Aug. 8th, 2012


Title: By Another Name
Summary: Some words change our perspective.
Style: Gen
Size: 3,285 words, about 7 pages.
Warnings: None
Notes: August, 2012, late dues from last June
Feedback: Not necessary, but anything you want to give is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

By Another Name

by StarWatcher

Blair reached the end of the chapter, put his bookmark -- a folded receipt from a paid bill -- between the pages, and laid the book on the ground beside him. Jesse Stone was an old friend, but he’d been sitting long enough. He stood and stretched, then took a few moments to reaffirm his appreciation of just being here. The river in front of him flowed smoothly, with a contented burbling as it passed a rocky area upstream. All around, he heard small animal life: birds chirping and calling as they went about the business of feeding their nestlings, a rustle in the bushes nearby that indicated the passage of a rabbit -- or maybe a porcupine -- and bees buzzing as they visited the flowering trees and weeds. The various perfumes of the different flowers tickled his nose as a light breeze brushed his face. Good thing I don’t have hay-fever, he mused as he headed closer to the river. This place wouldn’t be nearly so pleasant if I was sneezing my head off.

Jim was standing in the middle of the river, as he had been for the past two hours, patiently casting and settling flies on the surface of the water. Or maybe not so patiently; the last time Blair had wandered down to see how Jim was doing, he’d been warned not to let his ‘clodhopper stomping’ scare the fish. Translation: the fish weren’t biting, and ‘expert fisherman’ Jim Ellison felt like he was losing face... as if Blair cared whether either of them caught anything.

They’d known when they headed out that the recent storms had probably roiled the water, which would make catching anything iffy, at best. But after a slew of rough cases and the Exam Week from Hell, they’d both needed a break. When the university scheduled a three-day weekend, Jim took the Friday off, and they’d headed out of town to enjoy the mild, late-spring weather. The time off was working for Blair; as long as he wasn’t grading papers or following a case, he didn’t care how his ‘rest and relaxation’ was presented -- which was why he’d quit fishing an hour ago, in favor of the literary goings-on in Paradise, Massachusetts.

But Jim... Blair watched for a few moments. Jim looked like he was working a case; his concentrated glare at the water, ramrod-straight back and ‘fish will be caught’ attitude suggested that he wasn’t grasping the concept of ‘leisure’. If he didn’t ease up, he’d go back to work more uptight and tired than when he left.

“You know,” Blair said softly, “we brought plenty of food. The fish might be biting closer to sundown, or early in the morning.”

“I’m fine, Sandburg!” Jim’s voice was equally soft, but abrupt. “We can eat chicken or pork chops any time. We came to fish, so I’m fishing.”

“Sure thing, man. Just remember --” Jim’s glare should have frozen Blair’s tongue, but years of teaching had toughened his armor. “-- that you don’t get extra relaxation points based on the number of fish you catch.” Jim transferred his glare to the river and the unseen -- to non-sentinel eyes -- fish. Blair recognized the unspoken ‘go away and leave me alone’. “Okay. I’m going for a little hike, stretch my legs. Catch you later.”

As he walked past the campsite, Blair grabbed a canteen, clipped it to his belt, and raided the cooler for an apple. He debated taking his backpack -- he might run across a fossilized fern or shark’s tooth, possibly an arrowhead or two -- but decided to leave it. It wasn’t likely he’d actually find anything, certainly not more than would fit in his pockets, and he’d rather travel unencumbered. Taking a bite out of the apple, he headed uphill, away from the river. At least he couldn’t get lost; any direction ‘downhill’ would take him back to the river, from which he’d be able to find the campsite.

Blair returned two hours later, eagerly following his nose the last hundred yards. Jim’s determination had obviously paid off; two fish, breaded with cornmeal and Jim’s secret spices were frying over the fire in their cast-iron skillet, with another on a piece of waxed paper, waiting its turn. The Dutch oven was warming the baked beans -- leftovers from two nights ago, as were the ‘just in case’ chicken and pork chops still in the cooler -- and the coffee in the pot smelled ready to pour.

“You knew I was getting close, huh?” Blair observed as he headed to the river to wash up. Fish cooked quickly, and these looked just ready to flip; Jim seemed to have judged the cooking time to the second.

“Your footsteps sound like Rice Crispies, Chief -- snap, crackle, pop,” Jim said as he ladled some beans onto a plate. He slid one of the fish next to the beans, handed the plate to Blair as he sat down, then grabbed a plate for himself. “Good thing you don’t have to hunt for your dinner; you’d go hungry to bed every night.”

Blair shrugged as he swallowed a crisp, flaky mouthful. “Man doesn’t live by meat alone, and vegetation doesn’t run away. I’ll go after the roots and berries -- and fish, since you’ll be too busy hunting -- and we’ll turn it all into a meal and share.”

Jim kept his face sober, though his eyes twinkled with humor. “You’re an anthropologist; haven’t you learned that the ‘man code’ means you have to provide your own food? No meat for you.”

“That works, too,” Blair acknowledged. “I’ll have a healthy diet of fish, fruits, and greens, while you develop rickets and beriberi from an all-meat diet.” He grinned. “Catching these fish certainly improved your disposition; I was afraid you’d arrest me for excessive use of sunshine, or something like that.”

Jim had the grace to look a little shame-faced... but only a little. “Yeah, sorry about that, Chief. Sometimes it takes me a while to start to unwind.”

Blair waved an expansive hand. “You think I don’t know that? You are the king of control, and you don’t let go easily. I was just afraid I was going to have to tie you down and yank it away before you let yourself relax.”

“You think you can take me, Sandburg?” Jim gave a disbelieving snort, then put the remaining fish in the skillet.

“No problem,” Blair said easily. “I’ll just use my magical ‘guide voice’ to put the big, bad sentinel in a trance, then grab the control module and put it in a safe place until we leave; I know you’ll need it when you’re back at the P.D.” He scooped more beans onto his plate and ate while he waited for the fish to cook; the hike had made him hungry.

Jim shifted as he set his jaw. “Isn’t that against the code of ethics? There’s gotta be something in the Guide Handbook about not interfering with the sentinel.”

Blair mastered his brief surprise; surely Jim didn’t think he was serious. Or did he? Jim still seemed to believe his sentinel skills were just waiting to bite him in the ass.

“You’re right; it’s rule number one -- ‘A Guide shall not harm his Sentinel or, through inaction, allow his Sentinel to come to harm,” he intoned, with mental apologies to Isaac Asimov. “But aiding and abetting the relaxation of the sentinel doesn’t qualify as ‘harm’,” he pointed out.

“So let me guess... you’re prepared to spend the next hour arguing that ‘interfering’ isn’t the same as ‘harm’, so you’ll just keep poking your nose in wherever and whenever you think it’s necessary.” Jim’s tone was sort of -- but not completely -- joking.

Blair’s eyes widened. Jim must be feeling the stress of the last few cases more than either of them had realized. Something was certainly bugging him, but a wise man -- or guide -- knew when to give his friend -- or sentinel -- some space.

“Sorry, man; bad timing,” he said, quietly. “You’re right again; relaxation is an individual undertaking, and I shouldn’t dump my expectations on your shoulders. So from here on out, this is me, backing off.”

“Yeah, well...” Jim used the activity of taking the fish from the fire and cutting it in half to hide his face. He lifted one half onto Blair’s plate, and the other onto his, then sat down. “I appreciate your concern, but I appreciate more your keeping a lid on trying to do something about it. A couple more days of this, and I’ll be as relaxed as... a snake snoozing in the sun.”

Blair willingly jumped into the game. “Nah, you’re not that slinky. How about a basketful of sleepy puppies?”

“You’re the one with the puppy-dog eyes. I think I prefer a panther cub basking with his buddy.” Jim waggled an eyebrow, as if his hint weren’t broad enough.

“Works for me,” Blair agreed. He set aside his plate and headed toward the cooler. “You ready for some apple pie?”

They sat quietly over pie and coffee, watching the rising moon cast its beams upon the placid river as they eased farther away from the hassles of school and work, and enjoyed the simple friendship each gave to the other.

The next morning, Blair joined Jim again in the river. The water looked somewhat clearer, and Jim’s shoulders seemed a whole lot more relaxed than yesterday. Jim took position in the same area, within easy casting distance of a shaded spot under a broadly-branching tree. Blair headed a little upstream, focusing on a quiet eddy just below the choppy, rock-strewn part of the river.

The best part about fishing was the time available for quiet contemplation while waiting for the fish to bite. And if that didn’t appeal... a guide could devise new ways to test his sentinel’s abilities -- as well as speculate on ways to talk said sentinel into participating in said tests.

Wonder if he’ll ever say, ‘Sure, Sandburg, I’ll do your tests; it’ll be useful to know how far I can stretch the senses.’ Blair snorted softly to himself. It could happen -- in which case, he’d start preparing for the Apocalypse, because the world would obviously be ending. But maybe --

Blair’s thoughts cut off as he felt a tug on the line, and he turned his attention to dealing with a good-sized bass; definitely a keeper. And, he noticed, he had the first bite today. Ha! But he better not gloat -- otherwise, he’d never be able to talk Jim into working on any tests.

“So...” Blair started as he drank the last of his coffee; lunch was finished, and Jim seemed in no hurry to get back to the river. “You planning on more fishing this afternoon, or can I talk you into taking a hike with me? I saw some interesting rock formations yesterday, but didn’t have time to get there. I thought maybe --”

Jim expressed his opinion of that suggestion with an irritated snort. “You thought maybe you could sneak in a few dozen tests while we’re hiking. Don’t even start, Sandburg.”

Blair swallowed the argument he’d been planning, trying to project injured innocence. A second snort from his partner indicated he hadn’t been successful.

“I know how your mind works, but you’re supposed to be an anthropologist and a student of human nature. Don’t you get how the word ‘test’ acts like an automatic danger signal, so anyone who hears it wants to run far away?” Jim threw a challenging glare that stopped Blair’s hands in mid-takeoff, again shutting down the impending retort. “You’re a teacher; I’ll bet every one of your students would agree with me. ‘Test’ sounds too much like clocks ticking and worrying about getting an F and sitting in the corner with a dunce cap demonstrating how stupid we are!”

“Oh, come on!” Blair protested, finally able to get a word in edgewise. “‘Test’ just means we’re finding out what your senses can do, so we can figure out better ways to use them. I mean... how else do you expect to learn to control what you can do?”

Jim kicked dirt over the fire as he considered Blair’s words; whether they went hiking or back to the river, they couldn’t leave it burning. He had a point, but...

“What sends shivers up your spine, Chief? Isn’t there a word that gets under your skin, and you can’t ‘logic’ away your feelings?

“Oh, well, um...” Blair’s eyes lost focus as he seemed to be searching for an answer. “Maybe ‘climb’, I guess, though it kind of depends on the situation. ‘Climb the stairs’ -- no problem. ‘Climb a ladder’ -- some problem, considering whether it’s stable, and how high it is. ‘Climb that tree’ -- I’d really rather not.” His gaze cleared, and he cocked an eyebrow. “But I did, you know -- ignored angry woodpeckers and gravity to get you that nest. And it’s not really the same -- heights are actually dangerous; a fall can break anything from an ankle to a neck, in which case you’re a goner.”

“And who knows what one of your weird sounds or smells will do to me? Headaches and allergies, just waiting to pounce.”

“Twice!” Blair yelped. “You’ve had a bad reaction only twice -- and I fixed it as quick as I could.”

“How many times have you broken your neck climbing trees?”

“It was an arm, actually -- and I’m designing the tests with as much safety as I can, and monitoring your reactions every step of the way.” Blair’s voice was developing a stubborn tone.

“I know that, Chief. It’s just --” Jim shrugged. Satisfied that the fire was out, he crossed to the cooler and filled their canteens with water, then tossed one to Blair. “So let’s go see these formations of yours; I could do with stretching my legs for awhile.”

As they hiked uphill, the peaceful forest and shaded quiet -- enhanced by the occasional chatter of a squirrel, or a phrase of birdsong -- worked to soothe the irritation each man was feeling. When they reached an open area that gave a broader view of their surroundings, they paused by mutual consent to get their bearings.

“This is where I turned back yesterday,” Blair said. “But see,” he gestured toward a striated, reddish cliff-face to their left, “I thought it might be fun to poke around there -- if it’s not too far away.” He used a carefully neutral tone for the last part, waiting to see how Jim would react.

“Not too far; about three and a half miles, I’d judge,” Jim told him.

“Works for me; let’s go.” Blair started across the clearing, heading for the middle of the cliff.

Jim joined him, raising an arm to point out something only he could see. “If we keep to this path, we’ll run into some real crappy stuff -- broken ground and jumbled rocks that will make walking tough. If we head that way --” he pointed toward the northernmost edge of the rock formation, “we can avoid the mess.”

“Score another one for sentinel senses,” Blair said softly. “I can’t even see what you’re talking about, and you zeroed in on it without any trouble. Wouldn’t you like to have even more control... like, being able to judge a distance exactly, instead of settling for ‘about’ a mile or whatever?”

“Sandburg, say you’ve run a race. Can you control the huffing and puffing afterward, and just breathe normally?”

Blair gazed up at the sun; it didn’t seem hot enough for Jim to be suffering from sunstroke. “If I have to, I guess -- but not for long.”

“That’s how I react to the word ‘test’. I can control my irritation for a while, but it’s going to break through -- and probably affect your results.”

Blair grinned his relief; they could work with this. “You realize that’s not logical, right? I mean, you’re the one lecturing me about ‘checking your feelings at the door’.”

Jim answered Blair’s grin with one of his own. “I don’t have to be logical; I’m a ‘throwback to a primitive breed of man’, remember?”

“Like I could forget being shoved against a wall. Funny how you’re willing to accept that description if you think it’ll get you out of something.”

“First things you learn in Basic,” Jim said, relaxing even more with the familiar banter. “Never volunteer, and always have a reason.”

“You learned well, Grasshopper.”

The incline was steeper as they approached the outer edges of the cliff. Blair used the need for deeper breathing to plan his next strategy. His opportunity came when they paused for a break to drink from their canteens.

“Okay, so ‘test’ is out. How do you feel about a ‘check-up’ on your senses?”

“Kind of the same way I feel about ‘turn your head and cough’.”

“Ouch. So, scratch that one,” Blair agreed. “‘Evaluate’?”

“Right back in school.”



“So that would also rule out ‘experiment’ and ‘examine’, I guess.” Blair paused. “Also ‘analyze’ and ‘probe’.”

“Definitely not ‘probe’,” Jim agreed. “That’s ‘doctor’ combined with ‘alien abduction.”

“Ya’ know, I’ve written enough anthropology articles, school reports -- and after-action summaries for you -- that I’m pretty much a walking thesaurus, but we’re running out of suitable labels, here. ‘Review’, ‘measure’, ‘assess’, ‘gauge’ -- are any of these judgement-free for you?”

Jim’s response was a mute headshake, but a twinkle in his eye and a twitch at the corner of his lips suggested he might now be pulling Blair’s leg.

“In that case...” the gleam in Blair’ eye was a match for Jim’s, “...I’ll just have to ‘investigate the parameters’ of your senses. Which is a mouthful, so I’ll abbreviate it to I.T.P. We’ll have an hour of I.T.P, or we’ll do I.T.P.s on the weekend, or --” He broke into hearty chuckles at the affronted expression on Jim’s face.

“Laugh it up.” Jim’s attempt to sound threatening was only partly successful. “And I’ll I.T.P. of your share of cleaning duties in the loft, and I.T.P. the concoctions you expect me to swallow in the name of ‘dinner’, and --”

Blair raised both hands to head height. “Okay, okay, I surrender. We’ll just take some time, once in awhile, to figure out what your senses can do, okay?”

“That works. And I suppose...” Jim surveyed the forest behind them, and the cliff-face ahead, “...the figuring-out is more comfortable in natural circumstances than with those Rube Goldberg contraptions you dream up. Just -- way less than twenty-four/seven, got it?”

“Got it!” Blair replied happily. “And since we’re out here anyway -- I was kind of wondering how many fossils you might find, compared to how many I could find without your help.”

“Of course you were,” Jim agreed, another smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Lead on, MacDuff. Just remember -- if you want to keep any of them, you’re carrying them all back.”

Blair nodded. “Well it’s not like I need to collect any of them; just keep a count, you know? In fact --”

Jim walked beside him, letting the cadence of words flow over him like the rhythm of the river they’d left behind. In the final analysis -- and there was another ‘test’ word, he noted -- it really didn’t matter whether Blair ‘investigated the parameters’ or ‘figured out the senses’, or even asked for the dreaded ‘tests’. He had a friend who understood him, made allowances for him; he could make a few allowances in return. Jim smiled at the man beside him, still expounding on the number and type of fossils they might find. Yeah, with a friend like Blair, life was good.

The End

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