold the glass while you stick your tongue in it." Blair pulled off the lid so that the wolf could smell the water, and was rewarded with a small whine. "I'm coming," he assured her, and scooted close again.

The wolf started lapping at the water as soon as Blair was within reach. He set the tumbler on the ground and steadied it with both hands so that she wouldn't tip it over. But when the glass was half empty, her tongue could no longer reach. The wolf whined in frustration, while Blair bit his lip in sympathy and tried to think of a solution.

"I know how we can do it!" he exclaimed. "But you gotta let me get real, real close. Is that okay?" Reading assent in her eyes, Blair set the water out of spilling distance, then pulled off his top shirt. Moving still closer to the wolf, he crossed his legs and draped his shirt into the middle space to form a shallow bowl. Then he grabbed the plastic wrap, lined the improvised bowl with that, and finally poured the rest of the water into it. No longer wary, the wolf plunged her head forward and drank until she licked the plastic dry.

"I bet you feel way better now, don't you? You're so pretty; would you let me pet you? Sam says stay away from wild animals, but you know me now, so that's okay, isn't it? Here, you wanna sniff?" Blair slowly extended his hand, and broke into a broad smile as she first sniffed, then quickly licked the hand. "That tickles!" he giggled, "but I guess that means yes. Here I come." Still moving slowly, with the wolf watching as the hand approached, Blair gently touched her head, then started scratching between her ears. After a few moments she sighed, and lowered her head to her paws while Blair continued scratching. "Yeah, I thought you'd like that; Patch does."

Finally, Blair stirred. "You know, I need to see what's the matter with you before it gets all the way dark. Maybe I can get you loose an' you won't have to wait till my friends get here. I'll just go around the back of these ol' rocks an' see what's holding you." Giving a last pat to the wolf's head, he rose to investigate.

That side of the boulders faced west, and the rays of the setting sun showed the ugly scene clearly. Blair felt sick; his beautiful wolf had her back leg caught in a nasty steel trap, which was attached to a small log by a stout chain. She must have been dragging everything behind her, but the narrow passage that was big enough for her body wasn't wide enough for the log; it had jammed tight, impeding her further progress.

Blair stretched, but his arms weren't long enough to reach the trap. He probably wasn't strong enough to open it anyway, but he wished he could try. It was no use; they'd have to wait for the others. Poor wolf. But she was a little bit lucky; apparently a heavy stick had been lying on the trap when she stepped in it. That stick was big enough that the trap had not closed on her leg with its full force; the leg was bloody, and she was obviously held fast, but her leg wasn't bent, so maybe the bone wasn't broken. And it was a good thing the passage was so narrow; the wolf hadn't had room to turn on her own length and chew off the leg to get free of the trap. Blair had heard about that, and it was a dangerous solution; a three-legged wolf would die when she couldn't hunt, and her puppies with her.

Puppies! Blair craned his head and squinted as he peered at her belly. Yes, her teats were still full of milk. There were baby wolves somewhere, and they must be very hungry. Now the situation was even more urgent.

Blair hurried around to the front of the boulders and faced the wolf again. "I'm sorry, I didn't remember about your puppies," he said. "I bet you're worried about them, an' I bet they're awful hungry. Are they close? If you tell me where they are, I could bring them to you."

The wolf regarded him calmly, her golden eyes peering into his, but gave no sign that she understood. "Puppies," Blair repeated urgently, then made whimpering noises, imitating as best he could the pups he'd played with when Moonglow's dog had had a litter. It made an impression on the wolf; she pricked her ears, stared at Blair, then up into the rocks above, then back at Blair.

"That's right," he urged. "Call them, so they'll make noise an' I can find them." Once again, he made puppy-whimpers.

Abruptly, the wolf decided. Lifting her head, she sent a series of yipping calls aimed at the rock outcropping, which were answered by excited yipping squeals.

Blair stared closely in the direction of the answering yips. He saw a shadow that might be the opening of a hidden cave, and it looked like he could get up there. He'd have to hurry; the sun had slipped halfway below the horizon, and it would be dangerous to be climbing on the rocks once all the light was gone from the sky.

"Okay," Blair said earnestly, "I'll go get them for you." He gave the wolf a quick pat and headed up.

It wasn't too hard, though he had to zigzag back and forth to find rises that were low enough for him to climb. But finally, Blair reached a level ledge and, sure enough, there was an opening under a slight overhang. It was too dark to see inside, and he shouldn't reach in blindly; even puppies might bite if they were scared. But maybe he could coax them out.

"Puppies? Are you in there?" Blair used his most winsome tones, then added puppy-noises for effect. "If you come out, I'll take you to your mother. Come out, little puppies!"

Nothing happened. Well, that made sense; they didn't know him yet. Blair turned and called down to his wolf. "They won't come out! Will you tell them it's okay?" He was answered by a series of yips, which finally elicited a response from within the cave. Yapping excitedly, two little cubs bounded out of the darkness, only to stop in confusion when they saw the large, unfamiliar animal in front of them.

Blair immediately laid down to make himself look smaller. "Hi, guys. Your mama can't come up right now, so I'll take you to her an' then you can eat. You're hungry aren't you? Your mama can fix that. It's okay, I won't hurt you; your mama even let me pet her -- see?" He held out the hand that had touched the wolf and let them sniff.

Scenting their mother, the cubs lost all reservations; they scrambled forward and pounced on Blair, licking his face and pulling at his hair and clothes with tiny growls. Blair giggled and wrestled with them for a short time, but it was getting darker by the minute. Going down would be easier than coming up, but he needed to get started.

"That's enough, puppies; we gotta go see your mama. Com'on." He tucked one under each arm and headed down.

By the time he reached the bottom, the cubs were squirming wildly as they heard and smelled their mother. "Okay, okay," Blair grumbled, "I guess you can run faster'n me." He set them on the ground, and watched as they bounded toward the boulders that imprisoned their mother.

It was too dark to see clearly when Blair reached the boulders. He peered into the narrow space between; as best he could tell, the pups were lying on top of their mother's body and leaning over the side to suckle. His wolf was lying quietly, and seemed at peace.

All was well -- or as well as it could be until someone came to get his wolf loose from the trap. Now he could take care of his own needs. Blair ate one of his sandwiches and the banana, followed by a few swallows of water; he didn't want to use it up too fast. He'd save the cookies for later, in case he wanted a snack.

"You want some more to eat?" he asked, noticing that the wolf seemed interested in what he was doing. "Okay; you can have some doggie biscuits; we have to save the bologna for breakfast."

The wolf quickly ate the offered treats, and lapped up half her glass of water. "That's all," Blair informed her kindly. "Now I'm awful tired; is it okay if I lay down close to you?" Taking her silence for consent, Blair hunched closer, resting his head on one arm as a pillow, and twining his other hand in the thick ruff of hair at the wolf's neck. "Good night," he said drowsily, and was asleep within minutes.




Jim sullenly followed his father into the house. That was four hours of his life he'd never get back. Thank god it was over; he couldn't wait to get out of his suit and tie.

Sally stopped him as he reached the foot of the stairs. "Jimmy, a Mr. Evanston called from the stables. He'd like you to call him back; he said it was urgent."

Sam? What could he want? "Thanks, Sally; I'll do it right now." He hurried into the kitchen, trying to ignore the alarms shrieking in his mind. Sam wouldn't call unless something was really wrong, but he'd find out in a minute.

He dialed the number of the stable, then had to wait while Marcella fetched Sam.

"Jimmy? Thanks for calling back. Listen, it looks like Blair's gone off by himself. Do you have any idea what he planned?"

"You mean he's run away?" The kid wouldn't do that, would he? He'd seemed happy at the stables -- and with Jim.

"We don't know; we couldn't find him at suppertime, but he didn't leave a note. There's some food missing from the kitchen, and Rosie's not in her stall, so we know he's not on foot and he's planning to be gone awhile; we just don't know if he intends it to be permanent. We've got everyone out looking -- some of the neighbors are helping, his mother went out with Mr. Madison and Marcella, and even the sheriff's posse is out hunting. Between us, we've ridden all the trails around here, and searched the likely spots, but we haven't seen a sign of either of them. I came back to call you; I hoped you might have an idea where he'd go; did the kid say anything to you?"

In his mind's eye, Jim watched the confident hand pointing toward the mountain, watched the shoulders slump when the requested help was denied, and was certain he knew where Blair was headed. "Yeah, Sam, I think he's gone to rescue his wolf."

"His wolf!" Sam was incredulous. "You mean that dream he was talking about this morning?"

"Dream to you and me, maybe, but he thought it was a vision and you know what a determined little guy he is; he's going to follow that vision no matter what it takes." Despite the seriousness of the situation, a ring of pride crept into Jim's voice; his little friend had the gumption of someone three times his age. "But, yeah, I think I know where he's going. I'll change my clothes and come right out."

"That's okay, Jimmy. Just tell us which way to head, and we'll concentrate our search there; we'll find him."

Nuh-uh. No way in hell would Jim sit cozily at home while Blair was somewhere on the mountain, waiting -- he was sure -- for Jim to come help him. "It's almost dark, Sam," he pointed out, "and I..." He hesitated, but this was for Blair. "...I have real good night-vision. I think I might be able to find and follow the trail easier than someone else."

"Okay, Jimmy, I'll wait for you. And truthfully, I'll be grateful for the help. I'll have Hercules saddled for you; just get here as quick as you can."

"I will. And listen, Sam..." It was a wild idea, but his instincts insisted he bring it out into the open. "...You know, if Blair has found an injured animal, it'll break his heart if we drag him away without helping it. So maybe you should pack some antibiotics and bandages and stuff to fix up something like a bad cut. If we don't need it, it won't hurt anything, but..." He trailed off, certain that Sam would think he'd gone looney-tunes.

There was a surprised silence on the other end of the line, then, You're probably right. Like you said, Blair's a determined little cuss. I'll pack some tranquilizer, too; I wouldn't want to tend a wounded wolf while the teeth are functional. Okay, I'll have everything ready. See you soon, Jimmy."

As soon as the ~click~ sounded in his ear, Jim called the cab company, then dashed toward his room, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.




"Jimmy! You made good time!" Sam called as Jim slammed the cab door and hurried forward.

Jim responded briefly, his mind already ranging far ahead. "Hey, Sam. Are we ready to go?" As promised, Sam had Hercules saddled and waiting, as well as Sampson -- a stout, muscular dun quarter horse -- for his own use. Jim untied Hercules from the fencepost, and waited impatiently for Sam to do the same.

"Everything but the kitchen sink," Sam assured him, untying Sampson. "Food and people medicine in your saddlebags -- just in case -- and water and animal medicine in mine. Let's go."

They had just settled in the saddle when Jim lifted his head. "Wait a minute, Sam. I hear a horse out there, moving kind of fast. Maybe Blair's coming back."

A few moments later, Rosie loped into the stable-yard, nickering happily to see her friend. She slowed and then stopped near Hercules, breathing deeply but without the heaving gasps that would signify panic or distress. Both men dismounted to evaluate the situation.

"No saddlebags or bridle," Sam pointed out. "Which means that Blair got off voluntarily instead of falling."

"And that means he found his wolf and is staying there," Jim agreed. "But why did he set Rosie loose?"

Sam chuckled. "Blair's a pretty smart cookie, but he pretty much believes that animals are people with four legs. Five'll get you ten that he expects Rosie to do a 'Lassie' and lead us back to him.

"But now we need to take another horse, so he can ride back with us. Hang on a few minutes while I get Sunny." Sam led Rosie into the stable, calling for Larry to take care of her while he saddled the other horse.

Left alone, Jim considered Sam's words. Maybe Rosie could lead them to Blair -- if he could distinguish her hoofprints from other horses. All the horses wore shoes, but maybe...

Jim walked along the route he'd seen Rosie travel as she approached, examining the ground minutely. Everywhere, her hoofprints were mixed with others, and he couldn't tell which was which. But a hundred yards farther on, he hit the jackpot. Rosie had stepped in soft dirt at the edge of a puddle left over from the last rain; no other horse had walked that close to the puddle, and her prints were as clear as if written on a page.

Jim studied them carefully, looking for anything that was more distinctive than plain old horseshoe. There! It looked like a nail was coming loose on the inside of her left rear shoe; he'd have to tell Sam to have it reset tomorrow. But, for now, the slightly-extruded nailhead left a deeper indentation in that hoofprint. Good. Jim would be able to distinguish Rosie's pattern when she crossed areas that had a multitude of tangled prints; they wouldn't waste any time trying to figure out which was which as they followed Rosie's back-trail.

Jim hurried back to the stable-yard. Sam had Sunny on a lead-line, and was ready to mount up. That suited Jim just fine; there was no time to waste. As he swung into the saddle, he explained how he could recognize Rosie's trail. Impatience riding him hard, Jim reined Hercules into the lead, Sam following with the extra horse trailing behind him.

Fortunately, the moon was almost full. Unfortunately, the broken layer of clouds dimmed the light at crucial moments. It hardly mattered. Jim could see Rosie's trail regardless of the light; he just made sure to point it out to Sam only when the clouds uncovered the moon. But for Jim, the trail was almost superfluous; he could feel Blair ahead of him, higher on the mountain. Rosie's trail ensured that they followed the same route Blair had taken, but Jim was absolutely certain that he could find his little friend with or without the trail, or even if he was blindfolded.




Sam followed the teenager's lead, marveling to himself. Jimmy was a city kid, but he was following the trail more easily than the best hunting guide Sam had ever met, or even heard of. It was almost uncanny. Jimmy had said he had good night-vision, but his eyes must be as good as... an owl's; a cat's wouldn't even come close.

Sam had little to do as he rode but ponder the mystery of Jimmy Ellison. This wasn't the first time the kid had seen something that others couldn't, and he'd heard Rosie coming for a full two minutes before Sam could hear her. It was like Jimmy had a double helping of sight and hearing.

But he didn't often let it show. As a matter of fact, the times Jimmy had demonstrated his super-senses, it seemed that he wasn't aware of it, as if he didn't recognize the line between what he could do and what other people could do. If he did become aware that he'd 'crossed the line', it seemed that he was embarrassed about his super-senses, or maybe scared of them.

Sam thought about that for a few miles. What would happen to the kid if it became common knowledge that some of his senses were so far above normal? Packs of reporters and months of scientific tests would probably be the least of it; Jimmy might never have another 'normal' day of life. Given that, his instinct to hide his special abilities was probably right on target -- at least until he was older, and had some clout against people who would push too far.

Sam nodded to himself. Yep, he'd keep Jimmy Ellison's secret; the kid deserved to grow up as normal as possible. In the meantime, he'd just thank the Lord that his super-senses were available to help find one lost little boy.

Sam settled a little deeper in the saddle, riding through the night behind a young man he trusted without reservation.




Jim reined Hercules to a stop at the edge of the small clearing. The moonlight showed the scene clearly. Blair was asleep in dangerous proximity to the wolf's teeth, and the wolf herself was already aware of them; her head was up and her ears were pricked as she looked toward the men and horses.

Sam pulled up beside him. "What's the matter, Jimmy? Have you lost the trail?"

"No; look." Jim pointed toward the rocky outcropping. "The wolf is between those two rocks, and Blair's asleep next to her."

Sam squinted, then shrugged. "I'll take your word for it, Jimmy. When you said you had good night vision, you weren't just whistling Dixie; all I can see is the rocks. But let's go get him." He picked up the reins to urge Sampson forward.

"Wait!" Jim grabbed his arm, speaking quickly to forestall objections. "The wolf knows we're here, and she seems wary. If she feels threatened, she might react by attacking whatever is close -- and that's Blair. It might be better if we move back a little, so she'll relax, and wait till Blair wakes up. When he moves out of striking distance, we can call him away from her, and then figure out what comes next."

Sam chewed a lip as he considered Jim's suggestion. The idea of leaving the kid alone for several more hours rankled. "Why don't we call him instead? Maybe we can wake him up."

Jim surveyed the intervening distance dubiously. "I'm not sure we can shout that loud, but it's worth a try." He watched for a reaction while Sam took a deep breath and bellowed, "BLAIR! HEY, BLAIR!! WAKE UP, KID!"

"Stop!" Jim said urgently. "Blair's still sleeping like a log, but the wolf is getting agitated; she's staring our way and growling. I think she thinks she's protecting him, but we still can't be sure what she'll do if she gets stressed enough."

Sam subsided. The night was mild and dry; Blair wasn't in danger of hypothermia and, if the wolf hadn't attacked him yet, she was unlikely to do so now -- provided she wasn't pushed into a reaction by their presence. He nodded his agreement.

"Okay, Jimmy; I guess we'll go with your first suggestion." He turned Sampson around. "See if you can find a spot that's far enough away for the wolf to relax, but close enough that you can still see her between the trees. It'll be up to you to keep an eye on things, so we can get there quickly if something goes wrong."

It took just a few minutes for Jim to find a small patch of grass growing in the clear space left by a fallen tree, about fifty yards back from the edge of the clearing where wolf and boy waited. Sam removed the horses' bridles and staked them out to graze, while Jim found a good vantage point to watch Blair and his wolf.

The wolf seemed more relaxed now; she had laid her head down on her paws, though her ears remained pricked in their direction; Jim decided their retreat had been the correct action. He reported the developments to Sam, then sat down with his back against a convenient tree trunk. Sam settled against the neighboring tree. It was still several hours till dawn; he could help Jim stay awake, at least, even if he couldn't help watch the wolf and boy.

Conversation was sporadic, prompted by a need to help each other stay awake. Sam shared anecdotes about the Olympic games he'd attended, which Jim countered with analyses of football games he'd played. But Jim's thoughts were constantly with Blair and the wolf.

"I know why Blair's hung up on the wolf," he said reflectively. "He loves animals -- any animals -- and he thinks the wolf is just a kind of super-dog. But Blair's lying right next to the wolf -- he's even holding on to a bit of her fur -- and she's tolerating it. What would make a wild animal react like that?"

Sam shrugged easily. "Most animals are completely tuned in to the unconscious body language of the other animals they meet; it's a matter of their survival. Two horse trainers can use the exact same techniques, and get very different results because the horses recognize one man as more aggressive and the other man as more accommodating, and respond accordingly.

"That wolf can tell that Blair has only the best intentions. And it helps that he's just a kid; the young of any species tend to be given more leeway, more acceptance of any harmless mistakes."

"And I suppose she recognizes his scent, from those doggie biscuits he drops for her," Jim suggested.

"That too," Sam agreed. "There're a lot factors that add up to that kid being the luckiest little tyke alive. What gets me is how Blair knew the wolf needed help, and how he found her, way out here."

Jim shifted uneasily. "That is weird. You don't suppose he really had a vision, do you?"

Sam shook his head. "That's a good question. There're a lot of people and cultures that believe in visions. It's not likely that they're all trying to bamboozle their followers, so I suppose it's real some of the time. And young minds are more receptive, haven't closed up with the certainty that they know how the world works."

Jim grinned; Sam could just make out the flash of his teeth in the darkness. "Well, Blair's got the most open mind of anyone I've ever known. I guess if the wolf was sending out telepathic messages or something, he'd be the most likely to pick them up."

"Truer words were never spoken," Sam chuckled. "So, what's happening now?"

"Same thing; they're just lying there together."

Sam grunted and shifted to a more comfortable position. Together, he and Jim continued watching, waiting until dawn might finally wake the sleeping child.




The sun rose early at this time of the year, launching a vibrant chorus of birdsong from the treetops. Jim roused himself from a half-doze and focused again on Blair and the wolf, while Sam used a pair of binoculars to do the same. Animal and boy were still sleeping peacefully.

"I think we should move toward the edge of the clearing, Jimmy," Sam suggested. "We'll leave the horses here; if we're careful, the wolf won't hear us, and we'll be that much closer when Blair wakes up."

That suited Jim completely; he had to fight down the urge to just run forward and snatch Blair away from the wolf. Together, he and Sam crept forward until they reached a spot just inside of the tree-line that surrounded the clearing. They sank to the ground, continuing to watch.

They had to wait another half-hour, but Blair finally rolled over and sat up. He stretched and yawned, then looked around as if suddenly remembering where he was. With a broad smile he turned to the wolf and patted her head; his, "Good morning, wolfie! Did you have a good sleep?" carried easily to Jim's ears.

With the spoken words, two little cubs bounded out of the gap between the boulders that concealed their mother's body. They pounced on Blair with tiny growls, pulling at his shirt and hair. Sam checked Jim's attempt to charge forward, and Jim quickly realized that Blair was in no danger. He rolled on the ground with the cubs, giggling and growling back at them as they wrestled together. Finally, Blair pushed them away and stood up.

"That's enough, puppies," Jim heard him say. "It's time for breakfast, an' then maybe later my friends will be here to help your mama. You wait here, an' I'll get the food." He headed toward the saddlebags, lying several yards away.

Now was his chance. Jim was past the tree-line and running toward the child before he was even aware of moving. "BLAIR!" he shouted. "CHIEF!! WE'RE HERE!"

Blair spun around, an expression of sheer joy illuminating his face. "JIMMY!" he crowed in delight, running as fast as he could toward his friend. He didn't even slow down, but leaped into Jim's open arms as soon as he was close enough.

"Jim! You came!" Blair announced with deep satisfaction. "I knew you'd come, an' you did, you came! Now you can fix my wolf."

Jim clasped Blair tightly, wanting never to let go. "Yes, buddy, I came. I'm just sorry you thought you had to come up here alone. I told you we'd come today."

"I know, but my wolf needed help faster. I gave her some food an' some water, an' I got her puppies for her, an' now you're here an' you'll fix her. I'm not big enough, but you are."

The shining trust in his eyes made Jim feel simultaneously ten feet tall and as small as a worm; what had he done to earn such regard from this special child? He cleared his throat. "We'll certainly do our best, buddy -- if she'll let us."

Blair had ignored the wolf for a moment. He turned with Jim to see her snarling in rage, scrabbling at the dirt with her front paws as she tried to free herself to defend the boy from the large human who had accosted him.

"Oh-oh," Blair said. "She doesn't like you. But I'll 'splain that you're my friend, an' then she'll be good."

"No, Blair, it's too dangerous," Sam said, dropping his saddlebags as he finally reached boys; he had let Jim outpace him in his mad dash across the clearing. "I know you made friends with her, but she's still a wild animal, and she doesn't understand that we want to help her. I brought a lot of medicine; I'll give her a shot to make her sleep, and then we'll get her out of there and fix her up. Did you find out what's wrong?"

Blair explained about the trap and the bloody leg and the log that was caught between the rocks. Sam went around behind the boulders to confirm Blair's report, while the wolf's increasingly violent snarls signified her impotent rage. Jim held Blair tight when the boy struggled to get down and reassure his 'wolfie', explaining that she was too upset right now to pay attention to her friend.

"The kid's got it right," Sam said, coming back toward them and opening his saddlebags. He pulled out a syringe and a bottle of anesthetic. "But once she's asleep, we'll be able to get her out of there. Jimmy, I can't see her body clearly in those boulders. You've seen her before; would you estimate her weight closer to sixty or seventy pounds?"

Jim played her image back in his mind. "I'd say the low sixties," he said, "maybe sixty-two or sixty-three."

"Fair enough," Sam grunted, carefully filling the syringe. Then he looked toward Blair, still in Jim's arms, who was watching apprehensively. "We'll take care of her, kid. She won't like having a shot, but then she won't feel a thing. But I'm going to need your help."

"What, Sam?" Blair asked eagerly, squirming until Jim put him down. He'd do anything to help his wolf!

"Those cubs are sitting on top of her right now; they're probably afraid because Jim and I are so big. But when I put my hand in there to give their mother a shot, they'll probably run this way. You can catch them when they come out, and then you need to hold them so they don't get in the way while I sew up their mother's leg. Can you do that for me?"

Blair nodded vigorously. "Sure I can, Sam! I'll hold 'em real tight."

Sam smiled and ruffled his hair. "I know you will, kid. So you wait here; they'll probably be running out in just a minute." He disappeared again behind the boulders, while Blair and Jim kept an eye on the front opening.

Sam's prediction was accurate; the cubs soon scurried out of their hiding place. They faced back toward the boulders with tiny growls, but their tails were between their legs in fear.

Blair slowly walked toward them, hearing Jim's cautious, "Not too close to the big wolf, Chief," behind him. He plopped himself on the grass and called, "Com'ere, puppies. You can wait with me while my friends help your mama."

Blair was a familiar creature in a world that had become confusing. The cubs scrambled into his lap, leaning into the arms that wrapped around them. Jim watched for a few moments -- even a cub could give a severe bite -- until the adult's snarls subsided under the effects of the anesthetic, allowing the cubs to quiet down as well. He said softly, "Looks like you have it under control, Chief. You take care of them while I go help Sam pull the wolf out of there."

Sam nodded as the teen came into view. "Glad you're here, Jimmy; it's going to take two of us to do this. We'll have to move the wolf and log together, so as not to damage her leg any more than it is. I'll grab her hips while you grab the log. It'll be a tight fit; I think you'll have to lie on your belly for us both to reach in there."

"Got it, Sam," Jim replied. He waited until Sam was in position, leaning into the gap with hands around the wolf's hips. Then he squirmed forward on his stomach, between Sam's wide-spread legs, and carefully pushed and twisted the log until it was parallel to the gap between the boulders and free to be pulled out.

Sam gave the count; on 'three' they both began to pull. Jim made sure to move the log in rhythm with Sam's actions; he had to keep it out of the way, so that Sam could bring out the wolf, but not move it so fast that the chain would yank the trap on the injured leg.

In just a few moments, they had the wolf free from her prison and laid on the grass. Sam cursed as he got a good look at her mangled leg. "Shit! That's criminal -- literally; it's illegal to set a leg-trap in this county. We'll take this back with us; maybe we can find out who it belongs to, and bring him up on charges."

A mess of old leaves and twigs had been caught around the spring mechanism of the trap as the wolf dragged it over the ground. Sam brushed away the detritus so that he could see what he was doing, then motioned Jim close. "This will be easier with two of us. See this ring? When I open the jaws, you slip it over that knob there; that'll keep it in the open position until we get the wolf out and close it safely. You ready? On three."

Sam forced the jaws of the trap open while Jim hovered nearby. When Sam grunted, "Now," Jim quickly slid the ring forward, locking the trap in the opened position. Sam sat back on his heels and heaved a sigh of relief. "Good job, Jimmy; those things can be tricky, even with help. Now..." He gently worked the wolf's leg free of the trap's small-toothed edges and moved her away from the immediate vicinity. Standing, he used the stick that had given some protection to the wolf's leg to prod the trigger, allowing the trap to snap shut.

"Jimmy, before we let Blair come over here... You've proved your eyesight's better than mine, and maybe your sense of touch, too?" He waited for Jim's guarded nod. "Fine. Check out that leg; see if you can tell for sure whether it's broken or not. If it is, we'll have big problems."

Obediently, Jim knelt over the wolf and ran his fingers delicately along the leg. Amazingly, he could feel the bone inside; it was undamaged. A close look at the bloody wound showed that Blair's wolf was even luckier than they had thought; the skin was torn and ragged, but there seemed to be minimal muscle or tissue damage underneath. He reported his observations to Sam with relief; Blair wouldn't be disappointed by their not being able to help his wolf.

"Great," Sam said. "Let's get the supplies and do what we can for her."

They walked around the boulders to find Blair waiting anxiously, still cuddling the cubs. He burst into speech as soon as they came into his view. "Did you get her out? Is she okay? Can you fix her? Can I watch?"

Jim hurried to his friend and knelt down to give him a hug. "Yes, yes, yes, and yes," he assured Blair. "She's out, she's not hurt too bad, she's sleeping, and Sam's going to make it all better. We came to get the medicines, and you can come and watch -- but you have to keep the cubs away while he's working."

"Okay, I can do that," Blair assured him. He struggled to rise, still clutching the cubs in his arms, until Jim grabbed one of them and took Blair's hand to pull him up. Together, the boys followed Sam back to the wolf.

At Sam's pointed finger, Blair settled into the grass where he could easily oversee his wolf's treatment. Jim placed the second cub back in his lap, briefly tousled his curls, and stepped forward to assist Sam's treatment.

Sam wrapped several layers of gauze around the wolf's muzzle. "Just in case she starts to wake up," he told the boys. "But, Jim, I expect you to keep an eye on her; if she starts to wake up, I bet you'll know it before she does. If she's coming to, give me the heads-up; we'll give her another half-dose of anesthetic to keep her under."

"You got it," Jim assured him.

Blair watched the procedure with bright-eyed interest. Aware of his audience, Sam explained each step as he and Jim washed the wound with copious amounts of water from a canteen and flooded it with hydrogen peroxide. Then, while Jim manipulated the leg for easy access, Sam stitched up the torn skin, and covered the area with a thick layer of antibiotic cream. He finished by giving the wolf a hefty shot of penicillin, patting her on the shoulder before he stood and stretched the kinks out of his back.

"Aren't you going to put on a bandage?" Blair asked. "Naomi says bandages keep the dirt out so cuts will heal better."

"Well, that works for humans," Sam told him, "but your wolf wouldn't like it at all. She'd just chew it off, and maybe hurt her leg some more. She'll keep it clean by licking it, and the cream and the shot should keep it from getting infected. Wolves have strong immune systems; chances are that she'll be just fine -- and that's thanks to you. If you hadn't brought us out here so soon, it would've been a lot worse. She'll probably be able to walk on it in just a few days." Blair glowed with satisfaction, until Sam raised a stern finger. "But," he insisted, "the next time something like this happens, you don't go off by yourself; you tell an adult. You got that?"

Blair nodded soberly, but couldn't resist a protest. "I tried. I told you an' I told Jim, but you wouldn't listen! An' my wolf needed help! I had to come!"

"You're right; we were wrong not to listen to you," Sam agreed. He squatted in front of Blair, facing him eye-to-eye. "But you were wrong to take off by yourself, even though it turned out okay; you need to be older, and have more experience, before you pull a stunt like this. So if Jimmy and I promise to pay attention to you next time, will you promise not to tackle a big problem by yourself?"

"I promise, Sam; cross my heart," Blair assured him, drawing a big 'X' on his chest. "But now what will happen to my wolfie? I don't think she should stay here; some bad animal might find her an' hurt her."

Jim hadn't liked to see Blair's reprimand, mild though it had been, and even though he realized it was necessary. He jumped in to break the moment. "I've been thinking about that. Blair, where did the cubs come from? Were they with their mother, or did you bring them from somewhere else?"

"They were up there, in a little cave." Blair pointed toward the rock formation above.

Jim and Sam both turned to see where Blair was pointing, evaluating the route up over the rough ground. Sam was impressed. "You climbed all the way up there?"

"O' course! I had to; the puppies had to be with their mama, an' she couldn't get to them." Blair punctuated his statement with a firm nod. It was obvious that, in his world, there'd been no other options.

"What do you think?" Jim asked Sam. "We could carry her and the cubs up; they'd probably be safer there, and it's likely the rest of the pack would bring her game until her leg heals."

Sam scratched his head as he stared upward, then glanced at the animal. "Well, it'll be quite a trek carrying a wolf, but it's probably the best solution."

"Jim can carry my wolfie," Blair asserted. "He's strong!"

Sam raised an amused eyebrow. "I guess you're elected."

"Well, I suppose she can't be much heavier than a backpack full of textbooks," Jim replied with a dramatic sigh. But when he saw the worried expression cross Blair's face, he hurried to reassure the boy. "Hey, I'm just teasing, Chief. I can carry her up there, no sweat."

"Oh, good." Blair's voice expressed his relief. "An' I'll carry the puppies, an' Sam can wait here and rest."

"Think again, kid," Sam said gruffly. "Going up will be harder than coming down, and Mr. Madison would skin me alive if I allowed you to be hurt after we found you safe. So you carry one and I'll carry one, and we'll all go up together."

Blair frowned at him. "Uncle Trevor wouldn't do that! He's a nice man, an' I'll tell him it wasn't your fault."

Sam chuckled. The kid was so knowledgeable about so many things, and so independent, that he sometimes forgot Blair still retained the literalness of a child. "Now I'm the one who's teasing," he explained. "That's just a silly way of saying Mr. Madison would be upset; I know he wouldn't really hurt me. But I'm still going with you and Jimmy; it'll just be easier if we share the work."

"Okay, we can do that. An' then I can bring the baloney and water, too. My wolfie didn't have breakfast; she can have it when she wakes up. Here; you hold the puppies." Blair waited until Sam had a hand on each cub, then trotted to his saddlebags. He pulled out the lunchmeat and the half-glass of water, as well as his own canteen. Returning to the little group, he announced, "I can let her have my water, too, 'cause we'll be home soon."

Jim took the canteen from Blair and made a show of studying it critically. "Well, it's a good idea, Chief, but I don't think she can use the canteen or the glass. How did you give her the water before?"

"I put it in the plastic from the meatloaf, but now it's all tangled an' stuck. I forgot to bring a bowl. Did you bring one?" He looked up confidently; Jim could solve any problem.

"I'm sorry, Chief, I didn't think of it, either," Jim said gently. "Maybe Sam packed something in with the supplies." Two pair of eyes focused hopefully on the older man.

Sam sighed and gave in. "I brought an old saucepan and a container of Sadie's beef stew, just in case we were out long enough to need food. I guess we can turn it into a wolf water-bowl. But it's with the other supplies, where we left the horses. You boys can go fetch it; this old man will be doing enough walking today." He grinned, to take the sting out of the mild complaint.

"We can do that, can't we, Jim?" Blair turned to Sam, still holding the wolf cubs. "Will you take care of the puppies till we get back?"

"I have a better idea; we'll just put them next to their mama. They'll stay with her," Sam said, matching actions to words. The cubs settled next to their mother and began to nurse.

Jim and Blair soon returned with the saucepan and, after a short discussion, they started their trek to the wolf-cave. Sam helped Jim hoist the limp body of the still-sleeping adult across his shoulders where he could carry her weight comfortably, her legs hanging down his chest like an old-fashioned ladies' mink stole. Blair carried one cub cradled in his arms, with the canteen hanging from his belt. Sam was able to tuck his cub under one arm, and carry the saucepan, package of bologna and glass of water with the other hand.

Blair led them on the same zigzag route he'd traveled the first time, but an armful of healthy wolf-cub made the climb more difficult than his previous trip. Jim stayed close, giving him a hand now and then. With the wolf on his shoulders, his own balance was a little precarious, but his athletically-tuned reflexes helped him adjust. Even so, he was breathing somewhat heavily by the time they reached the level of the cave, as were Blair and Sam. The cubs squirmed increasingly during the last part of the hike, necessitating that their guardians expend extra effort to navigate the trail.

"There it is!" Blair finally announced, pointing toward the low overhang. He and Sam stooped to release the cubs -- they wouldn't go far -- and Sam stepped over to help Jim ease the wolf to the ground.

"She's starting to wake up," Jim reported. "We better check out that cave and get her in there, or should we just leave her out here?"

"Cave!" Blair insisted. "So she won't get too hot in the sun, an' can stay dry if it rains."

"Cave it is," Sam agreed. He picked up a couple of loose stones and tossed them into the dark recesses, trying to ensure that there were no wild animals currently inside.

Jim's voice was amused. "Uh, Sam? I could've told you there's nothing in there -- nothing alive anyway."

Sam paused in the middle of reaching for a few more stones and turned a thoughtful gaze toward Jim. "Again, I'll have to take your word for it; I don't know how much you can see and hear. But I appreciate the confirmation. Let's take a look inside."

It wasn't much -- an indentation about ten feet deep into the rocky hillside, extending about twenty feet along the face of a low cliff, with brush growing in front that made it hard to see from the outside. A small area between the back wall and an outthrust boulder had collected a layer of dead leaves and pine needles that probably blew in during autumn storms; Jim pointed out bits of rabbit fur and small pieces of bone that indicated it was the wolf's 'family area'.

"Hunh!" Sam grunted. "I'd expect a more protected spot -- something dug deep, and harder for predators to get into. But maybe this is her first litter. She'll probably look for a better place next year."

Jim went back for the wolf and carried her inside. Following Blair's specific directions, he placed her in a comfortable position on the cushioning leaves, and unwrapped the gauze from her muzzle. The cubs, who had followed Blair's coaxing voice as he followed Jim, curled up at their mother's side and prepared to take a nap.

Blair studied the arrangement critically, and was satisfied. "Good! Now let's put the bologna an' water right by her nose, so she can have it when she wakes up." He pulled his belt loose so that he could free the canteen.

"That's not a good idea," Sam said. "If an animal -- or a person -- eats or drinks too soon after waking up from anesthesia, it'll likely make them sick. You wouldn't want her to eat and then vomit it up; it'll just be wasted, and won't help her get well."

Blair nodded. "That makes sense. But then, where should we put it?"

After some discussion, they chose a spot about ten feet away from the wolf. "If she's awake enough to get this far, she'll probably be awake enough that it won't make her sick," Sam explained.

Blair unwrapped the bologna and placed it on a convenient ledge; it would be out of the cubs' reach, but not the adult's. Jim settled the saucepan on the ground below the little ledge, and surrounded it with fist-sized stones to help prevent it being accidentally spilled. Blair carefully filled it to the brim, emptying the wolf's half-glass and most of his canteen. He stepped back to survey the layout. "Okay, I guess we're done."

"Good," Sam said. "Now let's head on home; your mother's probably worried sick, and driving Mr. Madison crazy."

"Just let me say goodbye," Blair said. He hurried toward the wolf, but slowed at Jim's, "Easy, Chief; don't startle her." He finished his approach carefully, hand outstretched to let her recognize his scent, then scratched her on the head one more time.

"We gotta go, Wolfie," he said. "But Sam fixed you up real good, an' we brought you home, an' you have food an' water, so you'll be okay. Jim says your wolf-friends will bring you more food, an' if they don't, I will." Blair turned expectant eyes toward his friend. "We can come back, right?"

Jim couldn't disappoint the hopeful child. "Sure we can, Chief. How about... Tuesdays and Fridays, if it'll fit into the training schedule." He cast an inquiring glance toward Sam, who simply shrugged.

"Sure, we can work it out. But now let's get out of here; she'll be more relaxed if we're not around when she wakes up." He led the way out of the little cave, Jim and Blair following close behind.

Blair kept up a commentary on the way down the hill, discussing the care of the wolf, the health of her babies, Sam's expertise as a doctor, Jim's skill at finding him and his strength at carrying the wolf so far. But once they were on the horses and headed home, he fell uncharacteristically silent.

"Feeling a little tired, there, Chief?" Jim asked with mild amusement.

"Uh-huh," Blair admitted. "Maybe I'll take a nap when I get home."

"Well, you deserve it. Rescue work is a tough job. You did good, Chief."

Blair basked in the glow of being praised by his hero. The satisfied feeling accompanied him all the way home and into his bed.




By the next morning, Blair was fully recovered, chattering happily as he and Jim saddled their horses, and making plans to visit his 'wolfie' the following day. "I'll take her some doggie treats, an' Sadie says she'll make a meatloaf for me, an' I can take the whole thing to her. Even if the other wolves are bringing her rabbits, she really liked Sadie's meatloaf, so that will be a good present, won't it?"

Jim smiled as he stepped forward to tighten the girth of Rosie's saddle. "That will be a great present, Chief; I'm sure she'll appreciate it." He patted Rosie's neck and stepped back. "So, are you ready to ride?"

"Yep." Blair buckled his helmet securely. "Sam says he'll let me try some in-and-outs today; that'll be fun!" Together, they led the horses toward the practice arena.

Jim evaluated Blair's skills as he rode the pattern Sam had specified. The weeks of riding with Jim, in all terrains and over any available obstacle, had given Blair a confidence and security in the saddle equal to riders with several years' experience. Nothing fazed him; even the in-and-outs -- a series of obstacles spaced so closely that the horse landed from one jump and took off for the next in the following stride -- were achieved with no reaction other than delighted crows of accomplishment from the child. No doubt about it; the kid was good. He might even take a ribbon in the junior classes.

Jim frowned as he considered that idea. Blair was wildly enthusiastic about Jim's upcoming steeplechase, and confidently expected him to take the trophy. But the big race was just part of the three-day gala weekend; there would be horsemanship classes of all kinds, geared to several different levels of horse and rider experience. Yet Blair hadn't even mentioned the possibility that he might enter a few classes. That seemed... unfair, somehow. Jim was certain Blair would enjoy the experience, even if he didn't win. He'd have to suggest it to him; the kid deserved to have the thrill of competing.

But now it was his turn. Jim helped Sam raise the height of the jumps, and then he and Hercules were flying around the course. Despite his concentration, Jim heard Blair's cheers each time they cleared an obstacle. Not that he had any difficulty. The weeks that had improved Blair's riding had also enhanced Jim's skills; he and Hercules responded as a unit, each knowing exactly what the other needed.

After they cleared the final obstacle, Jim slowed Hercules, a broad smile of satisfaction on his face. He headed toward Sam and Blair, waiting by the fence.

"Looking good, Jimmy," Sam said, approvingly. "You're already at the level I expected you to hit the week before the race. All you need to do now is maintain it -- trail-rides, mostly..." He grinned as Blair bounced beside him with an excited squeak, "...and just enough jumping and work on responsiveness in the arena to keep the fine-tuning. For now, rub down the horses and turn them out, then come on up to lunch."

Jim sniffed deeply, then grinned conspiratorially at Sam as he said, "Fried chicken and mashed potatoes, Chief; I think we should hurry."

"Yay! Sadie makes the bestest fried chicken!" Blair kissed to Rosie and led the way to the stables.




Jim finished buckling his saddlebags behind the saddle, and looked up to check Blair's progress. "It's a long trek up and back, Chief; are you sure you have everything?"

"Uh-huh." Blair nodded vigorously, patting his own saddlebags. "Water an' san'wiches for me, an' treats an' meatloaf for Wolfie."

"Just like the cavalry," Jim grinned. "Okay, Chief, mount up and move 'em out!"

Giggling softly, Blair quickly used the fence to scramble into the saddle, then followed Jim out of the stableyard and toward the wolf's den.

Though it was early, the late summer sun was promising a hot day; they'd welcome the shade once they entered the tree-growth. As always, Blair kept up a steady stream of commentary, discussing the various types of crops that grew on surrounding farms, when they'd be ready for harvest, what types of machines were used, and where the produce would be sold. "Uncle Trevor says there's nothing so sweet as an apple that ripens on the tree. He says the tree in his garden will be ready in about a week, an' he'll let me pick some an' find out for myself. An' Sadie says she'll show me how to make a n'apple pie with real apples off the tree, not the kind that comes in cans."

"You're in for a treat, Chief. Sally always gets fresh apples from the farmers' market and makes the uncanned kind of pies at this time of the year; they really are something special."

"Yep. An' Marcella says she'll show me where there's some wild blueberry vines not too far away, an' if I pick a bunch, we can have vanilla ice cream an' blueberries. But she says I gotta watch out real careful an' stay away if I see any bears, 'cause bears like blueberries, too. Did you know that?"

"I knew that, Chief," Jim assured him, gravely. "I'll tell you who else likes blueberries." He winked at Blair's round eyes. "Turns out, I'm rather fond of them myself, and I know Sally would like me to bring some home. So you name the day, and I'll show up to help you pick blueberries. What d'ya say?"

Blair's smile couldn't have grown any wider. "I say, 'right on, man!'" he declared enthusiastically, then frowned slightly when Jim laughed heartily. "Wasn't that right? It's what Naomi says, sometimes."

Jim throttled his laughter; Blair would be mightily offended to be called 'cute'. "No, you got it right, Chief. I was just a little surprised because I never heard you use that expression before. But it is a good one; I can see why you like it."

Blair's frown dissipated. "Uh-huh, Naomi says a lot of good things, but sometimes I don't un'erstand all of 'em."

"You will, when you get a little older," Jim assured him. "But there's something else that surprises me, Chief. How come you haven't signed up for any of the events during the Labor Day Horseshow? You're a good rider; I think you might even win a ribbon, and I know you'd have a lot of fun."

Blair's eyes grew round with astonishment. "But I can't jump over the giant fences like you an' Hercules! I'm not big enough, yet."

It was Jim's turn to feel astonished; had no one explained the possibilities to the kid? "Blair, it's not all giant fences like the steeplechase. There're classes with low fences, and classes with no fences, and classes just for people who've only been riding a little while, like you."

"Really?" Blair squeaked. "Wow!" He fell silent, apparently pondering his options. Then, "How many are you gonna do?"

"Just the steeplechase; my old man wants to be sure that Hercules isn't tired out before the big day." The touch of bitterness in his voice went unnoticed by Blair; whatever Jim decided was automatically a good thing.

"Then I'll only be in one class, too," he declared. "I don't want Rosie to get tired out, either." Blair leaned forward to stroke the mare's neck. "Will you help me pick a good class?"

"Sure thing, buddy; just as soon as we get back. But right now, look where we are." Jim reined Hercules to a halt in the same grassy area where he'd waited two days before, while keeping an eye on Blair and his wolf. "Let's tie the horses here while we check on your 'wolfie'."

Together, they tied the horses to graze, then Jim loosened the cinches. Each carrying a pair of saddlebags, they headed toward the rocky outcrop that hid the wolf's den.

Just as they reached the edge of the trees, Jim caught a flash of movement. He grabbed Blair's arm to prevent him going forward. "Wait a minute, Chief; do you see that?" He pointed outward.

Blair squinted, unsuccessfully. "Nuh-uh; what?"

"Maybe if you're higher; I'll lift you up." Jim grabbed Blair around the waist and settled the boy on his shoulders, then pointed again. "Going up the hillside; can you see it?"

Blair peered intently, then squeaked in excitement. "Something gray, and it's moving!"

"Yep. It's a wolf -- not your wolfie, a male wolf -- and he's carrying a rabbit toward your wolfie's cave. I told you her pack would take care of her." Jim set Blair down on the ground. "We shouldn't bother them while they're eating. So why don't we have our lunch right here, and then we'll scope out the situation again when we're finished."

"That makes sense," Blair said, agreeably, folding his legs to plop down onto the soft pine mulch, and opening his saddlebags. Jim joined him, and they munched companionably on their sandwiches while Jim kept an eye on the den area and reported developments -- the wolf moved out onto the ledge, putting partial weight on her bad leg, the wolf and cubs were sharing the rabbit, the big male wolf was leaving, the wolf was licking her injured leg while the cubs gnawed on rabbit bones. Blair listened to the news with satisfaction; now he had proof that his wolfie would get better.

As soon as he swallowed the last bite of his sandwich and stuffed the wrappings back into the saddlebag, Blair bounced to his feet. "I'm ready!" he announced. "Let's take our stuff to Wolfie." He grabbed the wrapped meatloaf from the other saddlebag, as well as a plastic bag of doggie treats, and frowned impatiently at Jim. "Com'on!" he insisted. "So the other wolf won't get them!"

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim advised with a smile as stood and stretched. "He has four legs, and we only have two; if he wants to beat us up there, he will, and there's no sense in knocking ourselves out. Besides, don't you think your wolfie would like to share with her friend? It would be a nice 'thank you' after he brought her a rabbit."

Blair considered that suggestion, head cocked to one side, then nodded firmly. "You're right. We can even break the meatloaf into pieces, so it'll be easier to share. But let's go!"

Jim watched as Blair darted across the clearing toward the rocky outcropping, and followed at a more leisurely pace. The kid obviously needed to expend some energy; he'd moderate his pace once they began climbing.

Just before they reached the level of the wolf's ledge, Jim grabbed one of Blair's arms, bringing him to a halt. "Hold on, Chief; I need to explain something. Sit down for a minute." He pointed to a handy boulder just a few steps away.

Blair looked up at him in puzzlement, then shrugged and sat down; if Jim had something to say it must be important. "Okay." He waited.

Jim squatted in front of his little friend and took a deep breath. He suspected that Blair might not like what he had to say.

"It's like this, Chief. You helped your wolfie, and she let you, because she needed the help. And I know she's grateful to you. But she's still a wild animal; now that she can move, she won't let you pet her or the cubs."

"But... but... she knows me; it'll be okay if I pet her," Blair objected.

Jim shook his head gravely. "Blair, her whole life, she's learned to stay away from humans. And that helps to protect her. If she wasn't afraid of humans, she'd go to their farms and kill their sheep or chickens for food, and then the farmers would hunt her and kill her.

"If you really tried, she might let you pet her, but then that'll teach her that maybe she doesn't have to stay away from humans, and that will put her in danger. It was special, the way you helped her, but now the best way to keep helping her is to leave her alone."

Blair sniffled as he stared at the toes of his boots, considering Jim's words. "Okay," he agreed with a small, sad voice, still not looking at Jim. "But can I pet the puppies?"

Jim shook his head again. "It's the same deal," he said gently, "but even more so. The cubs are young enough that they might think one nice human -- you -- means all humans are nice. If they tried to say 'hi' to somebody else, they could be in a lot of trouble. And I know you wouldn't want that."

"No, I guess not." Blair's voice was even smaller, and he sniffled again in disappointment while he grappled with these unwelcome ideas.

Jim waited patiently, patting Blair's knee in consolation. It was a difficult concept for a child, but the kid was smart, and generous-hearted; he'd want to do what was best for the wolf and her cubs.

Blair heaved a deep sigh and finally looked up at his friend. "But we can still leave the meatloaf an' treats, right?" he asked anxiously. Surely they hadn't come so far for nothing.

"Of course we can!" Jim injected as much cheerfulness into his voice as he could. "Your wolfie is walking already; we'll just leave everything at this end of the ledge and go away, and she'll be able to come get it after we've left." He stood and held out a hand to his friend.

Blair slid off the boulder and clasped the offered hand. Together, they walked the last few yards to reach the wolf's ledge.

If Blair had hoped that his wolfie would prove Jim wrong, he was disappointed. Hearing them approach, she had retreated to the far end of the ledge, her cubs tucked safely behind her. As the boys appeared, she growled softly -- a warning, rather than an overt threat, but a clear indication that she wasn't prepared to tolerate too great an incursion into her territory.

"Hi, Wolfie," Blair said softly. He stooped and emptied the plastic bag of doggie treats onto the ground, then unwrapped the meatloaf and laid it beside the treats. "I brought you a present 'cause I thought you might be hungry, but I guess if your friend-wolf is bringing you rabbits, you'll be okay. But you can have these anyway, an' even share with the other wolves if you want. I'm real glad your leg is getting better; I guess pretty soon you'll be able to do your own hunting again.

"Jim says you have to stay afraid of humans so you'll stay safe, so we won't bother you anymore. But you stay away from traps, okay? An' teach your puppies to stay away, too." The wolf was watching, ears pricked and no longer growling, with the cubs peering at the boys over their mother's back. Blair smiled tremulously at this evidence that she wasn't too scared of him, and waved. "Bye, wolfies," he whispered, then turned and headed down the hill.

Jim joined him, once again clasping the small hand in his large one, his thumb stroking over the knuckles in silent comfort and support. "You did good, Chief," he said softly. "That was a brave thing, and you did real good."

Blair tightened his grip in gratitude, but didn't say anything all the way down the hill. As they reached the level floor of the clearing, he seemed to come to some conclusion. "I guess if she has to stay scared, I can't bring her any more food, huh?"


"I think it would be a good idea not to, Chief."

"But can we still come an' see if she's okay?"

"Every Tuesday and Friday, just like I promised," Jim assured him. "But I think we should stay down here, and do a long-distance observation. I have a pair of binoculars I'll bring, so you can see her yourself."

Blair brightened a little at that information. "Binoculars? I never got to use those before; cool!" He bounced in increasing excitement and looked up at his friend. "Hey, Jim! Who do you think can see better? Me with the binoculars, or you with your own eyes?"

Jim smiled down at the excited boy, congratulating himself on a successful -- albeit unintended -- diversion. "I don't know, Chief. Maybe we can find a way to test it."

"You mean like a 'speriment? Cool!" Blair's enthusiasm for the idea carried him back to the horses and all the way home, while he speculated on possible 'speriments' they could use to test each of Jim's senses.

Jim listened in mild dismay. He was grateful that Blair had moved away from his wolf disappointment so easily, but some of the kid's proposed tests sounded uncomfortable at best, outrageous at worst, and mostly improbable. Where did such a little guy get such a wide-ranging imagination? He could only hope that the concentration of preparing for the upcoming horseshow would distract his 'junior scientist' from the anticipated 'speriments'.




Jim entered the stable, immediately focusing on Blair's energetic figure halfway down the aisle. As early as he was, the kid was already fussing with Rosie, giving a few extra strokes with the brush and the satin cloth to give her coat its best possible shine.

"Hi, Jim!" Blair called as his friend approached. "Doesn't Rosie look pretty? An' see; Marcella even let me help braid her mane."

Jim easily recognized the difference between Marcella's neatly-braided strands and Blair's less-experienced efforts, but it wouldn't be seen from the judges' stand, and the kid was so proud. "She looks mighty good, Chief," he assured Blair, "and so do you. Like a real professional showman."

"Are you sure?" Blair looked critically at his black coat and silver-gray breeches. "They're Cindy's, you know, but she's getting bigger and she can't wear them anymore. An' Naomi says there's no sense buying new things when old things are perfectly useful, an' it was very nice of Cindy to let me use them. But they're still --" his voice dropped to a disgusted whisper, "-- a girl's!"

Jim's lip twitched as he nobly refrained from laughing. "Well, that's one good thing about horse shows, Chief; boys and girls wear the same clothes, so no one can tell. You look just fine; you'll do Rosie proud."

Actually, the coat was noticeably a size large, and the breeches a bit loose, but appearance was unimportant in the Novice Rider, Jumper class Blair had decided -- with a little judicious advice from Jim and Sam -- to enter. Stylistic points would not add to or detract from his score, as they would have in a Hunter class; all a rider had to do was take the horse around the course without knocking down any rails. The maximum height of two feet, six inches was well within Blair's experience level; Jim expected that he'd have no difficulty in riding a clear round.

Outside, the band started playing; in effect, the half-hour warning before the first class, which was Blair's. "It's almost time, Chief. We need to finish saddling Rosie and get you out in the practice ring to let her warm up." He stepped forward to lend his customary hand in tightening the cinch, then cupped his hands to boost Blair into the saddle. When Blair would have protested, he just winked. "No fence-climbing today; you don't want to get your fancy togs all smudged. Up you go!" Blair accepted Jim's reasoning, stepped into Jim's linked hands as if into a stirrup, and was lifted smoothly and easily into the saddle.

Jim glanced at the sky as they exited the stable. The day would be warm, but there was a moderate overcast. No chance of rain, according to the weathermen and Jim's sense of smell, but the clouds would help prevent the day from being unbearably hot for horses and riders.

As Jim watched Blair walk and trot around the ring, practicing direction changes, he reflected that being in the first class worked out even better than they'd planned; Blair would finish his part early, with less time to stress about it, then be able to enjoy the rest of the weekend. The more advanced classes, with more experienced riders and bigger, more complex jumps, would be later this afternoon, dressage classes tomorrow, and the steeplechase on Sunday.

The music ceased, and the announcer went into his spiel. "Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome you to the tenth annual Cascade Regional Horseshow! This weekend, we have some of the finest horses and best riders west of the Rocky Mountains. The first class will begin in just a few minutes, so sit back and prepare to enjoy the show.

"Riders, please make your way to the starting gate, and wait until the steward signals you into the arena."


The microphone clicked off, and the band started playing again. "That means you, Chief," Jim called. He opened the gate as Rosie trotted forward, then walked beside Blair as he rode toward the main arena. Jim kept a wary eye on the horse; some became nervous at the brightly-colored flags flapping in the breeze and the noise of the crowd and band. Rosie, however, merely flicked an ear at the noisy, colorful commotion and then ignored it, like the seasoned trouper she was.

Blair wasn't quite as calm, though he masked it well. "It's okay, Rosie," he was crooning softly. "I know you'll do good, but it doesn't matter. It's just like a game, an' only one person can win, but we all can have fun." He patted the horse's neck soothingly, and Jim realized Blair's pep talk was as much for himself as for Rosie.

"That's exactly right, Chief," he said gently. "You're just here for a good time, and to let all these people see what a great horse Rosie is. Just going out there makes you a winner in my book." Blair's grateful smile let him know he had said the right thing.

They reached the waiting area outside the entrance gate, lining up with the others to wait for Blair's turn in the arena. Together, they watched the initial riders complete the course. The first knocked down a rail, for four faults. The second had a clear round, as did the third. The fourth knocked down a rail and touched a hoof inside the boundary of the water jump with a noticeable splash, accumulating eight faults. Then it was Blair's turn.

Jim had his fingers crossed as the starting horn sounded and Blair urged Rosie forward. It was childish, maybe, but it couldn't hurt. He leaned forward as the pair headed for the water jump; that one was always a little harder to judge than vertical rails, but Rosie cleared it easily and swept onward. Jim saw Blair's wide grin as Rosie jumped nimbly through his favorite, the in-and-outs. This set was low, a test of skill rather than effort, and Blair rode it perfectly. Then forward over the final jumps, and Blair and Rosie crossed the finish line with no faults -- another clear round.

Jim relaxed. With three clear rounds so far, and probably a few more to come, there'd be a timed jump-off later, to determine the final winners. But the top six riders in the jump-off would get a ribbon, so Blair was almost certain to finish his class with some kind of prize. He walked around to the exit gate, to be there when Blair came out.

"We did it, Jim, we really did it!" Blair announced proudly as he slipped from the saddle and into a fervent hug.

"You sure did, Chief; I'm so proud of you!" He set Blair on his feet, patting a shoulder because he couldn't tousle the curls under the helmet. "Now let's go watch the rest of the riders till it's time for the jump-off round; you'll be in that, too."

Three more riders finished with clear rounds, and Jim relaxed even more. Blair was ensured of winning a ribbon now; it was just a question of which one. They watched while the assistants raised a couple of the jumps, and removed the rails from others, excluding those from the new pattern. Jim held Rosie while Blair, with other contestants, walked the course, getting a feel for the changes in distance and jumping arrangement.

As the first rider finished, Jim boosted Blair into the saddle again, then patted him on the knee. "Remember, Chief, they're checking the time for this round. You want another clear round, but you also want to go fast, if you can."

Blair nodded firmly. "I remember, Jim." As the second rider finished the course, he touched a heel to Rosie's side and moved toward the entrance gate.

Jim watched intently as Blair rode another clear round. So far, he was only 1.45 seconds behind the best time. Now to see if one of the other riders bettered that. He met Blair at the exit gate again and, together, they watched the final three riders.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the judges have tabulated the times and points. Will the riders please enter the arena to learn the results."

Jim patted Blair on the knee. "Go get 'em, Chief."

"In sixth place, with a time of one twenty-four point two-five seconds and four faults, Miss Cassandra Temple." The crowd applauded as the young girl rode forward to accept her pink ribbon. The long blonde hair was caught up in a bun now, but Jim recognized the serious little girl who had been talking to Sam at the beginning of the summer, the day he had met Blair.

"In fifth place, with a time of one twenty-two point one-zero seconds and four faults, Master Benjamin Cole." Again the crowd applauded as a lanky boy, apparently a few years older than Blair, accepted the green ribbon. Jim waited impatiently through the next announcements. He thought he'd figured Blair's result accurately, but the judges might have seen something he missed. Or rather, might have thought they'd seen something. But finally --

"In second place, with a time of one seventeen point three-five seconds and zero faults, Master Blair Sandburg." Jim wished there were a way that he could physically clap louder, as Blair reached down to clutch the red ribbon that the steward handed to him. His face was beaming as he watched the final contestant accept the blue ribbon without a trace of disappointment. "In first place, with a time of one fifteen point nine-zero seconds and zero faults, Miss Lacey Stevens.

"Congratulations to all our winners. And now, ladies and gentlemen, there will be a short intermission while the assistants prepare the arena for the next class."

As tradition dictated, the winners formed a line to gallop around the arena, their ribbons held high and fluttering, before riding through the exit gate. Blair rode directly toward Jim, waiting in plain sight. "Look, Jim! Second place! Isn't that cool?"

"Very cool, Chief; you did a good job. Now let's get Rosie rubbed down, and then we can watch the rest of the classes."

"Okay. Did you see what a good jumper she was today? An' fast too, she's a good girl." Blair reached forward to administer a loving pat. "Not as fast as Honey was, but she tried, an' that's what counts, isn't it?" Blair's enthusiasm was bubbling over; he didn't need Jim's confirmation of Rosie's overall horsy excellence. "An' I'm glad Lacey won; she's a real nice girl, an' Rosie likes Honey, too." It was important, obviously, that the winning horses like each other as well as the winning riders.

After unsaddling Rosie and rubbing her down, Blair gave her a congratulatory carrot before leading her to her stall. Jim waited till he shut the door behind her, then offered a suggestion. "It's still a little early, Chief, but the smell of the barbecue is talking to me. What d'you say we grab some eats before we watch the rest of the show?"

Blair thought it an excellent suggestion. After a short detour to fill paper plates with barbecue-beef sandwiches, potato salad, chocolate-chip cookies and lemonade, they settled into the grass under a tree opposite the grandstand to watch another horse thunder around the course. Jim was content, for now; Blair had succeeded at his 'game', and his own was still a day and a half away. He'd wait until Sunday to worry about winning the steeplechase.




Jim peered ahead through the windshield of the cab to see, as he had expected, Blair waiting impatiently at the main stable doors. As he paid the cabbie and turned to see Blair racing to meet him, the butterflies in his stomach quieted their agitated dance. Somehow, just being around the kid always made him feel better; calmer, somehow, yet -- at the same time -- more focused. He'd need every bit of that today, and made a conscious effort to soak it up and save it for later.

Blair leaped into Jim's arms, already bubbling with the excitement of the day. "I talked to Hercules," he announced. "Herc says he's feeling good today, an' he'll run real fast, an' he'll try really hard to beat the other horses so you can win."

"Well, that's about the best news you could give me," Jim said gravely. "I really appreciate you talking to him about that. Now let's go get him saddled up." He set Blair on his feet, and they headed toward Hercules' stall.

While Jim went in to halter the big horse and bring him out, Blair slipped into Rosie's stall to explain to her that she wasn't being neglected, but today was Hercules' turn to win. He promised her that they'd have a nice ride tomorrow, then gave her a consoling pat on the nose and went to join Jim at the tack room.

Jim made sure the saddle was cinched tight, and added protective leather boots to Hercules' lower legs; the strenuous exertion of a steeplechase was hard on horses' legs, and he wanted to alleviate that as much as possible. He slipped the bridle into Hercules' mouth, then turned to Blair.

"Well, Chief, maybe I'll see you down at Murphy's Meadow before we start. Is your mother driving you there?"

Blair stared up at him, eyes stricken. "I forgot it doesn't start here! An' Naomi's gone; she's having a spiritual weekend with a bunch of other people." He chewed his lip in thought. "Maybe Marcella can take me; I'll go find her an' ask." He turned to hurry away, but Jim grabbed an arm.

"Whoa, there, partner! Why go in a car when we have a perfectly good horse we can use?" He grinned as Blair's eyes flickered between him and the horse, not quite understanding. "Haven't you ever seen anyone riding double? Herc's a big, strong horse; you can sit up behind me and it won't bother him a bit." It would also give Jim time to soak up a little more of the calmness that being near Blair always produced.

Blair looked hopeful, but doubtful. "Are you sure? I don't want him to get tired."

Jim kept his snort of amusement to himself; the kid was dead serious about not wanting to interfere with Herc's -- and Jim's -- chance of winning the race. He squatted to face Blair directly as he said, "Chief, you know horses like Hercules used to carry knights in armor into battle?" Blair nodded, but his forehead creased in puzzlement. "Well, those knights in armor weighed hundreds of pounds; me and you together don't weigh one-half what they did. Hercules won't mind you riding with me, and you won't make him one bit tired."

Seeing the uncertainty lingering in Blair's eyes, Jim had an inspiration. "Tell you what, Chief; just ask him. He'll tell you if I'm right or not." Surreptitiously, Jim crossed his fingers, hoping that Blair's attack of conscience wouldn't lead him to 'hear' bad news.

Blair's expression lightened. "I can do that!" He stepped toward Hercules' head and held out a hand, kissing gently. The big horse lowered his head, snuffling into Blair's hand and then the collar of his shirt, while the boy patted his forehead and murmured into his ear. Finally, Blair looked up at Jim, eyes shining. "You're right! He says yes, I can ride with you!"

"Then we're good; grab your helmet and let's go."

It took a few minutes to untangle the logistics of simply getting the two of them on top of the same horse. Finally, Jim mounted and maneuvered Hercules next to the fence outside; Blair climbed the fence and leaped over the gap to land on Hercules' rump. As Jim felt Blair's arms settle around his waist, he reined the horse to one side and trotted down the lane.

Murphy's Meadow was almost unrecognizable as the quiet haven they'd enjoyed all summer. Flags and banners hung from ropes strung between trees, flapping gaily in the breeze. Spectators milled around talking to friends, or settled themselves on the temporary bleachers that had been erected, and the band played vigorously, belying the fact that they'd performed two extensive 'gigs' during the past two days.

Jim stopped Hercules next to an old stump, rising about two feet above the ground. "Okay, Chief; time to slide down." He grabbed Blair's arm and helped control the downward slide until Blair's feet landed firmly on the stump. "Stay out of trouble till I get back, you hear?"

"I will. An' you ride good." He patted the big horse on the neck. "Bye, Hercules; have fun." Then, with a flashing grin that assured Jim of his confidence, Blair hopped down from the stump and dashed toward the bleachers.

The loudspeaker crackled to life. "Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome you to the final day of the tenth annual Cascade Regional Horseshow, the running of the steeplechase! Today we have twenty-two riders and horses competing over a two and a half mile course, with eighteen jumping efforts along the way.

"We have spotters at each jump, who will report the progress of the race via radio while the riders are out of our view. But the final result will be easy to discern -- the first rider to make it back and across the finish line will be the winner!

"Riders, the race will begin in ten minutes. Please make your way to the starting line, and wait for the starting pistol."


Jim moved his leg out of the way and lifted the saddle-flap to pull the cinch one hole tighter, then tightened his helmet strap, too. It wouldn't do to have anything slipping around during the race; the slightest inconvenience could made the difference between winning and losing.

He evaluated the riders already lined up, and urged Hercules toward one end of the row. It wasn't unusual for the horses in the middle of the line to bunch up during the first dozen strides; if Jim could keep clear of that, he'd gain a valuable second or two.

The world settled to an unnatural stillness, in which Jim clearly heard the starter's pistol cocked back. His readiness transmitted itself to Hercules, and the big horse leaped forward before the sound of the pistol shot had dissipated into the atmosphere. Dimly, Jim heard Blair shriek, "Go, Jim, go!" as he approached the first fence. Then there was nothing but the horse under him and the course in front of him.

Jim was flying, riding the wind on a horse that had been bred and trained to race and jump, to take the lead and keep it. It was Jim's job to control Hercules' enthusiasm, to prevent him running flat-out and expending all his energy in the first part of the race; he needed to retain sufficient power to manage the jumps toward the end of the course. Jim's job also to handle the approach to each obstacle, to ensure that Hercules reached the optimum take-off point with the optimal speed to jump cleanly and successfully over each.

His summer of riding, of spending hours with Hercules -- not just in a practice arena, but in all types of terrain under a multitude of conditions -- was paying off. Hercules' responses to Jim's adjustments were instantaneous and flawless. The slightest tightening or relaxing of his fingers on the reins elicited a decrease or increase of the big horse's speed; the minutest shift in body position was answered by a corresponding shift in direction.

The course passed swiftly under Hercules' thundering hooves. They were over the water-jump, the double-oxer, the bank jump, the hedge jump; into and out of the river, through the sand-trap, through the switchback. The final three jumps were just ahead, in view of the spectators, with the finish line just beyond.

Jim loosened his focus a little, expanding his hearing to try to judge where the other horses were. There was one on his right flank; a quick glance showed a big sorrel's nose just opposite Hercules' hip, trying to move up. He heard another on his left side, about one length back. A slight relaxation of the rein, and Hercules surged forward; a slight shift in body position and Hercules settled himself to meet the jump, and the next, and then the final obstacle, a straightforward post and rail.

As soon as Hercules landed from that effort, Jim flattened himself over the big horse's neck, giving him free rein. Hercules answered with an astonishing burst of speed after the effort he'd already expended, but the big sorrel was keeping up with him. Jim 'kissed' urgently and, incredibly, the big horse gave him a fraction more speed, thundering across the finish line one and a half lengths in front of the big sorrel, the sound of Blair's cheers ringing in his ears.




Last day of freedom, Jim thought with a nostalgic pang; school started tomorrow for both him and Blair. He smiled wryly to himself as he remembered his irritation at the beginning of the summer, his disgust with 'wasting' four mornings a week, riding. The mornings had soon become whole days, and now he wished the summer could go for another two months; he'd miss his little friend something fierce while he was in school.

But at least they'd have weekends. Jim deliberately reached for a happier mood as he stepped out of the cab to greet Blair; he didn't want anything to spoil this day together. "Hey, Chief," he called as Blair dashed toward him, "I brought lunch; Sally made meat-pies and peanut-butter cookies for us."

"Yummy!" Blair crowed. "That sounds good. Where are we gonna go today?"

Jim shrugged. "With school starting, we can't see your wolf on Tuesdays and Fridays like we've been doing; I thought we could go see her today, and then have lunch in that spot down by the river."

Blair nodded vigorously. "I like that idea; we'll have lots of fun. Com'on; Rosie an' Hercules want to go, too."

Riding the now-familiar trail up the wolf's mountain, Blair enthusiastically analyzed Jim's win of the previous day. He had thought Jim's trophy, lavishly inscribed with 'WINNER' in ornate script, and the date, must be the 'bestest in the whole world'. When he'd realized that Jim's winning time beat the course record by two full seconds, Blair had been quietly satisfied as he declared, "I knew Hercules could do it." Now he had Jim describing every obstacle, and Hercules' performance over each.

"I wanna ride a steeplechase some day; maybe I can win a trophy, too," Blair declared. "D'you think I could?"

"I'd bet on it, Chief," Jim assured him. "You're already a good rider; in a few years, you'll be the best around."

"Not better'n you, though," Blair insisted, loyally.

Jim grinned. "Well, I'll always be older, with a head start -- but you could catch up."

"Okay, that works. Then we can tie, an' they can give both of us a trophy."

They left the horses grazing in their customary place next to the fallen tree, and walked toward the edge of the meadow that held the wolf's rocky den. Jim handed Blair the binoculars, then lifted him to settle on his shoulders; they'd learned that the extra height allowed Blair to see the den area more easily.

"There they are!" Blair squeaked. "I see 'em!"

"Me, too, Chief; they're looking really good."

It was true. The mother wolf's leg had healed fully; she had a residual trace of a limp that was so slight only Jim could notice it. The cubs were almost as large as their mother, though not as heavy, and still retained their puppy playfulness. Jim and Blair watched for a while as they wrestled together, then flopped down to nap on the sunny ledge.

Jim stirred. "Okay, Chief, it's getting on toward lunchtime. Let's go back to the horses and head on down to the river." He lifted Blair off his shoulders and set him on the ground.

"Bye, wolfie! Bye, puppies!" Blair called. "Be good, and 'member to stay away from people!" He looked up at his friend. "They will be okay, won't they, Jim?"

"They'll be just fine, Chief, thanks to you for helping her when she needed it. The cubs still have a mother to help them learn to hunt and grow up big and strong, and that's the most important thing in the world for them. You did real good." He gave Blair a swift hug as they turned away from the meadow and headed toward the horses.

Once again, Jim and Blair allowed the horses to graze while they dangled their feet in the water during lunch, happily devouring the meat-pies and peanut-butter cookies. "These are real good," Blair mumbled around a mouthful of meat, vegetables and pastry. "I never had them before; d'you think Sadie could make some?"

"I don't see why not," Jim replied easily. "They're called Cornish pasties. I'll get the recipe from Sally and bring it on Saturday, and you can give it to Sadie."

"Can you come out every Saturday?" Blair asked hopefully.

"I expect so, and Sundays after church. When football practice starts, I'll have to come after that, but we go out early in the morning, so I can be here about eleven-thirty or so. At least half a day is better than nothing."

Blair nodded eagerly. "An' I'll tell you all the things I learn in school; I'm gonna study real hard so I can be as smart as you. I can do it, I know I can!"

"I believe you, Chief. In fact, I bet one day you'll be even smarter than me."

They finished their lunch, scattering the pastry crumbs for the birds to find, and mounted the horses again. Jim was reluctant for the day to end, and set a roundabout course back toward the training stable, meandering along the river and then through the trees. He listened to Blair's chatter as he pointed out the signs of the changing season, gleefully noting each tinge of red or yellow at the edges of leaves, and nests left empty of baby birds now grown.

But time was passing, and Jim was expected to be prompt for dinner. Eventually they rode into the stableyard. As they unsaddled and brushed down the horses, Blair's animation dimmed; he murmured quietly to Rosie, but hardly spoke to Jim.

They turned the horses into their stalls, and Jim used the stable phone to call a cab. As they settled onto the wooden bench in front of the stable to wait, and Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulders, squeezing gently. "Blair, it's only four days," he said softly. "And you like school; you'll have all kinds of fun stuff to tell me about on Saturday."

"Yeah, but it seems longer," Blair said, still subdued. "An' it seems like something's gonna happen. You promise you'll be here?"

"I promise, Chief; every Saturday and most Sundays. I won't let you down." After one last hug, Jim stepped into the cab, and watched Blair waving until the vehicle turned the corner. He settled back against the seat and heaved a deep sigh. Blair was right; it seemed like a long time till Saturday.




Jim was surprised that Blair wasn't waiting for him when he left the cab; the four days since they'd seen each other had really dragged. But maybe the kid was so anxious to get started that he was already saddling Rosie. Jim hurried into the stable, but there was no big gray horse with attendant little boy in view.

Maybe he was still in Rosie's stall. Jim leaned over the half-door and called, "Hey, Chief! You in there?" No answer, and he saw Rosie standing at the end of her pen, next to Hercules. Could Blair be having a late breakfast? He turned to head toward the house, and there was Sam standing just a few yards away, looking at him gravely.

"Blair's gone, Jimmy," he said gently.

"Gone! What do you mean, gone? Gone where?"

"His mother decided that the 'vibes' around here were no longer 'energetic'; she packed up herself and Blair and hightailed it out of here on Wednesday. Blair left me a letter to give to you." Sam handed him a piece of paper that had been folded over several times, with 'JIM' in big block letters on the outside.

With shaking hands, Jim unfolded the page. It was covered with awkward block-printing, in smudged pencil. He could picture Blair, hunched over the table, struggling to make paper and pencil do his bidding. He was such a little kid, after all, and Jim was aware that his first year of school had been interrupted twice with sudden moves. He suddenly had a deeper understanding of what that might mean to the kid, and wondered how hard it must be for him to keep starting over in a new place.

Reluctantly, he started to read.
Dere Jim,

Naomi says we got to move on. She says that there are new truthes to expeereeans. She says Uncle Trevor is a nice man, but he is stifuling her spirichal inlightinment.

Naomi says we should de-tatch with love, but I don't like it. You are the bestest frend I ever had, and I will remember you for ever and ever and I will miss you a hole, hole lot. I hope you will remember me too. And when I am all grone up, I will come back to Cascade and I will find you, and we can be frends agen.

I wish I could wait till Saterday and say good-bie for real, but Naomi says there is no time to wast. So Sam says he will give this lettr to you. I am glad you wun the steepulchase. The trofee is very pretty. But I want you to have my ribbun too, so you will not forget me. This is me, giving you a biiiiiiig hug.

Love,
Yure bestest frend,
Blair Sandburg
Jim fingered the little red ribbon that Blair had been so proud of, and blinked back the tears that interfered with his view of the curly-headed stick figure at the bottom of the page, a huge smile on its face and arms stretched impossibly wide.

Damn. Leave it to an adult to ruin everything, dragging a little kid all over the country just when he was happy and settled in and comfortable. Jim hoped Blair would be able to adjust soon, and viciously shoved aside his own feelings of loss and disappointment, burying them deep in his heart. It served him right for thinking he could be happy; living under his father's implacable decrees had taught him that anything he enjoyed would eventually be taken away. The deep friendship he'd felt for Blair had led him to overlook the lessons he'd learned years before. Jim felt like kicking himself for being so stupid; he should have known better than to get complacent.

"How did he look?" Jim asked, barely recognizing the hoarse voice as his own.

"About like you'd expect," Sam said soberly. "You could tell he really didn't want to go, but he took it like a little trouper; with that mother of his, I guess he's been through it all before. He said goodbye to Rosie, and left some biscuits for his wolf, that he hoped you'd give her. And he left me with two big hugs -- one for me, and one to pass on to you." He opened his arms slightly, allowing Jim to decide how far he was willing to go.

He was sixteen, dammit; he didn't need cuddling, and he sure as hell wouldn't cry. But, somehow, Jim was wrapped in Sam's arms, burying his face in his friend's shoulder. He swallowed the lump in his throat, still refusing to cry, but feeling slightly soothed as Sam patted his back.

"I know, Jimmy, I know," Sam said huskily. "I'm going to miss the little guy, too; he's definitely one of a kind. But friendship doesn't disappear just because friends are apart; he's not dead, after all, just somewhere else. And you might meet up again someday; he seemed real definite about coming back when he's 'all grown up'."

"That'll be a long time," Jim whispered hopelessly. He felt Sam shrug the shoulder under his face.

"Not so long," Sam disagreed. "Life goes on, and it passes faster'n you'd expect. You'll graduate high school, then go on to college, then find a job you like. Before you know it, ten or fifteen years'll have gone by, you'll hear a knock at your door, and Blair Sandburg will be standing there with his eyes shining and that big grin of his all over his face. He'll probably tell you you should have believed him, and then ask you how you've been and what happened to his wolf. I suggest you make up your mind to live your life so you can tell him 'fine', and keep an eye on his wolf and her cubs, so you can give him a good report about them, too. When you're an old man like me, you'll look back and realize that the separation was just a blip."

Jim pushed away from Sam's hold, sniffling and blotting his eyes on his sleeve, determinedly standing as straight and tall as he could. What Sam said wasn't completely true; he could feel deep in his heart that this separation would hurt every single day from now until it was over. But he clung to the partial truth; separations didn't have to last forever. He'd give Blair -- he did a fast mental calculation -- fourteen years. The kid would be twenty-one then; if he didn't show up on Jim's doorstep, Jim would go looking for him.

In the meantime, Sam's advice was sound. He couldn't quit living just because one little boy had been taken somewhere else. "You're right, Sam," he said quietly. "Life does go on. So, how do you want me to ride Hercules today?"

Sam cleared his throat. "I think you could both use a day of relaxation. How about you take some treats to Blair's wolf, and tell her what happened? I'm sure Blair and his wolf would appreciate it."

"You got it, Sam," Jim agreed, though privately, he wondered just how much enjoyment he'd have while riding without a certain bright little chatterbox by his side.

He made short work of brushing and saddling the big horse, then went to Blair's stash in the tack-room and grabbed a double handful of doggie biscuits, which he put into the saddlebags. Mounting up, he headed toward the wolf's mountain, and a future that he could only hope would, someday, be brightly lit once again.




Late March 1996

Blair Sandburg's heart was singing in anticipation as he walked toward the hospital treatment room. James Ellison -- it could be the 'Jim' of his childhood. He'd so long ago forgotten Jim's last name, but he'd never forgotten his 'bestest friend' with the super-senses, and the age of this patient was about right. He'd know for sure in just a moment.

But if the man was 'his' Jim, this wasn't the place for a reunion. Blair couldn't afford the time to explain here. He didn't know how much trouble he'd be in for impersonating a doctor if hospital personnel discovered his little obfuscation, but he didn't want to find out. Okay, he'd use a fake name, Doctor... Smith. No, too stereotyped. Doctor... Sanderson. No, too similar to Sandburg.

Blair caught sight of a polished blue nametag, carelessly dropped on the floor. Saved! He snatched it up, gave it a cursory glance, and pinned it to the lapel of his 'borrowed' white lab-coat as he approached the examination room.

"Detective Ellison," he said breezily as he entered the door, "I'm Doctor McKay."

The cool blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. "Your nametag says McCoy."

Blair managed some kind of cover-up babble, although he felt a jolt in the pit of his stomach. It was him, it was! Older, of course, and considerably changed, but the eyes -- Blair could still see his childhood friend in those eyes. The voice was harder now, but the tones were the same. Thank God, he'd found him at last.

"Forget the tests," Blair said earnestly. "You don't need medicine. You need information."

"What are you, an intern? Go get the doctor for me, will you, please?"

Blair's heart sank; Jim didn't remember him. Well, duh! A seven-year-old changes a lot more in twenty years than a sixteen-year-old. And I haven't even given him my real name. Gotta find a way to let him know who I really am.

"Me, I'm no one. But this man, he is." Blair forced one of his business cards into Jim's reluctant hand, anticipating some fast talking when his name sparked Jim's memory; hopefully, he could convince his old friend to wait till later for the explanations. But Jim was still staring at him suspiciously, completely ignoring the card in his hand, so Blair continued with babbling something -- anything -- that might get Jim into his own territory. "He's the only one who can truly help you. You're too far ahead of the curve for any of this techno-trash. You're a cop. See the man."

Blair left quickly, shoving aside his disappointment that Jim hadn't recognized him. This was not the time or place to force the issue; he still didn't want to be caught out by one of the real doctors. He just hoped that Jim would seek him out at Hargrove Hall. With the right name, surely he'd remember that summer, and the little kid who tagged at his heels and cheered his winning ride. If not... well, he had a last name now, and knew his job. If Jim didn't look him up in a few days, Blair wouldn't have too much trouble tracking him down.




Jim Ellison stared at the handwritten 'Blair Sandburg' on the door. His brow creased as something twitched in the dim recesses of his memory. But the music -- if you could call it that -- assaulting his eardrums prevented coherent thought. He barged through the door with little hope of being helped with his out-of-control senses, but he might as well see the quack so he could cross him off the list.

I knew something was fishy, Jim thought, easily recognizing 'Dr. McKay' despite the wannabe-hippie grunge look the kid now sported. He was certainly unimpressive, with his wild curly hair flaring around his shoulders, mis-matched vest and torn jeans; what could such a kid possibly know about his condition?

But at least he cut off the music when requested; thank God for small favors.

"Why are you in my face?" Jim asked, abruptly. He just wanted to get this over with.

This kid could do 'earnest' real well. "I just had to find some way to get you into my area here to talk."

"So talk," Jim grunted. So I can get out of this rattrap.

"Okay, um... my name is Blair Sandburg." He paused expectantly, waiting in vain for Jim to show some recognition. When none occurred, he continued talking; if he kept Jim around long enough, maybe something would jog his memory. "And I'm working on my doctorate in Anthropology and you just may be the living embodiment of my field of study. If I'm correct, Detective Ellison, you're a behavioral throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man."

The rage that swept over him drowned out the feeble whisper of awakening memory at hearing the kid's name. Jim surged to his feet, barely holding himself in check. "Are you out of your mind? You dragged me all the way over here to tell me I'm some sort of caveman?" Before he even realized what he was doing, he had slammed the little twerp into the wall and was threatening him with every possible violation he could dream up.

Surprisingly, the kid didn't even flinch, just shifted his motor-mouth into high gear. Feeling slightly ashamed of his over-reaction, Jim released the plucky little man and tried to walk away. But this Sandburg guy made sense, in a weird, twisted way; hyperactive senses just might explain what was going on with him, although the 'sentinel' shtick was straight out of the Twilight Zone. Maybe he could help Jim get the control he so desperately needed; certainly no one else had any explanation for what was happening to him.

But there was always a catch. "What's the payoff?" he asked.

Sandburg was intense. "My doctorate. I want to write about you. You're my thesis!"

No way in HELL! Jim thought as he stormed out of the cluttered office, ignoring whatever Sandburg was trying to say behind him.

As he crossed the lawn, he tried to bring his rage under control. The kid was as subtle as a bulldozer, but he wouldn't be able to write anything without permission; Jim would simply make it a point to not cross paths with him again. On the other hand, now that Sandburg had given him a clue, maybe he could find someone else who knew about this sentinel thing.

Lost in thought, Jim started across the street without paying attention to traffic. He looked up when he heard a shout, and his eye was caught by a bright red frisbee whirling through the air. It pulsed and expanded, filling his whole visual field....


The impact of hitting the pavement was shocking and disorienting; he barely grasped that he'd narrowly avoided being run down by a very large truck, and it seemed to have been Sandburg that saved him. The kid was up now and bouncing around like a cricket on crack as he proclaimed, "Wow! Oh, that really sucked, man!"

It certainly did, but it didn't make any sense. "What happened?" Jim asked.

"It was that thing I was trying to warn you about; the zone-out factor," Sandburg explained -- rather unhelpfully, as far as Jim was concerned.

Okay, he had to get a handle on his runaway senses, one way or another, and it looked like he was stuck with this Sandburg person whether he liked it or not. "Let's get out of here before I gotta answer a lot of questions. Let's go," he ordered.

Sandburg's face lit up with enthusiasm. "Let's? As in we? Oh, great, I've got some really specific ideas on how we can proceed here. Come on, let's go. Come on."

Jim followed the little powerhouse almost against his will. Why is Sandburg so damned excited about helping a complete stranger? he wondered uneasily. What the hell am I getting myself into?




Ten years of searching is over, Blair wrote in his journal a few days later. Jim Ellison is the 'Jimmy' I hung around with the summer I was seven. He doesn't remember me, though, which I suppose isn't so surprising. I mean, he hardly ever called me by my name -- I was always 'Chief' -- so I guess 'Blair Sandburg' doesn't ring a bell. And there's been a lot of water under the bridge in the last twenty years, not least of which was being stuck in the Peruvian jungle for eighteen months; talk about traumatic! I'm not surprised there are holes in his memory.

But it doesn't matter; he's allowing me to hang around and help him with the senses, which kind of helps him with his job, so that's good. I wondered, over the years, if I wasn't building him up too much, looking back through a child's eyes, but he's everything I remembered -- decent, kind, wise, good-hearted, courageous, humorous... Hurt, though. I think he's been really battered by life, and it's made him kind of suspicious and closed-down.

Which makes it even more hopeful that he's willing to tolerate the presence of a longhaired academic -- or, in his words, a neo-hippie, witch-doctor punk. <g> He even told Captain Taggart that I was his new 'partner'. Of course, ten minutes later he told me never to use that word, but I'm betting he feels the connection between us at some subliminal level.

I think this will work. If he doesn't remember our previous friendship, we can build a new one. And who knows? Maybe someday the memory of that summer will pop to the surface. Or maybe I'll break down and tell him after he's feeling a little more secure in his senses; I don't want to hit him with too much, too fast.

Funny thing, though -- he's already calling me 'Chief' again. I wonder if tiny tendrils of memory are starting to sprout?





Jim stared with satisfaction at Lash's body. He might be called on the carpet for using 'excessive force', but this madman would never again terrorize an innocent, helpless person -- and certainly not Blair.

Jim ran back up the stairs and burst through the door. He saw Blair shudder at his abrupt entrance and, despite his grogginess, feebly try to pull himself free of the chains that held him to the big dentists' chair. Jim was at his side in an instant.

"It's okay, Chief," he soothed. "It's me. Just relax; I'll have you out of there in a minute." He bent to release Blair from the abominable contraption.

Blair's head rolled weakly to the side as he attempted to focus on his friend through the effects of the drug. "Zh'm," he mumbled, "y'u c'me."

"Of course I came, buddy. Hang on; I've almost got you loose."

When the chains dropped to the floor, Jim quickly ran his hands over Blair's limbs and body, looking for any injuries. Finding none, he sighed in relief. "You're okay, Chief, except for that crap he forced into you. The ambulance will be here soon; I can hear the siren. We'll just wait here until the medics come up."

"Nooo," Blair moaned. "Ouuut..."

Jim surveyed the grim room, festooned with the tragic keepsakes of Lash's 'friends'; he could see why Blair wouldn't want to stay another minute. "You got it," he agreed. "Hang on and I'll try not to drop you." He lifted Blair from the chair, cradling him close, and smiled as he heard a faint chuckle.

"N't... baby," Blair whispered.

"No, not a baby; an injured warrior. And it's another warrior's duty and honor to care for an injured companion. So just shut up and let me do it."

"'kay." Blair's head lolled against Jim's chest, and he was already asleep by the time his rescuer reached the doorway and started down the stairs.




Jim. You came. Jim paced the hospital waiting room while he wondered what was taking the doctor so damned long. Simultaneously, he tried to put his finger on his feeling of acute déjà vu.

Jim. You came. Three simple words; why did they ring like a bell in his mind?

Jim. You came. Like he'd told Sandburg, of course he came; there'd never been a doubt, or any other choice.

"Ellison, sit!" Simon finally barked from his chair on the far side of the waiting room. "Wearing a groove in the linoleum won't make the doctor come any faster. The kid's okay; we just have to wait for the details."

Jim sank down next to his boss and scrubbed his hands over his face. "It was too damned close, Simon. If I'd've been five minutes later, he'd've been too drugged to speak, and I'd never have heard him. And you know what he said when I got to him? Barely able to make his body function, but he said, 'Jim. You came.' That's just... scary."

"Why?" Simon asked, reasonably. "He was saying that he trusts you. Would you rather he didn't trust you?"

"No, of course not. It's just..." Jim shrugged uneasily. "I dunno. Something about those words. Like I've heard 'em before."

"I'm sure you have," Simon pointed out, practically. "They're simple, common words; I'm sure someone's had an excuse to say them any number of times in the past thirty-odd years. It's not like they're a magical incantation or anything."

Jim shook his head wearily, then slumped in the chair. "But that's just it. For some reason, they feel like a magical incantation, like something really important. But I can't get a handle on it."

"Then the best thing to do is to ignore it. These things always jump out at you if you leave them alone. If the memory's that old, a few more hours -- or even days -- won't make a difference. It'll come to you eventually."

Jim was prepared to argue -- every instinct he had was screaming that this was too important to ignore -- but a doctor walked through the door marked, 'Hospital Personnel Only'. He immediately stood and approached the small gray-haired woman, Simon following a step behind. "Doctor?"

"You're here for Mr. Sandburg?" she asked, eyeing both men.

"Yes," Simon said. "Blair is Detective Ellison's partner, and they both work for me. What can you tell us?"

She nodded approvingly. "It's good news; your Mr. Sandburg is a very lucky young man. He didn't ingest enough of the trichloroethanol to have an extensive impact; he's already starting to throw off the residual effects. We'll keep him under observation for a couple of more hours, just to be on the safe side, but then he can go home."

"May we sit with him?" Jim asked.

The doctor shrugged. "There's no need; he's sleeping soundly. He'll probably be asleep more than he's awake for the next twenty-four hours."

"Please," he said intensely.

The doctor searched Jim's eyes, apparently seeing the deep need within, and nodded. "All right," she said kindly. "But don't disturb him; that's for us to do." Her eyes twinkled at Jim's amused snort. "We've put him behind a screen in the far corner of the ER; you can go on back, but stay out of the way." She nodded toward the doors.

"Thank you, doctor," Simon said. "We appreciate your care for our friend." He turned to the man next to him. "Jim, I think you can handle it from here, and I have a mess of paperwork calling my name. I'll expect to see you in by ten tomorrow morning; till then, take care of the kid."

"Thank you, Simon," Jim murmured. He hurried toward the ER.

Simon watched him disappear behind the doors and shook his head slightly, marveling at how Sandburg had become such a large part of Ellison's life in such a short time. Then he shrugged and headed toward the parking lot; his work wouldn't get done if he stood around here all day.




Sandburg resisted going to his room. "I've been sleeping for five hours Jim; I'm all slept out. I'll just sit on the couch and watch the news." Ten minutes later, he had tilted sideways and was snoring gently, his neck bent at an uncomfortable angle with his head on the armrest.

Jim smiled and put aside the broom he was using to sweep up broken glass. Moving quietly -- although it was probably unnecessary; Sandburg was out like a light -- he gently removed Blair's shoes and lifted his feet onto the couch. Then he shoved a bunched-up throw-pillow under the kid's neck, positioning it to a more normal angle, and pulled the afghan down to settle gently over his body.

Jim glanced at his watch. If Sandburg continued as he had been, he'd be awake again in a couple of hours. He'd probably be able to overcome the effects of the drug more easily if he ate a substantial meal, and Jim intended to provide it. It would be somewhat early for an evening meal but, if he waited till later, Sandburg might be asleep again, probably for the rest of the night.

For a few minutes he simply watched as Blair slept, incredibly grateful to have him back in one undamaged piece, then went to the kitchen and started preparations. Moving with his typical efficiency, he washed the sweet potatoes and put them on to boil, then mixed the orange juice, brown sugar and diced dried apricots and put them in a saucepan to simmer.

With both pans bubbling satisfactorily, he had to wait half an hour before beginning the next step, and Jim felt unusually restless. The remaining disarray in the living area was an irritation, but it was minor compared to the mental question that demanded his attention. There was something he needed to find, or discover. It was important, but hell if he knew what it was. It wasn't anything recent, he was sure; it must be something from his past, which had been boxed up for years. Most of it was down in the storage area in the basement, and he had no intention of leaving Blair alone while he went on a 'hunting' expedition. But there were a couple of small boxes in his bedroom; he might as well rule them out.

The service memorabilia in the compact wooden box brought back memories, as they did every time he opened it, but none of them answered the driving necessity Jim felt to find something important. He reached for the battered old shoebox, tied with a knotted piece of string. Jim hadn't opened it since he'd left college; he didn't even know why he hung onto it. Might as well go through it now, while he had some time. Kids kept the most worthless things; he'd probably just toss out most of the undoubtedly childish drivel.

As soon as Jim saw the little red ribbon, the memories came rushing back. With shaking hands, he unfolded the paper with the bold 'JIM' on the outside, its edges beginning to yellow with age. His eyes misted as he reread the childish scrawl.

Dere Jim,

In his mind's eye, he relived that special summer, watched a bright-eyed, excited little boy run across the meadow toward him and leap into his arms, heard the confident trust in Blair's voice. Jim! You came!

How could he have forgotten? That summer had been the best of his life, and he'd been closer to Blair than he'd ever been to anyone else, before or since. Jim smoothed the paper under his hand, reading the words again.

This is me, giving you a biiiiiiig hug.

Love,
Yure bestest frend,
Blair Sandburg


'Bestest' friend then, and quickly becoming 'best friend' now. Jim wondered if Blair knew. Had he also forgotten, or was he simply waiting until Jim recognized him? And, my God -- what combination of chance and circumstance had brought them back together? It seemed... miraculous.

Jim put the letter back in the box, but carried the ribbon when he went downstairs to continue supper preparations. Even though he had the ribbon's owner here in the loft -- and thank God for that -- he wanted to keep the tangible evidence with him. He folded the little piece of fabric and put it in his shirt pocket while he seared the pork chops, covered them with the apricot/orange sauce, and put them in the oven to bake. Then he peeled and mashed the sweet potatoes, sprinkled them with brown sugar and marshmallows, and slipped them into the oven beside the pork chops.

Supper would be ready in forty-five minutes but, if Blair wasn't stirring by then, it could be kept warm in the oven without damaging it. Jim continued setting the loft to rights, but slowly. He paused frequently to watch the sleeping Blair, searching his features for the child he'd once been. Now that he knew, Jim could see that little boy in the man he'd become -- still bright and energetic, almost frighteningly intelligent, with an unquenchable zest for life, enthusiastically greeting each new experience. He should have expected that Blair would have grown into exactly this sort of man.

Without being aware of his own actions, Jim sat on the other couch, a fond smile playing on his lips as he stared at Blair's face. Gradually, he lost himself in his memories -- the horses, the riding, the wolf-rescue, Blair's glee at winning his ribbon... and always, the deep-seated, contented companionship of one talkative and generous little boy. He felt that he'd just received an unexpected but precious gift -- his childhood best friend and the man who was dedicated to helping him master his wayward senses, rolled into one incredibly special person, and he was here. Now. Jim vowed to himself that he wouldn't lose Blair again. None of this 'only one week' crap; he'd keep Blair here for the next twenty years, if he had any say in the matter at all.

Jim began planning some improvements to Blair's room, something to give him an incentive to stay. He needed shelves for his books and anthropological keepsakes, and a real door instead of that old curtain. And there was no reason that Blair couldn't move some of those keepsakes out here into the main room, if he chose; this was his home, too.

Gradually, he became aware of a change; Blair's heartbeat and respiration had increased. Jim opened his eyes to see Blair watching him, looking more alert than he had since he'd been drugged.

Blair smiled when he saw Jim's eyes focus on him. "Hey, man; you okay? You got a headache, or your senses acting up?"

"I'm fine, Chief; just remembering some things. How about you? Are you getting that crap out of your system?"

Blair tossed the afghan to the side, sat up, and stretched mightily. "Yeah, I think so; I feel pretty much back to normal. If nothing else, I'll manage to stay awake for supper; whatever it is, it smells delicious."

"Your timing is impeccable; it'll be ready in five minutes. Why don't you wash up while I set the table and put it out."

With one last stretch, Blair rose and headed toward the bathroom. "Sounds like a plan."




Inevitably, the conversation over the meal became a mutual debriefing session. Blair's eyes glowed as Jim described how he'd used his enhanced senses to unravel the clues to the location of Lash's lair. "Oh, man, that is so cool! I told you your senses would help your police work. Just imagine what you'll be able to do with them after we've had more time to practice. You'll be beyond awesome!"

"You didn't do so bad yourself, Junior. If you hadn't strung Lash along, kept him talking, I wouldn't have had your voice to home in on. I'm proud of you."

Blair glanced disparagingly at the remaining disorder in the living room. "For what? I shouldn't even have let him take me out of here. I should've been able to fight him off, and I tried, Jim, I really did, but he was just so damned strong!"

"Blair, there's no shame in being overcome by a greater force; it happens to all of us," Jim said gently. "You gave it everything you had, and that's all anyone can expect. You delayed him, kept on fighting even when all you had was your words, gave me the time I needed to find you. You did everything right, Chief; you have no need to apologize for anything."

Blair searched Jim's face for confirmation. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Jim insisted. "Can I tell you a story, Chief?"

Blair raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You have the floor, man."

"When I was sixteen, I knew a little boy -- cute as a button, sharp as a tack, and loyal as a hound dog. I was practicing for a steeplechase that summer, and whenever I was at the stables, he'd be right there by my side. Nothing fazed him; the biggest horses acted like puppydogs around him, and he rode over jumps that were taller than he was. He was so full of plain, cussed courage that he even headed off into unknown territory, alone, to find and help an injured wolf." Jim pulled the little red ribbon out of his pocket, unfolded it, and laid it on the table between them. "That little boy hasn't lost one ounce of his intelligence, courage, or sheer joie de vivre as he grew up." He had to clear his throat before continuing huskily, "I am soo proud of you, Chief, then and now, and so grateful to whatever Providence led you across my path again."

Blair's eyes had shone ever brighter during Jim's recitation, and his smile grown ever wider. Now he chuckled softly. "Well, you can call it Providence if you want; I call it ten years of dedicated searching." He shook his head ruefully. "Jim, you're the reason I've studied and researched the sentinel phenomenon, and you're the reason I'm going to college in Cascade, Washington. I'd a whole lot rather be someplace warmer and drier -- but I figured this was the only place I had a reasonable chance of finding you." He shifted slightly in his seat. "So you don't mind that I tracked you down and I'm tagging along by your side again?"

"Mind?" Jim shook his head in bemusement, then pushed back from the table. "Chief, come here." When Blair stood, Jim put an arm around his shoulders and urged him out onto the balcony. He pointed outward.

"See those three young ladies at the end of the block? They're discussing a killer math test they have day after tomorrow. Down the next block, the fire escape on the fourth floor has a planter box on it; it has hyacinths in bloom, two purple and one pink.

"I could go on, but you get the idea. You've given me this, Chief; in just a few short weeks, you've given me control over my senses that I haven't had since... since..." Jim faltered to a stop as the realization hit him. "My God, Blair; not since I was sixteen with a curly-haired little munchkin by my side." He turned, and pulled Blair into a fierce embrace. "'This is me, giving you a biiiiig hug'. I missed you buddy, missed you so much, for years and years. I don't know how I ever forgot you."

Blair returned the hug just as fiercely. "It doesn't matter, now," he said softly. "I missed you too, but I came back, just like I promised. In my whole life, you were the best friend I ever had, and I've dreamed of finding you again, ever since Naomi took me away." He chuckled softly and drew away, looking out into the gathering dusk. "But you're probably right; without the hand of Providence, or Fate, or Gods and Goddesses, I could have been searching for another ten years, or twenty years. I guess we should both offer thanks to the Universe that we're together again."

His face was split by a sudden, wide yawn, and Blair settled tiredly against the strong body of his best friend. "Sorry, Jim; I guess that crap is still affecting me, after all. Did I say thanks for coming after me? I'm so glad to be home." His eyelids drooped, and he swayed slightly on his feet.

"Yeah, buddy, you told me," Jim said as he steered Blair into his bedroom. There he urged Blair onto his futon, made short work of divesting him of shoes and jeans, and tucked the covers around him as tenderly as a mother with a child. He stared at his best friend for a moment, then caressed his cheek with gentle fingers. "I'm glad you're home, too, Chief, and I hope you'll be home for a long, long time." He bent and kissed the sleeping man on the forehead, then turned and quietly left the room.



The End




Author's Notes

Recipe - pork in apricot sauce

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Title: Sentinel Haiku
Summary: Series summary, in haiku.
Style: Gen
Size: 50 words, about 0.1 page in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written 9/2/06
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Sentinel Haiku

by StarWatcher





Sentinel, watching,
Protecting his city, tribe,
Stands against chaos.

Guide, city's shaman,
Backup to his sentinel;
No zones on his watch.

Captain, strong leader,
Keeps necessary secrets
Despite his grumbling.

Warriors, unknowing,
Stand backup to sentinel,
Sharing his duty.

United as one,
Overcoming lawlessness,
The tribe remains strong.


The End



Author's Notes

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Title: Just Desserts
Summary: What had he done to deserve this?
Style: Gen
Size: 4,460 words -- about 9 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: October 25, 2006
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Just Desserts

by StarWatcher





When had he lost control? Not that anyone else seemed to recognize that; his department still obeyed his orders and apparently respected him. Even when Sandburg and Ellison -- and when had Sandburg started coming first in his mind? -- went charging off on their own, they made it look like they had his support. As far as anyone else knew, he was captain to a dedicated, hard-working, high-functioning team, rather than a pair of wild cards who skated the thin edge of chance far too often, with far more luck than any ten teams deserved.

"I'm telling you, Simon, it'll work!" insisted the more vocal half of the team. "We can set up a trap that plays right into his belief system; after I get done adding all his personal permutations to the scenario, he simply won't be able to resist walking into it. He'll be so utterly certain that his destiny is coming true that he won't suspect a thing, and Jim can just snap on the handcuffs. What can go wrong?"

Plenty, his mind supplied. "What's your take on this, Jim?" Simon asked the -- sometimes -- more rational half of the team. "Do you believe it'll be that easy, or are you just going along with another of Sandburg's scams?"

Ellison held up a hand to forestall his partner's automatic protest as he said, "Maybe not quite that easy, sir, but I do think Sandburg has a firm grasp of this guy's psyche. It can't hurt to try. If it doesn't work, we still have 'storm the ramparts with all guns blazing' to fall back on. But if it does, we take him down without a shot being fired; not only safer, but good for morale, and it plays well in the press." He shrugged; much as they hated it, they both recognized the realities of politics and PR.

"So you're seriously asking permission to dress up in a toga, with laurel leaves on your head, proclaim that you're Zeus, and simply walk in with half a dozen toga-wearing, palm-frond-waving 'minions' following you?"

"Oh, Jim has the legs to carry it off," Blair assured him sunnily. "And then he'll already have his costume for the Halloween party next week." He snickered, unconcerned with the twin glares cast his way. "At least the looseness of the togas will allow everyone to hide their guns."

Jim shrugged again. "I know it's silly, Simon, especially since the guy is mixing Roman and Greek mythology, but that's a point in our favor. We can be certain that this guy has never been confronted by real-life toga-wearing citizens; whether he believes it or not, he'll be so off-balance that he shouldn't be able to effectively resist. But bedsheets won't do it; we have to have costumes that look like the real thing."

Simon shook his head as he signed the requisition purchase order for 'Carl's Custom Costuming'. He couldn't understand what he'd done to deserve being saddled with a crazy sentinel/guide pair; if he believed Sandburg, he must have a hell of a karmic debt built up from some previous life. But he did know that his people couldn't work effectively if they were constrained by petty restrictions. At least he wouldn't be forced to don a toga; sometimes being a captain had definite perks. He handed the voucher to Ellison, who promptly passed it to Sandburg, who examined the amount thoughtfully before nodding and folding it into his wallet. "You know the rest of the PD will be pulling your leg about this for years," he warned.

"Not if we pull it off; it'll become just another chapter of the Ellison legend." Jim sounded distinctly smug, and Sandburg was wearing a prideful smirk.

A wise leader knew when to retreat. "Go do your thing," Simon ordered testily. "And shut the door on your way out."




Captain Banks raced toward the hospital with the siren clearing the streets in front of him. Sandburg's phone call had been desperately frantic; he needed help to break through the walls of bureaucracy. Just their luck to be stuck with doctors who don't know them, he thought as he pulled up in front of Skagit Valley Hospital in the small town of Mount Vernon, Washington. Cutting his siren, he parked decorously in the visitors' area; he'd probably be here for quite some time, and it wouldn't do to block access for other emergencies.

He strode into Admitting like an angry thundercloud, projecting all the authority granted by his size and position. "I'm Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department," he told the nurse-receptionist, "and I've been told that you're screwing up the treatment of one of my detectives. I want to see the doctor who's treating Jim Ellison immediately!" He finished with a glare that had the power to turn water to steam. It certainly melted the façade of the woman in front of him, despite the designation of 'Head Nurse' on her nametag.

"Yes, sir!" she not-quite-squeaked. "He'll be with you in just a few minutes." She hurried off; the doctor could fight his own battles with this glowering behemoth.

The promised 'few minutes' stretched to eight, but a doctor finally approached him. "Captain Banks? I'm Doctor Smithers; I believe you wished to speak to me?" He offered his hand in greeting.

Simon ignored it as he sized up the man. Of average height and on the downslope of middle age, the doctor radiated an air of self-satisfied arrogance; his attitude suggested that he was always right, and any other opinions would be ignored.

Simon was decidedly unimpressed. "I'm hoping that the report I received about my detective's condition was garbled," he barked. "What exactly is going on, Doctor Smithers?"

"Nothing to be concerned with," the doctor declared unctuously. "Your man is having an atypical allergic reaction to some bee-stings he received while he was pulling a child out of a wrecked car; the crash disturbed a nearby hive. He's stable, but that -- young man -- objects to our treatment." From the doctor's expression, the very idea of Blair's presence -- in the hospital? in life? -- left a bad taste in his mouth.

Ah-HA! thought Simon. Another idiot who judges a book by its cover. When Sandburg works his magic, he's not going to know what hit him.

"I assure you," the doctor continued, "we're following standard procedure with IV drips and histamine suppressants to support your man until the reaction passes; he's in no danger."

Simon's voice grew colder; this man's bungling might have put Jim's life in danger. "And what did Mr. Sandburg suggest?"

"That hippie? Some new-age nonsense about a quiet, dark room and acupressure. I've barred him from Mr. Ellison's room; the man doesn't need that kind of stress when he's trying to recover."

"'That hippie' is Detective Ellison's roommate, his partner on the police force, and holds Jim Ellison's personal and medical Power of Attorney -- which you would have learned if you had bothered to listen to his explanation!" Simon's voice rose to cut off the doctor's protests. "Mr. Sandburg has solid experience in how to handle Ellison's 'atypical reactions' to a number of allergies; if he requests a dark, quiet room in which to perform acupressure, I suggest that you damn well give it to them -- unless you want to be sued for malpractice. Now, take me to them," he growled, "find someone to unhook Ellison from whatever you have him on, and then leave them alone so that Mr. Sandburg can effect his treatment."

When he and Doctor Smithers exited the elevator one flight up, Simon saw Blair halfway down the hall, sitting on the floor. An orderly who would have looked more at home as a bouncer in a bar stood in front of the door across from Blair, apparently to keep him out.

Blair had looked up when he heard the 'whoosh' of the elevator doors, and now he sprang to his feet and hurried toward his captain. "Simon, thank God you're here! Nobody will let me do anything. When Jim --" he cast a glance toward the doctor, "uh, 'passed out' at the scene, there were already ambulances there for the accident victims, and they just shoved him in without listening to me, and everybody keeps not listening to me, and you know I can help him, but they won't let me in!" His voice rose in frustration.

"Take it easy, Sandburg; I've got it covered." The captain's voice was firm, but kind. "The good doctor understands the situation, now. You can go in to see Jim, and he'll send someone to disconnect all the medical paraphernalia ASAP, so you can start your 'treatment'."

Blair sagged in relief. "Thanks, Simon," he said sincerely. "You know what it means to me -- to us!" He hurried toward the guarded door and, when the doctor waved the orderly aside, slipped through.

Ten minutes later, the medical devices had been unhooked and turned off; Jim and Blair now shared the requested dim, quiet solitude. Simon sat guard outside their room in the chair he had asked for. No one would be allowed to disturb them until Blair had worked his magic; when Jim had recovered from his zone and whatever the bee-sting poison was doing to his body, Blair would come out with the good news. Till then, all anyone else could do was wait.

Simon leaned back and wearily rested his head against the wall. He was pretty sure that most other captains weren't faced with protecting the sentinel and guide as part of their duties. He wondered what he'd ever done, that Fate seemed to think he deserved this. He hoped that, someday, maybe he'd have an answer.




Jim had become increasingly restless during the morning. Something was wrong, but he couldn't pinpoint it. He'd turned his senses on his guide several times, but found no cause for alarm there. Blair's temperature, respiration and heartbeat were normal; he was calmly engaged in filling out the paperwork for the Meriwether bust. But, dammit, there was something...

A groan, almost inaudible even to his senses, drew his attention to Simon's office. The blinds were drawn, but when he zoomed in with his vision, he could see his captain through the narrow gap between the edge of the blinds and the side of the window frame. Simon had his head in his hands, his eyes were clenched tight, and minute beads of sweat dotted his brow. Sending his hearing out, Jim found his captain's heartbeat rapid with stress; the man had all the earmarks of being afflicted with a severe migraine.

Jim leaned close to his partner, keeping his voice low; Simon wouldn't appreciate the whole department descending on him to offer help or sympathy. "Hey, Chief, it looks like Simon's fighting a migraine. Do you have anything in your 'sentinel emergency' stash that might help him?"

Blair glanced toward Simon's office, frowning in thought. "Yeah, man, I have a few things that should work. I'll need a few minutes to get it ready." He rose and headed toward the break-room.

He returned a short time later, carrying a mug of something hot, with a small plastic bottle tucked under his arm. With a quick glance around the bullpen to be sure that no one was paying attention, Blair slipped quietly into Simon's office.

"Simon?" he said, softly. "Jim says you've got a migraine. I think this will help." He placed the mug on the desk, within easy reach of the captain.

Simon opened his eyes the barest slit to see what Sandburg was talking about, then quickly closed them again. "Sandburg, I don't need any of your poisonous concoctions; go away." He groaned quietly against the agony of his own voice.

Blair's voice was soothing, coaxing. "It's ginger tea, mixed with butterbur and feverfew. Even mainstream doctors recognize the value of all of them. Please, Simon, just a few sips; see what happens."

Blearily, Simon wondered why he deserved this treatment; couldn't the man let him die in peace? But giving in was easier than arguing; he snagged the mug and took a few cautious swallows. Not bad, actually, and he was thirsty; he'd felt too nauseated to have his usual cups of coffee. He drank some larger mouthfuls. Maybe it was his imagination, but the grip of pain did seem to be easing somewhat.

By the time the mug was half empty, Simon was noticing a definite improvement; he could almost feel the tension dripping away. He cautiously twisted his head from side to side, trying to loosen tight muscles in his neck and shoulders.

Apparently, Sandburg took that as some kind of signal. He rose from the chair where he'd been sitting quietly and stepped forward, again speaking in hushed tones. "Simon? I have another part of the treatment here. Would you let me massage your temples with lavender oil?"

"And end up smelling like some lady's boudoir?" Simon's snort was weak, but no less heartfelt.

"You can claim it's a new room deodorizer, or something. Come on, Simon; is avoiding a floral scent more important than getting rid of the pain?"

Once again, it was easier just to acquiesce to Sandburg's suggestion than to argue. "Fine; just get on with it and then leave," he grumbled.

Blair stepped around the desk to stand next to Simon. Gently, he started to rub the captain's temples in a circular pattern. His hands were cool with the oil, and the scent wasn't as strong as Simon had expected. It was soothing, actually, and the massage did feel good.

After a timeless interval, the pain was amazingly reduced. Blair's hands slipped down to his neck and shoulders, where he continued his massage on those muscles. The relief was incredible; if he ever gave up guiding a sentinel, Sandburg could easily get a job as an expert masseuse.

Blair finally stopped, and gently patted the captain's hand. "That's it, Simon; all done. Drink the rest of your tea, and stay still and quiet for another half hour or so; I think you'll be back to good by then." With a last pat of his captain's hand, he moved toward the door.

"Thanks, Sandburg," Simon whispered; he felt too relaxed to even raise his voice. But, somehow, Blair heard him.

"You're welcome, Simon," he murmured. "Glad I could help." The door quietly snicked closed behind him.




The door was pulled open to reveal the gangly teenager on the other side, his face lit by a broad smile. "Hey, Blair."

"Daryl, my man! How's it goin'?" He stepped into the entryway and let Daryl close the door behind him.

Daryl turned eagerly, his smile impossibly wider. "I got an A-minus on that Social Studies paper, and a solid A on my History test."

"All right! I knew you could do it; way to go!"

"I couldn't have done it without your help," Daryl declared fervently, leading the way to their usual spot at the kitchen table. "You make things easy enough to understand, and interesting enough to remember. I wish all my teachers were as good as you."

"That's only part of the learning process," Blair said as he sat down. "The student has to work at it too; most people get out of lessons exactly what they bring into them. And you, my man, are developing an excellent student-work ethic; gotta say, I'm real proud of you."

Daryl took the chair next to Blair, so that they could easily read the same pages. "Not half as proud as my Dad; he says if I keep this up, I can get a scholarship based on my brains instead of trying to bulk up enough to play football."

"Go with that, Daryl," Blair said seriously. "Football lasts only a few years; brains are forever, and they'll take you a helluva lot farther. But that's a concern for the future. What's on the agenda for tonight?"

"A paper for Ms. Jackson's class; we have to compare and contrast the Etruscan and Minoan civilizations. I've found a lot of stuff on the 'Net -- so much that I'm over my head; I'm not sure what's important and what's not."

"Okay, let's see what you have so far." Two heads bent over Daryl's scribbled notes.

Simon arrived from work an hour later, carrying their pre-arranged dinner from the Cotton Patch Café -- meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. "So, Sandburg, this young whelp been giving you any trouble?" he asked as he took the plates from the cupboard.

"Dad, you know better than that," Daryl protested as he rose to help set the table. "Without Blair's tutoring, my chances of actually finishing tenth grade go way down; I'm staying on his good side so he won't kick me out."

"Not going to happen, Daryl," Blair proclaimed as he moved the books and papers to an unused chair. "After dealing with Jim Ellison, there's nothing you could do that I couldn't handle. On the other hand, you don't want to see what I'm capable of dishing out, so maybe you better toe the line." His broad wink completely ruined the effect of the scowl he bestowed on the teen.

"Well, at the risk of sounding maudlin, Sandburg," Simon began, as he filled their plates, "I vote with my son. Your tutoring has really opened his mind and improved his attitude; you've helped him show the smarts I always knew he had." He ignored Daryl's automatic protest of, "Da-ad!" from the other side of the table. "I don't know what we've done to deserve this, but I'm grateful. Thank you."

Blair snorted inelegantly. "What is it about macho cops that they have such difficulty with the concept of 'friendship'?" he asked, rhetorically. "Jim doesn't seem to get it, either. Friendship isn't 'deserved', Simon; it just is. All you have to do is share it, enjoy it, return it, and maybe extend it to others. Like Naomi used to say, 'love makes the world go round' -- and I love you both." He chuckled at Simon's slightly glazed expression. "Yeah, I figured that would go over real big with you. Forget about it man; let's eat."




Shortly before five, Jim knocked on the captain's door. "End of a long day, Simon," he said when he entered. "Taggart's joining Sandburg and me for a steak dinner at The Cattle Baron. We thought you might like to pick up Daryl and come with us; sort of make it a family affair. I think we deserve to celebrate after taking down the Blocker boys. How about it?"

Simon tossed his pen on the desk and leaned back in his chair, reaching under his glasses to rub tired eyes. "Sounds like a winner, especially after dealing with this crap all day. I swear, for two cents I'd put on a uniform and go back to walking a beat; let someone else worry about the paperwork."

"Arrest reports. Daily beat reports. Accident reports," Jim pointed out. "And the scuttlebutt is that the higher-ups will soon be demanding dog-poop reports. Face it, Simon, we'll never get away from the paperwork. But at least we can bury our sorrows under a rare steak and good beer. We have reservations for six-thirty; adding two more won't be a problem."

"You've convinced me. I'll swing by and pick up Daryl, and meet you there."




"Simon Banks," he told the receptionist. "I'm with Jim Ellison."

She checked the book. "Yes, sir; your party is already in the back room. Marcus will show you the way."

Simon followed the waiter, wondering what was up. The 'back room' was usually reserved for large parties; the five of them wouldn't even require an overly-large table.

He paused just a few steps inside the doorway, slightly disconcerted. Someone had indeed reserved a large party; it looked like every single member of the Major Crime Unit was present, and the room was decorated with an assortment of brightly-colored balloons and colorful streamers. On the far wall was a large banner that read, "CONGRATULATIONS!" in sparkly letters. Congratulations for what? Simon wondered in bemusement.

He felt Daryl pushing at him from behind. "What's the big deal, Dad? You know all these people. Let's go sit down so we can eat; I'm hungry!"

Daryl was right; he knew these people, and he could give them hell on Monday morning. In the meantime, he took a seat in one of the empty chairs that had been so prominently reserved at the main table, and Daryl settled in next to him.

Simon let his gaze roam among his friends and coworkers, and finally settled on Sandburg. "What's going on here?" he barked.

"Not a thing, Simon," Blair assured him. "We just realized that the whole department deserves to pat ourselves on the back. Every single one of us worked our asses off to bring in the Blockers, so we simply... expanded the celebration a little."

"And I suppose you managed this 'expansion' in the past hour and a half?"

"Well, no..." Blair started cautiously.

Taggart spoke quickly. "We've been planning it for a couple of days," he admitted, "but Blair pointed out that parties are more fun if someone is surprised. Since your desk isn't in the bullpen, it was easy to make you the 'surprisee'. And that means the rest of us pick up the tab for your and Daryl's dinners, so you really can't complain." He sat back, beaming comfortably.

Simon kept his snort of disbelief internal. How is it I never noticed that Sandburg has two Blessed Protectors? he wondered. He's got Ellison and Taggart wrapped around his little finger. We're just lucky he uses his powers for good instead of evil.

He turned to his son. "And you knew all about this?"

"Well, sure, Dad," Daryl said. "I like your friends, and I'm happy you guys got another bunch of creeps off the streets, so I want to celebrate, too. And there's no sense turning down a free steak dinner."

All right. Simon had the feeling that, eventually, another shoe would drop. Meanwhile, he might as well enjoy the good company and good food. He grinned toothily around the group. "You may be sorry; I intend to order the most expensive meal on the menu. Has anyone asked if they're offering lobster tonight?" Amid hearty laughter and a spattering of applause, he reached for a menu.




Over a delicious dessert of 'Sizzling Apple Crisp' topped with 'homemade' vanilla ice cream -- yes, it was just a fancy dressed-up type of apple pie, but sometimes traditional treats were the best, and the ice cream certainly tasted homemade -- Simon noticed an expectant stir among the participants. Here it comes, he thought. Wonder who they selected for the fall guy?

As Simon laid his fork down after the last bite, Taggart rose and cleared his throat. "Simon," he began, "I'm sure you've realized that we had ulterior motives in planning this get-together."

"They didn't make me 'captain' for nothing, Joel," he quipped.

"We know that, Simon. In fact, that's why we're here. We've decided that the captains always get short shrift at the yearly Awards Banquet. There's recognition for individual policemen, and detectives, and teams... but captains -- good ones -- are almost invisible. They're the linchpin of their unit, but linchpins don't get noticed, even though everything else hangs on them.

"So, we took a very exclusive vote; only the members of Major Crime were eligible." Taggart paused to let the laughter sweep across the room. "And the vote was unanimous; we're giving you an award for the best captain of the Cascade PD."

Thunderous applause spread through the group, while Taggart ceremoniously presented his captain with a medium-sized, flat box. Simon opened it to find a wood-and-brass plaque. He read the inscription:


Awarded to
Captain Simon Banks
of the
Major Crime Unit

The best damn captain
of the best damn section
of the entire
Cascade Police Department.

Your bark inspires terror,
but also pushes us to achieve
more than we ever thought we could.

It is an honor to work with you.


Underneath the inscription were the names of every member of his team, including Rhonda, Megan, and Sandburg.

Simon's throat thickened, even as his eyebrows raised. He'd have to keep this in an inconspicuous place in his office; it was obviously meant only for him and close friends, rather than for any passerby into Major Crime, but the sentiments struck a deep chord within him. He couldn't even begin to understand what he'd done to deserve this -- he simply did his job to the best of his ability -- but he appreciated the deep feeling behind it.

"Speech! Speech!" came the inevitable cry.

Simon's voice was husky. "I... I don't know what to say." He stopped to clear his throat, then tried again. "To say I'm stunned is putting it mildly; as Joel said, captains don't get much in the way of specific recognition. From reading the inscription, you seem to think it's an honor to serve with me. To tell the truth, I'm the one who's honored to serve with all of you; there really is no finer group of men and women in the entire Cascade PD.

"Someone told me recently," he cast his eyes toward Sandburg, "that 'it's about friendship', and it seems he was right. I certainly think of all of you as 'friends', and I'm prouder than I can say that you feel the same way about me. Thank you.

"Although..." Simon directed a fierce glare toward each table, "this doesn't mean that I'll go any easier on any of you, come Monday morning. We have the best unit in the whole of Cascade, and I intend to see it stays that way. If I inspired you with terror before, just wait!" He sat, among more applause and laughter, and well wishes called from every part of the room.

Daryl quickly grabbed the plaque to examine it more closely. "Man, Dad, that is so rad!" He leaned over to hug his father. "And you know, don't you, that as much grief as I give you sometimes, I'm proud of you, too. I couldn't ask for a better dad."

Simon returned the hug fiercely, resting his cheek on his son's head. "Daryl," he whispered, "that is the best present you could ever give me. Thank you, son."

Maybe he didn't deserve this, Simon thought, but he was going to hang on to it for as long as he possibly could. Thank God for friends and family, the only things that made life truly worth living.



The End




Author's Notes


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Title: For the Children
Summary: Blair's Halloween project grows bigger than he expected.
Style: Gen
Size: 3,110 words, about 6 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written October 2005, for the Sentinel Secrets challenge of "Halloween".
Feedback: Not necessary, but comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





For the Children

by StarWatcher





Friday, Oct. 10th

"Say, Jim, can I borrow the truck for a few hours tomorrow?"

Blair had chosen the right moment to distract his friend -- a commercial for cat litter didn't hold anyone's attention -- but Jim still gave him the lifted eyebrow routine. "Why, Sandburg? Your classic rattletrap seemed to be running just fine when you drove in this evening."

Blair shook his head in mock sorrow. "Jim, do you really think that you should keep casting aspersions on my choice of vehicles? Your sixty-nine truck wasn't born yesterday."

"It's not the age, it's the action," he intoned pontifically. "At least my truck acts like a sprightly teenager; your car acts like a decrepit dowager."

"Ageism, Jim!" Blair sighed dramatically. "I'm shocked -- shocked I tell you! -- to hear such ugly words coming out of your mouth. With a little TLC, my 'decrepit dowager' will carry me faithfully for the next ten years. With your driving record, your sprightly teenager will be toast by next summer."

"Sandburg, let me explain something to you. When one man requests a favor of another man, it is counter-productive for the first man -- you -- to diss the habits and activities of the second man -- me. It might cause the second man to deny the first man's request, no matter how reasonable it may be, without even hearing what the request is. You think you might want to reconsider your words?" His eyes twinkled at his friend.

Blair wrestled the wide grin that tried to hijack his lips under control, and projected a credible -- if he did say so himself -- simulation of outrage. "Blackmail? That you, an officer of the law, would stoop so low is just... just sad, Jim." He shook his head again, and drew 'hauteur' around him like a cloak. "It is beneath my dignity to respond to such threats. Never mind; if I have to make three trips in the Volvo, so be it. I'm sure I'll be able to forgive you... in time." He swung on his heel to stalk out of Jim's presence and, incidentally, to allow the broad smile to break free.

"Yeah, yeah, save it for the fishes," Jim retorted amiably. "Seriously, Sandburg, what do you need the truck for that the Volvo can't do?"

"Oh, man, we've got this big project lined up." Blair swung back and sat on the opposite couch, leaning forward and transmitting his enthusiasm with sparkling eyes. "One of the TAs mentioned that a lot of kids in long-term care are stuck in the hospital over Halloween. The hospital staff make a holiday fuss at Christmas and Easter, to make them feel not so isolated, but Halloween kinda gets overlooked. So we decided we'd decorate a bunch of pumpkins and give each kid his very own Halloween pumpkin. Cool, huh?"

Jim was dubious, though he hated to dampen Blair's excitement. "I dunno, Chief. Seems to me that a jack-o-lantern would be a prime breeding ground for germs, and some kids might even be allergic. Will the hospital allow it? And how many is 'a bunch'?"

"No, man, not a problem." He waved off the objections with a careless hand. "I said 'decorate', not 'carve'. We'll use whole pumpkins -- they'll stay fresh a lot longer -- and decorate them with paint and markers, maybe glue stuff on to make faces or characters or animals. We checked with the hospitals and it's not against policy, so that's okay. And right now, between the three hospitals, there's a hundred and twenty-nine kids who'll probably still be there on Halloween. We have two teaching fellows and four TAs in the project, so that's twenty-one-and-a-half pumpkins apiece. But we each figure to do twenty-five, so we'll be sure to have enough if any more kids are on the wards by then."

"I don't see the problem, Chief, except maybe you finding time to decorate all those, but that's your lookout. You should be able to get twenty-five pumpkins in the trunk and back seat, unless you're going for the giant ones."

"Well..." His grin turned a bit sheepish. "Two of the TAs don't have cars; I said I'd pick them up and we could all go out to the Pumpkin Patch together. They charge half the price of what the stores do, and we'll have a greater size selection. The stores seem to carry only the really small hand-sized ones, or the really big armful-sized ones. We need pumpkins that are big enough to decorate, but small enough for little hands to hold them, and to set on the nightstand beside them. Even so, seventy-five just won't fit in the Volvo..." He let his words trail off, and waited expectantly.

Jim surrendered; the commercial break was almost over. "Okay, Sandburg, the truck is all yours tomorrow. Although," he pointed a warning finger, "if it's damaged, I'll take it out of your hide." He noted with amusement that Sandburg couldn't quite mask his relief; had the kid really thought he'd say 'no'? "Just tell me... what's her name?"

"Who?"

"The one who came up with this idea. I know you, Sandburg; it had to be a girl."

Blair's look of wounded offence got no reaction; his friend simply waited for an answer. "Okay, okay; it was Cindy. Big brown eyes and the friendliest girl you'd ever want to meet. But that's beside the point; it's still a good idea that will help brighten some kids' lives a little bit, you know?"

Jim's lips quirked with mild amusement. "You're right, Sandburg; I'm sure they'll enjoy it. You know, some day you'll make a great daddy." With that astonishing pronouncement, he dismissed the matter from his mind and turned back to the TV.



Monday, Oct. 13th

Jim listened in amusement as the whispers passed around the bullpen while he worked diligently to finish his report. Once again, the grapevine had proved to be faster than the most modern method of communication. As the news traveled from Megan to Rhonda, to Henri and Rafe, and then to Dills, Johnson, and Garcia, Jim idly wondered what kind of reception Blair would get once he reached Major Crime. He glanced at the clock. Well, just two hours, and he'd have his answer.




Blair walked through the doorway right on time, calling greetings to everyone he saw. He had barely deposited his backpack beside Jim's desk, and was just removing his coat, when Henri advanced on him.

"Hairboy! What kind of friend keeps all the fun for himself? It ain't cool to keep your brothers away from the action."

Blair gaped. "What are you talking about, H? I don't have any action to keep you away from."

Megan joined the little group. "He means your Halloween project, Sandy. It sounds like fun; we'd like to help. Halloween is a time for kids, and since we don't have any, this is a chance to connect with them."

"Yeah," Rafe affirmed as he walked up. "We figure we could each decorate two or three pumpkins, take some of the work off your hands, and maybe have a contest when they're all finished to judge who did the best, and the funniest, and like that."

Blair stared at his friends as Rhonda assured him, "We've got it all planned, Blair. We can set up a long table over there," she pointed to the wall next to the copy machine, "and put them all on display as we finish them. Simon has agreed to judge the contest before you deliver them to the hospitals. So, what do you say?"

"Well..." Blair eyed the group around him, then looked out across the bullpen; several other detectives seemed to be watching and waiting for his answer. "How many of you want to join in?" Nine hands shot into the air. Blair did some rapid mental calculations. "Okay. I really appreciate the help, but I should spread it around. S'pose I collect some of the pumpkins from the others; if you'll all decorate four, that'll give each of us six less to deal with. Sound good?"

Assurances were pouring in from all sides when Captain Banks, watching from the doorway of his office, judged it a good time to send his people back to work. He accomplished that with a loud, "Ahem!" and watched in satisfaction as his detectives returned to their desks.

Shaking his head in bemusement, Blair shelved the pumpkin logistics for later and slid into his chair at Jim's desk. "So, Jim, what's on the agenda for this afternoon?"

"Glad you're here, Chief. I keep thinking I may have missed something in the Bellars' house; I'd like to go through it again. I'll need you to ground me, and help with the senses. You up to it?"

"All the way, man; you know I'll always have your back." He grabbed his coat and backpack and followed his sentinel out the door.



Monday, Oct. 20th

After supper, Blair had covered the table with newspapers and spread out his supplies -- paint and glue, markers, yarn, felt, glitter, poster-board and various odds and ends that Jim didn't even recognize. He merely felt grateful that Blair had searched for -- and found -- 'hypoallergenic' paints and markers; they had a reduced odor that was easier on his senses. Still, he turned his mental dial down a notch so that he wouldn't have to smell them, and settled on the couch to watch a 'mystery', accompanied by acid commentary of the depicted 'police procedures', which Blair ignored with the ease of long practice.

During the commercial break, Jim rose to grab a beer. He stopped near the table for a moment, watching Blair at work. The current pumpkin had eight fuzzy pipe cleaners stuck into it, angled up and bent over to form a spider's legs. Blair had glued white poster-board eyes and fangs onto a large circle of black fake fur, and was now gluing that to the side of the pumpkin. Simple, but effective, Jim decided.

"So, Sandburg, what number is this one?"

"Twelve, Jim; only seven more to go." He spoke without looking up. "I'll make it easily. Are you sure you don't want to try your hand at one? It's really kind of satisfying, creating something for kids."

"I catch bad guys, Chief; that's satisfaction enough." He continued his journey to the fridge, grabbed a beer, and ambled back to the couch to catch the second half of the movie.

Blair set number twelve aside to let the glue dry, and picked up number thirteen. He chewed his lip as he examined it from all sides, searching for inspiration on how to decorate this one. Maybe... a vampire. He reached for the black paint and went to work.



Friday, Oct. 24th

For the past ten days, Blair had watched, with a touch of amused awe, as the decorated pumpkins appeared on the display table. Now forty sat waiting for Captain Banks to pronounce the winners. As Blair surveyed the witches and goblins, the cats, bats, ghosts and various other Halloween figures, he was amazed at the talent that some of the detectives had shown in their efforts to bring a bit of pleasure to sick children who were unknown to them. He wondered idly if he could persuade some of his friends to join the adult art classes at the Community College; such talent should be encouraged. But that was for another day.

Some of them, on the other hand, seemed a little less appropriate. Blair nudged Megan, who was standing next to him. "Why a mouse?" he whispered, staring at big eyes and ears and a whiskery snout, crafted from felt and glued in place. "That's not very Halloween-y."

"Not a mouse!" she whispered back. "It's an Australian pygmy possum; they're very cute, and often used in artwork at home. We don't celebrate Halloween down under, so I thought I'd give one of the little tin lids a taste of a different culture."

Ooo-ka-a-ay, he thought with a mental shrug, but refrained from saying anything else.

At precisely four o'clock, the door to the Captain's office opened and Simon Banks approached the contest entries with suitable gravity. He chewed his cigar as he paced in front of the table, examining each pumpkin carefully, occasionally tipping one back or turning it from side to side to evaluate the quality of the artistry. Once in awhile, he jotted something on the notepad he was carrying. The members of the bullpen held their collective breaths as they awaited their captain's pronouncement.

Finally, Simon turned toward the gathered crowd. He surveyed them solemnly for a moment, then smiled broadly. "Gentlemen!" he boomed, "…And ladies," he added, with a nod toward Megan and Rhonda, "you've all done extremely well. Some little child will be very pleased to get any of these pumpkins; you can be proud of the effort you've put into your art. However, we have only a limited number of prizes to hand out, deserving though each entrant may be. So without further ado..." He consulted his notebook.

"The 'silliest' prize goes to Henri's hula dancer." He raised an eyebrow at Henri's beaming smile. "H, 'fat orange' and 'hula dancer' just don't mesh well, but I salute your ingenuity."

"Now, Captain, if she was real, that lady could really shimmy," Henry opined, beaming fondly at his creation with its plastic-grass skirt, small lei draped around a nonexistent neck, and two painted walnut shells in lieu of coconut breast-cups. "And she'd be a nice cuddly armful, if you know what I mean." He winked and elbowed Rafe, to make sure his partner caught the joke.

Captain Banks spoke a little louder, to override the heartfelt groans from the detectives around him. "The prize for 'nostalgic' goes to Rhonda's hippie girl. She may well be the hit of the ward," he suggested, surveying the painted big blue eyes, bright smile, and the yellow flowers tastefully adorning the fibrous hair, some of which had been braided with beads and feathers. "I can see that you put a lot of work into her."

"Thank you, Captain. I am rather proud of her," Rhonda said with her normal quiet composure, but a pleased smile.

The announcements continued as, perhaps not coincidentally, each participant received some kind of prize. Rafe's green-snake-haired medusa tied with Garcia's scowling, big-toothed monster as 'scariest' pumpkins, and Megan's green-skinned witch was judged 'most traditional'. The big, burly Johnson bowed ironically among the teasing catcalls as his Raggedy Ann, complete with orange-yarn hair and sitting on a white ruffled collar, was declared the 'sweetest' design. The 'funkiest' award went to Dills' big-nosed clown, eerily enhanced with a spider in its frizzy green hair.

By now, Simon was sounding like a carnival barker as he proclaimed the last of the prizes. "The award for 'most contemporary' goes to Sandburg's soldier. I like the camouflaged doo-rag," he told a grinning Blair, "but I suspect that the dog-tags better not be Jim's."

"Uh, no, Simon; Army surplus," he assured the captain. "I think some boy will like to have 'real soldier tags', you know? I just hope he never has to use them." Blair glanced at Jim as he spoke, mutely extending sympathy for what his friend had endured in the past, which Jim acknowledged with a small shrug and a wry twist of his lips.

"And finally," Simon consulted his notebook one last time, "the prize for 'best secret entrant and action figure' goes to Ellison's pirate. But tell me," he asked slyly, "does the hearing in the extra big ears make up for having only one eye?"

Blair's eyes widened as he stared at his friend. "Jim! How... I mean, when... I mean, I thought you weren't interested."

"Not in mass-production like you set up, Sandburg." Jim shrugged nonchalantly. "But one was kind of fun; like you said, it's for the children. And besides, it was worth it to see your face." He snickered and aimed a swat at Blair's head, which his friend easily avoided. "I admit it's been a while, but I think I can remember what kids like."

"Yeah, man, it looks like it." Blair examined the pirate more closely, taking note of the eye-patch, and the plastic dagger held within sharpened teeth. "I gotta say, I'm impressed."

"So, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the judging," Simon announced. "I've decided on a democratic approach to the prizes -- choose your own." With that, he lifted a large napkin from the end of the table to reveal a plate heaped with an assortment of candy bars. "Have one, people; you've earned it."

As the plate passed from hand to hand, each person selecting his or her favorite chocolaty indulgence, Simon spoke again. "And finally, one last award -- an honorable mention to the man who instigated this little bit of fun and frivolity. Blair -- for helping each of us to connect with our 'inner child', and for working to bring a little ray of happiness to children who need it -- thank you. I think you've done more good than you know." He solemnly presented the stunned young man with a giant, economy-sized Mr. Goodbar as the assembled detectives clapped and cheered.



Sunday, Oct. 26th

Blair breezed into the loft, tossed the keys in the basket, and hung his coat on the hook. "Hey, Jim. Man, it is nippy outside; real Fall weather. Do I smell coffee?"

Jim replied without looking up from his book. "Yeah, Sandburg, fresh-perked. I figured you'd be home around now. Bring me a cup, too."

"What, am I your maid?" he groused good-naturedly as he crossed to the kitchen to fill two cups.

"No; call it payment for truck-rental, and remember that you got off easy. Did you get them all delivered?"

Blair handed one cup to his friend and sat down on the opposite couch. "Sure did. I felt sorry for all those kids stuck in the hospital over a holiday, but their eyes really lit up when we passed out the pumpkins. I think we did good."

"I know you did good, Chief. You give your heart and soul to everything you do... and sometimes I even appreciate it." Jim winked at Blair's open-mouthed expression.

Blair rallied quickly. "I'm glad you feel that way, Jim; I thought maybe the mess and disruption might be too much for you. But since it didn't bother you, I've been thinking, maybe for Christmas..."

"Sandburg!"



The End



Author's Notes

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Title: Blame it on Garmina
Summary: Department of Stupid Excuses
Style: Gen
Size: 2, 505 words, about 5 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Giftfic for [livejournal.com profile] betagoddess, April, 2009
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org



Blame it on Garmina

by StarWatcher




This story was "To Helen
with fervent wishes for the best possible outcome,
and a speedy recovery.
I hope this little story will help brighten your day."

Sadly, Helen lost her battle with cancer.
She is greatly missed, and will be long remembered.







"We're close, Jim, I'm sure of it. Turn down this street."

Jim turned the F-150 to the right, making sure that his exasperated sigh was loud enough for Blair to hear. "Sandburg, I know it's exciting to share a new 'discovery' with friends, but has it ever occurred to you that it might be easier if you'd notice a street name, or a landmark, or something, so you could get back there? You could faint from hunger while looking for your restaurant."

"Oddly enough, there are very few street signs in primitive villages," Blair retorted. "And I noticed plenty of landmarks -- it was right next door to a leather-goods shop, and just across the street from a pet store, and that was next to a Napa Auto Parts. I was following Jason to his place to borrow some equipment, so I admit I didn't notice the street name, but I know we're within a block or two. Actually, if you'd quit complaining long enough to roll down the window and take a deep breath, you should be able to smell it -- authentic Greek cooking, using only fresh ingredients. You can sink your teeth into the Greek version of a hamburger -- made with onion and herbs in the meat, about ten steps up from WonderBurger -- while I eat a healthy vegetarian version of stuffed zucchini with egg and lemon sauce. Or, Jason said they make an ostrich steak in a sauce of orange juice and red wine that's orgasmic." He kissed the tips of his fingers enthusiastically, miming exuberant bliss. "I guarantee, we'll both be happy."

"Sandburg..." Jim growled. He reminded himself that beating his head against the steering wheel would make driving difficult, not to mention making his headache worse. "Look, I appreciate the support you've given me the past couple of months; I couldn't have gotten a handle on these senses without your help. But you've got to get over this idea that this sentinel thing is 'easy'. If we're a couple of blocks away, how do you expect me to smell grape leaves and garlic while I'm being hit with the smell of gas fumes, oil residue, car exhaust, dirty streets, stinking alleys with dozens of overflowing garbage dumpsters..."

Blair subsided immediately, casting Jim an apologetic look. "Sorry, man; I forgot. It's just that it should be easy; the original sentinels had to be able to isolate smells -- or any other kind of input -- from competing information in order to function effectively. There's gotta be a way for you to... I dunno --" His hands cut patterns through the air as he tried to express a new, nebulous idea. "-- kind of filter out what you don't want, and enhance what you need. Maybe if we --"

"Any unit in the vicinity of fifty-eight twenty-two Tampeka, respond to a one-thirty, possible four-sixty. No injuries reported at this time."

"Just two blocks away," Jim grunted. With an economy of motion that never failed to impress Blair, he spun the wheel to make a U-turn while using his left hand to set the magnetic police light on the roof. He flipped on the siren as he gunned the engine, then reached for the mic. "One-zebra-one, responding. ETA two minutes."

"What're we heading for?" Blair asked as he braced himself. Even two minutes of Jim's version of speed-driving could bounce him around within the limits of his seatbelt.

"Property damage with possible moving violation. Some idiot probably ran over a mailbox or something."

"Or something," Blair agreed as they reached the scene. They were looking at a fire-engine red Cadillac DeVille Concours that was buried hood-deep into the wall of a dress shop. For a moment, he felt ill as he wondered how there could have been 'no injuries reported'; he distinctly saw twisted bodies on the ground, and one poor woman writhing in agony on the roof of the vehicle. Then, like a scene shift in a movie, his brain caught up with his eyes, and Blair realized he was seeing window dummies that had been displaying the latest fashions. He offered a heart-felt 'thank you' to whatever gods were listening before he asked, "How d'you suppose the driver managed to do that?"

"We'll find out," Jim said grimly as he parked his Ford. "My money's on DWI." Slamming the door behind him, he stalked toward the chaotic scene with Sandburg following at his heels.

The scene resolved itself into three principal parties -- two of them arguing with various degrees of anger and upset -- with the usual crowd of rubberneckers surrounding them and offering useless advice. A tall, dark-haired woman was shouting at the pudgy, red-faced man in front of her. "I don't care if God himself told you to turn! You drove right into my store, for Christ's sake, and I'm not seeing my insurance go up because of an asshole like you; you're paying every penny of damages!"

"Look, Lady, it's defective equipment!" the pudgy man roared back, his face becoming even redder. "If you sue the manufacturer, they'll learn to put out a decent product. I'm not responsible if the damn thing didn't work like it was supposed to!"

"Cascade PD!" Jim announced as he worked his way through the crowd. "Stand back, people; give us some room to work, here."

"Not responsible?!" the tall woman shrieked. "I saw you behind the wheel, driving right at the store like it's an open street. It's only God's grace that let me get out of the way fast enough to avoid being run over; you're either drunk, blind, or an idiot!"

The crowd parted reluctantly, then closed in again as Jim and Blair reached the open area that encompassed the accident scene; apparently, no one wanted to miss the show.

The pudgy man puffed up to an alarming degree, while the other woman -- short, slender and sweet-faced, but wearing an anxious expression -- tugged on his arm. "Harold, you need to calm down. You know what the doctor said about your blood pressure; this isn't good for you."

"You're right, ma'am," Jim said as he swept the group with a stern expression. "Everyone needs to calm down while we get this sorted out. Now, I'm Cascade PD," he tapped the badge at his belt, "so let's take this one at a time. Who's the owner of the store?"

"I am," the tall woman said. "Barbara Mattock -- 'Madam Mattie' -- and this fool insists it's not his fault that he destroyed my store! Well, that's not my car making a hole in my wall!"

"And you are?" Jim asked, deftly cutting off the man's next disclaimer.

"Jonas Polk. And like I told screaming Mimi over there --"

"There's no need for insults, sir; we'll get to the details in a moment." Jim focused on the smaller woman. "And your name, ma'am?"

"Oh, I'm Jonas's wife, Mandy. That is, Miranda Polk." She spoke hesitantly, with an ingratiating little smile. "And Jonas -- well, he might have reacted a little strongly, but Garmina has been less helpful than we thought."




Blair watched from the background as Jim wrote the information in his notebook. He wasn't using his sentinel senses, so didn't need Blair's input, but Blair was impressed at his friend's handling of the situation; just his presence seemed to be defusing the situation. Maybe he could make a paper out of this; the interactions of people under stress were always intriguing.

He thought that Ms. Mattock, for instance, would've been just as comfortable running a large corporation as a small store; she exuded controlled strength and a no-nonsense attitude. Mr. Polk, on the other hand, had very little self-control; he seemed to think that things would go his way if he simply shouted loudly enough and threw his weight -- literal as well as figurative -- over any and all obstacles. Mrs. Polk... well, she... fluttered. Not too surprising; she probably spent a lot of time trying to make sure that her husband didn't erupt.

Blair wondered if they had kids, and how they'd developed in such an environment. He wondered if Jim would ever have kids. Jim would be a good father, strict, but consistent and fair. How strong was the sentinel gene? Would one -- or more -- of Jim's kids be a sentinel? What kind of upbringing and early training would help a young sentinel develop his senses to the fullest? But Jim hadn't had his senses until adulthood; could early training prepare a potential sentinel for coming online as an adult, so it wouldn't be as difficult as it was for Jim? Burton hadn't mentioned it in his book, but Blair was beginning to realize that Burton really hadn't explained much concrete information about sentinels. No wonder Jim got so frustrated sometimes; half the time, Blair was improvising wildly as he tried to help the big guy control his senses. But Jim should have his senses firmly under control by the time Blair finished his dissertation. Maybe he could get a grant and travel to primitive tribes, to learn their histories of sentinels and how they developed and handled their skills; it was important to have more information if any other sentinels ever showed up. Maybe a second doctorate, with another dissertation...




"Garmina, Mrs. Polk? Is she still in the car?" Jim quickly scanned the vehicle with his senses. No heartbeat, but also no scent of blood.

"Yes... but Garmina's not a person. I just call her that because she has such a pleasant voice. We're driving cross-country soon, and I bought Jonas a UPS system to help him navigate, but --"

"G-PS system, Mandy, I keep telling you it's a G-PS system!" her husband interrupted, although -- under Jim's cool gaze -- not as forcefully as previously. "It's a Garmin nüvi seven-sixty, only she calls it 'Garmina'." Mr. Polk sneered at his wife, then continued his outraged justification. "It's supposed to be the best on the market," he told Jim indignantly, "but it's a piece of shit. Always giving me directions that'll take me the long way around--"

"Not always, Jonas," his wife said, timidly.

He ignored her completely. "-- like I haven't lived here all my life and don't know how to get across town! And it's got a whiney voice that keeps telling me to turn where there isn't a turn!" He pitched his voice to a sickly-sweet falsetto. "Turn right. Turn right. Turn right." He turned and glared at the car. "I haven't had a bit of satisfaction from the manufacturer -- told them they sold me a piece of crap and I wanted it fixed, but they said it was operating 'within normal parameters'. So I figured I'd just show them; the next time it told me to turn I damn well would, and I did, and you can see what a piece of crap it is!" He gestured wildly at the broken wall surrounding the car.

"Somehow, I doubt the GPS system wrenched the wheel out of your hands and aimed at this store, Mr. Polk," Jim said dryly. "I need you to stand straight, please, with your feet together and your hands extended at shoulder level. Then close your eyes and touch your nose with your index finger, each hand." Jim couldn't smell any alcohol on his breath, but he also couldn't use his sentinel senses as proof that the man hadn't been drinking.

"You calling me drunk? It's twelve-fifteen in the afternoon, and you're calling me drunk? I haven't touched a drop since dinner last night." Mr. Polk's belligerence was increasing again; it seemed he finally might be realizing that he couldn't walk away from his actions.

"He really hasn't, Officer," Mrs. Polk confirmed in a soft voice.

"Then it won't be difficult to demonstrate your sobriety. Do it, please." While Mr. Polk complied, Jim beckoned Blair closer. "Chief, I think I have a book of tickets in the glove box," he murmured. "Go get it for me, would you?"

As Blair hurried to comply, Jim directed Mr. Polk through the standard field sobriety test, finishing with Mr. Polk walking a straight line, heel to toe. As expected, he passed easily, although he continued to protest; the man's problem wasn't drunkenness, but giving in to temper tantrums that he should have outgrown by the time he was five.

"Thanks, Chief." Jim took the booklet from Blair and started writing. "Mr. Polk, this is a summons to appear in court at ten-thirty AM this Thursday. I expect that the judge won't care what 'Garmina' told you; you were in control of the vehicle." He evaluated the wrecked car, and the damage to the building. "I sincerely hope 'sending a message' to the manufacturers makes you feel better; I estimate that message will cost you about a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. And I expect your insurance rates will triple -- if they don't cancel your policy outright."

Jim ignored Mr. Polk's gaping mouth to turn to Mrs. Polk. "Ma'am, the judge might be a little more lenient if your husband is already enrolled in an anger-management class. I suggest you look into it immediately."

She cast a nervous glance at her husband, but nodded. "Yes, Officer. Thank you; I will."

"Ms. Mattock." Jim was writing another summons. "You're the injured party here -- fortunately not physically." He gave her a slight, understanding smile, which she returned. "But you should also be there, to explain what happened from your point of view, and the extent of the damages. I suggest you go armed with Polaroid pictures that you'll take before you start cleaning up this mess."

She took the slip of paper, calm now that it was clear the driver wouldn't evade the consequences of his actions. "Thank you, Officer; I'll be there."

Jim turned to the crowd. "Okay, folks, it's over. Go back to whatever you were doing."

Slowly, the onlookers began to disperse, and then Blair was gripping his arm in excitement. "Jim, look! I told you we were close!" He gestured wildly in the opposite direction from where they'd parked the truck.

Four doors down was a Napa Auto Parts store, next to a pet store. Across from those he saw another store -- 'Barelli's Fine Leathers' -- and a restaurant -- 'It's Greek to Me'.

"So, what do you say? You're finished with the police thing, and I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. Lunch?"

"You swear they have edible meat, something that's not seventy-five percent vegetables?"

"I swear, man! And if they don't, I promise I won't say a word while you drive us to WonderBurger. But since we found it, we should at least look at the menu."

"We 'found' it? You have a loose interpretation of the word, Sandburg; you had us heading the other way." But, now that he was close enough, Jim could smell a heady aroma emanating from the restaurant -- clean, spicy and mouthwatering, with plenty of meat in the mixture. "But I suppose if I don't try it, you won't let it drop for the next three days. Okay, lunch."



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Ships that Pass...
Summary: A soldier protects a college student, just before a mission.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,505 words, about 8 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: A bit of unwanted sexual contact.
Notes: Written December, 2005. Two military acronyms used; if you don't know them, they're at the end of the story.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Ships that Pass...

by StarWatcher





FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 1988

Captain James Ellison stared at the duffle bag on his bed as he ran through a mental checklist, confirming that he hadn't left anything out. They'd be in the bush for at least three months before pick-up -- longer if the mission required it -- and there'd be no running to the PX to grab a forgotten item. As it was, he and his team would be living off the land and wishing for the little luxuries of home long before they were brought back to the States.

He raised his head at a knock on the door. "Enter!"

Sergeant Vincent Sarris stepped into the room, snapped a sharp salute, then relaxed into easy informality at Captain Ellison's nod. Sarris considered Ellison was one of the better officers -- firm but fair, he took no guff, but supported his men one hundred percent. He was frequently too serious, though, and Vinnie had made it a personal goal to help his captain have a little fun when such occasions were available.

"Everyone's packed and ready to go, Captain. We thought we'd head out for one last night on the town, and wondered if you'd like to join us."

"We ship out at oh-seven-hundred, Sarris. Flying out while you're hung over is not a good idea, aside from the fact that it's against protocol."

"Sir! Yes, sir!" He grinned as he snapped another sharp salute. "None of us intend to get drunk. But there's a nice little spot near the University -- a real friendly atmosphere for drinking, and pretty ladies to dance with. It'll be our last chance for a long time; what d'you say?"

"I say the younger men might enjoy it, but you and I are a bit too old for college girls. And what would your wife say?"

Vinnie shrugged. "She knows I like to party, but I never go home with any girl but her. And it's not like I can hop down to San Diego for the night. TDY sucks, but Alice is a military wife; she knows I'll come back to her as soon as I can.

"In the meantime," he continued, "not all of the ladies at 'The Dancing Queen' are college girls; it attracts gals and guys up to our age, and older. You'll have a good time, Captain, I promise -- and you need to loosen up before the mission. Are you game?"

Ellison raised a bemused eyebrow. "Do you really expect me to be comfortable in a place called 'The Dancing Queen'? What -- no beer, just little colored drinks with cute paper umbrellas sticking out the top? No, thanks."

"No, Captain, it's not like that," Sarris earnestly assured him. "Yeah, I guess maybe the owner listened to too much ABBA, but the name doesn't change what's inside -- friendly atmosphere, good music, good drinks, billiards or darts in a side room if you want to play, and pretty ladies just looking for a good time. How can you beat that? It's way better than sitting alone in your quarters, trying to figure out how we're supposed to turn a bunch of illiterate savages into an organized militia capable of fighting the drug-runners. So come on; party tonight, plan tomorrow while we're stuck on a long flight. Sound good?"

Ellison capitulated. "Sounds good -- on one condition. For tonight, we're not captain, sergeant, or privates; we're Jim, Vinnie, Hank, Sammy and Pete. Got that?" He nudged his friend with an elbow and got an answering nod as they headed toward the door to gather the rest of the team.




Tommy Baker poked his head in the open door of Blair's dorm room. "Hey, Sandburg, you are coming with us to 'The Dancing Queen' tonight, aren't you? Melissa said she'd bring Gena along," he added with a knowing leer.

"Oh, yeah, man, I am so there; just finished my big Anthro paper and I am ready to par-tay!" he crowed. "And I'm thinkin' I can demonstrate some of my 'native tribal dance moves' to the gals." He essayed a practice hip-shimmy, and grinned at the look of revulsion on his friend's face. "Hey, don't knock it! I gotta have something to stack up against the jocks, and practically everybody bein' older'n me. Besides, I like to dance, and they won't serve me beer till I'm twenty-one; it's way better than sittin' around like a geek."

"Sandburg, in case you missed the memo, you are a geek," Tommy reminded him. "But you don't show off with it, and you're one of the funnest geeks we know, so we don't mind you coming along. Maybe some of that 'lady-magnetism' you seem to have will spread to the rest of us."

"Right; in your dreams," Blair laughed. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that some of us are born to greatness, and the rest of you can only aspire to it?" He spread his arms with a shoulder-shimmy that traveled upward and caused his long curls to bounce around his face. "You can study at my feet, but you'll never be as great as the master."

"Uh-huh, and tomorrow night I'll win the lottery. Meanwhile, you'll be so busy bopping to the music that you won't notice the rest of us scooping up the disappointed girls you're not dancing with. So save your fancy moves for the dance-floor, grab your coat and let's go; we're all meeting in the quad in five minutes."

"I'm comin', man, I'm comin'; Naomi Sandburg didn't raise any slugs." Together, they headed for the stairs, and a typical collegiate Friday night.




By unconscious and unrecognized habit, Ellison and his men grabbed a table in the far corner of the room. Aided by sitting in the raised dining section -- up three steps -- they would be able to observe the entire room and, with their backs to a solid wall, no unpleasant surprises would be able to sneak up on them. They ordered beers and snacks, then settled back to survey the terrain before making their moves.

Ellison noted that the place seemed to be well-managed. Despite the high spirits and the youth of many of the dancers, the bouncer had no reason to exercise his muscles; it seemed that a quiet word in the ear to anyone who appeared to be getting argumentative was enough to engender a cease-fire, and the combatants resolved their differences. Some of the clientele seemed awfully young, though...

"How does the management get away with serving drinks to minors?" he asked Sarris. "I thought the cops came down hard on anyone serving booze to underage kids."

"They don't," Vinnie assured him. "This place is really careful to check out everyone's ID. You saw it with Pete; everyone here is at least twenty-one, or a student at Rainier. If they're not yet twenty-one, they get an ink-stamp on the back of their hand, and if they have a stamp, they can only get non-alcoholic drinks. The kids don't seem to push it much; no other place accommodates them so readily, and they don't want to lose it.

"And now if you'll excuse me, I see a couple of ladies sittin' over there who look like they really need a dance. Sammy, you comin' with me?"

Ellison shook his head in amazement -- how did Sarris know this stuff? -- as he watched his men approach their targets. The ladies were apparently agreeable, and they were soon paired off and dancing to a song that he didn't even recognize.

He traded tall tales with Hank and Pete for awhile, until they, too, went to entice some young lovelies to dance. "C'mon, Cap," Pete urged before he left. "We're s'posed to be havin' fun tonight. Just look at all them gals waitin' for a tall, dark, handsome stranger to ask them to dance, and you're the answer to their prayers; how can you disappoint 'em?"

"Mainly because this isn't my style of music; I don't want look a fool out there. You go and uphold the image of the U.S. Army; I'll just sit here and watch the show." He grinned as he waved them off, then sat back to nurse his beer.

And it was entertaining, he decided, as he watched healthy young men and women enjoying themselves; he couldn't remember ever being that carefree, himself. Perhaps because only half of the crowd was old enough for alcohol, the atmosphere seemed livelier, but at the same time less frantic than at similar establishments he'd visited in the past. A local band -- they looked like college kids themselves -- provided the music, which was loud, but not at headache-inducing levels. The mix of colors that adorned the men as much as the women changed and rearranged in patterns as the dancing progressed, reminding him of the kaleidoscopes that had entranced him as a child.

As he watched the crowd, Ellison's gaze was drawn more and more often to one young man who seemed the epitome of lighthearted enjoyment. The kid looked barely sixteen although, according to Sarris, he had to be old enough to be a student at Rainier to be allowed in the door. Probably a freshman, Ellison decided, and quite a little peacock.

The kid had glossy chestnut hair falling in wild curls to his shoulders, and a brilliant smile that he bestowed on anyone who crossed his path; he exuded a joi de vivre that spread to everyone in his vicinity. He was wearing a white, loose, gauzy kind of shirt with billowing sleeves; the neck was open in a deep V, with dark chest hair peeking out. Bet he's real proud of that! Ellison thought in silent amusement. A pair of skin-tight jeans that left little to the imagination -- He's really advertising, there, Ellison mused -- completed the young man's attire; he'd obviously come intending to 'party hearty'.

The kid seemed happy to dance with anyone in the place, Ellison noted, male or female. Bisexual? he wondered to himself; there were half-a-dozen same-sex couples in the crowd, and no one seemed to care. Ah, the freedom of youth, he thought. And when the hell did I get old enough to think like that?

But careful watching indicated only restrained flirting with the female partners, and none at all with the males. Nah; the kid just likes to dance, doesn't care who with, he decided, noting the dazzling, enthusiastic smile that greeted each new partner. Ellison ordered another beer, let his gaze roam until he located and checked on each of his men, then continued watching the show.




The music ended and the band leader announced a fifteen-minute break so that the musicians could rest and refresh themselves. In high good humor, the dancers separated into pairs and groups and sought out some refreshment for themselves.

Blair collapsed into a chair at one of the larger tables and grabbed a napkin to mop his forehead. He grinned at the five males and eight females who had joined him. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "The place sure is jumpin' tonight! I need a little liquid pick-me-up before the band comes back, and maybe an incentive to get me back out on the floor. Gena, what d'you say?" He waggled his eyebrows and gave a mock leer that was neither given, nor taken, seriously.

Gena merely snorted and gave him an equally mock punch to the shoulder. "Knock it off, Blair; you're not fooling anyone. The only thing that would keep you from dancing is if you found one of your mythical sentinels, and followed it home. And besides, you're supposed to teach us that group dance you learned in Yemen."

"Not mythical." Blair made his usual protest by rote, unwilling to visit the argument again. "I'll find a sentinel one of these days." He spoke quickly to forestall the rebuttal he knew she was forming. "Till then let's have a few drinks and rest a bit. When the band comes back I'll see if they know anything like a polka, and we'll improvise."

Jerry protested. "Oh, come on, polka? You might as well try to get us into clog-dancing. It ain't gonna fly."

"Only the music is polka-ish," Blair explained patiently. "The movements are more like a line-dance, but in a circle. I'll lay odds you'll like it -- each guy gets to dance with each girl in the group, and every gal with every guy. Win-win for everybody, don't you think?" He winked broadly.




Ellison ordered another coffee; he'd switched from beer two hours ago when he'd realized that it would be up to him to serve as designated driver, or else they'd have to take a cab back to the base. The charm of the evening had long since worn off; his tolerance for the loud music was fading fast, and it was a strain to keep tabs on his men in the dim lighting. The only thing that was even remotely entertaining anymore was watching the handsome young peacock he'd noticed earlier. The kid could really move. The music seemed to flow through him as his hips and shoulders echoed the beat, his feet pounding the tempo, his hair flying as he spun on the floor. He abandoned himself to the pulsing rhythms, utterly unselfconscious and fully alive, his eyes sparkling with the sheer joy of movement and the freedom of the dance.

The kid's energy and enthusiasm seemed to have diminished not one iota over the past three hours; he never lacked a partner, had a dazzling smile for each, and rested only during the band's breaks. Even then he seemed to fly high, always the center of a large group, talking a mile a minute and waving his hands to punctuate whatever he was saying. Not that anyone seemed to mind -- the group members were alternately fascinated or amused by the peacock's exposition -- but Ellison wondered if the kid ever ran down. It might be fun to have him at a party, Ellison thought, but God help whoever has to live with such a motor-mouth.

The kid's current dance partner was a male who 'pinged' on Ellison's internal alert system. There was a hard look in his eyes, and his smile was just a shade this side of a sneer. But the kid didn't seem to notice; he was smiling up at the bigger man and chatting as they both executed the intricate dance moves.

The rhythm of the music slowed, and Hard-Eyes moved closer, grinding groin to groin as he leaned down to whisper in the kid's ear. The peacock's smile faltered and his eyes widened; he shook his head violently and tried to step back. But Hard-Eyes had a tight grip on the kid's hips -- a grip that would leave bruises, Ellison thought -- and continued to force the intimate contact.

Where the hell is the bouncer? Ellison wondered, searching the room. He couldn't see the man; maybe he'd gone to the john. Turning back to the drama below him, he saw the kid try unsuccessfully to knee Hard-Eyes in the balls. The bigger man just laughed and continued his low-key assault, seemingly confident that the other dancers were unaware of what was happening, or simply not caring if anyone noticed.

That's it! Ellison thought savagely, rising to intervene. Even as a child, he'd never been able to stand a bully.




"What the hell do you think you're doing, man?" Blair gasped. "This is a dance, not a make-out party!"

"You think you can shake that sweet little ass around and not have anyone notice?" Evan purred. "You've been flaunting it all night, and I'm just the man to take advantage of it."

"I've been dancing, you cretin! You understand the concept? Moving in rhythm to have fun, usually accompanied by music. There was nothing more to it than that." Blair could hardly contain his outrage -- or his desperation. He couldn't get loose from this Neanderthal's clutches... but he couldn't be dragged out the door without anyone noticing. Could he?

"Oh, there's a lot more to it than that, and we'll have plenty of fun with the rhythm I have in mind. So quit acting like an offended innocent and let's go somewhere more -- private."

"I am offended, you asshole!" Blair's anger was rising higher. "In the first place, I don't swing that way. In the second place, even if I did, force is not how it's done; it's supposed to be a mutually-agreed on, shared pleasure." He stopped struggling, waiting for an opening. "Pretty pathetic, that you can't find a reciprocal partner for your bed and have to take what isn't given. Must make you feel like a real big man, huh?" He twisted out of Evan's loosened grasp and aimed a knee at the bigger man's groin.

But it wasn't as easy as the books claimed; Evan easily sidestepped the blow, then reached out to grab Blair's upper arms, sinking his fingers deeply enough that there would be bruises in the morning. "Listen, you little shit," he snarled. "I'm --"

"You're going to drop your hands, step away from him, and leave this establishment," a firm, commanding voice ordered. "Quietly. If not, I'll be happy to throw you out."

Evan's eyes narrowed as he stared at the stranger in military drab who was trying to ruin his fun. No threat, he decided; the man was an inch shorter than him and twenty pounds lighter. "Yeah?" he challenged. "You and what army?"

The cool blue eyes facing him glinted with amusement. "I don't need an army; I grind up dirt like you and spit it out before breakfast. But if you insist..."

The music had stopped a couple of minutes earlier, and the people nearby were noticing the confrontation, waiting quietly to see what would happen. Out of the corner of his eye, Ellison saw Hank and Vinnie take up positions that flanked him, while Sammy and Pete moved to the other side of Hard-Eyes and the kid.

"If you insist," Ellison continued, "you'll discover that Rangers rarely travel alone, that we never back down from a fight, and that we get mighty pissed when we see a bully picking on someone who's smaller and weaker." He glanced at the crowd around them; several people were muttering angrily as they began to realize what had been happening to one of their own.

"On the other hand," Ellison said, "it seems that the army won't be needed. Why don't you discuss it with these good people; they don't seem too happy with your actions, either." He stepped back; far better to allow these young adults to enforce their own standards of conduct. When the word got around, boors like this would be less likely to try anything in the future.

Evan looked around, measuring the reaction of the crowd, and recognized a losing proposition. He thrust Blair away, violently, but the blue-eyed stranger moved in swiftly and prevented him from falling. Evan sneered down into Blair's face. "You're not worth it, you little shit! I bet you're a lousy fuck, anyway." He turned and stalked to the door while the disapproving silence of the crowd measured his every footstep.

As the door closed behind Evan the crowd broke into applause, and Blair's friends gathered around him, questioning and exclaiming. They urged him to one of the tables as the band started playing again, and the dancing resumed. Ellison nodded approval to his men, then they also collected their ladies for more dancing as he returned to his watch-post in the corner.




Ellison watched as the kid apparently explained what had happened to his friends, then seemed to shrug off their concern. His smile was only slightly dimmed as he shook his head, then escorted one of the ladies to the dance floor.

Spunky, Ellison concluded. The kid's got grit. Kept his head in a tight situation, too. He'll be okay. As the music ended, he glanced at his watch. Half an hour more, he decided, then he'd gather his men to head back to the base. He caught the waitress's eye and lifted his mug to request another cup of coffee.




Ellison watched in mild surprise as the kid took the coffee from the waitress, stopped at the bar to get another mug, then climbed the stairs to the dining level. He set one mug in front of Ellison, then sat down across the table and took a sip out of his own mug. He squinted across the table, apparently unable to see his rescuer's features clearly in the dim light, then gave a slight head-shake, as if deciding it didn't matter. The kid settled back in his chair, obviously prepared to stay awhile.

"Hi," he said quietly. "I'm Blair. And I want to thank you for... well, for coming to my rescue. That guy was just a little too big for me to handle, you know? Anyway, I really appreciate it."

"Jim," he replied. "And you're welcome. But I don't think you were in any real danger; he couldn't have dragged you to the door without someone noticing."

"Well, that's what I thought, but it was pretty uncomfortable anyway. And I know what it's like to be so involved in dancing that you don't notice anything else but the music and your partner; I'm not sure anyone would have paid attention unless I screamed like a girl. Not that there's anything wrong with a girl screaming in such a situation," he said earnestly. "How else would people know that she needed help? But between being smaller and younger than my classmates, and a geek besides, I have enough trouble getting any respect, you know? I don't need to look like a wimp, too."

He took a deep breath. "Anyway, things like that don't hardly ever happen here, even to the girls, but I guess there's always a bad apple floating around and you never really know, so I just had to say 'thank you'. And I gotta say, the way it only took one man standing up to that creep to lead everyone else into expressing social disapproval is really an interesting commentary on human dynamics; I think there'd be a good research paper in there, if I wanted to study it."

Ellison was astonished. "Some guy molests you on the dance floor and you think it's worthy of a research paper? You said you're a geek, but isn't that taking it a bit too far?"

The kid grinned and shrugged. "What can I say? Occupational hazard -- I'm an anthropologist. Or I will be in just a couple of years. The similarities and differences of the various human cultures is riveting stuff, man; I'll be studying it till I'm old and gray without learning it all. Of course --"

"Two years?" Ellison interrupted ruthlessly. He'd been correct in his observations; the kid was a real motor-mouth, and apparently was ready to talk for hours unless he was stopped. "Doesn't it take more than two years to get a degree, even for a geek?"

The kid ignored the implied disbelief. "Absolutely," he agreed. "But I started two years ago. I expect to get my Bachelor's next year, and my Master's two years after that. Of course, I could do the bookwork in a year, but there'll be several expeditions to go on, to get practical experience, and that time can't be compressed, you know? Besides...." He drifted to a pause at the narrow-eyed look of judgment on the face across from him, then started to snicker.

"Oh, I get it; you think I'm just a baby, a freshman, right?" He nodded at the lessening tension in the other man's posture, accepting that as confirmation. "Books and covers, man -- no judging, right? I'll be nineteen in a couple of months; started when I was sixteen, expect to have my doctorate by twenty-four. Can't get anywhere by standing still; the early bird catches the worm and all those other old clichés."

Ellison settled back in his chair as he felt his incipient headache start to fade. The kid was mildly entertaining, and his company would make the last half hour of this tedious evening pass a little faster. "So what's your payoff in all this? A guy who's working as hard as you say you are has to have some specific goal in mind. Fame and fortune by the time you're thirty?"

"Nah, that's kid-stuff," he insisted. "I intend to find a living, breathing sentinel, and learn all I can. You see, they're these guys who have heightened senses, and...."




An hour and a half later, Ellison and his men climbed into the jeep for the ride back to the base. The extra time had passed almost unnoticed; the kid certainly could keep a conversation going. But he'd probably never reach his life's goal; it was unlikely that sentinels existed anymore, if they ever had. The captain shook his head in silent amusement. Super-men with super-senses. How farfetched can you get? he wondered.




Because of the late hour, the men escorted the ladies from the parking lot toward their dorm. The large group walked briskly through the frosty air as they discussed plans for the rest of the weekend.

"So, Blair," Gena teased, "you spent a lot of time with that big, hunky soldier. Was he trying to start something with you? He might be worth crossing to the other side."

Blair snorted. "Get real! He wasn't 'interested' in me; that was just him being polite, and making sure that asshole Evan didn't come back. I mean, think about it," he continued, his hands starting to fly with the earnestness of his argument. "Can you see us as even plain old drinking-buddy friends? I know his type, and we're complete polar opposites. He's total by-the-book, buttoned-down establishment, and I'm go-where-the-wind-blows, do-your-own-thing anti-establishment. He's a soldier; he couldn't put up with me for more than two hours, and I guarantee I wouldn't have any fun being around him. Not that it would come up -- he said he's shipping out tomorrow -- but it's just ridiculous! There's no way we'd ever be comfortable together."

He shook his head in disgust as he rejected her suggestion, and told himself that the unusually intense rapport he'd felt with the big man was all in his mind. It's nonsense, he assured himself. Some people just insist on seeing a connection where there is none. How crazy can you get?



The End


Military Acronyms

PX - Post Exchange, a kind of on-base general store
TDY - Temporary Duty, a short-term assignment (up to two years); personnel don’t always take their families with them (depending on location).





The Dancing Queen,

by ABBA

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life.
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen.

Friday night and the lights are low,
Looking out for the place to go
Where they play the right music,
Getting in the swing
You come in to look for a king.
Anybody could be that guy,
Night is young and the music's high.
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine,
You're in the mood for a dance,
And when you get the chance...

You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen,
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine.
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life,
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen.

You're a teaser, you turn 'em on,
Leave them burning and then you're gone.
Looking out for another, anyone will do,
You're in the mood for a dance,
And when you get the chance...

You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen,
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine.
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life,
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen.
                    Released 1976




Notes: I selected the date because the Switchman episode says, "Captain Ellison's team disappeared March 14, 1988." Checking the computer's calendar, I learned that date fell on a Monday. The story has to take place on Friday (per the song). The Friday before that was the 11th. If it's a rush mission, I guess they could leave early on Saturday, and get to Peru in time to be shot down on Monday. *g* I think it makes more sense than using the previous Friday, and having them take ten days to get shot down over Peru; Rangers wouldn't travel that slow.



Author's Notes

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Title: A Word from Our Sponsor
Summary: Blair snarks, but Jim is amused.
Style: Gen
Size: 2,525 words, about 5 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: March, 2003. Self-beta'd.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





A Word from our Sponsor

by StarWatcher





"Hey, Jim, gotta question for you. When was the last time the tag of a T-shirt irritated your neck?"

Jim looked up from the latest Robert Parker mystery he was reading. There was nothing on the tube this Saturday afternoon -- translation, no Jags game -- and, with all the chores finished, he had stretched out for a little escapist reading, resolutely ignoring the channel-flipping that Blair was engaged in from the other couch. He frowned over at his friend.

"What bee's gotten into your bonnet this time, Sandburg? I hardly think that my underwear is pertinent to your dissertation."

"No, no; nothing for the diss, man," Blair assured him earnestly. He was wedged comfortably in a corner between the couch back and the arm, a notepad perched on his knee, remote control in one hand and pen in the other. With a mug of tea on the coffee table in front of him and his glasses perched on his nose, he was almost a caricature of a 'scholarly grad student'. "I'm just helping out a friend in a Consumer Research class."

"Let me guess," he suggested wryly. "A female friend?"

Blair snorted. "That has no bearing on the question." Jim just looked at him. "Well, yeah, Tracy's a female, but it still has no bearing on the question. So just answer, man; do you get irritated by T-shirt tags?"

"Oh, yeah, Sandburg; I spend hours each day trying to escape the curse of the T-shirt tag. Can't tell you how many perps have escaped because it preyed so heavily on my mind."

The snort was louder this time, tinged with a mild irritation. "I'm serious, Jim. I'm working on a theory, and I need an honest answer."

"All right, don't get your shorts in a twist." He smirked at Blair, who merely rolled his eyes. "Well, if I remember rightly, I complained about it a couple of times, when I was -- oh, maybe six years old. After that, Mom cut the tags off all the new T-shirts before she washed them, and Sally kept it up after she was gone. When I did my own shopping and laundry in the Army, I learned to do it myself. It's a very simple process, requiring two seconds and a pair of sharp scissors. If you need, I'll teach you how."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Thanks for the offer, but amazingly enough, I also figured out that solution many years ago. Go on back to your reading." Blair made a notation on the pad, then aimed the remote control at the TV.

Jim returned to Spenser as he prowled through Boston, but now his attention was split. Each time he glanced across the room, he noticed that Blair was paying rapt attention to the commercials and taking copious notes. Every time the program returned, the channel surfing resumed until another commercial was found. Strange. Very strange. He resolutely turned his attention away and immersed himself in 'Small Vices'. Until...

"Yo, Jim, ever had any trouble pouring your cooked pasta into a colander?" The gaze that met his was serious, but... wasn't that a twinkle of mirth hiding behind the glasses?

"No, Sandburg, I find the colander an exceptionally easy tool to use. Do you need some pointers?"

"Nah, man, just confirming an idea. Thanks."

Now Jim was noticing the commercials, too. Asthma medication, lipstick, dish soap, upcoming feature, toothpaste, Wendy's, body wash, pain relief, kitchen cleaner, mascara, upcoming feature, fabric softener, Red Lobster, shampoo, tooth whitener, cookies, upcoming feature, macaroni and cheese, insurance, dog food, upcoming feature...

"Say, man, I bet you could teach me how to fold towels without any expensive tools, right?"

"It might take a little time, but I think even you could master the technique after a couple of lessons, Sandburg," he replied solemnly. "Now, are you going to explain these silly questions any time soon?"

"Seriously?" Blair seemed surprised. "I didn't figure you'd be interested."

"Well, I'm not really, but now you've got my curiosity up," the bigger man reluctantly admitted. "It'd be easier to ignore what you're doing if I knew what you were doing. IF you can explain in something less than a ten-minute lecture."

"Well, Tracy's writing a paper trying to evaluate what commercials say about our society, and what the average person thinks of them. It's an interesting subject -- ours is a consumer-oriented society, and there are so many products that do the same thing... and every product has to claim that it's better than any of the similar products. I think people are so used to inflated claims that they barely notice the ads anymore, or pay much attention."

"No!" Jim feigned vast astonishment. "You mean the Oral B toothbrush won't get my teeth cleaner than any other toothbrush?"

Blair's lip twitched; trust Jim to help him see the humor intrinsic in the subject. "Anyway, Tracy wants each of us to evaluate the trends as we see them... and I gotta admit that some of the trends are almost scary."

Scary? This was getting interesting. Jim put his book aside and prepared to enjoy the show; the script would be as good as anything on TV. "What? Frizzy hair is going to bring about the downfall of Western civilization? I can see where you'd be frightened by that prospect."

Blair just grinned. "Yeah, man, helped along by shirts that are dingy white, with dirty spots." He snorted. "All right, all right, I understand that advertisers do have to sell things. And most of it is harmless, and some of it is even useful. Like the new medicines that are shown... if a person isn't finding the medical relief that he needs, the availability of a new medicine could lead him to a discuss a better treatment with his doctor."

Jim didn't even try to resist. "Sandburg, you're accepting commercials for medicine? I'd think you'd rather rant about the lack of ads for herbal natural remedies. You're certainly ready to foist your nasty concoctions on me whenever you think you can get away with it."

"Bottom line, no money in it." Blair shrugged. "The drug companies can't charge big bucks for something that they didn't develop, so they ignore the low-tech methods. I'm talking about what I see, here, not what I wish I could see."

Jim raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Ah, man, you know what I mean. At any rate, between the Internet and health-food stores, people can find information about natural remedies if that's the way they want to go. You don't think I pull that stuff out of thin air, do you?"

"I wouldn't be surprised -- your brain inhabits a rarefied atmosphere, Sandburg." Jim ignored Blair's mock-glare and got up to head toward the refrigerator. "I think I need a beer to get me through the rest of this discussion; you want one?" Secretly, he didn't really want to stop Blair's exposition; it was an entertaining break in the quiet afternoon. Spenser could wait.

"Sure, Jim, thanks." He accepted the cold bottle from his friend, and watched him sit down again, seemingly prepared to listen to Blair's ramblings, even if he was playing a devil's advocate.

"So, what other fascinating facts have struck your fancy, Ben Franklin?"

Now it was Blair's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Oh, man! You planned that all the way back from the kitchen, didn't you?"

"Yep," Jim replied smugly. "But it doesn't change the fact that I'm willing to listen. Better take your chance and run with it."

"Yeah, well... One thing that strikes me is the outrageous number of products to improve our personal presentation. I guess it makes sense -- almost every species has some kind of preening displays to attract the opposite sex, and mankind is no exception. But geeze, over fifty percent of the ads are all about presenting a more attractive appearance. Whiter teeth, thicker eyelashes, softer skin, rippling muscles, fluffy hair -- with no gray, might I add -- all to improve the surface appearance in order to come closer to some artificial cultural ideal."

"Now wait a minute," Jim objected. "Commercials for the home body-building and exercise routines promote good health. There's nothing wrong with that."

"Not really. Uh, I mean they're not actually promoting health improvement. Take a good look at the ads sometime. Most of them are hyping a better-looking bod. Health benefits are pretty much ignored; the ads show gorgeous women falling all over the guy simply because he looks good with rippling abs and biceps of steel. They promote a firmer body, not a healthier body. The fact that the two usually go together is incidental."

"Isn't that a bit two-faced, Sandburg?" Jim suggested. "Seems to me that you've done your share of ignoring the plainer girls to go chasing after the prettier ones. You were the one who told me 'we're male animals'. So you can hardly fault a woman -- or a man -- for trying to make their 'package' more attractive!"

"Guilty, man, what can I say? I'm a product of my environment and culture, just like everyone else." Blair shrugged. "I can like the results; doesn't mean I have to approve of the underlying cultural pressure."

"But Chief, don't you think that if we tossed out all the products -- and all the advertising -- to promote a 'better-looking bod', there'd be lots of people out of work, and the economy would go bust?"

"I know, Jim, I know." Blair tapped his pen impatiently on the pad. "We can't change anything without changing the entire American psyche, and that's not gonna happen. But doesn't it strike you as just a tiny bit warped that women are expected to use layers of makeup to achieve a 'natural', un-made-up look?"

"Sandburg, until you're ready to cut your hair, I don't think you can point a finger -- 'preening displays', you know. And since you can't change society to suit you, why not just add it to your report and forget about it?" Jim swallowed the last of his beer and grabbed his book again; the subject seemed closed.

He should have known better.

"But that's not the scariest thing, Jim." Blair was flipping through his writing pad, checking his notes. "It seems that someone, somewhere, is using a lot of creative energy to develop inventions to solve problems that aren't problems. Take those 'Tagless T's. We have Jackie Chan going through amazing contortions because of T-shirt-tag irritation, while Michael Jordan stands around looking all-knowing and amused. Are we supposed to believe that neither of these men is smart enough to figure out how to take care of that oh-so-vexing problem?

"Or how about the oh-so-marvelous 'Flip-n-Fold'?" Blair's enthusiasm -- or was it irritation? -- could no longer be contained on the couch. He started to pace while Jim watched, slightly bemused. "The ad shows a sweater or towel lying on the board, perfectly smooth and wrinkleless, ready to be 'flipped' into a neat bundle. It doesn't show the time it takes to carefully lay the sweater or towel out in preparation for the fold -- time in which the item could already be folded up! Why would anybody design such a useless tool?"

"Well, some of those inventions are useful," Jim offered. "That mirror on the twisted wire so you can stand it up or hang it in odd places -- I can see where a lot of people could use that if the bathroom gets too crowded in the morning."

"Exactly!" Blair crowed. "Why aren't there more useful ideas, instead of things like..." he pounced on his notepad to scrabble through its pages, "...'Aroma Therapy Palmolive'! Does someone really think that adding lavender scent to dish soap will put housewives in a meditative state where they'll enjoy washing dishes? Not any woman I know!

"And get this -- someone is marketing a garbage deodorizer! Don't bother to take the trash out regularly, and clean the trashcan when necessary. Just use the spray to make your garbage smell better!" He shook his head, eloquently conveying his disgust.

Jim grinned; this was just too good. He couldn't resist giving a little push. "Sandburg, you've got it all wrong. Instead of complaining about stupid inventions, you should invent your own and start raking in the money. Think of something -- the more outrageous it is, the better it'll sell. How about..." he racked his brain, "...oh, an automatic candy-bag opener? You put the bag of candy in the device, press a button, and it tears open the package for you."

"What?" Blair paused, staring at his friend in astonishment. He noted the quirky grin, and his own sense of humor finally rose to meet Jim's. "Yeah," he conceded. "Yeah, man, I think you're on to something. Maybe..." He gazed into space. Jim waited to see what his fertile imagination would conjure up.

"Got it!" he exclaimed in satisfaction. "Pre-measured packets of bath salts. The bathers can avoid the horrors of using too much, and the company can charge three times as much for the same amount of product!"

"That's good," Jim agreed. "But we can do better. I'm thinking..." It was his turn to stare into space. "Right! Pre-soaped washcloths; use them once and toss them away. Not only can we charge more for the product, we can add to our overflowing landfills!"

Laughter was bubbling up, Blair's eyes dancing with delight. "Here you go -- a machine to remove the rubber band from your newspaper and open it up so that you can read. Every home should have one!" He collapsed onto the couch, chuckling happily.

"That's the spirit, Chief," Jim encouraged. "Before long you'll be an inventor to rival Ron Popeil himself, and cut yourself a large slice of the American pie."

"Thank you, thank you," he replied in his grandest manner. "When I receive all my awards, I'll be sure to mention your invaluable help." Blair used the remote control to turn off the TV and closed his pad with a snap; he seemed to be finished with his 'research'. "But you remember what I said earlier? Consumerism is the backbone of our economy, basically our whole society. We can't let all those advertising efforts go to waste, now can we?"

"What do you have in mind, Sandburg?"

"It's getting late and I'm getting hungry. Dinner at Red Lobster?"

"Sounds good. Never let it be said that I shirked my duty to society. Your treat?"

"In your dreams, man. I'll make an offering to the gods of consumerism, but you'll have to make your own contribution; there's only so much economic boosting I can do, you know?"

"Sad, Sandburg, very sad. Are you going to be this cheap when the big bucks start rolling in?"

"Jim, when the big bucks start rolling in, I'll open an unlimited expense account for you at the restaurant of your choice. Till then, you're on your own." He ducked the anticipated head-swat, grabbed his coat off the hook, and joined his friend as they headed for the truck, and the quest for dinner.



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Letter to Blair
Summary: Jim writes an un-mailable letter. Post TSbyBS.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,850 words, about 8 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: Nothing permanent in here, but full of Jim-angst; you might keep a couple of hankies nearby.
Notes: Written Spring, 2003
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Letter to Blair

by StarWatcher





The leaves are green again, Chief. The second Spring since you left, and I remember.

The breezes are mild, and I remember how you would shed layers of clothing, and the way you'd lift your face to the clear sunshine, and simply enjoy the bright skies and the new warmth.

I watched two little kids feeding pigeons in the park today, and I remember your zest for life. You told me about each new harbinger of the changing season, gleefully announcing the first robin searching for a fat worm, the first butterfly flitting through the air, the first skein of geese passing overhead, the first hyacinth in the park. With my Sentinel vision, I can see so much more than you can -- but you noticed so much more of life than I ever did. I noticed the things necessary for survival, or solving cases; you noticed the entire rich tapestry of life.

Yeah, that's trite -- but damn, it's true. Even though you're gone, I'm still learning from you; I'm taking a leaf from your book and noticing the little, important things. (Hence, the pigeons in the park.) I remember how your eyes lit up when you described the time you watched the swallows return to Capistrano. I want to share that with you, Chief. The very next Spring after you get back, I'll take that week off and we'll go together, and you'll teach me to open myself even more to life and the world around me.

There are roses blooming in people's gardens, and I remember the first test you ever gave me. I did smell those roses from the next aisle over, even though I didn't believe it was possible. Even then, two hours after we met, you had such confidence in me, and in my senses. I never told you what a gift that belief was, did I? Even when I was complaining about the tests that you devised for me, your unshakeable certainty that I would be able to do -- whatever -- gave me an anchor in a crazy world, and the strength to keep trying to master these senses.

These senses. Surprisingly -- at least, I was surprised -- they didn't disappear when you left. Oh, I had some trouble for a while -- spikes, mostly, and times when the dials didn't work. To be honest, I moped around for weeks, fighting my senses, fighting our friends, fighting the whole damn world. I was on a downward spiral to self-destruction, and I didn't care.

No. More than that. I welcomed it. I thought I couldn't live without you, Chief. Didn't want to live without you.

But Simon finally sat me down and read me the riot act. He pointed out that if I let everything go, then I would be denying your sacrifice. He was right. You gave up so much; if I let the Sentinel thing go -- if I let my life go -- it would be the same as saying that your noble actions were meaningless.

Yes, Chief, I mean it... 'noble actions'. I know it now. I knew it then, but I just couldn't say anything. It was simply too big, too... heroic for me to face.

Shame on me. And I am -- deeply ashamed. Ashamed that I did not acknowledge your gift. Ashamed that I didn't try harder to help you recover from the blow of losing your dissertation, your place at Rainier, your reputation, your -- life.

Did I know, when I convinced Simon to offer you an official place with us, that you wouldn't be able to go through with it? That, even if you were comfortable with the idea of becoming a cop, the stigma of 'fraud' hanging over your head would make it impossible for you to gain acceptance at the Academy? That it would make working with the rest of the PD unbearable -- even dangerous? I think I did, but didn't want to face it. Simon made me see that, too.

God, I'm sorry Chief. So very, very sorry. There are no words for how much I hurt because of what I did to you. I'm hoping, though. Hoping that one of these days you'll come back, and I can prove it to you. I'll spend the rest of my life proving it to you, and making it up to you.

I've already started. About four months after you left -- and I had my head on straight again -- I went to the Police Chief, the Commissioner, and the District Attorney. I proved to them that I am an actual sentinel, and that you hadn't lied in your dissertation. Oh, there was quite an uproar for a while -- all very hush-hush and behind the scenes, of course. The DA delved into every single one of my cases from the time my senses came on-line and you started working with me. But every single conviction was upheld, without question and without a new trial. We didn't realize what we were doing at the time, maybe, but trying to keep my senses a secret meant that we backed up everything they told me with hard, indisputable evidence. So, sometimes these senses gave me clues that we might have otherwise missed, and sometimes they were the only thing that kept us going -- assuring us that we were on the right track -- until we could find the hard evidence that we needed. But, because of them -- and you! -- we always found the necessary evidence, and we were able to put away the scum that deserved to be behind bars.

After the bigwigs calmed down, they decided that I could 'keep using my senses in the line of duty', as long as I kept backing up the information I learned with solid, court-worthy evidence. (Ha! Big of them, wasn't it?) Actually, I wasn't too sure, for a while, that I wouldn't be dismissed from the force. People are frightened of what they don't understand and, in some people's eyes, these senses do make the freak I was always afraid of being. But I've come to realize -- finally -- that it's not my problem; it's theirs.

Sounds like something a shrink would say? Yeah, well... I've been talking with the PD psychiatrist. She's got a lot more savvy than I gave her credit for. It's hard -- I still have trouble talking about the stuff inside -- but it's helping. Now she wants me to write stuff down, to keep a journal of my thoughts and feelings. I can't. It's just too..... I can't, okay? But I can write a letter to you, and tell you all the things I wish I could say to your face. I know that, if you come back (please God, when you come back), I'll choke again. I won't be able to tell you this stuff... but I need to tell you this stuff. So, I'll write down everything -- everything I'm thinking and feeling, all the things I want you to know and understand. And when you come back (please God, not if you come back), I'll give you this letter. I'll give you... me. Unedited, uncensored, with all my flaws hanging out. I'm scared -- I never wanted anybody to see this deep inside me -- but you already know so much of it, anyway. You might have thought you were guessing about the 'inner me', but usually you hit the nail on the head. There. I've admitted it. And now that you know that I know, and accept it, maybe we can work from there.

You know what helped? The acceptance of all of our friends in Major Crime. When I knew (or decided) that I was in it 'for the duration', I told all of them about the senses and the truth about your dissertation. Of course, Simon and Megan already knew, but the others... suspected. You were good with the obfuscations, Chief, but I was careless too often about hiding what I was doing with the senses. The others put two and two together -- they are detectives, after all -- and, when you told the world that I wasn't a sentinel, they understood that you were trying to protect me, and realized what was really going on.

You'd be amazed, Chief. No, maybe you wouldn't, but I was, for the longest time. The support and loyalty from our friends is just... unbelievable. And humbling. All my life, I've learned that I could depend only on myself. My dad started the process, the army continued it, and my early years in Vice... well, you've heard the stories. That man -- the man I was before you came into my life -- would never have accepted help from anybody, would never have leaned on a friend's shoulder if the load became too heavy. Hell, he would never have admitted that the load was too heavy. You changed that. I always knew I could depend on you to help, to care, to simply be there when I needed a friend. How does that song go? "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." Yep; that's you to a T.

Oh, God, Chief, why didn't I realize it earlier? You are closer to me than any brother could ever be, closer even than most married couples. You have a large piece of my very soul, and you took it with you when you left. That's a good term -- soulbrother. (If it's not in the dictionary, it should be, and the illustration would be your portrait.) I miss that piece of my soul -- I feel empty without you here -- but I'm glad you have it with you. I hope it comforts you a little, wherever you are, and I hope it'll finally lead you back to me.

Where was I? Oh, yes -- our friends in MC have been behind me, propping me up, and not letting me disintegrate into the antisocial, repressed, self-destructive SOB that I could so easily be. They've all accepted the senses, and they're all helping me to maintain and use them. I shared your dissertation with all of them. They're amazed at what you were able to do to help me -- you've got quite a fan club waiting for you when you come back. And with their help, I'm still able to use the senses on a day-to-day basis. Not nearly as effectively as when I had you beside me, but at least I'm not incapacitated by spikes. Not too many problems with zones, either, but mostly because the senses don't work as strongly as they did when you were here. Just as well -- the few times I have zoned, they've had to get pretty... strenuous, to bring me out of it. Connor carries around a bottle of the worst-smelling perfume it's ever been my misfortune to inhale. Not quite as bad as smelling salts, but almost. And Brown figures the best way is a right cross to my jaw. Taggart's method is the least painful -- a good hard shake and a shout in my ear works from him. But being on the receiving end of any of these is not pleasant, so I just -- don't -- zone much anymore.

But even that comes back to you and your training, Chief. Maybe I depended on you too much when you were here. Now that I have to manage for myself, I can -- mostly. I can ground myself with another sense, to keep me from zoning on the 'seeking' sense. It works, just like you always said it could. But without you beside me, it's like... like an amputee walking with prosthetic legs. He's grateful for the prostheses, but they simply can't compare to the real thing.

You're the real thing, Chief. I ache for you to be back beside me. If I could, I'd get down on my knees and beg you to come back. I'd vow to never be short-tempered again, to not snap at you, to not complain about the tests, to always give credence to your suggestions... but we both know that I'd fail in those promises. Eventually, I'd start slipping back into old habits -- old dogs and new tricks, you know. But this I can promise, Chief -- I'll try. I'll try my damnedest. And you have my permission to haul me up, shake me down, and knock some sense into me whenever those old habits start rearing their ugly heads. And I'll listen, Chief; I will listen. I know now what not listening cost us; I won't let it happen again. I won't.

Where are you, Chief? What are you doing, how are you living? That postcard you sent from Tucson -- I turned the entire city upside down, looking for you. The police chief there is a friend of a friend of Simon's, and he authorized an APB for you -- obviously, with no success. I flew down and located the branch post office that you mailed the card from; I thought maybe if I was in the same place you'd been, I would find some clue, or feel some connection that I could follow to find you. Of course there was nothing. I searched for over a week -- checked cheap rooms where you might have stayed, talked to people who employ itinerant, part-time help... the kind of jobs I suspect you're stuck with, now that you can't claim your true credentials, and the kind of rooms you'd have to settle for because you don't have enough money. I suspect now that you didn't even stay in the city at all -- probably just passed through, stopping only long enough to make an anonymous mail drop, knowing that no one would remember one faceless man who walked by one day and was never seen again.

I appreciate the postcard, Chief. I do. Thank you for trying to reassure me, for telling me that you're okay. But -- I don't believe it.

That's no reflection on you, honest. I know that you've always landed on your feet, and I believe that you can do any damn job that you want to. But always before, you've had the foundation of... legitimacy. You had a background, an explainable place in the scheme of things, a niche in society. (Ha! After listening to an anthropologist for four years, even I can sling some of the lingo.)

Sorry. I'm being facetious. I know; it's a defense mechanism because it hurts so much to face what I did to you. (Like I said, the doc's pretty savvy.) When you were a student, it was acceptable to bounce from job to job; employers would understand that you would be gone in a few weeks because the next semester was starting, or the next field trip, or whatever. Now, without that foundation, I'm pretty sure that most potential employers look at you with suspicion. I'm pretty sure that all you can manage now is minimum-wage jobs... and I bet not too many of those, and not too often.

That hurts as much as anything, Chief -- the suspicion that you're scrimping by, living hand-to-mouth. Have you even tried to access your checking account through an ATM? I know the answer to that -- no. You've learned police methods too well, and you know damn well that we can get a lead on your location as soon as you withdraw some money. But if you ever do need the money badly enough -- if you're completely destitute and desperate enough to chance it -- you'll find that there's $12,000 in your checking account, and I'll keep adding more every month until you come home. Use it, Chief, with my blessing. Use it to run to the ends of the earth and hide forever if you feel the need. I'll understand if you feel that you can never face me again. But I'm hoping... dear Lord, I'm hoping that you'll use it to come back to me. Please come back to me, Chief. Come home. Please.

You've got a place here, just waiting for you. Your choice -- you can go through the Academy and be a cop if you want. Or, you can be an official, paid, civilian consultant if you prefer. Either way, you won't get any fallout from your 'fraud' declaration. Once the guys in Major Crime knew the truth about my senses, we all got together to figure out how to smooth your way back into the PD -- a way that would let you be recognized for the dedicated, courageous, man of integrity that you are. You'd be proud of the gang, Chief; instead of barging in with an 'in your face' attitude, they used insights of human nature and closed cultures that I'm sure rubbed off from you. What happened? We started a rumor campaign -- very subtle, very hush-hush, and very effective. Nobody admits out loud that I actually have heightened senses, but 'everybody knows' that they have a sentinel in their midst. It's a 'secret' that they're proud of, and one that they'll never pass on to 'outsiders' -- not even to civilian family members, and certainly not to the criminal element. And they also know that the Sentinel needs a Guide; the whispers paint you as a combination animal-trainer and magician, and they're pretty disgusted with me that I 'let you get away'.

I wish I'd opened up sooner, Chief; we could probably have avoided that whole dissertation mess. I was so afraid of my secret getting out, like it was something to be ashamed of. But now that everyone in the PD knows, it's such a relief. I can do what I need to do at a crime scene without worrying about hiding my actions from the average cop; they'll turn a blind eye to what I'm doing and help distract civilians so that my abilities stay hidden. And yes, the senses still have to stay hidden outside the Department. God forbid that the general public should know, or
-- even worse -- the military. I couldn't live the rest of my life under the glare of being a 'celebrity', and I certainly don't want to become a government lab rat.

Among those who must never learn the truth is Chancellor Edwards. We've seen what she would do with that kind of information. That woman hasn't got an honest bone in her body, and I wouldn't trust her to tell me the time of day. Besides that, she now has a personal grudge against me. With the help of Dad's lawyers, I backed her into a corner; got her and the University to admit -- (a) that you never submitted your diss, so they couldn't accuse you of fraud, and (b) that they had gone against your stated wishes by instigating the media hoopla, and (c) that your dismissal was unjustified and illegal. They (the U and Edwards) made a public apology -- I thought Edwards would choke on the words -- and reinstated your credentials. When you come back, you'll be able to resume teaching and complete your doctorate if you want. You probably won't want to -- that poisonous snake would almost certainly make things ten times more difficult for you -- but at least you'll have the good name and necessary credentials to get accepted at another university.

Did you see it, Chief? I made sure that it got as much coverage as the original media frenzy... well, as best I could. We invited all the same reporters, but the media isn't terribly interested in apologies, and restoring someone's good name isn't nearly as 'newsworthy' as destroying a reputation is -- so the TV spots were smaller and less hyped, and the newspaper columns didn't make the front page. Hell, maybe you're not even in the country now, or maybe you're so far out in the boonies that you don't get newspapers or television. But I'm hoping that somewhere, somehow, you'll find out and know that it's -- safe -- to think about coming home. There might be a few rough patches still, but I'll help you work them out. I want to be there for you, the way you've been there for me so many times.

Chief -- don't get the wrong idea here -- but I want to 'be there' for you, forever. I want to be your best man if you get married, and I want to be Uncle Jim to your kids. If we're not in the same house, I want to live right next door to you. I want to work beside you, and I want to play beside you, and I want to go on vacations with you. The Sentinel needs his Guide, I know that now. But much more important -- Jim needs Blair. I was a fool to fight against that truth so long and so hard, and it is the truth. Sometimes I feel like it was written in the stars, destined from the dawn of time... Jim. Needs. Blair.

It's selfish, I know, but I really hope that Blair needs Jim, too.

Maybe not as much; it's a frightening thing to need someone so much. I was scared of that need for a long time. To be honest, it still scares me a little, but I'm working to accept it and be comfortable with it. The doc tells me that we all need someone, and that we are not 'lessened' by needing another person. Intellectually, I know that; one of these days, my gut will know that, too. Till then, I'll try to be content with an unbalanced relationship; I don't care which of us needs the other more, or which of us isn't quite so 'needy', just as long as we're together.

Come home, Chief. I'm waiting for you.

I've made some changes, things that I hope you'll like. Had an architect in, and he confirmed that the walls of your room aren't weight-bearing. So I had the side wall knocked out, and moved it about five feet into the living room. Doesn't sound like much, but it gives you a lot more space. Replaced the futon with a proper bed -- you should be a lot more comfortable than on that lumpy old thing. Sold the old desk and got you a bigger one, with lots of shelves and cubbyholes to help you keep all your books and papers organized. Installed a second set of wall-shelves, too -- plenty of room now for all your books and artifacts.

I want you to be comfortable here, Chief; I want the loft to be your home, not just a place that you pay rent for. I've even kept all your artifacts as you left them; it helps me feel closer to you, and gives me hope that you will come back one day. Soon, I hope.

I know you told me to sell them, but I couldn't. For a while, I needed your things around me to keep from going crazy. Later, I realized that selling the things you treasured would be the same as rejecting you again. I've rejected you too many times, both physically (when I threw you out of the loft) and emotionally (when I gave your ideas short shrift and ignored your contributions).
I won't do it again. Never again. When you come home, your room is here, your things are here... and I'm here.

Do you still have your key, Chief? Do you know why I wouldn't let you give it back to me? Simple -- I wanted you to know that you can walk in any time. You don't need to knock on the door or ask permission; this is where you belong. It took me a long time to understand that, but I do now. I thank God that I recognized that before you left -- it kept me from saying something unforgivable. (Although, God knows, you've forgiven me so much; you would probably have forgiven whatever idiotic ramblings I spewed out.) But I would not have wanted to lay any more hurt on you; it would kill me if I had to remember that I sent you away with harsh words.

Did you know how much I needed to say 'goodbye' to you? I'm sure you did; you'd probably give me a lecture on the importance of 'closure' and not allowing hidden wounds to fester. I'm incredibly grateful that you didn't just leave a note and disappear into the night, that you gave us both the dignity of parting... well, maybe not amicably, but at least comfortably. As painful as it was to see you go, the memory is precious to me. Because there were no angry words from either of us, it gives me hope that, when the time is right, you'll be able to come back.

I just hope that the 'right time' will be soon. I'm counting the days, Chief, but I don't know when the counting will end.

I pray that you, too, understand that this is where you belong. You will always have a place in my home and in my heart; all you need to do is reach out your hand and claim it.

Truthfully; I'm not just using a figure of speech. I've actually been praying. Are you surprised? I am; I haven't been inside a church for anything other than weddings or funerals since Carolyn and I divorced; and before that, not since my mother left. But you would undoubtedly explain that it is human nature to seek the comfort of a higher Power when life becomes too difficult or despairing, and wouldn't be a bit surprised. (I miss that acceptance, Chief; that was another great gift that you gave me.)

Anyway, Simon dragged me to his church a couple of times -- I think he felt like he was on suicide watch for a while. His Pastor seemed particularly compassionate, and very wise, but very down-to-earth. (Or maybe that's not so unusual; I must admit that I don't have a very high opinion of the clergy, and I could be selling them short.) I've talked with the man several times; with his help, I've learned that I can ask the Lord for a favorable outcome without seeing it as begging. So I've been asking, and I'll continue to ask until you come home. And then I'll say 'thank you'.

I've even gone to Synagogue, to talk to the Rabbi. You and I never talked much about religion -- I don't even know how devout a Jew you consider yourself. But I want to have some insight to evaluate your actions -- our actions -- from a viewpoint that might mean something to you. I don't think I've got it right, though; you and I will have to have some long talks when you get home.

Yeah, I know. Too often, I've acted like 'talk' is a four-letter word. But I promise -- I'll talk to you, Chief; I won't shut you out anymore. But I need you to be here; one-sided talking just doesn't cut it.

Spring is here, and Summer is coming. Maybe the prospect of nice weather doesn't matter to you now; maybe you're someplace where you're warm and dry most of the time. And you've gotta be someplace that has less crime -- Cascade seems to have cornered the market, and there can't possibly be anything left over for any other city.

So maybe you think there's no reason to come back. And maybe you're right. But I've gotta tell you, you have friends here that miss you and want to see you again almost as much as I do. Major Crime isn't the same without you; everything seems... flat. Connor keeps making wild guesses about where you are and what you're doing. (If you've spent any time wrestling alligators in Florida, I owe her a ten-spot.) Brown complains that he's lost his best outlet for teasing, says that nobody else can volley it back as well as you do. Taggart walks around looking like he's lost a favorite younger brother, and wishing you were here to contribute 'those amazing behavioral insights' that helped us solve so many cases. Even Simon has admitted that he misses you. Not in so many words, of course, but he says he'll grant you a three-day dispensation from knocking on his door before you go in his office. (After that, though, the rules are back in force.)

Come home, Blair. Come take your place as friend, partner, guide, observer, consultant. Come fill the empty place in my soul and make me whole again. Come talk to me and tell me what you need. If you can't live in Cascade anymore, we'll go somewhere else, wherever you want. Note what I say -- WE will go. I'll never again leave you alone and unprotected to face the world. Together, Blair; I give you my solemn vow.

Just... come home, Blair. Please.



The End



The "Letters" Trilogy --

1. Letter to Blair - Post TSbyBS. Jim writes an unmailable letter. 8 pages.

2. Letter to Jim - Blair's letter tells Jim of his hopes and plans. 11 pages.

3. Moving Forward - Resolution of the two letters. 60 pages.



Author's Notes

Back to Title List



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Title: Years May Come, Years May Go
Summary: Major Crime celebrates with a friend.
Style: Gen
Size: 3,765 words, about 14 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written March, 2006, for The Sentinel's tenth anniversary.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Years May Come, Years May Go

by StarWatcher





Blair set the crockpot inside the sturdy cardboard box, packing it tightly with wadded-up newspapers so that it wouldn't shift or tip. The mouth-watering smells of his ostrich chili filled the loft; it would be tough to wait until the game started before digging in.

Jim finished slathering the melted garlic butter on two loaves of split French bread, put them back together, and wrapped each loaf in aluminum foil. It was a point of pride that everyone contribute something on poker night, so that the host wasn't saddled with the expense and food-prep time to fill the ravenous appetites that seemed to inhabit Major Crime.

"You ready, Chief? We need to get to Taggart's in time to heat the garlic bread before the rest of the gang shows up."

"Yeah, man, just give me a sec." Blair hurried into his bedroom. A few moments later, a triumphant, "Ah-ha!" echoed through the doorway, quickly followed by Blair himself, waving a handful of three-by-five file cards as if they were winning lottery tickets.

"I knew I put 'em in a safe place; I just had to remember what I thought was safe, two weeks ago." His satisfaction evident, Blair carefully tucked the cards into a corner of the box.

"What's that, Chief? A new surefire, never-fail plan for winning at poker? I'd advise against it; if you win any more than you have been, I may not be able to protect you from the angry lynch mob." Jim grabbed his keys and the loaves of bread, and waited somewhat impatiently for his friend to notice the 'hurry up' cues he was dropping.

"Aw, c'mon! You mean you wouldn't stand between me and them for like... thirty percent of the take?" Blair grinned up at his friend as he grabbed the heavier box.

Jim closed the door behind them and led the way to the elevator. "You want me to risk life and limb for a measly thirty percent? In your dreams, Junior. Besides, an officer of the law can't be bought; it'll cost you seventy percent."

Blair snorted in outrage. "Seventy! Jim, if you take that much, there's no sense in me winning at all." A calculating gleam filled his eye, as Jim waited patiently for the counter-proposal. "How about... fifty percent, and I bake you a coconut crème pie?"

"It's a deal, Chief," he agreed solemnly as they stowed their food offerings safely and climbed into the truck. "And if your system works that well, then we'll head to Las Vegas and really clean up." He raised his hand, as if taking an oath. "I swear to protect Blair Sandburg from irate poker players for fifty percent of the take and one crème pie per week. You also do chocolate and lemon, right?"

"Man, buying the ingredients for those killers will make a serious dent in my profits." He rolled his eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Okay, but only if you'll make a will so that your half reverts back to me when you die; you won't last out the year on that type of diet."

"Get, real, kid. We'll be in Vegas. Do you really think I'll leave anything behind when I go?"

"Well, you better leave enough for a decent funeral, 'cause I'm not using my money to bury you. I'll just dump your body in the desert."

"Sounds dangerous, Chief. I'll bet these sentinel senses will give me an advantage in the afterlife, too. I'll be able to come back and haunt you."

"Oh, man, you would, too." Blair scowled out the window at the passing traffic, affecting 'deep thought' as he rubbed his chin. "That's it!" he announced. "You're going to take half my money, you'll be underfoot whether you're alive or dead, and you'll have me slaving in the kitchen to make time-bomb desserts... it's not worth it. I'll just continue to play poker like all you mundanes, and skip the surefire, never-fail system."

"Atta-boy, Maverick," Jim chuckled. "I knew you'd see it my way, eventually." He grinned at the answering chuckle from his friend. "So if it's not a new poker system, what is on those cards?"

"They're for Salima. She's trying to cook healthier to help Joel lose weight, but she hasn't been too successful at finding stuff he actually likes. I told her I'd bring her some recipes -- low fat, low cholesterol, and guaranteed palate-pleasers. Joel really likes the chili; I think he'll like these others, too. You don't think she'll think it's too pushy, do you?"

"From you, Chief? Never," Jim declared. "Salima likes you even more than Joel does, and that's saying something. You're just lucky Joel doesn't get jealous."

"Well, if he didn't treat her right, he'd have reason to be," Blair said, conveniently overlooking the twenty years' age-difference between him and Salima Taggart. "I can't see it happening, though; they have one of the good marriages, don't they?"

He seemed almost insecure, looking for reassurance, and Jim reflected that Sandburg probably didn't have much experience with recognizing stable, long-term relationships. "Absolutely," he assured Blair. "Joel and Salima are solid; I can't imagine anything ever breaking them up."




Joel opened the door in response to the doorbell. "Hey Jim, Blair. Go on through to the kitchen; Salima's expecting you. I'll just finish setting things up in the den." He headed through an archway on the right, while Jim and Blair headed left; they'd been here often enough to know their way around.

In the kitchen, Salima was just pulling a shallow baking pan out of the oven. She set it on a cooling rack and picked up a knife. "Hello, boys," she smiled over her shoulder. "Blair, just put the crockpot next to the stove; there's an outlet to plug it into. And Jim, the oven's a bit too hot right now; it'll have to cool down for a bit before you put in the garlic bread."

"Wow, Salima; looks good and smells even better." After Blair had checked and stirred his chili, he'd gravitated toward the chocolaty smell. "But isn't it a little unfair to Joel? I wouldn't think brownies are allowed on his diet."

"He can have a few of these," she chuckled. "I got the recipe from one of the other teachers I work with; it uses applesauce and Splenda, so the brownies are lower in fat and calories, and much healthier. He won't mind the diet so much if he can continue to have his sweets."

"Good thinking," Blair agreed. "There are some dessert dishes in the recipes I brought -- blueberry coffee cake, acorn squash cookies, and a tiramisù that I swear you can't tell from the high-fat version. I brought some main dishes, too -- chicken parmesan and beef stroganoff and turkey lasagna and a really excellent marinated pork loin. And if Joel has some favorite dishes, I can show you how to modify them to be healthier." After he helped arrange the brownies on a serving platter, he joined her at the kitchen table. They sat together, heads bowed over recipe cards and cookbooks.

Jim, his presence completely forgotten, grinned at the sight. Salima Taggart was as friendly and easy-going as her husband, with a zest for life that rivaled Blair's; they had been fast friends since their first meeting. Together, they almost made him feel old. "I'll just go out in the den and help Joel," he suggested. Receiving no response, he shrugged and left them to their alchemy. They'd come out from under when the rest of the gang showed up.




With everyone working together, the food was soon transferred from the kitchen to the long table against the wall of the den. It was just a few steps away from the poker table, so no one would have to go far to replenish his plate. The garlic bread was a popular selection, as was Simon's mustard potato salad, and Megan's Pavlova disappeared in the first wave. She brought it to every game, and it had become a much-anticipated favorite. With plates piled high to stave off imminent starvation, they settled around the table for the real purpose of the evening.

As the poker game started, Salima sat in the easy chair nearby and pulled out her yarn and needles. She liked the mental stimulation of listening to the betting while she knitted an afghan to raffle at the next church bazaar, and she wasn't above looking over Joel's shoulder to whisper betting strategies in his ear.

During the evening, it seemed to Jim that Blair was unusually 'up'; there was an excited gleam in his eye, and he could barely sit still during play. That was abnormal, even for Blair; he was a good player, and didn't allow little clues to escape his control. Finally, even some of the others noticed.

"Sandburg!" Simon barked. "You're acting like a three-year-old with ants in his pants. Sit still, for god's sake!"

"What's up, Hairboy? You got the hots for some new lady?" Henri suggested.

"Sorry, guys, sorry," Blair said. He inhaled a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then exhaled forcefully and settled deeper into his seat. "It's just... I had a great idea earlier, but I'll ignore it for now."

Simon grunted as he surveyed his cards. "Do that, Sandburg; we're here to play poker, not listen to another hair-brained scheme that you've cooked up. H, I'll see your bet and raise you five."

Blair settled down to the game, but the minute quiver at the sides of his lips -- a clear indication of repressed smiles to sentinel sight -- told Jim that the excitement wasn't buried; just put aside for a time until Blair could allow his glee to have free rein.




As they walked toward the truck, Blair's bouncing gait indicated that his long-suppressed excitement was ready to break free. Jim made a mental bet -- it was the theme of the evening, after all -- that Sandburg would be expounding his 'great idea' within fifteen seconds of getting his seatbelt buckled.

He lost; it took thirty-five seconds.

"Hey, Jim, when I was talking to Salima, she mentioned that their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is coming up -- August eleventh. They were married in nineteen seventy-three, just a couple of months after they graduated from high school. Isn't that just so cool? High school sweethearts, and they've been together this long.

"So, anyway, I was thinking -- maybe Major Crime could throw them a big anniversary party, invite Joel's old buddies from the Bomb Squad, and Salima's teacher friends from her school, and the neighbors they're friendly with, and Dan and Serena, members from their church... I guess, basically, anybody they know. Maybe Joel's minister would let us use the church's rec center for a reasonable fee, and we could have a big cake, and everybody bring potluck. Maybe decorate the rec center with flowers, give it a sort of wedding atmosphere, you know, and hire a band for dancing... What d'ya think?"

"I think that's a lot of 'maybe's, Chief, but it sounds like a winner. Lot of work, though; will it be just us, or are you going to rope some other people into the project?"

Blair snorted as he shook his head vigorously. "There'll be no roping needed, Jim; people will want to help because making it a nice party will be part of their gift to Salima and Joel. I'm not sure how we'll plan it without him getting wind of it, though..." He subsided into thought, fingers restlessly tapping the dashboard.

Jim reached out a hand to still the fingers. "How about this, Chief? We really can't plan anything until we know where the party can be held. So why don't you see about booking the rec center or, if that doesn't pan out, maybe one of the big meeting rooms at the Cascade Hilton. When we know where and when, we could all meet for dinner one evening and make the plans, decide who does what."

"Excellent idea, Jim, excellent! I have two hours between classes tomorrow; I can go and talk to Joel's minister then. We have just four weeks to pull this all together; we'll need to get busy!"

"Make you a deal, Sandburg," Jim said as he pulled up and parked in front of the loft. "I'll do whatever errands are necessary to get this project going, but leave me out of the planning. That's for you, and anyone else you can rope into helping, you got that?"

"Yeah, I got that. If it was up to you, we'd just put a CD in the player and give them a card. Joel and Salima deserve way better than that."

Jim nudged Blair with an elbow as they headed up the stairs. "I agree with you, buddy; I'm just no good with stuff like that. Joel and Salima deserve the best, and I know you'll make sure they have it."




The 'Planning Committee' -- most of Major Crime, each one a staunch friend of Joel and Salima -- met for dinner at 6:30 at Uncle Guido's. With Simon as 'moderator', the basic framework of the party was hammered into shape over generous helpings of lasagna, chicken cacciatore and shrimp scampi.

Simon took a bite of chicken and pointed with his fork. "All right, Sandburg, tell us where we're going to hold this shindig."

Blair grinned, obviously pleased with himself. "We got the rec center, Simon; in fact, Pastor Davis is giving us a twenty-five percent discount -- he said it was the church's contribution to a joyous occasion, and he wants to keep Salima happy because she brings such good eats to their potluck dinners." Chuckles greeted that statement, along with nods of agreement. "So I booked it for Saturday the first. Their anniversary is August eleventh, but I thought if we had our celebration early, they could get away for a private celebration on the actual day, if they want to."

"Sounds good," Simon nodded. "Now, what about flowers, and what else will we use to decorate the center?" After a spirited discussion, Megan and Rafe were put in charge of acquiring the flowers -- preferably roses and lily of the valley, with garlands of ivy -- and Henri and Blair would help them decorate the rec center by putting up streamers and balloons.

"Streamers and balloons?" Megan asked, dubiously. "We don't want something that looks like the sock-hop scene from 'Grease'."

"Megan, it's a rec center," Blair explained patiently. "In other words, a big open room with no class or style. We can't afford enough flowers to soften it; the streamers and balloons will help. We'll do it tastefully. Besides, you'll be there to keep us in line, right?"

In the face of such sunny optimism, her protests died.

"Okay, folks, moving right along..." Simon paused and consulted his 'To Do' list. "The guest list. It's going to be big people; the Taggarts are well-known in this community, but we don't even know who-all to invite. We need to divide the task. Blair, you'll make inquiries among their neighbors -- discreetly, please! Find out who's friendly enough with Joel or Salima to be invited. And don't forget about family members -- siblings, cousins, whatever. Rafe, you talk to the principal of the school Salima works at, see which teachers should be there. Henri, you'll check with Pastor Davis; we'll just hope not every member of the church is a close enough friend to need an invite. Dan and Serena, I'm sure you can find who we should invite from within the PD. And Rhonda..." He had the grace to look slightly guilty. "Do you think you could select the invitations, and type them up as the names come in?"

She chuckled. "Simon, after working on budget reports, it'll be easy," she assured him.

"Thank you, Rhonda. Now," he gazed around the table, "who wants to tackle choosing the cake and the band?"

"Uh, Simon?" Blair felt a ridiculous urge to raise his hand, as if he were in school. "I think Jim could ensure that we get the best quality of cake and musicians." Discreet touches of his ear and nose indicated exactly how Jim would make his judgments.

"Jim it is," Simon agreed, ignoring the mock-glare that Jim cast toward Blair. "So, that takes care of location, decoration, guests, cake, and music. Guests will bring a potluck dish so that we don't have to feed all those hungry people. Anything else?"

"Yeah, um..." Blair stood, wondering a little uneasily if he was pushing things too far. "I was talking to Joel, and they never had a proper honeymoon; they were too young and too poor. But now they're established; they don't need gifts like toaster ovens or towels or whatever. So I was thinking... Well, I did some research on the 'Net, and for about four thousand dollars we could buy them round-trip tickets to Los Angeles, and a ten-day cruise on the Mexican Riviera. With as big a guest list as it looks like we'll have, if everybody chipped in forty dollars or so it would be covered, and that's well within the range of an average anniversary gift..." He shrugged in self-deprecation. "Well, it's just an idea; what does everybody else think?"

'Everybody else' thought it was an excellent idea, provided they could get around the crassness of asking the guests for money in lieu of a gift. Further discussion 'volunteered' Blair and Rhonda to construct an inoffensively-worded paragraph, to be included with the invitations, that would persuade the guests to contribute toward the cruise instead of bringing a physical present.

It was getting late; tiramisù and chocolate mud pie had been requested and eaten, and the pots of coffee were empty. "All right, people," Simon said, "we've got a good plan, and only three and a half weeks to get it all together. So get to it, and let Rhonda or me know how each part is going. Any problems, you sing out -- we don't want any holes in the arrangements. But I know you won't let us down."

With murmurs of agreement the conclave broke up, each person looking forward to the best anniversary bash they'd ever attended.




"Joel, would you come in here, please?"

"What is it, Simon?" he asked, sitting in one of the soft chairs in front of Simon's desk.

Simon poured two cups of coffee and passed one to his friend. "Well, Joel, we wanted it to be a surprise, but we couldn't work out how to get you and Salima there. So I'll just tell you -- your friends have conspired to throw you two a big anniversary celebration. Tomorrow night, you and Salima need to wear your fanciest duds, and the limousine will pick you up at five o'clock."

"But... Simon, that's not necessary," he protested.

"Of course it's not necessary. It's what we want to do. Joel," he said gently, "it's not like you twisted anyone's arms. This is a gift from your friends; accept it as such."

"We were going to have a quiet evening with just the two of us," Joel murmured.

"And you still can," Simon pointed out. "That's why we scheduled the public bash early; you can come to this one, and have your private celebration on the actual date."

"Salima will be so pleased..." Joel shook his head, as if awakening from a dream. "Thank you, Simon. We'll be ready."

Joel seemed slightly dazed as he walked through the bullpen. He didn't notice the wide smiles on the faces of his friends, or the way Blair elbowed Jim in the ribs, with the requisite retaliatory head-batt. He closed the door as he left the bullpen, but surely must have heard the cheer that erupted behind him. No matter; it was no longer a secret.




Henri had been watching for the limousine. As soon as it appeared, his strident whistle pierced the room. As arranged, the guests formed a long line at each side of the doorway.

"Dial it down, Jim," Blair whispered urgently. "And keep it down for the rest of the evening."

As soon as the doors opened, the band broke into a fanfare, and Joel and Salima Taggart walked down an aisle formed by clapping, cheering friends. Joel beamed as he escorted his beloved wife like the royalty he considered her to be, and Salima's eyes glistened with tears of happiness.

The evening was a blur of dancing, good music, good food, and friends' congratulations. Finally, Joel and Salima were urged forward to cut the cake. But first --

"Speech! Speech!" Henri shouted, and the other guests soon echoed the chant. "Speech! Speech!"

"I don't really know what to say," Joel husked. He put his arm around Salima to hold her close, and she leaned contentedly into the hug. "Just that I've loved this woman since the day we met. We've been married for twenty-five years, but I knew where we were headed three years before that." He smiled down at the shining face raised to his. "There've been some rough spots -- every couple has them -- but I wouldn't change a thing. No matter the arguments or tears, we always loved each other. I just thank the Lord that we've been together through all these years. And we thank you all for giving us such a memorable anniversary party."

The cheers and applause were thunderous. Joel and Salima started to cut the cake and pass it out to their guests. Finally, when everyone had a piece, and the noise had subsided, Simon stepped forward.

"Joel, Salima... You might be looking forward to opening your presents." He waved toward the gaily-wrapped gifts piled on another table. "Well, I don't regret to inform you that all those packages are empty; they're only decoys." With a smile threatening to split his face in two, he pulled out a slender envelope and waved it overhead. "Instead, all of your friends have contributed to this present -- a ten-day cruise on the Mexican Riviera. You'll be spending your anniversary in Acapulco!"

The resulting cheers made the earlier efforts seem like a whisper. Joel appeared stunned as he accepted the envelope from Simon, and Salima looked dazed. Joel waved feebly to the crowd, then reached for his wife and pulled her into a deep, fervent kiss as their friends continued to clap and cheer.

"We did good, huh, Jim?" Blair asked with evident satisfaction, a wide smile on his face.

"Yeah, Chief, we did real good."



The End




Story Notes


Lyrics Note: I did not build the story because of the following song. But, as I was writing, I remembered the song; the lyrics seemed to fit so well what Joel and 'Salima' would feel for each other (in my rose-colored glasses imagination). It's a lovely, lyrical piece, and expresses so well what I think we all, someday, hope to find. The title of the story, and part of Joel's speech, are taken from the song.

Years May Come, Years May Go

author unknown; recorded by The Irish Rovers

Let's take a look behind,
And see what we can find.
Last year has gone for everyone,
Passed with time.
What happened to us then
Can't happen once again,
And what's now all to me?
History.

Years may come,
        (Many years are still ahead.)
Years may go,
        (Many years have passed.)
Some go fast,
        (They belong to yesterday,)
Some go slow,
        (Still the memories last.)
Some are good,
        (Couldn't stop the laughter flowing,)
Some are bad,
        (Couldn't stop the tears;)
For each one,
        (Thank the Lord that we have been)
Just be glad,
        (Together through the years.)


Whenever I review
The lovin' times with you,
I wouldn't change a single page
We've lived through.
It wasn't always smooth,
Sometimes we'd jump the groove,
We've shed some tears and then
Loved again.

Years may come,
        (Many years are still ahead.)
Years may go,
        (Many years have passed.)
Some go fast,
        (They belong to yesterday,)
Some go slow,
        (Still the memories last.)
Some are good,
        (Couldn't stop the laughter flowing,)
Some are bad,
        (Couldn't stop the tears;)
For each one,
        (Thank the Lord that we have been)
Just be glad,
        (Together through the years.)


Heartaches I don't doubt,
Life's sure to dish us out.
We'll beat the lot and that is what
Life's all about.
Whatever may come true
Ahead for me and you,
Some day it all will be
Memories.

Years may come,
        (Many years are still ahead.)
Years may go,
        (Many years have passed.)
Some go fast,
        (They belong to yesterday,)
Some go slow,
        (Still the memories last.)
Some are good,
        (Couldn't stop the laughter flowing,)
Some are bad,
        (Couldn't stop the tears;)
For each one,
        (Thank the Lord that we have been)
Just be glad,
        (Together through the years.)



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Title: Letter to Jim
Summary: Blair's letter discusses, hopes, and rambles.
Style: Gen
Size: 7,300 words, about 13 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Posted September, 2003. My thanks to Arianna for suggestions that greatly improved this story; it would have been vastly different without her input, and not nearly as good. Her support is deeply appreciated.
          As you read, remember -- we know what Jim said in his letter, but Blair hasn't seen it. This should only be a one-hanky number.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Letter to Jim

by StarWatcher





Hey, Jim,

How are you doing? Hanging in there? Senses under control?

Yeah, yeah -- like I could do anything from here to help. But I still worry about you, man, and feel like I'm shirking my duty. But you do know why I had to leave, right? Too much, too fast, totally overwhelming; I just reached the breaking point. No reflection on you, Jim, but I couldn't get my head straight while staying in the same place and same situation. I needed space, and time, to work things out.

Right. Get to the point. Well, that's kinda tough. I've started this letter about six times, and keep getting bogged down in -- caringness, I guess. I have to say some hard things, man, and some of them will sound like I blame you. But I really DON'T blame you. (Really. Even though... but I'll discuss that later.) And I don't blame me, either. Just, we both made mistakes and got caught in the undertow and couldn't fight our way out. So keep that in mind when you read this letter -- IT'S NO ONE'S FAULT. Got that? Okay.

So anyway, in the interest of actually finishing and mailing this thing, I'm going to ignore the little voice that tells me, "You can phrase that less bluntly," or "You have to find a better way to explain that." I'm going to just lay everything out here, however it comes into my head. I'll be as clear and honest as I can, and I'm not going to pull any punches. We're both grown men; we can take a few hits without falling apart. Hopefully, something good will come out of my meandering, and we can finally get things fixed up right.

First -- I'm doing okay. Better than okay; I'm fine. Not panhandling in stinking alleys, or eating leftovers out of dumpsters. (I know how your mind works.) I've landed on my feet, just as I always do.

I must admit, right after I left I felt like the whole world would recognize my name, and that I had to hide my identity. I used a couple of aliases -- Blake Sanders, Blade Sampson -- and even cut my hair to change my appearance. (I figured desperate times required desperate measures.) ::shrug:: It's growing out again; it's long enough that I'm 'that weird hippie' when I go to town. After awhile I realized that I was just being paranoid. Outside of academic circles, the media hype and my press conference was less than a dot on a page. If anyone read or heard about it, they promptly forgot; I haven't met one person who had an unfavorable reaction to my real name once I started using it again. (Well, except for those 'good ol' boys' who think 'Blair' is a sissy name for a guy. <g>)

That first summer, when I was still afraid of being recognized, I hid in what I figured was the least likely place to find an educated academic -- following the crop harvest, mingling with the migrant workers. That was an education; talk about closed societies! (And I turned that education into a paper that I hope to submit, some day.) Have to admit, the other workers were pretty wary and resentful at first; they figured I was a rich white boy just slumming and taking money that they needed to feed their kids. Living and working with them was an interesting experience, though; the strength of those people is amazing. They accepted me eventually, when they saw that I didn't expect any different treatment than they got. But the biggest breakthrough came from the kids. Somehow I became an evening summertime tutor, helping them get solid in such basics as reading, math, and English. It's heartrending, really; the parents know very well that education is the only way for their children to be able to step up in the world, and they make sure to enroll the children in school wherever they're working. But even if the local school system is welcoming and supportive (some are, some aren't), just the logistics of being constantly on the move makes the kids' education haphazard and full of gaps. Some of these kids go to five different schools in a single year!

After I finally realized that I could use my real name and official identification, I did various odds and ends for awhile. Trucking was good; it gave me lots of time to ponder and contemplate while I drove. Library assistant was even better -- all those books, and Internet access. (You can imagine how much I enjoyed that.) Later, when I found myself in New Mexico, I took a break from the real world and hired on at Clem Barstow's ranch; that's where I am now. He owns a working ranch that accepts guests for fishing, long rides in natural surroundings, and working the cattle. It's "next door" to the Gila National Wilderness, and in the middle of Apache territory. I'm in Heaven, man! The work is... elemental, basic, freeing. No matter how tired and dirty I am at the end of the day, I still feel a peace from interacting so closely with Nature. And on the days when it's my turn to escort any novice fishermen, the fishing is stupendous; Simon would bite his cigar in half if he could see the beauty I pulled in last week. On my days off, I visit the local Apache tribe. The Shaman is sharing the history and legends of the tribe with me; it's awesome stuff. He's been telling me stories of special warriors who could see / hear / smell farther than other men, although Standing Bear says such a man has not been known since his great-grandfather's day.

Why the hell am I rambling on like this? I guess to prove to you that I'm doing just fine. I know, I already said that, but I bet you're convincing yourself that I'm obfuscating to let you off the hook. No way, man; every word has been the honest truth.

Actually, I needed the time off; it gave me a chance to process, and do some deep thinking. I've thought about what happened -- how things got so messed up -- and I've realized some things about myself. Nothing earth-shattering, just ideas that I didn't bother to actually put into words before. They seemed too self-evident. But I guess sometimes it's necessary to acknowledge the 'self-evident'ness of things to crystallize our thoughts and move forward.

I feel you frowning already. Lighten UP, man! I swear to you, I'm cool.

My biggest, deepest self-revelation is that I really want to be the Sentinel's Guide. You do an important job, man, and it really charges my batteries to be able to help you. I like being a part of that, no matter what speed bumps (dead bodies, psycho killers, plain ordinary nutcases) we hit. I know, I sort of stumbled into the 'Guide' thing without knowing what I was letting myself in for. But now I do know; my eyes are wide open and this is my choice, not something you've roped me into. So if your immediate reaction is, "No, it's too dangerous," picture me IN - YOUR - FACE!!! I know the risks; they're the same hazards you face every day to do your job. I can live with those risks the same way you can live with them... if you still want me around.

This is the really hard part, Jim, where I have to lay it on the line and say some unpleasant things. There's a lot that affects me and you personally, that we have to get straight before we can move on. Remember -- everything I say here is not laying blame on you; it's just to explain how I feel, and point out some personal areas that we have to resolve. If we don't, we'll just end up going round and round in a similar dysfunctional pattern, and I'll end up out on my butt again. We need to deal with this stuff before we start. If we can't resolve these "issues" (sorry for the PC-ish terminology, but it's what fits), or at least agree that they need to be addressed and worked on, I don't see much hope for us as a team.

::sigh:: I swear, I feel your walls going up already. Come on, Jim, give me the benefit of the doubt. Have I ever made unreasonable demands, or expected you to turn into another person? Just bear with me, here, read with an open mind, and give real consideration to what I'm saying. Remember, I'm not being accusing, I'm just being as honest as I can and showing you my viewpoint. Your viewpoint may (probably will!) differ. But if we know each other's viewpoints, we can meet in the middle, discuss, resolve, and move forward -- hopefully with a partnership that's stronger and more solid than ever.

If not... ::shrug:: Well, hell... at least we can say that we gave it an honest try; no one can ask more of a friend and partner than that.

Okay, the main thing is, you're a strong, 'take charge' kinda guy. You were a leader in the Army, and you're a leader when you investigate a crime scene. You've learned to assess the information you have -- however minimal -- and react instantly because if you don't, the perp will get away, or the crazy will get the drop on you, or the mission will go sour. Lots of times, in your professional life, you don't have time to stop and think; you have to figure and calculate and plan on the run, and hope that your instincts are right and your actions will have the desired result. You calculate a worst-case scenario because that gives you the greatest probability of success. I mean, if it is worst-case, you're ready to meet it, and if it isn't, nothing happens, so no harm, no foul. This is not a bad thing; it's what's kept you alive probably more times than you can count, and I'm all in favor of you staying alive. I'm NOT expecting you to toss that behavior (information - assess - react) out the window.

But when you use that same behavior -- calculating a worst-case scenario -- in your personal life, it's gonna bite you on the ass. In other words, I'm sick and tired of you assigning the worst possible motives to my actions. That really hurts, man, and I don't need that grief anymore; we've gotta find a way to deal with that.

I know, I know... a lot of it is my fault. How long did I keep treating you as a research subject instead of a friend? All the times I mentioned 'book deals' and 'movie rights' must have set your teeth on edge, and made you incredibly wary about our relationship. I look back now and realize what a schmuck I was, how terribly unfairly I was treating you. I'm sorry, Jim. I don't think I ever told you that before, and I mean it most sincerely. I'm truly, abjectly, sorry. All I can offer in extenuation is that a combination of enthusiasm and scientific mindset gave me tunnel vision. It took awhile -- far too long -- for me to look around and notice the big picture.

But somewhere along the line, our relationship really did change from 'researcher and subject' to 'friends'. I guess I can't blame you for not noticing; hell, I barely noticed it myself, and still kept prodding you with 'research' behavior. Note that I'm not apologizing for subjecting you to tests for your senses; how else can we learn the possibilities of what you can do? Every added piece of knowledge increases your control and suggests new ways for you to use your senses more effectively. Keep that in mind before you decide whether or not you want me back in your life -- I'll be devising new tests until we're both old and gray. But I do apologize for the manner in which I conducted those tests. Scientists can get tunnel vision when they're on the trail of an idea. (Much the same way a detective does.) You might have thought that I regarded myself as the 'heap big all-knowing researcher', and you as the 'lowly reactive guinea pig'. I never felt like that, I swear, but I can see how you might think I did. I'm truly sorry, Jim, and I promise it'll never happen again. From now on, we'll be partners in the tests. You'll tell me what you'd like to be able to do with your senses, I'll make suggestions about things I think you need to try, and together we'll figure out ways to make it all happen.

But getting back to the personal reaction thing, and you assigning the worst possible motives to my actions -- enough, already! I've made a few mistakes (okay, a bunch of mistakes), but nothing I ever did was intended to hurt you. And yet, it seemed like every time I screwed up, if there were two possible explanations for what was going on, you chose the least flattering one.

No; that kind of blanket statement is unfair. You are one of the most generous, supportive people I know. You're incredibly loyal to your friends, and there were lots of times when you backed me up and gave me the encouragement or help that I needed. Which is why it was so frustrating -- and painful -- when you responded in the completely opposite manner.

You know, what makes this whole thing really odd (or really funny, take your pick), is that I'm a 'take charge' kinda guy, too. Duh! You think I could teach college students or help run expeditions if I wasn't? You think a wishy-washy guy could have overridden all your protests about doing the sensory tests and experiments? Nope; I've been standing on my own two feet and taking charge of my life for a L-O-N-G time. So... self-analysis time, here... why did I back down and accept the emotional crap that you tossed my way? Damn good question; not sure I have the complete answer even now.

Part of it was hero-worship, I think. There you were, "The Sentinel", my lifelong dream standing in front of me; by definition, nothing you did could be wrong. It seemed like, if I would've tried to -- moderate -- your reactions, I would've been subtracting something from your 'sentinelness', or tainting it somehow. (Hey, the subconscious mind is frequently stupid and illogical.)

Another part of it was the 'researcher' mindset that says we should remain detached and mustn't do anything that will affect the natural responses and reactions of the subject. 'Duh!' again -- as if moving in with you and bugging you about what you hear, see, feel, taste and smell (whether in tests or in the field) is remaining detached and not affecting the subject. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Maybe another part of it was -- forgive me, man -- the 'courtship behavior' that you once accused me of. I wanted you to like me, to let me keep hanging around, so I did what most people do in a new relationship... I "made nice", and modified my actions to the perceived wishes of the person I was trying to impress. I'm not suggesting anything hinky, here; the same actions frequently show up in new employees in the office, new kids moving into the neighborhood, or whatever. It's not reserved for courting couples; that's simply the best-known 'application' of such behaviors.

The upshot of all this is that, between the two of us, we managed to fall into a pattern that had us heading for a dysfunctional breakdown if I hadn't left. In general, you frequently jumped to conclusions, assumed the worst, and lashed out. In the belief that I was supporting the sentinel, I usually backed down or stepped aside, letting your words and actions go unchallenged. Finally, when the diss blew up in our faces, we were both too entrenched in the pattern to step back and look at the situation dispassionately. Not that we even had time for that; so much happened so fast that it was all we could do to keep up with the situation, let alone step aside and consider it calmly.

So -- I understand the mindset and reactions on both sides, but that doesn't mean that we have to keep traveling that same road. Fair warning, man; if I come back, I intend to change my role, and I would hope that you might consider changing yours. Just because we know where it comes from doesn't mean that we have to keep up the pattern. You can learn to consider my intentions before you make unwarranted assumptions; I can learn to explain my reasonings and give you the information you need to understand the situation and know where I'm coming from. We've been an awesome team, man; think how much better we'll be if we're working in tandem instead of at cross-purposes.

Damn. That sounds like I'm setting up conditions, and that isn't what I want to do. But, if we want our partnership to work long-term, we can't keep dancing the same old steps. You know, the old saying "it's water under the bridge" is trite, but very true. I look at it this way -- the past is just a story that we can either hold onto and angst about, or accept and move on. I want to let go of and forget about the bad stuff (except as a reminder not to repeat the pattern), and remember and hold on to the good stuff, and use it as a jumping-off point to a better, stronger partnership. We need to throw out all our old reactions and preconceptions about each other and start fresh, with a new song and a new routine. I'm ready to move on, Jim. Are you? Can we do this together? God, I hope so.

Second on my wish-list -- assuming that you do want me back and working with you -- I'd like to continue being a part of Cascade PD. I feel I made some good friends there and, truthfully, I've missed them almost as much as I've missed you. Major Crimes became the family I never had -- Joel the kindly uncle, Simon the irascible patriarch whose word he expects (but doesn't always get) should be law, Megan the bossy but well-meaning sister, Henri the family clown. Rafe and Rhonda are a bit harder to pin down, but they're part of the family too; I always knew that either of them would lend a hand or give advice if I needed it, as would any of MC. And you, of course, are the overbearing big brother, eternally sure that you know everything, and that your way is the right way. But I wouldn't change that for anything -- you're a very beloved big brother, and I'm grateful you came into my life. (Or I came into yours. Whichever.)

So I'd really like to remain part of MC and Cascade PD if we can swing it. I gotta tell you, being offered a permanent place as your partner was scary, even though it was incredibly flattering. I had to do some real soul-searching to work it all out in my head. On the one hand, I really do want to continue to be your partner, backup, and Guide. On the other hand, you know I don't like the idea of carrying a gun. Yeah, I know that most cops can go through a whole career without having to use 'deadly force'; but, man, I won't be partnered with 'most cops'. You draw the bad guys like honey draws flies; it's pretty near inevitable that, eventually, I'd have to use my gun to protect you or an innocent civilian. But then I think, who better to carry a gun than someone who doesn't want to use it? Knowing myself, I know that I'll always use other methods first, and the gun will be a last resort, used only when all other possibilities have been exhausted. It's not the gun that presents a problem, but the person (and personality) wielding it. I mean, you carry a gun without going off half-cocked (ooh! no pun intended) and shooting indiscriminately at everything in sight. It doesn't make you a less reliable or less stable person. So, okay... having acknowledged all that, and knowing my own soul and psyche, I've concluded that I can comfortably carry a gun in a career as a policeman and detective. You have my word, Jim -- I won't let you down.

But if we can make it happen, I'd much prefer to keep supporting you from the civilian side of the line. After all, it worked well for us for almost four years. And you know, there's lots of times when people -- victims, witnesses, whoever -- are more comfortable talking with a "not-policeman". If I could have some kind of official standing, being connected with the PD (hey, man, I need a paycheck!) but not an actual "policeman", I think we can continue to make use of that. And you know how often something I've been able to contribute -- from my knowledge of anthropology, psychology, other cultures -- has given you or the other detectives a new lead that helped solve a crime. Not that I wouldn't keep contributing that information once (if) I became a cop! I'm just saying that maybe we could capitalize on that and persuade the PD to give me a paying, official position as... oh, "Cultural Liaison"? "Information Synthologist"? "Analytical Synthesist"? "Specialist for Integrations and Correlations"? "Forensic Anthropologist"? Just something that's open-ended enough to let me "do my thing" but still sounds official enough to let me have a paycheck without raising red flags for the Powers That Be.

Then there's the problem of the people I'll be working with. I know the gang in MC accepts me and won't give me any real hassles (teasing doesn't count), despite my news conference. Besides, I imagine that you fed them some sort of story to explain away the use of your name connected with a 'Sentinel' article. (I saw the retraction story in the papers, about six weeks after it happened. Sheer luck; I was using a stack of old newspapers to line the cages in an animal shelter.) Otherwise, they would have wondered why you took such strong action against Edwards and the University. And I have some friends in other departments who I think will also give me the benefit of the doubt. But I wonder about the average cop from other areas of the PD, 'cause if they continue to think that I'm a fraud, cheat, and liar, working conditions could get pretty dicey. I worry about you not getting the backup you need because you're working with said 'fraud, cheat, and liar'. I would hope that, with the University news conference, that attitude has been dispelled. With any luck, they just think I'm careless and naïve, and are ready to chuckle, tease me about it, and move on.

But we need to be sure about this before I take any kind of position at the PD. I don't mind for myself, so much, but repercussions against me could easily affect you and your work, and even the others in MC. I can't -- we can't -- take that chance. So, somehow, we need to take the temperature of the Cascade PD as regards one Blair Sandburg becoming an official and permanent part of the 'family'. Maybe Henri, Rafe, and Megan could start a rumor that I'm coming back, let it spread around the station, and see what the response is. They could keep tabs on the overt reactions, and you could use your hearing to catch the covert -- maybe less favorable -- mutterings.

Don't shrug this off, Jim; this is a biggie. If I expect to spend the next twenty-odd years working with the Cascade PD, I have to be sure that I'm accepted as part of the tribe. Hangers-on around the fringes of closed societies generally have a short and unhappy career. There's no sense in my letting myself in for that kind of grief; if that's the way it'll go down, I might as well quit before I even start.

Damn, again. It still sounds like I'm setting up conditions, and I'm not. I'm just trying to be practical and realistic. Much as I'd like to come back to stay, I can't face it if I have to fight to prove myself every day I go to work. Sorry, man, I just don't have the "intestinal fortitude" to face that scenario. So I really need your input, here. Is this something we can work on together, or should I just continue to travel my own road?

Moving right along (I know, already too late, <g>), the third thing on my wish-list is that I really would like to finish my PhD and continue teaching, at least part-time. I can live without it -- hell, the majority of the population manages just fine without one -- but I worked damned hard for that thing, and I just hate to give up on it. Besides, I really enjoy sharing ideas and teaching something new; it's a large part of who I am. I've written two papers based on my observations while wandering; having those letters after my name will give me that extra cachet when (if) I submit them for publication in the Anthro journals. It would also be a visible 'proof' to the narrow-minded that I'm on the up-and-up; if the University granted me a PhD, then they'll figure that I can't be the 'fraud' I was once proclaimed.

Jim -- thank you. This will be so much easier because you already got the University to admit that I didn't submit the dissertation and that the media hoopla was escalated because of their greed -- well, not that they actually expressed the 'greed' part -- and that I wasn't a fraud. I can't tell you how much it means to me, man, that you would go to so much trouble to clear my name; it indicates that you won't simply run my ass out of town when (if) I get back to Cascade and try to hook up with you again. Well... probably. It could be that you're just trying to assuage whatever guilt you feel by giving me a chance at a new life so that I don't land on your doorstep again. But I don't -- I won't -- believe that. We've meant too much to each other, and still do. I can manage the rest of my life without being by your side, but I hope I don't have to. It leaves me feeling kind of empty inside. I'm thinking it's probably the same for you; otherwise you wouldn't have pushed the press conference. So, I'm ready to come back, if you're ready to have me.

Hunh! I'll bet Edwards was ready to shit bricks, right? Wish I could've seen her face.

Anyway, I turned our ongoing fiction into truth. While I've been on the road, I've actually written a second diss on police sub-cultures. The working title is "Tribal Guardians: the Function of Police in a Modern Society". What do you think? God knows, I had more than enough information floating around in my head. Right now it's real rough -- I'll need access to the notes I left with you to quote some specific instances (I kept meaning to transfer all those paper notes to the laptop), draw some statistical conclusions, find references -- but it shouldn't take more than two or three months to clean it up and put it in a presentable form, then submit it to the committee.

In general, diss committees don't like it when the diss topic is changed. But I don't think it'll be a problem; in their eyes, the media fuss will have completely invalidated the original idea. Also, one of the prime requirements of a dissertation is that the identity of the subject must be protected at all costs. Since my 'subject's' privacy was compromised, this is another compelling reason for them to allow me to change my diss topic. I don't expect to hear a single 'nay' vote when I oh-so-politely request that I be allowed to present a diss on a different topic.

I've considered that Edwards might try to stonewall the process, but I'll bet that she doesn't dare. Imagine the stink I could make if the university that officially admitted I did nothing wrong now denies me due process in submitting a diss. I almost wish some of them would make waves -- I feel an unhealthy urge to rub their noses in the whole sorry mess that they helped create. (I'm thinking, karma be damned; I must have stockpiled enough points to override such mundane pettiness on my part.) Frankly, a public apology and cancellation of all my school debts barely scratches the surface in the way of reparations, but I suppose a million for pain and damages would be a bit over the top.

By the way, thank you for that. (The cancelled debt thing was part of the report in the paper I read.) I know you're the one who pushed for that, and it's sure been a relief not to have that hanging over my head. I had been picturing garnisheed wages, and hordes of bill collectors stripping the Volvo for parts.

Okay, big guy, hold on to your hat for the last thing on my wish-list. Take a deep breath and remember that I won't do anything that'll cause you any grief.

Also, understand that this is something I can live without, if you honestly can't stand the idea. But it's something that I'd really like to do, so give it some careful consideration, okay?

Ready?

Another deep breath.

Here goes --

I want to find a way to get information about Sentinels into the public awareness. NOT by publishing my dissertation; after the media mess, I don't think any explanations can make anyone believe that the information is for real, and we've already seen the problems you'd have to deal with if everyone believes that you're a 'superman'. But I actually think that, if we do this right, it'll take some of the pressure off you.

What I'm thinking is, we make what I said in the news conference the truth -- I write a novel about a police detective with heightened senses, and how he uses them to help him solve crimes. His partner is a rookie fresh out of the Academy who just happened to minor in Anthropology before he became a cop, and he studied the theory of Sentinels in one of his classes, and figures out what's happening when his partner starts having sensory spikes. So, together, rookie and detective work to help the detective understand and control his haphazard senses. What do you think of 'Jack Ellsman' as a name?

We'll make it look all open and aboveboard. The Author's Notes will say that I took my admiration for the work the police do, misappropriated your name, and mixed those two liberally with speculations about what ancient Sentinels might have been able to accomplish, how they might have controlled their senses, and how that would fit in a modern police setting. Yes, I'll admit (with all due humbleness, <g>), this is the work that was mistaken for an actual dissertation, and I'll invite the readers to share the joke with me -- no man could have such heightened senses, but I hope they'll enjoy the story anyway.

It shouldn't be too hard for a publisher to promote it; all he has to do is tie it in to the dissertation / fraud scandal, and I expect that people will be flocking to read the book that 'caused all the fuss'. With any luck (because it seems that more people watch movies than read books, nowadays), it really will be picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie, or at least a TV movie of the week.

No, really; think about it, man. Hollywood makes everything so hokey, nobody believes that what they see on the screen has any basis in reality. So the audience will spend two hours watching car chases and shoot-em-ups, and then walk out thinking, "Well, it might be fun to have senses like that, but get real; do they actually expect us to swallow that stuff?" So if anyone even mentions enhanced senses, the speculations will automatically, even unthinkingly, be dismissed. A perfect example of 'hide in plain sight'. You're off the hook; if everyone is certain that there's no such thing as a... oh, call it a 'Superman of the Senses', then you can't possibly be one, can you?

But see, what I keep thinking is -- how many other people are scattered throughout the population, fighting their senses? There were two in one state that we know of. Could there be three in each state? Five? Ten? Let's take a nice low number, figure that you're not the only one, and speculate that there might be three Sentinels hiding within each state. So, somewhere, 150 people are trying to deal with runaway senses, or have already given up the battle. Let's not forget Canada, and increase the number to 200 people. And in the rest of the world... maybe a thousand people or more could use the help, though I doubt that a 'fictional novel' would travel that far. Maybe the information would dispense by word of mouth.

I can't help but wonder, what would you have done if I hadn't been able to help you deal with your senses? Would you have become a recluse, hiding away in the hills to avoid the over-stimulation of modern society? Would you have become a drugged-up permanent 'guest' of some psychiatric facility because the doctors couldn't ease your 'symptoms'? Would you have finally committed suicide to escape the torment? (God, I hate to think of that!) Hell, it might be a good thing that you repressed your senses in childhood. I wonder if a child with fully on-line sentinel senses would survive to adulthood with no one to help him understand his senses and guide him through their development.

On the other hand, maybe a child with sentinel senses would use them so naturally that he wouldn't be bothered by them. You've said that you didn't have any trouble before Bud died. Wonder if we might find any kids with sentinel senses...

Right. Back to the point. Anyway, I think this would be a way to get the message to those people who might be floundering. The thing is, even if it's presented as light entertainment, information about sentinels (that's more accessible than some hundred-year-old dusty tomes) could help someone over the rough spots. The story would include some of the glitches the detective runs into as he learns to control his senses, so our theoretical budding sentinel won't expect smooth sailing right from the start. It definitely would include the methods the detective uses to avoid being overwhelmed by his environment -- using dials, anchoring with one sense so he won't zone out on another sense, looking for sentinel-friendly versions of common household products, and having a buddy as backup for dealing with / controlling the senses. (I don't think I should use the term 'Guide'; it might make any potential buddy / backup feel inadequate, and that they don't know enough. Been there, done that, finally threw away the T-shirt.) But a story like this would show our budding sentinel that he doesn't have to be swamped by sensory input, that he can achieve control and remain a normal part of his family and society. Hope is everything, man; hope lets us keep going until things can get better, instead of giving up and packing it in.

So, what do you think? Could you live with this? I mean, sure, there might be a little attention focused on you for a while, but I think it would be really short-term, especially if we slant it the right way. Like, "No, I'm not a Sentinel; I'm just a damned good detective. Gotta admit, those heightened senses might be useful -- Sandburg has a wild imagination, doesn't he? -- but I can do my job just fine without them."

Would you prefer 'Joe Ellsworth' as a character name?

= = =

So there it is, Jim -- all the things I'd like to do if I could arrange my life as I want it (knowing that such control is seldom possible). I want to start fresh, build on what we had, and move forward -- together. Do you feel the same way?

God, I hope so. I hesitate to write this, because I don't want to put pressure on you. On the other hand, how can you make a valid decision if you don't know how I feel? So here goes --

The bottom line is, I want to come home, Jim. Home to Cascade, and Rainier, and the PD, but mostly -- home to you. And in a deeper analysis, we could ditch everything but that. If you decided you were tired of being Sentinel of the Great City and wanted to move to Outer Little Podunk, so tiny it's not even on the map, I'd want to go with you, because wherever you are is 'home'. Shades of Damon and Pythias, or Ruth and Naomi (the Biblical one, not my Mom) -- I don't feel complete without you.

I have to admit, I find this very strange. You know me -- I've moved into and out of peoples' lives for my entire life, and they've moved into and out of mine. "Detach with love" is how I was raised, and it makes perfect sense to me. People change, you can't hold on to them; it's better to let them go, or go on yourself, without stressing about it. Even Naomi, as much as I love her and know she loves me, was never permanent in my life.

But with you, it's something totally different. Knowing you're near (although 'near' is relative; me at Rainier and you at the PD is close enough, 'cause I know if one of us needs the other, he'll be there), gives my world a "rightness", as if it's cosmically destined. And maybe it is -- maybe Guides and Sentinels are meant to be lifelong companions. (Although if that's the case, Destiny sure waited long enough to get us together.) I prefer to think it's a Jim and Blair thing; as different as we are, we fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, or like yin and yang. I think, even without the Sentinel / Guide thing we could have been friends -- IF we had ever gotten together. That would have been tough -- you a cop, me a longhaired neo-hippie, and very little reason for us to run into each other.

Now there's an idea -- maybe the cosmic point is friendship, and the Sentinel / Guide thing was just dumped on us to get us together. (Oh boy, that's an idea you'll really like... NOT! <g>)

But you know, I don't care about reasons; I just want to come home. Is it still my home, Jim? Can I come home?

But hey, like I said earlier, no pressure. Maybe you're comfortable finally having me out of your hair, and you're dealing well with your senses, and you really don't want me dogging your footsteps for the rest of your life, or even another four years. No problemo, man -- just ignore the pathetic tone of the last few paragraphs and tell me, 'Sorry, Sandburg, you're on your own'.

No guilt-trippin', okay? Do NOT make any decisions based on what you feel you 'owe' me. You don't owe me ANYthing, and I'll be just fine without you being around to tuck me into bed every night. If the wish-list is out the window, I do have alternate plans. Life does go on, after all.

First, I figure I'll stay on the ranch through the winter. After the "guest season" is over, there's time to concentrate on training the three-year-old colts to become steady riding animals, and I've always been good with animals. I'm looking forward to winter in this area. The young stock will need hours of experience on the trails; riding through the trees, up and down the hillsides, through the meadows... even covered with snow, I think it'll be an awesome experience, renewing my soul. Or at least I'll have fun while freezing my butt off. But that shouldn't happen too often; I'm told that the winters are quite mild, and snowfall usually melts within two or three days.

Come spring, I think I'll go 'walkabout'. With Standing Bear's introduction, I should be welcomed to visit a number of different tribes; I want to keep studying the Sentinel legend. Even if I can't use the information now, knowledge is never wasted. Maybe -- years from now, after you've retired -- I'll write it up and see if it can be published as "Tribal Legends", or something like that. I think I could make it entertaining, and the information might trickle to someone who needs it. I can just see people with erratic senses seeking the advice of a Native American shaman, and the interaction helps to develop a greater tolerance and understanding between Indians and Anglos. (Yeah, yeah, so I'm idealistic and sappy. I can dream, can't I?)

After the walkabout, a couple of semesters at a university (not Rainier!) to establish my credentials, submit my diss, and get my PhD. Then, a visit to the Chopec. I'll devise some sort of study that will let me live with them for a year or so, without impacting their way of life.

Then... whatever. Hey, this is farther ahead than I've ever planned in my life. I firmly believe that we make our own fortune, and that everything happens for a purpose. That's not to say that the purpose may be clear right away (or ever!), just that I'll be open to whatever God or Fate or Destiny throws my way. So don't worry about me; as always, I'll continue to land on my feet.

Now I'm feeling really awkward. I find that I don't want to end this letter; writing it makes me feel connected to you. But all good things come to an end, so I guess I'll just quit. I've enjoyed "talking" to you, and getting all that stuff out of my system.

Now it's your turn. If you want me back, just say the word and I'll start making arrangements. (I'll have to wait until Clem can find someone to take my place; it wouldn't be fair to leave him shorthanded.) If not... well, at least let me know, okay? You have my address now, if only for the next several months. Just tell me which way my plans should go. I may be flexible, but I'd like to know which way to jump.

So... if I never see you again... thanks, Jim. I'll always remember what we shared. The good times outweighed the bad, and I'm richer for having known you. Take care of yourself, and have a good life.

Your friend always,
Blair



The End



The "Letters" Trilogy --

1. Letter to Blair - Post TSbyBS. Jim writes an unmailable letter. 8 pages.

2. Letter to Jim - Blair's letter tells Jim of his hopes and plans. 11 pages.

3. Moving Forward - Resolution of the two letters. 60 pages.



Author's Notes

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Title: Moving Forward
Summary: Jim and Blair finally do something about those angsty letters they've written. Sequel to "Letter to Jim" and "Letter to Blair".
Style: Gen
Size: 31,050 words, about 60 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Posted June, 05. Megan's Aussie-isms should be understood through context, but if not, there's a glossary of terms at the end of the story.
        My thanks to Arianna and Jess Riley for the many suggestions that improved this story. They also held my hand through the entire process, and gave me confidence to continue till the end. The hug is for Jess.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Moving Forward

by StarWatcher





James Ellison, premier detective in the Major Crime unit of the Cascade Police Department and Sentinel of the Great City, was tired. Exhausted. Wiped out. Drained. They had caught the latest psycho serial killer, but only after an all-out effort by the police department in general, and Major Crime in particular. It had been three weeks of increasing tension and sheer hell -- early mornings and late nights as they examined and re-examined the clues and crime sites, interviewed friends, relatives, and coworkers of the victims, talked with snitches, expounded ever more outrageous theories as to the motives of the killer, and planned how they could use those theories and motives to set a trap. Finally, after three days and nights of round-the-clock stakeout, their efforts culminated with the arrest of one Elwin P Hargrove, maniac extraordinaire. He was safely behind bars and, if the courts did their job properly, he would never again walk the streets of the city.

The paperwork would wait till tomorrow; Simon had announced that no one needed to report before 11:00 AM, so that all of them could catch up on some much-needed sleep. Jim had stopped at the deli on the way home; he planned to eat his sandwich, shower, and hit the sack within thirty-five minutes.

Shoulders slumped and eyelids drooping at half-mast, Jim tucked the deli bag under his arm as he reached into the mailbox. He was already contemplating the absolute peace he would feel as he climbed into those cool, smooth sheets and laid his weary head on the soft, downy pillow.

As he grasped the pile of bills and junk mail, the shifting air currents carried a much-loved and long-missed scent to his nose. Blair! Blair had touched one of these envelopes! His mind and body reacted as if he'd been hit by an electrical surge, every sense immediately alert and seeking.

Quickly, he searched through the handful of mail, and there it was. He ran trembling fingers over the address written in his friend's bold handwriting, as if those fingers could touch the man himself. He closed his eyes as he inhaled deeply, discarding the scents of the various people who had handled this precious piece of paper as it traveled to Cascade, until he breathed in only the essence of his guide. Blair was alive and well; his scent carried no hint of illness or distress. Jim opened his eyes to examine the envelope more closely. Thank God! Blair had included a return address. Jim would be able to write him, visit him, talk to him.

Hunger and weariness forgotten, he hurried up the stairs to the sanctuary of his loft. He tossed his coat on the hook and his sandwich on the table before sitting on the couch. He felt almost solemn, half excited and half scared. It had been so long, so very long, and he'd been afraid that this day might never come. Gently, carefully, Jim lifted the flap of the envelope and began to read.

An hour later, he surfaced from the world Blair had created for him. He'd read quickly, ingesting the meaning in great gulps. Then he re-read it slowly, contemplating the points his guide had raised. It was obvious that Blair still was his Guide; although he might claim sheer practicality and list things he wished for, almost every point he made was aimed at the comfort-level of the Sentinel. Finally, he read it one more time, simply absorbing the inherent feeling of the letter. Despite Blair's upbeat attitude, Jim's heart ached for the strictures that his friend had been forced to deal with.

But within every page, the friendship shone brightly. Jim felt the aching emptiness within him start to ease, a little. Blair wanted to come home, wanted to share his life again. It might take a little while -- there were plans to finalize, and he would have to talk with Blair to learn exactly how he wanted to handle some of the options -- but that didn't matter. Blair was coming home! Jim would talk with Simon in the morning, and start the wheels in motion.

Absentmindedly, he ate his sandwich while reading the letter for the fourth time. Still contemplating possibilities, he took a hot shower, then climbed to his bedroom. He carefully propped the letter against the lamp on his nightstand, so that he would see it again as soon as he opened his eyes in the morning. Finally, he breathed a sigh of relief -- Blair was coming home! -- and allowed himself to drift into sleep.




When he woke in the morning, doubts assailed him. Sandburg said he wanted to come home, but would Blair still want to work with him if he knew that Jim didn't merely want his friend, but rather needed him with an intensity that approached fanatical? Would Blair feel suffocated by his raging need? Sandburg was strong, but could he withstand the weight of perceived expectations for the next twenty or thirty years?

Jim sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the letter as he frantically searched for a solution. Too many times, when he needed someone, they disappeared. His mother. Incacha. Lila. ... Blair?

Maybe he could hide his abject neediness. If he found Sandburg another apartment, saw him only at work and the occasional social evening, he might be able to keep their friendship on the casual level they were accustomed to. He had lived without his best friend and guide for a little more than two years. Surely it would be enough to be with him only during working hours; they didn't have to live in each other's pockets.

He rose to get dressed, resolution firming within him. That would work. He'd find Sandburg a nice apartment, midway between Rainier and the PD, and school himself to act like a close but casual friend during their working hours. It had to work; Blair should be allowed to live his own life as much as possible, not constantly submerging his wants and needs to Jim's.

Jim carried the letter downstairs, intending to read it again while he ate breakfast. He was sure that, if he looked at it closely, objectively, he'd find confirmation that he'd just made the right decision.

But as he contemplated his guide's words again, Jim found his carefully-erected wall crumbling.

I really want to be the Sentinel's Guide.

Blair was aware of what being the Sentinel's Guide entailed. Maybe he would understand the neediness and accept it? Maybe he wouldn't even mind being needed.

Come on, Jim, give me the benefit of the doubt. Have I ever expected you to turn into another person?

No, he never had. So if the person he was, needed Blair Sandburg, did that mean that Blair could still accept him?

At least we can say that we gave it an honest try; no one can ask more of a friend and partner than that.

True. They should try together. He was willing to do anything for Sandburg; wasn't it denigrating to assume that Sandburg might not feel the same way about him? Wouldn't Blair be irritated that he tried to make this decision without involving his friend?

But getting back to the personal reaction thing, and you assigning the worst possible motives to my actions -- enough, already! You can learn to consider my intentions before you make unwarranted assumptions.

Another truth. Sandburg intended to be the Sentinel's Guide. Why was he making assumptions about his friend's commitment? Shouldn't he at least discuss these feelings with him, and see if the problem actually existed?

We need to throw out all our old reactions and preconceptions about each other and start fresh.

And here he was, running scared again, letting his preconceptions about how Blair might react cloud his thinking.

You're a very beloved big brother.

Maybe he should simply go with that. 'Brother' didn't have an unsullied connotation in Jim's mind, but family seemed important to Blair. And that 'beloved' was encouraging.

Wherever you are is 'home'. I don't feel complete without you.

And he felt the same way. So why in hell was he letting his fears and insecurities get in the way of what he most truly wanted?

Okay. Fateful decision. He would send his letter to Sandburg, the one into which he'd poured his heart and soul. That letter had told Sandburg that he wouldn't hide from his guide anymore; he would live up to that vow. After Blair read that outpouring of unadulterated need, he might decide to maintain his distance from Jim. But maybe -- just maybe -- he'd still be willing to come home.

Jim retrieved the carefully-preserved letter from his desk drawer and, with slightly trembling fingers, sealed it into an envelope. He addressed it, affixed a stamp, and carried it downstairs to drop it in the mailbox on the corner. Now it was -- literally -- out of his hands. He'd have to wait to see how Blair responded to this letter.

He turned toward his truck. He didn't know yet if he should announce that Sandburg might be coming home, but at least he could tell everyone where their friend was and what he had been doing. Jim grinned, remembering his bet with Connor. Blair hadn't mentioned anything about wrestling alligators.




Blair guided the sure-footed Appaloosa to the top of the ridge and reined her to a stop. With index finger to his lips and silent gestures, he motioned the half-dozen riders behind him to spread out alongside, then directed their attention forward. Below them, in a shallow, grass-filled cup, three white-tailed does grazed, their half-grown fawns playing nearby. Whispered exclamations signified appreciation as the guests reached for the digital cameras that most of them had tucked into their saddlebags.

One of the horses snorted and shook its head, bothered by a persistent fly. The does raised their heads alertly, poised to flee, and studied the riders above. After a few tense moments, they seemed to relax and, one by one, lowered their heads to continue foraging on the lush greenery. Blair grinned. It seemed to him -- and the more experienced hands had confirmed -- that the deer knew very well that hunting season was still six weeks away. After October fifteenth, it would be almost impossible to catch a glimpse of one during daylight hours, but for now, they were relatively complacent.

When the guests seemed satisfied with their pictures and tucked cameras back into saddlebags, he picked up the reins and led the group onward. Another half-hour would bring them to Talbot Falls. If they were lucky, they might see a bear or two in the rapids below the falling water, giving fishing lessons to their cubs. If not, it was still a good place to take a break and let the horses graze while the human members of the group ate the sack lunches that the cook had packed for them. And the Falls themselves were very photogenic; the camera buffs wouldn't be disappointed.




Ellison pulled into a parking space in the garage below Cascade PD and turned off the engine, then sat, trying to decide his next move. He'd need Simon's help to ensure that Sandburg had a position waiting for him when he arrived, but should he tell the other detectives now, or wait until everything was settled? His instinct was to wait, but...

Jim frowned as he contemplated that 'but'. Why this urge to keep the news to himself? The people of Major Crime were as hungry for information about Sandburg as he was. Yet here he was, acting like a kid unwilling to share a new toy. Would spreading the news of Blair's imminent return detract from his own feeling of overwhelming joy? Of course not. And Blair's friends would want to help make the arrangements for him to come home and settle into -- well, basically the same job, hopefully, but with a new title. They'd no doubt want to throw a 'Welcome Home' bash, and probably be upset -- rightfully so -- if they had insufficient time to plan it, simply because he was stingy with the information he had. But...

"But, but, but," he muttered to himself. "Sandburg'll kick your butt if you cheat his friends out of knowing he's coming home. So get off your butt and get up there and just tell them!" With these words of self-encouragement, Ellison climbed out of the truck and entered the elevator to take him up to Major Crime.

Once there, he gazed around the bullpen. He seemed to be the last one in; he must have been sitting in the truck for longer than he thought. Okay, no time like the present, before people started scattering to work on other cases. But first...

Jim crossed the room and knocked on the captain's door, waiting for Simon's customary, 'Come!' before he entered. "Sir?" he asked, still a bit ill-at-ease. "I have an announcement to make; could you step into the bullpen for a moment?"

The unusual request caught Simon's attention. He gazed sharply at his detective, noting the marks of tension in face and body-posture. Oh, hell. Had Ellison learned something that would weaken the case against the killer they had apprehended? Surely not. "All right Jim, what's going on?"

When the only reply was a shrug and a mute headshake, his concern grew. Grunting an acknowledgement, he followed the other man out into the bullpen. But there Jim stopped, apparently unwilling -- or unable -- to initiate his 'announcement'. Well, one thing you learned in 'Captains' School' was how to prod someone into action.

"Listen up, people!" he barked. "Ellison says he has something important to tell us." He crossed his arms and focused on his detective. Maybe his 'do it now!' glare would provide the impetus that Jim evidently needed.

With curious eyes pointing his way, Jim clutched the letter in his pocket to supply a boost to his confidence and managed to stutter, "Uh... Got a letter from Sandburg. He says he wants to come back."

He might just as well have announced the Second Coming. Work was forgotten as Blair's friends crowded around with eager questions. "When's he coming?" "Where is he?" "What's he been doing?" "How is he?" "What else did he say?" "How soon will he be here?"

Despite the confusion, Jim felt himself relax. Of course it was right to tell their friends. What the hell had he been worried about? "Uh, well... he says he misses everybody, and he wants to come back and work with us again. Says he's okay with being a cop, but he'd rather be a civilian advisor. Says he can come home as soon as his boss finds a replacement for him."

"So, what's he been doing, and what's he doing now?" Megan was insistent. "Come on, Jimbo, give!"

"Um, he worked as a trucker and a library assistant. Right now, he's working on a dude ranch in New Mexico." He grinned as he remembered his stray thought from last night. "He didn't mention any alligator-wrestling. You owe me ten, Connor."

"Just because he didn't tell you about it doesn't mean he didn't do it. You won't get your money till I can ask him directly; maybe you'll be paying me," she retorted.

"Damn; Hairboy on a dude ranch. With those curls under a cowboy hat, I bet he has the ladies falling at his feet. You think we can bribe somebody at the ranch to send us some pictures?" Henri suggested.

"Well, he says he kept it cut short for awhile, sort of as a disguise," Jim reported awkwardly. The group became still, remembering why Blair might have felt that he needed a disguise. "But he says it's growing again; enough that people call him a 'weird hippie' when he goes to town." There were quiet chuckles at that, and an easing of the minor tension that had swept through the group.

"Okay, people!" Simon interrupted. "We're all happy to hear the news, but we have work to do. Let's get it finished, then meet in the conference room at four. We'll discuss everything then, and put our 'bringing Sandburg home' plans into motion. This is still a police station, not a coffee klatch."

As everyone moved back to their desks, Simon lowered his voice to speak privately. "I'm happy for you Jim -- happy for us all. Now we've got to be sure we do this right, so he never feels like he has to leave again. We'll discuss it later." With a nod, he returned to his office to begin making phone calls. He didn't need to wait until four to start the wheels in motion.

Jim returned to his own desk, once again fingering the letter in his pocket. This was shaping up to be a good day.




"Hey Curly, the boss has a letter for you. He's holding it in his office."

With a wave of acknowledgement to Big John, Curly -- known to the world outside the closed society of the ranch as Blair Sandburg -- changed his trajectory from the bunkhouse to the office. After leading a six-hour trail-ride and helping to rub down the horses, he was in desperate need of a shower before dinner. But that could wait for a few more minutes. He'd had only two letters in all the months he'd been working here. It might be another letter from Naomi, but it could be an answer to the letter he'd sent Jim...

He knocked informally on the doorframe as he entered the large, casually-furnished room. "Hey, Clem, I hear you have a letter for me?"

The big man leaned back in his leather chair, apparently welcoming a break from the paperwork that covered his desk. "Sure do, Curly. It's kinda thick; I thought it might be important." He plucked it from the catch-all box on the corner of his desk and placed it in Blair's eagerly-waiting hands. "Sure hope it's not bad news," his boss offered quietly.

Blair's heart jolted as he confirmed the return address. This was a letter from Jim. Would it be good news or bad? He schooled his voice to casualness as he answered, "Thanks, Clem. It's a letter from an old friend; I expect he just wants to catch up."

He should have known that his boss wouldn't be fooled. The man was canny, with an intuitive knowledge of psychology; he understood his people and his livestock, and cared about them all. Clem gave Blair an assessing look as he commented, "You just remember, kid -- any help you need, you come talk to me. You're a good hand and a better man, Curly. Whatever it is, you don't have to go it alone."

With a lump in his throat, Blair nodded. "Thanks, Clem; I'll remember." Trying to maintain his casual façade, he excused himself and headed back outside.

He paused on the porch, considering his options. The married hands had cabins of their own, but the single men shared a bunkhouse. At this time of the day, it wouldn't be very private, as people came in to clean up for dinner.

Decision made, Blair folded the letter and tucked it into his back pocket, then strode to the corral. He assessed the animals inside. Old Blue hadn't been ridden today. Blair grabbed one of the halters hanging on the outside of the rails and slipped it over Blue's head. He quickly brushed and saddled the horse, while idly speculating on the mindset that would name a young dun, 'Old Blue'. Well, in a dozen years, at least the 'Old' would fit, even if the sandy-colored hide would never be considered 'blue'.

He swung into the saddle and headed toward the river. A couple of months earlier, he'd found a secluded glade nearby, out of sight of the water and surrounded by low-growing, bushy trees, an ideal spot for his evening meditations. He'd read Jim's letter there. Whatever Jim had written, he'd be able to deal with the resulting emotions in private, and get himself under control before facing the world again.




Blair leaned back against the trunk of the piñon tree. His gaze rested on Blue, eagerly cropping the green grass, but his thoughts were turned inward. He felt dazed -- stunned -- by the depth of emotion that had come pouring from Jim's letter. He had never -- never -- expected such a heartfelt declaration from the man. Realistically, he had hoped for gracious agreement, been willing to settle for grudging acceptance, and steeled himself for casual rejection. This was... this was simply unbelievable.

Blair turned his attention back to the letter, wanting to absorb every nugget of information from it that he could.

The first thing he noted -- he hadn't paid attention on the first read-through -- was that Jim had written this letter months ago, and apparently kept it until he had an address to send it to. So, it wasn't really a response to the letter that he'd just sent. But, if Jim mailed this after reading Blair's letter, he must still feel the same way. Mustn't he? Blair shook his head in bemusement and read on.

I moped around for weeks, fighting my senses, fighting our friends, fighting the whole damn world.

Well, hell. He'd been afraid of that. As much as Jim wanted to be self-sufficient, he also craved stability. Blair had hoped that his carefully-explained analysis of why he had to leave would allow Jim to feel some measure of control, and that including his friend in the decision-making would convince his subconscious that he hadn't actually been 'abandoned'. Apparently, the setup had been only partially successful.

But Simon finally sat me down and read me the riot act.

Thank God for Simon Banks. The man had a bark like a junkyard dog, but he was a true friend when the chips were down.

I went to the Police Chief, the Commissioner, and the District Attorney. I proved to them that I am an actual Sentinel, and that you hadn't lied in your dissertation.

You know what helped? The acceptance of all of our friends in Major Crime. When I knew (or decided) that I was in it 'for the duration', I told all of them about the senses and the truth about your dissertation.


Now that was a shocker. Why all the fuss about secrecy if the man was going to do a one-eighty turnaround? He couldn't have managed this insight before the diss disaster? Things could have been so different --

Blair drew his thoughts up short, aghast at where they were going. Where was all this anger coming from? Hadn't he dealt with this long ago?

He dropped the letter beside him, crossed his legs, and took a deep, centering breath. Blair had learned the art of soul-examination from Naomi at a very early age. Lately, Standing Bear had been reinforcing the lessons, and teaching him to go ever deeper. This wasn't hard...

Yes. There it was. A kernel of anger still flared brightly, directed at one Jim Ellison. The man hadn't trusted his 'best friend', had assumed that Blair would sell him out for the equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. That had hurt, deeply, and it still hurt.

Okay, he'd always known that Jim had 'issues'. But at least now he was trying to deal with it, and he promised to try to do better. Blair was taken aback to realize that he also had issues nagging in the background. But he had told Jim that he didn't blame him. So -- was that the truth, or just a polite social lie?

Blair stood beside himself and examined the anger, tasting its flavor and holding its shape in his mind. Then he evaluated the character of the Sentinel and the character of the Guide, as well as the characters of Jim and Blair. Was he just fooling himself when he declared that the anger could be forgotten, that it wouldn't come between the Sentinel and the Guide? Between Jim and Blair?

No. The anger had been justified, but it was no longer important, or relevant. He would not allow it to affect the spirits of Sentinel and Guide, or of Jim and Blair. Now that he knew it still existed, it could be handled. He would put the anger aside for now, but come back later to draw out its poison and lay it to rest. Perhaps Standing Bear would help him, since he hadn't been successful at doing it alone.

He picked up the letter again.

God, I'm sorry Chief. So very, very sorry.

That helped. That helped a great deal. Jim more often spoke with actions than words. Blair understood that, and accepted it. Words weren't really necessary. But sometimes words could provide a healing balm of their own. He would cherish these words, and use them to help vanquish the anger still hidden within him.

I ache for you to be back beside me.

More healing words. Jim didn't just tolerate his presence, or accept his presence; Jim wanted his presence, apparently needed his presence. It was a precious thing to be wanted and needed -- humbling, gratifying, sometimes even frightening, but deeply satisfying. Some might think it restrictive; it seemed that Jim was afraid that he'd react that way. Not so. Blair felt an answering need to be in Jim's presence, like coming home to a brightly blazing fire on a dark, cold night. Everything else was secondary; Sentinel and Guide would be together again.

You are closer to me than any brother could ever be, closer even than most married couples. You have a large piece of my very soul, and you took it with you when you left.

But this required some heavy thought. Blair nibbled a ragged cuticle as he pondered. Apparently, Jim's emotional -- psychic? -- investment in their friendship was stronger and deeper than he'd realized. On the other hand, he'd long been aware that Jim did feel things very deeply; he was just a master at hiding it from himself and others. But now... he had told Jim that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide. But was he considering a total commitment? Or was it just something he was planning to do until the 'time was right' to move on? He could easily give another five or ten years, but what about thirty? Forty?

He had to be absolutely certain. If he moved back with Jim, then left again -- whether in five years or twenty-five -- it would quite possibly destroy the man. Better to stop the process now, before it went any further, than to do that to his best friend.

Best friend. Still. Always.

Blair stared unseeing at a chattering squirrel as he pondered. He had told Jim that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide, and that he wanted Jim to like Blair, but he had avoided mentioning any deeply emotional aspects, assuming that Jim would not want to know. But in hiding his deepest feelings from his friend, he realized that he had also hidden them from himself. So... what were they?

All right. Give it a test. Blair deliberately set up a scenario -- his future without Jim. There were places to go, and things to learn. He was beginning to realize that, for all his study of the Sentinel phenomenon, he had barely scratched the surface of the information waiting to be discovered, or re-discovered; the more primitive peoples of the world still remembered what modern society had forgotten. He'd learned long ago that it didn't take much money to be comfortable while wandering from place to place and, if need be, he could take Jim up on his offer of the money in his checking account. (That had been an amazing little tidbit. He'd withdrawn all his meager funds when he left and never accessed the account again, 'knowing' that it was empty. It was mind-boggling that Jim would invest that much money to try to ensure his well-being and comfort.) He could get his PhD, go on expeditions, publish books...

Blair slid back into reality and clinically noted his body's reactions. His heartrate was up, his forehead and palms were sweaty, and he was short of breath, panting as if he'd been running. Apparently, his entire system rejected the idea of the Guide remaining apart from the Sentinel. Or of Blair remaining apart from Jim. It didn't matter; his heart and soul agreed with his body. Contemplating that scenario left him feeling empty and adrift, aching with a loneliness that couldn't be appeased. It seemed that he needed Jim as much as Jim needed him; he was committed for the duration. They had needed the time apart, and the distance, but no more. He was going home.

'Until death do us part'. He smiled slightly. If either of them ever married, it would have to be to a very special lady (or ladies) who could accept the sentinel / guide connection. Blair envisioned side-by-side houses sharing one big back yard, with a dozen children happily playing together while their wives commiserated with each other about husbands who had to be pried apart with a crowbar.

But this I can promise, Chief -- I'll try. I'll try my damnedest.

And that was all he'd ever asked of the man. If they were both actively trying to 'optimize their partnership' -- Jeeze, he admonished himself, can't you even talk to yourself without dropping into academese? Anyway, with both of them working to heal the cracks in their relationship, they'd be such a hot team that criminals would soon be giving Cascade a wide berth, as word went out that not even the most minor of crimes went uncaught and unpunished. Blair grinned at the mental picture of Jim as an 1880's Western lawman, leaning back in his chair, booted feet on the desk, cobwebs forming between his spurs and the desktop because there was no crime for him to deal with. Apparently, the world of ranching was seeping into his very pores; he normally avoided such stereotyped images.

You've got a place here, just waiting for you. Your choice -- you can go through the Academy and be a cop if you want. Or, you can be an official, paid, civilian consultant if you prefer.

His heart warmed anew as he contemplated that statement again. Realizing that Jim -- that all of his friends in Major Crime -- would go to such trouble to establish a 'place' for him was... humbling. Breathtaking. And totally unexpected. Blair really liked the idea of becoming a 'Socio-Cultural Anthropologist'; if nothing else, it would give him a lot of scope to define his own job description, and baffle The Powers That Be -- they couldn't complain that he was overstepping boundaries if they didn't know what those boundaries were.

Satisfied with his ruminations, Blair stirred, grimacing slightly as he stretched to ease the stiffness in his spine. Piñon trunks weren't the most comfortable supports. His eyes widened as he noticed that full dark had fallen while he was lost in his thoughts. It hadn't seemed to take that long to reach his decision.

No matter. Horses have good night-vision and a full moon was rising; Blue would get him back to the ranch with no problem. Miguel -- usually addressed, inevitably, as 'Cookie' -- didn't mind if hands or guests raided the refrigerator for leftovers. He'd take that long-delayed shower, fill his grumbling belly, and get to bed. In the morning, he'd tell Clem that he'd be leaving as soon as a replacement could be found to do his job.

Finally, Blair Sandburg would be going home.




Four o'clock, and the staunchest of Blair's supporters were gathered in the conference room. Captain Banks leaned back in his chair, surveyed the group, and called the 'meeting' to order. "All right, people, let's get this show on the road. Jim, did Sandburg say anything specifically about what he wants to do when he comes back?"

Jim was feeling considerably more relaxed than earlier. Somehow, just working on plans to bring Sandburg home made him feel that he was 'doing something' to accomplish that goal. His voice was easy as he replied, "Several things, Simon. He said he didn't mind being a cop, and that he could even handle carrying a gun, but that he'd much rather remain a civilian." He smiled at his fellow cops as he revealed, "He listed a whole bunch of high-falutin' titles that he figured would let him 'do his thing' while keeping the brass comfortable about his presence. Pure Sandburg obfuscation all the way. I don't think it'll make much difference which title we choose; he'll just inform anyone who cares that 'of course' that title involves these duties!"

He paused to appreciate the soft chuckles that passed through the room, then sobered. "But he is concerned about how the ordinary police will react to him after his news conference. Of course, he didn't know about our little whispering campaign; with the sentinel secret not so secret anymore, I don't think anyone will hold that 'fraud' declaration nonsense against him. But I think he's right to be worried, and people could be mouthing off when I'm not around. Have any of you heard anything that would make it tough for Sandburg to come back?"

There were pensive looks as each person thought about the question, followed by relieved headshakes as no alarming memories surfaced. It seemed that Blair would be home free, until Henri spoke up.

"Yeah, I heard a couple'a dudes talkin' about a month ago. You had led us to the evidence that let us catch Rawlins, Jim. They were sayin' as how calling you a sentinel was a crock, that any decent detective could do what you do, and it was a good thing that Sandburg was gone so he wouldn't be stirrin' things up anymore with all his 'crazy stories'." He glanced at the now-grave faces around the table and shrugged. "I dunno how many people feel like that, but I guess some still do."

"Then we have to stop it!" Megan's reply was fierce and unequivocal. "We need Sandy back here; we can't let a few bloody drongos put up a roadblock!" She looked wistful for a moment. "D'ya suppose we can corner them in a dark alley and beat some sense into them?"

Joel, always a peacemaker, demurred. "Blair wouldn't want us to hurt anyone, and if we did, it would just make them more set against him. And if it's just a handful, it won't matter. There wouldn't be much that a few could do with the whole precinct as a buffer."

"But we don't know that it's just a handful," Rhonda objected. "I think Megan's right. If we don't find out how far this attitude reaches, and do something about it, Blair could be miserable trying to work here."

Rafe shook his head. "We've already let the 'secret' of the sentinel out. If they don't believe it, what else can we do?"

Rafe's question led to a storm of suggestions, points, counter-points, and more suggestions. Gradually, the ridiculous was discarded, and a workable plan emerged. As the room became calm again, Simon summarized their strategy.

"All right. We 'casually' mention to everyone we meet that Sandburg's planning to come back. We act neutral about it until we notice the reaction, good or bad. We make note of those who have negative reactions. Within a few days, Jim will 'accidentally' do something very 'Sentinel' where the naysayer can observe him. A day or two after that, one of the rest of us will just 'casually' comment on Jim's abilities, but complain about how much easier it would be for him, or how much more extensive they would be, if only Sandburg were here. Anything else to make this more effective?" He glanced around the table.

"Yes, sir." Rhonda remained calm as all eyes turned toward her. "You're all focusing on Blair as a... a... 'crutch' for the Sentinel," her eyes sent apologies to Jim for the term, "...and forgetting that he's worthy in his own right to be a member of this department. He's proved it time and again, and I think it's unfair of us to ignore that!" She flushed a little -- as a 'mere' secretary, she didn't normally speak out at a detectives' meeting -- but was gratified to notice supporting nods from everyone present.

"Good point, Rhonda; thank you," Simon concurred. "So, an addendum. While we're just 'happening' to mention how useful Sandburg's presence is to help Jim, we'll also just 'happen' to mention how many times he's helped all of us in the past, and what a great addition he'll be as a permanent member of the department. So, anything more before we move on to Sandburg's official position?"

Jim had remained silent through most of the discussion, awed at how much these people were willing to do to bring Sandburg back among them. He had to swallow a lump in his throat before he spoke up. "Yes, Simon... all of you," he affirmed, glancing a 'thank you' at each of his fellows. "I just want to say how much I appreciate this, and I'll make sure that Sandburg knows how much you all want him back. It'll mean a lot to him."

"Just a bit of self-interest, Jimbo." Megan grinned cheekily at him, knowing how he disliked the nickname. "You're not the bear you were when Sandy first left, but you're still not a pussycat to work with. It'll be a relief to let the master take over." She cocked an eyebrow, wondering how Ellison would take the insinuation that he wasn't at his best without a particular person at his side. To her surprise, he didn't object, but simply nodded.

"I know, and I also appreciate how you've all helped me get through this time. I know I don't say it often enough --" he grinned wryly, "-- or ever... but, thank you. You're all a great team to work with." He pulled a face in Megan's direction. "But frankly, I'll be relieved when 'the Master' takes over, too!" He let the comfortable laughter swirl around him as he settled back into his seat.

As the amusement faded, Simon brought up the next point. "Okay, now we have to actually get Sandburg into the department. I've been talking with the Chief and the Commissioner. It seems that a few major cities have instituted official certification programs for their civilian personnel who sometimes need to go into the field. Sort of 'Academy-lite' -- physical fitness, weapons training, basic field procedure. Those who complete the course aren't expected to be in the front lines, but the idea is that, if something happens while they're with other cops, they won't be in the way through sheer ignorance, and may even be able to provide simple backup or assistance. The civilian trainees attend basic Academy classes with the police trainees; they just get to opt out of the really in-depth stuff. The plan is that the civilians will understand our job better, and be able to provide more effective support, and the cops won't resent the civvies as 'know-nothing desk-jockeys'."

Simon paused to let his people absorb the new idea. Although the higher-ups had been considering the logistics for several months, the rank-and-file of the PD had not been told of the projected innovations. Privately, he wondered just how much of the upper echelons' willingness to consider the idea was a side-effect of Sandburg's time spent as an unofficial adjunct to Major Crime. The kid's readiness to jump in wherever needed, his enthusiasm for supporting the Police Department in general, and Major Crime in particular, and his seemingly offbeat ideas that had sometimes provided fresh insight to help the detectives solve various crimes, had often been the subject of break-room gossip in various departments. It would be ridiculous to think that the scuttlebutt hadn't reached higher levels, but if they were hoping for a class full of Sandburgs in their training program, they would be disappointed. However, right now, one was all that mattered.

"Naturally, what's good enough for other cities has to be implemented in Cascade." Simon raised an eyebrow as he heard several soft snorts from around the table. "Tentative plans are to schedule the first class in January, when the new crop of cadets starts training. There are already half a dozen current or potential employees who have expressed an interest in such a program; Sandburg should fit right in. So, what d'ya think, Jim; would Sandburg be interested, and could he be here by then?"

"I think 'yes' to both counts, Captain. Sandburg already indicated that he's willing to consider the Academy, and he said he could leave as soon as his boss finds a replacement. January's almost four months away; he ought be able to get away by then."

"Maybe even a few weeks earlier than that," Megan interjected eagerly. "It'd be great to have Sandy home in time for Christmas!" Murmurs of agreement confirmed her words.

"Good! Anything else?" Simon looked around the table, noting the various head-shakes and shrugs. "Okay. Jim, you let Sandburg know what we're planning, and get some input as to what direction he really wants to go. The rest of us will start our 'Sandburg's coming back' campaign. If we note any problems, or anyone has other ideas, we'll have another planning session or three -- whatever it takes to get the kid back. Any questions or comments?"

"Yes," Joel offered. "Jim, you be sure to tell Blair how much we've missed him, and how much we're looking forward to having him with us again."

Before Jim could assure Joel of his compliance, Megan ordered, "Hell, Jim, just give us his address! Whoever wants to write Sandy can do it themselves, and a personal note will mean a lot more than a passed-on message."

Of course; why hadn't he thought of that? Everyone readied their notepads as Jim pulled out Blair's letter and read the return address to them.

When the notepads were closed and slipped into pockets or purses, the meeting was obviously 'finished'. Simon watched as a lull settled over the group; it seemed that no one had anything else pertinent to discuss but, equally, no one wanted to leave. Perhaps they needed to stay together a little longer, to reinforce the belief that Sandburg was really coming 'home'; it was amazing how much the kid had been missed. He cleared his throat.

"All right, people, no sense sitting around here all night. Why don't we meet at Murphy's for dinner and drinks together? We can grill Jim about Sandburg's letter -- I'm sure he said more than 'I want to come back'..." he fixed his detective with a gimlet eye, "...and then we can start planning the kid's 'welcome home' party."

The lull dissipated immediately as Simon's suggestion was whole-heartedly approved. They moved en masse to the elevators and parking garage, already making bets as to who would beat who at darts, and who would take who at pool. Murphy's Irish Pub was a favorite spot to kick back and relax with good friends and good food -- just the ticket to let them 'level off' from the charged emotions that they had been dealing with. With calls of, "Meet you there," and "See you in a few," doors slammed shut, engines rumbled to life, and the cars proceeded sedately into the evening's slanting sunlight.




Morning brought clear skies of what promised to be another hot, late-summer day. Blair had forgotten, last night, that the day's activities included a miniature 'trail drive' to move about two hundred head of cattle from one pasture to another, about four miles distant. He shrugged mentally as he kept an eye on the guests who intended to participate. Most of them were fairly confident in brushing and saddling the horses that had been assigned to them, but the ranch hands unobtrusively monitored the situation, making sure that saddle blankets had wrinkles smoothed out, that saddles were placed correctly, and that cinches were adequately tightened. In truth, it would probably have been easier -- certainly quicker -- to simply have the horses already saddled for the guests. But looking at the happy faces of the men and women who believed they were being 'real cowboys', Blair couldn't begrudge them this simple pleasure. Besides -- they had paid for the privilege.

It wasn't as if he planned to pack up and leave immediately; he could wait till this evening to tell Clem that he'd be moving on as soon as another hand could be hired.

Blair watched as Miguel and Pete finished loading their supplies into the chuck wagon and headed out the main gate. The cook and his helper would drive directly to the second pasture and start their preparations. By the time the herd could be driven to the new grazing area, a 'real cowboy lunch' would be waiting for the guests. He knew, from previous excursions, that Miguel and Pete enjoyed playing to the crowd. The guests would be enthralled by the sight of the large black pot hanging over the open fire, with the cast-iron Dutch oven and the blue enamel-ware coffee pot nestled among the flames. The chuck wagon with its billowing canvas top would be optimally placed -- enhanced by a backdrop of pines -- to be included in the inevitable pictures.

The horses were finally ready. Clem called for attention, and reminded the guests to do one last check. Water, cameras, sunscreen, light jacket -- at this elevation, it could be cool under the trees, even though it would be hot later, especially in the open grassy areas. Satisfied, Clem called, "Okay, folks, mount up!" and swung into the saddle with the ease and grace of forty years' experience. Many of the guests were able to do so with fair competence, but Blair bit back a grin as he watched the inevitable show-offs cockily try to emulate Clem's nonchalant poise, and succeed only in highlighting their lack of experience. Big John stepped forward to give one 'vertically-challenged' woman a boost into the saddle, while Blair gave similar assistance to the eager ten-year-old girl who was also part of the group. The ranch hands, satisfied that everything was under control, mounted their horses as well, and the cavalcade rode out, heading for what would be a long, tiring -- but ultimately, very satisfying -- day.




With a feeling of déjà vu, Blair knocked briefly on the doorframe as he entered the large, casually-furnished room. Though Clem had joined the hands and guests on the trail ride, he was once again immersed in paperwork. Blair flashed on an image of Simon Banks, also chained to a desk more often than he wanted to be. It occurred to him that, whatever the job was, the higher someone rose in importance, the more time was spent in paperwork instead of doing the specific work that was usually the foundation of self-satisfaction. Maybe he should reconsider getting that PhD after all...

"Something I can do for you, Curly?" The big man leaned back in his leather chair, ready, as always, to give his full attention to one of his men and whatever was brought to his notice. He waved Blair to the easy chair in front of the desk, and moved the plate of chocolate-chip cookies a few inches closer in silent invitation.

Blair accepted one and bit into the soft, chewy morsel as he considered how to start. It was always a bit awkward to tell a boss that he had decided to move on and, in the close-knit society of the ranch, it seemed almost a rejection of the man himself. As he swallowed the last bite, he decided simply to jump right in. Clem had surely seen hands come and go for many years; this shouldn't be anything unusual.

"Yeah, Clem... I came to tell you that I've decided to go back home, and wanted to give you time to hire another hand before I leave. There's no big rush -- I can hang around for another month or two, or even three -- but... well... just wanted to give you a heads-up so you wouldn't be caught short-handed when I take off." He grinned slightly. "Uh, no pun intended."

Clem returned his smile, but then sobered and regarded him steadily. "This is about that letter you got yesterday, right?" He barely waited for Blair's nod before he continued, "Because if you got somethin' troublin' you, Curly, I can help. If you need an advance on your wages, or maybe a good word in someone's ear --"

Blair shook his head vigorously. "No, man, no; everything's copasetic!" He recalled that he was talking to his boss, however informal the man was. "I mean, I appreciate it, Clem, but there are no problems. It's just time for me to go back."

"Curly -- Blair -- I know you've been hidin' out from someone or something." His gaze was piercing; if Blair had really been in trouble, he would have owned up immediately. "I didn't question it; around here, we judge a man by what we see, and not by what might be in his past. When we look at you, we see a good man. Like I said yesterday, you don't have to face whatever-it-is alone."

"Thanks, Clem; that kind of support means a lot to me, but honest, there's no trouble. In fact..." A bright smile crossed his face as it hit him again -- I'm going home! "-- my friend told me that everything's been cleared up. There was some trouble before -- a major misunderstanding, not really anything anybody did wrong -- and I left so that the repercussions wouldn't affect my friends. But now the misunderstandings have been explained, the fuss has died down so there won't be -- shouldn't be, anyway -- any unfortunate consequences, and I have a job waiting for me, working with people I care about." He drew himself up short, aghast at the implication he'd just made, then hurried to explain. "Not that I don't consider you all friends -- it's been really great working here, I've really appreciated the companionship and the -- psychic comfort -- that you've all offered, but..." He stumbled to a halt with an embarrassed shrug, unable to untangle himself from the disarray of his own thoughts and words.

Clem waved off the need for apology with a careless hand. "I know what you mean, Curly; don't sweat it. It's a lucky man who finds a place where he truly fits. You've done well here, and I think you've enjoyed sharing our life, but we all knew that it wasn't really where you belong. I just hope, this time, you can stay in the place you want to be. You'll be working with your cop friend, right?"

"Yeah, Jim Ellison," Blair agreed, somewhat surprised that Clem would remember a passing reference made months ago. It was part of what made the man such a good boss. "There's a few things to be worked out -- I don't know if I'll be a cop, too, or a civilian adjunct -- but we're a good team; we can handle it. I'm just excited to have the opportunity; I thought that door was closed to me."

His boss nodded. "You know, ranch work is flexible; one man more or less won't make that much difference. I appreciate you offering to wait till I find another hand, but if you want to leave sooner than that, it won't be a problem."

"Thanks, Clem; that's good of you. But there are still a few things to get straight, so it'll take a little time. And I want to visit Standing Bear another time or two; he's been..." Blair hesitated; how much did he want to reveal? But, somehow, he wanted to assure Clem that he would stay longer because of preference, rather than unlooked-for obligation. "Well, he's been teaching me a lot, and he's sort of been acting as my... um, spiritual advisor. I want to be sure my head's on straight so I don't make the same mistakes again."

"Standing Bear's a good man," Clem agreed. "I'm glad he's able to help you." He pulled his ledger closer and lifted his pen, a signal that the discussion was finished. "All right, Curly. Like I said, I appreciate the advance notice. I'll start advertisin', but if you need to leave before someone answers, don't trouble yourself. I'll be ready to cut your final paycheck whenever you need it."

Blair stood, understanding that the man had work to finish. "Thanks, Clem. I'll let you know when I have a definite date." He let himself out into the lengthening evening shadows.




To: jjellison @ cascadepd.com
From: blairsandy @ zianet.com
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 1998 9:48 PM
Subject: Confirming contact

Hey, Jim,

It occurred to me that I forgot to give you my new e-mail addy. This way, we can 'talk' about stuff back and forth quicker than waiting for the mail. Also, the phone number here is 505-555-9278, if you need to do some real-time talking. The phone's in the 'living room' of the bunkhouse -- separate lines from the main house and office -- so the best chance of me being nearby will be after supper. Say, 7 to 10, local.

Got your letter yesterday, and I gotta say, man -- I'm overwhelmed. 'Thank you' just doesn't cover it. I'm -- amazed -- that you would go to so much effort, in so many different ways. I never expected it, but I'm incredibly grateful. So, thank you, my brother. I look forward to coming home.

Speaking of which -- can't wait to see the improvements to my room! You know I would've gotten my own apartment if you wanted me out from underfoot, don't you? (And I still will, if you ever decide that me being around all the time is too claustrophobic.) Or that I'd've been happy to spend the next -- oh, fifty years or so -- in my 'cozy little cubby'? <g> It's not like I can't share the rest of the loft with you. But since you've gone to so much trouble, I can assume that you really want me there, and I certainly won't look a gift horse in the mouth. Thank you, again. (Hmm... I think I'll be saying that a lot, in this mail, and for a while after I get home.)

Spoke to Clem earlier this evening, let him know I'll be leaving before too long. He actually said that I don't need to wait for him to find a replacement hand, but...

Well, now that I'll be heading home, this has become an 'interlude' instead of a 'road', and I'm seeing it with slightly different eyes. Not that I wasn't enjoying the place before, but the mental shift has turned it into a 'vacation'. So I think I'll revel in the 'naturalness' for a little longer, talk to Standing Bear a few more times to learn as much as he can tell me about the warriors with enhanced senses and the ways their companions helped them cope...

I think I'm also looking for -- well, call it 'psychic closure' of this wandering part of my life. I want to see it come to a 'natural' end, before I step into my 'new' life. The changing of the season, as the year winds down to a close, will be a very significant, and relevant, marker.

Yeah, I know, major cliché, but still -- psychic satisfaction all over the place. Close one chapter, open the next, smooth transition from one life to another...

So, I think I'll plan to head back to Cascade around the end of October. I have enough money saved for a plane ticket (sold the Volvo that first summer), and to tide me over until I start drawing a paycheck.

Um... I'm not assuming too much, am I? I mean, I know your letter to me wasn't a direct response to the one I sent you, but... Well, you wouldn't have sent it if you didn't still mean it, right? You did say that I have a place with the PD -- that still holds, right? And there won't be any flak about my 'fraud' declaration?

'Cause, right now, I'm almost afraid that it all falls under the heading of 'too good to be true'. I trust you, Jim, I really do. But... well, if you do change your mind, you'll let me know, right? I don't want a repeat of us spiraling into a pattern of dysfunctional disassociation again; much easier to make a clean break.

Not that I'm expecting that, or anything... just -- keep it in mind.

Well, you know what? A ranch hand has to get up even earlier than a grad student. So I'm gonna shut down and hit the sack. I'll be waiting to hear from you, and we can get the plans all worked out.

Thanks, Jim. Really, really, thanks.

Your friend,

Blair

PS -- Tell everyone in MC 'hi' for me, and I'll be back soon.

B




Jim Ellison sat down at his desk and booted up his computer. With the tip he'd gotten from his snitch last night, and a little bit of creative cross-referencing, he just might be able to crack this case...

Within a half-hour, he found the connections he needed; they should be able to put away that lowlife for a long time. He printed out the information to pass to Simon, to see if they could obtain a search warrant. Almost as an afterthought, he started his e-mail downloading while he headed toward the captain's office.

"Come!" Banks called at the perfunctory knock at the door. He eyed the sheaf of papers in his detective's hand. "What've you got, Jim?"

"I think we've got enough to nail the bastard, sir. Take a look; you think this'll get us a warrant?"

His captain read the documents carefully, and grunted in satisfaction. "Good work, Jim." A quick phone call brought the results they both wanted. "It'll be delivered in about thirty minutes. Set it up with Brown and Rafe, and plan to take a couple of uniforms with you. We don't want any slip-ups on this."

"Okay, Simon; we'll keep you informed." He nodded acknowledgement, then strode to Brown's and Rafe's desks to fill them in.

With their plans finalized, Jim had just enough time to check his e-mail. He sat down at his desk, and nudged the mouse to 'blip' the screen saver. Hmm... Junk mail -- delete. Junk mail -- delete. Advertisement -- big sale at Home Depot. Good; he'd make a point to drop by, in a day or two -- delete. Confirming contact -- my God, it was from Sandburg!

Quickly, he scanned the message, relieved that Blair had received his letter and was still planning a return to Cascade. But -- Jim frowned, feeling a faint unease at the tone -- something wasn't quite right. He glanced at the clock. Damn! He didn't have time to think about this now. With a few keystrokes and a click, he forwarded the letter to his home computer.

Glancing once more at the screen, he scribbled Blair's new e-mail address on a Post-It Note, then shut down the computer. Rising, he pierced the air with a shrill whistle, then waved the slip of paper in his hand when he had their attention. "Got an e-mail from Sandburg," Jim announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "He says 'hi' to everybody, and he'll be coming home at the end of October. Here's his addy, if anyone wants to write back."

Just then, he spotted Officers Sanchez and Jorgensen walking in, Sanchez holding what must be the warrant in his hand. "Sorry, folks; this seems to be our cue to go and grab Blanchard. I'll leave it here on my desk. Brown, Rafe -- let's go."

The detectives joined the officers at the door, and the group swept out, united in their purpose to get one more sleazeball off the streets of Cascade, and make their city just a little safer for the citizens they were sworn to protect.




To: blairsandy @ zianet.com
From: mfconnor @ cascadepd.com
Sent: Thursday, September 3, 1998, 7:22 PM
Subject: So glad

Hey, Sandy,

I'm so glad to hear that you're coming back to the department. We all are -- we really miss you around here. If nothing else, just to stand between Jim and the rest of the world. You made it look so easy.

Jim gave us your addresses, in case we wanted to e-mail or write to you. And I don't suppose 'close-mouthed' Ellison will tell you the good oil, so I'll fill you in.

When Simon offered you that badge, Sandy, it wasn't guilt on our parts -- leastways, not completely. Being inside your own head, you can't know how much you really contributed to the team. I know sometimes the guys gave you a gobful and teased about 'putting up with' your 'weird ideas', but when we look back, we can see how often your ideas really helped.

So, in case you're wondering, it's not just Jim that wants you back. It's all of us. I'm sorry we left you in the lurch; it was no way to treat a mate.

And no worries about the rest of the PD. We all (I mean, us in MC) discussed it, and we have a plan to suss out the nonbelievers and make sure they recognise the truth. There aren't many skeptics left -- Jim's let his abilities become an open secret since you've been gone, and people understand why you gave that press conference -- and I can tell you Sandy, anyone who doesn't give you a fair go will be itching for a blue.

Jim told us today that you're not planning to come back until the end of October. I won't be a sticky-beak -- I'm sure you have your reasons -- but I want you to know that there's no hang-up on this end. Two months or two days -- you'll get such a welcome when you show up.

I guess that's all. I just wanted to give you a push, if you needed it, to come back to us. I promise you, the only changes will be for the better.

Your friend,

Megan




Jim closed his door behind him, tossing his keys in the basket and hanging his coat on its customary hook. The arrest had gone down without a hitch, and the evidence discovered in the search should ensure a conviction. But underneath his sense of satisfaction was the niggling disquiet that he'd pushed aside all day. Why did Sandburg want to wait before coming back to Cascade?

He hurried upstairs to boot up his computer and print out a hard copy of Sandburg's e-mail. He'd be able to think better while looking over a piece of paper; somehow, a computer screen was too impersonal.

Jim read the letter again, frowning in concentration, and then again, with uneasiness continuing to grow. Something wasn't right with his guide. Blair said he 'looked forward to coming home' -- but he planned to wait another two months?! He needed 'psychic closure' before 'starting a new life'? What 'new'? -- He'd be stepping right back into the place he'd made for himself in Major Crime. Was this an indication that the idea still bothered him?

And what was that crack about a 'cozy little cubby'? Was he hinting that he really wanted his own apartment? Not that Jim would mind -- exactly -- but Sandburg needed to be up-front about this.

Jim sighed, and tried to rub away the ache behind his eyes. It was seven-thirty, eight-thirty where Blair was. Surely he'd be in the bunkhouse by now. Jim really needed to hear his friend's voice. And with a phone call, he'd be able to tell if Sandburg was feeling stressed.

He went to the kitchen for a beer, then settled on the couch, shoes off and feet on the coffee table. To hell with the rules; he wanted to be comfortable while he kept Sandburg talking as long as possible.

Jim listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line. Finally, "C-Bar Ranch; you've reached the bunkhouse."

"This is Jim Ellison, calling from Cascade, Washington. May I speak to Blair Sandburg, please?"

"We ain't got no Blair San- Oh, you mean Curly! Yeah, hang on a sec." The speaker apparently covered the mouthpiece with his hand, but Jim clearly heard the shout. "Curly! You got a phone call. Some guy in Washington!" The speaker uncovered the mouthpiece and continued in a more normal volume to inform him, "Hold on; he's comin'."

"Jim?" Blair spoke with mingled hope and surprise. "Is that you?"

He closed his eyes and drank in the sound of his guide's voice. Muscles that he hadn't realized were tense, relaxed, and the headache started to ease. "Yeah, Chief; it's me. How're you doing?"

"I'm good. Is something wrong? Trouble with..." In the pause, he assumed Sandburg was checking the room to be sure he couldn't be overheard, before he continued in a quieter voice, "...your senses?"

"Sandburg, why does something have to be wrong? I just wanted to touch base, without waiting for e-mails to go back and forth." Damn! He could almost feel Blair withdraw at the thread of irritation in his voice. Was his promise to 'listen' to his friend out the window so soon? He sighed; try again.

"Sorry, Chief, I didn't mean it that way. I've just been worried about you, ya' know? Let me start over. -- No, Chief, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to chat a little, hear your voice, make some plans, you know?"

"Oh. Okay. Well, hey, it's good to hear your voice, too. And you know me -- I can talk till the cows come home. Which actually has meaning around here -- the milk cows come in twice a day to line up and wait their turn at the milking machines. So, the cows coming home is usually within twelve hours, at the most."

Jim relaxed, and simply enjoyed the sound of Blair burbling with enthusiasm. He made a silent vow never again to complain when the kid spouted off. He just hoped he'd be able to keep it.

"So, how is everybody in Major Crime? Nobody hurt? Catching a lot of bad guys?"

"Yeah, we're all good, Chief. The whole unit got a special commendation for cleaning up a major drug ring about six months ago; we've been able to keep busting the little guys who're trying to make it big, so the drug trade still isn't back up to that level. Joel and Megan got an award for 'Partners of the Year' at the annual banquet; they make a good team. Otherwise, same ol', same ol', ya' know?"

He heard a sigh of relief from his friend, and a deeper, softer voice as Sandburg seemed to relax, as well. "That's good to hear, man. I mean, I know you're all good at what you do, but it's a dangerous profession. Sometimes I can't help but worry, and wish I was there. Not that me being there would make that much difference -- it's not like I can wave a magic wand to keep you all safe -- but I just feel better knowing. You know how it is."

"Yeah, Sandburg, I know how it is. So it's got me kind of wondering..." Keep it light, he reminded himself, he's your friend, not a perp, "... well, kind of wondering why you want to wait two more months before coming home." He heard a sharp, indrawn breath and gentled his tones even more. "We all miss you, Chief. We've got plans in place for you to have a permanent position, and we're making sure that there'll be no 'fraud' or 'liar' innuendoes flying around. So, why do you have to wait? What's wrong? Whatever it is, I want to help. Just explain it to me, buddy," he coaxed.

"Well, you know... like I told you in the e-mail... psychic harmony and all that. I just wanna talk to Standing Bear a few more times, and the chance to feel like I'm on vacation, and I gotta bring things to a natural finish here, and --"

"Sandburg!" he interrupted, sharply. "Chief, relax! Slow down and breathe." Jim listened as Blair followed his instructions with a shaky, indrawn breath and forceful exhalation. "Good; that's good, Chief, keep it up. Now let's try this again. You're not Naomi, and I don't buy the psychic mumbo-jumbo stuff. What's really going on?"

Shit; he'd put his foot in his mouth again, and given Sandburg another angle for diversion.

"Jim, I can't believe you, man! We both have spirit animals, you talk to ghosts, Incacha passed the Way of the Shaman to me... It's all valid and I need to learn as much as I can, and Standing Bear is a very wise man; there's no telling what he might teach me that could come in useful later. Just because you prefer to hide your head in the sand doesn't negate the reality of our experiences and the experiences of other cultures. In fact, we can --"

"Chief. No." The interruption was gentler this time, but somehow the soft but firm tone halted the rush of words. "Sandburg..." Damn, he wished he could see his Guide's face, and let Blair see the conviction he felt. "Look, I'm not denigrating your feelings, and I'm sure those are all valid reasons. But I just get the idea that you're only giving me part of the story."

Silence; a waiting stillness on the other end of the line, punctuated by Sandburg's thundering heartbeat. Jim wondered if he should be pushing like this, but somehow, it seemed too important to let go. Their future as partners, as Sentinel and Guide, might be at stake.

"Blair," he reminded him quietly, "your letter said you'd be honest with me, and you wouldn't pull any punches. And I promised to tell you everything I was thinking and feeling. We can handle this, buddy, whatever it is."

The voice was hesitant. "It's not your problem, Jim; just something I gotta work out for myself. I sorta figure Standing Bear will help me get it fixed up. It's nothing for you to be concerned with, honest."

"I don't believe that, Chief, and I don't think you do, either. Partners need to work these things out together."

"You won't like it."

"Maybe not," he agreed, "but if it affects you, it affects me. Lay it on me, buddy."

A deep sigh signaled capitulation; Blair's heartbeat was slowing down as he apparently reached a decision. "It's... the way the whole PD knows about your senses, now."

Jim tried not to tense up; he couldn't get defensive, or Blair would clam up again. Damn; maybe he should have waited for a face-to-face talk, but it was too late to back out now.

"What about it? I thought you'd be pleased that I quit being so 'anal' about keeping them a secret. Like I told you, things go a lot easier now, not having to worry about hiding them."

The dam burst. "Exactly! Do you know how pissed that makes me?! How much shit we could have avoided if you'd got your head out of the sand earlier? I swear to God, Jim Ellison, you can be such an asshole sometimes!" He heard Blair's heartrate increasing again; his agitation made his breathing ragged.

Dear God. Jim closed his eyes in pain, feeling the impact like a physical blow. He had thought this was all behind them. Sandburg had said that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide, to be his partner. But how could Blair be his partner if he felt this way? How could he still feel this way? He had said that he didn't blame Jim. What had changed?

Jim frantically searched his mind for a solution. He could no longer hide that he was a Sentinel; the entire PD was part of the 'secret'. Maybe they could go somewhere else, work together, keep the sentinel secret. But he hadn't been very good at hiding his abilities before; it wasn't likely to be any easier in a different city. What the hell could he offer in reparation?

"Chief... I'm sorry... I didn't know... But I thought... I'm sorry," he offered, miserably.

"Sorry? What for? You didn't do anything wrong!" Sandburg's voice went from anger, through befuddlement, to outrage; Jim couldn't keep up with the changes.

"I don't know," he confessed. "But if you don't think I did anything wrong, why are you so angry?"

"Aw, Jim, I'm not sure, either." Sandburg now sounded just as dejected as Jim felt. "When I read your letter, I was so happy that you had stopped hiding and could use your senses openly. But then I thought of all the -- practically sneaking around -- we did, and all the obfuscations, and the whole diss mess, and I just got angry. I didn't even know it was there until it hit me. I guess I'm not so bad at repression myself, huh?" The laugh was tentative, shaky, but enough to give Jim hope.

"So, what do we do, Chief? Do you want..." Jim swallowed convulsively, but he had to make the offer, and stick by it. He couldn't hold Sandburg to him if his guide would be miserable. "Do you want to just walk away, forget the partnership?" He steeled himself for the answer.

The swiftness of the response reassured him. "What! No, man, nothing like that!" Sandburg sounded shocked at the suggestion. "No way do I want to walk out on you! But I realized that I gotta work through these feelings, and I figured it would be better here, before I jump back into the middle of things in Cascade." His voice was earnest now, trying to make Jim understand. "I just need to meditate and get my head on straight, you know? I'll probably go visit Standing Bear -- you remember the Apache shaman I wrote about? He's a very wise man -- well, yeah, he should be, since he's a shaman, right? Anyway, if I can't deal with the anger issues by myself, he'll knock some sense into me. I'll get rid of this, Jim, I promise."

"Chief, are you sure? I mean..." He floundered, not sure what he meant. "How can you just 'get rid of it'? What happens if it... I don't know... jumps out again later?"

"No, Jim, it's not like that. Stuff that's repressed, or hidden, can come back to haunt us. That's what's bothering me now -- I'd stuffed the anger down where I wasn't even aware of it. But now that I am, I'm not planning on stuffing it back into hiding... more like pulling its fangs and throwing it overboard. It can't jump out again later 'cause it won't be there. And I need to get rid of it -- there's no reason for it, but the human psyche tends to hang onto old things like that, sorta like picking at a scab, you know? So sometimes ya' gotta, like, trick the subconscious into letting go, 'cause it pretty much ignores the conscious mind. That's why meditation, and ceremonies like the purification rituals of the various Indian tribes work so well -- they convince the subconscious that something meaningful has happened."

Jim still felt uneasy. If Sandburg made significant changes in his inner self, would the new him still want to come back to Cascade? "But..." He hesitated, completely unable to express himself. "Chief, can't you do that here? I mean... maybe I could help... or even join in," he concluded, feeling a glow of inspiration. Maybe that would bring his guide home sooner.

"Aw, Jim." Sandburg's voice softened, slowing from its headlong rush of a moment before. "I really appreciate the thought, man, but I honestly feel that it needs to be done here -- or at least, before I head back to Cascade. And here, I feel such a spiritual connection to the universe -- and if the universe has guided me to a fully-fledged, experienced shaman to help, I'd be a fool to walk away from that, you know? This is just too important to leave to my haphazard guesswork; I want all the help I can get." His voice begged his sentinel to understand.

Jim sighed. It seemed unnecessarily convoluted to him, but if Sandburg felt it was important, he wouldn't interfere. His guide had promised to come home; he'd just have to hold on to that. "Yeah, Chief, I understand. You do what you have to do; I'm not going anywhere in the meantime."

Blair snorted softly. The smile was evident in his voice as he said, "Nah, I suspect you're just humoring me, Jim. But it means a lot to have your support in this. And don't worry..." he seemed to be reading his friend's mind, "... this won't change my plans. I will be coming back. Remember what I said -- the Sentinel and Guide belong together, and Blair Sandburg wants to be a partner to Jim Ellison. Nothing will change that, big guy, absolutely nothing."

"I'm glad, Chief. It'll be good to have you home." Enough of the mushy stuff; his voice became brisk as he teased, "So, what's on the agenda for tomorrow, cowboy? Ridin', ropin' and brandin'?"

"Actually, would you believe -- hang-gliding?" He chuckled as he waited for Jim to take the bait.

"The way you feel about heights? No, Sandburg, I wouldn't believe it. Try pulling the other one."

"Well, I won't be flying. But we have several avid hang-gliders with us right now, and they're going to take off from Calaveras Cliffs tomorrow -- I think whoever named them must've read Mark Twain. Anyway, it takes a four-wheel drive to get up there, so I'll drive them and their gear to the top, help 'em launch, and then come back down."

"So tell me, do they seem crazy to you, or are they being forced to do this by some sort of evil machinations?" The army had taught him to parachute, but it was for 'need to' situations; why step out of a perfectly good plane or off solid ground for no good reason?

Blair laughed, a light-hearted sound that Jim had sorely missed. "Oddly enough, I can see the attraction. This must be a good spot, or something, 'cause several groups of hang-gliders have come to stay, so this isn't my first time helping out. They have their own little mini-competitions, like who can stay up longest and who can fly farthest. Of course, when I help 'em launch, I don't get too close to the edge! It boggles the mind -- that first step is a doozy -- but then when I look up at them soaring in that limitless blue sky, I think that's what an eagle must feel like -- absolutely free and unfettered. I can really understand why the ancient peoples were so entranced by the idea of flying. It's a kind of magic, but the commonness of using airplanes has made us lose sight of that. Watching them, it almost makes me want to be up there, too."

Jim gripped the receiver tightly as he sputtered, "Sandburg! You better be joking!" The answering snort was a great relief.

"Get real, man! I said 'almost'. I plan to keep my feet firmly on the ground -- at least until the next psycho killer starts shooting at us. Of course," he teased, ~ if I tried it and broke both legs, I'd be no use to Clem, and I'd have to come home earlier. What d'ya' think?"

"I think I want you in one piece, however long it takes you to get home. So you keep those feet on the ground." Jim hesitated; were these little digs an indication of Blair's hidden feelings? "Sandburg... speaking of psycho killers... you know how dangerous my job is... that's not going to change. Are you sure about coming back?"

"See, I knew I shouldn't have told you! You're going to be worrying about this for the next fifty years, aren't you?" The light, good-humored tone suggested that the idea didn't trouble him. His voice became more serious as he continued, "Jim, I swear to you, I meant every word in my letter. I don't care how dangerous the job is -- my place is by your side. It's just -- I have to make a joke about it, to sort of keep it in perspective, you know?" The grin was back in Blair's voice, and Ellison relaxed again as he heard it. "And just think of all the stories I'll have to tell the grandkids!"

"Grandkids, Sandburg? Don't you have to find someone who'll have you first?"

"Yeah, yeah; spoken by a man who goes six months between dates! So, what else has been going on at the PD?"

The conversation moved into the less emotional areas of perps and personalities, arrests made and the vagaries of the job, which Blair countered with affectionate observations about life as a cowboy. Eventually, he was interrupted in mid-comment by an enormous yawn. "Oh, hey, sorry Jim. But it's gettin' late here; I really need to turn in."

"Got'cha, Chief. Sleep well. We'll talk another day."

As he hung up the phone, Jim contemplated the idea that had occurred to him midway through the conversation. If Blair was so sure that the Apache shaman could help him resolve his 'issues', maybe he should talk to the man, too. If nothing else, it might put them on an equal footing as they rebuilt their partnership. Jim pondered how he might get in touch with Standing Bear without Blair knowing...




To: blairsandy @ zianet.com
From: hsbrown @ cascadepd.com
Sent: Friday, September 4, 1998, 8:04 PM
Subject: Hey, Hairboy

Saved by the bell -- Ellison told us you're letting your hair grow out again, and I can still call you that. Or you could wear your boots and Stetson hat around here, and I'll call you 'Cowboy'. You'd be the only one at the PD. Are you bow-legged yet? <g>

Seriously, I just wanted to tell you that I'm glad you're coming back. You were good for the unit, and you'll fit right back in again. And, just to let you know -- I'll be standing at your back (and Ellison's, too) whenever you need.

So, come on, bro. I've been saving my best jokes just for you.

H Brown




Jim crossed the bullpen and knocked on the captain's door, waiting for Simon's customary 'Come!' before he entered.

"'Mornin', Jim," he greeted. "You have anything new on the Danson case?" A lifted mug and inquiring look asked if Jim wanted a cup of coffee.

"Yeah, Simon, thanks." He sat at attention in the chair while he waited till the captain passed him the mug, then took a sip. "No, nothing new there yet. But what I came for is to see about taking some time off after we close this case."

"Well, you certainly have it coming. You planning to head up to another secret fishing hole? I'll promise not to follow you this time, if you'll promise to avoid nut-case conspiracies."

"Actually, it's Sandburg. I called him last night to ask why he wants to wait two months to come home."

"Ask him or grill him, detective?" Simon growled. "Haven't you pushed Sandburg hard enough in the past? If you keep it up, he might decide to tell us all to go to hell instead of coming back."

Jim shifted uneasily in his seat. "Simon, I've learned my lesson! There was no grilling involved."

"Uh-huh," the captain muttered, unconvinced.

"Well... only for a minute," he confessed. "Then I remembered. But... I think, maybe if I go to meet him, he'll be ready to come back sooner."

"I know you too well, Jim; what aren't you saying?"

Jim hesitated, but his captain's face remained implacable. "Simon, you know you don't like it when I talk about the sentinel stuff."

"Maybe not, but I'm thinking it's about time I learn to deal with it. It occurred to me, when we were all making plans for Sandburg to come back, that maybe he wouldn't've left if he'd had some kind of support in dealing with 'the sentinel stuff'." It was Simon's turn to shift uncomfortably in his seat as he faced an unpalatable truth. "No one else knew about it, and I sure as hell didn't help when I absolutely refused to discuss it, or even listen to his explanations. There he was, helping you deal with your senses, propping you up sometimes, holding your hand other times, trying to hide a secret that you kept letting out of the bag, and essentially working two fulltime jobs -- all without anyone to lean on when the going got rough." He sighed gustily and seemed inordinately fascinated by the end of his cigar. "Looking back, I'm surprised he stuck it out as long as he did; I don't think any of the rest of us would've had that strength of purpose."

He fixed his detective with a measuring gaze. "A man needs the support of his superiors and coworkers if he's going to do the best job he's capable of. We know everyone in the department is behind him now, but that's not enough. I sure as hell better get with the program as well, and that means acknowledging -- and accepting -- his role in your life, and not hiding my head in the sand while he flounders alone."

"Simon, it wasn't like that!" Jim felt compelled to protest, although he was painfully aware that it had indeed been very much like that. "You didn't know... hell, none of us knew."

"Jim, it's my job to know things like that. If I can't see the stresses that are affecting my people, I have no business being their leader. Sandburg's leaving was a kick in the ass that I needed, and I've been kicking myself since then that it ever came to that. I've promised him, whether or not he knows it, that I won't let it happen again. So, to that end -- what's going on, and why do you need to go see Sandburg? Because," his voice became stern, "if you're just going to bedevil him about coming back before he feels he's ready, I won't let you do it. So if you want the time off, you'll come clean and convince me it's for the right reasons."

Jim's shoulders slumped and he scrubbed his hands over his face as he considered his captain's words. Simon had a point, and maybe his own promise to Blair to be more open included opening up to other people and letting them help as well. If his captain really couldn't be comfortable with the... the... 'inner connection' between Sentinel and Guide, they could pretend this conversation never happened, and he and Sandburg would be no worse off than before. Jim straightened, and regarded Simon calmly.

"Yes, sir. It's like this. When I asked Sandburg why he wanted to wait, he danced around a little, then finally admitted that he's still 'pissed' at me and he hasn't been able to 'process' it. He figures it might sour our partnership, and he wants to talk to this Apache shaman he knows, to help him get over it. And I got to thinking, maybe I should talk to the shaman, too, just... I dunno... get the lay of the land, I guess."

"'Get the lay of the land'?" The captain snorted in disbelief. "Jim, this isn't a covert ops mission you're going into. What do you expect to accomplish?"

"Simon, I don't really know. I just..." His gaze turned inward as he pondered his answer. "Okay, you know I'm kinda pitiful at this 'communication' thing. Not being able to talk things out scuttled my marriage, and it really messed up the partnership between me and Sandburg. Now he's giving me a second chance -- well, really, a fourth or fifth chance -- and I can't afford to blow it. I'm pretty sure, if I do, I won't get another."

Simon nodded thoughtfully. "I think you're right, Jim, and since you've finally recognized that in yourself, I assume you're planning to deal with it. But why don't you just talk to the psychiatrist again, and wait till Sandburg comes home to talk to him? I've gotta admit, I'm a little concerned that if you're alone with the kid, you'll fall back into your old habits and start chewing on him. At least here, I or one of the others will be able to run interference if he needs it."

"I think there's more to it than that, Simon. There's a... a kind of... 'spiritual connection', I guess, between me and Sandburg. I told him he took part of my soul with him, and I feel this emptiness where our -- 'connection' -- was." He grinned briefly at his captain's incredulous look. "Yeah, I never thought I'd be saying anything like this, either." He became serious again as he continued, "But it's like you said, he supported me, and no one supported him. This -- 'connection' -- is telling me that if I want to keep my guide, I've gotta change that. I've gotta learn not to shut him out, and learn how to give him the support he needs."

He shrugged ruefully. "But you know Sandburg; he helps everyone else and never asks anything for himself. I figure he won't tell me what he needs, he'll just suck it up and figure he has to deal with it by himself. But Standing Bear -- that's the Apache shaman -- knows Blair, knows what another shaman needs, probably even knows what a guide needs; Sandburg said the man has been telling him tales of 'Guardians' and 'Companions'. So I'm hoping that this Standing Bear will be able to tell me what I need to do -- and not do -- to make sure I don't trash our partnership again. So... yeah, I really want some time off, drive to New Mexico, talk to the man. Maybe, if I'm lucky, Sandburg'll be ready to come back with me. If not..." he shrugged uneasily under his captain's measuring eye, "...I'll back off and wait for him to come home when he's ready; I won't push it."

Simon nodded soberly, admiring his friend's strength. He knew that Ellison would much rather face an armed perp -- or worse, type up the report -- than talk about such things. But he knew he hadn't heard all of it, yet. "Jim, I've had a lot of experience recognizing half-truths; I'm the father of a teenage son. What are you leaving out?"

Unable to sit still any longer, Ellison rose and paced to the window, staring down at the bustling street below. Finally he steeled himself; Simon had a right to know what might happen, both as his captain and as his friend. He turned back, and rested a hip on the windowsill as he crossed his arms. "Simon, one thing I learned from that psychiatrist is that people need to face what made them angry in order to deal with it. I figure Sandburg might need to face me -- in person -- to do his 'processing'. And I figure it'll be easier for him if we're on neutral ground, where neither one of us are weighed down by old expectations. And..." He swallowed heavily and turned again to stare blindly out the window as he admitted his deepest fear. "If... if it doesn't work... if Sandburg feels that he really can't come back... it'll be easier for him there, to stay where he already has friends, instead of coming back to Cascade and then having to make the break all over again."

The silence stretched painfully between them, until Simon tried to offer what comfort he could. "Jim, he made the first overture; he sent you the letter. He must be pretty damn sure that he does want to come back; why borrow trouble?" The only answer was a half-hearted shrug of one shoulder. Simon's throat thickened; this was serious.

"Then what, Jim? If it comes to that, what will you do?"

"I don't know." Ellison's voice was so soft that Simon barely heard him. But then he shook himself, straightened, and strode purposefully to sit and face his captain. "No, that's a lie. I do know. It's up to Sandburg, but if he'll have me... I'll stay where he is. I can do ranch work; imagine what success I'll have at locating stray cattle." He grinned crookedly. "And if he wants to go walkabout -- he mentioned that in his letter -- I'll go with him. Whatever he wants."

"'If he'll have you'? Jim, for god's sake, you're not talking about a marriage here! Sandburg wouldn't want you sacrificing yourself to make up for past wrongs!" Simon almost sputtered in his indignation.

"No, I'm not talking about a marriage," he replied, his voice eerily serene. "I'm talking about something much deeper. I've realized that Sentinel and Guide should never be separated, and I honestly don't want to be apart from Sandburg anymore. If he can come back here, that's fine, but if not, I'll turn in my resignation and find another job. Staying with Sandburg is absolutely the only thing that matters, and I won't let anything interfere with that."

Simon hardly recognized the Jim Ellison sitting in front of him. He reviewed what he'd heard, while Ellison sat calmly, awaiting his decision. "So, this is about the 'spiritual connection' you mentioned?" he ventured. A self-contained nod was the only answer. "And it's really important enough for you to change your whole life if you need to?" Another nod. He grunted in irritation and leaned back in his chair, turning over the situation once more.

"Okay. I said I'd give Sandburg the support he needs, and enabling you to support him falls under that heading. So, how much time do you need?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know, Simon. A week, two weeks, a month? Like I said, whatever it takes. I'll have to get hold of this Standing Bear, see what he advises. But I won't come back till Sandburg is ready. Or -- I won't come back."

"Do you really think it'll come to that?"

"No I don't. As you said, Sandburg made the first offer to return, so that means he really wants to. But if it doesn't work out... I just want you to be aware of that possibility."

"All right. Check with that Standing Bear character and let me know what's going on. Close out the Danson case, finish your open reports and turn them in, and I'll sign off for you to have three weeks' leave. After that, if necessary, we'll play it by ear."

"Thank you, Captain. I appreciate it; I'm sure Sandburg will, too."

Simon donned his customary mantel of gruffness. "Forget about it. Just go and get the goods on Danson so you can get out of here. The sooner you leave and bring Sandburg back, the sooner things will be back to what passes for normal around here."

As Ellison left his office, Simon Banks breathed a silent prayer that Sandburg would truly be back after he finished 'processing' with the Apache shaman. He was certain that Jim had meant what he said about following Blair into a new life, if necessary. He hoped it wouldn't come to that; the Captain didn't want to lose an excellent detective, and Simon didn't want to lose another friend.




Blair shut down his computer with a smile. The support from his friends was heart-warming. And, really, it shouldn't take two whole months to excise those remnants of anger. He had a day off on Wednesday; he'd ride out early and visit Standing Bear, stay all day.

He tapped the lid of the closed laptop as he pondered. Standing Bear recognized Blair as a fellow shaman, albeit an untutored novice. Should he explain that he was also a guide who needed to solidify his connection to his sentinel? It might make a difference, somehow, and he wanted to be completely truthful as he sought the other man's wisdom and advice. But it wasn't really his secret to tell...

Okay, he'd call Jim tomorrow and discuss it with him, first. No more secrets between Sentinel and Guide, ever. He'd promised, and he couldn't break faith with his best friend.




Blair hadn't given him the number of the main business phone, but there couldn't be more than one C-Bar Ranch in southwestern New Mexico. A few minutes with directory assistance had given him the number, and Jim listened to the ringing on the other end of the line. Would Blair's boss be in his office, or out somewhere with his hands?

"C-Bar Ranch, Clem Barstow speaking." The voice was gravelly, but the tones were calm and confident.

"Yes, sir, this is Jim Ellison of Cascade PD, in Washington State. I'm a friend of Blair Sandburg."

"Police? Curly said he wasn't in any trouble. What's this about, officer?" The warm tones had chilled considerably.

A small smile tugged at Ellison's lips; the man sounded as willing to defend Sandburg as any of his friends in Major Crime. "Nothing, sir. I mean, it's not police business; I'm simply calling as Blair's friend. I just need some information, and didn't know how else to get it."

"So why don't you ask Curly directly? I don't hold with goin' behind a man's back." Apparently, Jim's answer hadn't settled all of his suspicions.

"It's nothing that will harm him," he assured the other man. "But I'm planning a surprise for Blair, so I can't exactly ask him to help with it." He chuckled, inviting Clem to see the humor, but the only response was a waiting stillness. "I know he's been talking to the Indian shaman Standing Bear, and I'd like to talk to him too. But Blair didn't give me his last name, or the name of the town he lives in. I was hoping you could give me a number where I could reach him."

Clem apparently relaxed at that answer; Jim heard the slight creak of springs and the soft ~whoosh~ of leather as the man leaned back in this chair. His voice was warmer as he replied, "Well, now, I don't know as I can rightly say. I've never heard any other name than 'Standing Bear'. And he follows a lot of the old ways -- lives in a teepee, so he hasn't got running water or electricity... or a phone." He paused in thought, and Jim waited patiently. "I guess your best bet would be to call the General Store there in the village. They could send someone to fetch him to the phone, or take a message for him to call you back. Let me get you that number." Jim heard pages being turned. "Here it is. The Tinde General Store, 505-555-7963. You can prob'ly catch someone there for another hour or so, likely Billy Blue Wolf; he's the proprietor."

"Thank you sir; I really appreciate the help, and I know Blair will, too, when the plan all comes together." Jim tried to make his voice as warm and sincere as he could; he had a feeling that Clem still wasn't completely convinced.

"I certainly hope so. We think a lot of Curly around here, and we won't hold with anyone causin' him trouble, policeman or not. You just keep that in mind."

Jim shook his head as he grinned to himself. It seemed that the eternal anthropologist had once again made a strong place for himself within the 'local subculture'. "You have my word on it, sir. And thank you again for your help." He hung up the phone, with an easing of the slight tension that he hadn't realized he was feeling. It seemed that Blair did indeed have good people around him; his guide should be safe until his sentinel could reach him.





Blair rode through the small village, waving to the children playing a game of baseball in an empty lot. Although many of the community lived in ordinary frame houses or mobile homes, a few of the tribal elders preferred to uphold the ancient traditions; several colorfully-painted teepees were interspersed among the buildings. Blair had found them to be surprisingly spacious inside, as well as quite comfortable -- if one didn't mind the lack of chairs.

Standing Bear's teepee was set somewhat apart from the rest of the village, almost at the edge of the forest. As Blair approached, the shaman appeared at the entry flap. Not for the first time, Blair wondered if Standing Bear had a few heightened senses; he had never been able to take the older man by surprise. He reined his horse to a stop, and inclined his head respectfully. There was a certain amount of comfortable protocol to be followed before they relaxed into the informality of friends.

"Good morning, elder brother. It is a fine day. I had hoped that I might visit with you, and talk. I am in need of your wisdom."

"Greetings, younger brother. It is good that you have come. I will share my wisdom with any who wish to heed it." There was a subtle shift as the formalities were dispensed with; Standing Bear smiled at his friend and student. "Step down, Blair, and put your horse in the corral. I've been expecting you."

Wondering a little about the full extent of the shaman's abilities -- Standing Bear always expected his visits, no matter how irregular they were -- Blair dismounted and led his horse to the corral. He quickly stripped off the saddle and bridle, then turned it loose and shut the gate behind him. Turning, he saw Standing Bear waiting quietly at the teepee's entrance flap.

As he approached, Blair was struck once again by the sheer charisma of the Apache shaman. At first glance, Standing Bear was a very ordinary man; strong and capable, barely a dozen years older than Blair, he would probably have been one of the tribe's premier warriors in an earlier era. But anyone who looked closer could see the depth of wisdom in his eyes, as if from a soul that was centuries old. He radiated a quiet knowledge and acceptance of the dark places of the human psyche as well as the bright, and his mere presence seemed to engender feelings of peace.

Blair sat down on one of the padded skins near the small central fire, and accepted the cup of aromatic tea that Standing Bear offered him. The tea was made from local grasses and herbs; not only was it quite tasty, the shaman used it to help 'break the ice' for those who were nervous about discussing their problems or seeking advice.

Standing Bear sat near Blair, and poured himself a cup of tea. As he sipped, he eyed the younger man. "Blair, I can feel that you are troubled; this is not your usual visit to learn more about the Guardians and their Companions. How may I help you?" With another inconspicuous shift, Blair was no longer facing his Indian friend, but the wise tribal shaman.

Blair sighed. It didn't matter that he recognized the need, or that Jim had given his permission to discuss it with the shaman; this was going to be hard. He fumbled for the right place to start.

"I had a letter from my friend a few days ago. He wants me to come home, and I want to go home." Standing Bear's calm nod encouraged him to continue. "But when I thought about it, I realized that I still have feelings of anger toward him, and I can't face him with that eating away at me. But no matter how much I've meditated and argued with myself, I just can't find the way to get rid of it!" The explanation that had begun so calmly finished with an impassioned cry of frustration.

"This is indeed a difficult puzzle. Consider this -- is the anger truly misplaced? Or is there sufficient reason for you to be feeling this anger?" The shaman gazed calmly at his young friend's expression of outraged disbelief. "Don't censor yourself, and don't think about what 'should' be. If the circumstances were the same between two strangers, would one of them have a valid basis for his anger?"

Blair knew the answer to that; he had been picking at it for days, and the ongoing resentment quickly surfaced. "You damn bet'cha! The man didn't trust me! I was at his side and watched his back for four years, did the best I could to support him and help him, but every time I goofed up he ascribed the worst possible motives to it. Never asked me what was happening, just assumed that I was either stupid or unreliable or only looking out for myself. And he was so worried about being called a 'freak', instead of trusting his friends to know what was going on, that I lied to keep his precious secret, trashed my life so that he could keep his. Then as soon as my back is turned, he goes and spills the beans anyway, and lo and behold, it's no big deal after all! I am so damn tired of being kicked up, down, and sideways, and if nothing I do is ever right, why the hell should I try again?!" He was panting in his agitation, literally trembling in reaction to the force of his outburst.

"Those are good reasons for your anger," Standing Bear agreed gravely. "Now tell me why the anger is wrong. Why should you not feel this way?"

Letting the quiet, measured words soothe him, Blair's tension receded. This also was well-trodden ground. "Well, basically, his whole life has been one piece of shit after another -- or at least, he looks at it that way -- and it's just ingrained in him to strike out before he's struck. 'Most everybody who he's ever loved or respected or felt connected to has either abandoned him or died -- which I suppose is the same thing, in his view -- or did him dirt, or both. When you think about it, the man should be a walking psychiatric textbook. It's actually a tribute to his strength of character that he's not some misogynistic, sociopathic recluse -- or a serial-killer." Blair gazed earnestly at the quiet, non-judgemental man in front of him. "So basically, he's doing the best he can with what he has, psychically speaking. It's really not his fault the way he reacts when one of his triggers is pulled."

Standing Bear nodded again. "So, your friend reacts with mistrust and suspicion, and dismisses your feelings and advice, and this hurts you. But this is a natural reaction for him, one he's not fully in control of. How can you reconcile this?"

"That's just it! I can't reconcile it, and it's about to drive me crazy! What the hell am I supposed to do?!"

"A problem cannot be corrected unless it is addressed. What have you done to resolve this imbalance?"

"Well, like I said, I've meditated. And I wrote a letter, told him I wouldn't put up with it anymore."

"Did he acknowledge your concerns?"

"Mostly. Sorta." Blair squirmed under the questioning gaze. "Well, the letter he sent back was written months ago. But in it, he said he was sorry, and he'd really work at listening to me better. Said he'd even been talking to a shrink, to understand himself -- and me -- better. And when he called a couple of nights ago, he told me again that he was sorry, and he offered to help my meditations, or even join in. So I know he has good intentions. But I don't know how long that'll last, and I sure don't want to go back if I'll just be walking out again later."

"So." Standing Bear softly outlined the situation once again. "You and your friend both recognize a problem. One man cannot change another, but a man can change himself if he wishes. Your friend indicates a willingness to try to change. But you fear that his willingness to change will fade and that there will be no differences from before." Blair nodded his agreement. "Tell me, do you expect these changed behaviors to happen overnight?"

"No, of course not. These things take time; it's hard to break old habit patterns. And actually, I don't really want him to change, exactly -- he wouldn't be Jim if he did. I'm not expecting him to be all mushy-talky, spouting off about his feelings whenever we hit a snag. But...." He floundered, unwilling to put his seemingly petty feelings into words.

"But you want him to acknowledge that you are equal together, and to treat you as an actual partner, and when difficulties arise, you want him to 'chill out' before 'the shit hits the fan'." He chuckled at Blair's look of astonishment. "A shaman must understand the language of his those who seek his help," he murmured serenely, "even the young ones."

"Yeah, I guess that's about it," Blair admitted.

"Yet your friend has said that he will make a good effort to do this, for him and for you. Do you believe that he's lying?"

"No, of course not!" Blair was indignant at this slur toward his best friend. "If Jim says he'll do something, he means it. He might not always succeed, but he'll sure as hell give it a damned good try!"

"What will you do if he doesn't succeed?"

"I'll put my foot down, slap him upside the head, and sit on him until he notices what's going on," he growled fervently. Casting the older man a quick look, he offered a shamefaced grin. "Well, figuratively speaking. I did tell him that I wouldn't let him run over the top of me anymore."

"So, the previous anger was justified, but both parties have acknowledged it. Now, both parties have agreed to change the situations that caused the anger. You realize that it will take time, but you expect your friend to be true to his word. You will help him in this endeavor by stopping a repeat of the pattern each time it begins. Is this correct?" Blair nodded again, silently. "Then search your heart once again. Is the anger still there?"

While Blair closed his eyes in concentration, Standing Bear threw some aromatic herbs on the fire, filling the teepee with a subtle, soothing scent. He pulled down his drum from its position hanging on one of the support poles, and began a soft, rhythmic tapping that echoed the heartbeat and then slowed, encouraging a feeling of tranquility. He waited while Blair's breathing slowed to match, and watched his body relax and his face become calm.

Finally, after an unmeasured time, Blair's eyes opened. They met the shaman's, and quickly filled with anguish as he confessed his shame. "It's still there," he whispered miserably. "I don't understand it. I've been in therapy so many times, I know all the ins and outs, I know there's no reason anymore -- but it's still there! Why can't I convince myself to get rid of it?"

"What do you need to do to convince yourself to get rid of it?"

Blair shook his head and shrugged, unable to see past his own feelings of failure.

"You know this," the shaman admonished. "You've already told your friend what you need; why won't you believe it yourself?"

"A purification ritual? You know that I respect your customs and beliefs, but they aren't mine. Would such a ceremony really work for me?"

"Yes. The spirit draws strength from rituals. And during the trials that must be part of the ritual, you can come to know your animal spirit. The wolf will give you calmness and acceptance of your and your friend's imperfections, and the perseverance to continue until the goal is reached."

"But I know my animal spirit!" Blair protested. "I've seen him, and I accept that he's real."

"You know of him, but you do not know him," Standing Bear pointed out. "You have not walked with him, learned what he has to teach you, accepted him into your inner self. Until you can do that, you will continue to feel the pain of an incomplete soul."

Blair considered that, gazing into the kind, dark eyes that held his own. He still had doubts; maybe his scientifically-biased, analytical mind would be too skeptical to derive any benefit. But surely it was worth a try. "Will you help me? I don't know the proper rituals."

Standing Bear smiled gently. "There are some general customs, and I will guide your way. But the 'proper' rituals are those which will speak to you, and will satisfy your wolf spirit. You will need to blend the traditions of your people and mine."

"What; you mean like couples writing their own wedding ceremony?" he squeaked. "But Jim and I aren't like that!"

"On the contrary; you and your Sentinel are exactly like that," the shaman assured him. "Not physically, no, but the joining of souls is as meaningful and as binding as any marriage. And, just like a wedding ceremony, your Sentinel should join in a part of the ritual. He also needs to accept the guidance of the Spirits."

He shook his head at Blair's thunderstruck expression. "Of course I know that you and your friend are Companion and Guardian, or Guide and Sentinel, as you name them. The aura of the Companion shines brightly from you, for one who is able to see. And your questions, whenever you visit, have been much more intense than the simple curiosity of an intellectual mind. I would not tell a mere scientist the details I have shared with you, but a Companion has the need, and the right to know."

Blair looked dubious. "I don't know if he'll go for something like that."

"Of course he will." Standing Bear's certainty was unshakeable. "He told you that he wanted to help, to join you in your spiritual journey. He will be calling you soon, or perhaps me, and we can make arrangements for the ritual fasting and cleansing."

But Blair knew better. "Nah. He was just trying to get me back to Cascade quicker. He's really not interested in the spiritual part of being a sentinel. Actually, he's pretty damn good at denying it entirely."

The shaman noted the shadow of discouragement hiding in Blair's eyes; his tones deepened and reverberated as he reached for the powers of the spirits to ease the pain for this wounded soul. "Your sentinel will come, younger brother. Even now, he makes arrangements with his leader for the time needed to accomplish this. He, too, feels the pain of an incomplete soul, and he will be drawn to you, for only by each soul supporting the other will you both be able to put aside the anger and misunderstandings. The panther needs the wolf, just as the wolf needs the panther. He will come."

"It's a nice thought, Standing Bear," he sighed, "and I'm... grateful, I guess... that you think Jim would go to so much trouble. But no matter how good his intentions are, I just can't see him actually making the effort."

"I don't 'think' he will come, younger brother, I know it. Your Sentinel may not recognize the knowledge he has, but he is acting on it nevertheless."

"What makes you so sure?" he challenged. "Jim hardly ever does anything without having his nose rubbed in it. And I'm not there to give him a push."

"I'm sure because the spirits have shown it to me. And your Sentinel has been pushed by the pain of being separated from his Guide for two years. You will find that he has changed, as you have changed; he wants to support you, just as you want to support him. If you undertake this journey alone, you will be only partially successful. But that will not be necessary; your Sentinel will come."

Faced with such complete confidence, Blair allowed himself to feel hopeful, while a slow feeling of warmth suffused him. Jim would do this for him? The thought was -- exhilarating and comforting at the same time. This would work; it had to. He bowed his head in solemn acquiescence. "Thank you, elder brother. You have given me a lot to think about. I will speak with my Sentinel, and return in a few days to discuss the needs and methods of the purification ritual."

In the space of a moment, Standing Bear once again transformed from shaman to friend. He smiled at the still-troubled young man. "This will work, Blair. When we speak to the spirits with an open heart, they will respond. You will truly recognize and understand that 'home', for each of you, resides within the spirit of the other. Then your journey home will be finished."

The smile Blair offered was tremulous, but resolute. "Yes. I believe you. Or at least, I want to believe, and I'll make it work. Thank you, again." He glanced up at the open smoke-flap above, noting the fading of the light's intensity. The sun must be well on its way down; it was time to leave.

Once again, Standing Bear seemed to be reading his mind -- or maybe he had simply noted the upward glance. He stood, causing Blair to scramble to his feet in respect, and stepped out of the teepee, with Blair following. Waving at the sky, he pointed out, "Sun's going down, Blair; you need to head back to the ranch." He escorted his guest to the horse corral, and watched as the younger man made short work of bridling and saddling his mount. As Blair swung into the saddle, he repeated his assurances. "Remember, younger brother, the Spirits will help you if you give them a chance."

Blair raised a hand briefly as he smiled down at Standing Bear and nodded his acceptance of the shaman's words. Then he gathered his reins and headed toward the other end of the village, and the trail that would take him back to the ranch, and another long-distance conversation with Jim.




The members of Major Crime gathered once again in the back room of Murphy's Irish Pub to hold a 'Sandburg Update' meeting in comfortable surroundings. Over helpings of barbecued ribs and shepherd's pie, double-decker cheeseburgers, and Irish stew, the talk wandered lazily past previous and current cases, celebrating the triumphs of successful investigations, and commiserating with those who were struggling with stalled cases. Finally, over desserts of hot apple pie a la mode and English trifle, Simon called the meeting to order.

"All right, people, let's see where we stand in the 'Bringing Sandburg Home' campaign." His gaze traveled the length of the table, catching everyone's eye in turn. "How goes the rumor-mill? Are there any dissenters about Sandburg's competence to join the PD?"

"I think we've got it covered, Simon." Joel's tone was confident and relaxed. "I've talked to one man in the bomb-squad, and a couple of patrolmen who were backup on a stakeout last week. They're at least willing to give Blair the benefit of the doubt, even if they're not enthusiastic about his coming back. Everyone else has seemed pleased about the news, at least in my hearing."

Simon took a contented puff on his cigar. "Good. Detective Brown? What about the doubters you mentioned?"

Henri gave a satisfied smirk as he reported, "Smooth as silk, Captain, just like we planned. When Ellison 'accidentally' let them catch him in action, their eyes practically bugged out. And then the next day, they just 'happened' to hear me an' Rafe talkin' about how many of Hairboy's crazy ideas had helped out on cases, and how helpful he was and how much support he gave to everybody in the department. Haven't heard a negative peep out of 'em since."

"Nice to hear it, Brown." The captain glanced around the table. "Anyone else?"

Rhonda spoke up. "Yes, sir. I'm sure you know how the secretaries of all the departments share news and gossip?" He nodded at her to continue. "I've made it a point to have a few coffee-breaks or lunch hours with most of them, and they're all helping to... monitor the attitudes of their departments. Of course, the way Blair always made time to chat with them, for whatever reason..." she paused at the chuckles and outright laughter the remark engendered, "...they all liked him anyway. But now, they're actively talking about how nice it will be to have him back -- and the attitude of the secretary can influence a lot of people in her department. I think it'll be a big help."

"I think you're right, Rhonda," he assured her. "Thank you for taking the initiative. Anyone else?" Banks surveyed his people again, but saw only shrugs and headshakes.

"Well, then, it seems that's taken care of. Now, I've spoken to the Chief of Police and the Commissioner. Sandburg has a definite slot in the 'Civilian Support Personnel' class that starts in January, and..." he cast a cat-eating-canary grin to the people who were waiting almost breathlessly for him to continue, "...after graduation, Blair Sandburg will have an official position with the Cascade Police Department as a 'Socio-Cultural Liaison'.

Cheers erupted as their hopes were confirmed. Although the news had been expected, there had also been a shadow over their anticipation, given the barely-acknowledged possibility that something might still go wrong. The relief of knowing that 'all systems were go' couldn't be contained.

Simon waited for the noise and the mutual backslapping to quiet down. "Since Sandburg will be a consultant to the PD as a whole, he may be called upon by other departments who need his input and expertise, and even by other precincts, once in a while. However..." he fixed Ellison with a gimlet eye, stopping the pending protest before it could start, "he will officially be based with the Major Crimes department, working with Detective Ellison first, the rest of you clowns second, and everybody else third. Sandburg is ours, ladies and gentlemen, and we won't let him go."

That set of another round of cheers, along with assurances of "Damned straight!" and "They better keep their mitts off!" and "Anyone who tries to steal Sandy away can bloody well bugger off!" Ellison refrained from commenting, but watched the others' enthusiasm with a slight smile softening his face. It warmed his heart to see how much Sandburg was wanted, and he made a mental note to tell his friend all about it.

"So, Jim," Simon continued as the noise began to subside, "Give us an update. Has Sandburg said anything about coming home earlier, or do we still have to wait for another six weeks?"

"Yes, sir, he has it all planned." Ellison took a deep, centering breath; it was still difficult to speak about such things aloud. "Sandburg wants to do an Indian ceremony to... ah... reaffirm the connection between Sentinel and Guide." Jim would not admit that Blair was trying to work through anger that was aimed toward him; hopefully, no one but he and his guide would ever know. He took heart from the understanding nods he saw; apparently, their friends were willing to accept the more -- esoteric -- aspects of working with a sentinel and guide. "Anyway, he wants me to be part of it, and I said I would, so..." he shrugged, trying to convince them -- himself? -- that it was 'no big deal', "...I'll leave next weekend, drive down to meet him, do the ceremony, and then bring him back with me."

"How long will that take, Jimbo?" Megan demanded. "We need to start planning his 'Welcome Home' party. Have you figured out your travel schedule, so you know when you'll be home? And you'll need to give us the key to the loft, so we can get everything ready. We need to let Sandy know that --"

"Wait, wait a minute!" he protested, raising a hand to stop her. "A lot of it depends on Sandburg; I'm leaving it up to him. I plan to reach Gila, New Mexico -- that's close to the ranch where he's working -- on Monday after I head out. I can do it in two and a half days if I push it. But I don't know when Sandburg wants to start the ceremony, or how long it will take, or how long after before he'll be ready to leave." His jaw firmed as he focused on the far wall, avoiding their eyes. "You all know that this 'sentinel thing' was mostly -- usually -- about me. But now I need to prove to Blair that... that I know the 'guide thing' is equally important. I can't just show up and say, 'Do it, it's done, let's go'. So," he met their eyes again, grinning slightly, "I don't decide the mission parameters on this one; he does. And I'm determined to respect that."

Surprised silence greeted his words. Although Ellison had become more open about using his sentinel abilities, he was still reticent about discussing them candidly, and rarely mentioned the full extent of the guide's -- Blair's -- involvement.

Finally, Simon gave voice to what everyone seemed to be feeling. "Jim, don't you think you're being just a bit too cautious, here? You're talking about Sandburg like he's some nervous virgin on her wedding night. He worked with you for over three years, and you know each other inside and out. I understand your concerns, but aren't the kid gloves overdoing it?"

Ellison shrugged dismissively. "You said it yourself, Simon; a man needs the support of his coworkers. We know he has that now..." he noted the vigorous affirmative nods around the table, "but all he has so far is a few letters and phone calls. That's a good start, but it's not solid proof, at least, probably not in his eyes. Maybe I am being overly -- tentative, but I'd rather err on the side of caution." He sighed gustily. "I figure it's a 'can't hurt, might help' situation; let him call the shots while we reestablish our partnership."

"He's right, Simon," Joel agreed. "Whenever a renowned expert comes into a new situation, adjustments are made. Sandburg is our expert, and the situation will be different than it was when he left; Jim can't act like nothing has changed. None of us can." Murmurs of agreement echoed around the table.

Banks grunted as he puffed his cigar. "All right, I see your point. You do what you have to, however you have to, to get Sandburg back. You and he will set the timetable. But that leaves us with the problem of when to schedule the 'Welcome Home' party. Any suggestions?"

"Captain," Rhonda said softly, "it's as simple as a phone call. Detective Ellison can call two nights before they're due in. Assuming the next day is a workday, we'll have that evening after work to bring in or cook the perishable foods, then set up the next day for the party."

"Of course!" Megan exclaimed. "Why didn't we think of that? So let's get this show on the road; who'll be in charge of decorations, who'll be in charge of food and grog, and who's going to bring what?"

The atmosphere lightened once again as Simon ordered another pitcher of beer, and Sandburg's friends settled to a spirited planning session, happily discussing logistics as each person promoted his or her ideas for the best 'Welcome Home' party in the history of Cascade. All Ellison could do was go with the flow, firmly veto the suggestion of flowers, and silently consider hiring a cleaning service for the day after.




Ellison pulled out of the truck stop and continued south on I-5. He'd filled the truck with gas, his thermos with coffee, his cooler with bottles of water, and the box on the seat beside him with a variety of snacks. He was good to go until both he and the truck required a pit-stop.

As he bit into the large slice of fresh apple pie, he glanced at his watch, then surveyed the moderate traffic with satisfaction. So far, he'd run into no delays, and was right on schedule -- Sacramento last night, Tucson tonight, then Gila by late morning tomorrow.

It made for long days of driving, but Jim had found that he couldn't ease up, even if he'd wanted to. The knowledge that each mile traveled brought him closer to his guide was singing through every fiber of his being. Now that their separation was almost over, he could barely contain the mixture of anticipation and uneasiness, excitement and uncertainty that filled him.

The ceremony that Sandburg planned had to work, had to clear the air between them and help them reestablish and restore their... partnership. Relationship. Friendship. Jim was aware that, for all his expressions of acceptance to Simon, to the psychiatrist, and even to Blair himself, he wouldn't let his guide walk out of his life again. Never again.

Traffic increased, and he brought himself back from his inner contemplation to pay more attention to the road, and navigate the maze of various intersections that would take him around Los Angeles and let him catch I-10 east toward Tucson, and then Gila. Toward his friend and guide. Toward Blair.




Jim drove into the small village, noting the mixture of structures. The sight of the teepees interspersed among the buildings was a slight surprise, despite Blair's mention of them. They were somewhat larger, and considerably more colorful, than he had envisioned. Noting the sign that read, 'Tinde General Store, Hours 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM', he parked in front of the long, wooden building; someone here would be able to tell him where to find Standing Bear.

Once inside, he found an astonishing variety of goods; the store might rival Wal-Mart in what it could offer its patrons. He noticed items ranging from everyday needs such as food, clothing, tools and toys, to native crafts of beadwork, jewelry, baskets and woodcarvings. Jim assumed that, this close to a National Forest, a number of tourists would pass through, looking for 'authentic Indian' memorabilia.

"May I help you, sir?" The proprietor's voice brought him back to his reason for being here. Jim turned to find a Native American of about his father's age standing in front of him. The man was still straight-backed, with a strong, proud gaze, but strands of gray showed in his traditional braids.

"Yes, sir," he responded. "Mr. Blue Wolf? I spoke to you on the phone. I'm Jim Ellison from Cascade, Washington, and I've come to talk to Standing Bear. Could you give me directions to his place?"

The level gaze warmed slightly. "Yes," he nodded. "Standing Bear told us that a white man would come to speak with him. It is good that you try to honor the old ways."

Jim kept his face impassive, not showing his discomfort that, apparently, his impending visit had been a topic for discussion. It might even have been necessary; unless the shaman had indicated his prior approval, the other villagers might well have denied Standing Bear's availability.

"Yes, sir," he repeated. "So, how may I reach Standing Bear?"

"Follow the main street to the last house," the old man said, nodding in the correct direction. "Then turn left, and follow the dirt road almost to the edge of the forest. Standing Bear's teepee sits alone, with a horse coral next to it. He will be expecting you."

How? Jim wondered, but let it pass. Standing Bear hadn't known the exact day that Jim would arrive, but he had been given a general timeframe. With a nod and a brief, "Thank you," Jim headed back to his truck, trying to quell the nerves he felt about his imminent 'consultation' with Blair's shaman friend. Somehow, he was afraid that if he failed to meet Standing Bear's approval, he might lose his chance to bring Sandburg back with him.

He drove slowly, noting that children and adults alike were observing his passage. Undoubtedly, his visit would be gossip-fodder for a while; might as well let everyone have a good look. Besides, it might seem... insolent... to rush toward the shaman and arrive in a cloud of dust. This community -- and Blair -- respected Standing Bear; Jim was sure he needed to extend the same respect if he expected any help in reconnecting with his guide.

He parked the truck near the horse corral, on a patch of bare ground that showed the tracks of other vehicles. As Jim left the truck and turned to approach the teepee, he saw the shaman standing in front of the entrance flap, regarding him solemnly. Jim walked forward, but paused a short distance away, waiting in respectful silence. Living with the Chopec had taught him that there were times when ceremony was important; he would take his cues from the man in front of him.

Standing Bear continued to observe for a moment, quietly pleased that this stranger was attempting to show courtesy for another's traditions. "It is good that you have come, Guardian. It demonstrates a care for my younger brother, your Companion, that will strengthen the connection between you, if you will acknowledge and act upon it."

Ellison did his best to respond in a similar manner. He bowed his head as he replied, "I thank you, Shaman. It is my strongest wish to help and support my guide -- my companion -- but I have need of your wisdom to ensure that I proceed correctly."

As the formalities were completed, Standing Bear smiled at his younger brother's friend and guardian. "I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Ellison. Your being here will be a great boost to Blair's spirits, and to his feelings of self-worth. Come inside, where we can sit and talk."

"Thank you, sir," he responded, ducking through the flap that Standing Bear held open for him. "But please, just call me Jim."

"Certainly," the shaman said as he followed Jim and nodded toward one of the padded skins near the small central fire. "Unfortunately," he continued as he poured two cups of the herbal-grass tea, "there is no comfortable way to shorten Standing Bear." He handed one cup to Jim, then seated himself on the other side of the fire, and took a small sip from his cup, waiting till the other man followed his lead and sipped his own tea. "But names are unimportant for our discussion."

Standing Bear continued to sip his tea as he studied his brother's guardian. He saw a fellow-warrior, who was fiercely protective of the tribe he guarded, but whose heart was aching for the missing piece of his soul. Jim, watching the shaman over his own cup, recognized a spirit that was similar to Incacha's -- a soul that was older than the body that contained it, combining wisdom with understanding and calm acceptance. He felt an easing of tension; this man would be able to help him reconnect with Blair.

When he judged that the guardian had relaxed, Standing Bear spoke. "So, Jim, how may I help you?"

With a subtle shift, Jim was once again facing the wise tribal shaman. He hesitated; he'd spoken of the 'sentinel / guide thing' to Simon, and to his friends in Major Crime, but this man was a stranger, for all that Blair looked up to him and trusted him. Maybe half an explanation would suffice.

"I guess Sandburg's told you that he and I... well, we had a bit of a falling out. But he was the best partner I've ever had, and my friend, and I don't want to leave it at that. He wants to do this ceremony before he comes home, and I just want to be sure I won't screw it up. So I was hoping you'd give me some information as to what to do, or not do." He knew the explanation sounded lame, but maybe the shaman wouldn't notice.

No such luck. Standing Bear chuckled as he said, "You drove almost two thousand miles just to rectify a 'falling out'? Blair said that you agreed he could speak freely to me; why do you now try to hide what you are?"

Busted. Okay, he'd come too far to back out now. Jim sighed deeply, then plunged in. "Forgive me. It's just that I don't often speak openly of this." The small confirming nod encouraged him to go on.

"You know that Sandburg and I are sentinel and guide -- or companion and guardian in your terminology. Did he tell you that I've had a lot of trouble with my senses? I wasn't taught to use them from childhood, the way someone who's..." He hesitated; he could not call this man's culture 'primitive'. "...who's not raised in a big city might be. It seems I had them as a child, then lost them, then they came back when I was stranded in Peru, then they went away again when I came back to the city, until Blair found me."

"My younger brother told me of this, yes," Standing Bear confirmed. "He also told me that, with his help, you were using your guardian senses well."

Ellison shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, sir, that's true. But..." He hesitated; how best to phrase this? "Well, a lot of times I didn't make it easy for him. I didn't really want the senses, and I bitched and moaned like I thought it was all his fault." He was speaking to the fire now, not wanting to see condemnation in Standing Bear's eyes. "Then one day the shit hit the fan, but I had gotten so pissy that I didn't listen to Blair, or even give him the benefit of the doubt. When everything finally fell apart, I tried to fix it; my captain and I offered him a permanent place with the PD. But..." he shrugged, and took a fortifying swallow of tea. "...I guess it wasn't something he felt comfortable with."

"Such reactions are normal human failings." Standing Bear's voice had none of the disapproval that Jim expected; it was calm, and even slightly amused. "You are not a paragon, to never make mistakes. When an honorable man fails, he tries to repair the results of his failure. Your offer to Blair was a worthy response to your actions."

Jim shrugged, regarding the shaman soberly. "Maybe so, but nothing came of it. Sandburg felt that he couldn't stay, and he just took off. Until I got his letter a few weeks ago, I'd had only one untraceable postcard from him in two years." A little frustration colored his voice; he grasped it firmly and shoved it deeper within. He must not give Standing Bear -- Blair's friend -- a reason to doubt his sincerity.

"And that irritates you," the shaman noted, unperturbed. "You feel that a true friend -- a guardian's companion, or a sentinel's guide -- should have accepted the offer and continued to walk by your side."

"Well, I did," he admitted. "For awhile, anyway. Sandburg had said he'd stay!" Jim finished defensively. "It just seemed like cutting and running when he didn't."

"His rejection of your offer seemed to be a rejection of you."

Ellison simply nodded, once again unable to face the shaman.

"And yet, your guide explained why he could not stay, did he not? Did you believe that he lied to you?"

Jim fidgeted uneasily. "Not lied, exactly, but... uh... 'obfuscated', I guess, to take the easy way out. I know better now, but... well, I was pretty pissed for awhile."

"How is it that you 'know better now'?"

"I talked to a shrink," he sighed. "I talked to my captain. I saw the reactions of some of the PD personnel before I let the truth about my senses be spread around." Jim smiled slightly, finally beginning to relax under Standing Bear's non-judgmental manner. "I guess even my thick head will accept new ideas, if it's pounded hard enough and often enough. And then Blair's letter laid everything out in black and white, and I could really see where he was coming from."

Standing Bear's lips twitched. "Fortunate indeed, that such a thick head can learn. So, tell me, Sentinel, why did your guide walk away from you?"

"Well, I guess because he really couldn't stay." Standing Bear was silent, waiting. "And... because he didn't think he would be accepted if he tried to stay." The shaman still didn't speak, waiting for more. "And because... maybe we both needed to learn a lesson, find out what it would mean to us if we went our separate ways. And that way, we'd really understand that it's better -- right -- that we're together, working as a team," he concluded, satisfaction coloring his voice as he explained what he'd come to know on an instinctive level.

Standing Bear nodded, seemingly pleased with Jim's thoughtful answers. "So, Sentinel, you accept that it was necessary and right for your guide to be apart from you for a time?"

Ellison sighed and ran a hand over his hair. "Yes, I can accept it -- now. I didn't like it, and I can't wait to be finished with this... 'learning experience'... but I do see that things would probably have gotten worse if Sandburg had stayed." He shrugged. "Shit goes around, sometimes. We deal with it as best we can, and move on, I guess."

"So you understand why your guide left, and why he had to stay away. Now explain why he should come back to you; what does the Sentinel now offer the Guide?"

"I offer him my support, and my un-ending friendship," Jim said gravely. He stared into the fire, not in an attempt to avoid Standing Bear's gaze, but using it as a focus as he searched the corners of his soul to express his hard-won, heart-felt knowledge. "I offer him a place by my side, in a community that will accept him and offer him the same support, and I offer him a home if he still wants it." He swallowed, trying to rid himself of the uncomfortable lump in his throat. "I offer him my belief and my trust, and my promise that I'll listen to him instead of making thoughtless assumptions and snap judgments. Well..." he shook his head wryly, "...I offer a promise to try to do that, and the promise of our captain to run interference and help me keep that promise if I start falling back into old habit patterns." His eyes lifted to meet the shaman's. "I offer him the acceptance of my senses, and the acceptance of him as my true and equal partner, and I offer him my sincere attempt to never again let him down. Of course..." he flushed and looked away, "...I'm an old dog, and new tricks don't come easy, but I'm fully aware of the pitfalls now. I think, with the help of our friends, I'll manage to keep my promises."

"All of these form a worthy tribute from Sentinel to Guide," the shaman assured him. "What does the Sentinel expect from the Guide, in return for these offerings?"

Jim gaped at him, astounded. "Sandburg doesn't have to offer me anything; I just want him back where he belongs!"

Standing Bear fixed him with a stern gaze. "Do you truly believe that such a distorted connection can survive? If one half gives everything, and the other half gives nothing, there will come a time of ill-feelings, of anger and bitterness on both sides, and the connection will once again be broken. The needs of one cannot be buried in favor of another, no matter how worthy the other is perceived to be. The guide cannot be equal to the sentinel if the bond between them is so severely unbalanced. I ask you again -- What does the Sentinel expect from the Guide? Search your heart, and be honest; there is no shame in speaking one's needs."

Ellison's eyes lost focus as he struggled with this new idea. It seemed to him that... "But it was all my fault," he almost whispered. "I didn't trust him, I didn't let him explain, I let him throw his life away to protect mine. He's given so much, and I gave him... nothing but crumbs. How can I take more?"

"Sentinel, your arrogance is deep -- and unseemly." The shaman smiled slightly at Jim's shocked expression. "Is your guide a child, that he has no control over his actions and his life? You didn't trust his actions at that time; did he ever give you reasons for that distrust?"

"No!" he insisted, but under Standing Bear's gaze, he had to face the truth. "Well, sometimes I thought he did. There were times it seemed like I was just a... a... 'carrier' for the senses, and he was more interested in them than me. And he was always talking about that damned dissertation, like when he was finished with it, he'd be finished with me. And he kept talking about fame and fortune and movie rights, and when it all came out, it just seemed like he had asked for it."

"When did your guide tell you that his perceptions had changed, that he no longer sought fame and fortune, but only wanted to support his sentinel?"

"Well... he never actually said it... but that just means I should have seen it for myself," he protested.

"Perhaps; but such things can be difficult. That is why the spirits gave mankind the gift of language, so that which is not seen can be spoken of, and misunderstandings can be rectified. If one does not speak, should he fault the other for misunderstanding?" Standing Bear paused to let Ellison absorb what seemed to be a new idea. "You say that you didn't let him explain. Why was that?"

That was still a painful memory; he set his jaw as he replied, "I was angry and... hurt, I guess, when I thought he betrayed me. And we were busy, working a hot case, and I just brushed him off."

"So, in a moment of anger, you made a mistake." He waited for a confirming nod. "But human beings make mistakes. It is right that they should be corrected, but does it seem balanced that the mistaken one should spend his entire life in atonement for a momentary lapse?"

"Well, but... isn't that what Sandburg is doing?" Jim frowned as he wrestled with the concept. "He threw away the life he had; isn't this life just one long atonement for what he did?"

"Is it? Does he suffer in his current life, crying to the spirits for forgiveness? Or has he simply moved into another life the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly? The loss of the old life does not make the new life worthless, or even uncomfortable; it is merely different. Has my younger brother indicated that he feels any distress about his current life-path?"

"No-o-o... but Sandburg wouldn't. He bitched when he thought I wasn't... appreciating my 'gifts' enough, but he never complained about day-to-day stuff, or cop stuff. "

"Never?" The shaman's lips quirked in amusement, though his eyes warmed with gentle understanding; his younger brother would not have been silent if he had felt ill-used.

Jim paused as he cast his mind back, and then his lips twitched in response. "Well... hardly ever," he admitted. "I guess I remember a few times..." He let the shaman draw his own conclusions from the innuendo.

Standing Bear nodded. "I have come to know Blair well during the past six months. Your guide is not perfect; he has flaws, just as any man does. He can be impatient, and inconsistent, and prone to act without sufficient forethought. But he is strong and honorable, and a fitting companion to one who is guardian to such a large territory as yours. Do you doubt this?"

"Not now," he whispered hoarsely. "But I did, and that's why I have to make it up to him."

"You are a warrior; as a soldier and as a policeman you know that warriors work together, and defend each other. One warrior may defend another at the risk of injury to himself, or even at the cost of his own life. This is unity of life and purpose; it is not something that must be 'made up for'. Did your companion freely choose a life by your side, or did you trick him into it, and bind him so that he could not escape?"

"Well... I don't think Blair really knew what he was getting into; we just sort of scrambled from one situation to another, and he fell into the habit of being with me."

Standing Bear raised an eyebrow. "Is Blair a stupid man, that he could not see what your life entailed?" He waited for Ellison's mute headshake. "Did he ever complain that your life was too dangerous for him to continue working with you?" Another headshake. "Would you have let him go if he told you he wanted out of your life, to be safe?"

"Of course I would!" he protested hotly. "I'm not some kind of... slave-master, keeping him in chains to pander to my every whim! Hell, I was always telling him to stay in the truck, where he'd be safe, but if it wasn't enough, he could always have walked away!"

"So, your guide is not stupid. He recognized the dangers of your life, but he did not indicate that he was afraid to continue working with you. You did not bind him against his will. In other words, he freely accepted the life of a warrior, working in company with other warriors. Is this not true?"

Ellison nodded, seemingly mesmerized by the shaman's words.

"Tell me; have you ever risked your life in defense of a fellow-warrior, in the army or on the police force?" He waited for a confirming nod. "Have you ever risked your life in defense of your guide?" Another nod. "If necessary, would you take a bullet, or die, to protect a fellow-warrior or your guide?"

"In a heartbeat," Jim answered hoarsely. "Partly, as you say, it's my job; warriors protect and defend each other. But with Blair, it's... I can't even think about his death. I'd do anything to keep him safe; no price is too high."

Standing Bear smiled gently. "And Blair feels the same about you, which is why he acted as he did, and why you must accept it. Emotionally, each of you is holding his friend's life as more important, more worthy, than his own. This is not uncommon among close friends or fellow-warriors. Especially between Companion and Guardian, it is an indication of the strength of your bond. But intellectually, you must realize that each of your lives is equally worthy; he would sacrifice for you, as you would sacrifice for him. To deny your guide the right to offer such a sacrifice is to deny his equality with you. By deciding that your life was not worth his sacrifice, you demean his perceptions and actions, treating him as an ignorant child instead of a capable adult. Can you understand that this is so?"

The shaman waited calmly, sipping his tea, as his younger brother's friend and guardian pondered the new viewpoint. Eventually, Ellison shifted on the mat, and his eyes regained focus as he returned from his deep contemplation. He regarded Standing Bear solemnly as he dipped his head in acknowledgement.

"You're right," he sighed. "The sacrifice was freely offered and is freely accepted, between equals, the same way he might need to accept my sacrifice for him, someday." His slight grin was somewhat shamefaced. "I'll take him down off that pedestal I set him on, and try to remember that he's not some wet-behind-the-ears kid anymore."

"That would be beneficial," the shaman returned gravely. "Now, once again, what does the Sentinel expect from the Guide, in return for his offerings?"

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose as he considered. "This is hard," he admitted. "I never thought about it before." He paused to re-examine his half-formed ideas. "I guess... the Sentinel expects the Guide to offer loyalty, to stand by his side even when the going is rough. And competence -- the Guide is expected to be able to help his Sentinel use his senses fully, and be able to figure out how to alleviate the problems when things go wrong. And... the Guide is expected to help the Sentinel keep his promises of listening and not making thoughtless assumptions. And I guess... the Guide is expected to accept a place working within the police community. But if the Guide cannot be comfortable in that community, he is expected to discuss that openly with his Sentinel, so that they may find a life-path that is acceptable to both." He hesitated as he realized that the sentinel / guide relationship wasn't everything -- and wasn't enough. "And I -- the man, not the sentinel -- hope that Blair will accept my committed friendship, and offer me his own." Ellison paused again to replay his own words in his mind. Satisfied, he nodded firmly. "Yeah, I think that about covers it."

"Excellent! Now you have placed your guide on an equal footing with his sentinel. Together, you can go forward, each trusting the other for loyalty and support, as well as the friendship that your soul longs for. This is as it should be," Standing Bear affirmed.

"So what do I do now, to show him my support?" Ellison asked quietly. "I can't just tell him, and assume that everything will magically be fixed."

"Do you not see that your being here for your friend and guide already shows the unconditional support that Blair needs?" the shaman said gently. "He knows how difficult it is for you to reveal your inner self -- particularly to an outsider such as I am. You showed your support when you did not protest his wish to speak to me about your connection as sentinel and guide. For the rest, your demonstration only needs to come from your heart; how would you like to show your support?"

"Well, I was hoping to join him in the purification ceremony he talked about, if I can. Sort of... I don't know... prove that I'll do whatever I can to help him in whatever way he needs." He frowned slightly. "Uh... it won't be sacrilegious or something, will it, if I don't exactly believe in what he's doing, but I'm just going along for the ride? Not that I think he's wrong or anything," he hastened to assure the shaman. "I don't disrespect your beliefs, just... well, they're not mine; I don't want that to affect the ceremony."

"That will not matter. To stand aside from your own teachings, and act on another's beliefs, shows the highest level of support. Frankly, Blair will be relieved to have you join him; he doesn't quite believe that you will accept what he feels he must do."

"'Must do'?" Jim swallowed, trying to moisten a suddenly dry mouth. "What if his 'must do' is to walk away from me -- from the Sentinel?" he asked uneasily.

Standing Bear's gaze was full of compassion. "That will not happen. Blair is your true Guide, and your friend. He is already committed to returning with you. This is just a small step to smoothing his path back to you, and increasing his harmony with his life-path."

Ellison tried not to show the overwhelming relief that he felt. "Good. So, when can I leave, where do I go, and what should I do when I get there?" With a definite objective in mind, he was once again goal-oriented, focused solely on an upcoming mission.

Standing Bear smiled, understanding the guardian's need to be with his companion. "You must wait just a little longer. Blair is already at his vision place, fasting and meditating as he seeks the guidance of the spirits. Tonight, you must refresh yourself from your journey. Find a comfortable hotel, and eat and sleep well. Tomorrow," the shaman shook his head slightly, "will be difficult for you, but you must compose yourself in patience. You will not eat after the midday meal," he instructed. "Then, as the sun is setting, you will present yourself back here, fresh in body and clothing. You will spend the night sitting by my fire, contemplating the future of Sentinel and Guide, and your places in each other's lives. When the sun rises, I will lend you a horse, and give you directions to reach the vision place."

Jim tried to throttle his impatience; he'd see Blair again in just a little more than a day. "Okay," he agreed. "Then what do I do when I get there? I don't want to ruin Sandburg's ceremony."

"You will do as the Spirits move you, and as your companion needs; that is all you need to know," Standing Bear assured him serenely.

"But..." Jim floundered. He preferred the security of having a definite plan; he couldn't afford to screw up what might be his last chance.

"There is no need to worry. With an open heart and accepting spirit, nothing you do will be wrong." Standing Bear smiled broadly, shifting once again from shaman to Blair's -- and now, Jim's -- friend. "But if you sit here any longer, you'll become so ensnared by 'what ifs' that you won't be able to function. So you must leave now, and I'll see you tomorrow evening."

The discussion was over. Ellison sighed and stood, accepting the inevitable. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate your time, and the insights you've given me. I'll be here tomorrow at sundown."

With that, he allowed Standing Bear to escort him out. When he reached his truck, he turned to see the shaman standing, as before, in front of the teepee, though his gaze seemed warmer than previously. With a formal nod of acknowledgment, which the shaman returned, Jim climbed into his truck. Tomorrow would be difficult, with dragging hours to endure until he returned to keep his vigil by the fire, and then another long night before he could go to Blair. But if that was the way Sandburg wanted it, that was the way it would be.

Ellison put the truck in gear and headed back toward the small town of Gila. He'd seen a small motel with a 'Vacancy' sign on it as he passed through. It had looked as if it would be clean enough, and he wouldn't need anything fancy while he counted down the hours. He glanced at his watch; just thirty-seven hours until sunup of 'B-day'...




Jim guided the sturdy Indian pony around the fallen tree and through the dappled shadows, following Standing Bear's directions to Blair's 'vision place'. He tried to ignore the 'pre-mission nerves' that hadn't been eased by the shaman's lack of instruction. You will do as the Spirits move you, and as your companion needs; that is all you need to know. But despite his uncertainties, he was eager to join Blair in the ceremony; hopefully, when it was finished, his guide would be coming back to Cascade with him.

He reined to a halt at the edge of the treeline, and studied the layout. The clearing was small, approximately 150 yards wide by 300 yards long. At one end, Blair's horse grazed on the late summer grasses, a set of hobbles preventing it from roaming too far. At the other end, a small stream flowed lazily down a rocky bed. Around the clearing, the trees were just beginning to be touched by splashes of orange and yellow as autumn approached. Sandburg's chosen vision place was beautiful as well as peaceful.

Jim felt a lump in his throat as he saw his friend for the first time in almost two years. Sandburg was sitting cross-legged beside a small fire in the middle of the clearing, wearing only jeans, his torso bare to the late morning sunshine. His chestnut curls were tousled, and didn't quite reach the shoulders that seemed broader and sturdier than previously. Whatever Blair had been doing for the past two years, it seemed to have been good for him; he looked fit, healthy, and strong.

Jim hesitated; Sandburg's eyes were closed, and he didn't want to interrupt a meditation. Should he wait, or go forward?

His pony broke the stalemate by nickering to the other horse. Sandburg's eyes opened, and he gazed levelly at Jim, before bestowing a wide, welcoming grin on his friend. Jim thought he also detected a touch of relief in Blair's eyes, and was reassured that, whatever Sandburg was planning, he had been right in deciding to join the ceremony. But Blair didn't speak; he schooled his face to a neutral mask and simply inclined his head gravely to acknowledge Jim's presence, then nodded toward the end of the clearing where his own horse grazed.

Ellison obeyed the silent instructions, and guided his horse to the same area. He hobbled the animal, then stripped off saddle and bridle, and placed them over a low-growing branch. He walked toward Sandburg, who once again had his eyes closed, and pondered his next actions. Deciding that he should approach the ceremony as open and unfettered as his friend seemed to be, Jim removed his own shirt, boots, and socks, and sank to the ground on the opposite side of the fire from Blair, taking a similar cross-legged position.

For a long time, neither man spoke. Jim listened to a myriad of sounds that constituted the 'silence' -- the gentle chuckling of the stream, the quiet hiss and crackle as the low flames ate the wood, the soft sighing of the breeze as it rustled the leaves of the trees, and the quieter note as the grasses moved under its impetus. Briefly, he wondered how much Blair could hear, or if he was so deep within himself that he heard nothing at all. It didn't matter; Ellison relaxed under the warm sun on his skin, and waited.

Finally, Blair shifted and opened his eyes; his face was calm as he regarded his friend. "Sentinel, have you come freely to participate in this ceremony?"

"I have," Jim stated firmly, hoping that Blair could read his sincerity.

"Sentinel, why have you come?"

Why? Because he couldn't not come. "Because I had to," he blurted.

"Sentinel, why have you come?"

Okay; why had he come? For Blair, of course. "I come to support my Guide," he intoned gravely.

Blair nodded, then smiled happily, becoming Blair-the-friend, rather than Blair-the-mystical-Guide. "Okay, Jim, this first part is mostly mine. I'll ask you to join in later."

He reached into his backpack -- the same one, Jim noted -- which had been lying to one side, and pulled out a notebook and pen. Plumbing the backpack's depths again, he pulled out a handful of strips of paper. Blair balanced the notebook on his knee to provide a stable writing surface, glanced thoughtfully at Ellison, gnawed on the end of the pen for a moment, then began to write.

Jim waited while Sandburg scribbled feverishly, one sentence to each strip of paper. As Blair finished each one, he laid it facedown on the ground beside him, so that not even sentinel vision could read it.
~Jim Ellison didn't trust Blair Sandburg.~
~Jim Ellison thought Blair Sandburg would lie to his face.~
~Jim Ellison thought Blair Sandburg would deliberately divulge secrets he had promised to keep.~
~Jim Ellison refused to listen when Blair Sandburg tried to explain what had happened.~
~Jim Ellison wanted to be a not-sentinel, and a not-sentinel doesn't need a guide.~
Jim grew restless; shouldn't he be part of this ceremony? "Chief, do I get to read those?"

"Not these, Jim, the next batch."

"But if this is supposed to help us clear the air, shouldn't I know what... I mean, how... I mean..." He floundered to a stop, uncertain how to express his confusion, or his feeling that he had to know.

Blair regarded him solemnly. "Jim, this part is to get rid of all the anger and the negative feelings in me. What I'm writing is some stuff that's not even true anymore, but if I don't express it some way, it'll fester inside. But if you read it, you'll probably feel guilty, and think you have to make excuses, and we'll have hurt feelings all over the place. Honest, you don't have to see it because soon it'll be gone and it won't matter anymore." He bent his head to continue writing, trying to let all the negative emotions flow through the ink onto the paper.

Jim still wasn't comfortable, but it was Blair's call. He settled into the patient, watchful waiting that had served him so well in the past, and resolutely avoided using enhanced vision to see what Blair was writing.
~Whatever Blair Sandburg does, Jim Ellison seems to ascribe the worst possible motives to its reasons.~
~Jim Ellison wants to deny the spiritual, integral parts of being a sentinel.~
~Jim Ellison doesn't trust Blair Sandburg's judgement.~
~Jim Ellison said he didn't want Blair Sandburg around.~
Finally, the frantic scribbling slowed, then stopped. Blair set aside the notebook and pen, picked up the strips of paper, and silently re-read each statement. He looked up at his waiting sentinel. "Okay, Jim, reach in my backpack and hand me the grinding bowl."

Ellison was puzzled; the bag was actually closer to Sandburg than it was to him. Maybe there was some significance in the bowl passing from his hand to Blair's? Acting with a reverence that he hoped wasn't misplaced, Jim used both hands gently cupped around the sides to withdraw the hollowed rock, with the pestle-stone nestled within, and presented it to Sandburg with a slight bow of his head. Blair accepted it in both hands with equal reverence and an answering nod, then placed it carefully on the ground between them. With a look, he encouraged Jim to match his own cross-legged position on the other side of the bowl. When Blair was satisfied that their positions were right, he picked up the strips of paper and began to tear them into tiny scraps, dropping the bits into the stone basin.

"Okay, Jim, now I need the dried corn from the leather pouch."

Once again he reached into his friend's backpack, and pulled out a small bag, about the size of his hand. It looked authentic, made of tanned animal-hide, with a pattern of beadwork made from porcupine quills and carved bone; briefly, he wondered where Sandburg had got it. With the same feelings of solemnity instructing his actions, he once again made a two-handed ceremonial presentation to Blair, and saw it accepted in the same manner.

Blair poured a double-handful of the dried corn into the grinding bowl. Rising on his knees to obtain a better working position, he began to pound the corn, grinding it into coarse meal and, incidentally, shredding the pieces of paper until they were indistinguishable from the cornmeal. But Sandburg continued to pound, the effort shortening his breath to grunted panting as he started sweating from the exertion. Jim watched, feeling slightly uneasy, as his friend continued pounding and grinding until the corn and paper was reduced to the texture of fine flour.

For his part, Blair was investing all his anger and frustration into the corn and the written words. All of these emotions needed to be purged, especially the biggest one -- Jim didn't trust, didn't trust, didn't trust... But that was no longer true, and he needed to obliterate it from his psyche the same way he was destroying this corn. So he grunted, and beat, and pounded, and visualized smashing the anger as he pulverized the hard kernels -- and watched the anger trickle away as the corn was transformed to coarse meal, then to flour, and lastly to the finest of powders.

Finally, it was finished. Blair sat back on his heels and pushed his hair out of his face. His eyes fixed on the powdered corn as he searched the hidden corners of his mind, seeking any residual traces of his previous resentment. Gone. Thank God, it was truly gone. He raised his eyes to Jim's, with a smile of satisfaction and triumph.

"It's gone, Jim. All the pettiness has been crushed, just like that corn. Now..." he scooped up the stone basin and rose to his feet, his friend following a beat behind, "...we try to ensure that it doesn't return by letting the Spirits dispose of it. Follow me."

Quietly, Sandburg walked toward the stream, with Ellison a step behind. Removing a small amount of the powdered corn, Blair cast it across the surface as he proclaimed, "The waters will wash away the anger, and dilute it, so that it fades into nothingness." Silently, he passed the bowl to his sentinel, with an encouraging nod. Trying not to feel foolish, Jim also tossed a portion of the ground corn upon the water as he repeated Blair's words, then passed the bowl back to his guide.

Blair led them back to the clearing, coming to a halt in a grassy area away from the campfire. Standing with his back to the breeze, he tossed a half-handful of the finely-ground corn into the air. As he watched the particles scatter and drift in the currents, he announced, "The winds will dissipate the frustration, so that it can never find root within us." Again, a small nod persuaded Ellison to imitate actions and words.

Blair headed back toward the campfire, Jim now comfortably beside him. He stopped within reach of the low-burning flames, and tilted the bowl to allow half of the remaining cornmeal to fall and be consumed. Watching the tiny motes flare and die, he declared, "The fire will incinerate the irritation, rendering it impotent and powerless to affect us." He passed the bowl to Ellison, who tipped the last of the powdered corn into the flames while he repeated Blair's words.

Blair heaved a sigh as the last of the ground corn burned to nothingness, then sank cross-legged beside the fire again, waving for Jim to sit next to him, rather than across from him, as before. "Now comes the good part; we celebrate all that's right between us." He passed a handful of the pre-cut slips of paper to Ellison, along with a pen, and a grin. "Think of it as homework, man. "Write at least five sentences -- more if you feel like it -- that tell what you think is good about me and what I do, and why we should keep our partnership together. And I'll write what I like about you, of course. Just one sentence per slip of paper, but..." his eyes twinkled, "... spelling doesn't matter." Then he bent over his own pieces of paper, his hair falling forward to shield his face as he scribbled industriously.
~Jim wrote me he was sorry.~
~Jim said that he wanted me to continue as his partner.~
~Jim said that I have a piece of his soul, and he's happy with that.~
~Jim said he doesn't want to live without me.~
~Jim said he's closer to me than a brother, closer than married couples.~
~Jim said he felt empty without me beside him.~
~Jim said he needs me to use his sentinel senses to their fullest effect.~
~Jim said he'd try to be a better partner, and a better friend.~
~Jim said he needs me to be with him.~
~Jim said he would talk to me, that he would no longer shut me out.~
~Jim's already a good friend; he cleared up the dissertation mess at Rainier.~
~Jim figured out a way to remove the taint of 'fraud' and 'liar' from my reputation.~
~Jim put money in my bank account to try to make my life easier.~
~Jim renovated the loft so that I would have more room, and feel more at home.~
~Jim made the effort to address his own issues -- he actually talked to a shrink and a Rabbi!~
~Jim has made sure that I'll have a place at the PD.~
Sitting beside his friend, Jim stared blankly at his own pieces of paper. Words. Sandburg wanted words. He still felt uncomfortable, almost as if he were on the spot, but... of course, he wasn't. Sandburg would take any offering he made, without judgement; he knew that. And, he'd already written what Blair meant to him, in his letter. So, he just had to write those things again; that would work.
~Sandburg doesn't make negative judgements.~
~Sandburg accepts me for what I am.~
~Sandburg understands my senses, and helps make them work.~
~Sandburg is always there for me.~
~Blair is the most giving person I know.~
~Sandburg knows everything that's inside me, and it doesn't matter to him.~
~Blair wants to keep being my partner.~
~Blair wants to keep living in the loft.~
~Sandburg wants to be Guide to the Sentinel.~
~Sandburg is strong; he can take my guff and give it right back.~
~Blair doesn't hold my guff against me.~
~Sandburg's intelligence and people-insights make him a great partner.~
~Blair 'fits' -- in my life, in the PD, and in Major Crimes.~
~Blair said we'll be partners in the Sentinel thing, not researcher and subject.~
~Blair thinks of me as a 'beloved big brother'.~
~Blair and I make a damn good team.~
The ~scritch~ing of the pens gradually slowed, then stopped, and both men looked up at almost the same moment. Sandburg gave a lopsided, self-conscious grin as he said, "Well, now it's your call, Jim. I'd like you to read what I wrote, but you don't have to show me yours if you don't want to. It's whatever you feel comfortable with, man."

"Chief," he said firmly as he shook his head slightly, "I already told you how I felt; this is just more of the same. I don't mind you reading it. It's kind of sappy, but as long as it's just between us..." He shrugged as he handed over the pieces of paper, receiving Blair's in return.

"Thanks, Jim," he said quietly. "I really appreciate it. Now, no comments as we read these; we just accept what the other person says and feels, got it?"

Jim nodded silently, and started reading Sandburg's thoughts. As he went through the list, his heart eased with a sense of relief and quiet satisfaction. Good, and thank God; Blair recognized and understood all that he'd tried to say in his letter, and his actions, and accepted it all. Ellison breathed a silent sigh of satisfaction, and turned his perceptions outward; how was Blair responding to Jim's thoughts?

Despite his own instructions, Blair couldn't read without commenting, although his whispered words would have been inaudible to anyone but the sentinel sitting beside him. Murmurs of, "Yeah, man, absolutely," and "You really think so? That's great!" assured Ellison that his words were being received with equal appreciation.

At last Blair looked up, his gaze meeting Jim's with a quiet serenity. "Now that we know what's in each other's hearts, we give it to the Spirits, so that they'll know, too, and can safeguard it for us. Pass me the basket that's in my backpack."

Once again, Jim reached inside -- Everything but the kitchen sink, he thought with amusement -- and carefully extracted a small, shallow basket. A slight unevenness in its shape suggested that it had been made by less-than-experienced hands, but apparently with great care -- three different grasses had been used to supply color variations that had been woven into an attractive, graceful pattern. As before, he handed it to his friend with ceremonial reverence. But Blair hadn't missed Jim's appraising glance.

"I knew basic basket-weaving techniques, but Mary Two-Feathers showed me how to incorporate the pattern. But I did it all with my own two hands, so that it's an offering of my own work and effort to the Spirits. Now, pass me the canteen."

Canteen? Jim did so, and watched in astonishment as Blair filled the basket. Although tightly-woven, it was not sufficiently so to hold liquids. Blair held it away from himself as he watched the water darken the dried grasses, then drip through to fall on the ground below. "We want it to burn slowly, with lots of smoke, so that the Spirits will have time to capture and save our messages," he explained.

"All right," he continued, when all the water had seeped through the basket, "now we lay our message-strips inside." He handed the basket to Jim, who carefully placed Blair's papers inside, and passed it back. Blair laid Jim's papers within, then painstakingly set the basket in the exact center of the low-burning fire. As the flames licked at the offering, and the smoke started to rise, he intoned, "Let the Spirits hold the secrets of our hearts within their safekeeping, so that Sentinel and Guide, and Jim and Blair, always remember their place in each other's lives, and treasure their friendship and partnership. And..." Jim noted that his solemnity now had a twinkle, "... may the good Lord, Yahweh, and the Great Earth Mother also watch over us, and let us not forget what we mean to each other, so that never again will the shit hit the fan. Amen."

Jim manfully caught the snort that tried to escape, and shoved it deep within. "Amen," he answered with suitable gravity and, together, they watched the basket burn smokily into ashes, carrying their heartfelt messages to Whoever -- or Whatever -- would listen.

Oddly enough, despite the sometimes hokey aspects, Jim did feel more confident of his partnership with Sandburg, and certain that it would all work out. The nagging uncertainties were fading and, noting Blair's more relaxed manner and the lack of former tension in his muscles and around his eyes, he rejoiced that his friend was feeling the same benefits. The ceremony had worked; they would go back to Cascade and their partnership with a stronger, unbreakable connection.

"So now what, Chief? Are we ready to head back to Cascade? Or..." he hesitated, uneasily aware that he might be presuming too much, "...do we still have things to talk about?"

"Tomorrow, Jim," Blair murmured gently. "Right now, you ride back to wherever you're staying. I'll spend the night here, do some more meditation, and ride back to the ranch in the morning. How about you meet me there around three?"

His gaze swept the area, noting a distinct lack of supplies. "Sandburg," he objected, "you don't have any food here, or any shelter!"

"I don't need any of that," was the calm reply. "A shaman doesn't eat or sleep when communing with the Spirits, or a guide when meditating. Don't worry, man; I'll be fine.

Jim was unwilling to leave his friend alone. "Blair... it's been two years; I can't just walk away! How about I stay here and keep watch, or something? It's what a sentinel does, after all. I promise, I won't disturb your meditation."

"I know how you feel, big guy, but this is something I have to finish alone." His gaze was earnest as he tried to reassure his friend. "I'll be perfectly safe here. Just come to the ranch tomorrow; I'll be there.

Still reluctant, but realizing that arguing might damage the peace they had constructed between them, the Sentinel once again followed his Guide's instructions. He put on his shirt and boots, then saddled and bridled his horse, removed the hobbles, and led it to the stream for a drink before they started the long ride back to the village. Finally, he swung into the saddle and guided the horse to the homeward trail.

As he reached the treeline, Jim paused and looked back to see Sandburg once again sitting cross-legged by the fire, eyes closed in silent meditation. He wasn't particularly surprised to see Incacha sitting on the other side of the fire, with the wolf and panther completing the circle, and Incacha's spirit eagle watching from a not-too-distant tree. Reassured that his guide was safe, he turned again and headed into the forest.




The blue and white pickup passed under the peeled-pole archway with the metalwork sign that proclaimed, "C-Bar Ranch - Welcome". Ellison looked around, then headed toward the "Guest Parking" sign.

As he exited the truck, Jim glanced again at his watch. 2:36. Well, that was 'around three'. He simply couldn't wait any longer. Sandburg must surely be here by now, but where? Aided by the discreet signs on the front of each building, it was easy enough to recognize the main house, guest quarters, office, and bunkhouse, but which one held his partner?

Scent wouldn't work. Although he could catch traces of Sandburg under the dusty earth, animal smells, fresh and dried manure, and dozens of other olfactory inputs, the target scent was too diffuse, and too long-standing to follow a fresh trail.

Sound? There wasn't much activity to screen his guide's heartbeat. Jim delicately extended his hearing -- and there it was. He headed toward the office, eager to get Blair into the truck, back within his senses, his circle of protection, his... personal comfort zone.

As he approached the building, Sandburg stepped out onto the porch and stood without speaking, regarding Jim solemnly. He seemed to be waiting, expecting something specific, and Jim paused in confusion. What? Hadn't they covered this yesterday?

As his mind searched frantically for a clue, he suddenly remembered a line from Blair's first letter. We need to throw out all our old reactions and preconceptions about each other and start fresh... Yes, of course. The pattern for first meetings was well-known.

He climbed the steps to the porch and extended his hand. "How do you do?" he said easily. "I'm Jim Ellison."

Blair's hand met his with equal formality. "Pleased to meet you," he answered. "I'm Blair Sandburg." Then the wide, easy, Sandburg smile brightened his face as he looked up at his friend. "God, Jim, I'm so glad to see you!"

Jim's face sported an answering smile as he dropped Sandburg's hand and gathered him into a profound hug, which Blair fervently returned. "Me, too, Chief," he murmured, reveling in the contentment of being with his friend and guide after so long apart. "Me, too." He tightened the hug, and felt Blair reciprocate. They stood for a timeless interval -- friend and partner, Jim and Blair, sentinel and guide -- each silently promising the other that they would never again be parted.

Finally, when the need to touch and reconnect had been marginally satisfied, Jim pulled back just a little, but still kept his hands on Blair's shoulders. "You --" His voice cracked under the emotion, and he cleared his throat to try again. "You ready to come home, Chief?"

Blair's smile became impossibly wider, seeming almost incandescent. "Home." He seemed to savor the taste of the word in his mouth. "Y'know, it's a cliché, but that's gotta be the sweetest word in the language. Yeah, Jim, I'm ready to come home."

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and reached for the duffle bag that had been waiting next to the porch railing. Ellison, seeing his intent, grabbed it first. Then, with Jim's arm across his partner's shoulder, and Blair's arm around his friend's waist, Sentinel and Guide headed toward the truck, ready to face their destiny -- together.



The End


Aussie - American Translation

Drongos - idiots

Fair go, a - a decent chance

Gave you a gobful - gave you a hard time

Good oil, the - the real truth

Grog - alcoholic beverage

Itching for a blue - asking for a fight

Stickybeak, a - a nosy person

Suss out, to - to check out or discover





The "Letters" Trilogy --
1. Letter to Blair - Post TSbyBS. Jim writes an unmailable letter. 8 pages.

2. Letter to Jim - Blair's letter tells Jim of his hopes and plans. 11 pages.

3. Moving Forward - Resolution of the two letters. 60 pages.



Author's Notes

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Title: Them's the Breaks
Summary: It can be surprising who's 'essential'.
Style: Gen
Size: 3,715 words, about 8 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: December 2008.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org


Them's the Breaks

by StarWatcher



Monday

"I'm telling you, Jim -- beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, it's a factor of one's culture as well." Blair hopped out of the truck and followed Jim to the elevator. "Like -- in our culture, there's an expectation that women will have full, lush hair, and men just have to wash and comb theirs. But in the Masai culture, women keep their heads shaved, while the warriors wear long braids, which they've dyed with red clay. Both standards are considered beautiful in their culture, but would stand out as unusual, or even ugly, when judged from a different culture."

"Sandburg, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" Jim asked as they stepped out of the elevator and headed toward Major Crime. "Or, more specifically, this case?"

"I don't know, yet," Blair admitted. "But I'm pretty sure that when we figure out why the perp is leaving pictures of spiders on the victims' kitchen tables, we'll have a major clue to his identity that will lead us right to him. I'll hit the library this afternoon and do a little research; I bet I can--"

He stopped short, staring at the attractive young woman behind Rhonda's desk. Speaking of hair -- hers fell in soft auburn waves, framing a golden complexion and setting off a pair of warm, brown eyes. Wow; a goddess. Blair quickly stepped ahead of Jim, who chuckled and moved back, leaving the playing field to his horndog partner. Blair was deliberately projecting 'friendly and sincere'.

"Hi! I'm Blair Sandburg and this is Jim Ellison. Are you looking for someone? I'm sure Rhonda will be back in a few minutes, but maybe I can help; I know everyone on this floor."

The goddess returned his smile. "I'm Felicity Harris; nice to meet you. But, no, I'm not looking for anyone. The temp agency sent me over while your secretary is out, and I'm just trying to figure out these forms in the computer."

"Oh, I can help with --"

"Temp agency?" Jim's voice overrode Blair's. "Why? What happened to Rhonda?"

"Is that your secretary?" Felicity shook her head slightly. "I don't know; I was just told to report here."

"Thank you." Jim's nod was curt. "C'mon, Chief; let's see what Simon knows." He strode away so quickly that Blair had to trot to keep up.

"Jim, get a grip. So Rhonda takes a couple of days off; it's not the end of the world."

"You should know better than that, Chief, either through your 'cultural observations' or because you've dealt with it at the university. A competent secretary is priceless, and one who doesn't know what she's doing can cause more damage than a dozen terrorists. If you think the Sunshine Patriots were bad..." Jim knocked briskly on the captain's door, and was through it while 'Come!' was still reverberating through the air.

"Simon, what happened to Rhonda, and when will she be back?"

The captain tossed down his pen and leaned back in his chair. "Good morning to you, too, Jim. Would you like a cup of coffee?"

Jim shook his head impatiently. "Simon, you know how fast things go to hell whenever Rhonda's not here. What happened, and how long will she be out?"

"Oh, come on, Jim!" Blair protested. "Temps are usually pretty good -- they have to be flexible, and comfortable with different types of systems. I mean, Rhonda's good, but she's not some magical superwoman. I think we should give Felicity a chance."

"Make time on your own time, Sandburg," Simon ordered, almost by reflex. "We can't keep her around just because you see dating possibilities. Jim's right. I don't know whether it comes from being a police secretary in general, or if it's the specific assignment to Major Crimes, but every time Rhonda's away, we start a slow slide toward Hell." His face tightened grimly as he shrugged. "But it can't be helped. Some idiot kid who should have known better lost control of his skateboard on a patch of ice and slammed into Rhonda outside of IKEA last night. The doctors tell her she can't use crutches or drive for at least six weeks, so she's stuck at home in a wheelchair."

Blair's creased brow showed his concern. "Man, that's rough. And Rhonda lives alone -- will she be able to manage? We could all pitch in--"

"She's okay. Rhonda said her niece is on Christmas break from college; she'll move in to help her aunt for the next month."

"Which is great for Rhonda," Jim growled, "but what about us?"

"We're adults, Ellison, and trained police officers; we don't need Rhonda to be our surrogate mommy. We'll just have to suck it up and deal with the secretarial fallout."

"But --"

"I'll help." Blair's offer couldn't hide his eagerness to talk to the lovely temp. "I can show her the ins and outs of the computer system."

"Fine; have at it. Now if you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have paperwork to attend to -- as I'm sure you do as well, Ellison. Close the door behind you on your way out."

Obviously, further complaints would be useless. Jim headed toward his desk and booted up his computer, while Blair swerved toward the lovely Ms. Harris. Surely he could help her figure out the PD systems, and enjoy her company until Rhonda returned.




Tuesday

As soon as he stepped into the bullpen, Jim noticed the undercurrent of aggrieved mumbling; his fellow detectives were swearing quietly as they hunched over paper forms and notepads. What the hell?

Blair ignored this unusual behavior and turned eagerly toward Rhonda's desk -- to be met by the sharp gaze of an older woman, her brown hair liberally sprinkled with gray, wearing an air of firm competence.

"Uh... what happened to Felicity?"

"Ms. Harris decided her experience level was not suited to this position and asked to be reassigned. I'm Mrs. Saunders; I'll be taking over."

"But I thought Felicity really had a handle on things when we left yesterday," Blair protested. True, he'd had to leave her on her own when he'd followed Jim to ask more questions of the 'spider thief's victims, but what could have happened in the two hours before quitting time?

"Not so's you'd notice, babe," Henri said as he walked up. "Somehow she knocked out the entire computer network on this floor. We're just lucky the PD doesn't have the entire building on the same network; not everyone's been tossed back to the stone age." He handed some paper-clipped pages to their new temp. "Here you go, Mrs. Saunders; one copy to the prosecutor's office, another to the DA's office, I get the third copy, and the original goes in the permanent-file room at the end of the hall; turn right as you head out."

Blair stared slack-jawed as Henri headed back to his desk, then rallied and turned back to Mrs. Saunders. "Well, hey, I guess it could happen to anyone; I hope Felicity doesn't feel too bad about it. But anyway, thanks for stepping in."

"Do you have an estimate when the computers will be up again?" Jim asked, abruptly.

"The technicians are working; they expect it to be just another hour or two." Her reply was crisp and self-assured, but her eyes didn't meet theirs.

Jim grunted and strode toward his desk. Blair scrambled to follow, and gave Jim a light punch on the arm when he caught up. "Jeeze, man, can't you at least try to make nice?"

Jim shrugged as he sat down and noticeably aborted his move to switch on the computer. "I told you, Chief; everything will go down the tubes while Rhonda's out." He glared at the dark computer, then stood. "C'mon. We can check back at the earlier robberies; maybe the computers will be up when we get back."




Wednesday

"Detective Brown!" Simon thundered. "Why is the DA's office complaining to me that they don't have your information for the Clellan case?"

"Captain?" Henri blinked his confusion. "I don't know; I handed it to Mrs. Saunders yesterday, and told her where all the copies had to go. I thought I was clear."

Simon sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "I suppose the pain was distracting, even though she tried to work through it. I'm quite sure she didn't expect to come down with acute appendicitis and leave here on a stretcher." He waved at Rhonda's desk; it was much too early for him to feel this tired. "You'll just have to go through those stacks of pages to find yours, make the copies yourself, and get them sent off."

"Yes, sir." Henri sat down and tentatively started going through the largest stack. "So, do we get a temp today, or do we have to wing it all by our lonesome? I just hope the next temp can get things in order."

"You and me both, Brown. Supposedly we've been granted a very competent woman, but I'm told she'll be in 'later'; she's had something come up," Simon growled as he returned to his office.




Thursday

Blair pulled his coat tighter around him, and shivered as he looked toward the lowering gray clouds. It was a miserable day for an evacuation. "It's an ordinary break-room; how did she manage to start a fire?"

Jim shoved his hands into his pockets and lowered his sense of skin sensitivity another notch. "Good question, Chief. Ms. Flynn is either highly talented or highly inept. I did warn you--"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah; temps never fit into the PD. I'm beginning to believe you." Blair shivered again. "Can you tell how soon we'll be able to go back inside?"

Jim cocked his head as he extended his hearing, monitoring the progress of the firemen. "It'll be a while; the fire's out, and it sounds like the damage is minimal, but they have to check for hotspots."

"Great," Blair groaned. "Think we can wait in the truck? It'd be a little warmer."

"I've got a better idea." Jim used an arm around Blair's shoulders to urge him away from the PD. "I think we can wait in the coffee shop down the street, and make guesses about how the next temp will fall on her face."

"That's cold, man, really cold."

Jim watched the first scattered snowflakes begin to fall. "No pun intended, Chief? Besides, the temperature of my observation doesn't make it any less correct, does it?"

"I guess not," Blair agreed. "We need to give Rhonda a medal when she gets back. I knew she was good, but I wouldn't've believed that her job would put four temps on the ropes!"




Friday

Mrs. Williamson seemed unexceptional -- plump and cheerful, with softly-waving dark hair and a serene 'can-do' attitude. Blair welcomed her with a small, insincere smile, then made a beeline toward Henri's desk.

"Listen," he said urgently, "I think I've figured out a solution. You grab Dills, Rafe and Bennet. I'll pick up Jim, Joel, and Samuels, and we'll all meet in Interrogation Room Four in ten minutes."

It took fifteen minutes. Blair stopped the rising volume of questions and speculations by putting two fingers to his mouth to deliver a sharp, shrill whistle. "C'mon people!" he ordered. "We need to get this done before Simon gets suspicious."

Jim chuckled. "You're the one giving the lecture, Chief. Make it as long or as short as you want. I don't have any trouble blaming you if Simon comes charging through the door."

Blair rolled his eyes, but refused to dignify the teasing with a response. "Okay, in words of one syllable -- since it's likely that Major Crimes won't survive a succession of temps for the next month, I think we should talk Rhonda into coming back early. If we all pitch in and help, we can make it work -- but you'll all have to do your part."

As easily as that, he had everyone's attention. "What do you want us to do, Hairboy?" "Anything, Blair; it'll be worth it." "What's the plan, Chief?"

"It's simple; we'll have to be her transportation and legs until she's back on her feet. We'll set up a schedule -- a different person to pick her up and take her back home each day. She won't be able to reach the permanent files, so whoever's in the bullpen will need to take turns going to file things when Rhonda has a stack -- maybe around eleven and four each day."

Blair look around the table. There were approving nods as the others considered his suggestions. "And we'll need to arrange things a bit to make it easier for Rhonda to do things from her wheelchair," he continued. "Like, get a low table in the break-room to set the microwave and coffeepot on; she won't be able to reach them on the counter, and there might not be anyone around to help if she wants to grab a cup of coffee or heat up her lunch."

"It sounds like a good plan," Joel said. "If everyone does their part, it should work -- assuming Rhonda's willing. She might be enjoying a little time off."

Blair grinned. "I'm going to visit tomorrow; I'll wow her with my Hanukah cookies, then ask her. I'll get down on my knees and beg, if I have to. But I wanted to be sure we had it all worked out and everyone was on board before I suggested it to her."

"What about the copy machine?" Rafe asked. "She won't be able to manage that from her chair."

Henri poked him with an elbow, while Blair gave him a sharp look as he replied, "It's not like we're chiseling hieroglyphs on stone tablets. I think we can manage to do our own copying for the duration."

"I'm a pretty fair weekend carpenter," Dills offered. "I could make a good, sturdy railing to stand in front of the Xerox machine. If she wants to, Rhonda could stand on her good foot and use the railing to hold on to, and for balance."

"Thanks, Dills. Why don't you go ahead and make it, and Rhonda can decide if she'll be okay to use it. Even if it's not right away, she might feel comfortable giving it a try in a week or so." Blair looked around the table again. "Okay, transportation -- who wants what days?"

In short order, the plans were finalized. The transportation schedule was approved, and the 'incidentals' spoken for -- Dills would make the railing for the copy machine, Henri had a sturdy low table that he would lend for the duration, and Joel had a small, padded footstool that would allow Rhonda to keep her foot elevated. Bennet and Rafe agreed to look at the bullpen with an eye toward wheelchair-access; anything that would interfere with Rhonda moving from the door to her desk, or from her desk to Simon's office or the copy machine would be moved to another part of the room. A little crowding would be acceptable if it allowed Rhonda to take her proper place as Major Crimes' secretary.

Blair's face wore a broad smile. "This is great, guys! With just a little luck, I think we can make this work. -- Luck!" He turned toward his partner, radiating excitement. "Jim! Your 'spider thief' is Ukrainian... or at least has family from the Ukraine. C'mon, let's look at your notes."

He hurried from the room, while Jim shrugged at the puzzled glances coming from his fellow detectives. "That's what you get when you work with the absent-minded professor," he said with an affectionate smile. "But I'll lay you odds he's on the right track."




"I knew it!" Blair exclaimed as soon as he saw Jim. He pointed to the relevant place in Jim's case file. "Mr. Lutsenko works part-time as a stocker at Abbott's Pharmacy, and all of the victims get their prescriptions there. In Ukraine, a spider on a Christmas tree is a sign of good luck. He probably felt bad about robbing the people, and left the spider pictures to give them a little luck!"

Jim frowned over the name. "Sandburg, he hardly qualifies. Maybe his grandparents were from the Ukraine, but he was born and grew up an American."

"Exactly!" Blair crowed. "It's actually a neat story -- about a poor family who couldn't afford to decorate their Christmas tree, so that night the household spiders spun webs all over the tree. The next morning, the rising sun turned the webs to golden sparkles, so the family felt blessed. It's just the sort of story from the 'old country' that a grandmother would tell her grandson, and something that would enthrall a little boy... a story he'd remember all his life. I'm telling you, Jim, you've gotta check him out again!"

"It sounds thin to me, Sandburg, but it's the best lead we have so far. Okay; grab your coat and let's go talk to Mr. Lutsenko.




Monday

Jim and Blair held the doors open while Henri pushed Rhonda into Major Crime. Henri used a brisk pace, then stopped short and turned with almost military precision so that Rhonda faced her desk, and the large banner draped above it.

Welcome back!
We missed you!


As soon as she caught sight of it, every person in the room rose to give her a standing ovation, interspersed with cheers and whistles.

"Welcome back, Rhonda," Jim said with fervent sincerity as he crossed behind her desk and pulled out the brand-new, top-of-the-line, ultra-cushioned executive chair. "Your throne awaits."

"Hmm... if I'd known the perks were this nice, I'd have broken my leg years ago." Despite her teasing words, Rhonda seemed a bit flustered. "You didn't have to do this; if I get tired of the wheelchair, my regular chair will be just fine."

"Not even!" Blair insisted. "You need more back support and stability, to keep your body aligned so your leg will heal properly." He gestured broadly. "Try it out; see what you think."

Rhonda had learned -- along with everyone else in Major Crime -- that you could either follow Blair Sandburg's suggestions, or listen to thirty minutes of explanation as to why his suggestions made the most sense. And, realistically, it didn't matter where she sat, as long as she could stay off her feet. She shrugged and grabbed the edge of her desk to pull herself up, then eased into the new chair that Jim had moved into position.

Once settled, with her bad leg propped on a handy carved wooden footstool with a cushioned, tapestry top, Rhonda looked up to see the entire room watching anxiously. She smiled gratefully and spoke up. "I think this will work. I actually had my doubts, but we all know how persuasive Blair can be, so I thought I'd give it a try." She winked at Blair, as the detectives chuckled. "But I never expected that you'd all go to so much trouble to make it easier for me. It wasn't necessary -- any competent temp could handle my job -- but I really appreciate the way you include me in the group; thank you."

Blair shook his head vigorously. "I said the same thing, but five temps last week have proved us wrong. You must have some sort of secret mojo, because no one can do your job like you can. So now you see before you a roomful of people prepared to offer any assistance you need, just so we can have your steady hand at the helm. And to that end..." he reached into the desk's top drawer, pulled out a small hand-bell, and presented it to her with a flourish. "If you need anyone to fetch and carry, just ring."

"Oh, really?" Rhonda was almost giggling; she'd been bored stiff at home, and it felt wonderful to be back among her coworkers and friends. "I think I need to test it out." Lifting the bell from Blair's hand, Rhonda shook it sharply, her expression almost impish as she waited to see what would happen.

Obviously, no one had discussed this part of the plan; the responses were disorganized and varied. But all were heartfelt, from Henri's automatic, "Yes, ma'am?" to Bennett's snappy salute accompanied by, "Ma'am, yes ma'am!" to Jim and Blair's synchronized -- how did they do that? -- stylized butler-bow. "You rang?" they intoned together.

This time, Rhonda did giggle; the attention wouldn't last, but she could have fun for a while. On the other hand, she saw Captain Banks standing in the doorway of his office. His eyes were amused as he watched the goings-on, but this was a police department; enough was enough.

"I need Blair to bring me a cup of coffee. The rest of you -- go be detectives." So saying, Rhonda scooted herself closer to her desk and booted up her computer. If the temps had fallen down on the job, there was no telling what kind of damage-control she needed to do.

Blair picked up Rhonda's mug and headed toward the break-room, but was stopped by the Captain's voice. "In here, Sandburg."

As he entered the office, Simon lifted his coffeepot and held it out toward Blair. "I think Rhonda deserves the good stuff today, don't you?"

"Absolutely, Simon!" Blair agreed heartily. "You guys were right all along, so anything that keeps her here is a good thing. Although..." he continued thoughtfully, "it really seems contrary to common sense. There should be a paper in there, somewhere; I wonder if I could measure what Rhonda does different..."

"Sandburg, go take Rhonda her coffee and do your brainstorming on your own time. Some of us have work to do!"

"Oh, yeah... sorry, Simon."

"But, Sandburg?" The Captain's voice stopped him midway through his turn.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks, kid. We all owe you one." Simon scowled at the smile that spread across Blair's face. "Now get out of here; that coffee's too good to let it get cold."

"You got it, Simon. After all, we all know who's the real boss around here; I'll be sure to keep her happy and comfortable."

Blair scampered through the door, leaving only a chuckle behind. Simon's scowl deepened for a moment, then changed to a reluctant grin. Let it go; for once, the kid deserved to have the last word.



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Rain, Rain, Go Away
Summary: The rain is driving Blair crazy.
Style: Gen
Size: 6,030 words, about 12 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: April, 2009.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org



Rain, Rain, Go Away

by StarWatcher






Blair Sandburg stood under the overhang at the top of the steps outside of Hargrove Hall and softly muttered, "Crap." The rain continued to fall, as it had for days -- more than a drizzle, less than a downpour, depressingly steady and inescapable and, worst of all, never-ending.

"Buck up, Sandburg," he told himself sourly as he remembered the distance between his current position and the remote spot across the parking lot where the Corvair waited. "Putting it off won't keep you any drier." Sighing deeply, he pulled the hood of his rain-poncho farther over his head and face, hunched his shoulders in an unconscious attempt to shed the cold dampness, and headed down the steps.

Blair was mournfully aware that his 'nerd vibes' must be overpowering any creds he'd picked up by working with Jim at the PD. The hooded yellow rain-poncho he'd bought after four days of non-stop rain was majorly uncool, and -- because he draped it over his backpack to keep his books and papers dry -- he figured anyone watching could easily mistake him for a troll. But at least, from his head to his knees, it kept him dry from the falling rain.

Unfortunately, the poncho's protection extended only so far; there was no way to avoid the puddles that settled in to, and spread out from, every tiny depression in the sidewalks, streets, and... parking lots. From his knees down, his jeans and shoes were permanently damp -- when they weren't outright soaked. He tried to ignore the clammy fabric that chilled him each day, but it wasn't easy.

Too bad I'm not really a shaman, like Jim's guide with the Chopec, Blair thought as he trudged toward his car. I'd conjure up a personal shield around me that would keep me dry. Better yet, I'd cast a spell to make it STOP RAINING!

He glared toward the heavy, low-hanging clouds as he reached the Corvair, but the Gods showed no signs of relenting. Sighing again, he slipped out of the backpack and tossed it toward the passenger seat as he slid into the car. His nose wrinkled at the musty smell of damp and mud that was evident even to non-sentinel senses; Blair wondered if he'd ever get the interior completely dry, even after the rain stopped. It had to stop sometime, didn't it?

But he could deal with that another time. Right now, Blair was looking forward to reaching the loft, taking a long, hot shower, donning his warmest sweats, and parking himself next to the fire while he graded mid-semester essays. Thank god it was Jim's night to cook.

On the other hand, a hot stew with fresh cornbread would really hit the spot in this kind of weather. Maybe he'd get it started before Jim got home, and they could both relax while it simmered.

Blair nodded firmly as he turned onto Prospect. Yeah, that would work. Like Jim always said, the simplest plans were the best.




As Jim approached the door, he heard Blair muttering balefully. "Between the internet and your textbook, there's no excuse for this. You can't extrapolate anything valid from 'Indiana Jones'; Hollywood doesn't do their research, either, and it makes you look like a lazy fool."

Chuckling, Jim stepped into a haven that denied the foul weather. There was a fire snapping in the cast-iron fireplace, and the smell of a hearty beef stew filled the room. Blair was sitting cross-legged on the floor, as close to the fire as he could get without singeing himself. He'd obviously showered -- despite the heat of the fire, the hair fanned across his shoulders wasn't quite dry -- which might not be such good news for his weather-beaten partner. "Smells good, Chief, but did you leave any hot water for me?"

"Hey, Jim." Blair looked up, then rubbed his eyes under his glasses before glancing at the clock in the kitchen. "Yeah, man, I finished up about an hour ago; the water's had plenty of time to heat up again." He stood and arched backward to loosen the kinks in his back. "The cornbread's mixed and waiting for you. I'll just shove it in the oven while you shower, which means we can eat in thirty minutes. Go, soak the frostbite out of your bones." Blair made vague flapping motions as he headed toward the kitchen.

Jim 'tsk'ed as he hung up his coat and left his shoes against the wall. "It's not that cold, Chief. Wet, I'll grant you, but fifty-one degrees doesn't lead to frostbite." Nevertheless, he headed up the stairs to grab some clean clothes; he'd been looking forward to a hot shower for the past two hours.

Blair closed the oven door and set the timer. "I'll bet you and the abominable snowman have a great time walking barefoot in the snow. Me, I want my springtime to include blue skies and lots of sun; eight days of rain is just... inhuman."

"That's it exactly, Chief. Since no one controls the weather, you'll have to tough it out like the rest of us. Or use some mumbo-jumbo chanting to convince the weather gods." Jim closed the bathroom door and turned on the water, waiting for it to get hot, carefully not listening to whatever response Blair might have. He was sure that, by the time supper was ready, Blair would have developed a full 'Sandburg lecture' that explained the effects of prolonged rain on the human psyche, as well as the physical impact on the city, towns, forest and farmlands. Not that he'd ever let Blair know, but Jim looked forward to the occasional emergence of 'Professor Sandburg'; his lectures were more entertaining than ninety percent of what was on TV.




Jim stretched and turned off the late news, then glanced at Blair. The kid had gone back to his grading right after supper, and was still hunched over those damned blue books. Come to think of it, he didn't look too good; there was kind of a pinched look to his face, and he'd been rubbing his eyes a lot this evening.

Jim extended his senses. Blair wasn't running a fever, and he didn't smell sick, just... tired. Not surprising; they'd had two late-night stakeouts this week, and Blair had been staying late at the university to catch up with his work there. In fact, this was the first evening Blair had made it home before Jim since... a week ago, yesterday. Jim shook his head; if the kid didn't get some major sleep soon, he was going to crash -- bigtime.

"C'mon, buddy," he said quietly. "It's late; time for all good little anthropologists to be in bed."

"Huh?" Blair looked up, blinking in confusion. "Bed? Oh... yeah." He shrugged a shoulder, and bent his head over his marking once again. "I'll go in a little while, after I finish this one and maybe one more."

"Pull the other one, Chief; I've heard it too many times before." Jim crossed the room, pulled the pen and book out of Blair's hand, and urged him to his feet. "You really need a good night's sleep; when you're all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning, your grading will go a lot faster and easier."

Blair shook his head, even as he stumbled toward his room at Jim's gentle urging. "No, but see, after the grading, I have to work on next week's lecture, and tabulate the results from the tests we did last week, and --"

"And you can't do any of that without sleep." Jim pulled back the covers, urged his friend to lie down, and tucked the blankets around his shoulders. "You keep reminding me that I'm not a superman; the same goes for you, buddy. You can get back to saving the world tomorrow." He patted Blair's shoulder, turned off the light, and shut the door as he left.




As tired as he was, Blair lay awake in the dark, listening to the 'plink, plonk, plunk' of raindrops hitting the fire escape on the other side of his outer door. Although normally soothing, the sound was getting on his last nerve, growing louder and more obnoxious the longer it went on. How could anyone sleep like this?

Almost violently, Blair threw back the covers. If the weather gods were going to laugh at him, he'd show them. He wouldn't let a little rain -- or even a lot of it -- get him down; he'd finish his work and find a way to do something about the ongoing deluge. After all, people in the southwest were praying for rain; it wasn't fair that Cascade and surrounding areas should be hoarding it.

Unaware that he was weaving slightly as he walked, Blair crossed into the living room. He grabbed the afghan from the back of the couch and threw it around his shoulders before resuming his spot in front of the fireplace and grabbing a blue book. Jim was right, of course; he needed to sleep, but he could grade a couple of more essays first. At least the sound of the rain hitting the concrete balcony wasn't as loud or intolerable as when it hit the metal fire escape; much closer to the 'soothing' end of the spectrum. Now -- Blair squinted at the page -- if only some of his students would learn to write legibly. Maybe a different angle would let him read it more easily.

Blair stretched out on the floor, hitching the afghan higher to keep warm, propping the book in front of him. Yeah, this was better, much easier on the eyes...

A few minutes later, the book slipped from Blair's loosened grasp as sleep finally overtook him, with muddled dreams of shamans who commanded the rain to come or go.




"So, what's your schedule like today?" Jim asked as he slid a toasted bagel and scrambled eggs in front of Blair. He'd decided the best course of action was to ignore having found his partner curled up on the floor this morning. Judging by how stiffly he was moving, Blair didn't need Jim's input; his body would remind him that a bed was a more beneficial place for sleeping.

"Pretty light; just two classes in the morning, and early office hours. I can be at the PD by one," Blair answered. "You wanna go out and run through that warehouse again, right?"

Jim hesitated. Blair's easy smile couldn't hide the weary shadows under his eyes; he needed to rest. But the likelihood of finding something in the warehouse increased dramatically if Blair was there to help him focus.

"That was the plan," Jim admitted. "But it'll be cold and wet, and you're already dragging. I could probably take Joel with me, let you catch up on your university stuff so you can really relax this evening."

"No way, man, I'm your partner!" The protest was automatic, but no less heartfelt. "And you know paperwork is with us always; I can put it off to another day if I have to."

"But that 'other day' will also have perps to chase down." The logic apparently fell on deaf ears. Jim regarded the stubborn glare coming across the table; he had to find a way to convince Blair.

"Look, Chief, I know this 'partner' thing is important to you, and I appreciate it. But it works both ways; as your partner, I worry about you." He waved a hand to forestall Blair's indignant rebuttal. "Not because you're 'not a cop'; you've proved you can hold your own, whatever we run into. But you're holding down two fulltime jobs -- grad student-professor and cop-partner. If you don't give yourself a break, you'll collapse, and then you won't be able to do either job."

Blair sighed as he raked his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, Jim, I know... but it's dangerous for you to be using your senses when I'm not around. Joel can help with the cop things, but if you have trouble with the sentinel stuff, you're shit-outta-luck. You need me out there! How do you think I'd feel if your senses got screwed up and I wasn't there to help? Grading can wait. Hell, sleep can wait! If you're goin', I'm goin' too."

Impasse. Jim should have known better than to think Blair would back down; he took this sentinel shit seriously. But maybe he'd go for a compromise.

"Then how about this? You meet me at one, we check out the warehouse right away, then you go home and put in some quality time with your schoolwork. After I finish my own paperwork, I'll bring Chinese home, and we can both have an early night; I need it just as much as you do. Deal?"

Blair nodded vigorously. "Sounds like a plan." He quickly finished his breakfast and carried the dishes to the sink, glancing out the balcony doors as he passed.

"I'm gettin' so tired of this rain! At this rate, we'll hit the yearly average by the end of the month."

Jim chuckled as he ran hot water into the sink. "I don't think even we can get another twenty-three inches by the end of next week. And I'll bet the farmers are happy."

"Not really, no," Blair argued as he put on his shoes and started tying the still-wet laces. "This much rain makes the fields too wet to plow and plant. And if they've already planted, the new sprouts could very easily drown." He shrugged his backpack over his jacket, then slipped the rain-poncho over his head. "And too much rain is depressing; do you know the suicide rate goes up in overcast, wet weather? I gotta tell ya', it sure plays hell with my mood."

The kid often let his imagination run away with him, but this sounded kind of serious. "Blair!"

Jim's voice stopped Blair as he was reaching for the doorknob; he turned and looked back. "Yeah?"

"It won't last forever; even Cascade has been known to have clear, sunny days. You just have to wait it out."

Blair smiled almost ruefully. "Yeah, I know. Don't mind me; just letting off a little steam. See you at one." He shrugged a shoulder, smiled again, and headed out the door.




So much for plans, Jim thought as he and Blair entered the loft. Just their luck the perps would come in while they were in the warehouse. A pitched gun battle, then a chase -- first in the truck, then on foot through muddy fields along the shore -- hardly made for a quiet afternoon. And then Blair had to stay for the inevitable paperwork; as a direct observer of the gun battle, and active participant of the chase, he had his own reports to fill out. Fortunately, backup had arrived in time, and the perps had all been captured, but then they had to deal with the aftermath. They hadn't left the PD till after dark, and they were both wet, muddy, and cold. Blair was still filled with adrenalin-induced manic energy; he hadn't stopped talking, even though he was so tired he staggered as he walked.

"You were awesome, man, simply awesome! The way you used the reflection off the side of the car to pinpoint their hiding place was just... just amazing!" Blair laughed on a high, shrill note as he paced around the loft, rubbing his hands together almost frantically. "I don't think I've ever seen you with your senses so on, from the warehouse to the takedown. But I told you -- didn't I tell you? -- you needed me there. Joel couldn't have helped you with that spike, and you know you almost zoned on that reflection thing. But you didn't, 'cause I was there, backing up my sentinel, just like Burton said. Admit it -- admit it, we are so cool together!"

"A little too cool," Jim said as he captured Blair on one of his circuits and removed the jacket from his oblivious partner. He urged Blair toward the bathroom. "Shower, Chief, before you catch your death of cold."

"Now you know that's a fallacy, Jim! Colds are caused by germs, not by getting wet or cold! I mean, look at the guys who jump into freezing water on Christmas day; they're all healthy. And --"

"Chief, I know you're cold. Do you want a hot shower now, or after I've finished?"

"Well, when you put it like that." Blair stepped into the bathroom, still talking. "Of course we wouldn't be wet and cold if it would just stop raining! I'm telling you, we gotta do something about that. Maybe --"

"Shower, Sandburg!" Jim closed the door firmly on Blair's latest brilliant idea; with any luck, the shower would wash it out of his brain. He carried their dinner into the kitchen to dish it onto plates, and keep it in a warm oven until they were ready to eat.




Jim rolled over in bed and raised his head. He didn't need to extend his senses very far to realize that it was Blair who had awakened him, typing on his laptop and muttering to himself in a whisper. Jim shook his head in bemused resignation; he should have known that Sandburg wouldn't let a 'great idea' drop, no matter how tired he was. But if this continued for much longer, the kid would flat-out collapse.

Jim pulled on his robe and walked into the kitchen without speaking; Blair didn't even look up from his laptop. Jim filled the kettle with fresh water, and put it on the stove to heat. While he waited, he leaned against the counter and watched Blair.

He looked terrible -- the shadows under his eyes had deepened, and his eyes had a glazed, almost manic look. He was hunched into a blanket, and had pulled it completely over his head for extra warmth; only his hands stuck out to manipulate the keyboard. The soft muttering was unnerving -- half-finished thoughts and phrases, interspersed with stifled giggles. If Jim didn't know better, he'd think Blair was really a candidate for the funny-farm.

The kettle whistled, and Jim turned off the stove, then filled a large mug with the hot water. He knew exactly where Blair kept the chamomile tea; the guide had used it to calm the sentinel often enough. He grabbed a bag from the cupboard and dropped it into the mug to steep, then carried it to the table and set it where the smell would drift to Blair. Finally, Jim pulled a chair very close to Blair -- right in his personal space -- and sat down, nudging the chair even closer. He didn't expect a long wait; the smell of the tea and the hovering presence of a large, warm body should break through even Sandburg's academic bubble in a few minutes.

He was right; just about the time the tea was cool enough to drink, Blair's fingers stilled on the keyboard, and he looked around in confusion. "Oh. Hi, Jim. What're you doing up?"

"Taking care of you," he answered gently; yelling would just make them both too agitated to sleep. "Chief, I know your brain is rocketing along at super-sonic speeds, but you can't keep this up. Here." Jim picked up the mug, placed it in Blair's hand, and raised it toward his lips. "Chamomile, for calmness and sleep, like you've told me a couple dozen times. Drink it, and take some deep, cleansing breaths, then go back to bed."

"But, Jim, I've figured out how to stop the rain! I can do, it man, I know I can."

"I'm sure you can, Chief," Jim assured him in the same gentle, reasonable tones. "But it can wait till morning. Tomorrow's Saturday. You can sleep late, and be all rested to do your rain-stopping thing. I'll even help you. Promise," he added, as Blair started to object. "But first you've gotta sleep. So, drink up."

Jim waited while Blair obediently drank the tea, his eyes never leaving Jim's face. "That's good," Jim said quietly. "Now, three slow, deep breaths." It was working; the manic glaze was decreasing, leaving Blair's eyes drooping with weariness. "Good job, buddy. Now, back to bed."

Jim helped Blair to stand, and guided him toward his bedroom. Once there, he coaxed Blair to lie down, spread the body-warmed blanket over him, then pulled the rest of the bedding over that. As he patted a shoulder and turned to go, Blair whispered, "You'll help me do it, right? So I can stop the rain?"

Like a dog with a bone, Jim thought; Blair just couldn't let go. "I promise," he answered softly, rewarded by seeing Blair's eyes close as he finally slipped into sleep. Jim could only hope that 'helping' wouldn't be too involved, or turn out to be something against his conscience.




Despite his recent shortage of sleep, Blair was up at eight -- long before Jim had expected to hear him stirring -- putting together a ham and cheese omelet. Jim chuckled to himself as he descended the stairs; even though he'd promised to help, Blair wasn't above bribery -- or, as he called it, 'offering a little incentive'. Blair smiled brightly, and slid a filled plate in front of Jim as he sat down.

"What happened to sleeping late, buddy? Not that I don't appreciate you doing the cooking." Despite his mild complaint, Jim dug into his omelet; Blair knew exactly how he liked them.

"We're working on a deadline," Blair explained earnestly, cutting into his plain cheese omelet. "There's a lot to get ready, and we have to be out there by noon."

Jim took a mental breath, and dived into the Sandburg zone. "Ready for what, and where are we going?"

"I'm going to do an Anti-Rain Dance, and I think it should be in the sand. I figured we could use one of the sand traps on the community golf course; I doubt anyone will be out today." Blair glanced out the balcony doors, where the rain was still streaming down the glass.

"I don't think I've ever heard of an anti-rain dance," Jim said cautiously. "Wouldn't it make more sense to do a sun dance?"

"Well, that's the thing." Blair's eyes were alight with excitement. "The Sun Dance wasn't really an appeal for more sun. It was a way to request power or insight from the supernatural, or sometimes just a celebration of the circle of life, and that's not what we need right now.

"But rain dances were common, especially in the Southwest, where it's so dry -- still are, actually, in a lot of tribes." Blair was growing more enthusiastic, words tumbling out double-time. "Of course, I can't find any information about an Anti-Rain Dance -- when your only water comes from a river or the sky, you're grateful for anything you get, so I doubt the indigenous peoples ever wanted to 'turn it off'. But I figured I could turn the Rain Dance ceremony inside out, and the weather gods would get the message."

"But... you can't just go making up your own ceremony," Jim objected. "I remember with the Chopec, every ceremony had to be done just right. What makes you think an 'inside-out' version will even work?"

"Because it's traditional, but not set in stone. Every tribe had their own version, so variances are acceptable. Did you know the Rain Dance was the one ceremonial dance where women were allowed to participate? In other words, everyone's welcome, with their own version of the dance, and that means me, too!" Blair nodded firmly, smiling with evident satisfaction.

"Well..." Jim was almost afraid to ask. "So what kind of 'inside-outness' are you going to do? It doesn't involve dancing nude, I hope."

Blair snickered. "Just the opposite. The men danced with bare torso and legs, just paint and beads, breechcloth and moccasins. So I figure I'll wear jeans and a vest -- that old multicolor-blue thing, because I want to suggest blue skies -- but with bare feet, no shoes.

Jim breathed a sigh of relief; at least he wouldn't feel obliged to arrest Sandburg for indecent exposure. "Well, that's not too difficult. What else?"

"Nothing too outrageous." Blair winked, as if he'd tapped into Jim's thoughts. "The ceremony calls for silver or leather bracelets, and turquoise and feathers to signify rain and wind. I have plenty of leather straps for necklaces, but I'll tie them around my ankles. But I don't have any amber; we'll have to stop at the rock and mineral store on the way. And the opposite of feathers is no feathers, so that's easy."

"Because amber signifies sun?" Jim guessed.

"Right! Amber radiates light and heat, and the color is the color of the sun. I really should have some already, because amber also grounds and stabilizes the psyche, and it's a healing agent. I don't, but I will after this."

"It sounds easy enough. But why dance in sand? And is there a significance to doing it at noon?"

"Because, even though it's wet now, sand is usually very dry, and that's the message we want to send. I thought of the beach, above the high-tide line, but being in sight of all that water might send conflicting messages. So, sand trap on the golf course. And noon is when the sun is at its highest and brightest. It's still there, even if we can't see it."

"Makes sense," Jim observed. At least, as much as Sandburg's wild ideas ever make sense. He stood, and reached for the plates. "Okay, you go get all geared up while I do the dishes."




Fifteen minutes later, the dishes were washed and dried, and Jim was making a few preparations of his own. He returned from downstairs to find Blair waiting for him, dressed as he'd specified -- blue vest over his shirtless chest, old jeans that had been cuffed to show the leather tied around his ankles, barefooted and wearing...

"Braids, Sandburg? Isn't that a bit girly?"

Blair snorted. "Oh, sure; tell that to countless numbers of Native American men through the centuries. No, for the Rain Dance, the women had their hair bound, and the men let theirs hang free. Inside-out means braids."

"If you say so. Ready to go?"

"Yeah, just one more thing." Blair hurried into the kitchen to grab four bowls -- perfectly ordinary, to Jim's eyes -- and put them next to the CD player on the table while he shrugged into his jacket and stepped into his shoes. "No sense being cold until we get there," he explained to Jim's raised eyebrow.

He picked up the bowls and CD player, then preceded Jim out the door. "I checked the yellow pages; there's a rock and mineral shop at thirteen-seventeen Amber Way -- good sign, huh? -- which is right on the way to the golf course."

"It's a sign of something, all right," Jim muttered as he locked the door behind them. He preferred not to contemplate the possibility that it was a sign Sandburg had gone completely 'round the bend.




As Blair had predicted, there was no one on the golf course. Jim had parked the truck as close as he could to a convenient sand-trap, but the designated 'ceremonial area' was almost two hundred yards away. Blair groaned, watching the rain pelting down. "Y'know, that's the one downside to all this; to turn off the rain, you have to get out in it."

"You don't have to," Jim pointed out. "The weather will change eventually. Couldn't you just -- I don't know -- stay in the truck and pray, or meditate, or something?"

"I could, but it wouldn't be nearly as effective. Besides, what a waste of all this planning and preparation." Blair reached for the chunks of amber he'd bought, and used a leather strap to tie one to the end of each braid. Then he shrugged off his jacket and kicked off his shoes. He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and covered the CD player, then picked up the bowls and reached for the door handle.

"Wait, Chief, you haven't told me what my part is. I promised I'd help."

"You have, man; you haven't tried to talk me out of this -- well, not much -- and you've supported my plans so I didn't have to do it alone. The psychic energy of that is a big help." Blair gave Jim a flashing smile, then squared his shoulders, lifted his head, and stepped out into the cold rain without flinching.

Jim watched as Blair crossed the grass toward the sand-trap with a kind of stately solemnity; he wasn't scurrying or rushing to get finished. Once he reached the sand, Blair settled his CD player on the grass at the edge, and pressed the 'play' button; Jim easily discerned the Australian aboriginal music coming from the speakers. With a few seconds' thought, Jim realized that Blair had chosen it deliberately; music produced by a people who lived in some of the driest areas of the world should have strong anti-rain properties. If you believed in that sort of thing.

Blair set the bowls upside-down in the sand, marking the corners of a square about thirty feet on a side. He paused a moment, then began to dance.

The steps were obviously made up but, Jim thought, no less sincere. Blair was doing a rhythmic three-two beat, stomping into the sand with his bare feet, sometimes spinning to the right or the left, but always moving backwards, using the bowl-markers to help him maintain the square. Occasionally he would stoop to grab a clump of sand with each hand, then hold his arms high and let it dribble out between his fingers -- or as close to dribbling as he could manage with wet sand. Then he'd stretch out his arms and let the rain fill his up-turned, cupped palms, after which he'd throw the captured rain away with a violent motion and once again start stomping and spinning.

The music played for half an hour, and Blair kept dancing the entire time. Jim could see the jeans and vest clinging to his body with the weight of absorbed water, the rain dripping from his nose, chin, and the ends of his braids, but still he danced, totally absorbed in the ceremony he was creating. The rain filled the path his feet had formed in the sand, so that his stomping feet kicked water upward to meet the down-coming rain, but Blair continued to dance.

Jim was surprised that Blair stuck it out so long, and a little humbled; this was just an outward demonstration of the same unswerving dedication Blair used when helping Jim maintain control of his senses. For that kind of support, putting up with a little Anti-Rain Dancing wasn't such a big deal.

When the music stopped, Blair seemed to have come to the end of his ceremony. He stood quietly for a few minutes, letting the rain fall on his uplifted face, then shrugged, collected the bowls and CD player, and headed back toward the truck.

Quickly, Jim put his planned preparations into place. He pulled out a large sheet of three-mil plastic from behind the seat, and spread it out to cover the seat and back of Blair's side of the truck. The emergency blanket he always carried went over that, followed by two thick towels -- one to sit on, and one to wrap around Blair's shoulders. He kept a third towel in reserve for the dripping hair. The towels would soak up the water, the blanket would keep Blair warm, and the plastic would prevent water-damage to the fabric of his seats; an elegant solution, if he did say so himself.

Blair opened the door, caught sight of the layers, and chuckled. "Man you are so anal. But this time I won't complain; you think of everything, and I really appreciate it." He sighed deeply as he pulled the towel around his shoulders, followed by the blanket, then wrapped his head in the last towel.

Jim started the truck and headed home. "You looked good out there, Chief, like it really meant something. But notice -- it's still raining."

Blair turned toward him, his smile positively incandescent. "Oh, ye of little faith! Rain can't be turned off like a faucet. But I'm betting it stops sometime tonight, and we'll see sun in the morning. I mean, I really felt a connection out there; I'm sure it worked."

"I hope you're right, Chief; I admit, I'd like a little sun myself."

In truth, it didn't matter. Blair looked more peaceful and relaxed than Jim had seen for the past two weeks; all of the underlying tension was gone. Rain or no rain, it seemed that Blair had found his 'balance' again, regained his normal enthusiastic optimism. Jim realized he'd missed it, and was grateful for its return.

"One question, Chief. I figured out the music, and throwing the rain away, but why the upside-down bowls? You could've used rocks or something to mark your square."

"You saw all that? Of course you did." Blair slapped his forehead. "When will I learn? Anyway, upside-down bowls can't be filled; they were rejecting the rain. The traditional Rain Dance is in a zigzag pattern, while other ceremonial dances are in a circle; the square is more or less the opposite of both."

Of course it was. "Well, Hiawatha, I think that'd earn you an 'A' in any practical anthropology course. But now that it's over, think you can stand a little more wetness?" Jim asked as he turned the truck into Prospect. "I'm betting you'd like dibs on the shower as soon as we get home."

"Oh man, you know it! I intend to stay in hot water till I'm pruney. Well..." Blair glanced at his hands, "till I'm pruniER." Their shared laughter accompanied them into the building.




During the night, the rain drizzled to a stop. Blair awakened momentarily with the subconscious realization that something was 'wrong'. In his sleep-befuddled state, it took him a few moments to realize that he was reacting to the lack of noise from the rain hitting the fire escape. With a satisfied whisper of, "Told ya' so!" he turned over and sank back into deep, peaceful slumber.




Blair sat up in bed and raked his hair out of his face, listening intently. Cool! For the first time in ten days, no sound of rain hitting the metal outside his door. Energized, he leapt out of bed and into a set of comfortable sweats; this was going to be a good day, he was sure of it.

Jim was reading the morning paper over the remains of what looked like a substantial breakfast.

"Is it that late?" Blair asked as he crossed the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee.

"Nine forty-five, Chief, but you needed the rest."

"Yeah, I really did. I'm glad it's Sunday -- in more ways than one." Blair crossed to the balcony doors and regarded the sunny blue skies with a feeling of proud satisfaction. "I can say it now -- I had some doubts. But it looks like my Anti-Rain Dance really worked."

"Looks like it. On the other hand..." Jim rustled the paper, "we've both been too busy to keep up with the news. The weather forecasters have been predicting that a high was coming through, and would push the rain out of the area. Maybe it just finally reached us last night."

"Maybe. Or maybe it got here sooner than it would have otherwise because of the anti-rain ceremony -- or maybe it didn't get here earlier because no one thought to do a ceremony. You gotta admit, the timing is awfully convenient," Blair argued. "If it's a coincidence, it's a helluva big one."

"There would be no word for 'coincidence' if they didn't happen, Chief," Jim pointed out. "But you're right; I saw Incacha -- the shaman of the tribe I lived with -- do a lot of unexplainable things. I guess an anti-rain dance can be added to the list."

"You better believe it, man; I'm good." Blair went back to sipping his coffee as he reveled in the warmth of the sunshine pouring through the balcony doors.

Yes, you are; very good, Jim thought. Thanks for being part of my life, crazy ideas and all; I couldn't do it without you.



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Merry Christmas, Chief
Summary: Christmas = Friendship + Snow + Love
Style: Gen
Size: 14,190 words, about 25 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Secret Santa request -- Would really like to see: Blair discover his worth to Jim. And it's Christmas, so something in line to snow and such... please. Written September and October, 2007.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org




Merry Christmas, Chief   (gen)

by StarWatcher






Thursday, Dec. 17, 1998

Jim Ellison snatched up the phone before it had completed its first ring. "You're two minutes and thirty-seven seconds late, Chief. Keep this up, and Santa won't bring you anything but coal for Christmas." He let the broad smile -- deliberately pasted on -- infuse his voice, carrying clearly to the man on the other end of the line.

"Jim, Sequoia and Honeybee function according to hippie time; they have one clock in the house, and anything within thirty minutes of the stated time is 'on time'. You're just lucky I can actually call within sight of nine PM; it could just as easily be two in the morning." But under the humor of Blair's response, Jim could hear a tread of tension and weariness; his friend seemed to be withholding an exasperated snap.

"Sorry, Sandburg, didn't mean to push." Jim carried the phone across the room and settled on the couch, lying back against the cushions and lifting his feet to rest on the coffee table. "Call it my awkward way of saying 'wish you were here'. So, how is Naomi? And, for that matter, how are you?" And when are you coming home? he finished silently. He needed this daily contact with Blair, and intended to keep him on the line as long as possible, but it was a poor substitute for his guide's actual presence.

"Naomi's doing pretty good," Blair assured him. Jim could hear rustlings that spoke of a matching 'settling in', five hundred miles away; thank God for modern technology that allowed them to stay in touch. "I've been telling you that natural remedies are best, and they're really paying off for her. The cough is almost completely gone, but she's still feeling a bit weak -- and very restless. She needs me to sit on her when Sequoia and Honeybee are at work, or else she'll overdo and have a relapse. We're mostly just kicking back, reminiscing and catching up."

And running yourself ragged, looking after her, Jim suspected. But he could hardly quibble; this was a man who had jumped out of an airplane, determined to follow him and help find a friend. Taking care of a mother suffering from pneumonia wouldn't even be a blip on the radar. "Sounds good, Chief; very relaxing. How about we trade jobs for awhile? I had to chase a purse-snatcher three blocks today, and then the idiot tried to bean me with a brick while I was arresting him. He was innocent, naturally; he'd been jogging for his health, but got scared when I started chasing him -- strictly mistaken identity, of course -- and that's why he ran. And he didn't have the purse on him when I caught him, so obviously I had the wrong guy."

"Oh, man!" Blair's throaty chuckle warmed Jim more than a blazing fireplace ever could. "I know you found the evidence. What did he look like when you produced it?"

Jim matched Blair's chuckle. "Dumbfounded, Chief; absolutely couldn't believe it. It was a damn slick move; he didn't miss a step as he tossed it behind a dumpster, and he was far enough away that I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't have the senses. I heard him complaining that I was a witch doctor when they put him in the black-and-white."

"No way, man, that's my gig!" Jim relaxed more as he heard the stress fade from Blair's tone. For his part, the nagging headache that he'd carried since the arrest was beginning to fade; obviously, they were good for each other. "So, you're handling your senses okay?" Blair probed.

There was no reason to add to Blair's worries; Jim followed his frequent example and obfuscated like hell. "Not too bad; a few headaches is all." He couldn't claim no problems; Blair would be sure to grill Simon, Joel, and Megan when he got back, and probably Rhonda, too.

"No zones or spikes?" Blair's question was anxious, almost sharp. "Because Naomi really is better; I could head home tomorrow or the day after if you really need me."

"One little spike, and one almost-zone that Megan caught and pulled me right out of. She's still a pain in the ass to work with, and her guide abilities are only a so-so substitute for the real thing, but we manage. I'm a big boy, Chief; I'll be okay till next week. Trying to change your flight at this time of the year would be more trouble than it's worth, and probably cost you a penalty, besides. Wednesday's not that far away; it's no big deal."

"Six more days," Blair pointed out, his voice sounding dubious. "But you're right. You're going to want to kick me out and fly solo, eventually; I guess this is good practice. But you will call if you need me, right?"

"Will do, Chief," he promised. "But for now, there's a more important issue -- what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?"

Blair's voice became playful, and Jim could hear the broad grin. "Oh, you've decided that I deserve something more than coal?"

"Not me, Chief; Santa!"

"Ri-iiight." Blair's drawl was a pretty good imitation of his, Jim noticed. "Well, tell Santa that I've been thinking I need something to wake up the faculty meetings, like a tie with pink and purple polka-dots. That, and a briefcase full of old money -- twenties and fifties -- will do me just fine."

"Sandburg, I'm supposed to catch the criminals, not become one. The tie might be doable, though. But wouldn't you rather settle for some popcorn and beer in front of the fire?"

"Throw in a quart of Dutch chocolate Haagen-Daaz, and make it hot chocolate instead of beer, and you've got a deal."

"Can do, Chief. Just be sure you're here to share it with me. Turns out, I kind of miss having you around; you've grown on me.

"I know, I know; like a fungus," Blair said cheerfully. "But I'll be there, Jim, twelve-thirty next Wednesday, I promise."

"I'll pick you up, Sandburg. I might even ignore the code of the macho-man and give you a hug right in the airport."

"Oooh, be still my heart!" Blair teased. "Of course, you realize that I'd have to hug you back, right there in plain sight."

"Counting on it, Chief, counting on it."

They spent another ten minutes trading quips and discussing inconsequentials, then said their goodbyes. Jim reluctantly hung up the phone. He sighed as he massaged his temples, where the dull throbbing had subsided to the merest whisper -- but it was still there, and guaranteed to be back full-force tomorrow as soon as his senses encountered something objectionable.

Damn! He'd honestly thought that he was getting a handle on this sentinel thing; he'd been using his senses easily and well for the past eight or ten months. But now, given the way his senses had started to act up within three days of Sandburg's leaving, it seemed a strong possibility that he was able to manage so well only because he had regular doses of 'Sandburg-exposure'.

Jim had been smugly satisfied to be using his senses capably, even when Blair wasn't around, and confident enough to urge him to go to Naomi when her friends had called. Despite the younger man's misgivings at leaving his sentinel for the planned two weeks, Jim hadn't hesitated to drive Sandburg to the airport and see him off on his flight, with sincere wishes for Blair to stay as long as he needed.

But the longer Blair was gone, the less control Jim seemed to have over his senses. It was a struggle to get them to cooperate at a crime scene, and he'd worked grimly through more spikes than he'd ever admit to anyone. Fortunately, he got some relief when he returned to the loft each evening, where the changes and additions that Sandburg had made over the past two years had created a 'sentinel-friendly' haven. The fact that his guide's scent was still present also helped, as did the nightly phone calls.

But what the hell will I do when Sandburg finishes that damned dissertation and leaves for good? Jim wondered grimly as he prepared for bed. It wasn't all that early, and bed provided a quiet relief for his jangling senses -- especially since he'd had the inspired notion, just yesterday, to put fresh linens on Blair's bed, and wrap one of the used sheets around his own pillow. He'd slept better than any night since Blair had left, despite the lack of heartbeat in the room below his.

So he was managing -- for now -- but it made the outlook of a future without Sandburg pretty damn bleak. Kick his guide out and fly solo? Not 'no', but 'hell, no'; he wanted to wrap his arms around that sturdy body and never let go. But how could Jim admit that he needed Blair in his life, if he hoped to have any kind of a decent life at all? And, even if he did admit it, how likely was it that the other man would agree to spend the next forty-odd years tagging along and helping out a sentinel with wonky senses?

About as likely as Hell freezing over, Jim concluded bleakly as he lay his head on his pillow and breathed in the comforting scent of his guide. Maybe I should ask Santa to put Blair in my Christmas stocking. Then he'd be mine forever. Clinging to that heartening, illogical idea, he slipped into a restorative sleep and dreamed about sitting across the table from a Blair whose face was deeply wrinkled and whose curls had become silver-gray, secure in a friendship that had lasted forty years.




Monday, Dec. 21, 1998

Jim hung up the phone after the nightly long-distance visit with his guide, and smiled softly as he stared at the tree, picturing Blair's pleased surprise when he walked in the door. He hadn't put up a tree since the divorce; there didn't seem much point to it when he lived alone and always worked Christmas day to allow more time off for the men and women who had families. The past two years, Sandburg -- flexible as always -- had gone along with Jim's agenda.

But just this year, Jim had listened with amusement as Sandburg spouted a truly inspired rant on how the meaning of Christmas was severely diluted when it had become so commercialized that the decorations and sales appeared in the store aisles the week before Halloween. In typical Sandburgian fashion, the rant had segued into a discourse on the various ways Christmas was celebrated in different countries and cultures around the world. Somewhere in there, Jim had realized that Blair, an anthropologist to his very core, had probably enjoyed participating in the various traditions.

He had primed the pump by sharing a story of him and Stevie helping Sally in the kitchen as she made her special Christmas cookies, and watched Blair's eyes light up as he shared stories of his own. It seemed that his friend did indeed treasure the times that he and Naomi had been in a situation to help decorate a tree, or bake Christmas cookies, or wrap presents -- especially, perhaps, because it didn't happen every year; it had depended on whether or not Blair and Naomi were with people who even celebrated Christmas. Apparently, Blair had also learned to celebrate Chanukah in the same hit-or-miss fashion, and now simply matched his expectations to how those around him celebrated.

Just thinking about it brought a lump to Jim's throat; it felt like Blair was settling for scraps from the table instead of enjoying the full feast. Not this year, he thought, fiercely -- and not as long as Blair continued to live and work with him. A few days ago, Jim had begun his mission with as much dedication as he'd ever used in Covert Ops. He'd rented a large, well-shaped, potted Christmas tree from a local nursery, suspecting that Blair's ecological soul would approve of a living tree instead of a cut one, and decorated it with symbols of both their beliefs, secular as well as religious -- angels and stars, Santas and reindeer, as well as dreidels and six-pointed stars of David, foil-wrapped chocolate 'gelt' and tiny, iconic menorahs.

The tree-topper had stumped him for three days; Jim didn't want to make the subtle proclamation that one belief-system was more important than the other by setting a five-pointed or six-pointed star at the top, and he hadn't found a multi-pointed starburst that he found esthetically pleasing. Then, just this afternoon, he'd stopped at the herbal store, to pick up a fresh supply of Blair's favorite teas. A display table featured small -- barely hand-sized -- teddy bears, each individually adorned in hand-sewn clothing suitable for the season. Among the Santas, Mrs. Clauses, elves, reindeer, and angels were several dressed in robes that depicted Biblical figures from the Old Testament.

About to pass by with an amused smile, Jim's eye had been caught by a flash of blue the exact shade of Blair's eyes. Reaching into the center of the pack, he plucked out what could only be Joseph in his coat of many colors. Variations of blue predominated, and Jim was reminded of the vibrant vest Blair had worn that first day in his crowded, basement office. This particular bear had crinkled brown/russet plush, blue eyes, and an amused smirk -- there was no other word for it -- on its face; Jim had the uncanny feeling that he was looking at Blair's alter ego. The sale was a foregone conclusion, and he added a hefty tip for Mrs. Chavira to pass on to the bear's creator -- apparently a friend of Mrs. C's who needed the extra income. Jim was only too happy to contribute; he could just hear Blair murmuring, 'good karma' as he watched the bear being put into the shopping bag on top of the tea.

He had pulled the Blair-bear out of the bag as soon as he reached the truck, to sit on the dashboard during the drive home. Now it was nestled at the top of the tree, gaily surveying the continuing Christmas preparations. It was ridiculous to feel comforted by the little bear's presence, but somehow it seemed as if he'd brought a piece of Blair into the loft. It might -- probably would -- wear off after a time, but that didn't matter; Blair himself would be home in less than forty-eight hours.

Jim grabbed another beer and returned to the kitchen table to continue the project that Blair's nightly phone call had interrupted. He was determined to make this the best present that Blair had ever received, for Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, birthday, or whatever. At least -- he hoped Blair would see it that way.

Jim tapped his pen on the table in thought, then bent over the page and started writing.




Wednesday, Dec. 23, 1998

Jim waited impatiently to see Blair step off the gangway leading from the plane. He'd tried dialing up his hearing to locate Blair's voice or heartbeat but, with a wince, hurriedly shut it down to a notch below 'normal'. The cacophony of planes landing and taking off, loudspeakers announcing arrivals and departures, and hundreds of people calling their 'hello's or 'goodbye's was an almost overwhelming tidal surge of input. He focused intently on the doorway, waiting for the first glimpse of his friend.

The flood of deplaning passengers had subsided to a trickle when Blair finally appeared. He looked somewhat rumpled and frazzled, but good-humored as always. But, trust Sandburg to latch onto the opposite sex -- he was carrying a dark-haired cutie of approximately four years old. A young matron, presumably the girl's mother, walked beside him, trying to soothe the fussy baby in her arms.

Jim watched as the little girl whispered something in Blair's ear, after which he laughed and tickled her tummy, which was greeted with delighted squeals of laughter. An unexpected flash of jealously surged over him -- my guide, dammit! -- which he tried to bury. 'Twas the season, and all that, and Blair wouldn't approve of such a possessive reaction. After all, someone was probably waiting to greet the little family, and would soon take over Blair's temporary job. He could hang on just a few more minutes.

"Elizabeth! Amber!" A gray-haired man and woman were hurrying toward the group. The little girl twisted in Blair's arms. "G'amma! G'ampa!" Blair transferred her to 'G'ampa's arms, did the 'polite introduction thing', patted the little girl on the head, said goodbye to the young mother, and finally -- finally! -- turned to look for Jim.

A broad smile crossed his face as soon as he saw his friend, and Jim watched the minute lines of stress and tension fade away. "JIM!" he shouted happily, hurrying across the broad expanse of carpet.

Jim didn't even try to resist. As soon as Blair was within reach, he enfolded him in a fervent hug, and reveled in the sensation of the reciprocal, heartfelt hug. "Blair," he whispered, his voice ragged, and buried his nose in the curls atop Blair's head. Surrounded by sight, sound, scent and feel of his guide, his senses instantly -- almost magically -- snapped back into focus. His headache subsided to a tickle, and the evil torture chamber became an ordinary airport lounge; loud and smelly, but nothing he couldn't handle... as long as he had this man beside him.

Embarrassed -- this wasn't the time or place for such an emotional display -- Jim loosened his hold and stepped back. "Welcome home, Chief; have a nice trip?"

Blair's eyes twinkled, laughing up into his. "Oh yeah, man, stellar!" he chuckled. "Two hours goes by so fast when you can spend it playing patty-cake."

"I'm sure her mother appreciated it; you're a good man, Chief." Jim's voice was warm and deep, completely serious.

Blair hesitated; somehow, Jim's words seemed a bit -- disproportionate. He'd expected an answering quip, but maybe Jim just wasn't up to it; Blair easily recognized the signs of pain around his friend's eyes. "Headache bad?" he asked softly.

"Not anymore," Jim assured him. "But I'll be a whole lot better once we clear this pop-stand."

Blair's chuckle was understanding. "Oh, I hear that; I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand, myself. Home, James, and don't spare the horses!"




Blair settled into the truck with a heartfelt sigh. "So, what's on the agenda for the rest of the day? Do you need me at the PD this afternoon?"

"Actually, Chief, I wangled a few days off; barring the return of the Sunrise Patriots, I don't need to go in till Sunday. I thought I might talk you into helping me make cookies."

Blair turned and stared at his friend. "Cookies?" His tone was distinctly doubtful. "You make cookies?"

"Sally's secret recipe -- soft pumpkin cookies with pecans. And sugar cookies, of course; I thought we could drop them off at the PD tomorrow. And whatever you want to make -- you like anything special?"

"What's got into you, man?" Blair demanded. "I mean, you're good in the kitchen -- I know a couple of professional chefs who would kill to learn the secret of your shrimp polonaise -- but cookies?" The last word was uttered with a squeak of surprise.

Jim felt a thread of irritation; how could someone so intelligent be so clueless? "Sandburg, why must you always look a gift horse in the mouth? The proper response is to say 'thank you' and go with the flow. Which would be easier to do if your mouth wasn't hanging open."

Blair closed his mouth firmly, gave Jim a searching look, then uttered a pleasant, "Thank you, Jim." Unfortunately, he spoiled it a second later by asking, "But what's the gift?"

Fair enough; Blair wasn't a mind-reader, after all. Still, it wouldn't hurt to play with him. Jim shook his head in mock sorrow. "Chief, back around Halloween, did you or did you not spend three-quarters of an hour expounding on the cultural traditions of celebrating Christmas around the world?"

Had he? "I guess so," Blair ventured, cautiously. Amazing that Jim would remember a six-week old conversation; Blair certainly couldn't recall it.

"And did you or did you not admit to liking to make Christmas cookies?"

"Well, I do," Blair admitted. "But I don't remember telling you."

"You did," Jim assured him. "So I thought..." His voice trailed off as he stared at the road ahead. Blair was almost sure that he saw a hint of blush suffuse Jim's cheeks.

Blair was amused; what could be so terrible about baking cookies? "Thought what?"

"I wanted to..." Jim cleared his throat, "makeaniceChristmasforyou. So I thought we could make cookies. So what kind do you want to make?"

"Wow!" Blair blinked, feeling slightly adrift. Not that Jim couldn't be thoughtful and empathic, sometimes, but this was just... it didn't exactly feel like the Jim he knew and loved. On the other hand, how could he complain about a 'kinder, gentler' Jim? And wasn't he supposed to be the king of 'go with the flow'? So he needed to get with the program and just 'go', already.

Blair gave himself a mental shake. "That's... that really is special, man. Thank you. Okay... Gingerbread cookies! Do we have any molasses at home?"

"No, but we'll swing by Mercer's Market on the way."




Jim carried the grocery sacks -- which contained not only the jars of molasses, but extra supplies of flour, sugar, eggs and milk -- as a thinly-veiled reason for Sandburg to use his key to unlock the door, and enter first. Jim held back just enough not to interfere with Blair's first view of the transformed loft.

The reaction was everything he could have hoped for. Blair took two steps inside the door and stopped short. His backpack slipped unheeded from his shoulder and his suitcase hit the floor as he stared around the room. "Whoa!" he breathed. "Is it my imagination, or did Christmas kind of explode in here?" He moved slowly forward, taking in the decorated tree in front of the balcony windows, the garlands twined around the railings of the upper loft, the potted poinsettias in the middle of the dining table and on the coffee table, the gold and silver bells tied onto more garlands and looped gracefully across the upper tier of the balcony doors, and the carved wooden elves lounging atop the stereo speakers and peeking out from around the books and knickknacks on the shelves along the wall. It should've been too much, Blair thought absently as he surveyed each carefully-placed item, but -- somehow -- it all meshed into a charming 'whole'.

Jim grinned as he closed the door behind him and carried the groceries into the kitchen. "I thought you might get a kick out of it," he said, his voice conveying a mixture of pride and smugness. "Maybe I should have waited for you to help, but time was getting so short and..." he hid inside the refrigerator as he put away the eggs and milk, but kept his voice loud enough for Blair to hear, "...I wanted to surprise you. But we can make it a team effort next year."

'Next year'? Blair felt more at 'home' here than he'd ever felt in his life, and he certainly didn't want to leave. But he'd watched Jim's growing ease and competence in using his senses, and concluded it was just a matter of time until Jim decided he no longer needed Blair's help and told him -- politely, of course -- 'thanks, so long, and see you around'. Was this just a slip of the tongue, or was Jim actually anticipating that Blair would still be around 'next year'?

"Yeah, man, sounds like a plan," he murmured absently as he examined the tree more closely, noting all the six-pointed and five-pointed stars placed side-by-side. And where had the man found tree ornaments shaped like dreidels and menorahs? "But it's not like you needed my help," he said more strongly; "the tree looks great. In fact..." he stood back and considered the tree as he would a museum painting, noting the balance and cohesiveness. "I wonder if sentinels might also have an enhanced artistic sense. Or maybe it's the other way around -- people with enhanced perceptions of color, space and balance become artists."

"Or maybe it's just your friend's anal personality," Jim pointed out. "Believe me, Chief, I was just as particular before my senses ever came online."

"But you had them, even though they were hidden from your conscious mind," Blair argued.

Whoops! Wrong time for this; he could swear he felt Jim's attitude growing cooler, withdrawing. "But you know," he continued earnestly, "'tis the season, and all that. You've given me this great, unwrapped Christmas present, so now I'll give you one. No senses testing until after..." he did some rapid calculations, "January sixth; that's two full weeks. I won't even mention 'senses' unless you have a problem with them and need a bit of help." He grinned as he spread his arms and proclaimed grandly, "Merry Christmas, Jim!"

Jim's relaxation was palpable, even from across the room. "Thanks, Chief; I really appreciate it," he said, solemnly. Then, with a quick shift of mood, he continued, "And I'll see your 'Merry Christmas' and raise you a 'Happy Chanukah'. That table is for you."

"Huh?" Blair finally paid attention to the small, narrow table placed opposite the tree, in front of the other end of the balcony doors. It was draped with a white-on-white embroidered runner, and had a simple circle of pine boughs in the middle. "That? I thought maybe you planned to put party refreshments there, or something."

Jim was very busy pulling mixing bowls and cookie sheets out of the cupboards; it was easier to say sappy stuff if he wasn't looking at Blair. He meant every word, but it just wasn't easy to say. "I know you haven't, the past two years... but I thought you might have a Menorah to put there. If you want to," he finished hurriedly.

"You wouldn't mind?" Blair walked into the kitchen and planted himself in front of Jim, searching his eyes for the truth. Jim didn't try to avoid it, and smiled gently at his friend.

"Blair, if I minded, I wouldn't have offered. This is your home, too, for as long as you want to stay."

"Aw, man..." Blair wrapped his arms around Jim in a fierce hug, and felt it reciprocated. "You're the best! Thank you; that means so much." He stepped back, blinking the moisture from his eyes. "But Chanukah actually ended on Monday; Naomi and I lit the Menorah at Sequoia and Honeybee's place. But I really, really appreciate the offer. Next year, huh?"

"Next year," Jim agreed. "Now, what d'ya say we make some cookies? Toss your stuff in your room and let's get crackin'."

"Sounds like a plan." Blair hurried to scoop up his abandoned suitcase and backpack and carried them toward his room. As he approached the closed doors, he slowed. A banner hung across the doorframe.

WELCOME HOME, CHIEF.
I missed you.

Plain and unadorned, like Jim himself, but the sentiment settled in Blair's soul like a warm coat. He'd known Jim appreciated his help with the senses -- when he wasn't complaining about having to deal with them at all -- but Blair had long since realized that Jim very seldom said anything; he just expected Blair to know how he felt. And Blair did... but this unexpected acknowledgement was sweet indeed. "Aw, Jim," he all but whispered, knowing it was loud enough for his friend to hear, "the feeling is entirely mutual."

He ducked under the banner -- Jim had placed it high enough, and he wanted to savor it for awhile -- tossed his bags on the bed, and rejoined Jim in the kitchen. He rolled up his sleeves, donned an apron, washed his hands and was soon working beside his friend with almost choreographed movements. We really do work well together, he realized, as he measured the sugar and flour and watched Jim beat it with the butter, eggs, and pumpkin. Wonder how many years it would take to get bored with this?

He pondered that question as he placed spoonfuls of batter on the cookie sheet and pressed a pecan half neatly into the center of each. He'd spent over half his life traveling; it was as normal for him as mowing the lawn was for a typical suburbanite. Any time Naomi had been six months in one place, she'd found another goal for 'enlightenment', another star to follow, and headed for another rainbow -- usually with Blair in tow. Even when Blair had settled at Rainier, he'd spent most Christmas breaks on mini-expeditions, and headed out to something more substantial every summer.

But not lately; not since he'd met Jim. He realized now that he'd been half-expecting to feel the old wanderlust, vaguely hoping that it wouldn't hit until Jim no longer needed his help with the senses. Something had changed; he'd have to meditate to be sure, but it seemed like the wanderlust wasn't merely deferred. He was pretty sure it was completely defunct -- and it was all because of one James Joseph Ellison.

Fifty years, he decided, watching as Jim deftly slid the cookie sheets into the oven. I could see a friendship lasting fifty years with this man -- and how the hell did that happen? It's not like I've had any practice putting down roots.


But would Jim want him around for fifty years? Somehow, Blair doubted it, despite his friend's new, relaxed attitude... and 'detaching with love' would be damned difficult when Jim gave him his walking papers, whether it happened in one year or five. If he was smart, he'd start trying to distance himself, disentangle his heart so it wouldn't hurt so much when he had to leave.

Not gonna happen, Blair decided; he'd hang on to this friendship as long as he could, and store the memories for his later years.

Satisfied with his conclusions, Blair turned to measure the molasses for the gingerbread. He felt a vast sense of contentment to be making cookies with his best friend, simply because that friend had wanted to give him pleasure. He sniffed the delightful aroma of the pumpkin cookies in the oven, watched Jim as he used the whisk to beat the eggs into a fine froth, and smiled happily; life didn't get any better than this.




After twelve dozen cookies, four loaves of pumpkin bread, four loaves of banana nut bread, two pecan pies, two apple pies, and two pumpkin pies, the vote was unanimous -- no more time in the kitchen. Jim called in an order for pizza, with a side of garlic cheese sticks. They ate while watching one of the playoff games, then finished their meal with a selection of the cookies and pie.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, Blair was fading fast; he'd been up early to catch the plane, then had an eventful flight keeping his little seat-companion happily occupied, followed by a full afternoon with Jim. After the third jaw-cracking yawn, he muttered, "Sorry, Jim. It's not the company, it's just been a long day. Think I'll hit the sheets as soon as the game is finished."

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Jim agreed easily. "But I've got another surprise for you tomorrow; you might want to hit the showers first, so you're ready to go in the morning."

"Oh, yeah? Go where?"

"Sandburg, what part of 'surprise' don't you understand? That information is on a 'need to know' basis, and until we get there, you don't need to know."

A broad wink signified that Jim was teasing, like I couldn't have figured that out for myself, Blair chuckled internally. But it was wonderful to see Jim having so much fun in making Christmas for his friend; Blair could see vestiges of the happy little boy he must once have been.

He played along; this lighthearted attitude was too precious to shoot down. "Does that mean I'm gonna be blindfolded as we get close to... wherever you have planned?"

"I hadn't thought of it... but I might consider a gag, if necessary." Jim gave Blair a playful shove. "Game's over. Go. Shower."

"And how much are you going to complain when I use all the hot water?"

"I'm feeling generous. No complaints; I'll just suffer in silence through my usual cold shower."

"Or you could wait fifteen minutes for the water heater to recharge."

Jim affected a look of astonishment. "Why did I never think of that? Thanks, Chief. At least now we know all that college education hasn't been wasted."

Blair allowed his chuckle to escape. "Man, you are so full of it. But this doesn't get me any closer to that nice, soft pillow; I'm going, I'm going!"

He ambled into his room to collect clean underwear and the old thermal shirt that was his winter sleepwear, then carried them to the bathroom, hanging them on the hook behind the door. Stripping, he tossed everything into the laundry hamper, then pulled back the shower curtain -- to be faced with an envelope hanging from the showerhead by a length of sewing thread, with 'BLAIR' written across the front in big, block letters.

Bemused, he broke the thread and opened the envelope. The front of the card showed a goofy-looking puppy with madly-wagging tail, and the caption, 'You make me so very happy'. Inside, the blank space had been filled by a hand-written note.
Blair, when I took a shower last night, I looked at the bar of soap in my hand -- hypo-allergenic, unscented, all-natural ingredients -- and I had a flashback to the week before you moved in here. My skin itched so much I couldn't sleep, could barely concentrate on my work, and I had rashes in places I don't even want to mention. You changed that, with a little intuition, empathy, and common sense. I know you'd say it's no big deal -- but I didn't think of changing my soap... or all the other personal and cleaning products in the house.

You've made an enormous difference in my life, as guide to a sentinel, but even more as friend to a man. I appreciate it more than I can say. I know I don't say it often enough -- okay, ever -- but I'm grateful every damn day that you're a part of my life. Thanks for being here, Chief. Thanks for being you.
The signature was a little smiley-face.

Blair stood for several minutes, rereading the message three times. Wow. Just... wow.

He ran his fingers across the words, as if they would become more real. He knew how reluctant Jim was to put his emotions into words. Blair could picture him, bent over the kitchen table, scowling at the paper as he tried to express his inner being. The fact that he'd go to so much trouble for this gift -- and Blair never doubted that it was a gift, one that was almost beyond price -- was exhilarating. And humbling. And deeply, deeply satisfying.

As he climbed into the shower, he murmured, "Thanks, Jim. And... you're welcome."

Out in the living room, Jim smiled with satisfaction, put his feet up on the coffee table, and changed the channel to the late news.




Thursday, Dec. 24, 1998

The delectable smell of bacon, eggs, fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee encouraged Blair out of his cozy nest to greet the day. He tied his robe, raked back his hair and, yawning, headed for the coffeepot.

"Morning, Chief!"

In Blair's pre-coffee opinion, Jim's voice was entirely too chipper. "If you say so. What time is it?"

"Eight-fifteen. Since it's a whole hour later than you get up when you have to go to school, I think that's enough sleeping in. Your 'surprise' is a bit -- I guess the best description is 'involved' -- and we really should be on the road by nine or so." Jim scooped the bacon and scrambled eggs onto two plates and placed them on the table. "Eat up!"

Blair reached for one of the crispy strips of bacon, slid it forward to pick up a lump of eggs, and bit off the end. It was every bit as good as it smelled, but -- "You do realize this is cholesterol city, don't you?" He took another bite, savoring the combination of salt and sweet.

"It's also sustained energy and internal warmth. Eat the cinnamon roll, too."

"What, you're planning on dog-sledding?" Blair deliberately looked out the balcony windows. "That'll be a little difficult, seeing as there's no snow."

"But it'll freeze tonight," Jim declared with certainty, "which falls right in with my plans. And quit fishing; you'll know when we get there." His smirk was decidedly devilish.

"Okay. But if I turn into a popsicle, you'll have to thaw me out."

"Actually, that's part of the plan. So finish eating and go get dressed -- several warm layers, plus boots, gloves, and that ridiculous Fargo hat." Jim rose to top off their coffee, then pulled a large thermos from the cupboard. He filled it with hot water and let it set for a few minutes, then dumped the water and poured the coffee into the thermos, capping it tightly.

Blair watched his partner making careful preparations. He wasn't sure he wanted to participate in anything that required extra layers of clothing. But Jim was having so much fun... and Blair knew that, if he truly didn't enjoy his 'surprise', Jim would cut it short and bring him home. He swallowed the last of his coffee and stood.

"Y'know, I'm beginning to understand why Naomi usually managed to be someplace warm during the winter months; you don't need half the amount of clothing. And may I ask what those are for?"

Jim was placing four of the cinnamon rolls in a plastic baggie. "Eating, of course. Hot coffee and cinnamon rolls go good together; we'll appreciate the snack, even if we don't need the energy. And why aren't you getting dressed?"

"I'm going, I'm going!" Blair watched Jim begin washing the dishes. "But consider this -- you've cooked breakfast, told me what to wear, and now you send me off to get dressed while you do the dishes. Have it ever occurred to you that you'd make some kid a great -- mother?" He snickered and ducked the threatened wet dishrag, then hightailed it to his room.




Jim headed east, toward the mountains; within forty-five minutes, they had reached an elevation where snow appeared by the side of the road. "Skiing?" Blair asked. "Gotta tell you, I've always thought it looked like fun, but I'm a complete novice -- never even tried it once."

Jim glanced at his friend. "That's too bad, Chief; it is a lot of fun. Maybe we can come up after New Year's and I'll give you some lessons. But no skiing today."

"Okay." Blair subsided, watching as Jim guided the truck higher, and the snow beside the road became deeper. Eventually they turned onto a smaller, less-traveled side road. When they reached a 'scenic outlook', Jim pulled into the parking area. "Wait here, Chief; I need to put on the chains."

He was efficient; in less than five minute they were moving again. Ten minutes later, Jim turned onto a narrow track that showed no signs of recent travel. "Good; I hoped no one had been up here lately."

"You sure we won't get stuck, even with the chains?" Blair didn't look forward to having to get out and push.

"No problem; it's not that deep here under the trees," Jim assured him.

The track continued to wind upward. Thirty minutes later it ended at a large clearing, covered by a pristine expanse of snow. Jim drove straight into the middle and shut off the engine.

Blair looked around. It was beautiful. The white snow blanketed the earth, and lay gently on the evergreen trees with the blue sky arching overhead; they'd left the cloudy gloom back in Cascade. But what kind of surprise was Jim expecting to produce? "Where are we?" he asked.

"This is the parking lot for a really great fishing spot... but you have to hike about two miles that way to get there," Jim explained, gesturing vaguely forward. "I really can't see anyone wanting to do that in this weather, and I was right; no visitors have been through, so we have perfect snow."

Blair looked again; there didn't seem to be anything special about the area, or the snow. "Perfect for what?"

"Making a snowman."

"Making a snowman?"

"Making a snowman."

"And we'll be making a snowman because...?"

"Because you said you had such a great time doing it with what's-his-name when you were eight, and I wanted to give you that again."

"Billy Thompson," Blair said absently. "So we're going to make a snowman and leave it out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Well, we could. But I think it would be more fun to take it down and put it right beside the main door at home, don't you?"

Blair wasn't following Jim at all. "How?"

"Here's how I see it. We fill the truck-bed about one-third full of snow. Then we roll up a snowman bottom, torso, and head, and put them in the truck; the snow will cushion the ride so they won't fall apart. Then shovel more snow around them, and cover it all with the tarp so it won't blow out on the way home. When we get there, we make a base of the loose snow on the sidewalk -- against the building so it'll be out of the way -- and assemble the snowman there. And Prospect Avenue will have its own genuine, hand-built snowman."

Blair's excited enthusiasm was everything Jim had hoped for. "Man, that's a great idea! Weird -- whoever heard of driving seventy miles to make a snowman? -- but great! I'm kind of surprised you thought of it -- weird is supposed to be my gig -- but I am so down with that. Let's get crackin'." He buttoned the coat he had loosened in the warmth of the truck, tied his Fargo hat tightly, pulled on his gloves and hopped out, heading toward the truck-bed. "I suppose you brought shovels?"

Jim joined him, and threw back the tarp. "Sandburg, I've planned much harder missions than this. One for you and one for me." He handed both snow-shovels to Blair, and pulled the tarp off the truck, setting it to one side. "The easiest thing to do is to start right here by the truck and shovel in the snow. As we work farther away, we'll have a clear path to carry it back to the truck. Just don't scoop too deep; we don't want any of the gravel from the ground."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Blair chuckled, giving Jim a sloppy salute. Sometimes his friend's tendency to micro-manage everything could be irritating. Other times, like now, it was just -- cute. Not that I'll ever tell him that! He bent over his shovel and started scooping.

It took very little time to fill the truck-bed one-third full of snow. Jim propped his shovel against the side of the truck and rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Now the fun part, Chief. You make the head, I make the middle, and we work together on the base?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, heading farther away from the truck, toward an untouched swath of snow. He scooped up a double handful and shaped it into a ball, patting it firmly to form the core of the snowman's head. Jim was working a short distance away, shaping a similar snowball. Blair paused, eyeing his friend's broad back.

"Don't even think it, Sandburg," Jim said. "Remember, I'm armed, too."

"Yeah, yeah; spoilsport!" But he dropped the snowball into the snow, and started it on a rolling path to gather more. He continued to pat it firmly as he went; he wanted a solid, tightly-packed globe that wouldn't fall apart on the trip home.

When he had what he thought was a good-sized head -- about eighteen inches in diameter -- he turned to see how Jim was progressing with the torso.

Jim noticed Blair straighten from his crouch, and angled his snowball toward Blair's. He stopped a few feet away, and also straightened. "What do you think about the relative sizes, Chief?"

Blair compared them visually, then decided, "Yours needs another layer or two," and bent to help Jim roll the larger ball on one more collection-circuit. The finished torso was about a foot wider than the head.

"Looks good," Jim decided. "Ready for the last one, Chief?"

"Yeah, but..." Blair regarded the torso-ball dubiously. "If we make the base proportionate to those two, it'll stick above the walls of the truck-bed. With the tarp beating on it, it'll get kind of flattened by the time we get home, don't you think?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't see that it'll hurt anything; a flattened side will just make a more stable support when we put the snowman together." He bent and started the third ball. As soon as it grew big enough, Blair joined him in the pushing, rolling, and patting. Jim kept an eye on the terrain, guiding the path so that, by the time the ball had grown to the correct size, it was very close to the other two. With matching groans of relief, both men straightened.

"Well, we can't carry them -- or at least, not the torso and base," Blair pointed out. "You gonna bring the truck over here?"

"I rather thought we would bring the truck over here. But first, there's cinnamon rolls and hot coffee calling our names, don't you think?"

"Man, you have the best ideas! Let's go."

Side-by-side they hiked the short distance back to the truck; the growing snowman-pieces had taken them farther than Blair thought. And, now that he wasn't physically active, he could feel the cold creeping in through all his layers; the hot coffee would warm him nicely.




After the break, they made short work of getting the snowman pieces into the truck-bed. Still following Jim's plan, they shoveled more snow around the round lumps, filling the truck-bed almost to the top of the sidewalls. It made sense, Blair decided; the extra snow would keep the round balls -- boulders, really -- from rolling and maybe breaking apart.

As Jim tied down the tarp that would protect everything on the trip home, Blair was planning ahead, seeing the put-together snowman standing in front of their home. But something was missing from the picture...

"Hey, Jim? I just realized; we're not finished."

"Of course not; it won't be until we assemble it back in Cascade."

"That's not it. A snowman is more than three big balls of snow; we need something for arms, and eyes and mouth, and buttons down the front. We don't have anything at home, except the carrot for the nose." He waved at the expanse of trees that encroached on one side of the clearing. "I'll bet we could find something in there -- especially if you use your senses for the search."

Jim chuckled. "I always knew you were a kid at heart, Sandburg -- or do you just want to win the snowman-judging contest?" He draped his arm around Blair's shoulders and started walking with him toward the trees. "It's a good idea, though, so lead on, MacDuff!"

As they walked through the beautiful, silent landscape, Jim didn't bother to remove his arm from Blair's shoulders. For his part, Blair reciprocated by slipping his arm around Jim's waist as he enjoyed this all-too-rare closeness; he hoped at least some of it would last past the Christmas season.

Once under the trees, Jim became the hunter, releasing Blair as he stalked forward on the trail of elusive pinecones and wily tree-branches. Blair also kept an eye out as he followed his sentinel, even though the likelihood of spotting something before Jim did was ridiculously small.

Jim's skills were as accurate as Blair had expected; in short order, they had collected almost three dozen pinecones in several shapes and sizes, and two branches from a fallen aspen. They broke the sticks to an even size, leaving the finger-like twigs at the end intact, and piled the pinecones into Blair's Fargo hat.

Blair had dropped a few steps behind so that Jim, with the snowman 'arms' over one shoulder and a few evergreen boughs under one arm, could maneuver through the forest growth. He eyed that enticing broad back and ran some calculations. His chances of winning were extremely slight, but the target was just too tempting.

He set his pinecone-filled hat behind the nearest tree, then stooped to form a snowball. But he'd seen his share of old-fashioned Westerns; he knew that only a lily-livered, cowardly dog attacked from behind. "Hey, Jim!" he called.

"Yeah, Chief?" As expected, Jim half turned to answer... to be met by Blair's snowball to the chest.

Trained warrior reflexes kicked in; Jim dropped his encumbrances and leaped into battle. "You are so going to get it, Sandburg!" he shouted, lobbing his own snowball toward the enemy.

With no lack of ammunition, and plenty of shielding tree-trunks, the fight ranged far a-field. Each man gave as good as he got, pitching snowballs, dodging return fire, ducking behind tree-trunks, and darting out to toss another snowball. Laughter danced through the air as they shouted threats and counter-threats, occasionally falling back on the old standby of, "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah!"

Jim was getting too close; Blair turned to execute a strategic retreat and tripped over a root hidden in the snow.

"Got'cha!" Jim pounced on Blair's prone figure, expecting a swift end to the battle -- he had the actual combat training, after all -- but Blair demonstrated an unexpected command of wrestling skills. They rolled over and over in the snow until they ran into a tree-trunk, stopping their momentum. Blair struggled but, caught by a tree on one side and with Jim's weight pressing him into the snow, he couldn't escape; graceful surrender seemed his only option. "Uncle!" he gasped, letting his head fall back into the snow and laughing up into the face above him. "You win!"

"It was a foregone conclusion, Sandburg," Jim growled in his most threatening tones. He leaned closer, his breath puffing into Blair's face. "Remember that the next time; youth and sneakiness will always lose against age and experience."

"Well, you have the age anyway," Blair said easily.

Jim leaned even closer. "Those who doubt the experience may be doomed to have it demonstrated first-hand."

Blair just grinned. "Oh, yeah, I'm shaking in my boots, here. Do your worst, big guy; I can handle it." But his brave words lost their impact as he shivered; damn, it was cold, lying in the snow.

Jim felt it, of course. He quickly rose, and extended a hand to help Blair up. "Enough, Chief. We need to get going if we're going to get the snowman built before dark."

"Right. I think you're just trying to save face, don't want to admit that the lowly anthropologist held his own against the big, tough ranger."

"Dream on, Chief. It just doesn't seem kosher to freeze my best friend before we even get his snowman built."

Backtracking to recover the pinecones and dropped branches wasn't difficult; as Blair pointed out, "If all trails were like this, no one would need to develop tracking skills." Ten minutes later they had their 'snowman accessories' stashed behind the seats and were heading back down the mountain, with the heat turned high. They both appreciated the chance to warm up before another round of playing in the snow.




Enjoying the warmth, and the silent companionship of his best friend, Blair watched the snow-covered trees pass by without comment. Maybe he zoned a little; the next thing he knew, they were pulling into a parking lot in front of a long, low log building. The sign over the door read, 'Aspen Chalet'.

"What's this?" he asked. "And it's the wrong shape for a chalet."

"Don't be picky, Sandburg; it isn't the outside that counts, but what's inside."

"And inside we'll find...?"

"Lunch. They do mostly sandwiches, but they use real meat and vegetables, not the processed stuff, and they make the best damn hot German potato salad you'll ever taste. It wouldn't be much of a present if I let you faint from hunger before we finish making the snowman."

Blair hid his grin as he followed Jim into the restaurant. Mush; the man was pure mush beneath his frequently-gruff exterior, and Blair loved him for it.




This lunch would go into his stored memories as one of the best meals he'd ever shared with Jim, Blair decided. The food was hearty and delicious, and the room was quiet, with very few diners on this day before Christmas. And Jim... was there, actually engaging in conversation instead of just spouting macho bull about the Jags' latest game.

Not that they didn't discuss sports, but it didn't stop there. The conversation ranged seemingly across the world, from Jim's work to Blair's work, from exotic places Jim had visited to even more exotic places Blair had visited, from the vagaries of students to the quirks of cops. Under their outward differences, it was amazing how similar they were deep down, Blair decided. Or... not similar, exactly... but definitely simpatico. Their different lives had led them both to a deep respect for other peoples and cultures, and a basic acceptance of the oddities of humanity.

Not for the first time, Blair reflected how lucky he was. He'd gone searching for a sentinel, anticipating finding nothing more than some guy who was a walking collection of hyperactive senses. Instead he'd found a remarkable man, sometimes flawed, but with an extraordinary dedication to doing the best he could to make the world a better place. That such a man counted him as 'friend' was a treasure beyond price.




Jim pulled up across the street to allow Blair a good overview of the area. "Okay, Chief, it's your snowman; where do you want to put him?"

"There," Blair decided, pointing to a spot about fifteen feet to the left of the main doors of the bakery on the ground floor. "If we put it against the wall, it'll be out of the way of the pedestrian traffic, and it's halfway between the streetlamps, so it'll be sort of lit up all night. And it won't get much sun, there; it might stay frozen for a few extra days."

"Sounds good," Jim said as he maneuvered the truck to the right angle to back into a parking space close to the selected area. Working together, they soon had the tarp untied and pushed back, and were carrying shovels of snow to form a snow-platform; Blair was convinced that that would also help retard the melting.

The solidly-formed snowman parts had made the trip without crumpling or breaking apart. It took only a few minutes for Jim and Blair to assemble them properly, and just a little longer to use the leftover snow in the truck-bed for packing into the joins, to 'cement' everything together.

Then came the fun part. Blair examined his selection of pinecones, deciding how best to use them. Two of a medium size became the eyes, after he had cut off the top halves and pushed them into the head bottom-out. The tightly-whorled, barely-open scales of that part of the pinecones gave the snowman a wide-eyed, eager look, especially when combined with the broad smile underneath, formed of small round pinecones, each slightly larger than a grape.

Blair sent Jim upstairs for a carrot -- "No, we can't use a pinecone; carrot noses are traditional. But break one in half; we don't want the nose to overpower the rest of the face." -- while he pressed the slender, elongated pinecones down the snowman's torso. Stepping back to evaluate the effect, he decided that they really did look like fancy, high-class button-covers.

"Here you go, Chief," Jim said, handing over the carrot. "And I thought you might like these, for eyebrows." He held out two other carrot pieces, about two inches long, that had been sliced in half lengthwise.

"Perfect! Thanks, man." He placed nose and eyebrows with due care, and stepped back again to admire the result. "That is one fine-looking snowman."

"Absolutely; best one on Prospect Avenue." Jim grinned to see his friend so involved in his creative endeavor. "Just needs the arms, now. How do you want them -- angled up, or down, or one of each?"

"Hmmm... can you hold one angled forward, about forty-five degrees?" Jim complied, patiently following directions to shift the sample arm up, down, forward or backward. "That's it! We need to break about two feet off the end of each, then put them at a little upward angle and about halfway forward.

"Now he looks ready to hug the whole world," Blair said when the arms were in place, satisfaction coloring his tone. "Forget Prospect Avenue; I bet we have the best snowman in the whole city!"

"Not quite. We can't have a naked snowman standing around; he might get hauled in for indecent exposure." Jim slowly pulled a tie out of his pocket. "I thought you might like to put this around his neck."

Blair started laughing. "My god, it's perfect! But where did you get it?"

Jim grinned as he looped the tie -- garish yellow-green with rainbow-colored dolphins leaping on it -- around the snowman's neck. "It was a joke-gift from a surfing party a long time ago; I just never got around to tossing it. I thought it might give your snowman a certain... élan." He completed a neat four-in-hand knot.

"Well, we could call it that, though I'm not sure anyone else would agree. But who cares?" Blair stepped forward to slap Jim a high-five. "I know I said it already, but this was a great idea; you the man!"

Jim returned the high-five, then kept Blair's hand clasped within his own as he smiled gently. "It takes one to know one, Chief; you're 'the man' in my book." He saw -- and felt -- a minute shiver pass through Blair. "But I think 'the man' is getting cold. Seems like I promised you some popcorn and hot chocolate last week; tonight would be a good time to make good on it. Ready to go up?"

"That's what I really like about you, Jim; you come up with the best ideas. This combination of snowman-building and recovery from snowman-building should rank right up in the top ten."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim asked, ushering Blair through the door and across the lobby. "So what else do you think is in the top ten?"

"Well, actually, that's not as easy as you'd think," Blair admitted cheerfully. "It varies with recent events -- like cookie-making yesterday. But in general..." He paused, thinking while the elevator carried them upward. "Well, in general, any time you suggest a weekend fishing trip ranks right up there. And any time you decide to make your shrimp polonaise is a stellar idea. But simpler things, too, like when you suggest take-out pizza and cold beer after a hard day, or a round of pick-up basketball with just the two of us.

"Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum -- the ideas I could live without, like your inclination not to share the TV remote control, or weekly cleaning twice a week. But on balance, the good ideas are way more plentiful than the bad ones."

"Wow, Sandburg, you overwhelm me with praise," Jim said dryly, hanging his coat on the hooks beside the door and stepping out of his boots.

Blair chortled, shedding his own coat and boots. "And one of your good qualities is that you speak plainly. Just following your lead, man -- and being patient till we get to the popcorn and hot chocolate."

"And Haagen-Daaz chocolate ice cream," Jim reminded him as he walked into the kitchen and pulled open the freezer. "I didn't forget. But while you're exercising your patience, how about spaghetti and garlic bread for supper? We have a couple pints of sauce in here, and ground turkey for the meatballs."

"Add another one to the top ten!" Blair exclaimed, joining him in the kitchen. "Man, you're really batting a thousand." He gave Jim a friendly elbow-jab then, working in their customary harmony, they continued their supper preparations.




Great day -- no, two days! Blair mused, as he dried himself after his shower and slipped into his thermal undershirt and fresh boxers. Good thing I'm not sick, or I'd think Jim was representing the Make-a-Wish foundation. He snorted softly to himself. Of course, he'd have to be psychic to come up with everything he's done, since even I didn't know I was wishing for this stuff. On the other hand, he is a sentinel; maybe he's got enhancements he hasn't told me about.

He wore a contented smile as he carefully hung up his wet towels and pulled the loose hair from the drain, wrapping it neatly in toilet paper and tossing it in the trash; Jim deserved some kind of tangible 'thank you' for the incredible, open-hearted generosity he'd been demonstrating. On the other hand, I've always known he was pretty much a gooey marshmallow inside, Blair pondered as he tied the belt of his robe and stepped out into the hall. I just never expected him to be so obvious about it.

He stopped for a second at the doors to his room, lifting a hand casually. "It's all yours, man; I even left you some hot water. See you in the morning."

"Thanks, Chief; goodnight," Jim said absently. Blair grinned; if Jim was at the 'unmasking the killer' part of his current book, he'd finish that chapter before he put it down -- and then think up arguments for and against while he showered. Sometimes it still surprised him that a detective actually liked to read mystery novels.

He tossed his robe on the foot of the bed and pulled down the blankets without bothering to turn on the lights. But, when he laid his head on the pillow, his cheek hit something stiff, and it -- crinkled. Huh? Sitting up, Blair turned on the bedside lamp and discovered an envelope on his pillow.

Fingers trembling slightly -- Jim, this is, like... unreal! -- he pulled out a card that showed a picture of a vibrant rainbow waving proudly above snow-capped mountains. Blair stared at it for a few moments; this was like... well, he wasn't sure what it was like, but it sure didn't feel like the Jim he knew. Finally, carefully, he opened it to see what Jim had written.
Blair -- I told you that I appreciate your friendship and your 'guide'-ship. What I didn't tell you is that you've permeated my entire life... and I like it. Your voice is an anchor when my senses are kicking up a storm. When you walk into a room, you bring a vibrant energy that fills up the whole place which, somehow, smoothes out all the rough edges of the sensory input. You don't even have to do anything; just having you within eyesight or hearing range -- or even the scent imprint that you've left behind when you put your coffee cup on my desk before you go haring off to enlighten someone about your latest interest -- is enough to keep my senses stable. Hearing your heartbeat in the room below me is the lullaby that allows me to fall asleep peacefully -- I had a hell of a time sleeping while you were gone -- and hearing that same heartbeat when I wake in the morning immediately orients me for the day.

You could be right -- maybe one day I won't need you to keep my senses stable, and I'll be ready to fly solo... but I suspect it will take a few more years. At least.

God knows you have your own life to live. I'm just saying, you don't have to move out as soon as you have enough information for your dissertation, or even when the dissertation is finished. I wouldn't mind sharing the loft with a PhD -- it might even give the joint a little class, huh? This is an official invitation -- you can stay as long as you want, as long as it's what you want.

And now I'm getting real close to being mushy; I do have my standards to uphold.  
:-)   So I'll just say, welcome back, buddy. Listening to your heartbeat, I'll sleep well tonight; I hope you do, too.
This time, it was signed with a simple, 'Jim'.

Almost dazed, Blair rose and stepped to the door but, when he opened it, he heard the shower running. Even Jim wouldn't hear him through that natural white noise, unless he shouted. Deliberate? Maybe, maybe not, and absolutely no way to know.

Slowly, Blair closed the door, turned out the light, laid down and pulled the covers up. He lay, staring into the darkness, thinking. The idea of this kind of connection was -- again -- overwhelming. And scary. And downright cool.

But -- could he really do it? It was fine to decide 'fifty years' when it was only a fantasy, but he had no experience with long-term friendships in close quarters. The occasional postcard from a distant expedition, sure. A drink every two years when an old friend passed through, no problem. But... some kind of permanent relationship? Did he really have it in him? What about if one of them -- or both of them -- got married?

But surely tribal sentinels and guides must've lived like that -- always close, even if they had wives and children. The male friendship bonds are even stronger, and more common, than in 'civilization'. It's been done. Question is, can I do it?

When Blair heard the bathroom door open, he whispered, "Thanks, Jim." There was no answer, and the thinking continued for a long time before sleep claimed him.




Friday, Dec. 25, 1998

Again, Jim was midway through breakfast preparations when Blair woke; he smelled sausage and coffee, and heard the sound of the beater as Jim mixed batter for pancakes or waffles. Shelving last night's perplexing questions, he tossed aside the blankets and reached for his robe.

"Just in time, Chief!" Jim called from the kitchen. "I'm ready to put the pancakes on the griddle right now; shake a leg!"

"Nag, nag, nag," Blair teased, heading toward the bathroom. "If you're not careful, I'll just keep your present and get my money back." Closing the bathroom door only muffled Jim's hearty chuckle.

Interesting how Jim can time breakfast to just when I wake up, Blair mused, washing his hands. Wonder if he can sense a change in my body temperature or heartbeat or something. I'll have to ask... after the two-week moratorium is up. He snickered softly to himself, remembering his promise.

"'Morning, Jim; merry Christmas," Blair said as he crossed toward the coffeepot. He filled two mugs and carried them toward the table.

"Right back at'cha, Chief. How does blueberry pancakes and sausage sound?" Jim asked rhetorically; he'd already put a plate in front of Blair and was sitting down with his own.

"Pretty close to heaven," Blair said, reaching for the blueberry jam he liked to spread on top; in his opinion, blueberry pancakes should be really blueberry. As he picked up the knife beside his plate, he noticed an edge of paper all-but-hidden under his napkin. Pulling it out, he read:

One of the perks of having you in my life is sharing meals.
When you're sitting across the table, my day starts out right.


Jaw dropping, Blair read it again. Somehow, the sentiments seemed more 'real' in daylight, and even less like his emotion-avoiding friend. "Jim?"

"You're always on me to be more open. Merry Christmas, Chief. Of course, if you talk about it outside the loft, I'll have to kill you."

"Of course," Blair agreed gravely. He mimed turning a key at his lips, then tossing it over his shoulder.

The meal continued in silence for a few minutes, but Blair couldn't maintain it for long. "So, we gonna open the presents before the big game, or after?" He turned speculative eyes toward the tree. The very small present from Jim was driving him crazy. He firmly believed in the old adage that 'good things come in small packages', but he couldn't even guess what was in it.

"Like I could keep you away from them without using my handcuffs." Jim's voice showed his amusement. "As soon as the dishes are washed; I wouldn't want my guide to self-combust."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah -- it's not like you haven't been trying to figure out what's in yours!"

"Gotta admit, Sandburg, whatever you got, I can't get any information even with my senses turned up high. You might be taking this 'know-the-sentinel' gig a little far.

"Now that's just sour grapes," Blair said. "All I've done is put you on the same level with the rest of us mortals."

"Well, it worked," Jim admitted cheerfully. "Pumpkin pie for dessert?"

"It's breakfast-time; how about apple pie, instead?"

"Of course, it wouldn't hurt to have both," Jim pointed out.

"I like the way you think; bring it on!"

While Jim cut the pies, Blair grabbed the coffeepot and refilled both mugs. Each man took a section of the morning paper, which Jim had brought in earlier, and they ate in companionable silence. Afterward, working together as usual, they made short work of washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.

"All right!" Blair exclaimed, landing on the couch with a decided bounce. "One at a time, or each open one simultaneously?"

"There aren't that many," Jim said. "I think we can wait to see what the other got. I'll even let you go first; here's one from Joel." He handed Blair a small box wrapped in silver-and-red striped paper. Blair ripped into the package without any urging.

"Oh, wow!" he laughed, letting three pair of soft Argyle socks spill through his fingers. "I'll have warm feet all winter. I wonder what little bird tipped him off?"

"Guilty, Chief." Jim picked up a larger box wrapped in matching paper. "And I wonder if a counterpart little bird helped him choose this one."

"Joel's a good friend," Blair said comfortably. "And he wants to give good presents." He watched as Jim examined the selection of organic, exotic honeys and jams. "I predict you'll have some pretty tasty breakfasts in the very near future."

"I predict you're right," Jim said, opening the lid of the boysenberry-peach jam to savor the aroma.

By unspoken consent, they saved their presents to each other for last; they opened and exclaimed over -- or laughed over -- gifts from all their friends in Major Crime. Then, with just two presents left, Jim handed Blair a square, slender box wrapped in delicately-embossed, silver paper. "This is from me, Chief; hope you like it."

Blair made a show of shaking the box next to his ear. "Well, it's not ticking, and it's not thick enough to hold a lump of coal." When Jim answered his quip with only the barest smile, Blair quietly opened the package with more care than he had shown the others. He couldn't imagine what Jim was concerned about; Blair was certain he'd love anything his friend had chosen.

He lifted the lid of the simple cardboard box, pulled aside the square of cotton padding, and gasped. The pendant inside was exquisite. A silver oval enclosed a wolf head and a panther head, side-by-side, each with turquoise eyes. The band of the oval was inset with -- Blair counted -- five pairs of brown/gold stones in various shades; he recognized amber, tigereye, and petrified wood, but not the other two. The whole thing hung from a leather thong, which was strung with stone beads that matched the gems of the amulet.

"Jim!" Blair's voice was barely audible, even to the sentinel. "This is... this is just..." Words failed him. He lifted his ankh over his head with trembling fingers, and replaced it with the panther and wolf. It settled beneath his throat as if it had come home, and he stroked each head with a delicate finger.

Jim cleared his throat. "I commissioned it from an Indian silversmith. After I explained what I wanted, he asked me to look through this big display case with different stones in each section, and told me to keep the essence of you in my mind. I had to choose five different stones that seemed as if they would 'enhance your being'." He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "Turns out they mean things like strength and protection and insight. I wrote it all down for you, 'cause I knew I'd never remember it all."

"It's incredible!" Blair breathed. "Every best present in my life, rolled up into one gigantic ball of good-ness, can't hold a candle to this. I expected something like a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore or something. This... I'm just blown away."

Jim relaxed and smiled happily. "I wanted to... sort of celebrate the sentinel-guide thing we share. Something to let you know I appreciate it, even when I'm being -- cantankerous." His smile widened, and he winked at Blair's stunned expression.

Blair quickly rallied. "Crabby."

"Grouchy."

"Obstreperous."

"Fractious."

"Sulky."

"Now, I resent that, Chief! I've never been sulky!"

"Not macho enough for you?"

"Got it in one." They laughed together, then Blair sobered. He lifted the pendant to look at it again, and shook his head in awe. "This is almost spooky, Jim." He crossed to the Christmas tree and grabbed the final package; he wanted it to pass directly from his hands to Jim's. "Merry Christmas... and I hope you like it half as much as I like mine." Rather than returning to his previous place, he sat next to Jim, holding his breath with anticipation.

Jim accepted the package almost solemnly. It was somewhat larger than the one he'd given Blair, wrapped in shiny blue paper with a pattern of silver bells.

He pulled the top off the cardboard box to discover -- a plastic food-saver, with the lid on tight. He snorted softly, and pulled up the lid to be confronted with a mass of styrofoam peanuts. He looked up, to see Blair watching intently. "There is a present in here, right, Chief?"

"Like you said earlier -- I wrapped it good!"

Jim reached into the packing material, and his fingers touched a band of metal, which he carefully pulled out.

As Jim examined the watch, he understood why Blair had termed his amulet 'spooky'. Although the watch was heavy and definitely masculine, the rim around the face was inset with alternating pieces of turquoise and tigereye. The flanges on each side of the face, where the band connected, were engraved -- one with the head of a panther, the other with the head of a wolf -- and the eyes of each animal were tiny chips of turquoise. Without being as ostentatious as the pendant he had designed for Blair, it was obvious that they'd been thinking along the same lines when they bought their present for the other.

"The watch already had the turquoise and tigereye on it -- those stand for strength and protection, by the way -- but the sides were plain. I took it to an Indian silversmith -- wonder if it was the same man? -- and had him do the engraving."

"It was the same man," Jim said absently. "I recognize his scent on the eye-stones." He unbuckled his old watch and slipped the new one in its place, after setting the time and pressing the stem to activate the battery. "This is amazing, Blair -- absolutely beautiful -- and just as uncanny as you said."

"You know, we've never really examined the spiritual side of this sentinel-guide connection. Do you think this is just coincidence, or more than that?"

Jim sighed deeply. "It's too much to be coincidence... but how can we analyze or measure a spiritual connection? And... God, Chief, it just feels like 'too much'. I mean... I'm happy where we are now, the way we are now. I'd rather ignore it most of the time, and just deal with the spirit plane when we have to. Can't we leave it like this?" His eyes begged Blair to understand.

Blair settled back into the couch, trying to relieve the tension by watching the tree instead of Jim, but edging closer so that his shoulder brushed Jim's. "Sure we can. I've got no beef with how things are going. You're handling your senses well, we make a great team, and I plan to take you up on your offer to keep living here -- well, for a few years, anyway. I think these --" he reached out to cover Jim's watch with one hand, while he clasped his amulet with the other, "are proof positive that we're in the groove.

"This has been absolutely, positively, the best Christmas I've ever had, and I can't imagine anything that can ever top it." Blair shifted sideways to make his point, holding Jim's eyes with his own. "But it wasn't the cookie-making, or the snowman-building, or even this," he fingered the pendant again, "that did it. It's the fact that you put so much thought into making me feel special, and the way you showed yourself in those notes you've been letting me find." He gave a half-shrug / half-hand-wave, a vulnerable, almost lost expression on his face. "You're this fantabulous combination of best friend, Blessed Protector," he gave a quick grin at Jim's small snort, "heroic champion and big brother. To have the friendship of a man like that... well, my cup is full. We don't have to add anything or do anything different."

Jim cleared his throat uneasily, his eyes shifting away. "Chief, I..."

Blair punched him gently on the shoulder. "Don't strain yourself, big guy; you already said it in your notes. It's more than enough, and --" he deliberately lightened his voice, "I think we'll both be happier if we get off this emotional roller coaster. Do you have anything planned for lunch?"

Patting Blair's knee, Jim said, "I've got a turkey breast marinating; it's just about time to put it in the oven. But while I do, there is one more thing." Jim rose and reached into the middle of the Christmas tree, pulling out an envelope that Blair hadn't noticed hiding among the branches. Almost reluctantly, but with a determined look on his face, he thrust it into Blair's hands. "You give me so much, Chief, every day -- things that are worth so much more than any money I could spend. This... is just a fraction of that, but I mean every word."

"Jim... what...?"

"Just read it." Hurrying into the kitchen, Jim ostentatiously -- and loudly -- busied himself with luncheon preparations.




Blair stared at the envelope for a few minutes; what could Jim have possibly written that had him so nervous? Only one way to find out. Very deliberately, he pulled the card from the envelope.

The front showed a large black cat and a small, brown, curly-haired terrier puppy lying next to each other, with the cat's head resting on the puppy's. It was so appropriate for the two of them that Blair suspected Jim had gone to one of those 'design-your-own' places. He opened the card and began to read.
Blair -- you mean so much to me. I don't want to take for granted that you 'know' how I feel -- maybe by osmosis? -- but you know I can never say this stuff. So here it is in writing, and you'll be able to hold it over my head for the next ten years. <g>

You're my best friend. You're the guide I depend on to keep my senses working properly. You're the best thing that ever happened in my life. In fact, I really should stop complaining about the senses -- if it wasn't for them, you and I would probably never have met, and my life would be far poorer. But that doesn't say enough.

I love you, Blair. You're my best friend. You're the partner I trust to always have my back. You're my beloved younger brother, far closer to me than Steven ever was or ever could be.

Are you wondering why? So many reasons. You're strong -- strong enough that you don't let me push you around, and you give back as good as you get. You're smart; you never make a big deal of it, but we both know you leave me and everyone else in the dust. The fact that you bring all of that brilliance to bear on helping me with the senses leaves me... humble. And grateful; so very grateful. You say the senses make me special, but it's the way you treat me that makes me feel special.

I think you don't realize it, but you're the one who's really special. You have the courage to follow me into the hairiest situations, compassion that overflows to share with anyone in need, and a sense of humor that never fails to lighten my day just when I need it. It's like... you fill up a hole inside me I didn't even know was there, and make me feel safe. I can't imagine my life without you in it. I don't want to. As long as I can be your best friend and partner, my life will be good; I hope you'll be part of my life for a long, long time.
Wow. Blair stared blindly at the Christmas tree, absorbing the words. He'd known that Jim tended to hide and repress things, but this was ridiculous; he'd had no idea that the man felt this deeply about their friendship. He reflected that Jim was right. The pendant was a spectacular gift, one Blair would treasure for the rest of his life -- but this simple card, with its heartfelt sentiments, meant far more. He felt deeply warmed by the outpouring of love, and profoundly grateful that Jim had worked so hard to convey his beautiful message.

Turning his attention outward, he realized that Jim was still making an inordinate amount of noise in the kitchen. Could the man really be worried about Blair's reaction to his final present? Time to set his mind at ease; Blair rose and joined him in the kitchen.

"Need any help?"

"Sure; you want to peel the sweet potatoes?"

"I'm on it." Blair washed his hands then, midway through peeling the first potato, he said casually, "Thanks, Jim. It really means a lot to me."

Jim shrugged a shoulder dismissively. "I hoped it would. You're welcome."




The rest of the day passed in quiet companionship -- watching the big game on TV, eating lunch at halftime, discussing plans for the rest of their time off, followed by college football with large pieces of pie.

It was almost perfect -- but Blair felt that something was still missing. It irritated him. He was still bowled over by the pendant and the letter; what more could he possibly want? But as Jim switched off the TV and stood to make his nightly check of doors and windows, he finally pinned it down. When Jim turned to head upstairs, he found Blair standing in front of him, a small smile playing around his mouth.

"You know, Jim, I'm a verbal guy. Actions speak louder than words -- but I like to hear the words, too. Despite the fact that these have been the best three days of my life, I think you should finish it with three little words."

"What's that, Chief?"

"No, not those, you doofus." Blair moved forward to hug Jim tightly, feeling the strong arms clasp him in response. "Merry Christmas, Jim."

Jim smiled down into Blair's dancing eyes. "Well, you know how it is -- all that college education gives you a glib tongue, compared to the rest of us mere mortals. But I'll give it a try." He tightened the hug, soaking in the sound, scent, and feel of his guide, wishing he might never have to let go. "Merry Christmas, Chief."



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Merry Christmas, Chief
Summary: Christmas = Friendship + Snow + Love
Style: SLASH first time, J/B, rating PG-13
Size: 15,290 words, about 27 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Secret Santa request -- Would really like to see: Blair discover his worth to Jim. And it's Christmas, so something in line to snow and such... please. Written September and October, 2007.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org




Merry Christmas, Chief   (slash)

by StarWatcher





Thursday, Dec. 17, 1998

Jim Ellison snatched up the phone before it had completed its first ring. "You're two minutes and thirty-seven seconds late, Chief. Keep this up, and Santa won't bring you anything but coal for Christmas." He let the broad smile -- deliberately pasted on -- infuse his voice, carrying clearly to the man on the other end of the line.

"Jim, Sequoia and Honeybee function according to hippie time; they have one clock in the house, and anything within thirty minutes of the stated time is 'on time'. You're just lucky I can actually call within sight of nine PM; it could just as easily be two in the morning." But under the humor of Blair's response, Jim could hear a tread of tension and weariness; his friend seemed to be withholding an exasperated snap.

"Sorry, Sandburg, didn't mean to push." Jim carried the phone across the room and settled on the couch, lying back against the cushions and lifting his feet to rest on the coffee table. "Call it my awkward way of saying 'wish you were here'. So, how is Naomi? And, for that matter, how are you?" And when are you coming home? he finished silently. He needed this daily contact with Blair, and intended to keep him on the line as long as possible, but it was a poor substitute for his guide's actual presence.

"Naomi's doing pretty good," Blair assured him. Jim could hear rustlings that spoke of a matching 'settling in', five hundred miles away; thank God for modern technology that allowed them to stay in touch. "I've been telling you that natural remedies are best, and they're really paying off for her. The cough is almost completely gone, but she's still feeling a bit weak -- and very restless. She needs me to sit on her when Sequoia and Honeybee are at work, or else she'll overdo and have a relapse. We're mostly just kicking back, reminiscing and catching up."

And running yourself ragged, looking after her, Jim suspected. But he could hardly quibble; this was a man who had jumped out of an airplane, determined to follow him and help find a friend. Taking care of a mother suffering from pneumonia wouldn't even be a blip on the radar. "Sounds good, Chief; very relaxing. How about we trade jobs for awhile? I had to chase a purse-snatcher three blocks today, and then the idiot tried to bean me with a brick while I was arresting him. He was innocent, naturally; he'd been jogging for his health, but got scared when I started chasing him -- strictly mistaken identity, of course -- and that's why he ran. And he didn't have the purse on him when I caught him, so obviously I had the wrong guy."

"Oh, man!" Blair's throaty chuckle warmed Jim more than a blazing fireplace ever could. "I know you found the evidence. What did he look like when you produced it?"

Jim matched Blair's chuckle. "Dumbfounded, Chief; absolutely couldn't believe it. It was a damn slick move; he didn't miss a step as he tossed it behind a dumpster, and he was far enough away that I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't have the senses. I heard him complaining that I was a witch doctor when they put him in the black-and-white."

"No way, man, that's my gig!" Jim relaxed more as he heard the stress fade from Blair's tone. For his part, the nagging headache that he'd carried since the arrest was beginning to fade; obviously, they were good for each other. "So, you're handling your senses okay?" Blair probed.

There was no reason to add to Blair's worries; Jim followed his frequent example and obfuscated like hell. "Not too bad; a few headaches is all." He couldn't claim no problems; Blair would be sure to grill Simon, Joel, and Megan when he got back, and probably Rhonda, too.

"No zones or spikes?" Blair's question was anxious, almost sharp. "Because Naomi really is better; I could head home tomorrow or the day after if you really need me."

"One little spike, and one almost-zone that Megan caught and pulled me right out of. She's still a pain in the ass to work with, and her guide abilities are only a so-so substitute for the real thing, but we manage. I'm a big boy, Chief; I'll be okay till next week. Trying to change your flight at this time of the year would be more trouble than it's worth, and probably cost you a penalty, besides. Wednesday's not that far away; it's no big deal."

"Six more days," Blair pointed out, his voice sounding dubious. "But you're right. You're going to want to kick me out and fly solo, eventually; I guess this is good practice. But you will call if you need me, right?"

"Will do, Chief," he promised. "But for now, there's a more important issue -- what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?"

Blair's voice became playful, and Jim could hear the broad grin. "Oh, you've decided that I deserve something more than coal?"

"Not me, Chief; Santa!"

"Ri-iiight." Blair's drawl was a pretty good imitation of his, Jim noticed. "Well, tell Santa that I've been thinking I need something to wake up the faculty meetings, like a tie with pink and purple polka-dots. That, and a briefcase full of old money -- twenties and fifties -- will do me just fine."

"Sandburg, I'm supposed to catch the criminals, not become one. The tie might be doable, though. But wouldn't you rather settle for some popcorn and beer in front of the fire?"

"Throw in a quart of Dutch chocolate Haagen-Daaz, and make it hot chocolate instead of beer, and you've got a deal."

"Can do, Chief. Just be sure you're here to share it with me. Turns out, I kind of miss having you around; you've grown on me.

"I know, I know; like a fungus," Blair said cheerfully. "But I'll be there, Jim, twelve-thirty next Wednesday, I promise."

"I'll pick you up, Sandburg. I might even ignore the code of the macho-man and give you a hug right in the airport."

"Oooh, be still my heart!" Blair teased. "Of course, you realize that I'd have to hug you back, right there in plain sight."

"Counting on it, Chief, counting on it."

They spent another ten minutes trading quips and discussing inconsequentials, then said their goodbyes. Jim reluctantly hung up the phone. He sighed as he massaged his temples, where the dull throbbing had subsided to the merest whisper -- but it was still there, and guaranteed to be back full-force tomorrow as soon as his senses encountered something objectionable.

Damn! He'd honestly thought that he was getting a handle on this sentinel thing; he'd been using his senses easily and well for the past eight or ten months. But now, given the way his senses had started to act up within three days of Sandburg's leaving, it seemed a strong possibility that he was able to manage so well only because he had regular doses of 'Sandburg-exposure'.

Jim had been smugly satisfied to be using his senses capably, even when Blair wasn't around, and confident enough to urge him to go to Naomi when her friends had called. Despite the younger man's misgivings at leaving his sentinel for the planned two weeks, Jim hadn't hesitated to drive Sandburg to the airport and see him off on his flight, with sincere wishes for Blair to stay as long as he needed.

But the longer Blair was gone, the less control Jim seemed to have over his senses. It was a struggle to get them to cooperate at a crime scene, and he'd worked grimly through more spikes than he'd ever admit to anyone. Fortunately, he got some relief when he returned to the loft each evening, where the changes and additions that Sandburg had made over the past two years had created a 'sentinel-friendly' haven. The fact that his guide's scent was still present also helped, as did the nightly phone calls.

But what the hell will I do when Sandburg finishes that damned dissertation and leaves for good? Jim wondered grimly as he prepared for bed. It wasn't all that early, and bed provided a quiet relief for his jangling senses -- especially since he'd had the inspired notion, just yesterday, to put fresh linens on Blair's bed, and wrap one of the used sheets around his own pillow. He'd slept better than any night since Blair had left, despite the lack of heartbeat in the room below his.

So he was managing -- for now -- but it made the outlook of a future without Sandburg pretty damn bleak. Kick his guide out and fly solo? Not 'no', but 'hell, no'; he wanted to wrap his arms around that sturdy body and never let go. But how could Jim admit that he needed Blair in his life, if he hoped to have any kind of a decent life at all? And, even if he did admit it, how likely was it that the other man would agree to spend the next forty-odd years tagging along and helping out a sentinel with wonky senses?

About as likely as Hell freezing over, Jim concluded bleakly as he lay his head on his pillow and breathed in the comforting scent of his guide. Maybe I should ask Santa to put Blair in my Christmas stocking. Then he'd be mine forever. Clinging to that heartening, illogical idea, he slipped into a restorative sleep and dreamed about sitting across the table from Blair, whose face was deeply wrinkled and whose curls had become silver-gray, but with the light of love still shining deeply from his eyes.




Monday, Dec. 21, 1998

Jim hung up the phone after the nightly long-distance visit with his guide, and smiled softly as he stared at the tree, picturing Blair's pleased surprise when he walked in the door. He hadn't put up a tree since the divorce; there didn't seem much point to it when he lived alone and always worked Christmas day to allow more time off for the men and women who had families. The past two years, Sandburg -- flexible as always -- had gone along with Jim's agenda.

But just this year, Jim had listened with amusement as Sandburg spouted a truly inspired rant on how the meaning of Christmas was severely diluted when it had become so commercialized that the decorations and sales appeared in the store aisles the week before Halloween. In typical Sandburgian fashion, the rant had segued into a discourse on the various ways Christmas was celebrated in different countries and cultures around the world. Somewhere in there, Jim had realized that Blair, an anthropologist to his very core, had probably enjoyed participating in the various traditions.

He had primed the pump by sharing a story of him and Stevie helping Sally in the kitchen as she made her special Christmas cookies, and watched Blair's eyes light up as he shared stories of his own. It seemed that his friend did indeed treasure the times that he and Naomi had been in a situation to help decorate a tree, or bake Christmas cookies, or wrap presents -- especially, perhaps, because it didn't happen every year; it had depended on whether or not Blair and Naomi were with people who even celebrated Christmas. Apparently, Blair had also learned to celebrate Chanukah in the same hit-or-miss fashion, and now simply matched his expectations to how those around him celebrated.

Just thinking about it brought a lump to Jim's throat; it felt like Blair was settling for scraps from the table instead of enjoying the full feast. Not this year, he thought, fiercely -- and not as long as Blair continued to live and work with him. A few days ago, Jim had begun his mission with as much dedication as he'd ever used in Covert Ops. He'd rented a large, well-shaped, potted Christmas tree from a local nursery, suspecting that Blair's ecological soul would approve of a living tree instead of a cut one, and decorated it with symbols of both their beliefs, secular as well as religious -- angels and stars, Santas and reindeer, as well as dreidels and six-pointed stars of David, foil-wrapped chocolate 'gelt' and tiny, iconic menorahs.

The tree-topper had stumped him for three days; Jim didn't want to make the subtle proclamation that one belief-system was more important than the other by setting a five-pointed or six-pointed star at the top, and he hadn't found a multi-pointed starburst that he found esthetically pleasing. Then, just this afternoon, he'd stopped at the herbal store, to pick up a fresh supply of Blair's favorite teas. A display table featured small -- barely hand-sized -- teddy bears, each individually adorned in hand-sewn clothing suitable for the season. Among the Santas, Mrs. Clauses, elves, reindeer, and angels were several dressed in robes that depicted Biblical figures from the Old Testament.

About to pass by with an amused smile, Jim's eye had been caught by a flash of blue the exact shade of Blair's eyes. Reaching into the center of the pack, he plucked out what could only be Joseph in his coat of many colors. Variations of blue predominated, and Jim was reminded of the vibrant vest Blair had worn that first day in his crowded, basement office. This particular bear had crinkled brown/russet plush, blue eyes, and an amused smirk -- there was no other word for it -- on its face; Jim had the uncanny feeling that he was looking at Blair's alter ego. The sale was a foregone conclusion, and he added a hefty tip for Mrs. Chavira to pass on to the bear's creator -- apparently a friend of Mrs. C's who needed the extra income. Jim was only too happy to contribute; he could just hear Blair murmuring, 'good karma' as he watched the bear being put into the shopping bag on top of the tea.

He had pulled the Blair-bear out of the bag as soon as he reached the truck, to sit on the dashboard during the drive home. Now it was nestled at the top of the tree, gaily surveying the continuing Christmas preparations. It was ridiculous to feel comforted by the little bear's presence, but somehow it seemed as if he'd brought a piece of Blair into the loft. It might -- probably would -- wear off after a time, but that didn't matter; Blair himself would be home in less than forty-eight hours.

Jim grabbed another beer and returned to the kitchen table to continue the project that Blair's nightly phone call had interrupted. He was determined to make this the best present that Blair had ever received, for Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, birthday, or whatever. At least -- he hoped Blair would see it that way.

Jim tapped his pen on the table in thought, then bent over the page and started writing.




Wednesday, Dec. 23, 1998

Jim waited impatiently to see Blair step off the gangway leading from the plane. He'd tried dialing up his hearing to locate Blair's voice or heartbeat but, with a wince, hurriedly shut it down to a notch below 'normal'. The cacophony of planes landing and taking off, loudspeakers announcing arrivals and departures, and hundreds of people calling their 'hello's or 'goodbye's was an almost overwhelming tidal surge of input. He focused intently on the doorway, waiting for the first glimpse of his friend.

The flood of deplaning passengers had subsided to a trickle when Blair finally appeared. He looked somewhat rumpled and frazzled, but good-humored as always. But, trust Sandburg to latch onto the opposite sex -- he was carrying a dark-haired cutie of approximately four years old. A young matron, presumably the girl's mother, walked beside him, trying to soothe the fussy baby in her arms.

Jim watched as the little girl whispered something in Blair's ear, after which he laughed and tickled her tummy, which was greeted with delighted squeals of laughter. An unexpected flash of jealously surged over him -- my guide, dammit! -- which he tried to bury. 'Twas the season, and all that, and Blair wouldn't approve of such a possessive reaction. After all, someone was probably waiting to greet the little family, and would soon take over Blair's temporary job. He could hang on just a few more minutes.

"Elizabeth! Amber!" A gray-haired man and woman were hurrying toward the group. The little girl twisted in Blair's arms. "G'amma! G'ampa!" Blair transferred her to 'G'ampa's arms, did the 'polite introduction thing', patted the little girl on the head, said goodbye to the young mother, and finally -- finally! -- turned to look for Jim.

A broad smile crossed his face as soon as he saw his friend, and Jim watched the minute lines of stress and tension fade away. "JIM!" he shouted happily, hurrying across the broad expanse of carpet.

Jim didn't even try to resist. As soon as Blair was within reach, he enfolded him in a fervent hug, and reveled in the sensation of the reciprocal, heartfelt hug. "Blair," he whispered, his voice ragged, and buried his nose in the curls atop Blair's head. Surrounded by sight, sound, scent and feel of his guide, his senses instantly -- almost magically -- snapped back into focus. His headache subsided to a tickle, and the evil torture chamber became an ordinary airport lounge; loud and smelly, but nothing he couldn't handle... as long as he had this man beside him.

Embarrassed -- this wasn't the time or place for such an emotional display -- Jim loosened his hold and stepped back. "Welcome home, Chief; have a nice trip?"

Blair's eyes twinkled, laughing up into his. "Oh yeah, man, stellar!" he chuckled. "Two hours goes by so fast when you can spend it playing patty-cake."

"I'm sure her mother appreciated it; you're a good man, Chief." Jim's voice was warm and deep, completely serious.

Blair hesitated; somehow, Jim's words seemed a bit -- disproportionate. He'd expected an answering quip, but maybe Jim just wasn't up to it; Blair easily recognized the signs of pain around his friend's eyes. "Headache bad?" he asked softly.

"Not anymore," Jim assured him. He regretfully watched Blair's hand drift downward; he'd thought Blair had been about to stroke his forehead, and he'd been anticipating that soothing touch. Well, maybe later. Jim stifled a sigh as he continued, "But I'll be a whole lot better once we clear this pop-stand."

Blair's chuckle was understanding. "Oh, I hear that; I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand, myself. Home, James, and don't spare the horses!"




Blair settled into the truck with a heartfelt sigh. "So, what's on the agenda for the rest of the day? Do you need me at the PD this afternoon?"

"Actually, Chief, I wangled a few days off; barring the return of the Sunrise Patriots, I don't need to go in till Sunday. I thought I might talk you into helping me make cookies."

Blair turned and stared at his friend. "Cookies?" His tone was distinctly doubtful. "You make cookies?"

"Sally's secret recipe -- soft pumpkin cookies with pecans. And sugar cookies, of course; I thought we could drop them off at the PD tomorrow. And whatever you want to make -- you like anything special?"

"What's got into you, man?" Blair demanded. "I mean, you're good in the kitchen -- I know a couple of professional chefs who would kill to learn the secret of your shrimp polonaise -- but cookies?" The last word was uttered with a squeak of surprise.

Jim felt a thread of irritation; how could someone so intelligent be so clueless? "Sandburg, why must you always look a gift horse in the mouth? The proper response is to say 'thank you' and go with the flow. Which would be easier to do if your mouth wasn't hanging open."

Blair closed his mouth firmly, gave Jim a searching look, then uttered a pleasant, "Thank you, Jim." Unfortunately, he spoiled it a second later by asking, "But what's the gift?"

Fair enough; Blair wasn't a mind-reader, after all. Still, it wouldn't hurt to play with him. Jim shook his head in mock sorrow. "Chief, back around Halloween, did you or did you not spend three-quarters of an hour expounding on the cultural traditions of celebrating Christmas around the world?"

Had he? "I guess so," Blair ventured, cautiously. Amazing that Jim would remember a six-week old conversation; Blair certainly couldn't recall it.

"And did you or did you not admit to liking to make Christmas cookies?"

"Well, I do," Blair admitted. "But I don't remember telling you."

"You did," Jim assured him. "So I thought..." His voice trailed off as he stared at the road ahead. Blair was almost sure that he saw a hint of blush suffuse Jim's cheeks.

Blair was amused; what could be so terrible about baking cookies? "Thought what?"

"I wanted to..." Jim cleared his throat, "makeaniceChristmasforyou. So I thought we could make cookies. So what kind do you want to make?"

"Wow!" Blair blinked, feeling slightly adrift. Not that Jim couldn't be thoughtful and empathic, sometimes, but this was just... it didn't exactly feel like the Jim he knew and loved. On the other hand, how could he complain about a 'kinder, gentler' Jim? And wasn't he supposed to be the king of 'go with the flow'? So he needed to get with the program and just 'go', already.

Blair gave himself a mental shake. "That's... that really is special, man. Thank you. Okay... Gingerbread cookies! Do we have any molasses at home?"

"No, but we'll swing by Mercer's Market on the way."




Jim carried the grocery sacks -- which contained not only the jars of molasses, but extra supplies of flour, sugar, eggs and milk -- as a thinly-veiled reason for Sandburg to use his key to unlock the door, and enter first. Jim held back just enough not to interfere with Blair's first view of the transformed loft.

The reaction was everything he could have hoped for. Blair took two steps inside the door and stopped short. His backpack slipped unheeded from his shoulder and his suitcase hit the floor as he stared around the room. "Whoa!" he breathed. "Is it my imagination, or did Christmas kind of explode in here?" He moved slowly forward, taking in the decorated tree in front of the balcony windows, the garlands twined around the railings of the upper loft, the potted poinsettias in the middle of the dining table and on the coffee table, the gold and silver bells tied onto more garlands and looped gracefully across the upper tier of the balcony doors, and the carved wooden elves lounging atop the stereo speakers and peeking out from around the books and knickknacks on the shelves along the wall. It should've been too much, Blair thought absently as he surveyed each carefully-placed item, but -- somehow -- it all meshed into a charming 'whole'.

Jim grinned as he closed the door behind him and carried the groceries into the kitchen. "I thought you might get a kick out of it," he said, his voice conveying a mixture of pride and smugness. "Maybe I should have waited for you to help, but time was getting so short and..." he hid inside the refrigerator as he put away the eggs and milk, but kept his voice loud enough for Blair to hear, "...I wanted to surprise you. But we can make it a team effort next year."

'Next year'? Blair felt more at 'home' here than he'd ever felt in his life, and he certainly didn't want to leave. But he'd watched Jim's growing ease and competence in using his senses, and concluded it was just a matter of time until Jim decided he no longer needed Blair's help and told him -- politely, of course -- 'thanks, so long, and see you around'. Was this just a slip of the tongue, or was Jim actually anticipating that Blair would still be around 'next year'?

"Yeah, man, sounds like a plan," he murmured absently as he examined the tree more closely, noting all the six-pointed and five-pointed stars placed side-by-side. And where had the man found tree ornaments shaped like dreidels and menorahs? "But it's not like you needed my help," he said more strongly; "the tree looks great. In fact..." he stood back and considered the tree as he would a museum painting, noting the balance and cohesiveness. "I wonder if sentinels might also have an enhanced artistic sense. Or maybe it's the other way around -- people with enhanced perceptions of color, space and balance become artists."

"Or maybe it's just your friend's anal personality," Jim pointed out. "Believe me, Chief, I was just as particular before my senses ever came online."

"But you had them, even though they were hidden from your conscious mind," Blair argued.

Whoops! Wrong time for this; he could swear he felt Jim's attitude growing cooler, withdrawing. "But you know," he continued earnestly, "'tis the season, and all that. You've given me this great, unwrapped Christmas present, so now I'll give you one. No senses testing until after..." he did some rapid calculations, "January sixth; that's two full weeks. I won't even mention 'senses' unless you have a problem with them and need a bit of help." He grinned as he spread his arms and proclaimed grandly, "Merry Christmas, Jim!"

Jim's relaxation was palpable, even from across the room. "Thanks, Chief; I really appreciate it," he said, solemnly. Then, with a quick shift of mood, he continued, "And I'll see your 'Merry Christmas' and raise you a 'Happy Chanukah'. That table is for you."

"Huh?" Blair finally paid attention to the small, narrow table placed opposite the tree, in front of the other end of the balcony doors. It was draped with a white-on-white embroidered runner, and had a simple circle of pine boughs in the middle. "That? I thought maybe you planned to put party refreshments there, or something."

Jim was very busy pulling mixing bowls and cookie sheets out of the cupboards; it was easier to say sappy stuff if he wasn't looking at Blair. He meant every word, but it just wasn't easy to say. "I know you haven't, the past two years... but I thought you might have a Menorah to put there. If you want to," he finished hurriedly.

"You wouldn't mind?" Blair walked into the kitchen and planted himself in front of Jim, searching his eyes for the truth. Jim didn't try to avoid it, and smiled gently at his friend.

"Blair, if I minded, I wouldn't have offered. This is your home, too, for as long as you want to stay."

"Aw, man..." Blair wrapped his arms around Jim in a fierce hug, and felt it reciprocated. "You're the best! Thank you; that means so much." He stepped back, blinking the moisture from his eyes. "But Chanukah actually ended on Monday; Naomi and I lit the Menorah at Sequoia and Honeybee's place. But I really, really appreciate the offer. Next year, huh?"

"Next year," Jim agreed. "Now, what d'ya say we make some cookies? Toss your stuff in your room and let's get crackin'."

"Sounds like a plan." Blair hurried to scoop up his abandoned suitcase and backpack and carried them toward his room. As he approached the closed doors, he slowed. A banner hung across the doorframe.

WELCOME HOME, CHIEF.
I missed you.

Plain and unadorned, like Jim himself, but the sentiment settled in Blair's soul like a warm coat. He'd known Jim appreciated his help with the senses -- when he wasn't complaining about having to deal with them at all -- but Blair had long since realized that Jim very seldom said anything; he just expected Blair to know how he felt. And Blair did... but this unexpected acknowledgement was sweet indeed. "Aw, Jim," he all but whispered, knowing it was loud enough for his friend to hear, "the feeling is entirely mutual."

He ducked under the banner -- Jim had placed it high enough, and he wanted to savor it for awhile -- tossed his bags on the bed, and rejoined Jim in the kitchen. He rolled up his sleeves, donned an apron, washed his hands and was soon working beside his friend with almost choreographed movements. We really do fit together, he realized, as he measured the sugar and flour and watched Jim beat it with the butter, eggs, and pumpkin. Wonder how many years it would take to get bored with this?

He pondered that question as he placed spoonfuls of batter on the cookie sheet and pressed a pecan half neatly into the center of each. He'd spent over half his life traveling; it was as normal for him as mowing the lawn was for a typical suburbanite. Any time Naomi had been six months in one place, she'd found another goal for 'enlightenment', another star to follow, and headed for another rainbow -- usually with Blair in tow. Even when Blair had settled at Rainier, he'd spent most Christmas breaks on mini-expeditions, and headed out to something more substantial every summer.

But not lately; not since he'd met Jim. He realized now that he'd been half-expecting to feel the old wanderlust, vaguely hoping that it wouldn't hit until Jim no longer needed his help with the senses. Something had changed; he'd have to meditate to be sure, but it seemed like the wanderlust wasn't merely deferred. He was pretty sure it was completely defunct -- and it was all because of one James Joseph Ellison.

Fifty years, he decided, watching as Jim deftly slid the cookie sheets into the oven. I could spend fifty years with this man -- and how the hell did that happen?

But would Jim want him around for fifty years? Somehow, Blair doubted it, despite his friend's new, relaxed attitude... and 'detaching with love' would be damned difficult when Jim gave him his walking papers, whether it happened in one year or five. If he was smart, he'd start trying to distance himself, disentangle his heart so it wouldn't hurt so much when he had to leave.

Not gonna happen, Blair decided; he'd hang on to this friendship as long as he could, and store the memories for his later years.

Satisfied with his conclusions, Blair turned to measure the molasses for the gingerbread. He felt a vast sense of contentment to be making cookies with his best friend, simply because that friend had wanted to give him pleasure. He sniffed the delightful aroma of the pumpkin cookies in the oven, watched Jim as he used the whisk to beat the eggs into a fine froth, and smiled happily; life didn't get any better than this.




After twelve dozen cookies, four loaves of pumpkin bread, four loaves of banana nut bread, two pecan pies, two apple pies, and two pumpkin pies, the vote was unanimous -- no more time in the kitchen. Jim called in an order for pizza, with a side of garlic cheese sticks. They ate while watching one of the playoff games, then finished their meal with a selection of the cookies and pie.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, Blair was fading fast; he'd been up early to catch the plane, then had an eventful flight keeping his little seat-companion happily occupied, followed by a full afternoon with Jim. After the third jaw-cracking yawn, he muttered, "Sorry, Jim. It's not the company, it's just been a long day. Think I'll hit the sheets as soon as the game is finished."

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Jim agreed easily. "But I've got another surprise for you tomorrow; you might want to hit the showers first, so you're ready to go in the morning."

"Oh, yeah? Go where?"

"Sandburg, what part of 'surprise' don't you understand? That information is on a 'need to know' basis, and until we get there, you don't need to know."

A broad wink signified that Jim was teasing, like I couldn't have figured that out for myself, Blair chuckled internally. But it was wonderful to see Jim having so much fun in making Christmas for his friend; Blair could see vestiges of the happy little boy he must once have been.

He played along; this lighthearted attitude was too precious to shoot down. "Does that mean I'm gonna be blindfolded as we get close to... wherever you have planned?"

"I hadn't thought of it... but I might consider a gag, if necessary." Jim gave Blair a playful shove. "Game's over. Go. Shower."

"And how much are you going to complain when I use all the hot water?"

"I'm feeling generous. No complaints; I'll just suffer in silence through my usual cold shower."

"Or you could wait fifteen minutes for the water heater to recharge."

Jim affected a look of astonishment. "Why did I never think of that? Thanks, Chief. At least now we know all that college education hasn't been wasted."

Blair allowed his chuckle to escape. "Man, you are so full of it. But this doesn't get me any closer to that nice, soft pillow; I'm going, I'm going!"

He ambled into his room to collect clean underwear and the old thermal shirt that was his winter sleepwear, then carried them to the bathroom, hanging them on the hook behind the door. Stripping, he tossed everything into the laundry hamper, then pulled back the shower curtain -- to be faced with an envelope hanging from the showerhead by a length of sewing thread, with 'BLAIR' written across the front in big, block letters.

Bemused, he broke the thread and opened the envelope. The front of the card showed a goofy-looking puppy with madly-wagging tail, and the caption, 'You make me so very happy'. Inside, the blank space had been filled by a hand-written note.
Blair, when I took a shower last night, I looked at the bar of soap in my hand -- hypo-allergenic, unscented, all-natural ingredients -- and I had a flashback to the week before you moved in here. My skin itched so much I couldn't sleep, could barely concentrate on my work, and I had rashes in places I don't even want to mention. You changed that, with a little intuition, empathy, and common sense. I know you'd say it's no big deal -- but I didn't think of changing my soap... or all the other personal and cleaning products in the house.

You've made an enormous difference in my life, as guide to a sentinel, but even more as friend to a man. I appreciate it more than I can say. I know I don't say it often enough -- okay, ever -- but I'm grateful every damn day that you're a part of my life. Thanks for being here, Chief. Thanks for being you.
The signature was a little smiley-face.

Blair stood for several minutes, rereading the message three times. Wow. Just... wow.

He ran his fingers across the words, as if they would become more real. He knew how reluctant Jim was to put his emotions into words. Blair could picture him, bent over the kitchen table, scowling at the paper as he tried to express his inner being. The fact that he'd go to so much trouble for this gift -- and Blair never doubted that it was a gift, one that was almost beyond price -- was exhilarating. And humbling. And deeply, deeply satisfying.

But could it be more? he wondered. God, if only....

But probably not; it was far too easy, feeling the way he did, to read more than Jim intended. He'd wait until Jim gave him a definite sign. If it never came... well, friendship was enough.

As he climbed into the shower, he murmured, "Thanks, Jim. And... you're welcome."

Out in the living room, Jim smiled with satisfaction -- first step accomplished, and it seemed that Blair was a bit off balance. That was good; it might make him more receptive as the plan developed. He put his feet up on the coffee table, and changed the channel to the late news.




Thursday, Dec. 24, 1998

The delectable smell of bacon, eggs, fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee encouraged Blair out of his cozy nest to greet the day. He tied his robe, raked back his hair and, yawning, headed for the coffeepot.

"Morning, Chief!"

In Blair's pre-coffee opinion, Jim's voice was entirely too chipper. "If you say so. What time is it?"

"Eight-fifteen. Since it's a whole hour later than you get up when you have to go to school, I think that's enough sleeping in. Your 'surprise' is a bit -- I guess the best description is 'involved' -- and we really should be on the road by nine or so." Jim scooped the bacon and scrambled eggs onto two plates and placed them on the table. "Eat up!"

Blair reached for one of the crispy strips of bacon, slid it forward to pick up a lump of eggs, and bit off the end. It was every bit as good as it smelled, but -- "You do realize this is cholesterol city, don't you?" He took another bite, savoring the combination of salt and sweet.

"It's also sustained energy and internal warmth. Eat the cinnamon roll, too."

"What, you're planning on dog-sledding?" Blair deliberately looked out the balcony windows. "That'll be a little difficult, seeing as there's no snow."

"But it'll freeze tonight," Jim declared with certainty, "which falls right in with my plans. And quit fishing; you'll know when we get there." His smirk was decidedly devilish.

"Okay. But if I turn into a popsicle, you'll have to thaw me out."

"Actually, that's part of the plan. So finish eating and go get dressed -- several warm layers, plus boots, gloves, and that ridiculous Fargo hat." Jim rose to top off their coffee, then pulled a large thermos from the cupboard. He filled it with hot water and let it set for a few minutes, then dumped the water and poured the coffee into the thermos, capping it tightly.

Blair watched his partner making careful preparations. He wasn't sure he wanted to participate in anything that required extra layers of clothing. But Jim was having so much fun... and Blair knew that, if he truly didn't enjoy his 'surprise', Jim would cut it short and bring him home. He swallowed the last of his coffee and stood.

"Y'know, I'm beginning to understand why Naomi usually managed to be someplace warm during the winter months; you don't need half the amount of clothing. And may I ask what those are for?"

Jim was placing four of the cinnamon rolls in a plastic baggie. "Eating, of course. Hot coffee and cinnamon rolls go good together; we'll appreciate the snack, even if we don't need the energy. And why aren't you getting dressed?"

"I'm going, I'm going!" Blair watched Jim begin washing the dishes. "But consider this -- you've cooked breakfast, told me what to wear, and now you send me off to get dressed while you do the dishes. Have it ever occurred to you that you'd make some kid a great -- mother?" He snickered and ducked the threatened wet dishrag, then hightailed it to his room.




Jim headed east, toward the mountains; within forty-five minutes, they had reached an elevation where snow appeared by the side of the road. "Skiing?" Blair asked. "Gotta tell you, I've always thought it looked like fun, but I'm a complete novice -- never even tried it once."

Jim glanced at his friend. "That's too bad, Chief; it is a lot of fun. Maybe we can come up after New Year's and I'll give you some lessons. But no skiing today."

"Okay." Blair subsided, watching as Jim guided the truck higher, and the snow beside the road became deeper. Eventually they turned onto a smaller, less-traveled side road. When they reached a 'scenic outlook', Jim pulled into the parking area. "Wait here, Chief; I need to put on the chains."

He was efficient; in less than five minute they were moving again. Ten minutes later, Jim turned onto a narrow track that showed no signs of recent travel. "Good; I hoped no one had been up here lately."

"You sure we won't get stuck, even with the chains?" Blair didn't look forward to having to get out and push.

"No problem; it's not that deep here under the trees," Jim assured him.

The track continued to wind upward. Thirty minutes later it ended at a large clearing, covered by a pristine expanse of snow. Jim drove straight into the middle and shut off the engine.

Blair looked around. It was beautiful. The white snow blanketed the earth, and lay gently on the evergreen trees with the blue sky arching overhead; they'd left the cloudy gloom back in Cascade. But what kind of surprise was Jim expecting to produce? "Where are we?" he asked.

"This is the parking lot for a really great fishing spot... but you have to hike about two miles that way to get there," Jim explained, gesturing vaguely forward. "I really can't see anyone wanting to do that in this weather, and I was right; no visitors have been through, so we have perfect snow."

Blair looked again; there didn't seem to be anything special about the area, or the snow. "Perfect for what?"

"Making a snowman."

"Making a snowman?"

"Making a snowman."

"And we'll be making a snowman because...?"

"Because you said you had such a great time doing it with what's-his-name when you were eight, and I wanted to give you that again."

"Billy Thompson," Blair said absently. "So we're going to make a snowman and leave it out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Well, we could. But I think it would be more fun to take it down and put it right beside the main door at home, don't you?"

Blair wasn't following Jim at all. "How?"

"Here's how I see it. We fill the truck-bed about one-third full of snow. Then we roll up a snowman bottom, torso, and head, and put them in the truck; the snow will cushion the ride so they won't fall apart. Then shovel more snow around them, and cover it all with the tarp so it won't blow out on the way home. When we get there, we make a base of the loose snow on the sidewalk -- against the building so it'll be out of the way -- and assemble the snowman there. And Prospect Avenue will have its own genuine, hand-built snowman."

Blair's excited enthusiasm was everything Jim had hoped for. "Man, that's a great idea! Weird -- whoever heard of driving seventy miles to make a snowman? -- but great! I'm kind of surprised you thought of it -- weird is supposed to be my gig -- but I am so down with that. Let's get crackin'." He buttoned the coat he had loosened in the warmth of the truck, tied his Fargo hat tightly, pulled on his gloves and hopped out, heading toward the truck-bed. "I suppose you brought shovels?"

Jim joined him, and threw back the tarp. "Sandburg, I've planned much harder missions than this. One for you and one for me." He handed both snow-shovels to Blair, and pulled the tarp off the truck, setting it to one side. "The easiest thing to do is to start right here by the truck and shovel in the snow. As we work farther away, we'll have a clear path to carry it back to the truck. Just don't scoop too deep; we don't want any of the gravel from the ground."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Blair chuckled, giving Jim a sloppy salute. Sometimes his friend's tendency to micro-manage everything could be irritating. Other times, like now, it was just -- cute. Not that I'll ever tell him that! He bent over his shovel and started scooping.

It took very little time to fill the truck-bed one-third full of snow. Jim propped his shovel against the side of the truck and rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Now the fun part, Chief. You make the head, I make the middle, and we work together on the base?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, heading farther away from the truck, toward an untouched swath of snow. He scooped up a double handful and shaped it into a ball, patting it firmly to form the core of the snowman's head. Jim was working a short distance away, shaping a similar snowball. Blair paused, eyeing his friend's broad back.

"Don't even think it, Sandburg," Jim said. "Remember, I'm armed, too."

Yeah, yeah; spoilsport!" But he dropped the snowball into the snow, and started it on a rolling path to gather more. He continued to pat it firmly as he went; he wanted a solid, tightly-packed globe that wouldn't fall apart on the trip home.

When he had what he thought was a good-sized head -- about eighteen inches in diameter -- he turned to see how Jim was progressing with the torso.

Jim noticed Blair straighten from his crouch, and angled his snowball toward Blair's. He stopped a few feet away, and also straightened. "What do you think about the relative sizes, Chief?"

Blair compared them visually, then decided, "Yours needs another layer or two," and bent to help Jim roll the larger ball on one more collection-circuit. The finished torso was about a foot wider than the head.

"Looks good," Jim decided. "Ready for the big one, Chief?"

"Yeah, but..." Blair regarded the torso-ball dubiously. "If we make the base proportionate to those two, it'll stick above the walls of the truck-bed. With the tarp beating on it, it'll get kind of flattened by the time we get home, don't you think?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't see that it'll hurt anything; a flattened side will just make a more stable support when we put the snowman together." He bent and started the third ball. As soon as it grew big enough, Blair joined him in the pushing, rolling, and patting. Jim kept an eye on the terrain, guiding the path so that, by the time the ball had grown to the correct size, it was very close to the other two. With matching groans of relief, both men straightened.

"Well, we can't carry them -- or at least, not the torso and base," Blair pointed out. "You gonna bring the truck over here?"

"I rather thought we would bring the truck over here. But first, there's cinnamon rolls and hot coffee calling our names, don't you think?"

"Man, you have the best ideas! Let's go."

Side-by-side they hiked the short distance back to the truck; the growing snowman-pieces had taken them farther than Blair thought. And, now that he wasn't physically active, he could feel the cold creeping in through all his layers; the hot coffee would warm him nicely.




After the break, they made short work of getting the snowman pieces into the truck-bed. Still following Jim's plan, they shoveled more snow around the round lumps, filling the truck-bed almost to the top of the sidewalls. It made sense, Blair decided; the extra snow would keep the round balls -- boulders, really -- from rolling and maybe breaking apart.

As Jim tied down the tarp that would protect everything on the trip home, Blair was planning ahead, seeing the put-together snowman standing in front of their home. But something was missing from the picture...

"Hey, Jim? I just realized; we're not finished."

"Of course not; it won't be until we assemble it back in Cascade."

"That's not it. A snowman is more than three big balls of snow; we need something for arms, and eyes and mouth, and buttons down the front. We don't have anything at home, except the carrot for the nose." He waved at the expanse of trees that encroached on one side of the clearing. "I'll bet we could find something in there -- especially if you use your senses for the search."

Jim chuckled. "I always knew you were a kid at heart, Sandburg -- or do you just want to win the snowman-judging contest?" He draped his arm around Blair's shoulders and started walking with him toward the trees. "It's a good idea, though, so lead on, MacDuff!"

As they walked through the beautiful, silent landscape, Jim didn't bother to remove his arm from Blair's shoulders. For his part, Blair reciprocated by slipping his arm around Jim's waist as he enjoyed this all-too-rare closeness; he hoped at least some of it would last past the Christmas season.

Once under the trees, Jim became the hunter, releasing Blair as he stalked forward on the trail of elusive pinecones and wily tree-branches. Blair stifled the pang as Jim's arm left his shoulders and followed his sentinel on the hunt.

Jim's skills were as accurate as Blair had expected; in short order, they had collected almost three dozen pinecones in several shapes and sizes, and two branches from a fallen aspen. They broke the sticks to an even size, leaving the finger-like twigs at the end intact, and piled the pinecones into Blair's Fargo hat.

Blair had dropped a few steps behind so that Jim, with the snowman 'arms' over one shoulder and a few evergreen boughs under one arm, could maneuver through the forest growth. He eyed that enticing broad back and ran some calculations. His chances of winning were extremely slight, but the target was just too tempting.

He set his pinecone-filled hat behind the nearest tree, then stooped to form a snowball. But he'd seen his share of old-fashioned Westerns; he knew that only a lily-livered, cowardly dog attacked from behind. "Hey, Jim!" he called.

"Yeah, Chief?" As expected, Jim half turned to answer... to be met by Blair's snowball to the chest.

Trained warrior reflexes kicked in; Jim dropped his encumbrances and leaped into battle. "You are so going to get it, Sandburg!" he shouted, lobbing his own snowball toward the enemy.

With no lack of ammunition, and plenty of shielding tree-trunks, the fight ranged far a-field. Each man gave as good as he got, pitching snowballs, dodging return fire, ducking behind tree-trunks, and darting out to toss another snowball. Laughter danced through the air as they shouted threats and counter-threats, occasionally falling back on the old stand-by of, "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah!"

Jim was getting too close; Blair turned to execute a strategic retreat and tripped over a root hidden in the snow.

"Got'cha!" Jim pounced on Blair's prone figure, expecting a swift end to the battle -- he had the actual combat training, after all -- but Blair demonstrated an unexpected command of wrestling skills. They rolled over and over in the snow until they ran into a tree-trunk, stopping their momentum. Blair struggled but, caught by a tree on one side and with Jim's weight pressing him into the snow, he couldn't escape; graceful surrender seemed his only option. "Uncle!" he gasped, letting his head fall back into the snow and laughing up into the face above him. "You win!"

"It was a foregone conclusion, Sandburg," Jim growled in his most threatening tones. He leaned closer, his breath puffing into Blair's face. "Remember that the next time; youth and sneakiness will always lose against age and experience."

"Well, you have the age anyway," Blair said easily.

Jim leaned even closer. "Those who doubt the experience may be doomed to have it demonstrated first-hand."

Blair just grinned. "Oh, yeah, I'm shaking in my boots, here. Do your worst, big guy; I can handle it."

"You..." Blue eyes met blue and, without warning, something shifted. Each man held his breath, waiting, feeling... Their faces were so close that their breaths mingled as they searched each other's eyes. Something was happening, here...

A shiver passed through Blair's body, breaking the spell. Jim felt it, of course. He quickly rose, and extended a hand to help Blair up. "Enough, Chief. We need to get going if we're going to get the snowman built before dark."

"Right. I think you're just trying to save face, don't want to admit that the lowly anthropologist held his own against the big, buff ranger."

"Dream on, Chief. It just doesn't seem kosher to freeze my best friend before we even get his snowman built."

Backtracking to recover the pinecones and dropped branches wasn't difficult; as Blair pointed out, "If all trails were like this, no one would need to develop tracking skills." Ten minutes later they had their 'snowman accessories' stashed behind the seats and were heading back down the mountain, with the heat turned high. They both appreciated the chance to warm up before another round of playing in the snow.




What the hell was that, Ellison? Jim asked himself as they headed toward the truck. You were damn near ready to hump your best friend in the snow. That is

not

the way to persuade someone into a deeper relationship. Stick with the plan and maybe --
maybe you'll get lucky tomorrow night.




Enjoying the warmth, and the silent companionship of his best friend -- and that's enough; it's more than a lot of people have, he told himself sternly -- Blair watched the snow-covered trees pass by without comment. But still... for a minute there, it really seemed like... He reined in his speculations sharply. Jumping to conclusions could be disastrous, and you can't build a relationship on 'seems like'. Take it as it comes and play it cool while you're waiting, you idiot! Self-imposed pep-talk finished, Blair settled deeper into his seat, and maybe he zoned a little; the next thing he knew, they were pulling into a parking lot in front of a long, low log building. The sign over the door read, 'Aspen Chalet'.

"What's this?" he asked. "And it's the wrong shape for a chalet."

"Don't be picky, Sandburg; it isn't the outside that counts, but what's inside."

"And inside we'll find...?"

"Lunch. They do mostly sandwiches, but they use real meat and vegetables, not the processed stuff, and they make the best damn hot German potato salad you'll ever taste. It wouldn't be much of a present if I let you faint from hunger before we finish making the snowman."

Blair hid his grin as he followed Jim into the restaurant. Mush; the man was pure mush beneath his frequently-gruff exterior, and Blair loved him for it.




This lunch would go into his stored memories as one of the best meals he'd ever shared with Jim, Blair decided. The food was hearty and delicious, and the room was quiet, with very few diners on this day before Christmas. And Jim... was there, actually engaging in conversation instead of just spouting macho bull about the Jags' latest game.

Not that they didn't discuss sports, but it didn't stop there. The conversation ranged seemingly across the world, from Jim's work to Blair's work, from exotic places Jim had visited to even more exotic places Blair had visited, from the vagaries of students to the quirks of cops. Under their outward differences, it was amazing how similar they were deep down, Blair decided. Or... not similar, exactly... but definitely simpatico. Their different lives had led them both to a deep respect for other peoples and cultures, and a basic acceptance of the oddities of humanity.

Not for the first time, Blair reflected how lucky he was. He'd gone searching for a sentinel, anticipating finding nothing more than some guy who was a walking collection of hyperactive senses. Instead he'd found a remarkable man, sometimes flawed, but with an extraordinary dedication to doing the best he could to make the world a better place. That such a man counted him as 'friend' was a treasure beyond price.




Jim pulled up across the street to allow Blair a good overview of the area. "Okay, Chief, it's your snowman; where do you want to put him?"

"There," Blair decided, pointing to a spot about fifteen feet to the left of the main doors of the bakery on the ground floor. "If we put it against the wall, it'll be out of the way of the pedestrian traffic, and it's halfway between the streetlamps, so it'll be sort of lit up all night. And it won't get much sun, there; it might stay frozen for a few extra days."

"Sounds good," Jim said as he maneuvered the truck to the right angle to back into a parking space close to the selected area. Working together, they soon had the tarp untied and pushed back, and were carrying shovels of snow to form a snow-platform; Blair was convinced that that would also help retard the melting.

The solidly-formed snowman parts had made the trip without crumpling or breaking apart. It took only a few minutes for Jim and Blair to assemble them properly, and just a little longer to use the leftover snow in the truck-bed for packing into the joins, to 'cement' everything together.

Then came the fun part. Blair examined his selection of pinecones, deciding how best to use them. Two of a medium size became the eyes, after he had cut off the top halves and pushed them into the head bottom-out. The tightly-whorled, barely-open scales of that part of the pinecones gave the snowman a wide-eyed, eager look, especially when combined with the broad smile underneath, formed of small round pinecones, each slightly larger than a grape.

Blair sent Jim upstairs for a carrot -- "No, we can't use a pinecone; carrot noses are traditional. But break one in half; we don't want the nose to overpower the rest of the face." -- while he pressed the slender, elongated pinecones down the snowman's torso. Stepping back to evaluate the effect, he decided that they really did look like fancy, high-class button-covers.

"Here you go, Chief," Jim said, handing over the carrot. "And I thought you might like these, for eyebrows." He held out two other carrot pieces, about two inches long, that had been sliced in half lengthwise.

"Perfect! Thanks, man." He placed nose and eyebrows with due care, and stepped back again to admire the result. "That is one fine-looking snowman."

"Absolutely; best one on Prospect Avenue." Jim grinned to see his friend so involved in his creative endeavor. "Just needs the arms, now. How do you want them -- angled up, or down, or one of each?"

"Hmmm... can you hold one angled forward, about forty-five degrees?" Jim complied, patiently following directions to shift the sample arm up, down, forward or backward. "That's it! We need to break about two feet off the end of each, then put them at a little upward angle and about halfway forward.

"Now he looks ready to hug the whole world," Blair said when the arms were in place, satisfaction coloring his tone. "Forget Prospect Avenue; I bet we have the best snowman in the whole city!"

"Not quite. We can't have a naked snowman standing around; he might get hauled in for indecent exposure." Jim slowly pulled a tie out of his pocket. "I thought you might like to put this around his neck."

Blair started laughing. "My god, it's perfect! But where did you get it?"

Jim grinned as he looped the tie -- garish yellow-green with rainbow-colored dolphins leaping on it -- around the snowman's neck. "It was a joke-gift from a surfing party a long time ago; I just never got around to tossing it. I thought it might give your snowman a certain... élan." He completed a neat four-in-hand knot.

"Well, we could call it that, though I'm not sure anyone else would agree. But who cares?" Blair stepped forward to slap Jim a high-five. "I know I said it already, but this was a great idea; you the man!"

Jim returned the high-five, then kept Blair's hand clasped within his own as he smiled gently. "It takes one to know one, Chief; you're 'the man' in my book." He saw -- and felt -- a minute shiver pass through Blair. "But I think 'the man' is getting cold. Seems like I promised you some popcorn and hot chocolate last week; tonight would be a good time to make good on it. Ready to go up?"

"That's what I really like about you, Jim; you come up with the best ideas. This combination of snowman-building and recovery from snowman-building should rank right up in the top ten."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim asked, ushering Blair through the door and across the lobby. "So what else do you think is in the top ten?"

"Well, actually, that's not as easy as you'd think," Blair admitted cheerfully. "It varies with recent events -- like cookie-making yesterday. But in general..." He paused, thinking while the elevator carried them upward. "Well, in general, any time you suggest a weekend fishing trip ranks right up there. And any time you decide to make your shrimp polonaise is a stellar idea. But simpler things, too, like when you suggest take-out pizza and cold beer after a hard day, or a round of pick-up basketball with just the two of us.

"Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum -- the ideas I could live without, like your inclination not to share the TV remote control, or weekly cleaning twice a week. But on balance, the good ideas are way more plentiful than the bad ones."

"Wow, Sandburg, you overwhelm me with praise," Jim said dryly, hanging his coat on the hooks beside the door and stepping out of his boots.

Blair chortled, shedding his own coat and boots. "And one of your good qualities is that you speak plainly. Just following your lead, man -- and being patient till we get to the popcorn and hot chocolate."

"And Haagen-Daaz chocolate ice cream," Jim reminded him as he walked into the kitchen and pulled open the freezer. "I didn't forget. But while you're exercising your patience, how about spaghetti and garlic bread for supper? We have a couple pints of sauce in here, and ground turkey for the meatballs."

"Add another one to the top ten!" Blair exclaimed, joining him in the kitchen. "Man, you're really batting a thousand." He gave Jim a friendly elbow-jab then, working in their customary harmony, they continued their supper preparations.




Great day -- no, two days! Blair mused, as he dried himself after his shower and slipped into his thermal undershirt and fresh boxers. Good thing I'm not sick, or I'd think Jim was representing the Make-a-Wish foundation. He snorted softly to himself. Of course, he'd have to be psychic to come up with everything he's done, since even I didn't know I was wishing for this stuff. On the other hand, he is a sentinel; maybe he's got enhancements he hasn't told me about.

He wore a contented smile as he carefully hung up his wet towels and pulled the loose hair from the drain, wrapping it neatly in toilet paper and tossing it in the trash; Jim deserved some kind of tangible 'thank you' for the incredible, open-hearted generosity he'd been demonstrating. On the other hand, I've always known he was pretty much a gooey marshmallow inside, Blair pondered as he tied the belt of his robe and stepped out into the hall. I just never expected him to be so obvious about it.

He stopped for a second at the doors to his room, lifting a hand casually. "It's all yours, man; I even left you some hot water. See you in the morning."

"Thanks, Chief; goodnight," Jim said absently. Blair grinned; if Jim was at the 'unmasking the killer' part of his current book, he'd finish that chapter before he put it down -- and then think up arguments for and against while he showered. Sometimes it still surprised him that a detective actually liked to read mystery novels.

He tossed his robe on the foot of the bed and pulled down the blankets without bothering to turn on the lights. But, when he laid his head on the pillow, his cheek hit something stiff, and it -- crinkled. Huh? Sitting up, Blair turned on the bedside lamp and discovered an envelope on his pillow.

Fingers trembling slightly -- Jim, this is, like... unreal! -- he pulled out a card that showed a picture of a vibrant rainbow waving proudly above snow-capped mountains. Blair stared at it for a few moments; this was like... well, he wasn't sure what it was like, but it sure didn't feel like the Jim he knew. Finally, carefully, he opened it to see what Jim had written.
Blair -- I told you that I appreciate your friendship and your 'guide'-ship. What I didn't tell you is that you've permeated my entire life... and I like it. Your voice is an anchor when my senses are kicking up a storm. When you walk into a room, you bring a vibrant energy that fills up the whole place which, somehow, smoothes out all the rough edges of the sensory input. You don't even have to do anything; just having you within eyesight or hearing range -- or even the scent imprint that you've left behind when you put your coffee cup on my desk before you go haring off to enlighten someone about your latest interest -- is enough to keep my senses stable. Hearing your heartbeat in the room below me is the lullaby that allows me to fall asleep peacefully -- I had a hell of a time sleeping while you were gone -- and hearing that same heartbeat when I wake in the morning immediately orients me for the day.

You could be right -- maybe one day I won't need you to keep my senses stable, and I'll be ready to fly solo... but I suspect it will take a few more years. At least.

God knows you have your own life to live. I'm just saying, you don't have to move out as soon as you have enough information for your dissertation, or even when the dissertation is finished. I wouldn't mind sharing the loft with a PhD -- it might even give the joint a little class, huh? This is an official invitation -- you can stay as long as you want, as long as it's what you want.

And now I'm getting real close to being mushy; I do have my standards to uphold.  
:-)   So I'll just say, welcome back, buddy. Listening to your heartbeat, I'll sleep well tonight; I hope you do, too.
This time, it was signed with a small, but carefully-executed, heart.

Almost dazed, Blair rose and stepped to the door but, when he opened it, he heard the shower running. Even Jim wouldn't hear him through that natural white noise, unless he shouted. Deliberate? Maybe, maybe not, and absolutely no way to know.

Slowly, Blair closed the door, turned out the light, laid down and pulled the covers up. He lay, staring into the darkness, thinking. The idea of this kind of connection was -- again -- overwhelming. And scary. And downright cool.

But -- could he really do it? It was fine to decide 'fifty years' when it was only a fantasy, but he had no experience with long-term friendships in close quarters. The occasional postcard from a distant expedition, sure. A drink every two years when an old friend passed through, no problem. But... some kind of permanent relationship? Did he really have it in him? What about if one of them -- or both of them -- got married?

But surely tribal sentinels and guides must've lived like that -- always close, even if they had wives and children. The male friendship bonds are even stronger, and more common, than in 'civilization'. It's been done. Question is, can I do it?

And he still couldn't tell if Jim wanted something more. He'd happily give up the idea of marriage and spend the rest of his life making hot monkey love with the man, but he wouldn't force the issue. He couldn't take the chance that Jim would acquiesce to sexual overtures simply as a way to keep Blair in his life, so that the sentinel could continue to have his guide with him.

But, realistically, how long can a relationship last, with unrequited love on one side? How likely is it to become too warped to sustain, how long before it explodes into a big meltdown? I could set a time-table -- say, three years -- move out, get my own place, still work together if he needs me. Would that be better, or worse?

There were too many factors to weigh; he simply couldn't come to a conclusion.

When Blair heard the bathroom door open, he whispered, "Thanks, Jim." There was no answer, and the thinking continued for a long time before sleep claimed him.




Lying in his big -- lonely -- bed upstairs, Jim could easily tell that Blair wasn't asleep yet. The question was, what was he thinking? Had he read only the overt 'friendship' in Jim's note, or had he read between the lines and seen something deeper?

Coward! he jeered to himself. If you hadn't hidden in the shower, you might know by now. Or you could walk down the stairs right now and just talk to the man!

But it was too soon; he wanted -- needed -- Blair to read the letter first. Maybe he was a coward, but he needed the security of following the plan. It just seemed like that gave the greatest likelihood for success; if it worked, he only had another... fourteen or fifteen hours to wait.

Resolutely, Jim tried to ignore the fact that, if his plan didn't work, he'd be waiting through a lot of long, lonely years.




Friday, Dec. 25, 1998

Again, Jim was midway through breakfast preparations when Blair woke; he smelled sausage and coffee, and heard the sound of the beater as Jim mixed batter for pancakes or waffles. Shelving last night's perplexing questions, he tossed aside the blankets and reached for his robe.

"Just in time, Chief!" Jim called from the kitchen. "I'm ready to put the pancakes on the griddle right now; shake a leg!"

"Nag, nag, nag," Blair teased, heading toward the bathroom. "If you're not careful, I'll just keep your present and get my money back." Closing the bathroom door only muffled Jim's hearty chuckle.

Interesting how Jim can time breakfast to just when I wake up, Blair mused, washing his hands. Wonder if he can sense a change in my body temperature or heartbeat or something. I'll have to ask... after the two-week moratorium is up. He snickered softly to himself, remembering his promise.

"'Morning, Jim; merry Christmas," Blair said as he crossed toward the coffeepot. He filled two mugs and carried them toward the table.

"Right back at'cha, Chief. How does blueberry pancakes and sausage sound?" Jim asked rhetorically; he'd already put a plate in front of Blair and was sitting down with his own.

"Pretty close to heaven," Blair said, reaching for the blueberry jam he liked to spread on top; in his opinion, blueberry pancakes should be really blueberry. As he picked up the knife beside his plate, he noticed an edge of paper all-but-hidden under his napkin. Pulling it out, he read:

One of the perks of having you in my life is sharing meals.
When you're sitting across the table, my day starts out right.


Jaw dropping, Blair read it again. Somehow, the sentiments seemed more 'real' in daylight, and even less like his emotion-avoiding friend. "Jim?"

"You're always on me to be more open. Merry Christmas, Chief. Of course, if you talk about it outside the loft, I'll have to kill you."

"Of course," Blair agreed gravely. He mimed turning a key at his lips, then tossing it over his shoulder.

The meal continued in silence for a few minutes, but Blair couldn't maintain it for long. "So, we gonna open the presents before the big game, or after?" He turned speculative eyes toward the tree. The very small present from Jim was driving him crazy. He firmly believed in the old adage that 'good things come in small packages', but he couldn't even guess what was in it.

"Like I could keep you away from them without using my handcuffs." Jim's voice showed his amusement. "As soon as the dishes are washed; I wouldn't want my guide to self-combust."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah -- it's not like you haven't been trying to figure out what's in yours!"

"Gotta admit, Sandburg, whatever you got, I can't get any information even with my senses turned up high. You might be taking this 'know-the-sentinel' gig a little far.

"Now that's just sour grapes," Blair said. "All I've done is put you on the same level with the rest of us mortals."

"Well, it worked," Jim admitted cheerfully. "Pumpkin pie for dessert?"

"It's breakfast-time; how about apple pie, instead?"

"Of course, it wouldn't hurt to have both," Jim pointed out.

"I like the way you think; bring it on!"

While Jim cut the pies, Blair grabbed the coffeepot and refilled both mugs. Each man took a section of the morning paper, which Jim had brought in earlier, and they ate in companionable silence. Afterward, working together as usual, they made short work of washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.

"All right!" Blair exclaimed, landing on the couch with a decided bounce. "One at a time, or each open one simultaneously?"

"There aren't that many," Jim said. "I think we can wait to see what the other got. I'll even let you go first; here's one from Joel." He handed Blair a small box wrapped in silver-and-red striped paper. Blair ripped into the package without any urging.

"Oh, wow!" he laughed, letting three pair of soft Argyle socks spill through his fingers. "I'll have warm feet all winter. I wonder what little bird tipped him off?"

"Guilty, Chief." Jim picked up a larger box wrapped in matching paper. "And I wonder if a counterpart little bird helped him choose this one."

"Joel's a good friend," Blair said comfortably. "And he wants to give good presents." He watched as Jim examined the selection of organic, exotic honeys and jams. "I predict you'll have some pretty tasty breakfasts in the very near future."

"I predict you're right," Jim said, opening the lid of the boysenberry-peach jam to savor the aroma.

By unspoken consent, they saved their presents to each other for last; they opened and exclaimed over -- or laughed over -- gifts from all their friends in Major Crime. Then, with just two presents left, Jim handed Blair a square, slender box wrapped in delicately-embossed, silver paper. "This is from me, Chief; hope you like it."

Blair made a show of shaking the box next to his ear. "Well, it's not ticking, and it's not thick enough to hold a lump of coal." When Jim answered his quip with only the barest smile, Blair quietly opened the package with more care than he had shown the others. He couldn't imagine what Jim was concerned about; Blair was certain he'd love anything his friend had chosen.

He lifted the lid of the simple cardboard box, pulled aside the square of cotton padding, and gasped. The pendant inside was exquisite. A silver oval enclosed a wolf head and a panther head, side-by-side, each with turquoise eyes. The band of the oval was inset with -- Blair counted -- five pairs of brown/gold stones in various shades; he recognized amber, tigereye, and petrified wood, but not the other two. The whole thing hung from a leather thong, which was strung with stone beads that matched the gems of the amulet.

"Jim!" Blair's voice was barely audible, even to the sentinel. "This is... this is just..." Words failed him. He lifted his ankh over his head with trembling fingers, and replaced it with the panther and wolf. It settled beneath his throat as if it had come home, and he stroked each head with a delicate finger.

Jim cleared his throat. "I commissioned it from an Indian silversmith. After I explained what I wanted, he asked me to look through this big display case with different stones in each section, and told me to keep the essence of you in my mind. I had to choose five different stones that seemed as if they would 'enhance your being'." He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "Turns out they mean things like strength and protection and insight. I wrote it all down for you, 'cause I knew I'd never remember it all."

"It's incredible!" Blair breathed. "Every best present in my life, rolled up into one gigantic ball of good-ness, can't hold a candle to this. I expected something like a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore or something. This... I'm just blown away."

Jim relaxed, although Blair's discerning eye noticed a remaining tension, and he smiled happily. "I wanted to... sort of celebrate the sentinel-guide thing we share. Something to let you know I appreciate it, even when I'm being -- cantankerous." His smile widened, and he winked at Blair's stunned expression.

Blair quickly rallied. "Crabby."

"Grouchy."

"Obstreperous."

"Fractious."

"Sulky."

"Now, I resent that, Chief! I've never been sulky!"

"Not macho enough for you?"

"Got it in one." They laughed together, then Blair sobered. He lifted the pendant to look at it again, and shook his head in awe. "This is almost spooky, Jim." He crossed to the Christmas tree and grabbed the final package; he wanted it to pass directly from his hands to Jim's. "Merry Christmas... and I hope you like it half as much as I like mine." Rather than returning to his previous place, he sat next to Jim, holding his breath with anticipation.

Jim accepted the package almost solemnly. It was somewhat larger than the one he'd given Blair, wrapped in shiny blue paper with a pattern of silver bells.

He pulled the top off the cardboard box to discover -- a plastic food-saver, with the lid on tight. He snorted softly, and pulled up the lid to be confronted with a mass of styrofoam peanuts. He looked up, to see Blair watching intently. "There is a present in here, right, Chief?"

"Like you said earlier -- I wrapped it good!"

Jim reached into the packing material, and his fingers touched a band of metal, which he carefully pulled out.

As Jim examined the watch, he understood why Blair had termed his amulet 'spooky'. Although the watch was heavy and definitely masculine, the rim around the face was inset with alternating pieces of turquoise and tigereye. The flanges on each side of the face, where the band connected, were engraved -- one with the head of a panther, the other with the head of a wolf -- and the eyes of each animal were tiny chips of turquoise. Without being as ostentatious as the pendant he had designed for Blair, it was obvious that they'd been thinking along the same lines when they bought their present for the other.

"The watch already had the turquoise and tigereye on it -- those stand for strength and protection, by the way -- but the sides were plain. I took it to an Indian silversmith -- wonder if it was the same man? -- and had him do the engraving."

"It was the same man," Jim said absently. "I recognize his scent on the eye-stones." He unbuckled his old watch and slipped the new one in its place, after setting the time and pressing the stem to activate the battery. "This is amazing, Blair -- absolutely beautiful -- and just as uncanny as you said."

"You know, we've never really examined the spiritual side of this sentinel-guide connection. Do you think this is just coincidence, or more than that?"

Jim sighed deeply. "It's too much to be coincidence... but how can we analyze or measure a spiritual connection? And... God, Chief, it just feels like 'too much'. I mean... I'm happy to ignore it most of the time, and just deal with the spirit plane when we have to. Can't we leave it like that?" His eyes begged Blair to understand.

Blair settled back into the couch, trying to relieve the tension by watching the tree instead of Jim, but edging closer so that his shoulder brushed Jim's. "Sure we can. I've got no beef with how things are going. You're handling your senses well, we make a great team, and I plan to take you up on your offer to keep living here -- well, for a few years, anyway. I think these --" he reached out to cover Jim's watch with one hand, while he clasped his amulet with the other, "are proof positive that we're in the groove.

"This has been absolutely, positively, the best Christmas I've ever had, and I can't imagine anything that can ever top it." Blair shifted sideways to make his point, holding Jim's eyes with his own. "But it wasn't the cookie-making, or the snowman-building, or even this," he fingered the pendant again, "that did it. It's the fact that you put so much thought into making me feel special, and the way you showed yourself in those notes you've been letting me find." He gave a half-shrug / half-hand-wave, a vulnerable, almost lost expression on his face. "You're this fantabulous combination of best friend, Blessed Protector," he gave a quick grin at Jim's small snort, "heroic champion and big brother. To have the friendship of a man like that... well, my cup is full. We don't have to add anything or do anything different."

Jim cleared his throat uneasily, his eyes shifting away. "Chief, I..."

Blair punched him gently on the shoulder. "Don't strain yourself, big guy; you already said it in your notes. It's more than enough; I don't need anything else."

"Well, there is one more thing." Jim rose and reached into the middle of the Christmas tree, pulling out an envelope that Blair hadn't noticed hiding among the branches. Almost reluctantly, but with a determined look on his face, he thrust it into Blair's hands. "Read this, and think about it. I mean really, really think about it."

He grabbed his coat from its hook and slipped into it. "I'll be back in about an hour. I swear, Blair, we'll handle it whichever way you want it to go. Nothing has to change unless you want it to." He shut the door quietly behind him.

"Wait! Jim..." But he was already gone.




Blair stared at the envelope for a few minutes; what could Jim have possibly written that had him so uptight? Only one way to find out. Very deliberately, he pulled the card from the envelope.

The front showed one perfect, half-opened, long-stemmed red rose, a drop of dew poised on one petal. Considering that Jim had undoubtedly put a lot of thought into selecting the card, the picture was probably... significant. Blair opened the card and began to read.
Blair -- relax and take a deep breath. Nothing has changed since my earlier notes. You're still my best friend. You're still the guide I depend on to keep my senses working properly. You're still the best thing that ever happened in my life. In fact, I really should stop complaining about the senses -- if it wasn't for them, you and I would probably never have met, and my life would be far poorer. But lately, that's not everything I feel.

But before I go on, I want you to know -- to be absolutely sure -- that I won't make a move without your agreement and say-so. I'll follow your guidance in this and for once, I'll do it without arguing. You decide, and I'll take my cues from you.

Here's the deal -- I love you, Blair. Yes, like a best friend. Yes, like a trusted partner. But also... like a lover.

Do you know your hair has 162 different shades of red, brown, and gold? When you've just washed it, and it's drying while you sit beside the fireplace, I can count every one of them. Touching it is like touching silk, only better, because it responds on my skin like it's alive. Bet you've wondered why I always go for the hair; now you know.

You're easy on the eyes; I love just watching you. Your face is so expressive -- and your hands dance when you're explaining something, speaking a language of their own. Your body is perfectly proportioned -- compact and slender; it should be a crime to hide it under layers of flannel the way you do. But strong -- strong enough that you don't let me push you around, and you give back as good as you get.

Your voice hath charms to soothe the savage breast -- or at least my savage breast. It reaches deep into my soul and vibrates within every cell of my being. Sometimes it's the lifeline that pulls me from a zone; other times it's a siren call that sings through my most vivid fantasies. Your scent smells like home, and comfort, and love, and your taste... I can only guess that it will be just as rich, just as enticing. I can't wait to find out.

Then there's your brain -- that logical, illogical, incisive, intuitive, wonderful brain. You never make a big deal of it, but we both know you leave me and everyone else in the dust. The fact that you bring all of that brilliance to bear on helping me with the senses leaves me... humble. And grateful; so very grateful. Being the focus of your attention is... a real turn-on. You say the senses make me special, but it's the way you treat me that makes me feel special.

I think you don't realize it, but you're the one who's really special. You have the courage to follow me into the hairiest situations, compassion that overflows to share with anyone in need, and a sense of humor that never fails to lighten my day just when I need it. It's like... you fill up a hole inside me I didn't even know was there, and make me feel safe. I can't imagine my life without you in it. I don't want to.
The writing covered the inside of the card and was continued on the back, and then Jim had kept writing on a separate sheet of paper. Blair paused in his reading, trying to absorb the words. He'd known that Jim tended to hide and repress things, but this was ridiculous; he'd had no idea that the man felt like this. How long has it been going on? he wondered, and how could I be so clueless as to miss it? But, depending on how Jim had finished his letter, they might soon be making up for lost time. Eagerly, he unfolded the new page.
Blair -- in case you haven't figured it out by now, I love you. But also, I'm IN love with you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, loving you, making love to you, and having you make love to me. I think -- I hope -- you feel the same way.

But maybe this has all come at you from left field. Maybe you're planning that someday you'll have a wife and a couple of kids, and maybe you don't want to give up that dream. I swear, if that's what you want, I'll stay out of your way. Just give me the high sign when I walk in the door -- I guess by acting like all this card says is 'Merry Christmas' -- and I'll never mention how I feel.

I can live with that; as long as I can be your best friend and partner, my life will be good. Whether we're lovers or friends, I hope you'll be part of my life for a long, long time.

But... I love you, Blair. Can you love me back?
Well, duh! Blair snorted softly to himself; he couldn't wait to show Jim Ellison just how willing he was to love him back. Willing, hell; it took all he had not to throw on his own coat and run out looking for Jim. But there was no way to know where to look; he'd be with Jim a lot sooner if he waited here, as patiently as he could.

Which really wasn't all that patient; Blair paced around the living room, running his hands through his hair as he considered his next move. Jim deserved to know Blair's answer as soon as he walked through the door, but what could he do to demonstrate his feelings?

Candles were romantic... but kind of girly. Tie a red bow around his throat, and pose on the couch with his robe hanging open? No way; it would be too blatant, and he'd feel way too silly.

On the other hand, this was kind of like he was expecting a date, and he wouldn't greet a date in his bathrobe and ratty undershirt. Yeah, set the scene -- build a fire, put on some 'date' clothes, maybe have some glasses and an open bottle of wine waiting on the coffee table... did they have any wine?

Blair glanced at the clock. If Jim returned on time -- and he was always on time -- he had just twenty minutes to pull all this together. Yeah, he could do this.




Jim paused outside the door; he hadn't felt this nervous when he asked Carolyn to marry him. He felt almost paralyzed; once he stepped into the loft, it was out of his hands. His future was up to Blair, and...

And what? he asked himself. You trust Blair to have your back for everything else; is this so different? You know he cares for you; that won't change, even if it doesn't become the love you want. So quit being an ass, Ellison, open that door and face the music.

He slipped quietly, almost cautiously, through the door and closed it gently behind him. If he was expecting not to be noticed, it didn't work. Blair, reading on the end of the couch, looked up and gave him a brilliant smile. "Welcome home, Jim!" He put his book down and strode toward his love.

In the few seconds it took him to cross the room, Jim saw and analyzed the preparations Blair had made. The warmth of the fire and the ready bottle of wine were reassuring; there was no reason to make the effort if they were going to remain 'just friends'.

But the most encouraging sign was Blair himself. He was wearing his 'lucky' jeans -- sinfully soft with repeated washings, and snug enough to invite close exploration. Jim's fingers itched to touch the sensuous satin shirt -- or rather, the body that it clung to, highlighting the slender, sturdy form. Blair's eyes, blazing with love, were bluer from the deep color of the shirt, and -- where on earth had he gotten it? -- he'd stuck a sprig of mistletoe on top of his head.

Blair put his arms around Jim's waist without giving him time to take off his coat. "I've been waiting for this... longer than you know. I love you, too, Jim."




Oh God, yes! Blair thought fuzzily as he returned Jim's kisses with equal fervor. Why did we wait so long? Then thought faded as he immersed himself in taste -- and warmth -- and love.




Later -- much later -- they lay entwined on the couch, breathing and heartrates subsiding to normal. Blair deliberately snuggled deeper into the cushions, wrapping his arms and legs around Jim to pull him tighter, reveling in the touch of skin on skin, and the firm pressure of Jim's body on his. Jim continued to press languid kisses on Blair's temple, eyelids, nose, chin... and lips.

Finally he lifted his head, gazing down at his now and forever love. "Hey," he said gently.

Blair's eyes fluttered open, love spilling from his soul, accepting Jim's love in return. "Yeah?"

"Merry Christmas, Chief."



The End




Author's Notes


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Title: Need to Know
Summary: Blair's dreams after Incacha's death will lead him on a quest.
Style: Gen
Size: 22,950 words, about 44 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Written September, 2009
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org






Need to Know

by StarWatcher





The darkness was all-encompassing. Just the faintest hint of ambient light assured him he hadn't gone blind, but it wasn't enough to allow him to navigate, or even show him where he was. The place felt 'big' but, at the same time, 'enclosed'. He listened, but there was no sound; the silence was so complete that he could literally hear the air molecules impacting his eardrums.

He had no idea how he'd gotten here. At least he wasn't restrained in any way, and his head wasn't throbbing, so it was unlikely he'd been drugged or knocked unconscious. But whatever or whoever had dumped him here probably meant him no good; it would be stupid to sit here waiting on someone else's whims.

He swept his hands around him. Finding no walls -- and, more importantly, no holes in the rocky ground -- he carefully stood. Cautiously, one step at a time, he moved forward, hand outstretched to avoid running into something, and one foot leading, tapping the ground firmly before he shifted his weight to it. An arthritic turtle would probably move faster, but he'd seen too many movies that depicted hidden traps in seemingly innocuous locations. Hell, he'd experienced a few himself. No sense rushing headlong to knock himself out against an obstacle, or fall over the edge of a cliff.

Eventually, his reaching hand encountered a wall -- uneven rock, cool and slightly damp. Was he in a cave? It seemed likely. That meant there would be a way out... but which way? He strained his eyes, looking left, then right, but could discern no difference in the levels of barely-light. He held his breath with his eyes closed as he faced each direction, straining to feel. Was there a smidgen of air current hitting his cheeks as he faced left? Maybe. It was as good a reason as any to choose that direction.

He resumed his progress, right hand on the wall, left hand forward to avoid hitting another wall, and foot still tapping the ground before each step. At this rate, it would take him a year to find his way out -- if he ever did. He tried not to remember the fate of 'Indian Joe', trapped in Tom Sawyer's cave. Surely it wouldn't come to that; his friends would be looking for him, wouldn't they?

He hoped they'd find him sooner rather than later.





Jim lay in bed, listening to the racing heart and labored breathing in the bedroom below. He'd been awakened the past five nights by Sandburg's reactions to whatever dreams were bothering him. The kid had seemed quieter than usual, a bit reserved, in the month since Incacha's death. It was only natural; not only had Incacha died right in front of him, Blair also had the guilt of his friend Janet's death because he had asked for her help. It took time to work through these things, and Jim had been prepared to let Sandburg handle it himself. But if the recent bad dreams were any indication, the kid was feeling worse instead of better.

When Blair started whimpering, Jim threw back the covers; enough was enough. He padded down the stairs and slipped quietly into Sandburg's room. The kid looked rough, sweating profusely, with the blankets twisted around him, and his heart rate continued to increase. But an abrupt awakening might compound the problem.

Hoping he was doing the right thing, Jim laid a firm but gentle hand on Blair's cheek. "You're okay, Chief," he murmured. "It's only a dream. You're safe; nothing can hurt you." Slowly, he stroked a thumb across the clammy skin, deliberately catching the roughness of the nighttime beard, hoping the sensation would penetrate the sleeping psyche. "Wherever you are, it's not real; you're home, you're safe."

It seemed to be working; the heartrate was slowing, and his breathing was easier. Blair stirred, barely on the edge of wakefulness. "Jim?"

"Yeah, buddy, I'm here; I've got your back while you..." Inspiration struck. "...while you're sitting in the living room, candles all around you, meditating all the 'bad vibes' away."

Jim reflected ruefully that Sandburg's world-view was rubbing off on him. But he couldn't argue with the results; Blair had finally slipped into what seemed to be a peaceful, dreamless sleep. Moving carefully, Jim supported Blair's head while he flipped the pillow so that his friend would be resting on a cooler surface, then untangled the blankets from his legs so that he'd sleep more comfortably.

As he headed back up the stairs, Jim considered whether he should suggest Sandburg talk to someone. Probably not a psychiatrist; for all his easy rhetoric about being in touch with one's inner self, Blair seemed reluctant to open up about his feelings. But maybe he'd confide in one of Naomi's friends, someone he'd known for many years. When Blair talked about the people he'd known from his younger days, most of them seemed to have a real flaky, new-age attitude. But he seemed comfortable with that mindset, and it might help him deal with whatever was bothering him. At worst, it probably wouldn't hurt. Of course, the hard part would be convincing him that he had a problem, and needed help.

Pot, kettle. Jim grinned ruefully to himself. How many times had he resisted when Sandburg pushed him to open up about his feelings? But Jim had undergone training to resist and fight off attacks, both internal and external. He couldn't count the number of times Sandburg had complained about his tendency to 'leave his emotions at the door'. But it was necessary in his line of work, and helped him maintain his balance in what could be an ugly world. Blair, on the other hand, was a civilian; he hadn't had that kind of training, and probably wouldn't accept it if it were offered to him. But he had to find some way to expend the feelings that were eating at him; otherwise, the explosive repercussions would be ugly at best, and possibly life-shattering at worst.

Jim wouldn't let that happen. First as a big brother, then as a leader of men, he'd learned to help and protect those under him whenever and however possible; the instinct was bone-deep. But Sandburg was more than one of 'his men'; he was a good friend, and his guide in this sentinel stuff. If Blair left because he couldn't handle the stress of being Jim's friend, or the sentinel's guide, Jim's life would be immeasurably poorer.

Fortunately, tomorrow was Saturday. As Jim pulled the covers up to his shoulders, he decided it would be the perfect time to institute 'Operation Fix Sandburg'.




Sentinel perceptions could be useful. Jim recognized Blair's pre-waking pattern and used it as an early-warning system. When Blair stumbled out of the bedroom, a mug of strong, hot coffee was waiting by his plate, and Jim was putting the finishing touches on fresh blueberry waffles and a cheese-and-mushroom omelet. Other than a muttered, "Thanks, Jim," Blair didn't say anything, but he finished everything on his plate with evident satisfaction and gratifying speed. Afterward, Jim refilled their coffee mugs as he broached the subject.

"I hate to tell you this, Chief, but you're looking a little ragged around the edges." Actually, he looked like shit; he had dark shadows under his eyes, his hair was kind of limp and lanky and -- worst of all -- the essential spark of life-enjoyment was absent from his eyes. "You been sleeping okay?"

Blair hesitated, then admitted, "Not so great, actually. I'm thinking maybe I should drop a class; between teaching and studying and working with you, I'm feeling kind of stretched thin." He grinned, trying to make a joke. "I may not be pushing forty, like some old geezers around here, but I have to admit I'm not sixteen anymore. Dropping a class, and the studying that goes with it, would give me five or six hours more a week to spread out between the other stuff."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim agreed easily. Privately, he was appalled; six hours was a drop in the bucket compared to all 'the other stuff' Sandburg had going on all the time. Unless that extra six hours was spent in quality sleep -- no nightmares -- Jim wasn't sure it would have a significant effect. "But what does that have to do with not sleeping so great?"

"Oh, you know, free-floating anxieties about getting bogged down, and nothing gets done." Blair's attempt at a casual brush-off seemed somewhat flat. "One of the hazards of being a grad student and teaching fellow; it'll pass."

Well, Jim had known it wouldn't be easy. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, take the bull by the horns, and all that shit. "The thing is, buddy, I think it's more than that. I know you're having bad dreams; your heartbeat pounds so hard I think it's trying to jump right out of your chest. It's even woken me up a couple of times."

Blair looked stricken. "Ah, hell, Jim; I'm sorry! I'll sleep with the white-noise generator turned on until things settle down; it should only be a week or so."

"That's not the point, Chief. You're the one who told Joel he had to face his fears, and that you'd been in and out of therapy since you got out of your pampers. If something's bothering you, you've got to talk it out."

"This from a man who's so good about opening up about his own feelings and insecurities?"

Jim sighed. "Blair, we're different people -- different life experiences, different responses to things that happen, different ways of dealing with those things. I bury, you talk. You've already showed me that burying shit isn't the best way of handling things, so take your own advice." He held Sandburg's eyes with intense honesty. "I'm worried, Chief. If you try to bury whatever's bothering you, I'm afraid you'll explode. It'll be messy and painful, and I don't want to see it happen to you. So, talk. If not to me, to a therapist or an old friend. 'Burdens shared are burdens halved', and all that."

Blair ran his fingers through his hair as he sighed in turn. "I know you're right -- in theory. In practice, there's really nothing to talk about. At least nothing that makes any sense."

"Haven't you said that talking things through helps them make sense?" Jim encouraged. He really couldn't believe he was pushing Sandburg like this, and he was sure the kid would hold it over him for years; it was bound to bite him in the ass the next time he didn't want to talk about feelings. But this was too important to let slide.

"The thing is, it's nothing traumatic; I mean, not really. I'm in a dark cave, feeling my way forward, trying to find the way out. I don't know how I got there, and I haven't been hurt. Mostly I'm hoping you guys are looking for me, and that you'll find me before anything bad happens. You would, wouldn't you?" His voice seemed smaller, more hesitant on that last question.

"Damn right we would, Chief," Jim assured him. "But that's it? No lurking henchmen, no ticking bomb to make things more interesting?"

"That's it. Gotta admit, I don't see how it matches up with school anxiety... but neither does it match up with any of your cases. All I can figure is, it's existential angst, and all I can do is get my shit together and hope it goes away."

"What shit?" Jim asked gently. "School has never bothered you before, and you've handled the stresses at the PD pretty damn well, especially since you're a civilian. So what's changed?"

Blair shrugged, unable or unwilling to delve further.

"You think it might be Incacha's death, and Janet's? You weren't responsible for either of them, you know."

"Maybe not Incacha's," Blair objected, "but Janet wouldn't have been involved if I hadn't asked her to look for information. That sure as hell feels like I was responsible."

"Didn't you say Janet was an environmentalist from way back?" Blair still refused to meet Jim's eyes, but nodded agreement. "In effect, she was a warrior for the planet, fighting for a cause she believed in. Unfortunately, warriors are sometimes killed, no matter how righteous their cause. It was Janet's bad luck that she was unknowingly involved with enemy forces who lied and subverted her work. But she managed to discover and pass on the information that led to their defeat before they killed her. They killed her, not you." Jim hesitated, then continued. "If she could have chosen, don't you think she might have decided to go down fighting for the planet -- and succeeding in that one aspect? I know it's not much comfort, Chief, but her death was not meaningless. That may be the best legacy that any person can leave."

Blair's gaze was unseeing as he turned his coffee mug around and around. "I know you're right," he almost whispered, "but it doesn't make it any easier to accept."

"Not now," Jim acknowledged. "But later, when the pain isn't so sharp, it'll help."

Blair threw Jim a challenging look. "Has it helped you?"

"Not always; I've seen too many men die uselessly, from back-stabbing deceit. But sometimes, when I knew and they knew their deaths moved the world one step closer to justice... yeah, it helps."

"I hear you, man, and maybe it'll help later; thanks for trying." Blair held Jim's gaze for a moment, then pushed back from the table. "But right now, not so much. I think I'll go for a walk." He grabbed his jacket from the hook and slipped out the door.

Jim sighed as he rose to clear the table and wash the dishes. At least Blair had listened, so the conversation hadn't been a complete bust. Only time would tell if he had actually helped.




Finally! He seemed to be getting somewhere. He didn't know where, yet, and wasn't even sure he could count it as 'progress'. But the ambient light was a little stronger, and there was a definite current of air blowing in his face. He just hoped, when he found the source, it wouldn't be a little rabbit-sized hole that he'd have to dig his way out.

But Jim had said he'd find him, so if he needed to dig, at least he'd have help. He just wished the big guy would hurry up; he'd been walking for hours, and he sure was getting tired. But he'd be damned if he'd let his friends find him sitting on his ass, pathetically waiting for rescue like some Victorian damsel in distress. He could walk for a while longer before he had to rest.

But the human body can only be pushed so far. Eventually, his weary legs insisted that he stop walking, or they'd simply refuse to carry him. Well, even the Lord, in every creation story that he knew of, had rested after his labors. So, okay; just for a little while. He stopped where he was -- one piece of rocky ground was no more or less comfortable than the next -- and eased down, leaning his back against the wall.

Now that he wasn't moving, the breeze seemed to be strengthening, which made no sense; if he wasn't moving into it, he shouldn't feel it as strongly. But there it was, taunting him for stopping. Stupid breeze; if it wanted him so badly, it could make itself solid and float him out of here.

If it wasn't going to help, he wished it'd shut up so he could maybe take a little nap. But no, it just kept talking. "You cannot stay there; come to us, young shaman." Well, duh! He was
trying to get out; it wasn't like he needed any encouragement. "There is much you need to know, to protect your sentinel and keep him safe." Oh, like that was a newsflash! Why else was he studying every obscure source he could get his hands on? But it wasn't like he could learn this stuff overnight. The universe -- and Jim -- would just have to be patient.

"Your books do not tell the whole story; such secrets were not shared with those who could not understand, or who would put them in books to be mocked by those with limited imagination. You must come to speak to us in person, and come soon; to wait too long is to risk your full development as a shaman. Incacha gave you a great gift, but it cannot be used effectively if the user lacks full knowledge. Come to us, young shaman. Come soon."

Great. When your hallucinations started talking to you, it was time to get moving again. He forced himself to his feet and once again headed into the breeze, still keeping one hand on the wall, and testing every step before he transferred his weight to the forward foot. Hell of a way to travel, but at least the need for concentration kept the hallucinations quiet.





A few days later, Jim turned off the evening news, stood and stretched. "Time for all hardworking cops and anthropologists to be in bed," he announced. "You planning on closing up shop any time soon?"

"Yeah, in a little while," Blair muttered. "I just want to finish this section first." He was hunched over the kitchen table with a thick book open in front of him, reading intently. Occasionally he scribbled notes on the pad by his elbow, or reached for one of the many other books piled around him to make a comparison.

As far as Jim could tell, dropping a class hadn't made any difference in Blair's study-load; if anything, it seemed to have increased. Case in point: he'd been working on this project, whatever it was, for the past four evenings, and every spare minute in the day -- and Jim didn't even know what it was.

But the PD gave him a paycheck on the assumption that he was a detective; might as well put those skills to use. Jim casually passed by the table, glancing at the covers of some of the books.

The common theme was immediately evident, with titles such as, The Way of the Shaman, Principles of Shamanism, Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You, Shaman in a 9 to 5 World... and there were eight more books scattered across the table. Jim shook his head; couldn't the kid find anything real to study? "Geeze, Sandburg, wouldn't it be easier to read the Cliff notes, or find something like Shamanism for Dummies? Seems like you're losing a lot of sleep for something that's not even in your course curriculum."

Blair snorted, without looking up from the page. "The library actually has a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shamanism. It shouldn't surprise you that it doesn't have the depth needed for an honest study of the subject. This is serious stuff; I'm not just playing around because I have nothing better to do."

Oh, shit. Jim had been worried about something like this; Blair tackled everything with a hundred and ten percent effort, often ignoring food and sleep until he'd completed the project to his satisfaction, or until he collapsed from exhaustion. The question was, would he be able to knock some sense into the kid's head?

Jim sat across the table. "Sandburg," he said firmly, "look at me." It took a moment, but the command finally penetrated his concentration, and Blair raised his head.

"Look," Jim said, "I know Incacha's death hit you hard, and I really appreciate that. He was a good man, and I think I'd be pissed if you just brushed it off. But when he passed the way of the shaman to you, I think he just wanted you to watch out for me; he didn't expect you to change your whole way of life. And you're already doing a great job of looking out for me, and helping me with this sentinel stuff. All this..." he gestured to the stacks of books, "...just isn't necessary."

Blair took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I think it is necessary, Jim; even vital." He shook his head when Jim started to protest. "No, see, you're looking at it through Western eyes; you see it as just words that may or may not make a person feel better, but don't mean anything. But when you were with the Chopec, didn't you see Incacha do things that seemed inexplicable if he wasn't tapping into some kind of power?"

Jim shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You know I don't remember much from that time, Chief. But what I do remember..." He paused. "Well, suggestion and community belief can go a long way toward swaying people's minds. And since I was part of the community, I wasn't immune."

"And that's why the Western mind has such a hard time dealing with shamanism, or alternate spiritualities of any type; our whole culture has taught us that if something isn't solid and tangible, it's not 'real'. We're very good at explaining away anything that falls outside our expectations. But, what -- maybe one-quarter of the world? -- can't all be wrong, or hallucinating, or subscribing to 'primitive superstition'. There's a truth and a reality there, but it's hidden unless someone specifically seeks it out. I'm sure of it; I've caught glimpses of it once or twice. But I need to be able to access it more easily, more completely."

"But why, Chief? Like I said, you're doing a good job of helping me with this sentinel thing. I know I don't often say it, but I can't imagine doing it without you; you've helped me get a real handle on my senses, and you always come up with an answer when we need it. I don't see how knowing some extra mumbo-jumbo will make any difference."

Blair shook his head with a soft snort. "Jim, we're like a mismatched pair in a three-legged race, and one of us is using a crutch, besides. We're limping along at half-speed, when we should be winning the hundred-yard dash. My last-minute half-assed suggestions have worked out so far... but what happens when they don't? My job is to make things so easy for you that your senses function as naturally as breathing, and with as little thought or stress. We're not even close to that, and I don't know how to get us there. So that's what these are for." He slapped the open book in front of him. "It'll take a lot of searching, and study, but the answers are in here. Or if not, I'll find other books that will show me the way. Besides..." Blair was rubbing his hand over the spot where Incacha had once clasped his arm with a bloody hand; Jim suspected he wasn't even aware of the gesture, or what it signified. "...however he meant it, it was Incacha's wish that I learn the way of the shaman. His dying wish. If I don't at least try, it's like throwing it back in his face. I can't do that."

Jim released a gust of air; what the hell could he say to that? Even though he thought nothing would come of it, he suspected that it would break something in Sandburg if he insisted that he abandon his research. And, really, studying was second nature to Blair; the worst that could happen was that he'd lose a little sleep.

"Okay, buddy," he acknowledged. "It obviously means a lot, and I don't want to put barriers in the way of anything that's important to you. Just remember -- you can't learn it all overnight, and we are managing pretty good. So give yourself some time, and don't forget to eat and sleep, or your sentinel is going to come down 'blessed protector' all over your ass!" The scowl was feigned, but the threat was serious; he hoped Sandburg recognized that.

Apparently, he did. "Thanks, Jim," he said with a smile. "I promise. Look --" he flipped the pages to the end of the chapter, "only four more pages to go. Then I'll hit the sack. Maybe you should hurry to fall asleep first; then my snoring won't keep you awake."

"Sandburg, I slept in Army barracks; no way your puny snores will disturb my sleep." He aimed a head-swat, which Blair easily ducked. "But if I don't hear them inside of thirty minutes, I'll come down and march you into bed myself."

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

Blair had the words right, although the intonation and twinkle in his eye was all wrong. But, good enough; Jim headed up the stairs. He had just reached the top when sentinel hearing easily picked up the softly-spoken, "Good night, Jim. And, thanks."




Thank every God, Goddess, or Deity he'd ever heard named; there was now enough light for him to actually see where he was going. As he'd suspected, he was in a kind of cave-tunnel, though it wasn't nearly as large as he'd first thought. The opposite wall was just a little over an arm's-length away, though he was sure he'd crawled farther that before he'd found his 'guiding' wall. Maybe the passage had narrowed as he'd traveled, or maybe his perceptions had been way out of whack. And the ceiling was only a few inches above his head; if he was as tall as Jim, he'd have given himself a few good knocks during his journey.

He paused for a few moments as he contemplated this unexpected and unexplained trip. As tedious as the journey had been, it had been remarkably easy. The floor had been free of abrupt changes in level or stray boulders that might have tripped him, and his guiding hand on the wall had not encountered any spaces marking side-tunnels. He wasn't sure how he'd have handled that; a side tunnel might have led to an easier way out, or farther from eventual rescue. Frankly, he was glad he hadn't had to make the choice.

Although, come to think of it... this whole setup was rather like a cattle chute, urging him to move in only one direction. If he'd initially chosen the other, would he have met some kind of obstacle that would have forced him to turn around? Or would the venue he was heading toward simply have been moved to the other end of this long, boring tunnel?

He'd suspected some kind of foul play when he'd first awakened -- seemed like half the bad guys in Cascade expected to attack Jim through his partner -- but it was now obvious that this was some kind of shamanic dream-walk. He wouldn't be getting any help from Jim or their friends from the PD. No, someOne or someThing had set him on this journey through an otherworldly plane, and he'd have to complete the requirements -- whatever they were -- before he'd find out what was going on.

No help for it; he started walking forward again, one foot in front of the other, over and over again. At least the increased light let him give his abused fingertips a rest from feeling along the wall, and he could walk more normally, instead of using his earlier feel-and-step method. He wished he'd get there soon -- wherever 'there' would be -- so he could get this over. On the other hand, this incessant walking was probably part of the test, to see if he had the intestinal fortitude to keep going.
'Like the damn Energizer bunny,' he thought, wryly. But all the books insisted that shamanic tests could be quite strenuous; he'd be lucky indeed if this was all he had to do. Whatever; he was determined not to let down Incacha... or Jim.

So, he kept walking.





Jim glanced across the truck at his sleeping partner. Blair had brought one of his shaman books to study while they were on stakeout, but had drifted off barely thirty minutes into the watch. Based on his rapid eye movements and elevated heartbeat, the kid was dreaming again, but at least it didn't seem as stressful as the first few nights; he wasn't whimpering, or tossing and turning.

But he was going to wake up with a hell of a crick in his neck, with his head leaning against the window like it was. Besides, a sleeping head against a window would scream 'cop stakeout' to any suspicious watchers. Jim reached across and pulled Blair sideways, until his torso was stretched out across the seat and his head was pillowed on Jim's thigh. Much better; Sandburg would be more comfortable, the feeling of his guide's body resting against his would help him keep his senses grounded, and any observers would simply see a man waiting impatiently for a delayed co-rider.

Almost unconsciously, Jim stroked Sandburg's head as he watched the house halfway down the block. This shamanism study thing was riding the kid hard. Although he was getting a decent amount of sleep -- Jim made sure of it, pointing out that Blair couldn't function effectively as his guide if he was too tired -- it didn't seem to be doing a lot of good. The kid had developed permanent bags under his eyes, and his enthusiastic bounce was maybe ten percent of normal. So far, no one else seemed to have noticed it. Sandburg had demonstrated that he was quite a talented actor -- or maybe it was just another method of 'obfuscation' -- and he managed to present something close to his normal demeanor at the PD and, presumably, at the university.

But once they were safe in the loft, Sandburg seemed like a completely different person -- withdrawn and depressed, and almost desperate. Apparently, he wasn't finding what he hoped / wanted / needed in his shaman books and, increasingly, he seemed to blame himself. Jim had talked with every reasoned argument he could think of, pointing out that, if Blair couldn't find what he was searching for, it either didn't exist or it wasn't very important. Every time, Sandburg listened politely, nodded, then drove himself to further efforts.

As the days and weeks passed, Jim was growing increasingly uneasy. Sandburg seemed to be... not drifting away, exactly, but developing a kind of -- space, like a no-man's-land -- between him and the rest of the world. Especially between him and his sentinel. This quest for shamanic understanding seemed so all-encompassing; what would Sandburg do if he couldn't find the answers here in Cascade? Surely he wouldn't leave; he had obligations to the university and to his sentinel, and Blair took his obligations seriously.

But if he couldn't find what he needed here, and he couldn't go... then what? Would some inner part of Sandburg just... shrivel away? If that happened, would Jim still have his best friend -- or just a walking, breathing shadow of the essence of the man he once was?

Jim hoped like hell it wouldn't come to that, but he felt basically helpless. All he could offer in support was to ply his friend with regular, nourishing meals and insist on at least seven hours of sleep per night, which was two more than Sandburg often allowed himself. Maybe it would be enough; Blair would find what he needed, and everything would go back to normal.

Maybe.




Jim stepped through the door to find Sandburg snuffing his candles, and moving the furniture back into its normal positions. He said nothing; Blair had been leaving the PD early two or three times a week to work in an hour or two of meditation. Jim couldn't tell if it was helping, and Blair was being unusually reticent. Still, it was unlikely to hurt anything -- Sandburg was so familiar with meditation that he could probably do it standing on his head, with his hands tied behind his back. Jim just crossed his fingers that his buddy would get some benefit from it, and carefully avoided rocking the boat.

"The Jags are playing tonight, Chief. What d'ya say we order in a pizza, watch the game, and make an easy night of it? No studying for you, no case-files for me; just two friends kicking back and relaxing. I could sure use a break, and I think you could, too."

Blair considered the proposition, then gave a half-shrug and a nod. "Sure, man. You're right; one evening won't make a difference, and I could use a bit of downtime." He headed toward the phone. "Half meat-lover's, half vegetarian?"

Jim shook his head with a grin. "Y'know, Chief, Tony tells me you're the only customer that ever orders that combination, and they always have to explain it to the new workers. I don't know how you get away with it."

"I keep telling you, man; pleasant conversation works better than caveman grunting every time. One of these days, maybe you'll give it a try; you'll be amazed at the results."

"Why bother, when I have you to run interference? You cajole, I growl, and together we cover all the bases. Works for me."

"Just wait; one of these days you'll wish you knew the other half of the equation." Blair turned his attention to the phone. "Tony? It's Blair. We'll have the usual, please, with an extra order of garlic breadsticks?" Jim nodded to his raised eyebrow. "Yeah, that'll do it; thanks, Tony."

Blair headed into the kitchen. "Thirty minutes. You want to shower while I make the salad?"

"Nice to know all that studying hasn't addled your brain, Chief. I'll be out in twenty." Jim headed up the stairs, looking forward to spending some actual 'quality' time with his friend once again.




The change in light was so gradual that, when he finally noticed it, he realized he'd been seeing it for some time. There was a flickering ahead, like a fire of some kind. And, now that he was paying attention, the breeze blowing into his face carried the scent of woodsmoke.

He hesitated. From ancient times, fire had been one of humanity's greatest friends -- and one of its deadliest enemies. Fire provided warmth, a way to cook food, and protection from wild animals. But fire was also a great destroyer of forests, homes -- and people. Was the firelight ahead a welcoming beacon, or a warning to stay away?

The idea of retracing his steps -- repeating hours of walking on the slim possibility of finding a different way out -- made him cringe, but maybe it would be safer. But when he turned to face the other direction, he saw only an impenetrable darkness. It made no sense; he'd just traveled that area; the ambient light had been dim, but enough to see where he was walking. Now, it was as if a heavy curtain of blackness had been drawn across the tunnel.

It had to be an illusion... not that everything he was doing wasn't also an illusion. At least, that was his current working hypothesis; illusion or shaman-dream, there seemed to be little difference. But would the darkness-illusion hold up under a test, or dissipate into whatever was 'normal' for this realm?

Only one way to find out. He turned and headed away from the flickering light, back the way he had come. Within ten steps, he was traveling through a darkness so intense he might as well have been struck blind. But maybe it was a relatively narrow phenomenon, and he could pass through into the lighted area again. With fingertips once more brushing the wall, he continued along his backward path for another twenty-five steps.

No change; obviously, he was meant to keep heading toward the firelight. Even if he wanted to ignore that implicit command, he couldn't imagine hours of walking through this stygian darkness; at least he had
some light when he traveled in the approved direction, even though it compared unfavorably to your average sixty-watt bulb. And, if he did force the issue and tried to continue along the backward path, might he encounter some more physical obstacle to prevent it? Somehow, he suspected Whoever was running this show might provide just such a definite 'disincentive'.

With a shrug, he reminded himself that shamanic dreams weren't supposed to particularly easy, or even make much sense, and turned back toward his original direction. Only five steps later, he could once again see; the ambient light allowed him to walk freely, with the flickering firelight his presumed goal. He just hoped he wouldn't be required to walk
through the fire, or something equally painful, to prove his worthiness.




Jim watched Blair pick listlessly at his perfectly good dinner -- Swedish meatballs over whole-grain noodles, and the meat a Sandburg-approved blend of 40% beef and 60% turkey -- and decided it was time to broach the subject again. The kid had acquired ever-more esoteric books on shamanism, searching the online used booksellers, and obtaining others through inter-library loan. He was, apparently, still not finding the answers to his questions, and the strain was becoming ever more obvious. He had developed an unhealthy pallor, as if he'd been too long away from the sun, and the reduction in his general enthusiasm was being noticed even at the PD. Just yesterday, Joel had pulled Jim aside to ask if Blair was sick, and to suggest a couple of 'surefire home remedies' and 'maybe some concoctions from the health-food store'.

As soon as dinner was finished and the dishes washed, Jim stopped Blair as he started to pull out his stack of shamanism books. "Chief, let that go for a few minutes; we need to talk."

Blair looked puzzled, but had no energy to question or protest. "Sure, Jim." He waited docilely while Jim grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, followed his friend into the living room, then stood in the middle of the room, seemingly at a loss of what to do next.

"Sit, Sandburg," Jim ordered, and handed him a beer as he did so. Blair took the beer, but held it as if he didn't know what to do with it.

Jim sighed. "Chief, I don't know how to say this, except to just dump it out there. I'm worried about you -- hell, even Joel and Simon have noticed it; you're falling apart in front of our eyes.

"Excuse me?" The direct challenge stirred a response. "I back you up when you need it, I teach, I carry my own classes, and I study. A certain overprotective sentinel is making sure I eat well -- thanks for that, by the way -- and I'm getting more sleep than I have since I was twelve. How the hell do you get 'falling apart' out of that?"

"Have you actually seen yourself in a mirror lately? Your skin tones look like you've spent a month in a dungeon, the bags under your eyes have their own bags, and you've lost at least ten pounds. This shamanism thing is doing something to you, Chief, and it isn't good. I know it's important to you, but not at the expense of your health. I was thinking, maybe you could put it off until next summer; maybe having no classes at the same time would... I don't know, make it easier for you to concentrate, or make connections, or something."

Blair ran his fingers through his hair as he struggled to find a way to explain it to Jim. "I appreciate your concern, man, I really do. But... I don't think they'll let me wait."

Oh, crap. Somewhere deep down, he'd been afraid that this was turning into some spirit-world shit. He'd hoped that his previous exposure to a spirit animal -- and a spirit shaman that wore his face and gave inscrutable advice -- would be enough for one lifetime. "Who won't let you wait, Chief?"

"I don't know?" The uncertainty was clearly evident in Blair's voice and his eyes, as he gazed at Jim, displayed... sheer misery.

That look stopped Jim's automatic retort. He carefully evaluated Sandburg's demeanor -- pretty damn shaky, in his estimation -- and spoke carefully, gently.

"Then what's giving you that impression, Chief? I'm sure you have some reason for what you're feeling."

Blair shrugged a shoulder and lowered his gaze to his hands, worrying at a hangnail.

"I know you're still not sleeping well; is it the dreams?"

Blair's head dipped lower, as he found another ragged nail to focus on.

"Com'on, Sandburg. I promise I won't laugh; it can't be any stranger than what I faced when we were in Peru to rescue Simon."

In a voice barely above a whisper, Blair said, "I don't know 'cause I haven't got there yet."

"Still not getting the picture, buddy."

Blair rose from the couch and crossed to stare unseeingly out the balcony doors. "You're right; it's the dreams. I'm in a kind of cave-tunnel, and I've been walking for... days, I guess. Now I'm seeing firelight flickering ahead of me, but it's a still a long way away. I figure I'll learn something when I get there... but I really don't know. But I do know it's important, that I'm supposed to do this."

"And you know this because...?"

"Because I wasn't sure about the fire. But when I turned back, I walked into blackness I couldn't get out of. Then when I went toward the fire, it was light again."

Jim hesitated. "Blair, I swear I'm not... well, maybe I am. What makes you think this dream is anything more than the hodgepodge our brains usually toss at us? Especially since you've been reading all those shamanism books, it would probably affect your dreams. It doesn't necessarily mean anything."

Blair finally turned to face Jim, as if in challenge, though he maintained the distance between them. "It has to mean something! I've been having the same dream too many nights, and it's progressive. And there's a... a feeling; I'm being guided. And there's the whole shamanic idea of overcoming obstacles before you're allowed to know a purpose, or an answer." Blair turned and faced Jim, eyes haunted. "I mean, it's not like I can stop; the dreams come whether I want them or not. All I can do is see them through to the end, and hope I learn something."

"And I suppose your meditation has been showing you the same thing?"

"Yep; I pick up from wherever I was the last time I slept. I've been walking a long time, man, and still no indication when I'll get to the end. But I'm sure I'll get there eventually; it's all part of the process."

Jim controlled the urge to heave his beer bottle against the wall. It wouldn't do a bit of good, and he'd be the one cleaning it up. "Then what can we do, Sandburg? I can't believe Incacha would expect the road to shamanism to destroy your health."

"Jim, I'm not sleeping great and I've lost a few pounds; big deal! It's not like I'm going to keel over tomorrow. I mean, be realistic; they can't induct a new shaman into the fold -- assuming that's their intention -- if they let me die. Hell, I've had worse every year at finals time, just not so... linear."

"And if it is a delusion?" Jim challenged. "How do I know if or when I should get you some psychiatric help?"

"Fair question," Blair acknowledged. He pondered for a few moments. "How about this? As long as I can function normally -- taking care of my classes at the university and backing you up in the field -- we let this play out and see what happens. If I become... withdrawn, or unable to meet my ordinary commitments... then you can get me into some quiet funny-ward, and let the doctors try to fix me. But I honestly don't think it'll come to that."

Jim considered the proposal. Sandburg was right; it wasn't like he could turn off the dreams like shutting off a hose. And -- he'd trusted Incacha in life. Surely he could trust Incacha in death, as well. His former shaman wouldn't let his new, budding shaman, come to any harm.

"Okay," he agreed. "But I want a new schedule. After your schoolwork, no more than two hours a night studying the shamanism; it may take a little longer to finish, but it'll ease some of the stress you're putting on yourself. And I expect you to eat when I feed you, not push the food around on your plate. I know fasting is sometimes a component of certain ceremonies, but long-term starvation isn't. If you're going to do this, you need to stay at the top of your game, not barely staggering through."

Blair's shoulders dropped with the sudden release of tension. Jim had listened and, more importantly, believed. Or was at least willing to believe that Blair believed. He crossed to sit back down on the couch and took a hefty swallow of his abandoned beer. A bit warm, now, but it really hit the spot. He turned his head to catch and hold Jim's eyes.

"You got it, big guy. I'll be a little less obsessive about the shamanism, and a little more rational about the daily routine." He raised his bottle toward Jim. "Deal?"

It wasn't all he'd hoped for, but more that he'd expected. Jim raised his bottle to meet Blair's with an audible ~clink~. "Deal."




The firelight now filled the tunnel as he walked forward, bright enough to throw a shadow behind him; he was getting very close. Finally, the passage narrowed even further, ending in an arched opening to a separate cave that seemed the source of the firelight. As he passed through the archway, he found himself in a circular area, large enough that shifting shadows formed beyond the reach of the available light. A gathering of people sat around a well-built fire in the middle of the room.

He paused, evaluating the group that had turned his way as he'd entered the chamber. Truthfully, he was a little unnerved by the number of people that faced him. He'd expected... well, probably Incacha, and maybe one or two of his fellow shamans from other tribes near his. Sitting down with two or three people for a chat -- even a chat that was likely to turn 'mystical' and take him into areas he didn't fully understand -- seemed reasonable. He'd long since concluded that the purpose of this dream-journey was for someone to pass on knowledge that he needed.

But he hadn't expected to be facing over a dozen shamans who, judging by their attire and decorations, represented a variety of cultures across the world. Five of them were women, which made sense; shamans had to be in touch with their inner selves to be able to connect easily to the spirit world, and women were generally very good at that. However, he was surprised by the lack of 'age' in the group. There were a few whose weathered faces and wrinkles showed the passage of many years, but most appeared to be no older than mid 30's to late 40's, and a couple seemed to have reached adulthood only recently. Of course, Incacha hadn't been old when they'd met, so he should have known better. And he knew that many shamans were called to their gift as children or teens so that, although they studied for many years, they were still young when they formally embraced their responsibilities. But, somehow, he'd always pictured a shaman as an elderly man, who'd already lived a long life.

You're an idiot! he told himself sternly. Toss your stupid expectations in the trash, and don't let out even a hint that you thought they'd all be doddering ancients. But this was a spirit-plane. They might already know his thoughts. He just hoped they'd forgive him, if he proved himself willing to listen and learn.

They seemed to be waiting for him to step forward; perhaps it was another test, to forge onward against uncertainty. But he felt frozen. You could tell these men and women were beyond 'ordinary' just by looking at them. Several had colorful feathered headdresses, and others wore decorations of beads, shells, and animal teeth. Many had face and body paint or tattoos, although some dressed in colorful, flowing robes dyed with intricate designs. When he looked down at himself -- gray T-shirt covered with red-and-black plaid overshirt, and faded jeans -- he hardly felt like he could fit in the group. Maybe his earrings and the ankh necklace would indicate a spiritual inclination but, somehow, he doubted they'd carry much weight.

The biggest hangup, though, was that each and every one of them was accompanied by a spirit animal, and some of those were decidedly intimidating. Jim had told him about his black panther, which was hardly a pussycat, but he himself had never seen the animal. Somehow, he'd sort of assumed that was a sentinel thing. Since he'd never seen a sign of a spirit animal for himself, he'd kind of thought that maybe a spirit animal took care of a sentinel and guide together. Now, it seemed that shamans were also attached to spirit animals, and he uneasily regarded a virtual zoo. The eagle, the snake, the dingo, and the alligator were dangerous species; although he hesitated to be near them, a sentinel or shaman might well require the strength of such powerful spirits. But some seemed far less suited to protection; how much help could be gained from a rabbit, a squirrel, or a skunk? A skunk? Obviously, he had to do some serious research about the strengths of spirit animals.

Still more surprising were some of the pairings. Incacha carried the eagle on his shoulder, which seemed appropriate, but the huge cougar rested his head on the lap of the young Asian woman, while a very large, muscular, tattooed man had a lizard resting on his arm. The buffalo seemed well-matched to the Native American, but the dragonfly looked odd sitting on the head of a man he thought was indigenous to the Brazilian rain forest. He supposed when he learned more, it would all make sense.

But, he noticed uneasily, every shaman seemed to have an spirit-animal match. He didn't see any unattached animals, so it was unlikely that one was his and, though he tried to ignore the stab of jealously, he couldn't help feeling left out. But maybe he'd get a spirit animal when he finished his shaman lessons. He hoped so; it kind of rankled that Jim had one and he didn't.

Well, standing here wouldn't get anything accomplished. He took a deep breath and stepped forward, moving into the open space that seemed to have been left for him in the circle. Gracefully, he lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the ground, matching their positions. Then, he waited. As the most junior person present -- any way you wanted to look at it -- it was not his place to begin the proceedings.

The silence continued so long that Blair had to resist the urge to suggest a round of 'Kumbayah'. He also squashed the unlikely notion that the Native American would start to pass around a peace pipe. Patient waiting was often part of a test; he settled himself more comfortably, and tried to blank his mind of anything other than the moment.

Finally one of the women -- elderly, Hawaiian, he thought -- opened the conversation. "We have met to judge if this young haoli is a suitable guide for Incacha's brother Enqueri."

"I judged him suitable," Incacha asserted. "I read his heart; I would not have passed the way of the shaman to him had I found him unable to meet the responsibility."

"You were dying," rumbled a large man from one of the African nations, though he wasn't sure which. "Perhaps the urgency of the situation caused your examination to be less thorough than it might otherwise have been."

Shit, this was his greatest fear playing out in front of him. What would he do if they decreed he wasn't a suitable guide, and insisted he leave Jim? What would
Jim do? Somehow, he thought, 'Sorry, buddy, the spirit shamans said I'm no good for you,' wouldn't go over very well.

"The situation was urgent," agreed the young Asian woman. "But the question must be asked -- is there any other person connected to Enqueri who has the personal qualities that might induce him or her to become a guide? Furthermore, Incacha has told us that Enqueri does not extend friendship or trust easily. Since he considers this young one to be his guide, would he be likely to accept another candidate, even if that one has better qualifications?"

"He would not," Incacha insisted. "Enqueri is a stubborn man; if this turiku left him, he would refuse any other guide."

Little brother? Wow, Incacha thought more of him that he'd suspected. But thank goodness Jim's former shaman agreed with his own assessment; splitting up him and Jim would be disastrous for his sentinel. If these guys would just tell him what he needed to do, they could finish this meeting and he'd get on with the program.

"An open heart and an honorable mind are the most important aspects of becoming a worthy shaman and guide." That shaman looked Scandinavian, with a polar bear sitting behind him. "The other qualifications can be learned -- if the student is willing to do so." The man was looking directly at him, with a severe expression on his face.

He nodded his agreement, and started to speak, but Incacha interrupted him. "Your dreams spoke truth, turiku; your books cannot teach you what you need to know. We recognized that you had to try, to allow you to discover the futility of trying to learn the ways of a shaman from cold books. Now that you understand, you will believe us when we tell that you must undertake a journey of learning. You must seek out and study directly at the feet of shamans who can teach and guide you."

"Shamans?" he asked, keeping his tone deferential. "Is there not one who can give me all the instruction I need?" If he could work with just one person, he wouldn't have to leave Jim alone too long.

"Enqueri is the strongest sentinel in many generations. Through him, when the time is right, you will draw other sentinels and guides to you, so that they may also learn and go forth. You will need all the knowledge you can gain, from as many sources as you can find. This will not be possible over a few days or a few weeks, turiku; you must commit to it fully, for as long as it takes, or face failure."

His mouth was dry, and his heart pounded. "I can't leave Jim alone for such a length of time; he still needs me to help manage his senses. How can I make a journey that will help me, if I know it's going to hurt Jim?"

"The sentinel must travel with the guide." The young Asian woman sounded eminently practical, though her cougar growled softly. "The sentinel must understand what the guide is learning, and will also have some lessons of his own to learn. Together, you will gain a connection and strength that you could not achieve separately."

"But Jim's a policeman -- a warrior for the city," he objected. "He can't just walk away from his responsibilities of protection. I don't think I could even talk him into it. And... I also have obligations I must meet in the outside world. The kind of journey you're talking about -- it's just not possible at this time."

"You must find a way; otherwise the final connection will not be made, and sentinels and guides who cannot find their way to you will suffer, and never reach their potential. This is important, turiku. If you must discharge your outside obligations, do so quickly; the journey must begin before the start of the new year, or it will not be successful. Speak to Enqueri; as stubborn as he is, he does not wish you harm. Working together to accomplish your commitments will be beneficial to both of you, and the first step on your journey of learning."

Incacha sounded so certain. Personally, he wasn't convinced that Jim would be -- considering his job, that he
could be -- so accommodating. But it looked like he'd have to try, or face being drummed out of the brotherhood before he even got started.

He bowed his head, then straightened and faced the gathered shamans directly. "I hear your words, and I will do all that I can to follow your instructions. I thank you for your guidance; I wouldn't want Jim to suffer because of my inadequacies."

"Well said, young shaman." The Hawaiian shaman, as well as the others, seemed to approve. "But words must be followed by actions; we will be watching." Then, one by one, the assembled shamans just... weren't there, and only Incacha remained seated by the fire.

"I chose correctly, turiku; you have a good heart and good instincts. Do not doubt yourself; you will do well."

"I'm gratified that you think so; I hope I don't disappoint you or Jim. But before you go, or I wake up, or whatever... I've been wondering."

Incacha gave permission for the question with an inclination of his head.

"When I finish this journey of learning -- will I get a spirit animal, too? I mean, is it, like, part of the graduation ceremony, or something?"

Incacha's smile was broad, and almost mischievous. "You have a spirit animal, turiku, one who is strong and wise. He will be watching, and guarding you on your journey. But it is not yet time for him to show himself to you. When he does, you will know him; he will be a source of strength to you, and a true companion to Enqueri's spirit animal."

Well, that was encouraging. He closed his eyes for a moment, cataloging animals in his mind. 'Strong and wise'; which one might it be?

When he opened his eyes, Incacha was gone. On the other side of the chamber was a large opening in the cave wall. Through it, he saw trees and grass, and the bright sunlight of the outside world. Apparently, this phase of his journey had finally ended. He wasn't certain that he could manage the next phase, but he'd promised to try. He stood, crossed the cave, and walked out into the sunlight.





Blair lay awake, staring upward into the darkness, thinking furiously. There had to be a way to learn 'all the knowledge he could gain', and still remain in Cascade. 'As many sources'... there were several Native American tribes in Washington and Oregon. If he could rearrange his schedule...

He was just spinning his wheels. Blair threw back the covers and turned on his desk-lamp, then pulled out the 'master TA class schedule' -- the one they all used to know who they could call on to cover a class -- and turned on his computer. He need research, hard facts to make realistic plans.

Fortunately, his Fridays were light -- one class at nine, followed by a two-hour block for office hours. Tom Casellas had been bitching about his Tuesday night class; his girlfriend had extra time on Tuesday afternoon and evening, but they couldn't take advantage of it. He could probably talk Tom into taking his Friday class in exchange for him taking the Tuesday evening class. Office hours were easy; he could put them anywhere in his schedule. Maybe early Tuesday; it would make for a long day, and he'd only be able to swing by the PD from about two to five in the afternoon. But if he saw Jim daily from Monday to Thursday, he could take off Thursday evening to visit the shaman of a nearby tribe, and be able to spend a solid three days with him or her, Friday to Sunday. Maybe every-other weekend. The schedule wouldn't be so grueling, and he might be able to talk Jim into coming with him sometimes. If 'the sentinel traveled with the guide' once a month, that should count for something.

Now, tribes in the area... Blair shook his head in self-disgust as he called up Google. He really should know this, but he'd always focused his attention further a-field. Well, he'd always told his students they needed to acquire a broad-based knowledge; he just hadn't opened his boundaries far enough, or opened them in the wrong direction, or something.

All right; without even leaving the state, he could visit six tribes -- Skokomish, Yakima, Tulalip, Shoalwater Bay, Upper Skaggit, and Puyallup. If he headed down to Oregon, there were the Paiute, Coquille, and Shoshone. And if he headed over the border into Canada, he could meet the Nlaka Pamux, Okanagan, Ktunaxa, Coast Salish, and Nuu-chah-nulth without having to spend too much time in traveling.

Of course, not every tribe's shaman would be willing to speak to an outsider. And some might be ready to speak in generalities, but too careful to discuss the secrets of sentinels and guides. Too bad Incacha hadn't given him some sort of code-word or secret signal he could use to convince the shamans that he was a legitimate seeker, rather than an amateur dabbler. But if one or two gave him their seal of approval, he supposed word would spread. If that were the case, later meetings might go more smoothly, with the shamans more inclined to speak freely.

Blair frowned at his notes as he tapped his pencil on the notepad. Somehow, he was pretty sure that working with shamans in this limited area of the Pacific northwest would not actually fulfill the spirit of the 'orders' he'd been given. Even if every shaman from a tribe on the list spoke freely and at length to teach him about sentinels and guides -- highly unlikely -- he was pretty sure it wouldn't meet the 'many sources' criterion; patterns of beliefs would probably be fairly similar in this relatively restricted area. And staying around here sure as hell wouldn't meet the 'journey' criterion. Could the weekend visits fulfill the 'before the new year' part of his instructions, and allow him to delay the actual 'journey' part till next summer? Maybe Jim would be willing to take three weeks off and travel with him.

He chewed a ragged cuticle as he considered and discarded more plans. He could hardly write letters to tribal shamans in the southwest and Mexico. No one would have any respect for one who asked intrusive questions on paper, without even the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting. And how could he even ask such questions on paper? If he got too specific about sentinels and guides, and the letter went astray and someone else read it... well, they might shrug and throw it in the trash, but it might also stir up a real hornet's nest.

Too bad he couldn't send a proxy... Blair's eyes widened, and he sat up straighter. That might work! Every anthro grad student in the country probably knew fifty percent of the others, from meeting and working on the same expeditions. Juanita Gonzales was at the University of Texas in El Paso, and she spent long holidays and the summers in Mexico with her grandparents; she'd be in a great position to visit some of the Mexican tribes. Pete Dalton was at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, where he could easily visit the Teseque and Pojoaque tribes. He was pretty sure Chris Rosenberg was still at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, easily within reach of the Apache tribes in the area, and the Cherokee, Comanche, and Wichita tribes in Texas.

He could probably convince them to talk to the shamans available in their respective areas; they'd be able to come up with some idea that could use as a research paper and, if they mixed in some of Blair's questions with their own, Blair would know which shamans would be most open to teaching him what he needed to know. It wasn't like his friends didn't already know he was doing his dissertation on sentinels; hell, he'd been talking about it for ten years. Having definite destinations, rather than just wandering, would make a summertime 'journey' more efficient.

Of course, that still left out huge numbers of the tribes available in the United States, not to mention Central America and middle or eastern Canada. But he couldn't do it all in one summer. He could tackle the northwest until May, then make plans to travel in the southwest during the summer, and tackle other regions -- the midwest, northeast, southeast, Canada, Central Mexico -- during successive summers. Offhand, he didn't know anyone who could act as an 'advance proxy' for him in those areas, but he was sure there were people he knew; he'd just have to do a little asking around to find out who was where.

Blair heaved a sigh as he felt a weight drop from his shoulders. This would work; he was sure of it. He might not be keeping to the letter of his instructions, but he was definitely upholding the spirit of 'many sources of teaching', all while allowing him and Jim to still be able to meet their respective obligations without too much disruption of their normal routines.

Okay, the letters to his fellow TAs -- and the questions he wanted them to pass on to any shamans they interviewed -- had to be perfectly clear and persuasive. Blair pulled his laptop forward and opened a new document. He'd work on it over several sessions, polishing it till it was just right, then copy and paste into an email. Now that he had a plan, there was no huge rush, but he wanted to get some of this stuff down while it was still fresh in his mind.

Hi, xxxx! How are you? Yeah, I know, it's been a while, but I have a huge favor to ask. I was hoping you could help me out with a bit of research, then pass it back my way. You know I'm still working on my sentinel dissertation, and I need --

Blair jumped, startled almost out of his skin as his door burst open with a sort of controlled violence and Jim's voice thundered, "Sandburg, for god's sake, it's three in the morning! I thought we agreed you'd keep this shaman stuff to regular hours, and get some decent sleep. I don't want to sound like your mother, but dammit, you've got to keep some perspective, and this doesn't qualify! Do I have to put that thing under my pillow for you to keep it turned off and sleep through the night?"




Jim lay awake, listening to Sandburg as his brain revved into high gear. He couldn't hear it directly, but he recognized the distinctive evidence -- the squeak of the chair as Sandburg sat at his desk, the scratch of pen across notepaper, the tapping of the laptop keys as he searched for something on the 'net. He wondered why; the kid had been conscientious about following their agreement from a couple of weeks ago; he'd been eating better, sleeping better, and seemed more like his former self. Even though the dreams had continued, they'd seemed less stressful, as though Sandburg had reached a kind of equilibrium, integrating them into his mental landscape. This sudden awakening and burst of activity was a new wrinkle and, therefore, suspicious by definition.

On the other hand... Sandburg really had been doing better. Maybe this was just a minor burp, and he'd get it out of his system and go back to bed. Unlikely; Sandburg on the trail of information was as single-minded as a bloodhound on the trail of an escaped con. But as often as he and the others in MC called him 'kid', Sandburg was a man, and responsible for regulating his own behavior. So... Jim would give him half an hour; if he wasn't back in bed by that time, he'd go down and read him the riot act. Accordingly, Jim set his internal time-sense to awaken him in thirty minutes, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

He awakened smoothly, and glared at the bedside clock. As expected, Sandburg was still working, and likely to keep it up until breakfast unless someone stopped him. Grunting in resignation, he pulled on a robe -- the nights were chilly, this time of the year -- and moved quietly down the steps. Surprise would go a long way toward breaking Blair's focus, which would make him more receptive to saving his work till morning. At least, it was a working theory; with Sandburg, you never really knew.

Accordingly, he threw open the bedroom door with a strongly audible 'snap'. "Sandburg, for god's sake, it's three in the morning!" Jim used his best drill-sergeant's bark to make his point. "I thought we agreed you'd keep this shaman stuff to regular hours, and get some decent sleep. I don't want to sound like your mother, but dammit, you've got to keep some perspective, and this doesn't qualify! Do I have to put that thing under my pillow for you to keep it turned off and sleep through the night?"

Sandburg jumped, and turned to blink hazily at him, as if coming back from another world -- which he probably was. "Actually, I don't think Naomi ever once told me when to go to bed," he said thoughtfully. "She would have considered it an intrusion into my personal autonomy."

Jim tried to rein in his temper; at times like this, Blair was as much under the influence as any addict -- and just as likely to wander into conversational tangents unless someone else took control. He sat on the edge of the bed, to avoid the appearance of looming, and tried to keep his voice reasonable.

"Look, buddy, remember our deal? You'd back off a bit on the shamanism stuff, and be a little more realistic about the daily routine. Do you really think that working half the night fulfills that agreement?"

"But that's changed, Jim! I reached the end of my dream-walk or vision-walk, or whatever it was, and I talked to Incacha and a bunch of other shamans, and now I know what I have to do." Eagerly, he poured it all out -- the stated requirements for a 'journey of learning', and his plans to break it up into weekend segments so as not to disrupt Jim's work at the PD, or his own work at the university, with the possibility of a longer journey during the summer. "I was hoping you could join me for part of it -- one of the shamans said the sentinel should accompany the guide. I thought maybe you could make one of the weekend trips with me every month, and maybe three weeks during the summer?" He turned hopeful eyes toward his sentinel, practically vibrating with the need for approval and affirmation... or at least acceptance.

Jim was torn between common-sense skepticism and the uneasy suspicion that, if Blair didn't follow his instructions the way they were meant, this whole sentinel-guide thing might fall down around their ears. He'd respected Incacha and -- despite his assertion that the shaman's powers had most likely been a combination of suggestion and community belief -- in his deepest heart, he was less certain of that conclusion.

"Y'know..." he started slowly, "I can see you've put a lot of thought into working around the restrictions of our jobs. But you're always telling us that we should think outside the box. You've got a little over two months till the end of the semester; couldn't you make arrangements to take the spring semester off for 'research purposes'? I mean, if you'd gone to Borneo, you'd have been out for a year. You could probably learn a lot from January to September, then take up school again for next fall's semester. And I have a lot of leave saved up; I could take a couple of weeks here and there to meet up with you."

Blair's eyes lit up for a moment, but then that brightness faded. "It would work for me, but what about you? I'd feel like I was falling down on the job, leaving you alone for eight months; a couple of weeks 'here and there' won't be enough to help you maintain stability with your senses. I'm afraid even three-day weekends might be pushing it, but I thought we could make it work if it was only twice a month." He gave a half-hearted shrug. "I figure it's worth trying, anyway; see how it goes down."

Unfortunately, Blair was probably right, Jim acknowledged to himself. Long-term separation from his guide -- say, six or eight weeks between meetings -- would undoubtedly play havoc with his senses. But surely, between the two of them, they could figure out some kind of viable answer. However, it didn't have to be done this instant. Now, if only he could convince Blair.

"Look, Chief, I respect what you're trying to do. I think it might be better if you modified your plans a little... but we've got time to work it out. You've still got better than two months to 'start your journey before the new year'. Right now, it's time to give your brain a rest, get back into bed, and get some sleep. It's hard enough to kick you out of bed in the morning when you've had the full allotment; I don't want to face the bear that you turn into when you're one-third below optimum snooze-time."

Blair's face split in a wide yawn, as if the reminder of the late hour was a direct hit to the sleep-center of his brain. "You're right, man," he agreed. "Tomorrow's another day, and things will probably fit together better after some decent sleep." He powered down the computer, turned off the desk lamp, and slipped back into bed. "Thanks for the words of wisdom, man; I really appreciate it. G'night."

"More like good morning, Chief; I'll see you in a couple of hours." He smiled as he closed the door gently behind him.




Jim sat at his desk with a file open in front of him, but it was simply a cover for his waffling thoughts. How much credence should he give this dream-vision thing of Sandburg's? On the one hand, after meeting the enigmatic spirit guide in Peru -- that morphed from a black panther to an entity that wore his own face, for god's sake -- it was hard to deny that spirit visions might be real. On the other hand, maybe they'd both been creating their own visions -- Jim, because he'd been worried about finding Simon and Darryl, and Blair, because he was worried about how Incacha's 'passing the way of the shaman' would affect him.

But ultimately, did it matter if the dream-vision was "real" if Sandburg believed it? Probably not; belief was a powerful thing. He'd seen people do some really crazy things, and other people do some really extraordinary things, when driven by sincere beliefs -- regardless of how the outer world judged those beliefs.

Okay, working hypothesis -- Blair sincerely believed in his dream-vision, and would react as it had been "real", so Jim would have to treat it the same way.

Wait... no, wrong hypothesis. If he simply went along with Sandburg's beliefs, that would imply that whatever measures Blair took in response to his visions wouldn't matter; if he was comfortable with his solutions, his psyche would be satisfied with whatever answers he found. But if the dream-vision had represented some kind of spiritual truth -- if some powerful Beings were watching and/or judging Sandburg's actions -- trying to fudge the rules could be dicey.

And, really, although religious beliefs took many forms, most of them had large areas of commonality. Didn't that mean that there was likely some kind of universal Truth that people were trying to access, however imperfectly?

So, better -- safer? -- hypothesis. If he considered the religious teachings of much of the world, the things he'd seen Incacha do, and the spirit guide who'd advised him when they went to rescue Simon and Darryl... it would be best if he believed in the dream-vision just as strongly as Sandburg did. But in that case, he didn't think it was a good idea for Blair to twist the meaning of his spirit-vision instructions. Whatever Gods there might be, they could sometimes get... surly... if their expectations were flouted. He wasn't sure they should put it to a test.

By that reasoning, the best course of action was to convince Sandburg to take a sabbatical from the university, and send him on his 'journey of learning' right after Christmas. But where did that leave him? Even after two years, he still needed Sandburg's help to manage these damn senses. Not every moment of every day, thankfully. For instance, he was usually able to maintain a pretty even keel with his senses when Sandburg was at the university. But there were still times when a sensory spike damn near crippled him; if Sandburg wasn't around to help, recovery was slow and painful.

And, now that he thought about it, he realized that he usually scheduled his fieldwork for times when Sandburg was away from the university, and able to travel with him. It hadn't been a conscious decision on his part but, looking back, it seemed he usually 'needed' to tackle his paperwork when Sandburg couldn't be at the PD. But, as soon as the kid showed up, that's when Jim 'needed' to get out and visit crime scenes or question witnesses. In other words, he'd been depending on Sandburg's backup with his senses most of the time -- on the order of ninety percent. The few times he had to work a scene without Sandburg, he made sure to take one of the other detectives with him. Maybe just having another person around, even if it wasn't Sandburg, helped him stay better-focused. Or maybe he simply didn't extend his senses as much when Sandburg wasn't around to cover his back. Whatever; his days of working without a partner were long past.

So, what would happen to him if Sandburg was out of his life for eight or nine months? The prospects looked... grim; unpleasant at best, and damned near unendurable at worst. He'd probably be okay if his senses automatically shut down when the guide left, but he had no control over that, and couldn't be certain it would happen. If they didn't shut down -- if he had to contend with his senses without Sandburg's help for that long a time -- he had the uneasy suspicion that he might not even survive if his senses went into near-constant spiking and overdrive. And it wouldn't be a pleasant death.

Well, according to Sandburg, the vision-shamans had insisted -- or at least strongly suggested -- that the sentinel should accompany the guide. It might not be so bad; if Sandburg was talking to shamans, they were likely to be away from cities, in more natural environments, which would give his senses some down-time. And if he got bored while Sandburg spent days discussing esoteric mumbo-jumbo with the local shaman, he could always pick up the occasional day-job.

But could he afford it? Jim turned to his computer and accessed his pay records and accumulated leave-time, then blinked in surprise. For years, he hadn't been using large portions of his allotted time off, but he hadn't realized that it now added up to five months! He could take five months leave with pay, and he'd always been frugal with his money. He could easily cover the next three months out of his savings, for him and Sandburg both.

And it might not even come to that. Eight months -- till the end of August -- was just an assumed outer time-limit, to allow Sandburg to be back at the university for the fall semester. He might learn all he needed to know by the beginning of May, for instance, or even April.

Hmm... A slow, broad smile grew on Jim's face. If Sandburg finished his 'lessons' early, they'd be off the clock, with no reason to come back any sooner than they'd planned. They could easily wander around the country, checking out prime surfing areas and fishing spots. The idea had an almost guilty attraction, like a little boy playing hooky from school. But why shouldn't he? He never had played hooky, and he was pretty sure Sandburg would tell him it was an American iconic rite-of-passage that everyone should experience at least once. And wasn't Sandburg always telling him that the sentinel should listen to the guide? So, he would -- and be sure to pack his fishing gear and surfboard when they took off.

Jim relaxed into his chair, relieved of a tension he hadn't noticed until it was gone. This decision felt... right. He just hoped he could make Sandburg see the sense of it.

Of course, Simon wouldn't be happy when he requested eight months' leave. Jim regarded the captain's closed door thoughtfully. In fact, he'd be pretty pissed. But it wasn't like Jim would be leaving him understaffed; Simon would have two months to find a replacement detective. He'd undoubtedly bluster loudly -- the captain rarely responded any other way -- but Jim knew the secret phrase. 'It's a Sentinel thing' -- guaranteed to make Simon clam up and accept whatever Jim or Blair suggested. It might seem unfair, but you really couldn't argue with the truth. It was a sentinel thing, and he did have to go with his guide.

Jim shrugged as he stood; might as well get the yelling over with now. He crossed the room, and knocked on the captain's door.




Blair seemed to levitate into MC at twelve-thirty, his excitement showing in the satisfied grin on his face. "Jim!" he called before he even reached the desk. "This is going to work; Tom was happy to trade his Tuesday class for mine on Friday, so I'll have a three-day weekend every week. And I had some other ideas that I think will help everything work out."

"That's great, Chief," Jim said sincerely as he rose to grab his jacket. "I have some ideas to run by you, too. But we'll have to save it for after we get home; right now I need you to help me check out a crime scene."

"Right now?" Blair seemed faintly surprised. "Yeah, sure, man; that's what I'm here for. But it seems odd that you need to go out as soon as I walk in the door. I guess policework is the very definition of 'never a dull moment', huh?"

Jim snorted softly as they waited for the elevator. "You know better than that, Sandburg; you've complained often enough about how boring stakeouts are. But I just realized something this morning. Turns out, I've been saving the boring stuff, like paperwork, for when you're not at the PD. If I have to work a crime scene, it just makes sense -- no pun intended -- to wait till you're available to watch my back, senses-wise."

"Really? That's so cool!" Blair bounced onto the elevator and pushed the button for the garage level. "But I mean... really?"

"Yes, really," Jim said dryly. "I'll let you figure out the statistics for yourself, if you want. And that's part of what we need to talk about tonight. But for now, get in the truck; the good citizens of Cascade are waiting for us."




By unspoken agreement, they shelved the heavy discussion till after dinner. During their meal of meatloaf -- Sally's secret recipe, which Jim hadn't shared even with Blair -- green beans and mashed potatoes, they kept to such important topics as the Jags' chances to make it to the championship, what the construction of a new elementary school a mile away would mean for the neighborhood, and whether or not the city really needed a new shopping center between Hay Avenue and Riley Drive.

After the dishes were washed and put away, Jim poured them each a fresh cup of coffee and urged Blair into the living room. As they sat down, Jim spoke before Blair could get started. "Chief, let me go first? I've been thinking, too, and my conclusions might change your plans a little."

At Blair's assenting nod, Jim settled back and took a deep breath. "Okay, here's the deal. Your dream-vision was either real, or an invention of your inner psyche." He raised a hand to stop Blair's automatic protest. "Yeah, I know, Western thinking. Just bear with me, okay?" Blair looked stubborn for a moment, then relaxed and nodded again.

"Right. Now, if the dream-vision is an invention of your inner psyche, whatever steps you take to meet the shamans' requirements will be good enough; your subconscious will set it up for you to feel you've succeeded. But if the dream-vision is real, on some spiritual level that I don't even want to think about... then trying to finagle around the shamans' requirements in a half-assed, off-again, on-again manner is likely to come back and bite you in the ass. And if the guide gets ass-bit, it's likely to be not too good for the sentinel, either."

Jim leaned forward, staring directly into Blair's eyes. "What I'm saying is, if we treat the whole situation as real, and it isn't, no harm, no foul. But if it's the other way around, there's no telling what could happen. So I think you should commit to that 'journey of learning', and take that sabbatical for the spring and summer. But also, I've been thinking about the problems my senses would likely give me without you around as backup, and it ain't a pretty prospect. So, just to be sure that the sentinel remains sane during that time... I'll go with you."

"What?" Blair's rose in a surprised squeak. "You can't be away from the PD that long! I mean, it might not take the whole eight months, but it could. Would you even have a job when we got back?"

"You know better than that, Chief. The PD always needs good policemen and detectives. At most, I'd simply have to re-certify. But here's the best part -- I have five months accumulated leave. I could sit around here in front of the boob-tube and get paid till the end of May, but I'd rather travel with you. In fact, I've already put the official request through channels."

"What about after that? I mean, I'm an expert at living from temp-job to temp-job, but I can't see you in that kind of lifestyle."

"You wound me, Chief. Rangers are endlessly adaptable; I can manage day-jobs with the best of them. But I also happen to have plenty of savings to draw on; we won't have any problem."

Blair sipped his coffee as he stared toward the darkened balcony doors. Not having to do his 'studies' piecemeal would make things a lot easier. And, to be honest, it was a real rush that Jim -- even as he admitted he was skeptical -- still believed enough in his dream-vision to turn his life upside-down. And he'd certainly feel better if Jim was with him, and not dealing with his senses alone for weeks or months at a time.

Not only that, with Jim's 'sabbatical' plan, he'd be able to deepen his work with the shamans in this area before they left. He'd been planning to spend only one or two weekends with each individual. It wasn't an ideal way to learn, but he'd felt such urgency to take everything in as fast as possible, to not miss out on information that he might need to help his sentinel. But now there was no rush; he could meet with each shaman for as many weekends as he needed, or the shaman was willing to give, until he'd absorbed all he could.

But still... it was a major change for Jim, the guy who could easily have written the book on 'consistency and order'. Traveling cross-country on a shaman-hunt would be the very antithesis of Jim's whole lifestyle. Blair focused again on his friend, his expression a mixture of hope and doubt.

"Man, I can't think of anything I'd like better than traveling with you while I do this. But... are you sure? I mean, absolutely sure? I'll basically be wandering wherever the wind blows, without any particular goal -- just finding shamans willing to teach me, probably by each one sending me to the next. Spontaneous meandering really isn't your thing, you know?"

Jim chuckled. "You'd be surprised, Sandburg. Special ops rarely proceed exactly to plan; if you can't develop a certain spontaneity, you're likely to end up dead. And between you, me, and the gatepost, it'll pretty much be an extended vacation for me. You'll have to go to 'school' every day to talk to the shamans, while I get to laze around walking, fishing, snoozing. I'm going to rub your nose in it every evening -- nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah." His eyes lit up as he stuck out his tongue, finally reducing Blair to laughter.

"How can I argue with such a well-reasoned explanation? All I can say is, 'welcome aboard, man; glad to have you along'."

"Then it's settled," Jim declared with evident satisfaction. "'Before the new year starts' -- say, December twenty-seventh? -- we load up the pickup and follow your nose."

"The pickup? We're taking the Volvo! After all, it's my learning-journey."

"Sandburg, it won't be much of a journey if we have to stop for repairs every other day. Besides, do you really think the Volvo is up to some of the back roads and rough trails we'll probably end up on? The pickup is much better suited for any rough terrain we run in to."

"Yeah, but..." Blair stopped, unable to find a reason Jim might consider valid. "The truck... feels wrong."

"Wrong? You like 'classics', it was built the year you were born... what could be righter than that?"

Jim was right, of course; the truck would be eminently practical. But, somehow, Blair's instincts insisted that the truck would be a hindrance. "I'm afraid some of the places we go, the truck'll seem too... ostentatious. If they see us as 'the man', people might not talk to me."

"'Ostentatious? Sandburg, it's twenty-eight years old; it'll fit right in with every other vehicle on the back roads. I'll even refrain from washing it, so it'll be sporting an authentic patina of road-dust."

Blair shrugged. "I know it isn't logical, but I just can't go in the truck."

"Well, the Volvo certainly isn't suitable for that long a trip!"

"It'll be fine!" Blair shot back. "If you don't like it, you don't have to come!"

"I thought you needed the sentinel to travel with the guide!"

"If the sentinel is going to be an ass, the guide can manage alone!"

They froze, staring at each other in dismay. Jim broke the silence with a tentative, "Chief, what's going on, here? We have two perfectly serviceable vehicles -- well, if we got the Volvo tuned up -- so where's this coming from?"

Blair shook his head, looking somewhat dazed. "I don't know. You're right, it doesn't make sense. But I can't shake the feeling... give me a few, okay?" Without another word he kicked off his shoes, sank cross-legged onto the rug in front of the couch, took a deep, centering breath, and closed his eyes.

Jim watched him, trying to wrap his head around what had just happened. Their usual communication included teasing, joking, bitching and griping, but they didn't almost come to blows over a simple difference of opinion. If he didn't know better, he'd think they were possessed. He hoped they weren't; the deeper he got into this sentinel shit, the more it seemed that anything was possible.

Finally, Blair opened his eyes and looked up at his friend. "I think it's an equality thing," he announced.

Jim frowned in confusion. "Care to explain?"

"Well, it seems like, if we take the truck, the guide is acknowledging the priority of the sentinel, but if we take the Volvo, it's the other way around. And, at some instinctual level, neither one of us can accept that."

"So, what's the answer? Somehow, I don't think Greyhound would take us where we want to go."

"You got that right," Blair agreed. "But you know... I've never had much of a problem getting around by hitchhiking."

"Illegal in some places, and potentially dangerous as hell," Jim said grimly. "Not while I'm with you."

They lapsed into silence, each turning over possibilities. Blair sighed and leaned back to rest his head on the couch cushion; his mind was drawing a blank.

"Chief... how do you feel about hogs?" Jim asked tentatively.

"What?"

"Motorcycles. If we each have one, then wouldn't we be confirming that neither of us has priority over the other?"

Blair considered the suggestion. He could see it, both of them traveling the back-roads side by side. Motorcycles were actually very egalitarian vehicles, and would take them into the roughest country. But... "I can't afford it," he sighed. "It sounds good, but if you buy both bikes, then the sentinel is top dog again. I suppose I could sell the Volvo to buy the bike, but I really like that car."

"And riding a bike around in Cascade weather until we're ready to leave wouldn't be very pleasant," Jim agreed. "Cold and wet would be your world every day."

"Yeah. Bad enough taking off in December on a bike, but if we head south, we'd be in warmer weather in a couple of days. Starting to use it now... I can't say I'd be thrilled."

Both men became silent again, each brain turning over ways and means. Jim juggled a germ of an idea, refining it, firming it up till it looked good to him. Now if only Sandburg would agree.

"How about this, Chief? I buy both bikes -- used, so they're not so expensive -- then we sell them when we get back to Cascade. That way, I'm not out any money -- well, no more than expenses on the road, but we'll be sharing those. And as far as I can tell, even though the sentinel and guide watch out for each other, it's kind of a mutual balancing act. One may carry a bit more of the load at one point, then it's the other's turn. If I carry a bit more to start with, but it evens out at the end, will that work?"

Blair gave the suggestion careful consideration, checking it against the internal censor -- or was it a compass? -- that had been so adamant against the use of the truck. He'd already decided the cycles were a good idea, but would this make him indebted to Jim in any way?

The internal censor/compass/voice -- and where the hell had it come from? he wondered. Something he'd unconsciously picked up in his shamanism studies, or had the dream-vision gifted it to him without his knowledge? Anyway, it seemed to agree that Jim's proposal was an acceptable compromise.

Blair felt the tension that he hadn't realized he was holding, flow out of his shoulders as he relaxed for the first time since the argument had started. He smiled softly, looking up at Jim with a clear gaze.

"Yeah, big guy, I think that'll work out just fine. I really appreciate the suggestion -- and how far you're willing to go to help me do this 'journey of learning' right. It means... well, a helluva lot more than I can say."

Jim shrugged, uneasy with profuse expressions of gratitude. "You've done so much for me, Sandburg, helping me with these senses; it's little enough repayment."

Blair shook his head, smiling more broadly. "I beg to differ, but I won't force it on you. So, what kind of bikes do you think we should get?"

Jim stood and stretched, then ambled into the kitchen and returned with a couple of bottles of beer, handing one to Blair. "I think we've exercised our brains enough for one evening, and we have time to decide that another day. What d'ya say we catch the last half of the Jags' game?"

"I could go for that," Blair agreed. He lifted himself onto the couch, accepted the beer from Jim -- who was already aiming the remote control at the TV -- and settled in to enjoy the rest of the evening with his best friend.




Blair's first 'free Friday' was a great time to start gathering information. He stopped at several motorcycle dealers to pick up brochures. Even though they'd be buying used -- which he carefully didn't mention to any of the eager salesmen -- he figured the brochures would help them choose the best bike for their purposes. He was leaning toward Kawasaki, but Jim would probably have different ideas.

At Administration, Blair filled out the necessary paperwork -- all 32,683 pages of it, or so it seemed -- to meet the requirements for taking a research sabbatical to encompass the spring and summer semesters. He used quite a bit of creativity to explain the research he'd be doing, and how it applied to his dissertation; he was quite pleased with the result. It should be approved with no problem.

Then he was off to the library, where he booted up his laptop to use their wireless access. The Tulalip tribe was closest to Cascade, with a reservation just north of Seattle. If he headed south on I-5, he could be there in an hour, or a little longer. Pictures of Quil Ceda Village looked pretty much like any small-town America. Human societies were endlessly flexible; it was natural -- regardless of how unique their personal culture -- for many to adjust, at least outwardly, to the dominant civilization. Blair hoped that it was only a surface adaptation, and that the tribe retained enough of their cultural identity and spirituality that he'd be able to meet with a true shaman or medicine man. If not... well, try, try again. The dream-vision shamans had indicated that the journey would not be easy. If the Tulalip couldn't help him, maybe they'd know a tribe that could.

Blair glanced at the library clock, then started loading everything in his backpack. He and Jim were meeting for lunch at Mario's Pizza and Pasta, followed by an afternoon of reviewing a couple of troublesome crime scenes -- unless they were interrupted by a significant crime in progress. Considering how smoothly things were going right now, he estimated the possibility at about fifty percent.




"Hey, Jim!" Blair pulled out the brochures before he dropped his backpack at the end of the booth-seat and slid in beside it. "You already ordered?"

"Large meat-lover's for me, medium veggie-lover's for you. You know, Sandburg, I think I just figured out why you grew up so short -- not enough protein in your diet. If you started eating more meat, maybe it's not too late."

"Couple of problems, there, big guy. One, vegetarian diets don't stunt growth, as witness the gorilla and elephant. Two, I'm statistically average; I can't help it if I work with overgrown behemoths."

Jim raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Keep telling yourself that, Sandburg; maybe someday you'll believe it. Personally, methinks the man doth protest too much."

"Unlike some people, I learned long ago that height has nothing to do with a man's character. You happen to have both. But we also know that some of the biggest assholes think they can get away with that behavior just because they're larger than whoever they've chosen as a target. I prefer 'short' as a designation over 'asshole'."

"Guess I can't argue with that," Jim agreed. "What's all this stuff?" He picked up one of the brochures to see the cover.

"I thought they might help us consider the pros and cons of the different bikes. What do you think of a Kawasaki?"

"I think it's highly overrated. And we don't need a discussion; we'll both ride Harley-Davidson Road Kings. They're well-built and solid; they'll stand up to thousands of miles and months of travel. Put a pair of fiberglass saddlebags and a cargo-carrier on each, and we'll be able to take everything we need and go anywhere we want. I know a mechanic in El Paso; he's got a good eye, and will find us a couple of reliable used bikes. I'll ask him to check 'em over, tune 'em up, and we'll be ready to hit the road right after Christmas."

"What! Wait... you..." Blair sputtered, caught between shock and outrage; hadn't they settled this whole 'taking over' business last night? Just then, their waitress appeared with their pizzas. By the time each had slid several slices onto their plates and started to eat, he'd had time to regain his composure.

"First," Blair said between bites, "how did you get to be the guru of motorcycle selection? Second, you couldn't find anyone closer than El Paso? That's quite a commute to get to our rides."

"I learned more in Vice than just how to knock heads together," Jim said mildly. "We can sit down and I'll show you all the advantages a Road King has over any other bike, but believe me, it's by far the best choice. And I've owned one before; I know their quirks, and I'll be able to keep them in good working condition."

"Huh? If a Road King is so great, why would you need to 'keep it in working condition'?"

"Vibration, Chief. No matter how well it's put together, bits and pieces shake loose or break down -- unless you keep on top of things with regular maintenance. I'm your man."

"Cool! And I bet you'll catch potential problems even sooner with your sentinel senses. I wonder if there's any way we can test how much sooner you notice problems than the average rider would?"

"Not likely. There's not a lot to measure if I keep fixing things before they even break down."

"Point," Blair conceded. "Now, why El Paso?"

"Well, you had a point about taking off from Cascade in the middle of winter. The twenty-seventh is a Saturday; most Christmas travelers won't be heading home till Sunday. If we buy the tickets now, we can get them pretty cheap." Jim had contemplated offering to buy Blair's ticket, but worried he might see it -- again -- as the sentinel trying to claim 'priority' over the guide. Best to assume Blair would manage it somehow, or ask for help if he needed it. "I figured we could fly down to El Paso, then head south into Mexico. You start your shaman studies there, where you can be comfortable in warmer weather. Then, as the summer heats up, we can work our way north, kind of staying in the more temperate areas, and finally end up in Cascade." Jim winked at Blair's open-mouthed expression. "Hey, I'm smarter than the average bear -- and isn't it the duty of a sentinel to look out for his guide?"

"Yabba-dabba-do," Blair said softly. "I like the way you think. We'll have to check ticket prices but, yeah, I think I can swing it."

When they had reached the mellowing-out stage, each about halfway through his pizza, Blair considered it an auspicious moment to mention the other part of his plans.

"Y'know," he said softly, "Just because I'll be going on a long-term sabbatical doesn't mean I can't get a head start on the face-to-face shamanism studies. I have all these three-day weekends between now and the end of the semester; seems kind of pointless to do nothing with them. I thought I'd head down to the Tulalip reservation tomorrow, see if their shaman or medicine man is willing to talk to me. Unless you had something else planned for the weekend...?"

Jim squashed his automatic protest. It would only be two days; he didn't need Blair living in his back pocket every second of every day. "Just show up without any warning, or asking if it's okay?" he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral. "Do you think that's -- I dunno -- the 'acceptable' way of approaching a shaman?"

"Well, I don't have a name or address to write to," Blair pointed out. "I suppose I might find it out -- they actually have a website, all about their village and lifestyle and what they do for the community and planet. But generally speaking, it's more respectful for a seeker to present himself in person, so the shaman can judge what kind of person he is, and whether he's worthy. I might get nowhere, but I won't know if I don't try."

Jim bit off a large piece of pizza as a delaying tactic before answering. Sandburg had a point. If he had to take this 'learning journey' -- and they were already operating under the assumption that it was inevitable -- then there was no sense postponing his opportunities to gain information. "Tell you what," he finally said. "I know you need to go, but you know that I can't help worrying about something going wrong. Let me check out the Volvo tonight, you be sure your cellphone is charged up, and I won't chain you up to prevent your leaving."

"Thanks for understanding, man; it means a lot to me." Blair's smile was dazzling.

"What about the sentinel accompanying the guide thing; you want me to come along?"

Blair considered it. "I think maybe I should go alone the first time, get the acceptance of the shaman. He'll let me know when the sentinel needs to join the lessons. Besides, I don't even know that the Tulalip will have someone who can help me; they might send me to try the Skokomish or Yakima."

"Okay, Chief; it's your call. Just remember, I'll be there --" The ringing cellphone interrupted his words. "Ellison." ... ... ... "Okay, Simon, we'll head right out." He took a last swig of coffee, stood, and tossed enough money to cover the bill on the table. "C'mon, Chief; duty calls."

"Well, at least we got to finish most of our lunch," Blair observed philosophically as he grabbed his backpack and followed Jim out the door.




Blair stared into space one evening, his attention far removed from the textbooks scattered across the table. It might work; they weren't leaving for seven weeks. Of course, getting the info out of Jim might be tricky; the sentinel would know if he told an outright lie. But he might manage an almost-truth.

He waited till the news paused for an ad, then spoke across the room. "Hey, Jim, can you give me the number of your friend who found the bikes for us?"

"Why, Sandburg? No way he'll let you trade the Road King for a Kawasaki; he has too much respect for a good bike to let a friend of mine ride a substandard model."

"Nah, nothing like that," Blair assured him. "I just wanted to check the cost of a customized paint-job. I think it would be kind of cool if the bike was one-of-a-kind, you know?" Which was absolutely true; he didn't have to mention that he didn't intend the paint job for his bike. It would be a great Christmas present for his friend and sentinel.

"Something like that can get pretty pricey," Jim warned. "But I guess you won't be satisfied till you find out for yourself. Call nine-one-five, five-five-five, six-two-eight-three; ask for David Barrett."

Blair noted the name and number in his school day-planner. "Thanks, man; I'll give him a call tomorrow."




It was almost noon before Jim had time to sit down at the phone. He dialed Dave's number, hoping that Sandburg hadn't yet spoken to him.

"Dave? Ellison. ... Cold and rainy; we don't expect anything else around here. ... Yeah, yeah, rub it in, buddy. For that, you'll have to knock a hundred bucks off the price.

"Listen, has my partner -- guy named Sandburg -- already talked to you? ... Damn; I hoped I'd cut him off at the pass. Have you started the new paint-job yet? ... Good, glad to hear it. Listen, whatever he wanted, don't do it. I want his bike painted exactly like I told you; if he doesn't like it, I'll take the grief. But this is really important to me; I don't want any changes at all. ... Thanks, buddy. Knew I could count on you."

He hung up the phone, extremely satisfied with himself. Sandburg would get that particular Christmas present a couple of days late, but Jim was comfortably certain that it would knock his socks off.




As November slipped into December, enough small changes had accumulated that Jim was beginning to notice them. Sandburg had found a kindred spirit in Patrick Emborski, the shaman of the Tulalip tribe, and spent every other weekend with him. Jim had gone with Blair once, and found the man pleasant enough, with the knowledge and information that Blair so desperately wanted to learn. But, despite Sandburg's almost visible hopes, Jim hadn't felt any kind of connection with the shaman. Emborski had assured Jim that he was not the shaman who would help the sentinel strengthen his connection with the guide, but that they would meet the 'one they needed' on their journey.

Under the effects of his shaman lessons, Sandburg seemed... more mellow? More grounded? Jim wasn't sure he could describe it. Sandburg still bounced, still demonstrated his unending energy and zest for life, but it was a bit lower-key, and he seemed more self-confident, less anxious about helping Jim with his senses. Jim felt it every time he needed to use his senses; somehow they worked better now, more easily, even though it didn't seem that Sandburg was doing anything different to help him. If this was the result of a few weekend lessons, he couldn't imagine what he'd be capable of -- what they'd be capable of -- when Sandburg really got his mojo going. Best of all, as far as Jim was concerned, Sandburg had quit almost all of the infernal 'testing'; it seemed like he instinctively knew, without question, what Jim would be able to do. Once in a while, he'd ask for something that Jim thought of as a 'perimeter check' -- like, "Hey, Jim, how many blocks can you still clearly read a license plate?" or, with a pair of binoculars to his eyes, "See that old blue van going over the bridge. Is the engine running smooth, or does it need a tune-up?" -- but they were insignificant blips compared to the former aggravation of extensive and sometimes painful experiments Sandburg had inflicted on him.

At the PD, Jim was taking care to ensure that there would be no loose case-threads dangling when he left. The replacement detective Simon had hired was a woman, Sharon Cagney, tall and good-looking -- Sandburg was still the shortest person in MC -- with short-cropped, shaggy brown hair. She was actually intelligent and competent, despite Jim's private grumbling to Sandburg about her suitability for the job. Blair laughed and called him a reactionary Neanderthal. Sharon functioned well as Jim's partner, and didn't seem to think it was at all odd that Blair joined the two of them whenever he wasn't at the university. When Sandburg helpfully suggested that anyone who could work with Jim without wanting to punch him out demonstrated a self-control that would be able to handle anything Cascade would throw at her, Jim had to concede that MC would probably get along without him for the next eight months. He hoped he'd be able to close all his open cases by Christmas but, if not, Cagney would very capably pick up the slack.

One evening, just three weeks till 'D-day' -- their plane tickets were confirmed for 4:00 PM on the twenty-seventh -- Blair paused in grading the final-exam essays. "Jim, I've been thinking..." he started, his voice carefully casual.

"Which is frequently dangerous," Jim observed. "What's on your mind, buddy?"

"Well, you talked about doing maintenance on the bikes, which means you'll need to pack tools and maybe small parts in our gear. You'd probably get a lot better deal on prices if you waited till the twenty-sixth, when you could hit the post-Christmas sales."

Jim kept his grin to himself. Real subtle there, buddy. But, really, Sandburg was in a bind; it was difficult to warn someone off something you knew they needed, and were likely to buy for themselves. And, not so coincidentally, he was in the same boat.

"Makes sense, Chief," he said solemnly. "Doesn't hurt to get the best bang for the buck I can find. Of course, the same goes for you; if you're looking at any specialized gear, you should also wait for the after-Christmas deals."

Blair raised his eyes to meet Jim's. Busted, their expressions acknowledged, but they'd keep up the fiction until Christmas. At least, neither knew the details of what the other was planning. Satisfied and in harmony with each other, Blair returned to his grading, and Jim to his newspaper.




Christmas Day dawned cold and clear. Jim heard Sandburg stirring early. They'd planned to sleep in, but Blair hadn't been able to manage that lately; the closer they came to his journey's beginning, the more excited he became. Blair was already starting the coffee, being as quiet as he could. Ordinarily, Jim could sleep through Sandburg's stirrings but -- whether because he was also feeling the effects of pre-travel excitement, or because the sentinel was ever more closely attuned to the guide -- he recently seemed to have lost that facility. Well, a day or two spent traveling on motorcycles would probably ensure that Sandburg slept long and deeply. Meanwhile, Jim got up, threw on his robe, and headed downstairs to help his friend with an early breakfast.

After eating, they strolled into the living room, although Blair's 'stroll' had a definite bounce component. Since they'd be leaving in two days, they'd kept the Christmas decorations to a minimum; a tiny, pre-decorated artificial tree sat on end of a long table in front of the balcony doors, while a Menorah stood at the opposite end. The presents sat under the table -- one large and one smaller box from each man to the other, with a second small box for each that was a group present from everyone in Major Crime.

"So, which first, big or small?" Jim asked.

Blair gave the problem due consideration. "Well, if the big presents blow our socks off, the smaller ones might not get the full appreciation that's due them. But if we open the smaller first, we might skip past them too fast to admire them properly in our hurry to get to the big ones."

Jim grinned. Watching Sandburg over-analyze the question was worth paying admission.

"Sooo... I think we should open the big presents first, take a lot of time to admire and enjoy them, then clear our minds to properly appreciate what's next."

"Works for me." Jim retrieved both larger boxes from under the table, handing his to Blair, and setting aside Blair's to him for a few moments. He wanted to enjoy the full effect when Blair saw what Jim had so carefully selected for him.

Blair ripped off the colorful wrapping with the eagerness of a child, pulled off the top of the box, and froze. Slowly he stroked the leather inside, then pulled out the top piece to examine it more closely.

The jacket was an unusual shade of grayish-blue, and the snaps and decorative studs were the dark blue of late evening. The gloves and trousers beneath the jacket were the same remarkable color. Blair was speechless as he looked from the exquisite motorcycle leathers to Jim, and back again. When he finally found his voice, he couldn't manage much. "How... where...?"

"Special order," Jim replied succinctly, thoroughly satisfied with the effect of his gift. "It seems to me that a shaman deserves something a little out of the ordinary, and ever since those dreams I had in Peru, I associate 'blue' with the spirit-world. Besides," he added, trying to lighten Blair's thunderstruck expression, "the color will enhance your eyes; you'll have every lady within a hundred yards swooning at your feet."

"Except for the ones that get a look at you first," Blair smirked. "I saw yours when you brought them in. In that black and silver, you'll look twice as buff as you already do; you'll have to beat the ladies off with a stick." Then he fell silent again, carefully set the box aside, and stood to try on the jacket. It was a perfect fit.

"Man, I can't thank you enough," Blair murmured, his voice husky, stroking the arm of the jacket as if it were a kitten. "I just figured to hit the sales tomorrow, and find a leather vest to wear over my regular clothes, you know? Especially since we're heading to Mexico, where it'll be warm."

"No way in hell, Sandburg," Jim almost growled. "Leathers aren't for a macho image or to keep you warm; they're to keep your skin from being flayed right off your body if you wipe out. No matter how well you ride, there's always some damn fool around who'll ignore a cycle and pull some asshole maneuver that'll put you in danger. Times like that, blue jeans and flannel shirts might as well be tissue paper, and a vest will do nothing for your arms and legs; you're not going to chance it."

Blair still seemed almost mesmerized. "This is so great; just unbelievable!"

"Believe it," Jim suggested. "The sentinel looks out for the guide, remember? But now that you've given it the proper appreciation, put it aside so I can open my present for my share of appreciation."

Blair folded the jacket back into the box with a last pat, then looked anxiously at the box Jim held. "That's... it can't even compare..." he stuttered.

Jim shook his head as he carefully cut off the wrapping paper. "No comparisons, Chief; it's always the thought that counts." As he opened the box, he drew in a sharp breath. He'd suspected that Sandburg would give him the tools that would be necessary to maintain the bikes, but this went far beyond his expectations. The compact toolbox inside held a Harley-Davidson-specific collection of every size and type of screwdriver, wrench and pliers he'd need, along with an assortment of washers, gaskets, springs, screws, wires, glue, electrical tape, and even separate kits for repairing rubber and fiberglass. Given a frame and wheels, he could practically build a whole new cycle with this equipment.

"Chief, this is amazing. There's not a single problem that might happen with those bikes that I couldn't fix with what I have here. You did a bang-up job, buddy; I really appreciate it."

"You're sure?" Blair asked anxiously. "I talked with a Harley-Davidson mechanic, and put in everything he told me, but if I missed anything, I'll be happy to add it tomorrow."

"No need," Jim assured him. "You've covered every possible eventuality, I promise."

"Well, good." Blair settled back, trying not to let his friend notice how relieved he felt. The two gifts didn't compare, but he was gratified that Jim seemed to really like it, or at least appreciate the thought that Blair had put into it.

"Now that we've suitably enjoyed our number one gifts, are we ready for round two?" Jim asked. Although he tried to appear nonchalant, Blair noticed a definite twinkle of anticipation in his eyes.

"Right; my turn to do the honors." Blair returned with the two smaller boxes, tossing Jim's into his lap, and holding on to his own. "You first, this time."

Jim dutifully opened his box to find an envelope tucked inside. He pulled a slip of paper out of the envelope, glanced at it, and started to chuckle.

"Jim?" Blair was... okay, a tiny bit miffed. His gift wasn't supposed to be funny.

"It's kind of a timed joke, Chief. Open yours, and you'll see."

Blair opened his box to find a very familiar envelope tucked inside. With a feeling of inevitability, he pulled a slip of paper out of the envelope. It was, as he'd somehow known it would be, a gift certificate to Biker's World for any helmet and pair of biker boots in stock -- identical to the one he'd given Jim. He snorted, looked across at Jim, and began to snicker.

"Great minds, right, Chief?"

"I don't know, man. Either you'll have to climb up to match my brilliance, or I'll have to damp myself down to your level. Either way, it's kind of scary."

"I think I'm hurt, Chief."

"Really? I thought your name was Jim." They tried to retain their composure for another moment, then both burst in to full-out guffaws, laughing till they clutched their ribs and tears ran down their cheeks.

As the laughter finally subsided, Blair caught his breath enough to ask, "I suppose we did it this way for the same reason?"

"Only way to go," Jim assured him. "Boots have to fit just right, and helmet-preference is so individualistic that you're just looking for disappointment if you try to choose for someone else."

Jim crossed the room once more to retrieve the final gifts. As Blair took his, he looked at it doubtfully. "I don't get it; we exchanged presents with everyone at the unit Christmas party two days ago." They'd both received small, compact items -- from neck-cloths to insulated coffee mugs -- to make traveling more convenient. "Why would they give us more?"

"You're the anthropologist, Sandburg. Could it possibly be that they intend to demonstrate that they'll miss us, and hope we'll come back? So open it, and find out."

Jim hid his slight frown; even after all this time, Blair was still insecure about his place in Major Crime. He didn't seem to comprehend that the other detectives liked him for himself, rather than just tolerating him as an unofficial partner to Jim.

"Okay. Together?"

"Right with you."

Again, each box held an envelope. When Blair opened his, he gasped. "Jim!"

"Same here, Sandburg." Jim counted the fifty-dollar bills in his envelope. "It's a thousand bucks, buddy. Quite a demonstration, wouldn't you say?" Blair was still staring in shock at the bills tucked into the envelope. "Try reading the note."

"What? Oh... I didn't even notice." He pulled it out and read aloud, "'To Jim and Blair. When you get tired of roughing it, treat yourselves to a hotel room and a restaurant meal. Have a safe trip'. Wow; everyone signed it -- even Dills, and I didn't think he liked me that much."

"Maybe not, but you're part of the team," Jim assured him.

"I don't even know what to say to something like this."

"You say 'thank you' -- and you'll be able to do that when we all meet at Simon's for our combination Christmas dinner / farewell party. As a matter of fact, we need to leave in about an hour; I promised Simon we'd get there early to help with everything. So go get dressed; you can practice your 'thank you' speech while you do."

"You sure we don't have to bring anything? It just seems wrong to show up empty-handed. Maybe some beer?" Blair headed toward the bathroom to shower and shave.

"Okay, we'll pick up a couple of six-packs on the way so they won't throw us out." Jim smiled fondly at Blair's retreating back. One of these days, Sandburg would realize that he really did fit in with the men and women of Major Crime.




Since they'd left their vehicles in the PD parking garage for safety -- tucked into the most distant back corner, where no one ever wanted to park -- Simon picked them up to drive them to the airport. He stared at the two duffle bags and rolled sleeping bag that each man carried. "You'll be gone for maybe eight months. Are you sure you're taking enough?"

"We're sure," Jim said easily. "A pair of saddlebags -- even the large size -- and a top cargo carrier can only hold so much gear.

"And it's not like we're heading off to the wilds of Borneo," Blair added. "There'll be actual stores and stuff along the way, where we can buy what we need."

Simon favored him with the glare that never seemed to have an effect on his civilian observer. "You know, Sandburg, it's going to be mighty quiet without you around; I think I'm going to enjoy it."

Blair grinned. "I'll send you a postcard, Simon, just so you don't forget me."

"He always has an answer, sir," Jim pointed out.

"That's another thing I won't miss. Get in, both of you."

With their gear stowed in the trunk, Blair in the back seat, and Jim riding shotgun, they were on their way. Conversation was sporadic; everything had already been said a dozen times over.

When they reached the airport, Simon pulled into short-term parking. "You don't need to do that, sir," Jim suggested. "We'll be fine; just drop us off at the curb."

"That's no way to send a friend on a trip, Ellison," Simon growled. "So pipe down and try to act just a little refined."

"Refined; yes sir," Jim answered. Blair snickered behind him.

Simon waited while Jim and Blair checked their bags, then walked with them as they headed toward security, quite a distance down the concourse. They passed a couple of off-set seating areas, where friends and family could wait for arrivals, or watch through the large windows as the planes carrying their loved ones took off or landed.

As they passed the third, Jim and Blair were startled by a shout of, "Surprise!" from a dozen voices, while Simon smirked beside them. Turning, they saw that the entire contingent of Major Crime had taken over this area, complete with posters taped to the supporting pillars. Have a safe trip! and Hurry back! and We'll miss you! expressed the sentiments of their friends as the group surged forward to bring Jim and Blair into their orbit.

They were subjected to a round of handshakes and back-slaps, as well as hugs from Rhonda and Sharon, while typical inanities nevertheless assured them of how much their friends cared. Joel enfolded Blair in a fierce hug. "Don't let this be goodbye, son," he murmured. "Just, 'see you later', okay?"

"Absolutely, Joel," Blair assured him. "We'll be back by the end of August, just like a pair of bad pennies."

Gradually, there was nothing left to say. Simon stirred; it was a captain's duty to look out for his men. "Your plane leaves in forty-five minutes," he pointed out, "and you still have to pass through security. I hate to say it, but -- shoo!"

"Shooing, sir," Jim agreed.

"Thanks, everyone!" Blair spoke loud enough for the whole group to hear. "We'll see you in August!"

Jim and Blair left their friends behind and passed through security. Then, together as always, sentinel and guide boarded the plane for the first leg on their long journey of knowledge and discovery.




Blair sighed as he threw his bags on one of the motel-room beds, and collapsed beside them. Five hours of travel -- two hours to LAX, an hour layover, then two hours to El Paso -- felt like twenty-five. "Y'know, maybe riding down from Cascade wouldn't have been so bad, after all."

"But the bikes are here, Chief. Kind of pointless to have them trucked to Cascade so we could ride to El Paso."

"Yeah, but the airlines make travel less pleasant every year. At this rate, they're going to piss off the public till they all go belly-up."

"If that happens, how will all the little anthropologists get halfway around the world to their latest expedition?" Jim asked mildly. Sandburg didn't often get grumpy but, when he did, he let it all hang out. "There's a Red Lobster just a couple of doors down. Let's go; you'll feel better with a good meal under your belt."

"You're a slave-driver," Blair grumbled. But he heaved himself off the bed and headed into the bathroom to wash his hands.

Thirty minutes later, halfway through his fried trout, crab linguini and rice pilaf, Blair's mood had mellowed. "I guess I didn't realize how hungry I was. Thanks, man; this was a good idea."

"Glad to be of service, Sandburg. In repayment, I expect you to bring me breakfast in bed, tomorrow."

"Jim, if you can't make it to the 'complimentary continental breakfast, I don't think we'll get very far on this trip. By the way, what's the plan for tomorrow? Does your friend open his shop on Sunday?"

"No, but he said he'll meet us there at ten-thirty. It's his week to act as an usher at the first two church services, so he can't get away any earlier."

"Hey, that's cool. I think I might actually be able to sleep late tomorrow; seems like I've been running short lately, even for me."

"Unless excitement has you up at the crack of dawn," Jim suggested. "You've been antsy for the last two weeks."

"Oh, well." Blair shrugged his disinterest in the subject. "It's not like we'll be punching time-cards for the next eight months. I'll have plenty of time to sleep if I need it."

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready to get started on that." Jim signaled for the check, handed his credit card to the waitress, and added a generous tip when she brought the receipt.

Then, together, Jim and Blair headed back to the motel, and what they hoped would be a good night's rest. From now on, a soft bed for the night was likely to be an occasional luxury.




The taxi deposited them in front of Barrett's Bikes at 10:25. At 10:35, a gold Toyota Camry with red racing stripes and flames on the back quarter of each side -- obviously a custom job -- pulled up and a tall, balding man climbed out and gave Jim a cursory salute. "Hey, Cap."

"Not anymore; just plain Jim Ellison. Dave Barrett, my partner and friend, Blair Sandburg."

Shaking Blair's hand, Dave remarked, "You must be hiding a lot of gumption under that hair, kid, to put up with this old bear."

"He's not so bad," Blair grinned. "Make sure to feed him enough meat, and he generally plays nice. I take it you knew him in the army?"

"Yep," Dave said as he unlocked the door and ushered them in. "Best damn Captain I ever served under. I was sorry to see him muster out."

"Times change," Jim remarked. "Look at you; driving a Toyota instead of riding a hog?"

"Great paint job, though," Blair said enthusiastically. "Your work?" If so, it suggested the paint job he'd ordered, sight-unseen, wouldn't disappoint.

Dave grinned at Jim. "Thing is, you can't put a wife and two little girls on the back of a hog. I use the cycle on workdays, the car on weekends. And you got it, kid; custom paint jobs are one of our specialties."

Jim's slap on the back was almost enough to make Dave stagger. "Congratulations! When did that happen?"

"Got married five years ago. Mandy's three, and Beth just turned one."

"Kids are so great," Blair said. "Gives us hope for the world."

"Great for me," Dave agreed. "But you didn't come to talk about my family. Wait here a minute. I need to turn on the lights before you see them; I want you to get the full effect." He disappeared through a door behind the sales counter, while Blair bounced and Jim regarded him suspiciously. Could it be...?

Soon enough, Dave opened the door and said, "Come on through."

They were barely three steps past the door when Jim and Blair stopped in their tracks, stunned.

The bikes were facing each other, side-on toward the observers, spotlighted to show off every detail.

"Jim... that's just..."

"Great minds again, Chief. Merry Christmas, by the way."

"Yeah, you too," Blair answered, absently. He hardly knew which bike to examine first -- the one he'd had painted for Jim, or the one Jim had obviously had painted for him.

Jim's bike -- fenders, gas tank, hard-sided, rectangular saddlebags and top cargo carrier -- was painted in a pattern of blotched green, to simulate the canopy of the forest where he'd lived for eighteen months. On each side of the gas tank was a plain white circle, background for a 'head-shot' of a snarling, blue-eyed black panther. Larger white circles on the saddlebags showcased a head-and-shoulders image of the same representation of Jim's spirit guide. It was amazing; Dave had perfectly executed the picture he'd had in his head as he'd described what he wanted.

Apparently, Jim's vision had been similar to his. Blair's bike was a hazy, medium blue -- the color Jim had seen in his spirit visions, he supposed -- with very pale blue circles scattered across the gas tank, saddle bags and even the sides of the cargo-carrier. As he circled the bike, he saw that each circle held the head-image of a different animal -- buffalo, falcon, lion, eagle, wolf, gorilla, lynx, hawk, bear, cheetah, horse, dolphin, orca, and cougar. "Jim?" he asked, softly.

"You said Incacha told you that your spirit animal was strong and wise," Jim answered, just as quietly. "I just picked what I thought might be suitable candidates. Even if your own spirit animal isn't shown, I thought the others might bring you good luck... or something."

"I can't imagine anything better. Thank you, Jim. I mean, really... thank you!"

"Back at'cha, Chief. That design is just inspired."

Dave had stood quietly, watching as his artwork was duly admired; the absorbed appreciation was an artist's version of a standing ovation. But he'd promised his wife he'd be home in time for Sunday lunch with his in-laws. "I'm glad it meets your expectations Jim, Blair. But my wife is waiting, and I expect you want to get on the road."

Brought back to reality, Jim and Blair began to sort the contents of their duffle bags into the available spaces on their bikes. But when Blair opened his cargo-carrier, he found a power-converter attached high on one side. Puzzled, he followed the lead through a hole in the front of the carrier and saw that it was connected -- he couldn't quite tell how -- to the engine. "What's this?" he asked, looking from Jim to Dave.

"Jim's idea," Dave said. "I never thought of it before, but I think I'll start offering it as an option for the businessmen who like to cycle."

"And you told me it wouldn't work," Jim teased.

"Reckon that's why you were captain," Dave shot back.

"There'll probably be times when we won't have electricity available," Jim explained to Blair. "I figured you could plug in your laptop and charge the battery when we ride. That way, you'll have enough juice to use it in the evening."

"You see, Dave," Blair said earnestly, "this 'old bear' is the best partner a man could have. I think I'll keep him." His shining eyes, turned toward Jim, spoke a more eloquent 'thanks' than words could express. Jim gave his partner a dazzling smile, supremely satisfied with the effect of his gift.

Finally, belongings stowed and bedrolls strapped behind the seats, Jim and Blair wheeled the bikes out of the shop, which Dave locked behind them. After accepting final effusive 'thanks' from both men, he got in his car and drove away, presumably toward home.

Jim turned toward Blair. "Well, Chief, where are we headed?"

"Piedras Negras, south of San Antonio. Juanita's email said the shaman of the Kickapoo tribe in Mexico wanted another shaman to vouch for me before he'd agree to see me. The Kickapoo on the reservation south of Piedras Negras are related to those in Mexico. If the Texas shaman won't vouch for me... well, I'll ask his advice and follow it."

"Just one favor, Chief?" Jim asked as he pulled the road atlas from its position on the very top layer in the cargo carrier. He scanned the Texas map, noting road numbers and towns. "Let me be the navigator? I mean, a budding shaman needs to concentrate on more important things, don't you think?"

Blair glared at Jim, then broke down and snickered. "I think that's the nicest put-down of my directional abilities I've ever heard. Sure, big guy, knock yourself out."

"I hope not. Okay, it looks about six hundred miles; as late as it is, we won't make the distance today. We'll go east on I-Ten, maybe spend the night in Fort Stockton?"

"Hey, you're the navigator; as long as we get there, I don't much care how we do it."

Jim paused, giving Blair a long, measured look. "You know, Chief, we really do make a great team. I think I'm going to enjoy the next few months." He placed the atlas back in the luggage carrier, and strapped on his helmet.

"You know it, man!" Blair answered, strapping on his own helmet. "This is going to be so cool."

In unison, Jim and Blair settled on their bikes. The engines roared to life as they kicked the starters and, together as always, sentinel and guide headed toward their destiny.



The End




Author's Notes

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Title: Windsong
Summary: Jim is afraid Blair intends to leave, and Takes Steps.
Style: Gen
Size: 7,950 words, about 16 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None.
Notes: July, 2005. Incorporates an original poem. Explanation of how it was written is in the Author's Notes.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Windsong

by StarWatcher





Thursday

Whistling, Blair Sandburg hitched his backpack a little more securely onto his shoulder as he stood at the top step in front of Hargrove Hall and surveyed this section of Rainier campus from his elevated post. White and purple hyacinths were blooming in a nearby flowerbed; even his unenhanced olfactory senses could recognize their fragrance carried on the gentle breeze. Butterflies flitted between the dandelions that inevitably dotted the grass, and the trees' newly-leaved branches cast a comforting shade against the bright, late-spring sunshine. Somewhere nearby, a mockingbird was staking out his territory in vibrant song, and a mourning dove's plaintive counterpoint revealed its hiding place in a willow tree. Mother Nature was gifting Cascade with a rare, glorious day, and Blair was duly appreciative.

He took a deep, intoxicating breath of the gently-crisp air, grinned, and started down the steps. Blair had always loved the springtime, when it seemed that human blood rose to quickened life, just as the sap in the trees. It was at this time of the year when Naomi's wanderlust would most often entice her onto new paths and she'd set out for the promise of a fresh kind of enlightenment, pulling her son into new cultures and new experiences.

He had to admit, he felt a touch of that wanderlust himself. In previous years, he would have been trying to join whatever expedition was being planned. Or, failing that, he would have tossed his backpack and a duffle bag in the back of the Corvair, traveling on a shoestring budget wherever his nose led him, following the back roads to find the small, isolated communities, or crossing several states to visit a Native American tribe. It didn't matter. Whether he was talking to a wise tribal shaman or an elderly town librarian, the mothers hanging their wash or the children playing in the streets, men working in the fields or teens gathered in their local hangout, Blair was supremely happy to learn about people, places, and customs. His curiosity was always burning but, this time of the year, it flared even more brightly than usual.

                                  The wind blows free
                                  Over land and sea;
                                  Who would follow the wind?


Not this year, though. Blair shook himself out of his introspection and grinned as he hurried to the car. He was supposed to meet Jim at the PD and, together, they'd go over a recent crime scene to see if Jim's senses could pick up anything that forensics had missed. Well, Jim would go over the crime scene while Blair grounded him and offered suggestions on the possible use of his senses -- and that was why Blair could ignore the tug of wanderlust. He had found his Sentinel, the dream he'd been searching for over half his life, and nothing was more exciting or mentally stimulating than working with Jim, helping him to be -- oh, all right -- 'the best he could be'.

Blair grimaced at using such a cliché, even to himself, but it was true. Ellison was almost larger than life -- strong, smart, honorable, caring -- a Tribal Protector in its truest sense. On the other hand, he was human; Jim could sometimes be impatient, acerbic, inflexible, resistant to suggestions, and he didn't suffer fools gladly. In fact -- Blair glanced at the clock tower as he passed it, gave a mental 'Whoops!' and pressed more firmly on the accelerator -- if he didn't hurry, he'd be late again, and earn himself a vivid reminder of just how impatient Jim could be.

But the wanderlust was there, Blair admitted to himself, even if sublimated. Briefly, he wondered how Jim would feel about taking his two-week vacation 'on the road', following the will-o'-the-wisp of an anthropologist's curiosity. Then he snorted and shook his head; no way would Jim Ellison be happy -- or even comfortable -- traveling without a plan, trying to make conversation with a succession of strangers. No, this year, and for the foreseeable future, he'd stay in Cascade, by his sentinel's side, and that was more than enough; it was everything he'd ever wanted.

Still, it can't hurt, he mused, as he drove with the windows and top down, the breeze tangling his hair, to pretend, just for a few moments, that instead of taking the turn toward the PD, I'll just head out of town, and keep on going...

But the siren call was firmly ignored as he sped past the exit to Route 84-East and then, half a mile later, turned onto Fairmount to take him across town to the police station. Jim was counting on him.



Saturday

In the interests of catching the 1:30 exhibition game between the Jags and the Lakers, they'd split up the chores; while Blair had headed out with the shopping list, Jim had finished the laundry, sorting it and folding everything neatly. He carried Blair's pile of shirts and jeans into the small room and set it on the bed, shaking his head ruefully at the disorder in which the kid lived.

Turning to leave, Jim passed too close to a tottering pile of books and papers, and everything tumbled to the floor. With an exclamation of disgust, he picked them up and built a neater, more stable pile -- larger books on the bottom, smaller on top, papers neatly aligned in a separate pile next to the books. As he smoothed out one last wrinkled piece of paper -- if Blair had meant to throw it away, he could do so again -- he automatically scanned the words. When his brain caught up with the meaning, Ellison froze, a sick feeling churning in his stomach. Despite some scratchings-out and revisions, the message was clear, and a chill settled on his heart.

                    It's a good life, to follow the wind,
                    To go where the heart desires.
                    The world will give, to a friend of the wind,
                    Hidden arts and secret fires.
                                  For the wind sings a song,
                                  And the world plays along
                    With the voice of a heavenly choir.


A bleak realization filled him as the page crumpled in his clenched fist; Blair was thinking of leaving. Maybe not right away, or he'd have said something, but wasn't poetry supposed to be the mirror of the soul, or something like that? If the kid was writing about following the wind and going 'where the heart desires', he must be getting restless. And who could blame him, being stuck working with a man whose senses hampered as much as they helped, instead of trotting off to Borneo and other exotic places where he could function as an anthropologist instead of a nursemaid. Who knew how many expeditions Blair had turned down since that day he'd passed himself off as an 'expert' to help a dysfunctional sentinel? Jim knew of only the one, but surely there'd been other offers...

Wearily, feeling ninety years old, he replaced the page on top of the pile of papers, smoothing it out mindlessly. He left the room, closing the door gently and carefully, as if to avoid disturbing someone asleep, and wandered almost blindly onto the balcony. His 'aerie', as Sandburg had dubbed it, usually gave him a sense of peace and helped him think.

But he didn't want to think; it would be too painful. He watched a sparrow land in the gutter at the end of the block, and clearly saw the large crumb it picked up from some child's dropped and smashed cookie. A clicking of toenails on concrete drew his focus to Mrs. Blumenfeld walking her terrier mutt; the acrid odor was easily discernable as it marked its territory against the lamppost.

Sandburg gave me this, Jim realized. I can control my senses, instead of being ambushed and blindsided by them, and it's all thanks to one hyperactive, fast-talking anthropologist.

And that was the problem, wasn't it? Blair must be feeling that he had completed his part of their agreement and, if he wasn't finished writing his dissertation yet, he surely didn't have to be living in Jim's back pocket to get it done. Blair wouldn't regard his plans to leave as -- deserting Jim; he probably saw it as just moving on to the next job.

Intellectually, Jim knew he should let Sandburg go, that he should be grateful for what he had and happy that Blair would be advancing his own career. But he had an uneasy, gut-level suspicion that his senses were under control only because Blair was still around. Jim was almost certain that, without the support and grounding -- the guidance -- that his partner gave him on a daily basis, even as informal as it often was, his so-called control would soon be thin and tattered, and essentially useless to him. Much as he hated to admit it, he needed the other man, but not only as a guide. Jim was -- and probably always would be -- essentially a loner, but in Blair he'd found a congenial and valued companion. He needed the friendship that Blair so freely offered, the emotional warmth that was so generously given, the exuberant connection to life that was so much a part of Blair's fundamental nature; he realized he'd feel bereft without Blair's presence in his life.

But friendship wasn't enough, Jim thought bleakly; people always left, no matter how close the friendship supposedly was. And Blair had been raised with the concept of 'detach with love'; the distancing of their friendship probably wouldn't bother him at all. Especially since -- looked at from Blair's perspective -- Jim's friendship was a grumbling series of 'stay in the truck, Sandburg', and 'you're not a cop, Sandburg', as well as a string of not-so-subtle digs about his food, clothes, car, hair, women, general interests, living habits... Not to mention the automatic resistance Jim raised every time his guide wanted to test his senses, or suggested new ways of using them.

No wonder the kid's thinking of leaving; I'll bet he feels like he's living in a prison camp instead of a 'home'. Hell, that's why I left home; why should Sandburg be any different? But, God, he wished the kid wouldn't go; wished he had some way of convincing Sandburg to stay around, at least until he finished his thesis and his doctorate was official. Maybe --

Jim cocked his head as he heard the distinctive beat of the Corvair's engine, five blocks away, turn onto Prospect. Okay, lunchtime, then the Jags game. And, starting right now, he was instituting 'Operation Make Sandburg Want to Stay'; he wouldn't let his friend leave without a fight, undercover though the battle would be.



Sunday

"So, Sandburg, got any plans for this afternoon?"

"Not much; maybe a little grading, but that can wait. Do you need help with something?"

"I just thought we might go by AutoZone, get some spark plugs, oil, and a filter. Your car's sounding a bit ragged, and I don't want to have to come haul your ass out of the seedy part of town if it breaks down. I figured I'd do a minor tune-up -- change the oil, spark plugs, set the timing -- and you could help me use my senses to tell when everything's adjusted correctly."

"Cool!" Blair's eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. "Man, that would be so awesome! But you know I'm gonna ask where you learned to do mechanic's work."

Jim grabbed his keys and ushered Blair to the door. "It's no secret, Chief. The guys in the Army motorpool are often backed up, just like everyone else. So when your life might depend on your vehicle not breaking down as you get the hell out of a nasty situation, you learn to do your own basic maintenance, or at least be able to check that everything's A-OK before you start the mission. I remember one time..."

They headed down the stairs, Blair's attention firmly fixed on Jim, drinking in every word. It wasn't often that his friend was this forthcoming, and he treasured every chance to learn more about the man and what made him tick. He shoved the need to grade student essays to the back of his mind. The insight into his sentinel's previous life was worth staying up late to get the grading done, and he'd be getting a tune-up on the Corvair as well; couldn't beat that with a stick.



Monday

Jim finished proofreading his report, hit 'Send', then stretched weary muscles as the printer started spitting out the pages. It had been a helluva day; they'd finally nabbed the lowlife creep, but it had taken long hours to do so, and Sandburg had been with him every step of the way. Now his friend was sitting at Dills' desk, busily grading classwork while waiting, but he looked tired. Jim glanced at the clock and frowned; no wonder. He hadn't realized it was so late -- 7:35 PM -- and they hadn't eaten yet. He noticed Sandburg's stomach rumbling in irritation; it was loud enough to be heard even without sentinel senses.

"Time to pack it up, Chief. I know it's your night to cook, but you're bushed, and I sure as hell don't feel like it. What do you say we stop on the way home, have a nice quiet meal, no dishes to wash. My treat."

Blair looked up and blinked in confusion while he made the mental shift from anthropological essays to the mundane, but important, trivia of life. "Uh, well..." He hesitated to throw Jim's offer back in his face, but... "I'm sorry, man, but I just don't think I can face WonderBurger tonight. Just the smell of the grease will --" He shrugged, letting Jim fill in the blanks.

"Yeah, buddy, it's been a hard day," he agreed. "WonderBurger might be a little heavy even for me tonight." He grinned at Blair's incredulous look. "I was thinking of that new health food restaurant over on Grand. Thought you might want to give it a try."

"You? In Healthy Choices? I dunno, man, it might bring about the downfall of Western civilization. I can't see you chowing down on a salad of tofu and bean sprouts, you know?" He chuckled at the image of Jim Ellison primly eating such a concoction, pinky finger daintily raised in affected elegance.

Ellison favored him with a mock glare. "Sandburg, I have been known to eat a few green things in my time. Besides," he shrugged, "I'm assuming they have to serve some kind of meat, even if it's labeled 'healthy' -- ostrich burgers or buffalo steak, or something like that. So, what d'ya say? Healthy Choices, or leftover chicken cacciatore at home?"

"It's good chicken cacciatore, man!" Blair reminded his friend. "But hey, I can't refuse an offer like that. Lead on, McDuff; I'm with you all the way."

Blair gathered up his books and papers and stuffed them in his backpack while Jim shut down his computer and put the finished report in Rhonda's 'In' basket. They headed for the parking garage together, anticipating a relaxing evening and a tasty meal shared with a good friend.



Tuesday

Blair hurried into the loft, vividly aware of the ticking of a mental clock. He really wanted to attend that lecture tonight, and he had exactly twenty minutes to shower and change and get out of here if he wanted to be there on time. Dr. Fujiyama's expertise was renowned; his talk on 'Daily Living Customs of the Jarawas Tribes Before Their Contact with Western Civilization' should be fascinating. Blair intended to not miss one single word.

He tossed his backpack on the bed and hurriedly stripped, kicking everything into the 'dirty clothes' corner. He yanked open the drawer to grab clean boxers and socks, and paused. He didn't even own that many pairs of boxers, or socks. Surely Jim couldn't have accidentally combined their piles when he did the laundry?

A closer examination revealed that that was not the case; the boxers were his size and brand, and the socks were -- WOW! -- argyles, also in his size. Either they had house-fairies, or Jim was feeling generous for some reason.

But now was not the time to wonder what was up; he'd already wasted a whole minute in considering the puzzle. Making a mental note to ask Jim about it later, he clutched the needed items and dashed toward the bathroom. Seventeen minutes left...



Wednesday

Ellison pulled into a parking space near the loft, congratulating himself on his good planning. He'd take advantage of Sandburg's being out on a 'study-date' to sneak a supply of the kid's favorite organic snacks into the cupboards. Blair rarely had enough money to buy the expensive treats, preferring to use his funds for books, but he'd enjoy them if they were available.

As Jim neatly stowed away the apricot-coconut fruit and nut bars, the Lushus Lemon energy bars, the oat 'n honey granola bars, and the more ordinary organically-grown apples, mangos, and oranges, he couldn't help wondering if his efforts had had an effect yet; was Sandburg still feeling the wanderlust that his poem had indicated? True, the past few days probably weren't enough to change his mind, but it couldn't hurt to scope out the lay of the land. Could it?

He pushed open the door to Sandburg's room, resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder. The kid wouldn't be home for hours and besides, if he did come home early, Jim's hearing would give him early warning.

Resolutely quashing the guilty feelings, Jim flipped through Sandburg's notebooks -- and there it was. His stomach clenched as he saw that accursed poem again; a new verse had been added.

                    It's a hard life to follow the wind,
                    But there's beauty along that road.
                    It's a lifelong journey that has no end,
                    And little peace does it hold.
                                  For the wind will call,
                                  And hold him in thrall,
                    With no release till he's old.


Well. He'd known it was too early for results. Jim heaved an unconscious sigh, mentally renewing his resolve. He'd just have to work harder. Sandburg had to want to stay; Jim would just have to provide enough incentives to change his mind. There simply couldn't be another outcome.



Thursday

Blair hurried through the doors of Major Crime, already speaking before the doors closed behind him. "Jim, man, I am soooo sorry! I left Rainier on time, I swear I did, but there was a big traffic holdup on Fairmount. You'll never believe it -- an egg truck overturned; broken eggs all over the place, and the truck was laying crossways across both lanes, so no vehicles could go past. And not only was cleanup being hampered by the usual looky-loos, there were at least a dozen cats and dogs trying to lap up a free lunch -- makes you wonder where they all came from, not to mention why the dogs didn't chase away the cats, but I guess the eggs were more enticing than inter-species antagonism -- and every time someone shooed them away, they just ran around and came back from the other side. What a mess! Literally." He grinned as he hung his backpack on the coat-rack and crossed to Jim's desk. "Anyway, by the time I realized I was driving into a jam, there were people behind me and I couldn't back up. It took traffic control half an hour to get the backlog untangled so that we could detour around it. And then when I tried to call you, I found out I left my cellphone at home this morning, and I knew you'd be steaming, but I really couldn't help it, and do you think we still have time for that interview you wanted to do?" He sank into the chair next to the desk, combing his hair into place with agitated fingers.

"Breathe, Sandburg," Jim said automatically, as he gathered the pages from the printer. "I heard about the traffic jam, and since I know you usually take Fairmount, I called and rescheduled. So it all worked out; gave me a chance to finish this report, and you're right on time for us to make the interview. And your cellphone's in my coat pocket; I saw it and grabbed it on my way out this morning."

"Uh, Jim?" Sandburg seemed confused, glancing uncertainly around the bullpen, as if searching for an answer to one of life's mysteries. "Don't take this the wrong way or anything, and I know it's not my fault, but -- why aren't you yelling? The last thing you said this morning was, 'Not a minute past two, Sandburg; this is important'. And I promised, and I really tried, but it's..." he glanced at the clock, "...two thirty-five, and you're not even clenching your teeth. Did you win the lottery or something?"

"Geeze, Sandburg, can'